The Israeli Version of West Point, and a Kibbutz Once Suspected of Being a Cult

Gideon Levy completes his road trip along Israel's second-longest highway. The fourth and final part of a series

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The algae factory in Kibbutz Ketura.
The algae factory in Kibbutz Ketura.Credit: Alex Levac

Israel’s version of West Point is situated in gray concrete barracks, built in what’s known as the brutalist architectural style, in the middle of the desert, a little north of Mitzpeh Ramon. The Israel Defense Forces’ officers school has been here since 1968. Before that, it was at the northern end of the same road – Highway 40 – in Kfar Syrkin. Chief Warrant Officer Yitzhak Taito served in Bahad 1 officers training base at Sirkin beginning back in 1964, and since the move, four years later, he’s been here, apparently forever.

He receives us at the entrance to the office of the commander of Bahad 1 (an acronym for “basiss hadrakha,” meaning “training base”), in Mitzpeh Ramon. At 76, he may well be the last of the legendary rasar (master sergeant) generation, although the rank is now called rav nagad. He still oversees 18 military parade formations a year, marking the end of various officer training courses; accessing the parade ground without his permission is prohibited by order.

>> Part 1: The Israeli dream – or nightmare – is found on both sides of Highway 40Part 2: Tall tales and desert mirages in southern IsraelPart 3: As the landscape changes, so do the people

The aura of the once legendary Bahad 1 has faded considerably over the years, perhaps for the best.

The aura of the once legendary Bahad 1 has faded considerably over the years, perhaps for the best. Writers and intellectuals rarely visit. Each year, thousands of officers – the new base commander will call them “kids” – emerge from the concrete structures and training grounds, most of them after three-month courses, these days with less pathos and perhaps greater professionalism. Verses from Deuteronomy and the poems of Shaul Tchernichovsky are still on the walls, also the iconic David Rubinger photo of paratroopers at the Western Wall in 1967. But the impression is that what goes on here is strictly army, not other things.

Nor is the new base commander what you might expect. Col. Gur Schreibman exudes the aura of an officer who until a month ago was the commander of the navy’s fabled Shayetet 13 special ops unit, no less, but with the exterior of a smiling, good-hearted clerk, plump and sociable, a bit teddy bear-like, Schreibman is totally without mannerisms of power, arrogance or haughtiness. Indeed, every Hebrew mother would be happy to place her son’s or daughter’s fate in his hands (to evoke David Ben-Gurion’s famous comment about IDF officers).

Born in the Arava Desert moshav of Neot Hakikar, Schreibman grew up in Kfar Sava and still lives there – the last place you’d associate with the commander of a naval commando force. Taking the stage in the lecture hall for his debut appearance, in front of cadets from the Dekel combat officers battalion, he doesn’t hesitate to say, with captivating sincerity, almost bashfully, “I admit that I’m moved.”

But the almost flustered outward visage apparently conceals a daring fighter and tough commander. He’s already booted out an instructor for not telling the truth about eggs she took from the kitchen for her trainees without permission.

Cadets at the IDF officers school at the Bahad 1 base in southern Israel. Credit: Alex Levac

His office is small, almost Spartan, with the usual military and history books on the shelf, and the words of “Hatikvah” mounted on the wall. A secretary unavoidably offers instant coffee in hot milk. Along with it, the IDF now serves the latest in energy bars, in place of the traditional wafer sandwich cookies. “Look on me, and do likewise” – the biblical verse (from Judges 7) flashes on the screen of Schreibman’s laptop when he turns it on to show us data.

He’s 42, the father of three children, each of them born following a war in Lebanon or an operation in the Gaza Strip, an IDF mini-baby boom. On Tuesdays he gets special leave, which enables him to pick up his daughter from her Kfar Sava preschool. He was surprised, he says, to see “light in the eyes” of the enthusiastic cadets in Bahad 1.

Twice Schreibman left army service and twice he returned: For a time, he was a Club Med security guard on the Greek island of Kos. He’ll tell that to his cadets; he’ll also tell them about his exploits in the occupied territories.

Dark, school-like corridors and high school-style classrooms. A simulation is underway in one of them: What to do with a soldier who’s lost his motivation and is refusing to shower. A dozen cadets are in the classroom, all young men, five of them wearing kippot. About 40 percent of all officers-in-training are religiously observant, according to unofficial figures. They have long since replaced the kibbutzniks. There are already two large synagogues on the base – one wasn’t enough.

