Many years ago when I was in college, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of my summers working on a kibbutz in Israel. What is a kibbutz? It is a communal farm. So think of communes, but run by hard working people who are not on drugs, wear shorts and t-shirts and often carried guns since this particular commune was on the border next to a country that at the time harbored terrorists and was in a state of war with Israel. The kibbutz was surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. Every morning I was awakened at 4:00 AM by a nice young man toting an Uzi who’d knock on my door and call out “good morning” in Hebrew. I’d toss on my clothes and then stumble out to begin an eight hour shift in the fields. I worked six days a week, from about four in the morning until noon. It was a farm, after all: a farm located 600 feet below sea level where the temperatures rose to over 100 by noon.
Combining socialism and Zionism kibbutzim were a unique Israeli experiment which endured for over fifty years as utopian communities. Today, most kibbutzim which survive are not much different from the capitalist enterprises and regular towns to which the kibbutzim were originally supposed to be alternatives. No more than about seven percent of the Israeli people ever lived on kibbutzim.
Eleven people founded the first kibbutz in 1909 at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee, the lake that the Israelis call Lake Kineret (which means “harp”). That first kibbutz was called Degania. By the beginning of World War II there were hundreds of kibbutzim with a combined population of around 25,000, about five percent of the total Jewish population in Palestine at the time.
The kibbutz I worked on was located within five miles of Degania. It had been founded in the 1930s by Jewish people who had come there from Rumania. They called it Kibbutz Massada. When I worked there in the mid 1970’s there were about 300 people living there, men, women and children. Kibbutz Massada was located right on the Jordanian border.
The kibbutzim of Israel raised a variety of crops; many also housed factories and ran hotels for tourists. Kibbutz Massada had a small factory that manufactured valves for engines, but primarily it was a farm. They raised chickens and dairy cows, and had fields of date palms, banana trees, alfalfa, olives, and citrus fruits.
My first job on the kibbutz was working in the banana fields. Banana trees are swamp plants and in the old days, they would actually flood the fields. Today, they use a drip irrigation system, something that the Israelis invented in order to conserve water. Nevertheless, the fields are incredibly muddy, and filled with insects and enormous spiders. How enormous? Their webs stretched between trees for ten feet. There’s nothing like walking down a row of trees to suddenly find yourself face to face with a fist-sized spider hanging midair between trees on a barely visible web.
Each banana tree grows one enormous bunch of bananas that is so large and heavy that it will pull the tree over long before the bananas are ripened. Therefore, the trees need to be propped upright, to keep that from happening. I went throught the fields, putting down two poles for each tree on one day, and then on another day going back and using them to prop the trees upright.
My next job on the kibbutz was working with the date palms. Standing upwards of twenty or thirty feet tall, I had to ride a motorized cherrypicker, very similar to those things you see the workers using to fix street lights or telephone poles in order to reach the tree tops. I’d lift myself up in one of those to the place where the date bunches were growing so I could tie the bunch to a couple of limbs. Otherwise, the bunch would fall out of the tree before the dates were ripe. Like banana trees, date trees are not concerned with their fruits staying nice so that they may be consumed by people. The trees only want their seeds to be scattered.
Creatures of various sorts lived in the date palms. Besides the expected bugs, it was a common occurance to find chamelions, their enormous eyes swiviling in different directions as they watched both you and the fly they were interested in consuming. Chamelions were not the only large animal in the treetops. There were also rats, who would startle me by suddenly leaping out, only to fall the twenty to thirty feet down to the ground below.
The date trees I worked in were located on the edge of the Jordanian border. Next to the field, I could look down and see a dirt road. Beside the road, there was a barbed wire fence; beyond that, there was a smooth track of brown, dusty dirt where one could see little metal mounds every so often: a mine field. A second barbed wire fence separated that mine field from the water of the Yarmuk River.
Occasionally, running along the fence one would see wild boars; they’d dart from the bushes beside the river, and then scurry back again. One day, as I was tying date bunches to palm fronds, I heard a loud “thump” from the direction of the border. I looked over just in time to see a boar arching through the air. It had accidentally hit one of the mines. I have enjoyed telling people ever since that I’ve seen a pig fly.
The kibbutz citizens—kibbutzniks—had many stories to tell. Around the kibbutz, among the gardens and manicured lawns surrounding their homes, were several concrete bunkers: bomb shelters. Kibbutz Masada, like dozens of the kibbutzim near the Sea of Galilee, existed within the shadow of the mountains called the Golan Heights. Until 1967, when Israel took them from Syria following the Six Day War, the Syrians had controlled those mountains. Every night between 1948 and 1967, the Syrians regularly lobbed shells from those mountains onto the kibbutzim. The children grew up spending their nights sleeping in those bomb shelters. Even in the mid 1970s when I was there, the evidence of past shelling was clearly visible in the destroyed buildings. They told me about how one night a bomb landed in the middle of their communal cafeteria. In the date fields, I saw several stumps of date trees that had been destroyed by incoming shells.
Today, those concrete shelters that used to protect the Israelis from the nightly barages are used simply as store rooms. Keep those nightly shellings in mind the next time you hear talk that the Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza are the cause of violence. Between 1948 and 1967 when the Syrians nightly bombed the kibbutzniks, the Israelis weren’t in either the West Bank or Gaza. So what was the excuse then?