In 1972 I was still going out with Bill, someone I’d known since my second year at University. We broke up and got back together again on countless occasions, mainly because he was a Gemini. He always thought the grass was greener on the other side, until he got there and decided he actually preferred being with me. I, on the other hand, had little self-esteem or self-confidence, thought I had to have a guy around to show I was part of the in-crowd – because I was terrified of being an outsider – and put up with this bizarre behaviour. El Stupido and mad, quite mad. But I was young.
I’d split up again with Bill (story of our relationship) just before he went to Israel but he phoned me from there to ask me to join him as he was lonely. And I was soppy enough to agree, much to the disgust of my friend at the office where I was working. What can I say? She was quite right, but I was too stupid and insecure to say no. Plus I was getting bored where I was working and resentful at their refusal to give me a pay increase. So I contacted the people who organised kibbutz visits, got the name of the kibbutz where I was to work – Eilon – as well as my flight tickets and I was all prepared to hoof it to the unknown because it sounded interesting.
Things got a bit derailed before I left though. I had met Jack through one of my flatmates and we were casual friends for a while but then suddenly clicked at a party for – wait for it – my departure to Israel to join Bill! As Jack had already booked also to go to Israel to work on a kibbutz but a bit later, we decided to suspend our relationship until after we were both back in the UK. Once the Israeli adventures were over for both of us, we intended to head off to Australia which, as I’ve written about in an earlier post, we eventually did in autumn 1972.
At that time, you could work on a kibbutz for three months or so and get a fairly cheap flight to Israel on El Al. I knew nothing – zip, nada, zilch – about Middle Eastern politics. In fact, I really think I sleepwalked through my early life, as I’ve previously mentioned, until I got to Australia. So I said goodbye to Sam and flew to join Bill in Israel where he’d already been working on a kibbutz.
As the plane approached Tel Aviv Airport, I got distinctly uneasy because the guy sitting beside me had disappeared leaving a black bag under the seat in front of his. I kept glancing at it, imagining a bomb of some sort, and had just geared myself up to approach one of the cabin crew when the guy returned – he was an El Al pilot returning to Israel and had wandered up front to talk to the flight crew. You have no idea how relieved I was!
When I got to Israel, I realised I’d really landed in the proverbial quagmire. I still liked Bill, he was a really nice bloke, and I was torn as to whether I was making the right decision or not. Eventually I told him what had happened just before I left and he was pretty angry and upset. But we decided to keep going and my parents had advised me not to make any decisions one way or another until I got back to the UK.
Before we took off for Kibbutz Eilon, we enjoyed visiting Jerusalem, Jaffa on the coast, Acre, and then Haifa and other ports along the coast as we travelled to our kibbutz on the border with Lebanon. Jerusalem was absolutely fascinating and beautiful. The Dome of the Rock was stunning. And I loved roaming the pathways of the Old City, feeling the ancient history in the narrow walkways and admiring the various arts and crafts. We hitchhiked most of the time as it was a common practice then to pick up travellers. If there was a member of the armed forces also hitchhiking, however, they always got preference.
I thought it was amazing as we travelled up the coast to see banana plantations with bags over the fruit in different colours according to the ripening of the fruit. And orange and lemon groves were also a new experience – it all seemed so exotic. I was also surprised to find that there were no tides in the Mediterranean, something I’d never even thought about (but which stood me in good stead when we moved to North Cyprus!).
At the time I was there, Eilon was a relatively small kibbutz with a small number of volunteers, as we – transient visitors/workers – were called. I really loved my time on the kibbutz. I had no idea what was going on in the rest of the country or the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and lived really in a bit of a bubble during my stay.
I didn’t start general work at first as the first night we were there I managed to trip over a chair at tea-time and sprain my ankle. Instead I did light duties such as ironing where I didn’t have to stand.
I got on well with the other volunteers except for one of the American Jewish volunteers who was truly obnoxious. There were other American Jews there as part of a sort of cultural programme, if I remember rightly, who were really terrific. But the particular bloke I’m talking about was rich and let everyone know it, loud, obnoxious and a real bully. He also drank to excess which was really frowned upon in the kibbutz where drunkenness was not considered acceptable. One of my New Zealand friends ended up going out with him which really surprised me because I thought she had better sense. But then look at me – on and off 13 times with Bill, so I was hardly one to comment!
In the main, though, we worked at picking bananas, grapefruit and oranges, while some of us worked on general duties in the kitchens and canteens of the kibbutz. I was mortified the first day to be sent to sit at the foot of the potato peeling machine, digging the eyes out of the potatoes as they bounced at the end of the mechanical peeling process. I thought this was the worst, most boring job ever until later I was put to knocking the dead flowers off the end of bananas to prepare them for export. I don’t think I have been so bored – then and since – as time seemed to literally creep past. The only really good part I remember is eating a grapefruit from the tree and it was utterly delicious!
On the other hand, the potato peeling seemed quite appealing after my next job turned up – cleaning out the volunteers’ toilets and showers, and then working in the children’s kitchen. I was horrified – I’m a Libran and Librans don’t do crappy (literally) jobs! But as the toilets and showers were cleaned every day and there were only 15 or so volunteers, it turned out to be quite a good job, not least because I didn’t have to get up as early as those working in the orchards, and I’ve never been an early bird at the best of times. I was a bit lost in the children’s kitchen as there really wasn’t a huge lot of work there, mainly washing up the big pots and pans and doing general cleaning.
