Tag Archives: Bet Ha'emek

On not seeing Kuwaykat

This is another excerpt from the third chapter of the book I am writing. This chapter covers the year I spent in Israel as part of a Zionist youth group, Habonim. The excerpt is about my time on Kibbutz Bet Ha’emek.

The months spent on Kibbutz Bet Ha’emek further instilled a deep sense of familiarity with and connection to the land. I enjoyed the beautifully landscaped and gardened grounds of the kibbutz as well as the productiveness of its agricultural fields. It certainly felt like home for a while, or at least a place in which I belonged.

One weekend I was late coming back to the kibbutz on a Saturday night (a night on which Israel won the Eurovision song contest with the song “Halleluya,” performed by “Milk and Honey”) after visiting my relatives in Jerusalem. I found myself in Nahariya after the usual sherut (shared taxi service) had ended so I had no choice but to hitch a ride, about which I was quite nervous. First a lorry driver took me to a junction closer to the kibbutz and then a sherut with three Arabs in it gave me a free ride for the rest of the way, and, as I wrote in my diary “did not stab or rob me.” Although that was meant humorously, the fearful thought had obviously crossed my mind that I was relying on the kindness of potentially hostile strangers. Why should I be anxious that I would be kidnapped or attacked by neighbours of the kibbutz where I was staying? I cannot remember any case in which a Jewish hitchhiker has been attacked by a Palestinian driver within the 1967 borders, though there have been such incidents during the intifada periods in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

Zochrot. All that remains of the village. https://zochrot.org/en/village/49232. 2008.

I would suggest that part of my fear stems from what I could see at Bet Ha’emek but did not acknowledge, what I was dimly aware of but did not want to know. On the road that connected the kibbutz to the main road there was a shrine which was visited by Arabs every now and again. It is the shrine of Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Qurayshi, a Druze religious leader. I never asked, or even wondered, why this shrine was next to the kibbutz. There were also some old stone buildings on the kibbutz, one of which housed the dark room which my kibbutz father used for his photography hobby. I do not recall asking when they were built, or why there were so few such buildings around. If I had been paying attention, I would have noticed that the olive trees on the kibbutz looked older than the kibbutz. Perhaps others in the group asked more questions, but I did not.

Dr. Avishai Teicher, Olive Trees on Kibbutz Bet Ha’emek, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PikiWiki_Israel_40571_Olive_trees_in_Kibbutz_Beit_Haemek.JPG

It was not until many years later that the Israeli organisation Zochrot, which has worked “since 2002 to promote acknowledgement and accountability for the ongoing injustices of the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948,” produced a map and an app that told me about Bet Ha’emek.[1] When the kibbutz was established in 1949, it was on the site of the Palestinian village of Kuwaykat, which had about 1200 residents and whose land was considered to be among the most fertile of the district, growing grain, olives and watermelons.[2] It was captured and destroyed by Israeli armed forces as part of Operation Dekel in July 1948. The village had withstood three previous attacks in January, February and June, but in July a heavy bombardment forced out the villagers, most of whom fled to nearby Abu Sinan and Kfar Yusif.[3]

We were awakened by the loudest noise we had ever heard, shells exploding and artillery fire … women were screaming, children were crying… Most of   the villagers began to flee with their pyjamas on. The wife of Qassim Ahmad Sa’id fled carrying a pillow in her arm instead of her child...[4]

The car I was in that night was most probably on its way to Kfar Yusif, which gave shelter to many of the refugees from Kuwaykat. They were among the approximately 46,000 Palestinian refugees, or internally displaced persons, who remained within the new State of Israel, under the oxymoronic status in Israeli law of “present absentees.” They and their descendants, now numbering well over a quarter of a million souls, have never been allowed to return to their homes.[5] In her book, Erased from Space and Consciousness, Noga Kadman observes that even recently the publications of the kibbutz barely mention Kuwaykat or the previous residents. But they do mention the olive trees, which kibbutz youth now harvest to pay for their “root trips” to Poland where they visit sites of the Jewish catastrophe, the Holocaust. The Palestinians who gave me a ride that night probably knew that I was not an Israeli, but even if they took me for a foreign volunteer on the kibbutz, they would have known the history of the place in which I felt at home and which I was then certain that Jewish Israelis had a right to inhabit exclusively. I lived on Bet Ha’emek and I did not see Kuwaykat, even though its traces were around me. The fields on which I became a Zionist subject had been farmed by Palestinians before me and before the pioneers from British Habonim arrived. The Palestinians did not rob me, but I enjoyed the fruits that had been robbed from them.

A 1940s map of the area of Kuwaykat from the Survey of Palestine. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Historical_map_series_for_the_area_of_Kuwaykat_(1940s).jpg

[1] See Zochrot, “Our Vision,” https://zochrot.org/en/content/17. Accessed 3/16/2021. The Nakba app is especially useful for learning about the Palestinian presence that has been erased by Israeli settlements and forests, often planted by the Jewish National Fund, while traveling around Israel-Palestine, as it shows information according to one’s current location.

[2] Government of Palestine, Department of Statistics. Village Statistics, April, 1945. Quoted in S. Hadawi, Village Statistics of 1945: A Classification of Land and Area ownership in Palestine (Palestine Liberation Organization Research Center, 1970), p. 81.

[3] See Zochrot, “Kuwaykat,” https://zochrot.org/en/village/49232 . Accessed 3/16/2021.

[4] Walid Khalidi, All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948 (Washington D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992), pp.  224-25.

[5] Wikipedia, “Present Absentees,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Present_absentee. Accessed 3/16/2021.

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. https://www.reddit.com/r/PropagandaPosters/comments/7d88aj/a_nation_reborn_on_its_ancestral_soil_jewish/

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.