Saturday, July 21, 2007

1982 Israel, Kibbutz Grofit Volunteer

At Heathrow, Israeli customs, suspicious of Leah's olive-green parka, enquired where Leah got it. "I bought it in Earls Court," said Leah. Customs looked skeptical, while issuing our boarding- passes for our 1982 passage from south-east England to south-east Israel. Leah had bought an Israeli army-parka.

At Ben Gurion Airport, Pom Jacob, another kibbutz volunteer asked, "What trees are those?"

"Palms," I said. Jacob had never seen palms before.

Bussing through the Negev, we stopped at a Beersheva cafe, where Moshe our Grofit kibbutz supervisor bought us our first falafels...

At dawn on Eilat Road, Grofit cow-dung smells greeted us. Moshe, Israel born Sabra, showed us our Grofit barracks: "Fourr men perr rroom, fourr women perr rroom," said Moshe. "Boarrd an' lodgeeng frree. Eef you worrk harrd, we'll all geddon." Some volunteers were graduate Poms, who couldn't find jobs in Britain. Others had resigned from jobs, and like us were on a working holiday to play Labourer parts. Moshe issued us navy-blue shirts and longs and brown work -boots, then introduced us to other volunteers: Poms, Germans, Kiwis, Aussies, Canadians, young Yanks - doing maturing kibbutz work. Volunteers were accepted till age 32. Aged 30, I was an older volunteer. Most kibbutzniks were older. Friendliest volunteers were Jacob, Kiwi girls and Pom girls.

Grofit kibbutz was a Marxist collective farm, needing cheap-labour volunteers from capitalist countries to do peasant labouring. Some volunteers stayed for years, enjoying Grofit. Kibbutzim didn't encourage personal wealth. If kibbutzniks liked you, they asked you to join Grofit permanently, but you had to share your wealth with kibbutzniks, like an African extended family. Some Grofit business profits were returned to Grofit businesses, the rest was used to buy goods and services for everyone. Local Arabs worked at Grofit as artisans or builder-labourers, but disappeared at dusk. Arabs weren't kibbutzniks, despite being born in Israel. There was too much spilt blood and hatred between Palestinian Arabs and Israelis in splintered Israel.

Grofit mesa was in the Aravah Valley, part of the Syrian-African Rift Valley: Eastwards lurked a Jordanian police-outpost, below a steep valley-wall. Westwards stood a steep Negev valley-wall. No trees, no grass, just stones and sand. North-eastwards grew date-palm groves, onion fields and casaurina windbreaks. Fields were surrounded by rocks and sand.

Sabras like Moshe bloomed the desert at outcast Arabs' expense, after forcing Palestinians into exile during the 1948 war. Bloody sunsets rivalled African sunsets. Aravah saw middle-eastern and European conquerors come and go. Moshe's joke: "Only meestake my ancestorr Moses made weeth the cheeldren orf Eesrrael, afterr forrty yearrs orf Sinai wanderreengs, was Moses went norrth to Canaan, eenstead orf east to futurre Saudee Arrabeean oilfields."

After the 1948, 1967 and 70s wars, kibbutzniks feared Arab attacks, so had dug permanent trenches around Grofit mesa. Concrete bunkers were buried amongst kibbutz buildings. We heard rumours of Israelis invading Lebanon, which happened in June after we'd left, and Israeli soldiers allowed others to kill Palestinian refugees in Sabra -Shatila camps, and would occupy Lebanon for 18 years.

Jet-fighters rumbling above sometimes rattled Grofit windows. Volunteer barracks were closest to the road entrance. Israeli soldiers were billeted in barracks behind ours, so we volunteers were human -shields for deceitful Israeli soldiers. Further away, permanent kibbutzniks lived in houses and flats. A new kindergarten was built, so teachers could nurture infants during the day while mothers worked. Leah said to Moshe: "Mark and I are married. The London kibbutz agent assured us that married couples were welcome in Grofit. Why're we staying in separate rooms?"

"Eet's a prrob-e-lem," shrugged Moshe, lifting his palms heavenwards, curving his lips hellwards. "I'll orrganize a flat forr you." As the flat never happened, and as Moshe was an arrogant, hands-behind-head, feet-on-desk, while-ordering-you-kibbutznik, we squatted in an army barrack room. Friendly girl soldiers didn't mind. On night-shifts, it was rumoured they spied on Jordan from a radar and radio-listening bunker.

Volunteer work began at 06:30, breakfast at 09:00. We ate in a common dining-room, and did rostered work in a big kitchen. The dining-room was also a weekly movie-room. After dinners, we socialized with kibbutzniks in their maodon - lounge. Work-shy Jacob slacked in bed in the mornings, and played soccer in the afternoons, annoying war-veteran Moshe who said, "You must leave eef yourr poorr worrk habeets perrseest!" Jacob pulled finger. We earned a weekly shekel-sheet, which we redeemed at the kibbutz store for groceries. We worked a six day week, including Sundays, relaxing on Shabbat - Saturdays. Sometimes we stole Shabbat-wine to booze at parties.

Some volunteers came for sex drugs an' rock 'n roll. Jacob wore a "Ganga is Good" T shirt, and was anxious that Israelis might catch him smoking pot, but Israelis ignored or mocked Jacob. One night at a disco in our bunker, while I chatted to Jacob, he slid along a wall, falling against me. If I hadn't caught him he would've hit the floor. We carried him to his room and put him to bed.

David Eidelman, Jewish expat dentist from Durban, befriended us. He lived in Tel Aviv, flatting in Grofit when his dentistry was needed. He enjoyed the Negev and young people. "Why're kibbutzniks so surly?" I asked. "Shalom - shalom - bokertov - erevtov - toda roba... Hello - goodbye - good morning - good evening - thank you, is all I get from them. Moshe's Alsation dog fetching thrown stones is higher on kibbutzniks social-scale than volunteers."

"Volunteers come and go," David said. "Kibbutzniks don't commit to you until you've earned their respect by working hard."

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