Consolidation

Where to begin? Mum often nags me to write – to put my thoughts and emotions to paper, to spew out the couscousy mesh of experiences that have been blended into a single stretch of memory – and thus to immortalize the symphony of incidents, stories and smells that accompany me throughout my journeys. ‘Anything, anything at all’, she pleads and reasons. But I never seem to have the desire or the discipline to dedicate the few hours required to put pen to paper. So here I am now – on a bus from Tel Aviv back to the kibbutz, with a few hours to kill, my laptop, and a lump in my throat from not being quite sure how to summarize the past few months, or how to unpack my thoughts.

What is the most suitable way to describe the people I have met, and the gems I have gleaned in a faraway land described by many, simultaneously as ‘holy’, ‘heavenly’ and ‘hell’? How to relate to the people here that I simultaneously love and despise – like the young man, shut off from the world with music blasting through his headphones, who sneaks in front of the ticket machine at the train station, and grabs a ticket that he didn’t pay for – or the young woman who rushed to the aid of an elderly lady who dropped her shopping bag in crowded Jerusalem? How to thank the proverbial Israeli on the street, who insists on inviting me over for Shabbat dinner, “whenever you’re in city X!”, despite having just randomly met me on the street. And how can I even begin to detail the many random acts of kindness – a stranger, in the right place at the right time, bridging the invisible bridge that separates people, and running to the assistance of another.

Which is the best way to describe the uncomfortable feeling I get, when I hear one of my kin preaching hatred against perceived enemies of our people – real or imaginary, or the silent applause during the many moments of social harmony: religious and secular Jews, together celebrating the 60 year anniversary of a local council in the Negev; or the large billboards in Gush Etzion that promote coexistence between Jews and Arabs. Watching Ethiopian and Russian kids playing soccer in the street, hearing Americans ordering hummus in Jerusalem, watching an impromptu performance of Japansese pilgrims singing in Zion Square, or feeling the heat, as I sunbake amongst a sea of Frenchmen on a beach near Achziv.

How can I begin to explain the time an entire Egged bus erupted into laughter, when an Arab transport van pulled up beside us – with a podgy middle aged man seated cross-legged on the floor between the seats, happily smoked a nargilah and smiled back at us – the mystical plume of smoke that he exhaled, dancing toward the heavens, as if he was relaxing in Abu Gosh. Or the frustration of being screwed around with by the army – that constantly changes my draft date, and insists that all communication be done through faxing? How to picture the warmth and hospitality of the Beduins of Aramsha – a small village that straddles the Lebanese border, or the way that residents of Bnei Brak purposely avoid me with their eyes during a Shabbat afternoon stroll? How to describe the multitude of faces, cultures and personalities that forge this country for what it is – an unprecedented melting pot, instigated by one of the boldest state building projects of the 20th century.

How to express the sheer outpour of otherworldly senses when the sun kisses the pluvial horizon between Gaza and Rafiah, and bids these shores farewell with a spectacular show of colours in the sky – orange, blue and violet? How can I colour with words the jungle-like Wadi’s of the Upper Galilee, and the wild meat cows that roam free, and follow each hiker with their distinctive, pitiful stares? What on Earth is more blue than the Kinneret when viewed from the Golan Heights, or more yellow than the gigantic bees that lap up the water of the kibbutz pool, and then fly off in a hurry to pollinate the fields of the Western Negev desert?

Living in Israel from the inside is nothing like living it from the outside. The headlines continue to ramble on, inexorably and increasingly sensationalist, whilst on the ground, people trudge on, like a backpacker trekking through waist-deep mud: slowly, tiredly and assuredly forward – warding off the hardship and difficulty that surrounds. For in a place so compact and laden with history, which snares the hearts and minds of so many around the world, it’s really easy to get carried away in a biblical fantasy land of prophecies and conflict. It’s a land that brings out the best and worst in people – those guided toward kindness by their beliefs, and those who seek salvation in terror, destruction and death.

Perhaps on this auspicious occasion, at the height of the Arab spring, and Israel’s increasingly difficult political situation it has to be said: Too often Middle East is portrayed as a black and white narrative of hollywood-esque proportions, a game of good vs evil that each side reframes and repackages to suit their bias. The truth however lies in fact this troubled neighbourhood is plagued by many shades of grey, with each opinion offering an element of truth, and an element of sweet illusion. Often I find that the most zealous voices are those of people who have never set foot in the holy land, whilst those who live the reality, lead the moderate voices of peace.