A synagogue shaped like a burning bush at the Bahad 1 IDF base.Credit: Alex Levac

In the next classroom we entered, probably not by surprise, another crucial although hypothetical question was being discussed: What to do with a religious soldier who got married and whose wife wants him to transfer to a different unit, one that’s not coed.

The IDF’s officers training school, 2017. There are no religiously observant soldiers in this classroom, because it’s mixed – men and women. “To transfer to another unit is complicated,” the instructor, Lt. Efrat, explains. She suggests that the commander speak to the soldier’s rabbi, maybe he can persuade him to stay in the unit. What’s most important, she says, is to keep tabs on the soldier and find out if his service is continuing to displease his wife; not to exert pressure, but to show interest.

Dekel Battalion rises when the commander enters. Nearly 300 young people with white ribbons on their shoulders, perhaps the only element that has never changed here, in the hall that bears the name of the most legendary commander of Bahad 1: Meir Pa’il. The hall was built with a donation from Friends of the Israel Defense Forces in the United States, in honor of “Grandfather and Grandmother Haim and Yehudit Ashkenazi.” Schnorring has arrived here, too, of course.

“My name is Gur, I’m 42, married to Ya’ara, father of three. I now have a Wikipedia entry [in Hebrew],” he begins. Until a month ago, his face was deliberately blurred in photos. A cadet wearing shades in a distant row immediately catches his eye. “Is it sunny?” he asks him. There’s a medical problem, the cadet replies. A cadet who’s fallen asleep doesn’t escape his gaze, either.

Schreibman will go on to tell them at length about the soldier and friend under his command who was killed in the second intifada at Asira a-Shamaliya, in the northern West Bank, when he was shot in an ambush after earlier not obeying his order to wear a helmet. (He had the helmet on when he was killed.) What should the commander have done with the undisciplined soldier?

The cadets offer suggestions. At this stage, they don’t yet know that the episode ended badly. Two cadets suggest slapping the soldier in the face. One says that the disciplinary infraction should be ignored. A female cadet from the Sky Riders [drones] unit asks whether Schreibman’s friendship with the soldier didn’t interfere with the officer-subordinate relations between them. In response to a question by a soldier from the elite Sayeret Matkal commando force, who hails from an upscale Tel Aviv neighborhood, Schreibman praised the involvement of veterans of “The Unit,” an eternal competitor of the Shayetet, in Israeli society.

In his teens, Schreibman was a member of Hanoar Haoved (The Working Youth) movement. In the course of his service, he undoubtedly shed some blood, possibly even of innocent people. To see him, you’d never believe it. It’s a safe bet he doesn’t hate Arabs and is not a nationalist or a racist. Probably votes left-center. He could easily serve as the IDF’s fine, humane face. During a training stint in the United States, he saw that soldiers stand when they ask a question, and now he orders his cadets to do likewise. Until that moment, they’d asked their questions while seated.

“Are there any Kfar Savans in the hall?” he asks, as though launching into a stand-up routine. “You are defending your home,” he said, in a rare resort to cliché. On one occasion, he entered an apartment in the West Bank city of Qalqilyah that was full of explosives, and from the window he could see the water tower of Kfar Sava as well as his mother’s house. American soldiers have nothing like this. They are not defending their home. “Suddenly you realize that they’re just kids,” he tells us on the tiled path on the way back to his office.

A woman biking in Kibbutz Neot Semadar.Credit: Alex Levac

Swirling suspicions

Silence in the dining room. “Pass the salt, please,” in a whisper. Here, the injunction not to talk while eating is obeyed. This is the dining room of Kibbutz Neot Semadar, 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Bahad 1. The road is deserted. The desert here is absolute, and so too is the Jewish state: after Mitzpeh Ramon you hardly see any more Bedouin. Mysterious firing zones stretch out on both sides of the road. Sometimes the road is closed for a few hours for safety’s sake. The dining room of Neot Semadar is half full, mostly with people around 60, though there are also some far younger diners. Well-worn work clothes, sun-scorched faces, dust, sand, paint stains. Like a generation ago, some of those in the kibbutz dining room are volunteers from abroad.

The cloud of suspicion has apparently been lifted from Neot Semadar. They’re not a suicide cult, not even a nonlethal cult.

I was here in the summer of 1989, 28 years ago, three weeks after the kibbutz was founded. I returned a year later, to see what had become of this unusual community, which was the object of swirling suspicions. Even the name wasn’t formally recognized back then. The state institutions called it Shizafon, like the kibbutz at the site that had been abandoned just a few years earlier; the members wanted Neot Semadar, after the late wife of their leader, Yosef Safra. Semadar Safra had been killed in a road accident a few years earlier.

