Saturday, 18 April 2009

Return to the kibbutz

By Michael Hodges

Published: April 17 2009 17:52 | Last updated: April 17 2009 17:52

Hodges in Amiad this year

I grew up in Scarborough, in North Yorkshire, a town caught between wind-blasted moorland and the grey North Sea. When I left school in 1980, aged 16, Scarborough had started its long slide from popular resort to down-at-heel seaside town – a decline exacerbated by cheap holidays to Spain and Thatcherism’s assault on British manufacturing. As I shuffled between the dole in winter and hotel work in summer, my life seemed to have ground to an early halt. Then, in 1982, a friend came up with an out. “Israel,” he pronounced, “the Holy Land”.

Sipping brown ale in a northern pub, the Holy Land seemed an unlikely destination, but others had made the same journey before me. In 1096, William de Percy, the Norman lord of the borough, died in sight of Jerusalem after butchering his way across Palestine in the first crusade. De Percy was one of the most powerful barons in the land; I was a skinhead wine waiter with no money. But as my friend pointed out, if I could get to a kibbutz, I’d be housed, clothed and fed. And there would be girls.

I’d heard of kibbutzim before, but like five-year plans and pig iron quotas, the name evoked socialist pioneering in the 1930s rather than an answer to my immediate economic needs in the 1980s. However, for 20 years, the Israeli collective farms – the first of which was founded as early as 1909 – had been accepting non-Jewish voluntary workers from overseas. In return for our labour, we would be given beds, a small amount of money, and – this seemed the important bit – the opportunity to take part in a permanent party.

When I asked my father for the £100 I needed to get to Israel, I discovered he didn’t share my relative ignorance about the kibbutz movement and its role – staking a physical claim to the land – in the Zionist struggle against the British mandate in Palestine. As a boy in the late 1940s, he had watched Pathé news reports of bitter fighting as Britain attempted to control a country sundered by Jewish and Arab national aspirations. He remembered anti-Jewish rioting across the north of England in response to a terror campaign by the underground groups Irgun Tzvai-Leumi (in its Hebrew acronym, Etzel) and the Stern Gang (Lehi). One incident in particular upset him. On July 12 1947, the Irgun kidnapped two British army sergeants, and 17 days later, following the execution of three Irgunists by the mandate authorities, hanged them. One of the men’s booby-trapped bodies was left in a grove of eucalyptus trees; a British officer attempting to cut it down was wounded when he triggered an explosive device.

“Why,” my father complained four decades later, “should you help the Zionists?”

And yet my mother’s desire to see me avoid a future of serving Blue Nun to hard-up holidaymakers must have overruled those sentiments. She lent me the £100 and, like De Percy but minus the retinue, I headed for the Holy Land.

. . .

A year and a half before those British army sergeants were murdered, just before sunrise on January 17 1946, a convoy of trucks carrying prefabricated huts, wooden fence posts and barbed wire struggled up a winding road leading from the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee to the heights above. Jewish journalists and officials from the Jewish National Fund rode alongside 28 volunteers – young men and women – from the Palmach, the commando arm of the official Jewish militia, Haganah.

Hodges with a young kibbutznik, 1982
The party stopped at the remains of a 15th-century khan – a roadside inn built by the Mameluks, former slave soldiers turned rulers of Egypt and Palestine. It was a well-chosen site: for more than 4,000 years, it had overlooked the Via Maris, the ancient route from Egypt to Damascus. The hills had witnessed the armies of the Pharaohs, Alexander, Rome, the Caliphs, Ottoman emperors and the British. Now, on the eve of the Zionists’ struggle for control of this land, it was a vital link between the main areas of Jewish population in central Palestine and the more exposed settlements in the north-east.

Hasholim, the name the party gave to the outpost, was to become the 25th Jewish settlement in the Upper Galilee. After a founding ceremony beneath the red flag of socialism, the trucks, politicians and press departed, leaving the 28 Palmach members to prepare for what Israelis call the War of Independence and Palestinians the Nakba, or catastrophe, that followed Britain’s ignominious withdrawal in 1948.

