In the last few months we’ve had several visitors here to the Kibbutz. For almost all of them it was their first visit to a country they had never expected to visit. One friend commented that Israel was “never on my radar.” And I empathize. Israel was never on my radar, until I married a man who was born here. To be honest I only vaguely knew where Israel was on the map when I first met my husband-to-be. I never told him that…but that’s another story, for another blog post.
Playing tour guide to my friends in my temporary home has been an experience. Its shown me what is important to me, and what stands out to me.
I live in the very south of Israel near the border with Egypt. To describe it (which I have in past blog posts) I tell people I basically live in a northern extension of the Sahara desert. It is all sand and rocks and dryness and heat. Here it is April and we’re almost reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day. The barren mountains are exposed with all their peaks and folds. And the sun beats down on it all almost all day, almost every day. The first thing I want people to react to is the total alien-ness of the landscape. How completely empty and dry it is. And how captivating. I have always lived in the northern United States, and, in comparison, the landscape here is… astonishing, enthralling, confounding, amazing. And I want all of my friends and family who come here to feel these same things. And actually, they usually do.
Next I want them to see what a “normal” place it is. By normal I mean, we don’t spend all our time running to bomb shelters, and fearing for our lives. Mostly, here, in the south, we just do our stuff. Its true, three or four times in these past 9 months there have been a couple of rockets launched at Eilat from the Sinai Dessert in Egypt. Once they rang the air raid siren here in the kibbutz. But thats like saying, in the past 9 months there have been a few shootings in Boston or Chicago, and one time you drove passed the police cars responding to such an incident. Life is just… normal. We don’t spend all day arguing about the “Palestinian conflict” or dodging Arab people. We wake up and go to work and eat together in the dining hall and enjoy coffee together in the afternoon. Whats hard, though, is the constant reminders that violence is – could be – very prevalent here. And I find myself reminding my visitors that violence is – often – very prevalent in the US.
I am not a Zionist. I am not Jewish. I am not sure what I believe about the complicated issues of land and government and control here in Israel. But I do find myself pointing out to my visitors again and again the basic ingenuity of Israelis. How time and again, in their struggles, when they thought they could rely on allies from abroad, they have been forced to do it all alone. When the French stalled on delivering promised airplanes during one conflict or another, the Israelis just said “fine, we’ll make our own.” And they did. Israelis invented the Uzi machine gun, and their “iron dome” missile protection system actually works, well (which is more they we can say about the one developed for a lot more money and time in the US!!).
But excluding armed conflicts, the amount of innovation in this country – a place with a landmass about the size of New Jersey, and a population of less than 8 million people – is amazing. Instant messaging was invented here! The sheer number of technology companies and technology start ups is overwhelming. Some of the newest and most innovative technologies in smart irrigation, and water desalinization have been invented and improved upon here.
And, in the same vein, and even more impressive, I think, are the settlements out here in the dessert. Some one came out here, stopped and said ”yeah, I think I could live here.” And they did. They built a whole way of life way out here, far away from everything they knew. And they encountered a whole set of obstacles that they had to get around. And they did! Getting power and water, and building and expansion and sustenance. Plus they are farming here. When we lived in Boston we could buy our tomatoes in our local grocery store from the Arava region of Israel! And they keep innovating as they go.
AND ON TOP OF THAT they started a whole new experiment in community living. The Kibbutz movement is something special, if not unique. They have developed an entire, self-contained, small society, providing for the needs so of the members, so the members can provide for the needs of the society. Communal living and dining, education and the equal value of work are all under-lying tenants of the Kibbutz movement. The Kibbutz movement was not only a way to settle the land in some far flung out-posts, but it was a way to help create a new society, and new bonds to hold together people who had immigrated from all over the world. It helped tie the people to the land and to each other. And it has worked. The people I have met here, even those who may not have been so willing to come, love this place. They love the landscape and the heat and the community. They are proud to be from here. And I want my visitors to see that, and see why.
Lastly, I find my self continually pointing out the layers of history. So many societies have been through here. Every major society in western history has been here. And their stories are laid out for us in layers, one on top of the other, every where you go! I read an article that they were trying to build a highway north of here in Beer Sheva, and they uncovered the most complete Byzantine mosaic floor ever discovered. All they wanted to do was build a road! And the old Ottoman police station – which was first a Roman structure – is just down the street from here. This ancient structure is so common, there isn’t even a sign post saying what it is, or a lock on the gate! I am constantly amazed that people have been walking around here, living their lives for thousands of years. The weight of the history here, is great. And I want my visitors to feel that weight as we travel.
Now, I come from a pretty distinctly American point of view. My own country has been around for more than 200 years and the values and struggles from which my own country was formed are receding into the past for me. (I’m not saying they are not important, just that they are not foremost in my day-to-day life in the US). But Israel is relatively young, and, some could argue hasn’t even finished establishing its borders yet. And they are still very much struggling with their founding principles and the foundations of their society. And I am intrigued by these struggles, just as I am intrigued by the landscape so different from my own, and intrigued by the history upon which they are building their society. And I am eager to share these observations with my visitors.