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Red Rag Column
Red Rag
Gideon Spiro
24 December 2009
(English translation 31 December 2009)

Merchavia stories

Kibbutz Merchavia, in the Jezreel Valley, recently celebrated its 80th anniversary. As one who lived in Marchavia for several years, first as a student at the “Educational Institution” (as secondary schools were called in the Kibbutz Artzi movement) and afterwards for a short time as a kibbutz member, I received an e-mail from the kibbutz in which I was asked to send reminiscences for inclusion in a volume that is soon to be published to mark the anniversary. I responded positively and submitted accounts of three things that had remained in my memory. In reply, the editors of the volume informed me that they would publish my submission if I would omit the critical parts. I refused. I wrote to them that if they were going to constrain me at the outset to write only positive things, I would not write. Memories and their contexts are a personal matter, and it is not desirable to return the days when writings that were not consistent with the party or movement line were suppressed.

I asked Ha-Daf ha-Yaroq to publish what Merchavia had rejected. Ha-Daf ha-Yaroq [“The Green Page”] is the kibbutz movement’s weekly newspaper. In the past it was the weekly supplement of ’Al Ha-Mishmar, the Mapam party’s daily newspaper, for which I had sometimes worked as a journalist. After ’Al Ha-Mishmar shut down in March 1995, Ha-Daf ha-Yaroq passed into the hands of the Maariv publishing house. Its editors and journalists are kibbutz members. The current editor, Orit Prague, a member of Kibbutz Dafna, vacillated, but then she too decided not to publish my reminiscences in the end. I present them to you below.

Merchavia stories – three thoroughly personal reminiscences

1) The graduation insignia and what followed

The Gefen group was part of the Yehiam branch of the Hashomer Hatzair [1] youth movement. To the best of my recollection we were the first group that received our graduation insignia at the end of grade 11. The year was 1953. The discussions within the group before the distribution of the insignia were sometimes heart-rending – each of us was probed deeply. Not everyone could tolerate such inquisitiveness, and some burst into tears. But the moment the discussion about them stopped, those who had cried gleefully participated in the drilling into the souls of those whose turns came next.

As I recall it, the discussion about me was relatively benign and did not involve any tears on my part. Since I was also a group leader and had set up the clubhouse (in Upper Afula – something that with the passage of years became a source of conflict and controversy with Merchavia, but that’s another story), it was clear at the outset that I would receive the insignia, for it was inconceivable that someone who was considered suitable to be a group leader would not receive the graduation insignia.

In addition, one of the conditions for receiving the graduation insignia was a declaration of intent for “fulfillment” [hagshama], a concept that was taken very seriously in those days, the main component of which was a commitment to live on a kibbutz. According to the Movement’s guidelines it was not sufficient to say something amorphous like “I commit myself to ‘fulfillment’”; the members had to indicate with whom they would “fulfill”. Accordingly, for example, Dagi and Hazi, two other “outside children” in our group, announced that they would “fulfill” with the Yehiam Ramat Gan branch, of which they had been members before they arrived at Merchavia.

I requested to be excused from a detailed commitment – for in grade 11 it was too early – and to be permitted to make a general commitment. Before I went to Merchavia I was a member of Yehiam Jerusalem, and I did not want to tie myself to one branch or another at such an early age. The others did not agree. I was told that I had to declare with whom I would “fulfill”. Having no choice, I announced that I would “fulfill” right there at Merchavia.

I received the graduation insignia at a night-time ceremony, when with a Hashomer salute Meir Yaari, the head of the Movement and also a member of Merchavia, handed each of us the insignia. (apparently we had protektzia because of the Movement leader’s family relationship to Loshek, one of our teachers).

In those days the kibbutz movement saw itself as an elite group in Israeli society. Its representation among the decision-makers in the army, in the Knesset, in the government, in the economy was far out of proportion to its tiny demographic share of the population. “Fulfillment” was understood by us then, in 1953, as inauguration into the most lauded and valued segment of Israeli society.

We grew up with the tripartite slogan that appeared every morning on the masthead of the Mapam party newspaper ’Al Ha-Mishmar (may its soul rest in Paradise): “Zionism, Socialism and the Brotherhood of Peoples”. (later I was a correspondent for ’Al Ha-Mishmar in the USA and after that a columnist) Fifty-five years have passed since then, and in retrospect, that slogan looks like a groundless pretension.

Socialism and the Brotherhood of Peoples were there just for rhetorical effect. Zionism and the army – those were the important elements. No Arab could be accepted as a kibbutz member, not then and not today.

Kibbutzim of the Kibbutz Artzi movement were partners in the plunder of the lands of Palestinians who had been expelled from their lands (at Kibbutz Bar-Am and others). Mapam participated in all the governments headed by Mapai (which later became Labour, then the Alignment), which deepened the Occupation, and as the ruling party played a role in the criminal enterprise of building settlements. The principle of equality was shattered and after privatization the kibbutzim became a capitalist society in every sense, in which the weak were left behind.

