Page last updated at 11:07 GMT, Monday, 24 March 2008

Jerusalem Diary: Monday 24 March

Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem


Israeli artist Dov Heller in his studio
Heller's politics and life on a kibbutz epitomise a lost Israel
An hour-and-a-half's drive south-west of Jerusalem lies a trace of old Israel.

The tiny grey splodge on the map is Kibbutz Nirim. It lies just 2km from the Gaza Strip, halfway down Gaza's eastern border.

The kibbutz has been the home, for the past 52 years, of Dov Heller, a man with a shock of grey hair, a sun-beaten face and unflinching optimism.

Dov Heller is in some ways the quintessential Israeli. He also appears to be part of a dwindling minority.

Kibbutz Nirim has resisted the changes that many of Israel's kibbutzim, or communal farms, have undergone.

The adults still pay their wages into a shared pot, even when they hold jobs outside the farm. The same allowance is then paid out to all.

There has been some loosening of the rules. It used to be the case that you could not use your shoe allowance, for example, (which covered the cost of just one new shoe each year) to buy something else - a phone, or a coat.

But that has changed now. The residents can spend their allowance on what they want.

The communal showers have closed. Food at the kibbutz canteen is no longer free, although it is very heavily subsidised. A hefty three-course meal costs $4.

Dov Heller's Fabrica

Heller moved to the kibbutz, aged 18, in 1956. He had arrived in Israel at the age of 12, from Romania.

His parents had left him 10 years before that, in the care of his father's sister, while they came to build a home in Palestine. War had kept Heller from his parents between 1939 and 1949.

Heller came to the kibbutz as a young soldier, but quickly proved his expertise as a farmer of potatoes, cotton, nuts and wheat.

After 12 years' farming, aged 30, he was given permission by the kibbutz to study art at the Bezalel academy in Jerusalem.

He continued to farm, but grew as an artist. From student, he became senior lecturer.

Now, 70 years old, he still teaches painting, print-making and sculpture. He is also - I think - one of Israel's finest artists.


Each Mayday, he hosts an exhibition of 60 to 70 artists, in a converted cowshed on the kibbutz. The artists contribute one print each.

Every picture is red. Heller's politics come from his communist father.

I first met Heller in December. I saw him again on Thursday.

Today, I'm even more optimistic than I was in December. Israel's having contacts - albeit indirect - with Hamas, I'm sure of it. They were elected democratically, after all
Dov Heller

We sat in his studio. He provided lemon tea. His neighbour, an Australian immigrant called Sam, who has lived on the kibbutz as long as Heller, provided strong dark ale, even though it was before midday.

I asked Heller whether he was still the optimist that he had described himself as being, three months before.

After all, on Tuesday, a missile fired by Palestinian militants from Gaza, had hit the neighbouring kibbutz.

"Today, I'm even more optimistic than I was in December," Heller told me. "Israel's having contacts - albeit indirect - with Hamas, I'm sure of it. They were elected democratically, after all.

"Yes, I'm disappointed with what happened once Israel moved out of Gaza. I had hoped the Palestinians wouldn't engage in hostile activities. But this is a process which will take years."

Heller claims not to be a political animal. But before Israel evacuated its 7,000-plus settlers out of Gaza in 2005, he used to organise a small group from the kibbutz, which, every Friday, between two and four in the afternoon, would go to the nearby border crossing to talk to the settlers as they returned to their homes for the Shabbat.

"We would invite them to a friendly discussion. We said they shouldn't stay there. It couldn't end well."

The kibbutzniks may have been neighbours of the settlers, but that was as far as the closeness went. "Our talks didn't meet with success. The settlers were often very hostile."

I suggested to Heller that his left-wing, kibbutz-inspired politics may once have been a mainstream in Israel, perhaps most strikingly before the establishment of the state. But now his was an isolated voice.

Heller demurred.

"Take Meretz," he said, referring to a left-wing party with just five members of parliament.

"It's a small party, and if you ask people 'do you agree with Meretz?' they'll say no. But a lot of Meretz's ideas have filtered down. Like land for peace (the idea that Israel should trade the land it conquered in 1967 for a full peace deal with the Palestinians and neighbouring Arab countries). It's the consensus, now."

Among Heller's next projects is a book of red lithographs. The images are, typically, both strong and intimate.

There are three subjects: a ship (reflecting his parents' immigration), a factory (his father's politics) and a nearby well, at Wadi Salka.

The well, Heller says, could serve both Israel, and the Palestinians in Gaza. It is a symbol of what could be.

