A Wonderful Country

The photo album, edited by Abraham Harman and Yigael Yadin, had been published for Israel's 10th birthday. For a boy growing up in Tel Aviv in the 1950s and '60s, it was moving and inspiring, something he took with him to bed every night throughout his childhood.

Dad brought home the album on Independence Day. It was my first album. The oval stamp on the first yellowing page has not faded: "To C[omrade] Levy Tzvi, a gift for the 10th anniversary, 5718-1958, Herut Ltd., management of the workers committee."

They called comrade Levy Tzvi, who was actually Heinz, "Doctor Levy," at a time when everyone at the Histadrut labor federation company where he worked called each other by their first names. "Doctor Levy," in a mixture of distance and admiration, and perhaps also ridicule.

Dad, of blessed memory, was a refugee who never found his place in the new, promised land. He lived here for 60 years, most of his life, leaving behind in the Sudetenland, in Czechoslovakia, his parents, a fiancee and a promising career that was never fulfilled. He never learned to differentiate between hummus and tehina, never even tasted them. He did not understand how people could disturb anyone between 2 P.M. and 4 P.M., during the afternoon rest, and how one could have an "overdraft" - a word entirely foreign to him - in the bank.

Every day the newspaper delivery man on his bicycle would throw his rolled-up copy of the Jerusalem Post with amazing precision onto the balcony of our third-floor apartment; Dad never learned proper Hebrew and people would laugh at his mistakes.

He was a clerk in a Histadrut company - a foreign agent, to whom the rules of the game were completely strange. This was not what he learned when he completed his doctorate in jurisprudence in the first half of the last century at Prague University. To submit a false receipt? Sixty years he lived in Israel, and that's something he never considered.

And still, on Independence Day he always brought the rolled-up flag out of the closet, and hung it proudly from the balcony. That was a moving moment for me. I, too, was very proud at that time of the blue-and-white flag fluttering in the spring breeze on the balcony, drowning in a sea of flags on the small Tel Aviv street where they still sold watermelon, pear cacti, kerosene and ice from horse-drawn wagons, and the Orthodox knife-sharpener would signal his presence by calling out in German.

Dad brought home the album and I do not remember now whether I ever saw him look through it. Those pictures apparently did not speak to him. I, on the other hand, engulfed myself in its pages. "On Israel's Tenth Anniversary," edited by Abraham Harman and Yigael Yadin, Masada Publishers, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, was my daily portion, a little boy in little Tel Aviv.

"The Dance of the Fishermen on Independence Day" appeared on the cover, which I lost a long time ago, perhaps tore. But I will carry that cover picture with me, like the rest of the pictures in the album, forever. The flags of Israel flying in the background, while the Hebrew fishermen march together, their nets on their shoulders, their baskets carried by their women, who loved the fishermen. "I have made you walk erect." (Lev. 26:13)

I was 5 years old when I held it for the first time, and from that time throughout the years of my childhood, I would take it to bed and go through it, page after page, photograph after photograph, sailing in my imagination to the harvested fields of the Jezreel Valley, the factories in Haifa and the oil wells of Heletz. To the happy immigrants from Kurdistan, the Bedouin in Be'er Sheva, rejoicing in their lot, the soldiers in their tidy uniforms and the Yemenite bride in her traditional and strange finery, all looking at me from the album, the spirit of the time throbbing within me. That was my children's book par excellence, long before the birth of the Ninja turtles and Shrek.

This is my land, I thought then, staring at the pictures every night before I fell asleep, until they were seared deeply into my consciousness. After 49 years, I still remember, even before I open the album, the photograph of the immigrant girl with her shy smile, Ben-Gurion standing behind her; the picture of the soldier in camouflage fatigues, heroically jumping over a barbed-wire fence, strange thistles crowning his helmet; the photograph of the two joyful laborers watching the first stream of oil pour forth from the Heletz field, and of the first Hebrew jet plane, a boy grasping its wing. That boy was my age, the land was my land, innocent and beautiful. Deceptive.

Ben-Gurion wrote an introduction. A wide-ranging essay, setting out in detail the very impressive achievements of the state he had established, with mounds and mounds of data and philosophical thoughts, spread across 10 crowded pages. I never read it, and I am reading it now for the first time. "These immigrants became, after a short time in the homeland, a building, creative and defending force that guaranteed the population of the cities most of its food from the fruit of the land, and together with the Israel Defense Forces assured the security of the land on its borders"; "The first decade of Israel generated welcome transformation in the lives of the minorities in the country - in the economy, socially, in education and in health"; "Israel is an exemplary society, that is, a new society founded on superior moral values stemming from the teachings of the prophets."

Did the leader-founder believe all those things? Would he write even an iota of all that today? What can we say? Let us go through the pages and quickly peruse the photographs, as in childhood. Page after page, every picture has a memory, a vague memory of a country depicted as when we were children. Is this the way it was? Or was that the way they wanted us to see it? The innocence of youth, or propaganda? The beautiful Land of Israel, or the Bolshevik Land of Israel?

