My quest to explore the soul of the new Israel began with a journey to the biblical wilderness of the southern desert. There, in a small farming community, lived Assaf Shaham, the native son of hardy Zionist pioneers who, in the 1950s, had obstinately moved to the Arava, a sun-scorched, sparsely populated, barren strip of backcountry along Israel’s then-hostile border with Jordan.
A first, chance meeting with Shaham had come years earlier, during a press tour of the area to promote Israel’s expertise in arid agriculture. Shaham struck me as an archetypal new Israeli: authentic and rooted, but also worldly and enterprising. He had spent years living elsewhere, but once he had a family of his own he was drawn back to the remote community of his birth, Ein Yahav, a tiny speck on the map inhabited by a few hundred souls.
At first encounter Shaham, a farmer-innovator, seemed to be living the Zionist dream, and in many ways he was: a bona fide son of the land whose parents were born at around the same time as the state, and a product of his generation of high-tech entrepreneurs. The Israel beyond Ein Yahav had fundamentally changed, divided, and fragmented and was in political turmoil. But perhaps Shaham had cracked the secret of inner peace and purpose in the Jewish homeland.
My journey began with the ear-popping descent down to the Dead Sea from Jerusalem. The drive from the holy city to the lowest point on earth is a trip through folds of time, but also one through the complex strata of modern Israel. The car sped along the newly asphalted highway in blinding sunlight through the stark, almost primordial landscape of the Judean desert, through an Israeli military checkpoint into the occupied West Bank and past a sprawling Jewish settlement perched along a beige ridgetop, past ramshackle Bedouin encampments of hide tents, tin shacks, and pens for livestock. About halfway down the steep incline a large, turquoise-tiled sign on the roadside marked sea level. An overly adorned camel waited stoically for travelers to take a photo, as if in a picture postcard. The bone-dry hills spread out in the distance like the bed of a waterless ocean.
To the left, the Palestinian oasis town of Jericho lay in a haze. The road twisted rightward, hugging the shore of the receding Dead Sea, glistening with salt. Dramatic beige cliffs lined the other side of the highway, pocked with the dark mouths of caves that once provided refuge for the ancient rebels of the Jewish revolt against the Romans. Through another military checkpoint marking entry back into Israel proper and past the desert fortress of Masada—the deeper toward the earth’s core, the thicker the atmosphere became. Beyond the hotel district near ancient Sodom, and after the grotesque, industrial Dead Sea chemical plant, the salt lake was abruptly swallowed up by the Arava desert.
It was still another hour’s drive along Route 90 to Ein Yahav, through the moonscape-like Great Rift Valley abutting the Jordanian border. The wind-sculpted cliffs tapered out into a monotonous plain broken only by flat-topped, thorny acacia bushes, providing dappled patches of shade. In this harsh, inhospitable terrain, the Zionist enterprise had been boiled down to its essence, though upon arriving at Ein Yahav it struck me as surprisingly lush. Still a flagship of Jewish settlement in the area, it operated as a moshav, a rural cooperative that was a model of old Labor Zionism, the movement that had laid the foundations of the state but had almost become obsolete in twenty-first-century Israel.
Remote by Israeli standards, this being a relatively compact country, Ein Yahav lay about 140 miles from Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coast. The closest cities, Beersheba and Eilat, were both a ninety-minute drive away. When Assaf’s father, Ami Shaham, first arrived in the Arava in 1959, barely more than a decade after the establishment of the state, it was even less accessible. But in those years life here was a mission.
Just a decade earlier, in 1949, Israeli forces had raised an Israeli flag known as the ink flag, hastily drawn on a piece of cloth, over an abandoned British police station in Um Rash-Rash, now Eilat, the southernmost point of the country, in what was considered the final act of the War of Independence. The Arava was still dangerous terrain. Soldiers lay in wait for hours to ambush fedayeen, the Palestinian guerrillas who would infiltrate from Jordan. Israelis had to travel Route 90 in convoys, with an army escort.
