No institution has so embodied the Zionist ideal of return to the land as the kibbutz, with its collectivist aspiration of turning the People of the Book into a nation of farmers. Here, with hoe in hand rather than bent over a ledger, would arise the new-model Jew, burnished under the testing gaze of the sun.
The first kibbutz, Degania Aleph, was founded in 1910 — a year before AD Gordon wrote of Jews having been “cut off from nature and imprisoned within city walls for 2,000 years” and in need of the redemptive power of labour which binds a people “to its soil and national culture”.
In the summer of 1976, I joined the stream of volunteers leaving the chicken-soup suburbs to sample this new Jewish reality. It was the end of my first university year, and, together with a college friend, I set off in the long holiday for my first trip to Israel, which was to include a month-long ulpan in a left-wing kibbutz in the Jordan Valley. If the kibbutz represented a break with the diaspora past, I did not realise how radically so until the end of the introductory tour, when I asked “Where’s the synagogue?” to be told there wasn’t one. The shackles of old-world religion had been cast off. Far more important than any synagogue was the laundry room, where we were handed our uniform blue shirts and shorts for work in our entrée to practical egalitarianism. Starting at five, we were to work for four hours in the morning and learn Ivrit in the afternoons.
In the brain-sapping humidity, we plucked grapefruit or lugged stones to clear the foundations of a new garden. Or we picked olives with Bernard, an affable Frenchman who had hitched across Europe with his girlfriend and whose good humour seemed related to the hashish flowing across the Lebanese border. He seemed at home in the branches, popping the hard little fruit into a pouch strapped to his front, like some sort of stoned marsupial. The couple of dozen volunteers were a small and motley crew. The Americas had names like Zip, sported Afros and played guitar. They also showed an unusual disposition to vegetarianism — a way, I suspected, of getting out of duty in the chicken shed. Which was understandable if you entered it.
The shed was a kind of de-compassion chamber where you quickly lost your more humane instincts in the struggle to scoop the luckless birds by the legs from behind and deposit them in cages for the abattoir. After the nocturnal raid, we soothed our senses with cool root-beer. One young American woman had been explicitly sent by her parents to find a husband — she showed us the letter — when a psychotherapist would have been a better option. She latched on to a genteel Cambridge lawyer and threatened to do herself harm if he did not respond to her advances, until we whisked him to Sinai and safety. Our labours not only provided for our upkeep, but earned us packs of cigarettes at the end of each week, the number dependent on which make you chose: three Gauloise, or ten of some untipped, unsmokable Israeli brand which was like taking a flame-thrower to your lungs.
The Israelis did not readily mix with us, although occasionally a younger kibbutznik came to sit at our a table in the cheder ochel (dining-room). Just three years earlier, they had been fighting for their country’s life in the Yom Kippur War. I remember one recalling how in the battle against the Syrians in the Golan a bullet had passed through him and killed the soldier behind. It was a reminder of the inseparable gulf of experience between us: they were men and we were boys.
Very soon I joined the vegetarians, though not out of any sudden moral awakening: my naivete had been exposed once again when I learned that the meat served was not kosher. But by way of compensation, I acquired a taste for olives, which I had never liked. Since these are one of the seven species of produce associated with the biblical Land of Israel, it was the closest that I got to a religious experience.
Fairly soon I realised I was not cut out to follow in the footsteps of the pioneers. I had had my fill of communal living at boarding-school, and kibbutz seemed too much like an agricultural version of it. Besides, the start of the ulpan had been delayed and we were growing impatient. The prospect of hitching through the desert down to the coastal oases of Sinai — still then in Israeli hands — proved too alluring. After two weeks, we said our farewells and hit the open road, our heads full of Kerouac rather than AD Gordon.