Winter 1953. Sixty years ago. Kibbutz Bnei Darom, not far from today’s Ashdod, then sand dunes and an idea.
We had just arrived a few months earlier. New “candidate-members,” we were being tested: My wife was assigned to dish-washing for the 150 or so residents, by hand; I picked vegetables and fruit. I was 6 feet tall then, and I told the work roster manager there were enough short people to bend down and pick vegetables. “Just send me to pick oranges, where I reach up.”
I was assigned to making and pouring concrete for the chicken sheds we were building.
On hot days, we ate as many oranges as we could for liquid nutrition. Because we would carry 50-kilo sacks of dry cement on our backs, or run on a wooden plank over the sand pushing a concrete-packed wheelbarrow, and then pour the load into the foundations, we sweated pure orange juice.
Why were many members of Bnei Darom short? The core group was the so-called “Tehran children,” 1,000 Jewish orphans from Poland who, after the Nazi-Soviet partition of Poland, had been swept into the Soviet Union, and from there had been brought to Tehran.
They were evacuated to Israel and grew up as wards of the Zionist movement, many in kibbutzim of the varying political streams. Their nutrition was what had made them short, with the occasional genetic exception.
After having gone through all this, the mainly 18- and 19-year-olds withstood months of attacks in 1947-48 from local Gazans and the Egyptian forces. More or less 10 fighters augmented by 20 from the Palmah Negev Brigade held off dozens of attacks by organized Egyptian army forces, which were led by tanks, with artillery and aircraft support.
They blocked the Egyptian advance. This was the first time Israelis defeated an organized Arab army, providing an immense boost in morale for the beleaguered new state in its first struggling days.
Back to 1953. In those pre-historic days, a new car had to be driven at no more than 60 kph for 10,000 kilometers until the new engine was sufficiently broken in to mount the hills to Jerusalem and the Galilee. I had a kind of cousin who was a driver for Kol Yisrael, and one fine day, he came looking for me.
(Telephones? Forget about it.) He was breaking in a car, and he wanted to drive to the Negev and show me some of the country. The map of Eretz Yisrael was embedded in my Hebrewschool memories. The Negev! The songs of the 1948 war rang through my excited head. The work organizer said sure, go! He cut across from the narrow so-called twolane highway, which ended at the Gaza Strip, and took the inland road that connected Rehovot-Gedera-Beersheba. Just below Gedera, the green ceased and the Negev began: wide expanses of arid land, dotted by an occasional lone acacia tree, cacti tall and greengrey along the roadside here and there, and patches of green on the occasional kibbutz.
Sometimes we would see lonely patches of hundreds of dunams with young winter wheat, planted by kibbutzim further north.
The National Water Carrier was in the works and would paint the land greener – but that would be 10 years later. Meanwhile, wells and springs watered the lonely kibbutzim with thin pipes trailing across the sand.
NOW, GENTLE reader, you may ask: Why tell me this today? Why this burst of memory? This past Shabbat, my family, four generations of Israelis, gathered for our annual weekend.
Since we are not supposed to count heads, let me say there were about 80 feet there. We were in what was once wasteland: Kibbutz Alumim, established by some religious halutzim and halutzot in 1966 across from Gaza. In prime minister Levi Eshkol’s office, I heard spoken the words, “the Besor area.” It has wadis that link Sde Boker to the east, with Kfar Darom in the Gaza area. In the winter, there can be rainwater and rampaging floods; in the summer, it is dry. However, the farsighted planners of the early days linked water from the Kinneret with ground water and built dams and reservoirs and pumping stations; electric power from the grid powered these stations and provided a steady supply for light, irrigation and even air-conditioning.
The pioneers of Alumim have created a magnificent farm, beautiful gardens, landscaped and lush, and a living community. Children have their nurseries and kindergartens, playgrounds and sports fields. A special additional roof protects the children from rockets; shelter- rooms have been added to each family unit. And life goes on happily. The members are pleasant, polite and friendly, not just to us, who occupy their small cluster of guest-houses, but to one another, Happiness, or at least contentment, cannot be faked.
A few kilometers away, the Gaza children, who deserve such facilities as well, are held hostage by the leaders their parents put in office.
Here, then, is one reason I am angry at the Arab leadership: While our national movement had the foresight to build, create cooperatives, encourage private enterprises, and raise national funds that enabled us to plan and construct and create, Arab nationalism never developed constructivism. The victims of Arab nationalism are those cooped up in “refugee camps” by their fearful hosts. They are victims of an elite that gorges itself on the funds that could have made barren land flourish and educate masses to build, to look forward with hope.
Remember, dear reader, the foresight and power of those who built. Once the Negev began at Gedera. It was not speech-making and cheap political publicity ploys that made this land great. As I told my family, “Don’t take what we have for granted.” It was the constructivist movements that laid these foundations.
It was people who sought neither easy money nor flashy positions of power. Today this is the silent majority of this land. The kind faces of Kibbutz Alumim are the true face of the builders of Israel.
A historical note: Besor is mentioned in the Bible, Ashdod was a Philistine city, and Kfar Darom was a village in Talmudic times.
The writer served in the early governments and assisted some of the great planners and builders of Israel. He was world chairman of Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal for 10 years. His most recent book, the novel
A Tale of Two Avrahams, joins previous non-fiction books he has written.