Sure Israel has changed me. There was a time, in the first few weeks, when my heart would open up to every beggar in the street, as I foraged my wallet for all the spare change I could find. Today I join the mass of people who nonchalantly pass them by, choosing to ignore, reasoning that they should get a job, and passing on the assumed responsibility of helping them onto the next stranger. There was a time that I would wait politely in line, whilst the onlookers who pushed in front of me, looked back and giggled at the ‘friar’ (‘loser’ in Hebrew), who clearly has no idea about Israeli society. I remember the days when seeing a wind-torn Israeli flag fluttering in the middle of the desert aroused all kinds of emotional nostalgia and reinforced my sense of purpose here. And how could I forget the tiring bus trips at night, when I would stay awake and rest my head on the window, gazing out to the lights of distant settlements and villages that dot the inland hills; an intense spiritual sense like that of my first visit to the Kotel.

Indeed, as my initial excitement turned to disillusionment, which in turn became a sort of rebellious-teenager apathy, I found myself increasingly sceptical and disconnected from the values that initially brought me here. Whilst now, I find myself in a consolidation of sorts – having sobered up both from the initial thrill this country offered and the mild disappointment that followed.

There was a time when my heart skipped a beat each time I would come across ancient Israelite ruins – and each time I gazed out across the Shfela, the coastal plane, and imagined the ancient wayfarers and merchants that traded spices between the Phoenician north and the Philistine south. There was a period when seeing an Israeli soldier on the train filled me with pride, and almost always led me to make conversation – as I took the role of the excited ‘oleh hadash’ teenager – both astonished and envious.

Yet despite it all, I still feel that I belong here. A humid summer night in June comes to mind: we had just crossed back into Israel from Taba, Egypt, and although the surrounding mountains and the deep dark sea remained the same ominous mountains and sea, the distinct sense of anxiety, and foreignness that accompanied me through Egypt suddenly dispelled across the border. Sure the customs officers cursed in Hebrew, the taxi driver tried to rip us off a few extra shekels, and the size of the Israeli flag, flying white and blue, was no less impressive than her Egyptian counterpart over the border. But I felt at home, and I still do – and that is a feeling that is hard to come by.

Journey to Hebron

When I first arrived in Israel, I believed that I had the entire conflict figured out and neatly wrapped within a few inviolable facts and slogans that validated my worldview of what it meant to be Jewish, Israeli and Zionist: “A Land without a people and a people without a land” I could quote without apprehension – referring to the early Zionist belief that Palestine was empty of inhabitants. Argue “Deir Yassin” and I would respond with Gush Etzion and the Haddasah medical convoy massacre. Discuss the 1948 Arab Palestinian refugees, and I would counter with the massive (forced?) exodus of Jews from Arab countries. Tell me that Israel should withdraw from Judea and Samaria (the west bank), and I would tense up emotionally and become completely immune to any logical persuasion. In other words, I was like a slave to my own ironclad opinions – almost unwilling to accept the other side of the argument or to see any basic humanity in the Arab/Palestinian narrative. Indeed, the moment that the basic tenets that I had come to believe regarding Israel and her history were criticized, I always tended to dismiss them as irrelevant, untrue or even anti-zionist.

This was the worldview that – due to my voracious reading habits and to a large degree, my emotional ties to the Jewish narrative – I had come to accept; a scrawny, bespectacled Aussie kid growing up within the Jewish bubble and dreaming of the Holy Land. Perhaps ironically, as I enter my fifth month in Israel and actually live and observe the Arab-Israeli conflict from within, I have come to the tentative realization that conflict is so complex and intricate – that by mentally summarizing the situation into a few historical flashpoints and soundbytes, I have been not only untruthful to myself, but to all the victims on both sides of the border.

The Melbourne Jewish community is by and large one built by Holocaust survivors and their descendants. Ties with Israel are incredibly strong, with large numbers of Jewish high school graduates spending their ‘gap year’ in Israel, and quite a few even staying on to make Aliyah and join the IDF (myself included). Another by-product of this environment, and one that I only begin to notice now, is that the picture we have of Israel is painted with bright colours – one that ignores the Palestinian side or masks over the entire Arab world as bloodthirsty Jihadi terrorists preparing to drive us into the sea. I must admit, that I had even dabbled in literature denying the existence of a distinct Palestinian people altogether: “After all there has never been a Palestinian state or people in history” I convinced myself. Little do I realize that such an argument is inherently foolish, as all identities – regardless of their historicity – are essentially self-conceived. The entire argument would become one of who has stronger links to the Holy land – whilst ignoring the realities and facts on the ground: That the Jewish people and Arab Palestinians have both made their home between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea.

