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Journey through Israel

By Paul Adams
Diplomatic correspondent, BBC News

View from Kibbutz Kfar Hanasi
View over the Upper Galilee towards Golan Heights from Kibbutz Kfar Hanasi

The journey begins, appropriately enough, at a kibbutz born in the same year as the Jewish state.

Amid the basalt rocks and sun-parched slopes north of the Sea of Galilee, the "English Kibbutz" was founded by British Jews who rushed here in the wake of the Holocaust to participate in the Zionist dream.

In the early days, the new arrivals lived in tents and were paid a few pennies to move rocks. The new state's borders were not yet defined (they still aren't) and the Syrians were nearby.

Julia Nizan learned to handle a Sten gun and felt, as all the kibbutzniks did, like pioneers.

"We felt we had a job to do," Julia told me, as we looked towards the nearby Golan Heights. "We knew we had to build up something that was going to mean something."

The erstwhile pioneers now move about on electric buggies and the kibbutz, which has gradually abandoned the founding principles of communal living, has the sleepy air of a rural retirement home.

Idealism and reality

But the idealism that brought people here still burns brightly, and with it regret at the way Israel has turned out.

"It makes me feel rotten," she says of the news, which seems full of the latest police investigation into financial and sexual shenanigans by the country's politicians.

map

"We hoped we would be a model for a country that would live without corruption; a simpler kind of life where basic values were honoured."

Travelling south to Netanya, I meet Mazi Melesa, a confident young Ethiopian woman with a new baby and high hopes for her post-grad studies in diplomacy.

She arrived with her parents and 15,000 other Ethiopian Jews during a dramatic 36-hour airlift in 1991, codenamed Operation Solomon.

Seventeen years on, and life hasn't always been easy for the Ethiopians, who now make up about 1.5% of the population. More than half live below the poverty line. There are problems with drugs and domestic violence.

"We thought Israel was the land of honey and milk," Mazi says. "But you have to work for that honey and milk. So when I see friends - who didn't take the opportunity to go to school - in the street with alcohol and drugs, it's painful."

Newly arrived

In nearby Ra'anana, Marla Bitran, a recent arrival from Brazil, shares the idealism and determination of Mazi.

Immigrants learning Hebrew
A Hebrew class in the absorption centre in Ra'anana

But as with all immigrants, there are forces which pushed, as well as pulled her to "make aliya" (literally "ascending").

"The dream of living in Israel has always existed in me," she tells me at the absorption centre, run by the Jewish Agency, where she still lives.

"But the situation in Brazil was terrible. The violence was escalating and it pushed us to come a little quicker."


Finally, to Sderot, hard against the Gaza Strip. While the kibbutzniks of the Galilee feared Syrian artillery in the 1940s, Sderot in 2008 lives under an almost daily barrage of crude rockets fired by Palestinian militants.

The town is home to many Jews from the former Soviet Union, most of whom arrived in a huge wave of immigration in the nineteen nineties.

I meet Olga Peltz, an immigrant from Ukraine, looking for bargains in an open air market.

Shopping in Sderot
Rocket shelters stand at either end of this market in Sderot

Improvised rocket shelters, gaily painted, stand at either end. When the siren goes, you have at most 15 seconds to take cover.

Olga is a nervous wreck, carrying a bag of medication to help her cope with the rockets.

Once a successful businesswoman, she now exists on state benefits which don't go far enough. There's a strong feeling of communal solidarity in Sderot, but also a sense that the state is not doing what it should.

Olga says she feels abandoned but has nowhere else to go.

Leaving violence or uncertainty behind in their home countries, Israel's immigrants have found plenty of both here in Israel.

But they've also realised their dreams - and only a few are looking back.


This is the first in a series of articles by Paul Adams from around Israel and the Occupied Territories as Israel marks its 60th anniversary.

You can hear his radio reports from Israel on the World Tonight on BBC Radio 4 at 2200 BST on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, and he will host a special BBC Debate for Israel's 60th anniversary on BBC World Service Radio (bbcworldservice.com) on Saturday 10th May at 1800 GMT.




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