"Happy is he who waits, who comes close and sees the rising/Of your light, when on him your dawn shall break," the book quoted from Yehuda Halevi, accompanying a photograph of dawn over the Kinneret, but with melancholy skies. The abandoned houses of Safed - is one of them the home of Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen? The Tahana waterfall near Metulla; the Jordan Valley and olive trees on the Carmel, the shearing of the sheep at Nes Harim and a shepherd "on the heights of Galilee"; Nahal Harod, Nazareth and Capernaum, a convention of the Israel Exploration Society at Shivta in the Negev; a cement factory at Hartuv in the Judean Mountains; the Hula Lake before and after it was drained; "At the Argol factory in Acre" and "the facade of a new medical center"; dry land in the Negev; "young orange groves"; "an electronic brain at the Weizmann Institute of Science" and the bromine factory at Sodom. All of this in 10 years.

And here are the people, the new Jews. A strong laborer wielding his shovel at the potash factory at Sodom; a farmer plowing his field in the soil of Lachish "at a frontier kibbutz after the meal"; three smiling kibbutzniks, and on the opposite page, "the farm's old-timers," who are also smiling in the dining room; the celebration of the first fruits at Gan Shmuel; "the constant student" - a picture of a student in his class; "his first jar" - a photograph of the first Hebrew potter; "at the lathe" - a Hebrew lathe operator, also certainly the first; a medical student at Hadassah University Hospital; children being inoculated against polio at a clinic. Oh, how often I paused over that photograph: the mother's frightened face, looking away so as not to see the horror, while the nurse inserts the needle into the arm of her child, a plate of sour candy at the ready to serve as compensation.

And here come the new immigrants: a mother and son, she is smiling, showing a row of gold teeth, both looking out of the porthole of their ship, hope gleaming from their eyes; a group of immigrants "on their way to their new home": a transit camp, a tin or canvas shack, an immigrants' moshav or a periphery town. Carrying one kerosene cooker and two sacks, all they owned; the photograph of "the citizen president": Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, conversing with an immigrant from Yemen.

And there were also - why deny it? - people having a good time. Europe in the Levant. Normalcy after two wars that had already taken place in Israel's first decade. A cafe in little Tel Aviv "in the city street"; "midnight at an artists' club," young Reuven Shefer and Shaul Biber singing to the accompaniment of an energetic woman accordionist, and swimming in the sea under a sunshade at the Bat-Yam beach: "On a summer day, a hot day" a group of children jumping into the water, a basketball game, a sculpture competition on Mount Carmel, two photographs of theater.

One photograph of the Philharmonic at the Mann Auditorium. A youth choir and "near a shop window" - a book store, of course. What else would it be? Castro? Dan Cassidi?

The building of the land: "We are building the land, we are suffering agonies, we are draining the swamps, building the roads, the huts. Struggling with nature. That is the thing called homeland. Everything we build in the land of Israel must bear within it the element of the eternal" - Chaim Weizmann.

"Laying water pipes to the Negev"; "water for the land and the cattle in the Negev prairies"; "the road and the water pipe are lifelines in the Arava"; a sunflower field in the desert; soldering of oil drums; picking and packing of citrus fruit for export; factory workers, flower-picking at Yotvata and of course, the pumping of oil at Heletz. That's the photograph I loved best. Two men, one tall and the other short, one with glasses and both of them holding the drill in their gloved hands, implanted deep in the earth, perhaps laughing or shouting, the black liquid spurting out and staining their bodies, their faces and clothing. I have never seen such joy - in another minute we will turn into Saudi Arabia.

And there are Arabs. Not many, but they are there: a cloth peddler in Be'er Sheva; Bedouin on market day in the same town, the Druze on pilgrimage to the grave of Nebi Shueib at Kfar Hittin, at prayer in an Acre mosque. Refugees? Expelled? Uprooted? The military administration? Jewish National Fund groves, for which Ben-Gurion expressed pride in his introduction, covered every remnant and refugee of the 416 lost villages, wiping them out forever.

"Let purity in the use of arms, loyalty and devotion to matters of the nation, zealous allegiance to the Israeli morality of the Hebrew defense be the pillar of fire that goes before the camps of the IDF" - from Order of the Day number 1 of the IDF. A tank, a military ceremony at Masada, a Gadna (paramilitary youth) farm at Be'er Ora, inspection of a naval unit in their gleaming white uniforms, a tank and a horse at an IDF parade, a bereaved mother at the grave of her son. The defense army.

Then, at school / on the wall, a picture/in it the farmer plows the soil / In the background, the cypresses/Pale hot-winded sky / the farmer will grow bread for us / So we will grow / Thus in our imagination, the wonders multiplied/hammers made music/Plows sang / There are vintners and farmers/A land of shepherds / Thus the picture of our childhood / which was beautiful.

Eli Mohar, who wrote these immortal words, has since died. So has the dream. A mixture of longing and anger floods me when I look through the pages of "On Israel's Tenth Anniversary." Longing for the innocence of youth, for a 10-year-old country, for the pride that filled me then, every time I saw a picture of factory workers, farmers, scientists and soldiers, pictures of a beautiful and just country, a wonderful land.

And anger: anger for what they did not show us in that 10th anniversary album, what they did not tell us and did not teach us, anger at what is left of its pictures and its messages. And really, what was truth, the whole truth, and what was our wishful thinking? And what is left? Almost 50 years later, what album could we produce for the 60th anniversary? The Hebrew farmers have been replaced by Thais, the factory workers by Romanians, and no one dares raise the matter of purity in the use of arms. What is left? The sunrise over the Kinneret, as beautiful as it was, as in the picture of our childhood, which was beautiful.