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Israeli Life Near the Gaza Strip

Posted on 07/22/2010 @ 07:10 PM

PDI Israel

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By Sarah Schonberg, Director, BBYO Friends & Alumni Network

Five years and a day after Israel’s disengagement from Gaza (Aza, as it’s called here), our PDI bus (with a new, less-cautious driver) took us to the Negev Desert to meet two Israelis who have been deeply affected by the ongoing war in Gaza. Our day was divided into four parts. First, we visited Kibbutz Sa’ad, a Modern Orthodox cooperative community (http://www.saad.org.il/), located only a few kilometers from Gaza. Our host at Sa’ad was an Irish-born Jew named David who has lived on the Kibbutz for 51 years. After spending a couple of hours with David, we discussed the challenges of combining Judaism with statehood and military. After lunch in the Kibbutz cafeteria, we drove to Nitzan, the site of the relocation of the 1,800 families of the Gaza-based community, Gush Katif, who were taken out of Gaza during the disengagement. We ended the day with a play put on by deaf and blind actors in Jaffa. While there is no typical day on this program, this day mirrored the previous days by raising more questions than were answered.

Kibbutz Sa’ad was established in 1947 when the mentality of Jewish settlers was “dunam po, dunam sham” (wherever you can find land, buy it). Sa’ad was formed by a few dozen people who were committed to working the land and pioneering Jewish community where there was nothing but sand dunes. We first visited the “Mo’az mul Aza” (fortress near Gaza), which is the only original building on the Kibbutz still standing. The Mo’az served as Sa’ad’s safe house during the 1948-49 War of Independence against Egypt. At the site of this round, two-story tall white building we learned about the lives of the pioneers who settled the land during the war, during which they lived underground with little food and water and minimal weaponry. A sign at site memorializing the founders: “Their religious faith kept them strong, helping them to withstand the long months of hardship, to survive and to create the thriving community of Kibbutz Sa’ad as it exists today.”

We stood atop the safe house, which overlooks the city of Gaza, with a tattered Israeli flag flying behind us and an old mortar shell on the ground. We discussed historical and current Israeli relations with the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. David, our Irish-born Kibbutznik host, pointed out sites of now extinct kibbutzim that were once riddled with landmines and hit with rockets on various occasions. He went on to say that the Ministry of Defense recently gave Kibbutz Sa’ad funds to build individual bomb shelters for each home on the Kibbutz. David interprets this new investment as the Israeli government anticipating a worsening security situation in the area.

We left the safe house for the central campus of the Kibbutz, where we talked with David in the Beit Midrash (study hall, literally “house of learning). David told his us story of growing up as the only Jew in his Catholic high school in Cork, Ireland. Cork is and was Ireland’s second largest city, which had 50 Jewish families in the late 1940’s. David went to Israel in 1952 on an Israeli-sponsored work/study program. He learned Hebrew for six months and worked for six months. By 1959, David had moved with his wife to Kibbutz Sa’ad where he raised seven children and has spent 51 years.

Kibbuz Sa’ad has 750 people living and working in its community. This number does not include the many foreign workers that the Kibbutz brings to Israel to do much of the manual labor that, as David put it, “the Jews don’t seem to want to do.” This, of course, is very interesting in light of yesterday’s experiences learning about and from the non-Jewish immigrant population in Israel. It’s additionally interesting because a founding principle of Zionism was the importance of working the land.

A major challenge that the entire Kibbutz movement is facing is the changing demographics of these communities. In modern Israel, it is increasingly difficult to attract young families to live this communal lifestyle. Until recently, members of Sa’ad had to leave the cooperative if they did not participate in the financial aspect of the community. Now, members can be in control of their own finances, although if they earn more than a certain amount, they must pay more tax to the Kibbutz to balance income differentials. Additionally, while couples once had to decide whether they were staying on the Kibbutz when they married, they now have up to age 30 to decide. Today, there is a waiting list for the children’s homes, which David attributes to the success of the programs aimed at attracting young families.

David left us and we proceeded with a study session with our Rabbi-in-residence, David Starr. Our reading for the session was a retort to the controversial Goldstone Report entitled “The Goldstone Illusion: What the U.N. report gets wrong about Gaza—and war” by Moshe Halbertal and a fiction piece by Etgar Keret called “Cocked and Locked.” These two pieces shaped our conversation about the macro and micro realities and issues of applying Judaism to running a state, having a military and being a soldier. We learned about the content of the Israeli Army’s ethics code, which incorporates Jewish law, and the inherent and extraordinary challenges of fighting a nontraditional war with a nontraditional enemy.

After our study session and lunch in the Kibbutz Sa’ad cafeteria, we went to Nitzan. Nitzan is a community of Jews who were forced to leave Gaza as a result of the disengagement five years ago. We met with Laurenz, a French woman who made aliyah 19 years ago to Gush Katif, formerly a bloc of 17 Israeli settlements in Gaza. Laurenz now heads the Gush Katif Committee, a group working to restore the lives of the resettled community (the entire community was resettled to the same place). The Committee focuses on finding permanent homes and work for these people.

Gush Katif was formed by settlers in the 1970s; they created a community out of sand, like the settlers of Sa’ad. Gush Katif’s economy was agriculture-based and most of the resettled residents were the original settlers, and continued to be farmers until 2005. To date, 70% of the community members are un- or under-employed. Due to a lack of land and possibly money, farmers cannot farm as they once did. Of the 1,800 families that were taken out of Gush Katif, 161 have permanent homes. The remaining families live in government issued pre-fab trailer homes. Laurenz explained that the government has been very slow to provide this permanent housing. Families pay rent on their trailers and continue to pay their mortgages on the homes they left in Gaza. The homes are no longer standing (the Israeli government destroyed them when the residents left; this is what the residents wanted, as well). According to Laurenz, synagogues and hothouses were left standing, but have since been destroyed by the Gazans.

While 5,000 mortar shells were launched on Gush Katif over the years before the disengagement, the community members long to return to their homes. Two billion dollars were spent by the Israeli government on the disengagement. When asked if she could look beyond her personal situation and determine whether the disengagement was for the greater good of Israel, Laurenz sighed and said with the resignation of someone who has fought for years that she didn’t know; results are yet to be seen, but she hasn’t seen peace yet.

We left Nitzan with heavy hearts and the desire to learn more, to hear the other sides of this incredibly complex and nuanced situation. What do the Gazans think of the disengagement? How did it affect them and their communities and economy? What are the stories of the Jewish soldiers that were tasked with removing fellow Israeli citizens from their homes? How does the Israeli government and military now view the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza? How did the disengagement factor into international politics and what gains and compromises were made?

After time to unwind, we went to the NaLaGaat Theater for a showing of Lo al HaLechem Levado (Not by Bread Alone) performed by the NaLaGaat, a deaf and blind theater company. The play was put on by actors who were both deaf and blind. The play was about what it is like to live with these disabilities and what dreams these people have. Having worked in arts programming for people with disabilities prior to coming to BBYO, I was struck by the content of the play. Performing arts in the US that is put on by actors with disabilities rarely, if ever, focuses on the presence of disability. This play here focused on them. This difference raises an interesting insight into attitudes of Israelis as compared with those of Americans (confronting issues head-on as opposed to overlooking them in order to move past them). Or, maybe this difference speaks the evolution of the distinct disability rights movements.

Our long day ended with dinner at the theater served to us by a deaf waitstaff. We learned some Israeli sign language (different gestures than ASL). We went to bed late and exhausted. One more day until Shabbat!

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