Tag Archives: Habonim

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.

Remembering the Yom Kippur War by demanding peace

Scene from Amos Gitai's "Kippur" (2000)

Scene from Amos Gitai’s “Kippur” (2000)

Today (10/6/2013) marks the 40th anniversary of the 1973 October War fought between Israel on one side and Egypt and Syria on the other. The war is also known in Israel as the Yom Kippur war, because the Arab states launched a surprise attack on the Jewish Day of Atonement. At the time I was a 12 year old boy living in Manchester, England, and spent the day in Heaton Park Synagogue, a nominally Orthodox institution, most of whose members were non-observant. By 1973 I went to the club house of Habonim, a Labour Zionist youth movement, twice a week (along with my two older siblings), and after being a pupil at King David Primary school for seven years I was thoroughly immersed in a Zionist environment that resonated with my home life, where souvenirs from Israel adorned the walls and the Hebrew records played on the hi-fi. So, when Israel was attacked, I took it personally. If Israel was in danger, so was I.

I find it instructive to return to my feelings of forty years ago, because though now strange to me, they are familiar to so many others. Then, I felt an existential fear, a terrible dread on that day of awe. I should remind myself when I confront and engage with Diaspora and Israeli Jews, who say they are worried that the Arabs want to wipe out Israel, that they’re probably experiencing something close to those old emotions of mine. I should remember how tangible my worry was, how the terror of annihilation tasted dry like my fasting mouth, how the anxiety felt like my empty stomach. The news of what was happening that day filtered through the congregation slowly. Nobody was supposed to be listening to the radio, but Manchester City were playing at home against Southampton, and a few people had gone outside to hear the score (the match ended in a draw). Seated some distance from my father on this crowded day in the synagogue, I turned to the authority of the Rabbi, also my Hebrew school teacher, to confirm the rumours. The news we heard and watched when we all returned home was dismaying. Was Israel about to be destroyed? Were the Jews going to be thrown into the sea? Was this somehow God’s judgment? What sin had I or we committed that deserved such punishment?

The intense fear gave way to apprehension as the days passed, and the Israeli armed forces turned the situation around. Within days, our youth leaders in Habonim took us out knocking on doors to gather donations for some sort of medical aid for Israel. Soon, we had a new song to learn, Naomi Shemer’s Lu Yehi (Let it Be), which had been quickly rewritten when her husband came home from his military reserve duty, and was then adopted as Israel’s popular anthem for the post-war period. It’s a mournful song, a secular prayer whose chorus beseeches: ‘All that we seek, let it be,” and the final verse of which implores: ‘grant tranquility and also grant strength to all those we love’. Even today, the song feels comforting.

The terror passed, replaced by the relief of Israeli success on the battlefield, a cease-fire, and the beginning of disengagement talks that would eventually lead to the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, concluded in 1979. I should always remember my fear of forty years ago, but I should not forget that fear can be overcome. Fear is not a state to dwell in, not an emotional homeland, but an uninhabitable exile.

For Israel, the 1973 war was traumatic, not simply because of the surprise attack, but because of the series of military and political failures that led to the attack. The Agranat Commission (1973-75) looked into shortcomings on the military side, and by 1977, the Labour-led coalition that had dominated Israeli democracy since 1948 had paid the electoral price, paving the way for a government led by the right. The 1973 war is an unhealed wound that Israel is still picking at, and which it has barely begun to reflect on its public culture. One exception, Amos Gitai’s semi-autobiographical art-house film about the war, Kippur (2000) leaves the viewer with a sense of disorientation and detachment, its minimal action focused on a helicopter rescue unit that flies over muddy scenes of labyrinthine tank tracks as they ferry back the injured and leave the dead behind until the rescuers too become casualties, prey to the purposelessness of the war.

For the generation of Israelis who fought the war, their fear gave way not to despondency but to anger at the ineptitude and negligence of the country’s leaders. While for some the Labour establishment remained the focus of their frustration, others came to understand that as citizens they could no longer trust to their government to do what is best for Israel. Following President Sadat’s visit to Israel in 1977, a group of the ‘1973 generation’ wrote to then Prime Minister Begin in the famous ‘officers’ letter’ to argue for a path of peace rather than settlements, and the Peace Now movement was born. That generation, also central to the civil opposition to Israel’s First Lebanon War in 1982, overcame their fear, and frustration, through activism. Their activism figured Israelis not as the inevitable targets of unfounded Arab hatred, condemned to fight one war after another, but as partners for peace who wanted “No more war, no more bloodshed’ and that ‘the October War will be the last war’, as Begin’s and Sadat’s words repeated in a jingle on the Voice of Peace radio station.

In 1973, the founders of Peace Now could not know as soundly as they do now that the disaster of the war was not only that Israeli forces were caught off guard but that the war happened at all. By October 6th, there was no choice but for Israeli soldiers to fight back, but leading up to that point there were significant opportunities for Israeli governments to negotiate over the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights which had been captured in the June 1967 war. The war was an example of politics fought by other means, when diplomacy would have been far preferable.

Peace Now logo, designed by David Tartakover

Peace Now logo, designed by David Tartakover

Diplomacy seems to be breaking out all over the Middle East now – in the case of Syrian chemical weapons, and Iran’s nuclear programme. As several commentators have noted, this outbreak has made Benjamin Netanyahu anxious. In his UN speech on October 1st he referred to Iranian President Rohani as a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’, thereby directing not only Israelis but the whole world to be wary of the new mood blowing from Tehran. Netanyahu is a salesman in statesman’s clothing, a merchant of fear whose domestic political standing is directly proportional to the terror he induces. He is a political Mafiosi, promising Israelis protection in the form of armed might against a threat that he magnifies in order to sell his wares more effectively. He makes offers of ‘defence’ and ‘security’ that the voters can’t refuse. Netanyahu is a politician of fear, an orchestrator of powerful emotions who constantly builds them into renewed crescendos. It is not that there are no threats at all to be concerned about, but the politics of fear need to be confronted with a politics of different emotions, including hope. The fear of extinction that is shared by so many Diaspora and Israeli Jews is not unfounded but palpable. It cannot be dismissed, but nor can we remain hostage to it. The generation of 1973 found in Peace Now the best counter to the politics of fear in their activism, in giving voice to a demand for a better present. Their demand remains the best memorial to the Yom Kippur war.