Here is a selection of your thoughts on Tim Franks' diary entry.

My family have lived in Jerusalem for as long as my attempts to search our family tree has permitted, so far we go back to 1400's but the Middle East has only in the past 80 years taken the shape of states and countries we now recognise. The people of the Middle East have always been occupied by other nations from Greeks to Romans, Crusaders, Ottoman Turks,British, Frence etc.
Hannah Cohen, Jerusalem Israel

I would just like to confirm to Mr Ibrahim of London, that over 1,000,000 Jewish refugees were expelled from the Arab world (Mizrahis) and ended up in Israel, today they represent about 3.5 milion people. The others in Israel are the Jews who lived in forced exile by the Romans in Europe (Askenazis) and those who were living in the Mediterranian area dispersed through the Ottoman empire (Sephardis). Jews have always had a presence in Palestine & most Israeli Jews are native born, it was only natural for many remaining Jews to return to their former origins once The Jewish national homeland gained it's independance from the British.
Ephraim Salim-Levi, London/ Jerusalem/Baghdad

It is refreshing to read this latest diary article. Mr Heller is dignified and truthful about the situation in the Middle East and gives a very non-biased view - even though he is bombarded with rockets from the militant Palestinians. He appears to be a very talented and good man - like so many Israelis who want to live in peace in their own homeland - Israel.
Carole Wayne, UK

I notice that all those interviewed were not born in Palestine or Israel. They came from abroad, mostly Europe, and settled on disputed land conquered from the Arabs. It would be interesting to hear from those Jews who were born in Palestine or were living in Palestine before the mass invasion of immigrant Jews began.
Ibrahim, London

The hypocrisy of people like Mr Heller is amazing! He (like most leftist Kibbutz members) resides on land captured in war in 1948 in contradiction to the UN partition, no doubt formerly occupied by Arab farmers driven from their homes by the war, and calls on "settlers" living on land totally uninhabited before 1967 to leave their homes for a phantom vision of peace. I could say more but this is not the quintessential Israeli, except for his quintessential "Chutzpah".
Israel Dalven, Emanuel, Israel

I am a Nigerian and spent two years on a kibbutz many years ago when I was a war orphan. I loved the Jewish family who looked after me and I was very sad to leave, but was happy to be reunited with my father afterwards. I often thought since how great it would be if the African states had such places that would encourage young people from all over the world to work together with African people to bring purpose, idealism and unity to our young generations.
Samuel, London

The Kibbutz movment has served a wonderful purpose in bringing together the returning Jews from the Diapora and enriching the land, I spent 7 months on a Kibbutz also near Gaza named Zikkim. The unique Kibbutz system is probably the only way Communism ever really worked & many non-Jews from all over the world experienced this unique way of life as volunteers in Israel.
Mark Israel, London

I'm glad there are still a few red people in Israel. Israel used to be very socialist, very labour-centered. Many of the problems came due to American propaganda and Soviet neglect - I think we would have been seeing a different Israel if the Soviets knew what they were doing. I remember my grandparents - (who came from Poland during the second aliyah) being very labour oriented. On the other hand, I think Israel feels abandoned by the leftist factions who seem entirely critical of it.
Mordechai, Jerusalem, Israel

This guy is like a naive child...let him spend a few days in Sderot and then ask him if it was a good idea to leave Gaza.
Akiva Goldberg, Jerusalem, Israel

Wonderful to hear that there are still the old kibbutzniks in Israel. I hope Dov is able to sell his work as well. The arts cross borders.
David Krut, Johannesburg, South Africa

The image of Wadi Salka serving water to both the Israelis and the Palestinians in Gaza fills my eyes with tears of hope for a reconciliation too long delayed. I am so happy to find out about Dov Heller.
Michael Johnston, Paris France

I am very happy to read that a kibutz like the one Dov lives in still survive,I am sure that peace will come to the region when all accept the rights of all,Arab and jew and live a life together in love and peace.
Joe Durham, Colchester.UKI

There is much wrong with Israeli policy and behavior, as there is with much on the Palestinian side. But when I read about a Dov Heller or work, as I recently did, with the dissident IDF veterans of Breaking the Silence, I am reminded that some of the best people involved are Israelis. This makes it all the more embarrassing to read Vice President Cheney's lies about who is obstructing peace in the Middle East. The US and Israeli governments are.
Ed McCarthy, Buxton Maine, USA


Tim Franks 29 March
Views from Cairo



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