Friday, 20 November 2015

Holy Land: Secular Pilgrimage: Part IX: Reminders of Troubled Times

world-map israel


It seems strange to think that Paris, the city that I visited for the first time only a few months ago, then reeling from the Charlie Hebdo attacks, has now been hit again by a wave of terrorist killings. These things one cannot imagine unless one is there.


But it is equally important to remember all the other places where people have been killed by similar attacks in the last few weeks: Mali, Lebanon… the list goes on. If travel teaches you one thing, it is that those unfamiliar, very alien places that don’t hit the headlines so much are just as real and that the people who live there are just as human as you are.

Which is why I ask you to pray for them all.

And why I ask our political leaders not to jump into anything rash without considering it properly first.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt


Flickr album of this trip

Flickr album of my 1997 trip

Links to other parts of the travelogue:

Sacred Pilgrimage

Part 1: Tel Aviv

Part 2: Ash Wednesday in Jerusalem

Part 3: Bethlehem with a Baby

Part 4: Exploring the Old City

Part 5: Hebron

Part 6: The Armenian Quarter

Part 7: Up the Mount of Olives

Part 8: Further explorations of Jerusalem

Part 9: The Lord’s Day

Secular Pilgrimage

Part 1: A Bus to Beersheva

Part 2: An Introduction to Kibbutz Living

Part 3: A Pioneering Vision

Part 4: The Silence of the Desert

Part 5: Living for the Moment

Part 6: Tearing down the Wall!

Part 7: Beautiful (?) Beersheva

Part 8: The Volunteers

Part 9: Reminders of Troubled Times

Part 10: The Chicken Kings

Part 11: Two Tombs


We went with Sara and Yankalei to the old kibbutz, Mitzpe Revivim, Tom and Thao travelling in the golf cart with Sara whilst Yankalei and I walked behind. The old kibbutz is a fortified enclosure just to the south of present-day Revivim. This was the place that the original settlers in 1943 had built and moved into, and this was the place that had played such a crucial role in Israel’s survival and birth as a state. David ben Gurion, the Zionist leader and later the first prime minister of Israel, a committed socialist and kibbutznik himself, was convinced that the Negev was vital to the future of Israel as a viable state as it provided space in which newcomers could be settled. In the 1920s, the region was largely empty, with no towns or villages to speak of south of Beersheva, only the encampments of the Bedouin. Ben Gurion encouraged settlements like Revivim that developed the desert as they were a clear and concrete demonstration of the progressive qualities of the Jews who were, in essence, getting something out of nothing. To the UN he argued, “Look, the Arabs are doing nothing with this region whilst we are developing it for the good of mankind!” and the UN listened. When they published their Partition Plan in 1947, the Negev was included within the borders of the proposed Jewish state solely because of the kibbutzim and other Jewish settlements established there. It was what Ben Gurion wanted as it was essential to his dream. He foresaw Israel as the country in which the wide Diaspora of Jews from around the globe could be collected together, but all those millions would need housing in new cities and towns. Unlike the Settlers of today however, he did not see the answer to that problem in trying to turn Palestinian Arab towns into Jewish ones; instead he believed that the Arabs could stay where they were – both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank were include within the proposed Arab state anyhow – and the Jews would populate the wilderness, the vast expanses of the Negev instead.

Unfortunately though for the Jews, whilst they accepted the UN Partition Plan, the Arabs rejected it outright and on the 15th May, 1948, the day before the British left Palestine, the War of Independence broke out, a war that had huge connotations for Revivim, situated as it was in the heartlands of the Bedouin and directly in the firing line of Israel’s mightiest foe, the Egyptian Army. The very existence of the settlement was in peril as is described here by Gilbert:

That December [1947], kibbutz Revivim, 12 miles south of Beersheba, was surrounded by armed Bedouin and could make no contact except by radio with the outside world. There was a call within the Haganah for the settlement to be evacuated and for other isolated settlements in the Negev likewise to be abandoned, as the ability to defend them did not exist. Ben-Gurion decided, however, that no attempt would be made to ‘shorten lines’ in the Negev by evacuating the more distant settlements. For him the Negev was an integral part of Jewish Palestine, and the centre of future settlement and growth. Not one isolated settlement would be abandoned. Every settlement would have to make plans for its own defence, and if necessary to withstand a siege.

The Negev settlements would not be left entirely to their own devices, however. Such weapons as could be spared would be provided. Reinforcements would be sent when they were available. A special Palmach brigade was formed to keep the Negev roads open, and the first armoured cars produced locally by a newly established Haganah Armour Service were sent to the Negev to protect the water pipelines on which the settlements depended. But Revivim, the most southerly settlement, lay beyond the reach of even the special Palmach brigade. It had to hold out unaided.’[1]

The siege was not a short one, but from the Egyptian point-of-view, it was not a successful one either. Against all the odds, the settlement was never taken:

In December [1948], the isolated kibbutz of Revivim, 15 miles south of Beersheba, which had held out, first against Bedouin forces and then against the Egyptian army for a whole year, was liberated. It had to be entirely rebuilt.’[2]

Wandering around the precincts of the fortified kibbutz – rebuilt from the one that the Egyptians had reduced to rubble with their tanks – that had defied the Arabs for a full year with one of the survivors of that siege was a powerful experience. This was not the pioneering kibbutz spirit of growing oranges on irrigated land and comrades dancing the horo round a campfire at night; this was war, backs against the wall, embattled guerrillas fighting a far superior enemy with certain death their reward if they failed. On top of the bluff was the fortified compound, around it barbed wire and tank traps, whilst underneath, in a cave inhabited in Byzantine times, a field hospital. “This is like Vietnam,” said Thao, whose youth had been spent being dragged round memorials celebrating the Viet Cong resistance to the Americans and French, and she was right. The atmosphere, setting and smells were the same. They were those of desperation and hardship. They were a world away from the peaceful, lush confines of present-day Revivim.

1928273_147053465304_7179127_nMitzpe Revivim

Of course, 1948 was not the only time that war – and even annihilation – threatened Revivim in particular and Israel in general. Dotted around the leafy confines of the settlement are underground bomb shelters that point to darker days. The one near to Beverly Hills was open and on occasions we sat in it for fun. We were not the most notable people to have prepared for war on the kibbutz though, for on the eve of the 1967 War, Golda Meir, later to become prime minister of Israel was on Revivim, visiting her sister. The words in her diary record the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty that lingered in the air:

I went to Revivim one day to see Sarah and the children. I watched the kibbutz that I had known from its first day calmly prepare itself for the Arab onslaught that might turn it into rubble, and I met with some of Sarah’s friends – at their request – to talk about what might happen. But what they really wanted to know was when the waiting would end, and that was a question I couldn’t answer. So the clock ticked on, and we waited and waited.”[3]

She did not however, repeat the visit prior to the 1972 Yom Kippur War when she was prime minister although she wanted to. The danger then was equally great and Moshe Dayan, her Chief of Staff forbade her to come with the explanation: “If there is a war, we might not be able to get you back by helicopter.”[4] It is strange to think that the kibbutz I know so well and that is so peaceful and isolated, could easily have been wiped off the face of the earth on more than one occasion and only a few bomb shelters and some words in a diary remain as testimony of this.

david-rubinger-golda-meir-smoking-Golda Meir on Revivim, 1973

Next part: The Chicken Kings

[1] Israel: A History, p.156

[2] Israel: A History, p.242

[3] Israel: A History, p.379

[4] Israel: A History, p.428

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