Yosef Safra has since died, too, and Neot Semadar is the kibbutz’s official name. The cloud of suspicion has also apparently been completely lifted. They’re not a suicide cult, not even a nonlethal cult. Neot Semadar is a somewhat unconventional place inhabited by good people who seek meaning in their lives in this remote region. They live primarily from working the land, raising ecologically sustainable and organic crops, talk a lot, mostly about themselves and their world, but just as much of the time are silent. “All have one breath,” reads a sign on the bulletin board in the dining room, at the far end of which are two tables with signs that say “Attentiveness.” Here, talking is allowed.

Ruth Bar Halof was here 28 years ago, too – a former Jerusalemite, like everyone in the founding group, about half of whom still live here. She now manages the arts center, an extravagant structure in soft pastels that can be seen from afar, with a decidedly phallic turret, done in an indefinable style, both ugly and pretty. A system of burrows and shafts cools the building’s spaces amazingly, by means of water and without recourse to electric power.

The arts center at Kibbutz Neot Semadar.Credit: Alex Levac

Neot Semadar has matured and opened up. These days, they’re happy to welcome guests and also to take in new members. “We needed the time to come together and create the right platform. We’ve reached ripeness. We feel more secure,” Bar Halof tells me, after lunch.

“Good afternoon to everyone.” Efrat, who’s in charge of the work schedule, breaks the silence at the end of the meal (vegetarian, of course). It’s 2:15 P.M. Every day at this time, after lunch, the community holds a short, businesslike meeting in which urgent and ongoing issues are raised, of a highly practical nature. This is in addition to the deep, spiritual, weekly meetings that have been held in the structure set aside for just such gatherings since the period of Yosef Safra. A drama lecturer from Rosh Pina, in the far north, Safra was an impressive man who put together a group of believers in Jerusalem, most of them academics and self-employed professionals who were looking to change their lives and vest them with meaning. There were lecturers and filmmakers, the daughter of the poet Uri Zvi Greenberg and the son of the sculptor Yehiel Shemi. On the two occasions when I met him, Safra was dressed in white and wore a straw hat. He was universally venerated here.

“All the swamps have been drained,” he told me. “Now is the time for spiritual pioneering.” Guru or not, he crystallized this place around his personality and his teachings, in the spirit of a “school for mankind’s self-learning,” as he called the project. Safra died in 2003 and was buried here, and since then the kibbutz has been managing without him, though apparently still under the influence of his spirit. It currently has some 200 members; there were 50 when it was founded in 1989.

Efrat invites the community to join the work in the grove, ahead of the “going out.” Twice a year, at Passover and Sukkot, the members move en masse to the fruit grove, on the slopes of the kibbutz. They move everything there and spend a week at the site, day and night, under the sky or under the foliage that covers the lean-to they build. This year, some of the members will have to continue with their regular work, as the date and olive harvesting season is now at its peak. In charge of the work in the grove is Ido, who until a year ago was employed at Psagot, an investment firm.

Efrat announces that two people are needed for evening dishwashing and two more to clean the arts center – 90 minutes, two hours tops. Meir volunteers. Anyone else? After a few minutes, Aviad joins him. Meir has to leave at 8:15, Aviad will replace him, and Ruth will come, too. Now a driver is needed for the transporter in the grove this evening and one for early tomorrow morning. Avigdor raises his hand for the morning; Monika and Erez can do it this evening. Ido has the floor: “We are approaching the last stretch in the preparations for ‘going out.’ What’s left is to arrange the foliage and to bring a lot of energy. It’s very pleasant in the grove at this time of day. Come and be with us.”

And another announcement: Don’t touch the fresh garlic that’s being brought to the onion hut. It’s meant to be unloaded and planted. The garlic is not for eating. They’re also building a new electrical enclosure at the exit and need a metal worker to make legs for it. In 1989, when I first visited, a physics lecturer was busy preparing shakshuka for the community in the kitchen. Not much has changed since then. A Paul & Shark T-shirt among a sea of faded work clothes recalls that these folks were once city slickers.