Those who “fulfilled” definitely did not help to create an exemplary society in Israel; on the contrary: they helped to convert Israel into a violent, conquering, plundering, oppressive and racist society that rules over another people and denies them their basic human rights. Those who remained in Merchavia are proud of their sons who rose to high ranks in the Occupation army. People like me, who did not “fulfill” as requested by the Movement, definitely fulfilled a lot more socialism and brotherhood of peoples, through our participation in the struggle against the Occupation, racism and oppression, and our support for Occupation-refusers [2] in the framework of the struggle for democracy and equality on both sides of the Green Line.

*** *** ***

2) The flocks and the vegetable garden

Every month my parents paid a very substantial sum throughout all the years I studied at the “Educational Institution” of Kibbutz Merchavia, and I assume the parents of the other “outside children” did the same. That fact did not confer upon us a position of full equality with the children of the kibbutz. I do not claim that there was deliberate discrimination – nothing like that, but although it was not stated in explicit and blatant terms, it was clear that the children of the kibbutz were a “master race” in a certain sense, and that the outside children were – how can I put it delicately – second-rank in the social hierarchy.

Among other things, this was manifested in the work details I received, which were thought to be less prestigious, and which no child of the kibbutz would have been willing to do. Accordingly I found myself first tending the flocks and afterwards working in the vegetable garden (or maybe it was the garden first and then the flocks).

In both details the work involved more than a little frustration. Milking the sheep was mortifying. Hard manual work, and the sheep and the goats would shit in the milking buckets.

In the vegetable garden we had to move the irrigation tubes from place to place, and harvesting the vegetables was painful for the back and the knees. The detail supervisor, Tuvia, would transmit instructions to the workers, most of whom were children from the “Institution” or from the Youth Society (who were at the bottom of the social hierarchy), and ensure that everyone carried out their tasks properly.

Despite all that, I did manage to find some moments of satisfaction in those two details.

In the vegetable garden it was necessary to shut off the irrigation system at night. I always volunteered for that task, because it involved driving a tractor. It was a golden opportunity to drive vehicles to which had no access to during regular work hours. Sometimes I would drive the big tractor, I think they called it a “Hanomag”, which was the closest thing to a car that I could drive. I had to overcome my fear of the dark night, for the drive out to the field was in oppressive darkness. There was no light at all at the vegetable garden, which was outside the kibbutz fence. But the drive made up for everything. I loved the driving the Hanomag very much. On the way back, just before the garage, there was a descent and I would put the gear stick into neutral and roll at a speed that was much faster than the tractor’s maximum speed. I would consider it irresponsible if one of my children did that today, but for me then, as a youth who yearned for the steering-wheel and who could not grip one during daylight hours, driving to the vegetable garden at night was a real joy.

Sometimes I would drive to the vegetable garden on the small tractor, which was a rather odd vehicle, orange in colour, its engine in the rear. It moved slowly and the gear stick was under the driver’s seat.

Besides those two there was another tractor, the Ferguson, which I never had the chance to drive, neither day nor night, and to this day I do not know why I never got do to that.

While tending the flocks I loved to go out to the pasture. I would stay there for hours, alone with the sheep, lost in my thoughts. One time I forgot to go back on time and suddenly I saw one of the two work-detail coordinators in front of me (his name eludes me), mounted on a donkey. He worriedly asked if something had happened. Nothing had happened, a young man had merely ascended on the wings of his imagination and forgotten about the sheep for a while.

*** *** ***

3) Who stole my books?

After completing grade 12 and before joining the army, I decided to transfer all the books that I had received for my Bar Mitzvah from my parents’ home in Jerusalem to my room at the kibbutz. I asked the kibbutz carpenter (I don’t recall his name) to build me a cabinet for my books, and he complied with my request. It was quite a large cabinet that easily contained all the books. After I put the books away in the cabinet and locked it, I was confident that my books were reposing in a safe place. On one of my leaves from the army I returned to calamity: the cabinet with my books was gone. I racked my brains to think who in the kibbutz might be interested enough in Bar Mitzvah books to steal them. I came up with no answer then and to this day I still have no idea. If by chance the one who carried out the theft is still in the kibbutz, and if by some miracle he still has the books or knows what happened to them, I would be happy if he would enlighten me and return my property. I promise not to file a complaint with the police. The statute of limitations applies, in any case.

Translator’s notes

1. Hashomer Hatzair – literally, “the Young Guard” – is a left-wing Zionist youth movement, affiliated with Artzi kibbutz movement, the official full name of which is “Ha-Kibbutz Ha-Artzi – Ha-Shomer Ha-Tzair”, and the Mapam party.

2. Israeli youths who refuse to serve in the Israeli armed forces because of its role in perpetuating Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Translated from Hebrew for Occupation Magazine by George Malent.

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