This is me, age 21 in 1965, standing atop the silo at Kibbutz Dvir in the Negev Desert. The orchards in which we worked can be seen below. In the background, the arid hills of what was then the West Bank of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Last week, in writing about a couple of interesting drinking experiences I had in Latvia (in the 1970s, when that country was still occupied by the Soviet Union), I added a footnote about kolkhozy, Soviet collective farms. Kolkhozy, I pointed out, should never be confused with kibbutzim, the collective farms in Israel, whose membership is entirely voluntary.
I know a little bit about kibbutzim because in the summer of 1965, I lived and worked on one for three weeks. Its name was — still is — Dvir, and it is located about 10 miles north of Beersheba in the northern reaches of the Negev Desert. Back then, like many other kibbutzim, Dvir often hosted young volunteers from other countries who wanted to experience something of the communal life of a kibbutz. When I was there, most of the approximately 20 volunteers were Europeans. All but me were non-Jews. I remember an Austrian, a crazy-funny Frenchman, a pretty Danish girl. I was one of only two Americans, the other being my good friend Arlee, with whom I also drove through Italy, France, Denmark, and a good deal of Israel that summer.1
Dvir is right on the border of the West Bank, which, when I was there in 1965, was hostile Jordanian territory.
My most vivid memories from that experience are breakfast, fruit picking, cows and chickens, kibbutz culture … and concern about cross-border raids by Fatah terrorists.
Breakfast & Fruit Picking
Because summertime temperatures in the Negev are very high, we’d get up at about 5 a.m., a little after first light, and begin work in the cool of the morning. We’d start off in the communal dining hall with coffee and a snack of crusty, dark bread we’d slather with a chocolate spread or cream cheese. Then we’d sit down on a couple of flat-bed wagons, which a tractor would pull out to the orchard. After picking fruit — mostly peaches — till about 8 o’clock, we’d pile back onto the wagons and return to the dining hall for one of the healthiest, heartiest breakfasts I’ve ever enjoyed. We’d sit at long tables, at the center of which were large stainless-steel bowls filled with fresh, uncut vegetables — sweet peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, etc. There were also bowls of cottage cheese. You could take anything you wanted, cut it up, spoon in as much cottage cheese as you liked, spread more chocolate or cream cheese on slices of the same hearty bread as before, and wash it down with milk or coffee.
Then we’d get back on the wagons and head off to pick more fruit. Because of the heat, the workday ended at lunchtime. The wagons would take us back to the dining hall for meals that, as I vaguely recall, often featured something like wiener schnitzel — simple, hearty fare, very popular in Israel.
Afternoons were free, and most of us would spend at least part of the time in the kibbutz swimming pool. Arlee and I had a car, so we’d occasionally drive into Beersheba. Once I haggled with a Bedouin shopkeeper and found myself in possession of a curved, but very dull, Arab dagger with a decorated handle. I’d been only slightly interested in the weapon, and when the shopkeeper named his price, I said no thanks. He brought the price down a little, but I still didn’t bite. Then I said I really didn’t much want it and started walking away. Running after me, the shopkeeper deflated the price so drastically I could hardly say no. So I learned the bizarre secret of bazaar bargaining: feign total lack of interest.2
Cows & Chickens
On two occasions the kibbutznik in charge of working with the volunteers (and making sure we were all happy), asked me to do something a little different. The first of these jobs was to clean out the chicken coops after the birds had been sent to market. It was a dirty, smelly thing to rake up the soiled straw bedding, and it pretty much ruined the only pair of leather shoes I had. But it was an experience I’d never otherwise have had, so I appreciated the opportunity.
Dining hall. Towering over it in the background is the silo, some of whose contents I fed the cows, and on top of which the photo at the beginning of this post was taken.
The other new task I was given one day was feeding the cows. You’d never believe the raw material that these creatures turn into sweet, white milk! It’s called silage because it had been stored in the silo. Judging by the pungency of the tangled plant material I pitchforked into the trough in front of the cows, what had initially gone into the silo were cornstalks or some other tough, fibrous material that had sat and fermented for months. Smelly, “pickled” cornstalks! But the cows clearly loved it. Chalk up another unexpected educational experience!
Most, if not all of Israeli’s kibbutzim belonged to one or another of several groups, each of which was affiliated with a political party. Dvir was associated with the Mapam party, well on the left-socialist end of the country’s diverse political spectrum. Although its culture was decidedly secular, all the members and foreign volunteers would gather for a Shabbat (Sabbath) meal on Friday evening. While it was devoid of prayer, we were given to understand that it was meant to maintain a millennia-old tradition that even these atheistic socialists enjoyed. After the dinner, everyone remained in the dining hall to enjoy musical programs, including a recital one week by a classical pianist.
Without spending a lot of time on kibbutz philosophy and organization, I recall that everything was done communally. All residents took turns doing each of the community’s jobs, whether in the fields, with the animals, in the kitchen, in maintenance, or in working with the children. Young kids all spent their days in a communal nursery, looked after by a rotating team of adults. Today I no longer recall whether they stayed overnight in their respective parents’ bungalows or in the nursery, but they certainly spent Shabbat with their own families.
