In anticipation of the 60 year celebration of Israel’s independence, we decided to travel around the kibbutzim that encircle Israel.
I started by leaving my home in Revivim, which was one of the three outpost kibbutzim established in the Negev in 1943. Revivim was the inspiration for the 1950 novel, A Land without Shade, written by early settlers Yonat and Alexander Sened.
We traveled southward, passing Sde Boker, the kibbutz of Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion. Along the road in the Arava, many small kibbutzim cling stubbornly to the desert land. It is a land of burning heat, many beautiful date groves and splendid dairy barns that supplied the Yotvata dairy production plant.
The area between Naot Smadar and Kibbutz Eilot – the southern most kibbutz in Israel – is inhabited by an amazing mixture of human beings. Native-born Israelis live alongside new immigrants from a variety of countries who came to the south to live a communal life. As happened in other kibbutzim, most of the young people who tried this fascinating experiment did not endure and eventually went their separate ways. The small minority who stubbornly refused to capitulate now illuminate the length of the Arava.
From the Arava, we turned north towards the Jordan Valley and traveled along the Dead Sea, or what is left of it. The biblical expression from the book of Exodus “and the LORD caused the sea to go back” could have been written about the Dead Sea. The retreat of the Dead Sea shoreline is a great cause of concern for the kibbutzim established along its side: Ein Gedi, Mitzpeh-Shalem and Kaliah. Here are settlements that have not ceased to exist even after scores of years of struggle. This struggle for survival is especially evident in the settlements on the north of the Dead Sea and in the Jordan Valley. While in recent years there has been no political discussion regarding their fate, due to economic and social struggles the question of their future is always hanging in the air.
The twisting road from the Dead Sea to the Beit Shean Valley recalls the War of Attrition after the 6-Day War and the fortitude of the people of Tirat-Zvi, Maoz-Haim, Gesher and all the other settlements in the area that were shelled night and day. The leadership of those days is epitomized by the force and steadfastness of Edna Solodar, the Secretary of Gesher, that giant of a frail woman. From where had these residents of the Arava, Dead Sea area, Jordan Valley and Beit Shean Valley drawn the strength to overcome the security dangers, withstand endless economic and social crises and continue to sustain their communal life – even as the essence of that communal life has been in constant transition?
Regretfully, I lacked the time for deeper dialogue with the residents. This was a fleeting excursion across the country – a tour of the surface and not the soul. But my observations were informed the many times in the past when I have become engrossed in the happenings of the kibbutz. There is no doubt that the kibbutz movement is one of the foundation stones of a renewed Zionism. This is a fascinating phenomenon from both a human and an ideological point of view.
Our trip continued to the part of the Jordan Valley that was the cradle of kibbutz settlement: Degania the mother of the kibbutzim; Kinneret; Kvutza Kinneret. The history of the beginnings of collective settlement is written on the tombstones of the cemetery of Ohalo. In the open spaces of these kibbutzim, there are clear signs of the beginnings–in the names of the pathways, the trees that were planted years ago and the preservation of old structures. But the spirit is different – every individual “under his own vineyard and fig tree.”
Privatization has not passed by these kibbutzim or their members. Principles and life styles have changed beyond recognition from the early days. Kibbutz members told us that reality is stronger than dreams. We had not come to argue. We kept quiet. We took with us the realization that here, in this place of the founders, something wonderful was created. Here, in the Jordan Valley, the foundational principles of the Jewish State were established. Most of the early leaders of the State crystallized their worldview in the fields of the Jordan Valley, Yizreel Valley, and at the foot of the Gilboa. For years, they believed that their worldview would become that of society at large.
The reality was different. Most of the important leaders and trailblazers left the kibbutz dream and moved to Tel Aviv – to be at the center of action where the important decisions were being taken. For years the nation’s leaders spoke of the kibbutz as a personal experience that shaped them and served as an inspiration to the nation at large. Yet, at the same time, they spared no criticism about the self-segregation of the kibbutizm during the 1940’s and 1950’s, at a time when tens of thousands of new immigrants were in desperate need of material and spiritual assistance. The kibbutz, struggling for its own existence, did not open its gates to the new immigrants and thus remained alienated from large segments of the Israeli population.
