Detours on the road to paradise

Haim Watzman is the author of "Company C: An American's Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005). He is writing a book about the Dead Sea rift valley.

Fiercely proud Jewish settlers fervently committed to a messianic ideology that requires them to settle the farthest reaches of the biblical Land of Israel. An Israeli government faced with diplomatic and political realities that require it to cede land to the Arabs. We've been here before. Today, it's the Gush Katif settlements in the Gaza Strip. In 1948, it was Kibbutz Beit HaArava, southeast of Jericho.

On March 21, 1940, a small group of young men and women laid the cornerstone for a socialist commune near the spot where the Jordan River flows into the Dead Sea. Popularly known as chugistim, they belonged to one of the most radical of the many socialist Zionist factions before Israel was a state.

Like the Gaza settlers of today, they were inspired by a spiritual leader, a white-bearded Tolstoyan figure named Yitzhak Tabenkin. Like the Gaza settlers, they were territorial maximalists -- that is, they believed in the inalienable right of Jews to settle in all parts of the ancient Land of Israel and stridently opposed all proposals for partitioning the land into separate Jewish and Arab states.

Because they were also committed to coexistence with the Arabs, the chugistim founded their communes only on vacant, desolate land uninhabited and uncultivated by Palestinian Arabs.

Like the Gaza settlers, they believed that settling all parts of the Land of Israel was a sacred duty that would lead to a return to Eden. The Israelis in Gaza believe that by establishing a Jewish presence there, they are helping bring the Messiah. The chugistim believed that it was a step toward achieving Tabenkin's anarchist utopia: a loose federation of small Jewish and Arab agricultural cooperatives, united under a rugged, simple, egalitarian ethos.

If there was a spot created by God for the chugistim, it was the salt flats north of the Dead Sea. It was no wonder that so few lived there -- the land was poison, the heat infernal, the water undrinkable. To make it perfect, there was a bad-smelling Stalinist-style chemical factory founded by an entrepreneur who'd been jailed by Czar Nicholas II for his revolutionary activities. And it employed proletarian Arabs from Jericho.

In the eight years that followed, the chugistim toiled in the factory and in the fields and, true to their manifesto, created a paradise out of the waste.

They washed the salt out of the soil and planted vegetables. They dug fish ponds and built a dairy barn and chicken coops. They married, raised their children communally in children's houses, and buried their dead in a cemetery they consecrated next to the kibbutz. Like the Gaza settlers now, they believed with all their hearts and all their might that they were there to stay.

So their trauma was huge, inconceivable on Nov. 29, 1947, when the United Nations General Assembly voted to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. The country's Jews flooded the streets, dancing and celebrating the realization of their dream. Not the chugistim of Beit HaArava -- because the U.N. resolution also called for partition of the land, and the land on which they lived had been assigned to the Arab state.

The chugistim hoped that the evil decree would be rendered void by the inevitable war that was about to begin. They hoped that the northern Dead Sea would end up in Israeli hands.

But David Ben-Gurion, premier of the new country's provisional government, had battles to win and diplomacy to conduct. His eyes were not on the communist Jewish-Arab utopia envisioned but on the practicalities of strategy -- and how the Jewish state could survive and thrive after the war. He wanted accommodation with King Abdallah of Transjordan. The managers of the chemical factory had the same interest, hoping to preserve their investment. And the British, the exiting colonial power, wanted to ensure the supply of phosphates and other essential products from the factory.

In May 1948, the chugistim received the order to abandon Beit HaArava. They assembled for a midnight meeting of the commune. Many refused to accept the decision. Some said they would cling to the date trees they had planted as the Arab Legion, Abdallah's army, marched in.

In the end, however, they realized that their dream was broken. Children and pregnant and nursing women were evacuated by air. On the night of May 19, the remaining members boarded boats and set out over the Dead Sea to a port on its southwestern coast, in Israeli territory.

Like the Jewish settlers in Gaza today, the trauma of Beit HaArava was much deeper than that of simply leaving a beloved home and landscape. The chugistim were not religious, but leaving Beit HaArava was a theological crisis. It violated their deepest convictions about how the world worked and the purpose for which the Jewish people and humankind as a whole had been placed on Earth.

The young pioneers of Beit HaArava are now elderly grandparents. When you hear them speak, you realize that the trauma never ended for them. Despite that, they went on to found two kibbutzim in the Galilee region, and their children and grandchildren are citizens of a well-established Jewish state.

They learned that the course of history diverged from the road to paradise. It diverged, and yet the world did not end. The Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip need to learn the same lesson. It will be almost unbearable, but it will be better for them, and for the rest of Israel.

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