When the war ended, nine months after it began, in March 1949, Hasholim had done its job: the road to the north had stayed open. Logically, the settlers would have dismantled their huts and moved on – the mountainside was barren and the little land they had was scattered with boulders. But, inspired by the site and imbued with a sense that they were re-establishing a Jewish presence after a 2,000-year absence, they voted instead to stay and re-establish Hasholim as a kibbutz. They changed its name to Amiad – “my nation for ever”.

I left my own nation in early January 1982 and arrived at Amiad at the end of the month, carrying a haversack stuffed with English cigarettes, socks and Fred Perry T-shirts. The kibbutz was no longer a lonely outpost; the boulders had been cleared and basketball courts, bomb shelters and a swimming pool built. A brutalist 1970s-style assembly hall hosted general meetings, where the community’s members cast their votes on kibbutz business. (For an ordinary motion to pass, a simple majority was required; special cases had to have a two-thirds majority.)

The kibbutzniks lived in single-storey houses – the original huts were now designated for volunteers like me – and we all ate together in a communal dining room. Fifty-year leases granted for free by the Israel Land Authority had helped to make up for the lack of good agricultural land: Amiad now grew bananas 12km away by the shore of the Sea of Galilee, cotton 30km away beneath the Golan Heights and had citrus groves on a third site 14km from the settlement. I was given a position in Amiad’s water filter factory. Instead of opening bottles in England, I was pressing parts for pumps, clunking down the stainless-steel stamps for four-hour shifts and listening to old rock ’n’ roll hits on Israel Army radio with the chain-smoking foreman.

On my second night at Amiad, I had queued in the dining hall behind an old man and was shocked to realise that the tattoo on his arm was a concentration camp number. He wasn’t the only Holocaust survivor living there, but many more of the 200 members had come from England. Devora Beth and her husband left London in 1954, “idealistic and committed to Israel”. Barry Coleman came from a “devoted Zionist” Manchester home. He had belonged to the Zionist movement since he was 13; galvanised by the 1967 Six Day War, he moved to Amiad a year later. Adam Bloom, only a few months older than me, had emigrated from Middlesex with his family in 1977, a year after his bar mitzvah.

The Amiad banana grove
I naturally gravitated towards the younger members like Adam, and they in their turn were drawn to the (largely British) volunteers’ approach to communal living. On Friday nights, we smoked potent Lebanese dope in our huts and drank shabbat wine taken from the dining hall. On the four evenings a week when the kibbutz bar opened its doors, we drank gallons of beer and danced wildly to punk and ska records, a revelation to kibbutzniks brought up on Leonard Cohen.

Often drunk or stoned, we had no sense of danger, yet only a few miles away, in southern Lebanon, was Fatahland, the state-within-a-state run by the Palestine Liberation Organisation. PLO guerilla fighters fired rockets into Galilee; they were landing 20 miles from Amiad. The guerillas were also threatening to edge their way southward, and Syrian Air Force MiGs were only minutes away should Damascus declare war. Yet when we – the young volunteers – were shown the bomb shelters, and when the elders explained to us the drill for an attack, we laughed and went back to the bar.

We shouldn’t have laughed: although I didn’t know it then, Israel was preparing for conflict again. Menachem Begin, the rightwing prime minister, ex-leader of Irgun and once on Britain’s list of most-wanted terrorists, and his minister of defence Ariel Sharon were planning to destroy Fatah.

Occasionally, the signs of war broke through the fug of beer and dope. The PLO rockets continued to come over the border, and Adam and the other 18-year-olds were called up for their compulsory three-year military service. The kibbutzniks supported the Israeli action. Their argument was simple, and one the world would hear again: the rocket attacks had to be stopped.

. . .

In the early hours of June 6 1982, young kibbutzniks knocked on the doors of our huts. Bleary-eyed and still swaying with the effects of drink, we were led to a nearby hill to watch the opening of Operation Peace for Galilee. In the valley below Amiad, an Israeli tank regiment turned on its headlights, gunned its engines and lumbered towards the border. With the invasion forces went barely trained young kibbutz conscripts like Adam, cast into the cauldron of Lebanon.

