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Elah Valley, Israel — The ancient Greeks believed they came from the land and were therefore part of it. This “autochthonous” philosophy connects a native people to the land from which it is believed to have been born. Well naturally, the Bible rejected the paganistic “Motherland” view of our relationship to the earth. God not earth stood above all. In traditional Jewish thinking, the Land belonged to God to be allocated according to divine will. And he promised it to the Jews.
If you believed in the Bible, then the land was the Jews’. The problem was, history continued and laughed at us. The long journey from original nation-building, exile and 2,000 years of a pornographic love for the symbol of the Land of Israel, clashed headlong with the indigenous folk out here when the Zionist movement emerged and Jews started returning to the Holy Land about a hundred years ago.
The narrative was that the historical right to the land was not based on the fact that once, in the distant past, the forefathers of the Jewish people had dwelt in the land of Israel, but that the connection had never been terminated. It had merely transformed into a spiritual realm, even in the longing of a shrimp-eating Jew from Mississippi to grow roots in an adopted homeland.
This wasn’t just a question of Zionist loving the homeland more than the Palestinians because the latter had panicked and fled their homes. This wasn’t just a competition over who was more attached to this land. This wasn’t a question that necessarily had an answer.
Fellow farmer Ya’ir Tzoran pointed out to the barren foothills of the West Bank about 10 miles to the east. “Their hills are bald because they have chopped down all their trees for firewood. They sneak over to our hills to pick thyme and other herbs because they’ve picked all theirs out.”
“It’s true they once lived here. We don’t have to hide that, just show why they left. If we are embarrassed by this, then we should be equally embarrassed to be Israelis. That’s the irony of this,” Tzoran said.
He peddled the sense that the Arabs neglected their land, destroyed the natural vegetation, because they didn’t care and therefore have no right to the land. Jews made it bloom, showed sensitivity to the environment and ancient sites because they cared. Indigenous Palestinians like Ziyad Abbas at the Deshaishe refugee camp believed their intimate personal communion to a parcel of this earth made them the legitimate owners.
The gentle heights of Tel Sucho in the south and Tel Azekah to the north sloped down like a mother’s thighs into the Elah Valley. Filled today with blazing sunflowers, this valley was a womb. From here the legend of David and Goliath was born. From here the Palestinian refugees set out to the hills in the distance and from here a renewal of modern Israeli settlement emerged.
Working my olive trees I realized on the eve of Israel’s Independence Day that life here was like looking at a snapshot of a full bottle of wine you’ve already downed; man it was good while it lasted. Sometimes we leave postcards to the future. The Romans left their milestones below my house, the Palestinians their village rubble. But on closer inspection, any longing to return was best confined to the realm of spirituality.
Here we were ephemeral mortals inhabiting this eternal land. If by some perilous revolution, I lost my faith in Israel, I think I would still believe in the land, the goodness and extraordinary depth of these hills. That was the first and last thing.