My love for Israel -- and why I still believe that peace will win in the end
Eamon Delaney recalls his memories of the kibbutz dream and a land of beautiful paradoxes
Every few years, Israel gets involved in another conflict or atrocity and the predictable chorus of debate ensues. Few conflicts create such argument and division. And it is quite probable that among those sympathetic to the Israeli position will be many Westerners, like myself, who have visited Israel and experienced the kibbutz way of life.
The storming of the aid convoy to Gaza by Israeli commandos is not only a tragedy for the victims, but a disaster for Israel itself and for its many friends in the West. But then, in the past few years, it has been very difficult to defend Israel.
As someone who has visited Israel frequently and who spent a formative six months on a kibbutz at the age of 19, all of this saddens me. For despite the conflict, there is something magical about this tiny state, created by the Jewish immigrants of over 120 countries and built on the beautiful desert of their biblical homeland.
It is a country of paradoxes: an ancient land, steeped in the animosities of some the world's largest religions, and yet a dynamic sun-drenched country, with a booming agriculture and IT economy, a thriving gay scene and a celebrated dance culture.
When I went there in 1982, it seemed a magical place, especially the outdoor kibbutz life, picking fruit and working in the fish ponds and cotton fields. The Palestinians were a shadowy underclass, who lived in the poorer areas but no differently, it seemed, than the way the blacks used to live in the US.
The threat then was from outside Israel and from other Arab states, and not internally, from the Palestinian natives. But all that changed with the Intifada uprising in 1987, and even more so with the armed intifada in 2001.
The nearby West Bank town of Jenin, just a lazy taxi ride away from my kibbutz, suddenly became a hotbed of insurgency and potential suicide bombers. The fences went up, then the infamous wall, and Israel hunkered down for a long conflict.
But this was not how it was in 1982. The kibbutz experience has since changed and commercialised but back then you were effectively living on a commune, and witnessing up close how these immigrants were creating a new country, 'turning the desert green'.
Since the Jewish state was established in 1948, the kibbutzes were founded to settle the land and go back to 'working on the soil' from which Jews were historically excluded while in Europe and elsewhere. They are, in effect, mini-villages situated among the scrub and the dust, and nestling close to the ancient sites of the Bible. Which is why they became the targets for terrorist attacks, and within range of rocket attacks and nighttime incursions. While there, I met other volunteers: young Australians, Americans, French and especially Scandinavians. There was partying and a good bit of romance. We all had different jobs -- working in the chicken sheds or fruit groves.
The volunteers were usually your standard dreamy westerners, 'finding themselves' and getting away from the rat race. You weren't paid but you had a very comfortable bed and board in an exotic place. You worked for a few hours a day and then spent the rest by the pool, or reading books under the cooling pine trees.
The big dining hall was the main congregation point for kibbutz life. Here, the kibbutzniks would meet to chat about the kibbutz and national politics. They represented the broad spectrum of Israeli society, with members from Morocco to Russia, from Brazil to Poland. Their common bond was that they were all Jewish.
Many came from countries where Jews had been discriminated against. It is this which makes the besieged state so colourful but also so stubborn. There was even a strong Irish connection during my time there with a Dublin-born president in Chaim Herzog. Politically, most kibbutzniks are liberal, or on the left. The kibbutz movement is, after all, essentially about socialism or sharing.
The kibbutzniks are generally peacenik in outlook, although they are also over-represented in the elites of the army and air force. This reflects the high level of education on the kibbutz and its pioneering can-do spirit.
In recent years, I was shocked when I saw on the news that the towns nearest my kibbutz, Bet Shean and Afula, were attacked by gunmen and suicide bombers. In the early 1980s, the thought of such incursions was remote. But there was still a smouldering resentment in the Arab villages.
What a pity the Israelis didn't address all this then, rather than let it build up. When I think of old people on the kibbutz, the pioneers who came from Vienna and Warsaw, I am almost relieved that many of them are not around to see the impasses that have developed.
But I still retain fond memories of my time there and am still hopeful that peace will eventually prevail.