Since the 1960s, some 400,000 people from across the world have volunteered at kibbutzim. I suspect that, like me, the vast majority are not Jewish, and probably had little or no prior connection to the country. My first visit, in 1978, was initiated by my cousin, who at the last moment decided to go to university instead, leaving me to find Tel Aviv on my own. I’d just turned 18, and been on a few Air Cadet summer camps but never anything like this.
At the kibbutz office in Soutine Street, Tel Aviv, a rakishly thin woman in her forties with long black hair and deeply tanned, leathery skin showed me a map of Israel and pointed to the far north, and the border with Lebanon. “Dafna, that’s a nice kibbutz,” she said. Who was I to argue?
The 841 Egged bus from the chaotic Tel Aviv Central Bus Station took me to Kiryat Shmona in Northern Galilee, and then a local bus to the kibbutz gates.
When I saw my spartan room, 15 square feet and already occupied by two lads from Birmingham and one from West Yorkshire, I seriously questioned my sanity.
Worse was to come; the next night I began work at 10pm in a bleak factory pulling plastic boots from red-hot moulds, and didn’t finish until 4am.
I’d never worked a night shift before and was absolutely shattered. My only previous job was a paper round. And even though I sometimes had a Sunday shift in the unforgiving hills of Sheffield, compared to this, it wasn’t hard work.
Far too incompetent for the factory, I soon became an expert at working the huge dishwashing machine in the communal dining room. And there I remained for the best part of the next six months.
Our group of some 50 volunteers, all a similar age and from many different countries, used any excuse to party. Friendships formed quickly, and nobody cared about anyone’s background, or what they may have had, or been, in the outside world.
I learned a few Hebrew words, and at Dafna, in December 1978, one of the most oft-heard was miklat, which means shelter. I didn’t hear the siren while operating the huge dishwasher one lunchtime. And when I turned the machine off, I found a silent dining room with hundreds of abandoned meals. Then, I discovered the shelter at the back of the dining hall, fully occupied.
Next time, I didn’t miss the miklat. Katyusha rockets landed all around us and in Kiryat Shmona, fired indiscriminately into residential areas from somewhere over the border.
A few days later, armoured vehicles trundled past the kibbutz, heading north in response. It was a wake-up call to another side of life in the Jewish state.
On a happier day, we enjoyed a kibbutz trip to Sinai, as far south as Dahab. A few days later the kibbutz pool opened, and in May we saw Elton John in Tel Aviv, just before I flew home.
Little more than a year later, I was back at the kibbutz office on Soutine Street. Somewhere warmer this time, I said, maybe further south, near the sea, and away from the PLO and their rockets. How about Kibbutz Be’eri, said the man in the office.
I’d left Heathrow in the greyest, dampest November, to find the Negev still hot and sunny. At Be’eri I picked oranges, lemons, and grapefruit from 4am, and mostly finished five or six hours later. It was one crate of lemons on a lemon day, two of oranges on orange days and four grapefruit on grapefruit days. “Fill the crates and we go home,” our kibbutznik managers Hezzie and Jacko would say. No factory work. Little wonder orchard means paradise in Hebrew. Gaza and the sea, just a few miles away, looked tempting. On Saturdays a small group of us made regular visits there via a hole in the chain-link fence, (the security seemed hopeless) walking through Gaza City to the sea. We’d drink Turkish coffee in a ramshackle seafront bar, the proprietor telling us in his broken English of better days in the past and of better still, he hoped to come.
We’d swim in the sea and stay all day, and then take a sherut taxi back to Be’eri. We bought Farid cigarettes, and even used Gazan banks.
In the city, little kids would sometimes throw stones at us, which at the time I didn’t understand.
I left Israel in May 1981, but returned to Be’eri three months later for another six months. After this, I travelled to Australia and New Zealand, finally returning to the UK in 1983.
But in October 1984, I took a month off work and flew back to Israel. I just turned up at Be’eri and was welcomed without any questions. Jacko put me to work on the dishwasher to earn my keep. Since then I have taken my parents to Kibbutz Be’eri for a brief holiday and in 2013, I took my son to Kibbutz Dafna. He was roughly the age I had been in 1978.
Since October 7, I have been waking up frequently in the night, startled and desperately sad. I think of the tranquil afternoons and warm evenings spent in Kibbutz Be’eri, of its meandering paths and neatly cut lawns, of my afternoon naps on the grass before a stroll to the kibbutz office to check for post, of the smiling faces of the kibbutzniks and volunteers, of laughter, friendship, love and peace.
Hezzie and Jacko had passed away before this nightmare, but many of the others had not. I think of what they may have endured, and I can’t understand, it seems so unreal.
We read about it, and watch unwatchable video of terrorists charging around the kibbutz, my kibbutz, in an afternoon of frenzied killing. Be’eri has become Oradour-sur-Glane, a village in Nazi-occupied France left in ruins after German Waffen-SS troops massacred men, women and children before burning it the ground.
Thousands of former Be’eri kibbutz volunteers have shared our thoughts and pain on Facebook. Now in our sixties and seventies, we buy Be’eri T-shirts instead to show our support, we do what we can from here. We hope there will be an appropriate time for us to go back and help in a more practical way.
And we are deeply shocked at the steep rise in vicious antisemitism we see around us. A lady I know in Nottingham has told her children to stop telling people they are Jewish. The fear is palpable. Gaza is headline news 24/7, the dreadful war in Ukraine no longer deemed newsworthy. Even worse conflicts such as Yemen and Syria are ignored. Huge, well-financed and organised rallies against Israel’s war in Gaza take place our cities. One can only speculate as to the reasons.
Decent, fair-minded people support democracy, the rule of law, free speech and peace, things that Israel’s enemies clearly despise. I want JC readers to know that most ordinary Britons understand this of this, even if the vast majority have, so far, remained silent about it.
Jonathan Nicholas is a retired UK police officer who has written eight works of fiction and non-fiction, including Kibbutz Virgin about his time at Kibbutz Dafna