Ami Shaham was born in 1942 in the coastal city of Netanya. Infused with the ideals of Labor Zionism by his surroundings, he attended the Mikve Israel agricultural school established in the late nineteenth century. Eager to take part in building the state, he left school at seventeen and came south to join a small group of soldiers from the Nahal army brigade who had established a foothold in a former British police fort on the western side of Route 90. In those early years, the Nahal unit combined military service with settling the land. The community consisted of a few miserable shacks near the old fort and was the first agricultural settlement to take hold in this central section of the Arava Valley. The settlers named it Ein Yahav for the nearby Yahav Spring, known in Arabic as Ein Wiba, and they tried to farm the dry, dusty earth where young adventurers before them had failed.
Although settling the borders was one of the pillars of the security concept of the fledgling state, the pragmatic military and settlement authorities at first opposed the central Arava experiment. One Israeli official told the settlers it would be cheaper to put them all up in a Tel Aviv hotel than to bear the cost of sustaining communities in the area. But David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the state and its first prime minister, was a passionate advocate of populating the desert and making it bloom as a central tenet for securing Israel’s future.
Few Israelis were then living in the vast expanse between the Dead Sea and Eilat. Tragedy struck the Arava in March 1954 when fedayeen attacked a bus on a corkscrew-like desert pass known as Scorpion’s Ascent. Eleven passengers were killed on their way back from Eilat’s fifth anniversary celebrations. The incident gave added impetus to the Arava settlers’ cause. In a landmark speech in 1955 on “The Significance of the Negev,” Ben-Gurion declared that it was there “that the people of Israel will be tested” in the spirit of pioneering, science, creativity, and innovation. Israeli control of Eilat, about eighty miles south of Ein Yahav, on the Gulf of Aqaba, was also seen as imperative as a naval gateway to Africa. In 1959, over the objections of the government’s settlement commissars, Ben-Gurion signed the letter approving the establishment of Ein Yahav.
Frustrated with the initial results, however, Ami left the outpost to complete his military service and officers’ course. He went on to work for three years as the head of the manpower department in Israel’s new and highly secret nuclear reactor that had gone up in Dimona, a new town in the Negev desert. Assaf’s mother, Shula, was born in 1947 and grew up in Bnei Zion, a moshav on the coastal plain. She met Ami during her military service, when she was a young soldier of eighteen, and the pair decided to settle together in Ein Yahav in 1966. Shula, who was still a soldier, had to get special permission to join the Nahal unit in order to move there. “It was the end of the world,” she recalled. “There was nothing here. Nothing. You needed a lot of faith.”
Ami and Shula married the next year. They were both what was known in the popular vernacular as Sabras, or tzabarim, native-born Israeli Jews. The sabra bush, a prickly pear cactus whose fruit wears a thick, spiny armor protecting its soft, juicy interior, grew wild across the country, needing no tending and little water. Though the bush was actually native to South or Central America, the pre-state Zionist pioneers adopted it as a symbol of the children born in the land of Israel, free of an exile mentality and unfettered by European manners. It later came to connote the proverbial Israeli, said to be tough on the outside and sweet and sentimental on the inside, as well as to represent the modern Hebrews’ renewed attachment and claim to the land.
In the fall of 1967, flush with victory in the Six-Day War, the Nahal group, by now demobilized, moved their tiny farming cooperative to a permanent location on the eastern side of Route 90, even closer to the Jordanian border. By then, the community consisted of a dozen or so families and a few singles. Two months after the move, Assaf was the first child to be born in the new location. Ein Yahav was off the electricity grid but had a generator. There was no grocery store or telephone line or paved road. It was nearly impossible to push a child’s stroller through the sand. Medical emergencies required evacuation by army helicopter. The National Water Carrier—a system of pipes and canals built to bring water from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the arid south, completed in 1964 and a symbol of Zionist pride—did not reach the Arava.
Each family began with a small holding of twenty dunams—five acres—and, according to the principle of Hebrew labor and self-sufficiency, worked the land with their own hands. Once a week a supermarket in Dimona, about fifty miles away, would deliver supplies and the driver would take orders for the following week. Buses or taxis tossed out packages of newspapers on their way to Eilat. The areas along the Jordanian border were mined and residents of the Israeli settlements often spent hours in underground shelters, accessed by trapdoors under their beds, when there were reports of infiltrators, and they would switch off the lights—the only ones in the area—as booms split the air.
