Israel: Three Voices of Ayeleth

Second of two parts

There is one story every tourist in Israel hears: the story of the Sabra fruit. Found on a cactus, the Sabra is covered with thorns. But despite its forbidding exterior, its center is soft red and sweet. Israel's young people, the tale concludes, are called Sabras, for they are like the Sabra fruit: hard on the outside but soft on the inside.

Naomi will be twenty-one in February. Born on Ayeleth Hashachar, Naomi is Sabra to the core.

You see it first in her walk. Tall, her black hair close-cropped, she carries her lithe body with uncanny grace--an assurance that comes from years of hard labor. Naomi works in the kibbutz bee-hives. Clothed in stifling protective garments on searing Israeli afternoons, she sloshes rich, amber honey into pails. She is the only girl on the kibbutz who does it. It is work that many men cannot stand.

Her life has bred in her a hard pride easily taken for snobbery. A foreigner feels it quickly, for like many Sabras, she is reserved toward strangers. Her quiet, brown eyes can fix a newcomer, penetrate and turn away with cruel coldness.

Yet, for all this, she is not unfeminine. She and her friends spend their meager clothes-allowance in Tel Aviv, not content with the kibbutz's anachronistic styles. Every night she deliberates over what to wear to the evening meal. She passes long hours after work playing with her year-old nephew.


There are other cracks between the thorns, and sometimes, on velvet Israeli evenings, her reserve dissolves entirely and reveals a pensive girl, struggling with great uncertainties. Naomi wants desperately to go to the University and study literature. "I feel that here I am marching in the same place," she says with subdued passion. "Every day the same thing." Her radio (one of the few luxuries the kibbutz allows its members) plays classical music all Sunday when the Israeli radio broadcasts Christian Masses. She keeps a copy of Dylan Thomas' Collected Poems (looking strangely unfamiliar in Hebrew) above her bed.

But it is not enough to want to study. She has no money to live or pay tuition, for no one on the kibbutz owns personal property beyond the clothes on their back. Nor does she have the training to get a good job. The kibbutz has given her no marketable skill, and with Israel in a mild depression, unskilled labor is flooding the economy.

But the cruelest fact of all is that, even if she found a job that barely paid her way, once she left she could not return. The kibbutz--which requires a year-long trial for prospective members--allows its members a one-year sabbatical, but to take more would mean forfeiting membership. Despite her sense of stagnation, Naomi finds more than home and family at Ayeleth. It has been her way of life: a philosophy and social order not easily shed.

Naomi is not the only young kibbutznik demanding more than her home can offer. Responding to this outcry, and its own needs for trained teachers, economists and agriculturalists, the kibbutz sends some members to a University, all expenses paid. But this does not help Naomi. The kibbutz requires that its scholars study something it needs and return to serve Ayeleth with their new skills. It does not need experts in literature. Anyway, all the slots for the coming year are filled by others, so Naomi would have to mark time for another year, perhaps more.

Eventually Naomi accepts a compromise. Instead of leaving she will take courses two times a week from a local teacher, and then later, the kibbutz will send her to the University--to study what, she is not yet sure. It is a defeat. Even the Sabra must sometimes swallow her pride.

But in one area, the Sabra does not accept defeat. During the war Naomi sat in the cool semi-darkness of one of Ayeleth's concrete shelters, and sang "We Shall Overcome" to the faint crump of Syrian shells. The shelter's occupants were not as sure of their impending triumph as foreign experts. They knew only that if Syrian troops swarmed down from the brown hills across the Jordan, they would have to fight to the last woman and child. The Syrians would leave no one alive. "I was not afraid," says Naomi without hesitation, "Only worried--about my brother."

Naomi's 24-year-old brother is an artillery officer whose unit pounded Syria from nearby fields. Naomi once had another brother. In the Sinai campaign of 1956, he was one of 1500 paratroops dropped deep in Egyptian territory to secure the Mitla Pass.

* * *

About three weeks after the war, Nadav comes home on leave for the first time. For much of his two days at Ayeleth, he is surrounded by groups of young people hanging on his every word. Now 23, Nadav is serving his fifth year in the Israeli air force, the elite of her armed forces and the key to her smashing victory. He seems the kibbutz hero.

He is not, of course. The Israelis don't make heros of their warriors. In a country where everyone serves, and war has been a fact of life for 19 years, a martial cult has no meaning.

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