The announcements over, silence descends again. Every meeting concludes with a few minutes of quiet. “Have a good rest of the day.” We head for the grove. Preparations are advanced. A tractor loads foliage and readies the ground, girls have made decorations against the spectacular desert backdrop. According to Bar Halof, the allegations made against the kibbutz at the outset were due to the fact that people felt unnerved by them. “The encounter with us undermined something in people. They started to ask themselves, ‘What are we doing with our lives?’ I told people that we didn’t have TV and they would attack us. We didn’t say television was bad, only that we didn’t have it. But that undermined their sense of security.”

Not long ago, the authorities brought them used trailers from the neighborhood of the Gaza Strip settler-evacuees in Nitzan, to house volunteers or new joiners. Politics and current events aren’t discussed much here. The gaze is inward, into themselves and the others here, less toward the world around them.

2,000-year-old seeds

South of here is a road sign for the “Taba border crossing” and the “Yitzhak Rabin border crossing.” We’re almost at the end of the country. Highway 40 ends at Ketura Junction. Kibbutz Ketura, founded in 1973, rounds off the highway, after the junction. Udi Gat, one of the founders, from an Israel Scouts movement land-settlement group, was head of the Eilot Regional Council for 14 years. But most of the original core group were from the American Young Judaea organization.

Udi Gat, one of the founders of Kibbutz Ketura.Credit: Alex Levac

Ketura currently has 160 members and a total of some 400 residents, and is crying out for people to join. They would like to have 10 to 20 new families a year. Only some 15 percent of the kibbutz-born youngsters stay.

“We’d like to see more children and youngsters on the kibbutz paths,” says Gat. Ketura is still a kibbutz, in terms of its collective economy. Together with the West Bank settlement of Kfar Adumim, of all places, it once won an award for promoting joint secular-religious life. The kibbutz has a pluralistic approach to religious observance: Most of the members fasted on Yom Kippur, but the pool is open on Shabbat. There are guest rooms for seminars and tourists, an environmental studies college, a huge farm of solar panels to produce electricity – the country’s first – with automatic robots that clean the panels daily, and an innovative algae industry. About half the members work on the kibbutz, while those whose jobs are outside have their salaries paid directly to the kibbutz. .

In Ketura, the weeds around the palms are disposed of by donkeys, not pesticides

Date palms are another important source of revenue in recent years, as they are throughout the Arava. The increasing numbers of Muslims in Europe buy Israeli dates, and they aren’t the only ones. In Ketura, the weeds around the palms are disposed of by donkeys, not pesticides. A local innovation. One palm tree here was brought to life by fertilizing 2,000-year-old seeds found at Masada. The kibbutzniks here are thinking about turning this into an export industry, along the lines of the holy water from the Jordan or canned air from the Holy Land.

The structure housing the algae industry recalls the image on the cover of Mike Oldfield’s album “Tubular Bells,” from 1973, the same year the kibbutz was founded. It’s a huge field of winding glass pipes in which tiny algae swarm in moldy water, their color becoming redder as the production process advances, as the algae become more cramped and are starved by degrees for nutrients. They are then harvested, filtered, dried and sold. In Japan, they’re used in the cosmetics industry, as health additives and also to redden the body color of salmon. The Chinese have already stolen the idea. In Ketura, the algae factory replaced the dairy barn, of which not a vestige remains. A stone sculpture of Ruth the Moabite overlooks this odd-looking algae pipeline, and equally odd is the presence of Ruth in this field of algae.

A stone sculpture of Ruth the Moabite on the backdrop of solar panels in Kibbutz Ketura.Credit: Alex Levac

Gat was unable to explain the connection. But kibbutz member Sharon Ben Heim, originally of Silver Spring, Maryland, a daughter of former Israelis from Tel Aviv, had an explanation: Ruth is linked to the religious injunctions related to gleaning, forgotten sheaf and corner of field. The Ruth sculpture stands next to the corner of the algae field, and the kibbutz donates to several NGOs from the algae-industry profits. The Leviticus precept brought up to date, if I understood correctly.

On the other side of the road, beyond Ketura’s date groves, a yellow sign stuck haphazardly in the ground enjoins people to stop: Border Ahead. There’s no fence here, and the dwellings of the Jordanian-Bedouin village of Rahma are within walking distance – stretch out an arm and touch them. There was a time when good-neighborly relations existed between Ketura and Rahma, including medical assistance. No longer. The old barbed wire fence is covered by wandering dunes. The Israeli gourd field abuts the border, and next to it is a field of melons belonging to the kibbutz. If Highway 40 were extended by another kilometer or two to the east, it would intersect with the Jordan Valley Highway in Jordan, which runs south to Saudi Arabia and up toward Iraq. Journey’s end.

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