Soon more communities sprang up—Hatzeva to the north, Faran to the south. In Ein Yahav, the farmers drilled wells and pumped salty water out of the sand, planted a date grove, and, with the addition of an imported layer of topsoil, learned to tease tomatoes, peppers, melons, and eggplant out of the sunbaked ground. The invention in the 1960s of drip irrigation by Netafim, an industry of Kibbutz Hatzerim in the Negev, and the introduction of hothouses made the seasons almost irrelevant. With its long, hot summers and an average of four days of annual rainfall, the Arava became a dusty petri dish of agricultural improvisation and innovation. The Arava farmers gained the know-how to grow tomatoes in winter and helped turn Israel into a global leader in water conservation and arid agriculture. Over the decades, through grit and determination, the handful of farming communities of the central Arava Valley, with a population of some 3,500, went on to produce more than 60 percent of Israel’s fresh vegetables for export.
The Arava farmers experimented with relatively simple technologies like underground water pipe systems to heat or chill the roots of plants, plastic tunnels to regulate the temperature, and net houses to keep out insects. Specializing in bell peppers, the farmers reaped small fortunes, but, in the face of foreign competition and extreme weather, also suffered through years of near financial ruin. As the demand grew for dates, many of the ever-adaptable Arava farmers switched to cultivating Medjool date palms. The founders’ original challenge of creating a productive life out of the sand had been accomplished.
For a native of Ein Yahav, Assaf Shaham had seen a lot of the world. His father had held a string of positions in the moshav union; he was the first head of the Central Arava Regional Council and was instrumental in bringing water to the region. As an envoy teaching Israeli farming methods, he then took the family for spells in Zambia, Uganda, and Kenya. The family also spent two years as emissaries in New York when Assaf was a teenager. After Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994, Ami worked on joint water projects between the two countries.
Like most Jewish Israelis, Assaf was drafted at eighteen for three years of obligatory military service. He served in the 50th Battalion of the Nahal infantry brigade, a favorite with the sons of the kibbutz and moshav. Nonetheless, he recalled, that was the first time he met the “other Israel,” experiencing a culture shock in his own country. Ein Yahav was a largely homogeneous community of secular, liberal Ashkenazi Jews of European descent, then considered Israel’s crème de la crème. But the army was a reflection of a broader Israel: rightists and leftists, religious and secular, veterans and new immigrants, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, also known as Mizrahim, all served together. The Mizrahim, or eastern Jews, had emigrated en masse in the 1950s from the mostly Arabic-speaking Islamic world and made up some 50 percent of Israel’s Jewish population. Some had come eagerly after the creation of Israel, out of a belief in Zionism, others more reluctantly to flee persecution under the anti-Zionist Arab regimes, leaving their property behind. It was Assaf’s first encounter with the Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide. He was unfamiliar with Mizrahi food and culture. On open Saturdays at his army base, the Mizrahi parents, stereotypically warm and effusive compared to their uptight, almost Spartan, Ashkenazi compatriots, would roll up with miraculously hot pots of home-cooked soul food like couscous and kubbeh. Assaf said his parents would arrive “with two cucumbers and a tomato.”
The social and cultural collision was compounded by a sudden outburst of violence. In December 1987, a year into Assaf’s army service, the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, broke out, an explosion of twenty years of pent-up frustration since Israel’s occupation of the territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 war. Israeli troops were ordered to respond to stone-throwing Palestinians with beatings and force. Hundreds were killed. (Born soon after the Israeli conquests of the 1967 war, Assaf had never known the smaller-scale Israel without the occupied territories, and within the narrower boundaries set in the 1949 armistice talks.) He said he found the whole army experience overwhelming and disturbing.
After completing his service, he became a feted lighting designer on the Tel Aviv theater, gallery, and museum scene. Having built a career, he then left for a long spell abroad, living in Los Angeles, Fiji, and New Zealand. Being away, he said, he learned the power of identity and belonging. “I learned early that you travel with yourself,” he said. “You can’t run away from yourself. You will always be an outsider. There comes a point where you are not part of it.”
Copyright © 2023 by Isabel Kershner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.