The more time I spend here, the more opinions and stories I hear and the more I see, I realize that in their own way, everybody here is very right, and very wrong at the same time. Left wing, right wing, religious, secular, Zionist, Jewish, Arab, Palestinian – this is the crazy concoction of everything that has been thought of and conceived to explain the violence, the anger, the baseless hatred and the unboundless kindness that I have come across in this blood-drenched land during my short stay. I have gone from consuming hours of news and media reports, scouring opinion forums and talkbacks – to becoming completely apathetic toward the political situation altogether – and reading almost nothing; for so many things that I observe here, openly contradict the media reports that I rely on for information and history. My solid opinions and the “I know everything” attitude that I arrived here with have crumbled impressively to the point that I am entirely confused as to who is right and who is wrong; what is true and what is fake. Everybody here is correct, and everybody has their facts (or emotions more-so) to back it up. And who am I really, to question somebody who has lived here their entire life? Who am I to deny to the right of an Arab farmer to till his lands in the seam zone, or for the Israeli victims of Arab terror to call for harsher retribution against terrorists and their sympathizers? I’m just some kid piggybacking this conflict and getting a ride through history. Yesterday I set out to convince the world what needed to be done. Today I keep my mouth shut, listen silently and ask inquisitive questions; powerless to prevent the events spiralling out of control around me.

Cave of the Patriarchs in Hevron

The more time I spend in Israel, the more I realize that this conflict at it’s core is not so much about religion, nationality or land, but rather it’s about people. Regular people – most of whom don’t get involved in politics or ideology, who prefer to live a quite life, like the life I had in Australia. “We’re not angels or demons,” a local Arab from Hevron told me as I visited the ancient city, “we were born into this crazy situation, and now we just want to live our life normally.” The massive cave of the patriarchs compound loomed before us, cut in half by a wall to separate Muslim and Jewish worshippers for fear of a repeat of the 1994 massacre, perpetrated by a militant Jewish-American that left nearly 30 Muslims dead. The reason I bring this up, is to show that Jews and Israelis are capable of evil as well, the same kind of evil that we vilify Palestinian terrorists for. At least this attack was unequivocally and wholly condemned by Israeli society, whilst similar attacks on the Arab side are usually praised and glorified.

The Casbah in Hevron

Indeed, visiting Hevron was an eye-opening experience for me: a strange journey into a different world of tight alleyways, ancient stones and a tense feeling so thick that you could cut it with a knife. The Casbah – which once housed the ancient Jewish community of Hevron, is now a modern battlefield of ideologies that illustrates this conflict better than another. A populated, dense area – the former principle Arab market of the city spirals through the narrow alleyways, manned by ageing Palestinian caricatures – wearing traditional white-black Kaffiyehs, sitting quietly by embroidered carpets and ‘made-in-china’ souvenirs, smoking tobacco from a pipe, and staring blankly into a bygone era when this market was bustling full of people. In the floors above the market, Israeli-Jews have moved in, reclaiming the houses their parents had been dispossessed from, following their massacre and expulsion in 1929. An Israeli flag flies from the edge of one of the windows.

The Israeli flag from inside the market

Below it, a net has been erected by the Arab shopkeepers to prevent the settlers from dropping stones down below. It was such a strange feeling, standing in the market, looking upwards at the Israeli flag. Up there are my people. Down here are the people I sympathize with. Both sides have claims to this city. Both sides have a right to live here, to pray here. Both sides have ruined this place – a city built by the love of our forefathers, now consumed entirely by hatred.

I returned to Jerusalem, dazed and confused – from the heat, from the conflict, from this swimming pool of intensity that I jumped into when I got off the plane. Relieved to be back in Israel proper, I strolled through Yafo st – a lively boardwalk lined with shops – just as the warm Judean sun began casting her shadow over trendy rooftops and balconies. The place was packed with people in every direction, as an impromptu band sang over-played Israeli rock’n’roll from the 80s. I sat down and observed quietly: Middle-aged women sipping late at a nearby cafe. A gaggle of teenagers in summer clothes organizing a sleepover. An elderly couple walking past the band, receiving a nod of recognition from the guitarist and then staying on to listen a little more. A Rabbi hurriedly walking past to make afternoon prayers, followed closely by a religious Muslim woman, inspecting some of the latest fashion at the adjacent boutique. It felt so hard for me to believe that Hevron – a virtual warzone compared to this – was just a cool 30 minutes drive from here.