In answer to this criticism, it must be stressed that only the tiny minority who believed in equality and communal living could have been successfully integrated into the kibbutz lifestyle, which was so essentially different from the ways of the world at large. While not without costs, the relative homogeneity of ideology among its membership may have been key to the survival of the kibbutz in the face of the drastic changes that took place in Israel and the world.
We took a break in order to salute these first pioneers and then continued our journey on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. We passed Tel-Katzir, Ha’On and Ein Gev and recalled the 50’s and 60’s and the War of Attrition waged against the kibbutzim on the Syrian border.
Today’s army officers were not party to the dilemma of the Six-Day War – whether to conquer the Golan Heights or to avoid scores of casualties at the end of the War. In those days, the leadership of the settlements in the Jordan Valley and Upper Galilee were relentless, until Moshe Dayan agreed to conquer the Golan Heights.
We climbed up the incline of the Golan Heights, to see with our own eyes where the post-1967 settlers built their homes on the basalt rock-ridden ground of the Golan Heights. We looked out at the spectacular view from the dining room of Kfar Haruv and showed our admiration for Roni Kenan, Iris Shoval and their comrades for their stubbornness and steadfastness. We did not go to the Golan Heights to talk politics and certainly not to make any promises – we only wanted to pay tribute to their pioneering activity.
Every few years we are called upon to come and identify with the settlers on the Golan Heights , always when political negotiations are taking place between Syria and Israel. We come because of our friends – Yehuda Wolman, Yehuda and Tsipka Har’el, Amitai Shelem, Tustsu and Ruchale, Uri Heitner; people with different political views meeting in order to express admiration for these settlements and these settlers.
This time around we did not pause to tell war stories – we had already done that on Memorial Day. Sadly, the road from Kfar Haruv to Merom Golan is covered with memorials and monuments to fallen soldiers from the numerous settlements on the Golan.
As with all the other areas we had visited, there are strong kibbutzim alongside weaker kibbutzim worried about their economic and social future. But on the Golan, there is a palpable optimism among the members, people who have gotten used to threats on their home in time of war and in time of peace.
From Merom Golan we traveled westward, towards the Upper Galilee. This is an area that has suffered for years from a double battlefront of Syria and Lebonon. Gonen, Gadot, Machanaim, Shamir, Dan and others have experienced years of shelling. They did not break; they continued to work their fields and raise their children in the shadow of constant threat.
In later years – from the middle of the 70’s until the IDF left Lebanon — the battlefront moved to Kiryat Shmona and the western ridges of the Upper Galilee. Years of unceasing firing of Ketusha rockets, along with terrorist incursions, became part of the daily routine of these residents. The media would report their plight and the defense establishment would promise to respond in an appropriate manner but the firing continued. And life in the shadow of fear and death continued, while social and economic problems undermined the fabric of communal life. The local leadership who carried on their shoulders the deprivations of that period – Rachel Rabin, Ada Sereni, Rafi Telem, Ora Armoni, Aharon Valensi, Uri Eshkoli and others — remains as optimistic as they had been throughout the years.
The tour continued southwest to the Western Galilee, where communities were also targets of Ketushah fire from Fatah and Hezbollah. Kabri, Mazuba, Hanita, Evron, Saar, Rosh Ha’Nikrah and other settlements in the area lived for many years under the shadow of terror but did not cease living their daily lives for even one day. They settled in these areas in order to create a defense chain for the State of Israel and continue to do just that.
As we left the north, we traveled south along the seashore in the direction of Gaza. At Zikim, we observed the blood connection between Maoz-Haim, Gesher, Tel-Katzir, Gadot, Misgav-Am, Dan, Saar, Rosh Ha’Nikrah and the settlements encircling Gaza. All of them represent the unceasing struggle of Israel for security. Even after 100 years of settlement and 60 years from the creation of Israel, the struggle for the existence of the Jewish people in its own country continues. At present, the fire power is directed at the settlements around Gaza. We attended the the funeral of Jimmy Kadushim from Kfar Gaza, the latest casualty of the border settlements. It is as if it were written and made law in the Book of Memory: “Here exists a settlement that is part of the chain of security that maintains the borders of the country.”
Everywhere we met the same determination that one does not abandon one’s home, the same belief in fate and mutual aid. The many disappointments over the years from the promises of leaders have not weakened the hold of these pioneers on the land. In the face of all this, the kibbutzim maintain multi-faceted communities engaged in productive activities.
The fascinating trip we have just taken around Israel has strengthened our resolve for the coming days.