The rock harvesters of Galilee

The young kibbutz founders were mainly my old friends from the Bnei Akiva/Bachad movement in Britain.

On a misty February dawn on February 23, 1949, when a nippy wind blew a mutter of thunder over the Galilean countryside and slate-gray clouds tumbled across the sky, 40-odd religious pioneers pitched tents on a barren hillside and called their encampment Lavi. The area they were settling was a waterless swath of hard-hearted acreage 10 kilometers west of Tiberias. The young founders were mainly my old friends from the Bnei Akiva/Bachad movement in Britain, many of them saved by the Kindertransport, the rescue operation which had brought thousands of children to England from Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II. I was there on that founding day thanks to an extended study course that had brought me to the country, and my close affiliation to the settlement group. Our base camp was Sejera, [now Ilaniya], where a young David Ben-Gurion had once worked as a laborer. And it was from there that we set out - a motley convoy of a truck, a tractor and a trailer loaded with settlement paraphernalia and an Everest of youthful hopes. Our destination was a distant winding muddy track that climbed up a rock-strewn hillside and debouched into a stony clearing, where we unloaded our stuff with vim and vigor. By midday the tents were up and the tureens on the kerosene burners in the makeshift kitchen were emitting lip-smacking aromas that beckoned people to down tools and tuck in. I, however, had one urgent chore still to do. I had been told to dig the communal latrine. It was a dreadful job. I had to burrow through the wet soil, shifting monstrous quantities of rock, and the deeper I dug, the more the water collected until it was as slimy as a mud pit. At one point I slid feebly into the mud with the sickening sensation of life plunging downward, asking myself what on earth I was doing in this slimy mess. But then, somebody came to relieve me, and after downing a plate of hot food my spirits rose. SOON, MINOR political bureaucrats arrived to deliver animated speeches, be photographed, and be gone, by which time the sun had broken through the clouds and one could take in the surrounding countryside for the first time. It was spectacular. Looking to the right or to the left one could enjoy a contrast of opposite scenery. On the right stretched the distant fertile belt of the Yavniel Valley plateau, a checkerboard of orchards and fields. Northwards, to the left, towered a craggy hill with shoulders that resembled horns - hence its name, the Horns of Hittin, where Saladin trounced the Crusaders. And beyond that, rising in swells and undulations loomed the slopes of Lower Galilee that ascended progressively to its upper ranges on whose crest sat the ancient town of kabbalistic lore, Safed. A short walk to the east brought into stunning view the waters of the Sea of Galilee, gently lapping the walls of old Tiberias on one shoreline, and the purple heights of the Golan on the other. But this was no time to stand idly and stare. Stones had to be cleared. The only harvest that nature provided in this infertile place, which had not seen a plow for a millennium-and-a half, were stones - in such abundance, there seemed to be more of them than earth. So rock-clearing became Lavi's singular preoccupation. The rocks had to be picked up one by one, carried away in baskets, and tossed onto a low trailer that carted them off to some distant tip. And that - rock harvesting - was what one did from morn till night, with blistering hands and backs that felt at times as if they were being stretched on the rack. Even when one picked up the rhythm and technique of economizing energy, this was toil without end. And it would go on at Lavi for years: Every member, regardless of occupation, had to take a turn sometime or another at this rite of rock-harvesting. The toil mirrored the primitiveness of Lavi in those early pioneer days - a period in which there was no electricity, no sanitation, hardly a single solid roof, just army-surplus tents; and a food intake that consisted of the simple basic diet of semolina porridge, raw vegetables, a chunk of bread with margarine and tea for breakfast; soup, raw vegetables, and half an egg with rice for lunch; and more soup, white cheese, olives and bread with diluted jam for supper. The Shabbat treat was three slices of salami, enhanced a few months later by a piece of chicken. MY WEEKLY letters home to my Manchester family were full of elaborate lies about Lavi's dazzling progress. But had one happened upon the wooden barrack that served as the communal dining hall in those days, the likelihood is one would have seen a bunch of people in muddy work clothes, heavy boots and dunce-style sloppy hats sitting on benches at tables made of rough deal planks, lit by a spluttering Tilly lamp, reminiscent of Van Gogh's the Potato Eaters. Most would be slumped over their tin plates, elbows on the table, spooning their soup in silence, too weary to talk. Nevertheless, there was a poignant fellowship around those tables, and an indefinable quality of lighthearted camaraderie. People cared for each other in almost mystical measure. Of course, in a society so small, closely-knit and isolated, where everybody lived under everybody's scrutiny and no secret could be hidden, petty quarrels were inevitable. But those religious pioneers were as close to each other as family. Theirs was a volunteer existence of heroic self-deprivation, dictated partly by poverty and partly by their collectivist ideology of mutual support. Above all, they were bonded by an awareness of being engaged in a wildly romantic religious pioneering adventure. THAT FIRST spring in Galilee came as a solace of nature to everybody. Gone were the piercing winds, the bone-numbing chills, the ubiquitous mud and the starless nights. Instead sun warmed the Lavi hillsides, which were now golden-green with pristine grasses, and the valleys were carpeted with wild flowers. Clusters of sunflowers bloomed here and there, hanging their heads as if in awe of the new settlement in their midst. The few acres freshly cleared of rocks and stones changed color from gray to green as shoots sprang up. And when the days lengthened, Lavi folks strolled around those few patches, inspecting the ripening grain in anticipation of their first humble harvest, harbinger of the many good harvests to come. Today, folks of every walk of life and from almost everywhere take leisurely strolls around Lavi's lush gardens, habitually walking off sumptuous meals partaken at Lavi's thriving hotel and conference center. They follow the signs to the uniquely beautiful synagogue whose pews were manufactured in the local carpentry factory, which resourcefully supplies synagogue furnishings the world over. Some, perhaps, will choose to view the impressive regional school and education complex, while the more energetic might wander further afield, past the mammoth chicken plant, to view the vistas of Lavi's abundant fertile acres, where prize cattle roam and bumper crops grow. And if, in the course of such a stroll, these visiting folks have the good fortune to happen upon those extraordinary people who, 57 years ago, first stuck a peg into this once-forbidding terrain, they might feel moved to shake them warmly by the hand and congratulate them for having founded one of the most successful and flourishing kibbutz communities in Israel today. The writer is a veteran diplomat.