Israel's graffiti covered separation barrier

That night I stayed at my uncle Ran’s place in Jerusalem, and we began discussing the separation barrier that I had visited that afternoon – built to prevent suicide bombings from the Palestinian territories. At the edge of Bethlehem, the walled, concrete section of the barrier (that makes up 10% of the entire fence) dominates the road in front of it. On my return from Hevron, I stopped by the graffiti covered barrier, that has almost become a post-Berlin symbol for anti-nationalists and anarchists everywhere. Every single message and artwork has turned the wall into a figurative monument: spraying a profound quote is like tagging your name in history books. “‘Alaskans for Palestine’; ‘UCLA ’09 against the occupation!’ – who do these people think they are, coming to this part of the world and getting themselves involved in the conflict?” I muttered openly with a touch of annoyance. “Perhaps they also have a stake in it?” Ran prodded, while concentrating on the dishes. “All the people perpetuating the violence seem to be from outside Israel! Most people here just want to live their lives peacefully. What the fuck do Alaskans have to do with Palestine??” I shuffled uncomfortably on the couch. A brief silence ensued, and then Ran unloaded the big one: “You’re one of them too, aren’t you?” he asked, in a wise, yet humorous way. And as much as I’d like to deny it, he’s basically right. My emotional, historical, religious and family connections have pulled me to this land – an intense yearning unexplained by logic. My desire to enlist in the IDF stems from my ideological perceptions and my belief in Jewish self-determination – a self determination that I believe should not come at the expense of another people’s. Indeed, at my base, I’m still a Jew born in Australia. Maybe a Palestinian born in Alaska, attending UCLA feels the same way?

Overcome by immense tiredness, I shuffled around on the mattress, trying to forget about the collapsing situation around me, and everything that I have gotten myself into. Ran turned off the light, as the sounds of distant traffic and flickering street lights poured in through the fly screen. I dozed off perhaps for a minute, and suddenly I found myself once more in Hevron. The terrible heat of the sun beat down on my face, as I slowly made my way through an abandoned street between an Arab and Jewish neighbourhood: Every door had bolted shut, and every window had been shattered by rocks. Garbage lay strewn beside dust that had been collecting there for years, and the blue sky seemed much paler than usual. My mouth was parched from the heat and the thirst, as I came across half-ripped Arab posters immortalizing Palestinian suicide bombers, right next to Jewish signs proclaiming the message of Rabbi Kahane. Unawares, the muezzin – the Muslims call to prayer – began sounding off throughout the city. First a distant whisper from the furthest mosque, and then closer and closer, until it vibrated in my ears, as if each new voice was a louder echo of the first. It sounded like a proclamation to besiege the Jewish quarter that I now found myself in –  a quarter filled with bumper stickers calling for the forced expulsion of the Arabs in Israel. The Muezzin echoed defiantly loud and clear – beating down on my face like the heat of the sun, whilst the stickers radiated an equally overwhelming political message that seemed too much to bear. There I stood awkwardly not quite part of it, not quite taking sides – the thirst killing me and driving me into a delirious trance, the oppressive heat of the sun frying my thought process. I was stuck in the middle, on the fence, not quite sure where I belong.

Israel and Kibbutz life: first impressions

Arriving in Israel

The view

So here I am, two weeks in since I arrived in Israel, with the Carmel mountains stretching out beside my window, and the cool, blue Mediterranean humming in the distance.  There is definitely something special about the land here. It carries with it a depth of history that seems to echo from soil and relive itself out again with different characters facing the same dillemas as those that preceded them. The landscape here remains motionlessness, inviolable, bearing witness to us – playing the same foolish game of life, making mistakes, feeling, living , breathing and fighting. Countless people must’ve traversed the ancient roads that are now paved with bitumen, traffic lights and railroad tracks. New houses with Mezuzot are built beside ancient quarries that were appropriated by the Romans to build the outposts of their empire – that today only extends outward into museums and history textbooks. That is what makes Israel special. Past, present and future converge as one, here in the crossroads between Africa, Asia and Europe. And I feel like I’m in the middle of it, together with everyone else. This is truly history in the making.

Before I arrived in Israel, I always imagined that upon landing, I would suddenly feel something special – like a rush of exctacy to the brain, dilating my pupils with fundamentalist fervour. Needless to say, as I stepped into the terminal I felt numb and sleep deprived – the advertisements in English for McDonalds and Coca Cola seemed to give me the impression that I was in some strange suburb of Melbourne rather than the Holy Land. Western Culture is far-reaching, and fails to discriminate between countries, I thought to myself.