Meanwhile, I was moved from the filtration factory to the kibbutz paint shop, where I brushed brown and grey camouflage paint on to prefabricated steel-bridge segments that would be used by the Israel Defence Force.

Before the invasion, my father had sent me football reports from British newspapers. Now he sent me clippings about the carnage in Lebanon. The Syrian Air Force had been swept from the skies, the PLO was being chased back to Beirut, and towns and villages were falling after devastating air and artillery attacks. As I read, I became increasingly uneasy about my unwitting collusion in the conflict. To conquer Lebanon from the south, you must cross the rivers that run east to west down the escarpment of Mount Lebanon – crossings made possible by the pontoon bridges I spent my days painting.

Twelve weeks into the war, I left Amiad and worked my way back to Yorkshire.

. . .

A few days after my return, the BBC reported that Christian Lebanese militiamen had been allowed past the Israeli tanks surrounding Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Chatilla, in west Beirut. A slaughter followed; the Palestinian Red Crescent said 2,000 people died, the Israelis 700 to 800.

Watching the reports alongside my solemn father, I became disillusioned with Israel. And in the months and years following, I failed to keep in touch with the friends I had made at Amiad. It was half out of laziness but also partly unease.

Hodges talks with an old friend in the kibbutz nursery
After five years as an unsuccessful musician, I went to college as a mature student, then contrived to be appointed as the astrology columnist on a boy band magazine. Working my way through 1990s magazine publishing, I arrived at a men’s title just in time for the boom years. I had never really recovered from my encounter with the Middle East and now I took up any and every opportunity to return. I reported from occupied Iraq, from Kuwait, Egypt, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories. I interviewed Israelis in the shadow of suicide bombs, wandered dazed through the devastation of Jenin and watched an ailing Yasser Arafat outside his wrecked Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah.

Although I often passed nearby, I did not go back to Amiad. Still uneasy, perhaps, with the memory of a naive teenager painting pontoon bridges, I resisted the idea of returning, a decision supported by an online news story I read in January 2004. Troops from the Israel Defence Force Chaplaincy Corps had retrieved the decomposing remains of 53 men from a burial site in the Upper Galilee. The dead were Hezbollah guerillas, killed by the Israelis across the nearby Lebanese border. The bodies were bargaining chips, to be exchanged for Israel’s dead and missing in Lebanon. As I scrolled down the page, I came across the name of the site of the digging: Amiad. It had become a grotesque storehouse, a prison camp for the dead.

Then, in August last year, I was sent to report, with an irony I couldn’t resist, on a Lebanese festival celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the peace symbol. The event, windswept and a little downbeat, took place on a beach near Tyre, scene of heavy fighting in 1982 and again during Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon. Afterwards, my driver looped up through the hills and suddenly I was looking across the border to the first slopes of the Galilee mountains. Just beyond lay Amiad.

Does this region have a unique hold on the western world’s imagination? The American academic Barbara Tuchman has argued that, because of the Bible’s central position in Britain’s protestant culture, the British will always have “one foot in Palestine”. Driving along the border, I realised I still had one of mine in Amiad.

In 1969, the British travel writer Colin Thubron published an account of his time in Israel. Jerusalem opens with the following line: “Among the oldest visions of man none is more persistent than the hope of returning one day to a half-remembered innocence.” Arriving back in London after that August assignment, I thought more about Thubron’s words and my own half-remembered innocence, and more about returning to Amiad 27 years on.

By December, I’d planned the trip. I’d fly that January.

As a teenager, I had come to Israel on the eve of war. This time, a different war was ending. Transporter trucks laden with tanks were returning from Gaza, just as I had watched them drive into Lebanon three decades before. This fight had been far shorter but equally terrible; Palestinians claim they lost 1,330 lives. Israel disputes that number.