I was assigned to the orchards one day to pick grapefruit but I was absolutely hopeless. I’m no good in the heat, got a blinding headache, and then got my long hair tangled in the big thorns found in grapefruit trees. My productivity was pathetic. I think the guy in charge of the volunteers’ farm work gave me the thumbs down because I was then put onto serving at tables at lunch. I really enjoyed this, because I got to chat to people, as well as assisting at the conveyor belt which washed all the crockery and cutlery after the meals.
Work on the kibbutz for us volunteers generally used to finish around lunch. I worked later in the day when I was assisting with the washing up on the conveyor belt in the evenings. But mostly we had long, lazy afternoons where we could hitchhike into the nearest town on the coast, Nahariya, or play games like chess or Scrabble, or simply sleep. It was a lovely existence. One day Bill and I climbed a rock face nearby to explore the remains of a Crusader fort. Like as not we ended up in Lebanon which was pretty stupid. We were very close to the border and had army patrols day and night. One night I went to use the toilet which was across the way from our hut and found myself facing two soldiers with their machine guns drawn. Luckily they didn’t shoot on sight! But those same soldiers also took us out for a trip along the border which, again, was really interesting.
As for the goings-on in Israel and the whole Palestinian question, I had no idea about the situation at all. I visited Israel in the wake of the shooting of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists in 1972 and was avowedly anti-Palestinian. In fact, in those days, I had very little interest in political affairs at all. I do remember someone discussing Black Saturday and the shooting dead of 13 Irish people by British paramilitary (another, 14th, died a few months later), and my only comment was that the people shouldn’t have been marching if it was illegal. I cringe at this statement when I think of it now, but I was pretty ignorant about the world beyond my own little circle of self-interest in those days.
Later in our stay on the kibbutz we were taken on a tour of Israel by the kibbutz which was absolutely fantastic. We travelled in a coach and we stayed in hostels, doing all the cooking ourselves. We travelled as far as Hebron where we visited a traditional glass factory. I remember the armed soldiers on rooftops but, again, had little idea of why they were there. We later visited the magnificent, historic ruins atop Masada where Herod had lived and where the Zealots had committed mass suicide the day before the Romans invaded their fortress. We climbed up to the fortress from the side where the Romans had built a ramp to reach the top of Masada. It was a hot day, bright sunshine, extremely quiet and the views when we reached the top were just stupendous. You could see in the clear desert air vast swathes of ancient rocks, desert and strange formations. To walk among such ruins was to experience humility at the majesty of the scenery, the ruins and the memory of those who had inhabited this monument and died on its heights.
We climbed down the path to the summit rather than use the cable car which most tourists used to reach the top, and I can remember being incredibly envious of the Swiss in our group who leaped down the rough and stony path down the other side like mountain goats. I’m not particularly daring or adventuresome on paths like this and it was a great relief when we finally reached the base.
We also visited the Dead Sea where I had a grand time floating in the salty water and rinsing off in the Ein Gedi Oasis, and we finally finished up in Jerusalem, if I remember rightly. We stayed in a dormitory and I remember being awakened by the call to prayer from the minarets, an eerie, powerful sound which I’ve loved ever since.
Back on the kibbutz, I was still dithering about what to do when I got back to the UK, until one day Bill came out with a put-down in front of the other volunteers – a harsh criticism which left me humiliated and everyone else around our table very, very embarrassed. I recalled all the other occasions he’d put me down. I remembered a sheet of paper I found once where he’d listed the reasons for and reasons against staying with me. The most hurtful was that I had no imagination. I had little self-confidence in those days and it devastated me. But I didn’t have the confidence to say a final good-bye and strike out on my own.
This last comment on the kibbutz and made very publicly, however, was the nail in the coffin. I didn’t say anything, just decided to keep the peace until I got back to the UK. After we left the kibbutz we travelled down to Eilat on the Red Sea which was another whacko experience. It was real cowboy territory and frontier land – we slept on the beach in sleeping bags but kept our money and passports in our hand as it was common for people to slit the bottom of a bag while you slept and pinch your possessions. You also had to duck in and out of the restroom very fast as there were holes in the walls where Peeping Toms would try to have a look.
When we arrived, there was a bit of a sandstorm so that visibility across to Aqaba in Jordan was reduced to a few metres in front of us. And then the dust cleared and we could see Jordan so clearly, such a surprise as it had been completely obscured the night before.
We eventually started back to Tel Aviv and hitched a lift with a truck driver who was really friendly and helpful. I remember stopping at a cafe in the middle of the Negev Desert and seeing my very first hornets’ nest. These were dirty big hornets and I was very, very cautious as I passed by them to enter the cafe for a quick meal. And as we were driving up the hills from the desert, the truck driver was changing gears constantly and glancing over the road towards the side mirror on my side. I wondered why until Bill told me he was judging his closeness to the edge of the road where it fell away into deep gullies. I went green when I opened the window to look out and realised how much we were relying on the skill of the driver not to go toppling down the steep slope beside the road!
Finally we got back to Tel Aviv and took separate flights back to London. When I did get back, there was Jack waiting for me, I remembered how great he was, and I knew I had to finally quit my relationship with Bill. When I finally met him, I told him it was all over. He was devastated. I was really upset as he was a nice guy but not the one for me.
As for me, my views on Israel and Palestine have change drastically, ever since I joined the Australian Union of Students in 1974 as organiser for Western Australia, and I’ll comment on that in my next post.