The delayed culture shock only hit me whilst I sat in the taxi from the airport – during the drive northward from Tel Aviv. On face value, the scene was no different from what you would expect in New York or London. There is little difference in the range and quality of cars on the road. Road sings and traffic lights bear resemblance to their counterparts in Oz. The fact that the driver spoke Hebrew didn’t phase me either. What hit me was more subtle: there was a large minority of drivers that completely disregarded the road rules. If changing lanes without indicating was to be the worst offence that I spotted, then I would definitely still be in Melbourne. The perpetual ‘road stress’ that I witness on a daily basis here stems from the ongoing tension of protracted war and conflict. When surrounded by a sea of enemies eagerly waiting for their opportunity to drive you into the sea, every minor formality and road rule pales in comparison. No wonder then, that more people are killed in Israel (during peace time) from traffic accidents, rather than suicide bombings. This is by no means a critique of Israeli society – but merely an observation of a people tired of war and hungry for peace.

This constant need to push and ‘be first’ is indeed, a double edged sword. On the one hand, Israelis may come off as too pushy or arrogant (when in fact the opposite is true) , but on the other hand this unique brand of ‘Chutzpah’ breeds innovation and diligence that is only heightened by the inexorable existential threat. For example, Israel’s high tech sector is the envy of the Middle East (“nicknamed “The Silicon Wadi”), and her economy rivals that of all the surrounding countries, despite having no oil and a minuscule population of only 7 million.

Kibbutz life:

Some of my pre-conceived notions about Kibbutz life in Israel have been both shattered and reinforced. I always imagined the Kibbutz to be a nuclear hub of staunch, sun-tanned idealists, plowing the fields by day, and recounting tales of heroism around a bonfire by night. Needless to say, this is the 21st century, and a life of pure agriculture and neo-socialism is economically unsustainable in the real world. This particular Kibbutz is comparatively wealthy – mostly due to the large plastics factory that exports materials around Israel and abroad (in fact it makes up 80% of the Kibbutz’s income). The old days in which children lived separated from their parents are over. Many sectors of the Kibbutz are privatised, Kibbutz members and their families have their own houses, and the food costs money (although workers and members receive a monthly budget from the Kibbutz to spend in the dining room.)

In many senses, the traditional Kibbutz movement – just like the Romans – is confined to the history books. Today, it is simply an attractive place to live and work. Yes, everybody receives the same monthly allowance in the dining room, and Kibbutz members still vote on matters of importance. However I believe that humans are by nature, acquisitive: we want to own, to have more, to aspire to lead and to buy low and sell high. We are naturally competitive – so it was only a matter of time before human nature trumped over ideology.

From the first day, I was assigned to work in the cowshed. My job consists of collecting cows, trudging through hills of cow feaces and urine, milking the cows, returning them to their barns and then washing away piles of excrement with a high pressured hose. Once I got used to the smell (I would describe it as spending time in an airtight room with an un-flushed toilet, with the smell of hay seeping in from under the door)  the work became more enjoyable. The cows are scared-‘shitless’ (pun intended) of us, and their entire social hierarchy within the barn collapses once a human approaches. Some cows are more eager to be milked. Others take some cajoling. A small minority are purely phlegmatic, and resist milking attempts quite violently. Perhaps once they realize their strength, they might band together like in ‘Animal Farm’ and mutiny against our tyrannical rule. But seriously though, they need to be milked. Otherwise their udders might explode like a blended milkshake.

As I write this, two scenes from the cowshed come to mind:

"The carousel"

1. The cows are milked on a large automated carousel, with tube-like sucking machines that we attach to the udder. The milk is then collected into a large vat, and shipped off for packaging so that people all over the country can enjoy cereal, cheese and coffee. One particular morning, at around 4:30am in the heat of work, the song ‘Aint no sunshine when she’s gone‘ by Bill Withers played through the loudspeakers. The cows remained at their stations cluelessly staring at each other from both ends of carousel, as they slowly rotated around the centre, as the sucking machines emptied their udders. This scene seemed to come straight from a horrible nightmare – the cows placidly bobbing to the music like kids on a merry-go-round in first gear. For some unexplained reason I found this situation quite comical, and I just felt the need to record this moment here for future reference.

2. Washing away the large, clumpy piles of cow-shit from the floor with the hose is a long and tedious experience. In the long stretches of time during this activity, I often become mesmerized by the rivers of “chocolate” and “caramel” foam that stream past my feet and into the drain. When the high-pressured water hits a large build-up, the cow-poo is thrown into the air like a mini-meteor shower, and then gracefully floats down the gooey river upon returning to earth. I once had the unpleasant experience of opening up the hose onto the adjacent wall, and immediately thereafter, the cow-remains ricocheted backward into my face. If I can endure this, then every slimy, sticky or disgusting thing that I will ever encounter will probably pale in comparison. Taking out the garbage isn’t so hard after all, mum!