We had been surrounded by desert for several days. It was dry, sandy, rocky and in places scrubby, everything was yellowy, or grey and very dusty. The exception was the deep blue of the Dead Sea which was now on our left as we travelled along the road from Qumran (where the Dead Sea scrolls were found). Our destination was a Jewish kibbutz and none of us had any idea what to expect – it was all very secretive. We thought it would be basic, that we’d be in a dormitory, that it would be sandy and dusty.
We were getting used to being in the desert; the time we had spent in the desert in Jordan had been a very moving experience and being in the Negev desert in Israel had conjured up all sorts of Biblical images – of Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael, Moses and the children of Israel and David, all of whom wandered there during their lives.
The desert would have changed little since their time and Bedouin still wandered with their camels, pitching their tents wherever there was water or grazing, continually on a journey, continually moving. Many of these people have few belongings or the resources we all take for granted, unlike the Wadi Rum where it seemed that the Bedouin had made the most of the tourist industry, but it’s a way of life that they cherish.
Quite suddenly trees appeared, green lush trees but before we had a chance to comment we turned into some large gates – we had arrived at the kibbutz! I don’t know if you have a mental image of the Garden of Eden, but for us this had to be close – there were all sorts of flowering plants, green palms and grass as green as you would find in Britain after a rainy spring. We were quite speechless, and our surprise continued as we were led to our individual bungalows in the grounds. This was not what we were expecting. Some of us quickly dumped our bags and set off to explore, having been told that we were not allowed to go outside the gates. We walked past huge swimming pools, past the adventure playground and the outside gym, we wandered into the area where the residents of the kibbutz lived in their beautiful houses, past the school and the nursery and the dining room (the food was excellent). The farm contained animals and vegetable beds that supplied food for the kibbutz. We scratched out heads in amazement and soaked up the sun and the peace. So this is what an oasis is like in the hands of Israelis.
It was hot, there was a shop with ice cream and we quickly yielded to temptation and treated ourselves… but it was in that shop that we began to realise the price that had to be paid for this calm and beauty. Three young women were also buying ice cream – obviously residents, they wore shorts, tee shirts, flip flops… and very large machine guns. “Are they real?” someone whispered. They certainly were.
Walking back we saw that the hefty gates were shut, the fences where high and there were guards on the gates. We felt subdued. “Why the guns?” we asked at dinner. “We have fresh water, food and fertile land. This is rare in this region – we have to protect it.”
I thought back to the Bedouin families we had seen just a few hours earlier – their way of life so different from this Garden of Eden we were in. The contrast was staggering. Just outside the gate of the kibbutz, nomadic people were living in an inhospitable environment while within the Kibbutz everything was provided and protected. It was beautiful, but in a strange way disturbing. As with many things in Palestine we didn’t feel that we really understood the situation but were glad we had experienced it.
We find this contrast all over the world. At Harvest time we remember people who struggle to feed themselves and their families, people whose journey is hard, refugees who must keep moving. In times of famine or of war many are forced to flee. There is poverty in lands where there should be plenty. There is poverty here in this country. Harvest gives us a chance to remember.