'You'll be working in bananas,' said the cross-looking blonde woman in scarlet hotpants

Marcus Tanner recalls tense moments during his stay on a kibbutz
Click to follow
The Independent Online
'You'll be working in bananas", they told me when I got off the bus at the kibbutz in northern Galilee. A cross-looking blonde Canadian woman in scarlet hotpants escorted me to my hut in the foreigner's end of camp. "You don't look Jewish," I ventured. "I'm a convert - I married one," she snapped. "Don't try going out of the kibbutz at night - there are terrorists out there".

I had arrived with a batch of German girls and a clutch of English nurses. The Germans talked of atoning for Nazi crimes. What did I want? Freedom, certainly - my first holiday on my own after leaving my stuffy school.

The German girls, who all seemed to be called Ulli, kept to themselves. They lowered their gazes and whispered when the kibbutz boys came past our row of "foreigners' huts" in the evenings, stripped to the waist, lolling over the handlebars of their bikes, beer bottles in hand, leering.

The British girls - pallid and drawn on arrival, bronzed and vibrant after only a few weeks - had a different agenda. Within two weeks, one of the nurses had got hitched to a real kibbutznik - a Jew from Manchester. We had spotted her sneaking into his hut at night. Her best friend, Lee, was livid. "Rotten cow," she told me, unable to hide her hopeless jealousy.

I spent a lot of time with Lee, partly to avoid a big female soldier called Miriam who used to creep up behind me after our dinner in the communal dining hall and try and entice me back to her hut, which she shared with another big army girl, called Effi.

I felt sorry for Lee, who I knew was absolutely mortified by the triumphant smirk of her former friend. One of the few unmarried kibbutzniks soon spotted Lee had missed out; he offered to take us down a wadi to look for terrapins, and then virtually told me to disappear. I could see him groping Lee's backside as he "helped" her over the boulders while I stumbled along furiously behind being bitten by mosquitoes.

The kibbutzniks looked on us with some suspicion. Foreign volunteers were part of the tradition of kibbutzes affiliated to the Israeli Labor party, as ours was; we reinforced that rather vague, but self-conscious spirit of internationalism they had inherited from those turn-of-the-century Socialist Zionist pioneers, whom the crabby Canadian woman sometimes lectured us about. "They weren't allowed to have anything private - not even a kettle," she once said proudly. (The other kibbutznik women ignored her. Her childlessness embarrassed them, it seemed). We were useful cheap labour, too, in the fish ponds, or hacking away at the undergrowth in the banana fields that sloped down to the sea of Galilee and the Jordanian border.

But some of them also thought the women volunteers were disruptive - just interested in having sex under the banana trees. I got sick of Lee going on about her friend's betrayal. She ditched the kibbutznik who took her down the wadi and after failing to get off with the American Jewish doctor - who publicly snubbed her in the communal dining room - she felt she just had to leave.

And when we all started talking in the evenings about the deserted Arab village that lay only a mile away - and started asking why it was deserted, some of the kibbutzniks got riled and called us 'Arab- lovers'. At the end of September, the wind started whistling round the doors of our huts. The bananas were harvested. It was time to go.