Homes for individual families
One other facet of kibbutz culture worth mentioning: The people of Dvir had, we were told, a good relationship with a group of nearby Bedouin. One afternoon, Dvir arranged for their Bedouin neighbors to host a meal for the volunteers. I remember few details, but as we entered their large black tent, I saw the severed head of the lamb whose meat we were about to be served. Life as lived, no doubt, in many societies whose members, unlike us 21st-century Westerners, are not far removed from an understanding of where their sustenance comes from.
As I wrote at the outset, this was the summer of 1965 — two years before the Six Day War, which took place in June 1967, and which resulted in Israel’s decisive defeat of Egypt, Syria and Jordan which had been threatening an imminent invasion that would “throw the Jews into the sea.”
Dvir was located right on the border of what is today called the West Bank but was then part of Jordan.3 In those days there were no “occupied territories.” But none of its Arab neighbors was then prepared to live in peace with Israel, and Egypt, Syria and Jordan allowed their territory to be used to launch terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians. (Today, fortunately, Israel has formal peace treaties and diplomatic relations with both Egypt and Jordan, although the populations of both these countries remain fervently hostile to Israel.)
In 1964, Yassir Arafat formed a new terrorist organization, Fatah (today the largest organization in the Palestinian Authority) which mounted assaults on kibbutzim along the border with Jordan. While we were in Dvir, a nighttime Fatah raid on a kibbutz a few miles to the north resulted in the murder of a woman asleep in her bed.
Entrance to underground shelter for use in case of terrorist raid or war
Dvir’s kibbutzniks took turns mounting armed nighttime patrols around the barbed-wire perimeter of the residential area. When danger was felt to be high, the army (IDF, Israel Defense Forces) sent soldiers to strengthen these patrols. Needless to say, we volunteers were asked to stay indoors at night. Once, during the day, walking along a dirt road in an uncultivated part of the kibbutz property, I found spent rifle shells. We were all warned never to point beyond the orchards in the direction of nearby Jordanian territory, as that might trigger shooting from across the border.
My three weeks on a kibbutz turned out to be a much more consequential adventure than I could possibly have imagined when I’d signed up for it.
1. After we left Dvir, Arlee and I spent several more weeks traveling around Israel. This included a long drive through the Negev all the way down to Israel’s southernmost town, Eilat, a port on the Gulf of Aqaba, an arm of the Red Sea. After quite a few hours on the road, we topped a rise and first saw the blue waters of the gulf in the distance. And that was also where we spotted this amusing sign. And no, it was not a desert mirage.
Background: Our first glimpse of the sea on the road to Eilat. Foreground: What?! Actual distance to LA: 7,700 miles (12,400 km)
2. This was similar to another experience I’d witnessed years earlier, when, still a high school student, I was in Mexico with my parents. A peddler tried to interest my dad in some obsidian statuettes made to look like the work of Aztec artisans. My dad kept saying no thanks, but the peddler, bargaining with himself, brought the price so low that Dad eventually made the purchase.
3. In the War of Independence (1948–49), Israel fought the armies of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, which invaded the country on May 15, 1948, the day Israel declared its independence upon the withdrawal of Great Britain from “Mandatory Palestine.” Israel’s birth was the result of the 1947 UN vote to divide Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The Jews accepted this “partition plan,” but the Arabs rejected it. Azam Pasha, secretary-general of the Arab League, said in an Oct. 11, 1947, interview that the Arabs would conduct “a war of annihilation [against the Jews]. It will be a momentous massacre in history that will be talked about like the massacres of the Mongols or the Crusades.” And to think the Arabs were planning this — an encore to Hitler’s foul work — just two years after the end of the Holocaust!
In the course of that war, which Israel won, Jordan — till then known as Transjordan since its territory had been limited to land east of the Jordan River — occupied a sizeable portion of Britain’s former Palestine mandate west of the river, including the Old City of Jerusalem. When, in 1967, Jordan joined Egypt and Syria in again threatening to annihilate Israel, and Israel won the resulting Six Day War, Jordan lost all the territory west of the river, which is why this area is today referred to as the “occupied” West Bank. It remains “occupied” because Israel has yet to find a Palestinian negotiating partner willing to join it in compromising for peace. (The Palestinian Authority, Israel’s ostensible negotiating partner in the long-moribund Oslo peace process, names buildings and public places in honor of “martyrs” — i.e., Palestinian terrorists — killed while committing or attempting to commit bloody attacks against Israeli civilians. It also makes handsome monthly payments to the families of terrorists caught in the act and imprisoned in Israel, between about $580 and $2,900 per month depending on the length of the individual’s sentence.)
Finally, any readers who may be under the impression that today’s continuing Palestinian terror attacks on Israeli civilians are a response to the “occupation” should know that these attacks began not (1) after Israel’s birth in 1948, nor (2) after Israel’s victory in the Six Day War of 1967, but in 1920 — long before the Jews “occupied” any land or even had a country of their own.