Adam Bloom points to the Israeli military base on the hill above Amiad
Every Israeli I met defended the bombing of Gaza with the same words: “The terrorist attacks must stop.” The people seemed cold and bad-tempered – as if a whole nation had been backed into a corner. And when I had finally made the three-hour journey from Jerusalem to Amiad, even the kibbutzniks seemed unhappy. The place had changed. What had formerly been a rural landscape was practically urban. The thin stretch of tarmac that once ran past the settlement had become four lanes, and a new village had appeared between the crossroads and the kibbutz. A wine shop had opened – though the winery that supplied it had failed – and the volunteers’ huts had been torn down, replaced with new housing for members. From one of these houses emerged a figure I recognised.

The years had marked him with grey but Adam Bloom still looked and sounded like the cocky young Londoner I remembered. As with most Israelis, he had travelled after finishing his military service. He lived in England for eight years (we had even lived near each other in London for some of that time) but an incident there brought him back to Israel – and Amiad. “I was working in a bar near Hendon in the late 1980s and some policeman subjected me to an anti-Semitic tirade. I knew in that moment that there was only one place for a Jew to escape that.”

Adam and I walked out to the khan together. I had once lain on my back among its tumbledown stones and looked up at stars. No longer. Light pollution had done for stargazing. Adam pointed at the new skyline: a cluster of communication aerials adorning the military base that had grown on the hill above Amiad. During the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, Hezbollah had rained rockets on it. More than 30 fell around Amiad, and for all his chippiness, Adam seemed weary, much like his country at large. The peace process had unravelled and with it the fortunes of the left, of which the kibbutz was such an integral part.

In the previous elections, 90 per cent of Amiad members voted for Labour. Now Adam wasn’t sure that support would hold up. “I will not be surprised by a big swing to the right because Likud and Kadima offer a much more militant attitude to Israel’s security. While we are still at war on so many fronts, maybe it is for the better.”

. . .

More had changed at Amiad than political leanings. In 2004, in a poignant echo of the 1948 vote to establish a kibbutz, members voted to effectively disestablish it. Communal living and equality were replaced with private property, wages and dividends from the profits. Adam voted against the changes but “we lost the debate, the younger people were for it and many older people voted ‘yes’ because they wanted their children to stay here.”

Yet the young people are not coming back as soon as had been hoped – the average age there is 57 – and the older members have struggled to adapt. When I met Devorah Beth in the communal hall, she admitted the changes had been unsettling. “It was a shock for the older people. I have always had enough to live a good life. We had what we needed and we knew the kibbutz would care for us. My husband died in March 2004 after a period of illness. I had to pay for a carer and medical charges. If it had been 1994, I would not have had to pay.”

Amiad hasn’t just lost the ability to provide for its members. In 1982, I had argued with young kibbutzniks in the bar – “How can you be socialist and nationalist? Surely socialism must be blind to race?” Their conviction that it was possible to build a state at once Jewish and socialist seemed to have diminished along with the fortunes of the whole kibbutz movement. The red flag no longer flies above Amiad, and the old Zionist-Socialist dream is just that, a dream that is fading amid economic reality and a country leaning so far to the political right that the Labour party managed only fourth place in the general election held after my visit. The first- and second-place parties are deeply distrusting of the peace process; the one that came in third rejects it entirely.

Original 1940s accommodation
“I would be the first to drive to Damascus,” Adam claimed as we said goodbye. “To drink coffee in the souk and buy a nice carpet. Who wouldn’t want peace? We have no territorial ambitions, except for buffer zones to keep the loonies as far away from us as possible.”

Looking out on the highway, I thought back to 1982 – the tanks on the road, the kibbutzniks’ talk of “security” and the rightwing prime minister leading a country to 20 years of occupation in Lebanon in the name of “Peace for Galilee”.

I had one more question for Adam. Where had the Hezbollah fighters’ bodies been buried? He gestured at the army base on the hill above. But the news reports had said the bodies were found on the kibbutz, I protested. “No, on the base,” he replied, a little jaded. “I was going to complain. But I didn’t.”

Amid the thousands of deaths that the hills of Israel, Lebanon and Palestine have witnessed, and the prospect of thousands to come, what did the correct position of 53 corpses matter?

Michael Hodges is the author of ‘AK47: The Story of the People’s Gun’ and is a regular contributor to FT Weekend Magazine

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