by Gwen Whitmore
A New Zealand citizen
It was mid 1961 when my then husband and I arrived in Israel to help build a nation. The country at that time was very different from now. There were shortages of all sorts of things – soap, toilet paper, food, especially meat, housing etc. Many refugees were living in homes with dirt floors, in camps which had been hastily set up in the fifties. All very different from the lifestyle we had left in New Zealand.
We were to join a group of Australians (12 if I remember correctly) who were on kibbutz Nirim, located on the southern border of the Gaza strip, opposite the Palestinian refugee camp of Khan Yunis. The kibbutz was made up of about a hundred adult members mainly young Israelis but also some refugees from Europe. Nirim was affiliated to a left wing political party with strong ideology. There would be no hired (exploited) labour, so all work would be done by kibbutz members. No money changed hands – it was based on the principle “each according to his ability and each according to his needs”. We did receive what we needed from the kibbutz for which we worked six days a week. The land, which was basically desert was in time being cultivated and growing food for the country. The pioneering spirit was alive and well, and people really thought what they were doing was of value to the country.
The kibbutz also served as a border security. There was no border fence, just a ditch which marked the border and was patrolled at times by UN security. The kibbutz did have a fence surrounding the living quarters, workshops and livestock areas which was patrolled by members each night. During the time I was there, there was virtually no trouble, the occasional theft of irrigation pipes was as bad as it got.
From the top of the ladder on the grain silo it was possible to look across the border to the Palestinian refugees who were trying to eke out a living. They were threshing grain using an ox walking in a circle pulling the thresher. Their way of life was considered very primitive, and spoken of as if they had an option!
I recall on several occasions hearing how little the Arabs cared about their children, not like the Israelis who valued every life! I later realised how this sort of propaganda was taken in by us without thinking. They were considered second class humans.
The reason these people were refugees in Gaza and other Arab countries was told as – they fled during the 1948 war on instructions from the neighbouring Arab countries. Well, as I later found out – verified by a family in Rotorua whose family fled from Haifa, when they received threats delivered to their letterboxes, of the murder of their families if they were not out within 24 hours. Yes, people fled! Especially as they were unarmed.
They fled to where they thought they may be safe. It was mentioned many times how bad the Arabs were or not absorbing these refugees into their lands. It could have solved Israel’s problems, instead they have remained as refugees wanting their land and homes back. They have received no reparations, unlike the Israelis who received large sums from Germany after the holocaust.
We were reminded often about the Warsaw ghetto and the horrors of what life was like for those poor people.
I have difficulty seeing a lot of difference between the Warsaw ghetto and the Gaza strip. Apart from the fact that many of those meting out the conditions now are the children and grandchildren of the surivors of the holocaust. But, perhaps because of the extremely successful propaganda machine in Israel they are unable ‘to see the wood for the trees’.
So, on the kibbutz our daily lives were spent living a form of socialism which seemed to be working well. We would start work around 6.00am so that a siesta could be taken in the heat of the day. All meals were served in a communal dining hall, and the children were raised with others of their age in small groups. The children would come back to their parents quarters for a couple of hours in the late afternoon. Parents were free then to spend quality time with their children. Without need to cook, do washing, ironing etc as all these tasks were performed centrally by a kibbutz member those afternoon hours were quality. The children returned to their houses to go to bed around 7.00pm. The parents followed that with their evening meal in the dining hall. That was in the 60s. Later in many kibbutzim the children began living in the same quarters as their parents. The system did allow for more people to be doing productive work under conditions which would have been too difficult for individuals to make a living.
As time went by the children of the members were ready to start their own lives by finishing school then spending the next couple of years in the army. Following that most of the next generation were keen to join friends in the city rather than follow the ideologies of their parents. So started the downward trend of communal living. This month (August) will see the members of Nirim vote on privitisation of the kibbutz. How things have changed! Much has already been taken over by outside companies, for example the dining hall has been run for years now by a private company. The orchard land taken over by plastic hot houses again controlled by an outside company which pays a rental/commision to the kibbutz. Some call this progress others see it as falling back into the system which they so despised in their youth.
In my view it was the success of the 1967 war which gave the Israelis the sense of just how great they are, especially in the cities. This arrogance has appeared to overtake the humanity which was more apparent in the early days. Having said that – if one reads about The Stern Gang, the Irgun and other terrorists of the 1940s, who gained such approval from the citizens it is small wonder that Israelis now have lost much of what they may have had as a people. There appears to be so much of the history of Israel which, when delved into and read about from sources that are not Zionist ones, paints a very different picture.
As the Mossad [Israeli secret police] moved around the world assassinating influential Arabs who were opposed to the existence of Israel the Israeli public appeared to be elated. When the Mossad used passports of English, New Zealanders or other Israeli immigrants, usually with the permission of the holders, it was seen as helping in the forging of the future of Israel. The theft, breaking of international law etc did not seem to be of a concern at all.
The Israelis were led to believe that whatever they did it was important and something to be proud of. Many of the terrorist activities carried out by Israel were passed off as being the responsibility of others. The propoganda machines would swing into full production to keep the public informed of the desired line. Much was published on the justifications for the activities of the government as well as the smaller organisations. Propoganda became an art form. State terrorism a specialty.
When the rest of the world is given such large doses of untruths in such believable form it is easy to understand how little is known of the truth. Most of us do not question what we read or see on tv. There needs to be far more scrutiny of what is put out as news. Maybe now, after the shocking Gaza War and the boarding of the Turkish Flotilla boat and the loss of life as a result, there will be more awareness. International inquiries need to be moved on, and political and economic affiliations made more apparent. Without more political honesty there will be little progress made apart from the actions of groups such as Kia Ora Gaza and Viva Palestina. Lets hope there is much support for those with the courage to take a stand!!
What perhaps more than anything has made the situation worse for all is that Israel has become home to a large number of people who do not need the security of a home – they have one in the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia and other countries. Israel started out as a refuge for those who had nowhere to go after World War two, when no country was prepared to take them. Unfortunately I did not consider this back in the 60s.
What is the solution to all this mess? I really do not know.