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!

Short story: Tossing destiny

(Written for the Glen Eira Short story Award 2010)

A tender tear ran down the little girl’s cheek. Her angelic eyes staring deeply into his soul.

“Why did I have to die?” She asks naively, innocently, like a little girl asking her mother why the sky is blue, or the grass is green.

Lying in wait since midnight, the sniper breathed a sigh of relief and welcomed the first crack of dawn. A cloud of his warm breath effused like a silhouette against the pink sky and then disappeared into the heavens. Camouflaged with leaves, only the protrusion of a shiny, high-powered rifle betrayed his seemingly inconspicuous physique. Patience had been wearing thin over the arduous, solitary hours of silent nightfall and the sniper was eager to finish the job and disappear into the desert.

Gently centring the lens onto the window of a mud-brick house, the sniper brought himself to attention and focused every fibre of his body into a singular mantra-like awareness. A passing mosquito, the distant rustle of faraway apple orchards. Every tiny movement and every minute sound was detected in this impulsive state of absolute tension. Suddenly, his target appeared in the crosshairs through the lattices of his kitchen window in the mud-brick house. Having returned from morning prayers, the bearded figure clothed in desert attire served himself breakfast, completely unaware of his impending fate. Stealthily, the sniper retrieved a clear photograph of his target to ensure there would be no case of mistaken identity. There was indeed no doubt that the sought terrorist in the image was this bearded man eating his breakfast in the crosshairs of the rifle. Sufficiently pleased at the ease of identifying his objective, the sniper returned his gaze to the eyepiece, and wrapped his index figure around the enticing contour of the trigger.

Without warning, more figures suddenly appeared in the window. The entire family chanced up for breakfast at this untimely moment. But the sight of young children tugging at their mother, broke the sniper’s passive indifference to the impending execution, and transformed him into an active moral accomplice. No longer, in his mind, was he a neutral mercenary pulling the trigger at somebody else’s moral expense. The act of killing the father in full view of his children carried unforseen ramifications. With this sudden realization, the sniper jerked away from the eyepiece, as the first beads of sweat formed in his brow. He closed his eyes.

Her eternal stare burned him from within. The guilt was unbearable. Her lightly tanned face, her perfect smile. He didn’t know her name, but she accompanied him on every job, every mission, and every nightmare. He opened his eyes.

The dilemma erupted into a full-scale war in the sniper’s mind. The fundamentalist mass-murderer with no compunction would not have afforded him such hesitation had their roles been reversed. A powerhouse of terrorism erased from the earth. Countless lives saved. Planned suicide bombing aborted – all with the single thankless act of squeezing the trigger.

On the other hand, no child should witness the murder of their parent. The sight of their father’s lifeless body bleeding onto the kitchen floor would burn an indelible scar on their hearts, fuelling the seeds of revenge for generations to come.

The humanity and compassion pumped their way through the sniper’s veins, intensifying with each deafening heartbeat. Pulling the trigger was never a problem in other situations. No regrets. Yet this was somehow different. At all other times ethical concern seemed to evade him. Why did it bother him so much now?

He always fired the gun with the regret of stepping on an ant or killing a mosquito – perfect executions, a stream of pay-checks and no moral cost.

An uncanny feeling swept through his body – he wanted to wash his hands. For some reason, his inconvenient conscience parked itself in the driveway of duty and his fingers turned to stone. For all he cared the person in line with the barrel of the gun could be anybody, but the innocent children made him squirm.

Children, child, her. Her faced seemed blurry and out of focus. Her fixed gaze carried no expectation, just a melancholy aura. No regrets. Oh how he regretted that day. If only to turn back time. Not to shoot. To pack up, leave, come back the next day. He could imagine her cheerful, smiling – a lingering fantasy that consoled him as he wondered about her life-cut-short. Maybe learning how to read today, giggling around a skipping rope, dreaming about her life tomorrow. Their paths never crossing.

The opening rays of sunshine bounced back and forth between his face and the makeshift costume of leaves. With every minute that the sun rose higher in the pristine Mediterranean sky, the sniper’s chances of escape decreased. Facing capture in these areas meant certain death – together with a little memento of your beheading posted on Al Jazeera for the world to see. Staring at the terrorist’s family, the sniper developed an eerie myopia, clouding his vision and returning him to another place and time. He imagined his own children back home – the grief they would face at discovering their father flanked by masked mujahedeen on the six o’clock news. It sent a shudder down his spine.

Why is one life better than the next? Will there be one grieving family by day’s end, or none? Who decides who lives and who dies? There were no easy answers, but the sniper knew that the outcome rested in his stony fingers. In another world, his target could’ve been waiting in line with him at a university canteen. His heavy beard but a point of conversation in a multicultural society. His children, attending the same kindergarten and both their wives together organizing a community theatrette. Life, unfortunately had other plans. Destiny had engaged them to cross at this pivotal moment: The sniper contemplating his life in a pastoral orchard, the distant smells of the souq beckoning him to return here on his real visa. The bearded man, eating breakfast with his family, before sending teenagers like his own, to their deaths in suicide attacks. With their inescapable fates, they were wed in unholy matrimony, the 18mm bullets determining whether death do them part. An innate, primal desire to escape and return to his family strangled the sniper’s every decision, but his duty obligated a complete and thorough execution. Shutting his eyes, he asked for a decision.

Just the girl, staring back at him again, and a light sheet of salty water skipping in her eyes.

Looking back on it, it was like every other assassination. Another mundane job. The wear of routine – set up, lie in wait, finish it off, and get out ASAP. He never countered on that little girl running in front of his target. How he longed to know her name, to meet her on the street and plead for forgiveness. . .

Having the life sucked out of his grey eyes, the sniper had made a resolution. Either he would abandon his profession, pack up and disappear into the sprawl of orchards, leaving his target to die another day – or he would go above and beyond his duty, killing the terrorist together with his entire family. Both these options seemed most humane – if there was in fact any humanity in his line of work. Either way, those children would not suffer as orphans – their souls slowly incinerating with the obsession for revenge. But either way the sniper’s integrity was forfeit. Every future death his target authorizes would stain his conscience, every time he would close his eyes, his target’s children will join the little girl to forever haunt his dreams.

Fate had presented him with a decision he was incapable of making. As fiery daggers fell from the sweltering morning sky, the sniper arrived at his unbearable decision. Retrieving a coin from his back pocket, he had resolved to leave the day’s bloody business to chance. With heads, the bearded figure finishing his breakfast would continue his day, completely unaware of how close he came to death. With tails, he and his entire family would be liquidated.

The sniper tossed the coin into the air for what seemed to last an eternity. Fate and destiny had no power over chance, and the coin seemed to absolve the sniper of his impending ‘sin’. Like the petals of a rose gracefully descending toward the ground, the coin silently returned to the muddy Earth and disappeared amongst the symphony of leaves and shrubbery that conveniently concealed the sniper’s ambush position.

Shedding a brief tear, a camouflaged figure covered in bushes whispered a brief prayer of atonement. If only for the high powered rifle aimed at a mud-brick house in the distance, he would be invisible.

Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath, and imagined the little girl with angelic eyes – now a young woman, smiling back at him