Opinion

In my childhood kibbutz, I reflect on the absence of Palestinians

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This is the first of several posts based on journal entries from the author’s recent family visit to Israel-Palestine.

Birthday in Zion

It’s my birthday (April 14). I am travelling today with family, for a week of family visit and holiday in Israel. I’m going back to the place where I was born 47 years ago – specifically, kibbutz Givat Haim Ichud.

This photo is from the airport, saying “parliament shapes Israeli society”. Indeed – and vice versa, and what an outstandingly sad reality. No further statement.

Placard at the Israeli airport celebrating the parliament.

Most of my family lives on the kibbutz. This is a photo of the kindergarten I went to, “Gan Dekel”. It didn’t have that fence at the time. Reminded me of Yoni Rechter’s old song in Hebrew, “It’s not so pleasant to see a closed kindergarten”.

Jonathan Ofir in kibbutz kindergarten. April 2019.

At the time, we were sleeping collectively in those kindergartens. Actually, also in the nursery, from when we were only few months old. It was that socialist society of labor Zionism, where the parents had to get max work time. By the time I was 9, the system changed here, and young children slept at home and only slept collectively at high school age.

The third photo is of the tiny hut, where there were two night guard parents on rota, who had speakers connected to the three kindergartens and about 10 nurseries (over 100 children), who could hear if a child was crying – so they went over, pacified them and came back.

I have few memories from the time. One of them is joining my mom who was on rota for a short while. There was this ritual of making French fries late in the night, and I remember that – I was probably 5. I hardly remember any of the rest – that experience was somehow remarkable.

The guardhouse where rota duty was performed.

Kibbutz society is not that big a portion of Israeli society – it’s always been about 5%. But it was a decisively influential society within the Labor Zionist movement which led Israel for its first three decades. David Ben-Gurion was a kibbutznik, kibbutzim represented the Zionist settlement (many built atop Palestinian ruins and lands, as Moshe Dayan, also a kibbutznik, pointed out). And the kibbutz Zionist ethos was generally very militant. Kibbutzniks historically featured at double their societal ratio in combat units, as well as in combat deaths. My uncle died in the 1973 October war in the occupied Egyptian Sinai peninsula. He was one of eight of the kibbutz men who died in that war, out of about 180 who were called up to fight.

This is the societal background which I was born into, and which I come from. Although it has formed me with its own thrust, reflections upon it have also formed me, often through the negation of certain aspects I was brought up with.

One aspect was rather completely and utterly absent from my awareness in my childhood – one that is still a major aspect of Israeli denial in general – Palestinians. It was only in much later life that I began to build an awareness about this, and about how central this denial is to the continuance of Israeli settler-colonialism (where the latter, too, is subject to mass societal denial).

This is where I began to reflect upon how I was brought up, and where I came to look upon everything I had experienced earlier in a new light.

 

Qaqun and the cacti

I was passing with my family near the ethnically cleansed and demolished Palestinian town of Qaqun. The cacti in that area show very clear markings of the town’s perimeters. I pointed them out to my children – “look at the cacti – that is marking the borders of Qaqun”…

Before I could conclude my explanation, a person who was with us was saying, “Yes, tell them about ‘Sabras'” (a term Israelis use to describe Jewish Israelis who were born in Palestine). I did not give in to the disruption, and went on: “This is one of the hundreds of Palestinian villages that were destroyed in 1948, but their cacti remained”.

Then the person added: “What I wanted you to tell, was about the ‘Sabras'”. And the explanation went: “We who were born in Israel are called ‘Sabras’, like the cacti, because we have thorns on the outside but are soft and sweet on the inside” (these cacti have sweet fruits).

I mentioned that these cacti are actually not indigenous to Palestine, and came here around the 16th century from South America.

Everything I said seemed to be dismaying to the person.

But you see, it’s all ironic. The ‘Sabras’ notion is supposed to mark a sense of being ‘indigenous’. Yet the Hebew ‘Tzabar’ (phonetically) is actually a cultural appropriation of the Arabic Sabr, the name Palestinians applied to these plants. Such was the case with so many “Hebraicizations” of the names of Palestinian villages, as part of the colonialist erasure of Palestine, as former Defense Minister Moshe Dayan also noted:

You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist, not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis; and Kefar Yehushu’a in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not one single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.

And beyond that, the Sabr is not even indigenous to Palestine. But that doesn’t really matter, because Palestinians used it, and Zionists used the name they gave it and its notion to rewrite history, robbing the Palestinians of their indigenous belonging, and marking the ‘new Jew’ (the Zionist colonialist) as a deeply rooted indigenous person who has ‘returned’ and planted new roots in Eretz Israel, supposedly connected to time immemorial.

