Elah Valley, Israel — Driving down the winding blacktop to the nearby kibbutz in my 23-year-old jeep dubbed “General Lee,” I’m in search of meat. My son’s coming home for Independence Day and he requires meat. A shepherd, he dreams of lamb but on this day he’ll settle for pork chops. I pass the old ruins of a couple of Palestinians villages, emptied in 1948 and bulldozed years later, and soon pull to a stop at the small grocery in this commune of Kibbutz Beit Nir amid these gently rolling hills off the Elah Valley in central Israel.
I stock up on pork chops, bacon and shrimp and dump it on the counter.
“Where’re you from?” the attractive cashier asks, smiling at me with her blue eyes.
“Srigim, the moshav down the road,” I say.
“No. Before. Where are you from before?” she asks, as if everyone out here has a secret, other life.
I tell her I’m from Mississippi, before, because I’m buying shrimp and thinking about the cheap crustaceans I used to get down at the port in Ocean Springs, that coastal hideaway where my father was once chief of police.
“I’m from Livorno, Italy. It’s in Tuscano not far from Pisa, on the coast. I love the shrimp and we used to make a great foccacia smothered in seafood,” she says, and tells me how the boys from her town hated the rival football team from Pisa and whenever there was a match they’d cover a coffin with their team flag and march over to the stadium there for the game to taunt them.
I told her I had to get my frozen shrimp back soon because I had work to do yet in my olive grove. She told me her husband, Jim, didn’t like shrimp.
“Jim’s from Scotland,” she says apologetically.
“Not Jim, the fellow with the gingy beard who runs the olive mill?”
“That’s him,” she says, and we laugh and enjoy the Zionist moment.
It epitomized for me the ingathering of Jews from such eclectic backgrounds, redeeming the Promised Land, buying pork chops and shrimp and other treif, rushing to get in the shopping and chores before Independence Day out here in the rural hinterland.
As we celebrate Israel’s 64th anniversary of its independence I ponder the myth of the motherland and contemporary rootedness. Heading home the radio is tuned to FM88 out of hip Tel Aviv, playing Arlo Guthrie’s “Coming into Los Angeles,” followed by The High Windows’s “Ezekiel,” a song about that epileptic prophet:
He dreamed he was flying on a wheel He was hugging and stroking two angels That prophet Ezekiel sure did know how to have a good time
Sacrilege got it banned for years on Israel Radio in the good old days of the 1960s, when it was spunky Israel defending itself against Arab states vying to drive the Jews into the sea. As we celebrate the fulfillment of Zionism this week the hills will be filled with picnickers who’ll ignore the periodic mounds of rubble in the Jewish National Fund forests or grey stones poking out of the weeds in pasture lands. Perhaps they will, like my 16-year-old daughter, take a dip in one of the cool wells that survived. They represent some of the 46 Palestinian villages that once existed in this general area of Lachish and Adullam.
Occasionally, vans filled with Palestinians rock up, often accompanied by European film crews to document their return to their village. The Palestinians are putting forward the argument that the vast majority of their destroyed villages are still today on empty land. They claim Israel has abandoned farming and they can return to their ruined homes and empty fields and not displace any Jews.
On the walls of the Ibda Cultural Center in the Dehaishe refugee camp south of Bethlehem are painted the names of 46 villages. They are all familiar to me. Creepy.
Meeting Ziyad Abbas alarmed me. Younger than I, he appeared 20 years older. Abbas is co-director of Ibda at this camp, home to 11,000 refugees, most tracing their roots to the Adullam/Lachish district.
“I learned how to throw stones before I learned how to read and write,” he said, launching into his well-oiled pitch. His words are such clichés they die on the way out of his mouth.
Abbas, 47, started leading groups of Palestinians to the grounds of their villages as part of their commemoration of their “naqba” (catastrophe).
“My mother’s village of Jeresh is destroyed totally. But when I entered with my uncle I felt the history emerging from the stones and he rebuilt the village in his mind for me,” he said, pulling out a well-thumbed photo album. “I imagine when I wake up I will see this from my window,” he said, showing me a photograph of a vista quite similar to what I see every day from my living room.
“Our villages are in the middle of parks, and then we come back to this bullshit refugee camp. The children of Israel have fresh air in a forest so they can have their barbeques and here …” he said, trailing off.
That’s true. Most of the moshavim and kibbutzim were built next to and not on top of the Arab villages. This contradicted history, where the conqueror settled on top of the vanquished. What were the early state builders thinking? That one day the Palestinians would come back?
A few years ago, before he died, I sought out Lova Eliav, one of the granddaddies of the Israeli Left. He was in the 1950s a wunderkind who established the huge expanses between the Jerusalem corridor and the Gaza Strip. It was a land that had been, well, ethnically cleansed of Palestinians.
“We did to them what all victors in every generation in the miserable history of mankind did. The victor conquers, kills in battle and those who remain are banished,” said Lova. He explained that the crowded Arab villages were not suitable for the “new Jew” farming communities designed with fields rolling out behind houses in the modern (pork chop eating) state.
“But Lova,” I argued. “The Palestinians in the refugee camps are saying they no one is living today on the rubble where their villages once stood. They claim they can come back and rebuild them and not put out any Israeli.”
“This is feigning simplicity. It’s disingenuous. But there’s cunning in this approach,” said Lova, who was eventually ousted from his party when he opposed Jewish settlements in the territories. “You know I am a peacenik. According to my conception, they don’t have any right of return and they never will. It would be the end of the Jewish state.”
And God appeared before Abraham and said: “I give to you and all of your descendants this land in which you are now a foreigner. The whole land of Canaan will belong to your descendants as an everlasting possession.”
Throughout our history as a Jewish nation we have been, as the Bible often noted, aware of the fact that we were not indigenous to this land. The father of the Israelites, Abraham, was not born here and the Torah – which defined moral and religious character of the Jewish nation – was also given on Mount Sinai, which was, the last time I looked, outside the Promised Land.
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.