At last! I have finally made it – my ‘personal’ journey! A journey which has taken over 50 years to achieve.
So, why a personal journey? It began when I was 15. I had just discovered Leon Uris’s’ book ‘Exodus and became intrigued by the stories of Jewish refugees escaping from Eastern Europe. Firstly to Cyprus where they were placed in camps, before being carried by rusting old ships and enduring the hazardous crossings of the Med, before landing on the beaches of Haifa, where they hoped to avoid capture, detention and repatriation by the British Army. If they were lucky, they then undertook dangerous and secret journeys, some to Jerusalem and many to their chosen destinations on various Kibbutzim. For the early refugees this destination may have been just about anywhere they could safely settle and stay put.
But for me, I wanted to go to live on a Kibbutz. Especially one of the front line ones. I was a normal naïve, starry eyed girl of the 1950s, just leaving school and falling in love with Sol Mineo, who played the part of a freedom fighter when the book Exodus was turned into a film. I wanted with all my heart to be fighting side by side with him, protecting the children of the Kibbutz and saving the orange trees from the nightly attacks made by the Arabs. Oh, how I wanted to be there, but being the only child of a domineering working class mother and living in the industrial midlands of England, of course I didn’t stand a chance because the answer was NO.
Before I go any further, I had better explain what a Kibbutz (or in the plural Kibbutzim) is all about. They were founded years ago for the equality of all its members and the provision of their basic needs alongside fighting for a homeland. Rather like a cooperative farm. I think that basic premise is still there but I feel they are far more of a capitalist nature now, providing much to the Israeli economy.
I have felt Jewish for a long time and have worn a Star of David necklace for years as I feel it keeps me safe. Where this feeling comes from I have no idea. I have traced my Family Tree back to 1755 but have found no evidence to support this idea.
So, when the chance came the other week to visit Israel, I took it.
Arriving and staying in Tel Aviv it disappointed me, though I love the old, original part known as Jaffa. Tel Aviv, I felt, didn’t match my expectations, but with hindsight my expectations were wrong. I assumed it would be a high-flying New York type of place, but what I got turned out to be better. Down town Tel Aviv is a comfy mixture of many races, cultures, languages and crumbly buildings. Over the week we were there we covered over 1000 miles, seeing everything we had on the list – my partner had been in Israel 20 years ago – so therefore we had different agendas. Early in the morning of our first full day there we discovered on TV a documentary about the city of Caesarea, about 60 minutes drive north. This is where King Herod had built a huge port – the basic design of which is still used in port building today and bearing in mind that King Herod was around at the time of the birth of Jesus, then this is no mean feat. Another of his vast achievements is Masada. This is so breathtaking that it is hard to describe. Nowadays it is a ruined fortress, under archaeological discovery, and the scale of what it once was is unbelievable. The plateau of Masada is located on the eastern fringe of the Jordan Desert near the shore of the Dead Sea. It is a mountain bloc and its plateau is some 450 metres above the level of the Dead Sea. It is approximately 650 meters long and 300 metres wide and today there are only two ways to the top i.e. via cable car or walking. A four hour trek. Originally built as a very palatial fortress, its camps, fortifications and assault ramps constitute the most complete surviving ancient Roman siege system in the world. It was last bastion of Jewish freedom fighters against Roman occupation when 960 people decided to commit mass suicide rather be taken as slaves by the Romans. From this magnificent place we made our way down to the shores of the Dead Sea. This place just took me over, making me totally forget that I wanted to float in the sea! I can die happy having gazed over the Dead Sea towards Jordan. It is a view to make one cry (and it did!) The whole area is so quiet, beautiful……and in May, VERY HOT.
Jerusalem – a city within a city – old within the new. It surprised me by seeming to be built on one or two hills, which is how it looks from the approach road. Another city of preformed images. A souk in the old city? Armenians, Palestinians Arabs, Israelis doing business with and next to each other? A situation I was not expecting and very confusing, made even more so on coming across part of the wall known as the West Bank area.
The Golan Heights were another confusing area as I now can’t think of them as ‘heights’ at all. What I was expecting was to be driving along a long road with a high range of hills to the left. Yes, we had to drive upwards and inland from the Sea of Galilee, but I never thought of being in ‘heights’, what I did find was a big rather flat valley heading towards Syria. It is an area of mine fields and Kibbutzim, very quiet with many shrines to fallen soldiers. It is here that I saw my first Kibbutz. At first I couldn’t put that name to them as they looked very well established – and to be quite honest, rather dull, large farms. They are still worked, the people are still armed and the threat of invasion could still be imagines, especially driving back down to Tiberius, following the wire border fence between Israel and Jordan. At this northern part of Israel there is Syria at the top and Jordan to the eastern side.
Also on my agenda was the Gaza Strip. A high long wall in places, tanks in others (where we were followed at one point – which lead to one of our passports being taken off us and checked at security at Tel Aviv airport on departure). Very fortified and quite horrendous when you take a minute to actually contemplate its purpose.
So, did I find my Nirvana? Oh, yes. Yad Mordechi is its name, quite near the Gaza Strip and a Kibbutz where I could have easily gone to. Albeit it was a very dangerous place to be as it sustained an attack by the Egyptian Army at one point. The Kibbutz was vastly outnumbered, defended by only 150 men and 55 women who held out for 6 days before retreating and losing half its fighting force. However this action prevented a full blown Egyptian attack on Tel Aviv. Yad Mordechi today is still one of the frontline Kibbutzim and only recently has been on the receiving end of a rocket attack. Having said all that, it has a lovely atmosphere and is a thriving area of honey production.
Writing this on my return, what are my feelings? I went on this journey with thoughts dating back to then I was 15, emotions emanating of many years as a ‘freedom fighter’ myself and information, usually biased, fed to me by the many forms of media. And I found a country of vast interest, a visit which left me wanting to know more and in a state of confusion. I struck up a conversation with an Israeli woman, the wife of a retired Army Colonel, who asked me what I wanted to see. When I told her I had been an Army wife myself and wanted to see the soldiers, she laughed and said “The world outside of Israel must think we have a civil war on our streets 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and we don’t”.
Did I see heavily armed combat soldiers? No, armed soldiers are at check points, gates in Jerusalem and in cafes having coffee with the guns on their laps. Did I find a Kibbutz life of long legged girls and Sol Mineo look alikes? No, but I am a lot older. Do I wish I had rebelled at the age of 15? You bet your life I do, so never put things off. Would I do it now? No, but I have found my own way of freedom fighting. Has it left me wanting to go back? Thought the answer would be no, it hasn’t left me with a feeling of an itch to be scratched. BUT it has!
After reading all this I must say to you that this has been a very personal journey and the views are all my own. I am by nature a very political animal and I have tried to leave both political and religious thoughts on one side. So, do I feel Jewish in Israel? No, but I do in Poland and Hungary.