(Eitan Bronstein Aparicio and Eléonore Marza Bronstein have written about Qaqun in their book Nakba in Hebrew (now in Hebrew and French, hopefully soon in English).

 

Lifta – a story of dispossession and denial

Today, as part of a visit to Jerusalem with the family, we decided to stop and visit Lifta – the ethnically cleansed (1948) Palestinian town, located on the hills at the Western outskirts of Jerusalem – al-Quds.

This is the first time I have actually visited Lifta, although I have surveyed it closely by 360-degree photography. I would have wanted to visit there with descendants of its residents – but for Palestinians, it is often a question and a fear of whether they would be let through by Israel at the border, even with a foreign passport. So I felt as if I was, in some mystical way, visiting for and with these people.

You have to understand how strange it is to even get to this place. GoogleMaps knows the location – but you can’t get there directly with a road as such. The highway doesn’t provide a stop, you need to turn to another highway, drive past the village location, do a u-turn back, enter a side road with a tiny inconspicuous sign saying Lifta, stop on a narrow unpaved road that has no actual parking, and go down paths to reach the village.

When you do this, you get the distinct sense that Israel has no interest in this place being visited.

But this place is gorgeous, and it’s hidden just under the main highway. See the photos of how the many remaining houses blend with the hills, and see the spring with the pool – where a group of Arabic speaking young visitors were also bathing.

This place casts a spell. And you can imagine why and how these people and their descendants want to return there. I walked about reconstructing the past of this wondrous village in my mind, before it came to its abrupt end in 1948.

And enlightened colonists the like of Amos Oz lecture me about the ‘illness’ of ‘reconstritis’ (see reference here). In one of his last lectures before his death last year, Oz described how he had engaged with a Palestinian scholar in France, a descendant of refugees from Lifta. Oz recalls:

You are ill, I told the man. And I also diagnosed the illness. Those who have medical or paramedical education, take out the notebook and write: You are ill with Reconstritis. You are seeking in space, what you have lost in time.

Oz does not condemn the man for longing or missing Lifta. His suggestion is simply to write a book:

If you miss Lifta so much, write a book. Make a film. Write a play. Write up a research. Seek what you have lost in time, not in space… You miss your childhood? That’s OK, but if you start behaving like a 5-year old child [Oz is literally shouting here] because of your childhood longings, you need to be hospitalized!

But Oz understood very little, really. What I saw today in Lifta meant more than anything I have seen in modern Israel – no chauvinist colonialist architecture can beat this. And it is beyond the stones and the houses. I could hear the goat bells, I could hear the spring, like the Palestinian scholar that Amos Oz was talking to, and deriding for being ‘ill’. And Oz warned the scholar that if all the people returned, there would be a huge traffic jam and parking lots ruining the scene. How pathetic.

I tell you, if Lifta truly served a Zionist interest (rather than being a reminder of crimes), you can bet there would be a nice parking lot at the top, a nice paved road with access from the highway, nice big signs and all the rest of it. But Lifta is something Zionists want to forget, and they want Palestinians to forget it too.

 

 

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I mentioned that these cacti are actually not indigenous to Palestine, and came here around the 16th century from South America. Everything I said seemed to be dismaying to the person. But you see, it’s all ironic. The ‘Sabras’ notion is supposed to mark a sense of being ‘indigenous’. ah… Read more »

Jonathan – One goes down on foot to Lifta simply because (as you saw for yourself) the village was built on a very, very steep slope. There is no way that a road (for cars) could be made, and therefore there really isn’t much of a reason for there to… Read more »

“I was passing with my family near the ethnically cleansed and demolished Palestinian town of Qaqun. ” Wasn’t Qaqun a headquarters of the Iraqi army in 1948? Weren’t Qaqun’s defenders, both Iraqi soldiers and local militiamen, routed in a pitched battle with the Jewish army? And in 1947, wasn’t Lifta… Read more »

@Nathan and Jackdaw. For your enjoyment: Just a small slice of the reality of Zionism and its adherent’s endless horrors perpetrated against indigenous Palestinian boys: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-israel-jails-hundreds-of-palestinian-boys-a-year-1.7021978 “‘Endless Trip to Hell’: Israel Jails Hundreds of Palestinian Boys a Year. These Are Their Testimonies” “They’re seized in the dead of night, blindfolded… Read more »