Building the “New Jew”

In this excerpt from the third draft chapter of my book, I write about my experience working on kibbutz for five months as part of a ten month programme (like a gap year) in Israel, 1978-79. For the first five months I took a course at the Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad in Jerusalem (the machon), followed by time on Kibbutz Bet Ha’emek. In the chapter, I discuss in quite intellectual terms my dubiousness about the relevance for the late 1970s of labour Zionist pioneering through settlement on a kibbutz. There was, however a more concrete way in which my life and that ideology encountered each other – through my body, especially my working body.

Some of my Habonim group on Bet Ha’emek. I am in the bottom right corner, with the ginger Jewfro

When we moved up to the kibbutz after the machon course ended in early February I soon realized that what mattered was to be assigned as a permanent member of a work team, rather than being assigned each day wherever an extra pair of hands was needed. That took a while, in part because I spent a while in the citrus groves, partly through a connection with my kibbutz family. The work there involved climbing up ladders and into trees to pick the fruit but I have a fear of heights I have never overcome. By the end of February, more often than not I was working in the bananas and mostly enjoying the work and the company. There were some bad days, about one of which when the work was dull and the supervision unpleasant I wrote: “how mad A.D. Gordon (a key labour Zionist thinker) must have been … The chalutzic (pioneering) challenge is boredom. The Yishuv (pre-State Zionist community in Palestine) was built by near-lunatics.” But for the most part I enjoyed the days and was downhearted when the team leader for the bananas told me towards the end of March that there was no room left on the permanent team. Yet, less than two weeks later, while I was paired with him for the arduous job of picking, he let me know I was part of the team, which cheered me up immensely.

I was aware of how my body was growing stronger as I worked, not minding that I would be so exhausted after the day’s labour, which normally ended at lunchtime after a 5:30 am start, that I would need to sleep through the afternoon. When someone in the group remarked on how my upper body had expanded, I was as full of pride as I had ever been when school-teachers praised my academic work. The values had changed, from cleverness and book learning to enthusiasm for hard and sometimes boring physical work, but I relished whatever praise I received about my work ethic. Some of the experience was about learning new skills, such as which of the shoots of new banana plants should be allowed to grow for the new season and which needed to be chopped and poisoned (having six leaves on the 6th of June was a good sign). I was given the opportunity to learn how to drive the tractor, the first time I had operated any vehicle. That was not an altogether successful experience. Once I nearly got into fight when I was failing to reverse the tractor with a trailer full of people in the parking area outside of the dining hall and someone from a youth group living on the kibbutz decided to take over. On my last day of work I was driving part of the team back to the dining room when we heard a group form the avocados shouting in our direction. Thinking they wanted to pass, I pulled in towards the side of the road, only later to be told that they were shouting because I was already clipping some of the avocado trees and that if it were not my last day they would have killed me.

Bet Ha’emek archaeological garden, Dr. Avishai Teicher, 2014 

Driving aside, I took great pleasure in proving that I could hold and carry the biggest bunches of bananas that were picked. One person would use a machete to first cut into the plant to lower the bunch to the point where the other person could take the weight on his shoulder (women were not allowed to perform this task). Then the chopper would cut the stem by which the bunch was attached to the plant and the bearer would carry it to the carriages in which the picked bunches were piled in a specific way. When I graduated to becoming a chopper, carrying a machete on my belt, I felt that I had really made it. Equally rewarding was being invited around for tea by a couple of my older workmates who were members of the kibbutz. During this period, which lasted until early July, someone gave us “an enlivening talk about the origins of the kibbutz movement, to the extent that I felt I was with those young people who became chalutzim.” As I was about to leave I wrote: “I am just about to get into kibbutz, ready to live in Israel, to learn Ivrit (Hebrew), and I am being taken away.

“A Nation Reborn on it’s Ancestral Soil” Jewish National Fund art by Otte Wallisch 1950.

My body was the site for the realization of a Zionist slogan I already knew “we came to the Land to build and to be built in it.” Despite my predominant belief that agricultural work would not be fulfilling, not a path to my “self-realization,” it became a path to constituting myself as a “new Jew,” an ideal figure of the Zionist movement contrasting the  negative image of the Diaspora Jew. Whereas the diaspora Jew was weak, pale and timid, the new Jew would be muscular, bronzed and brave.[1] Working on the kibbutz, especially as a member of the team in the bananas, was the discipline and self-care through which I asserted both my masculinity and my Jewishness as part of a national collective in Israel. Where labour Zionist ideology had failed to persuade, labour Zionist practice had reached into the sinews of my limbs and fortified the muscles of my body. Where my intellect and soul had resisted the idea of fulfillment in physical effort, my body had relished the sense of corporeal empowerment. I had happily and enthusiastically become a Zionist subject.[2]

[1] See Reuven Firestone, Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), Chapter 11, “The New Jew.”

[2] On the Foucualdian notion of self-constitution as a subject and care of the self, see Jon Simons, Foucault and the Political (London: Routledge, 1995), Chapter 8.

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