An experiment turned extraordinary

An experiment turned extraordinary
The Jerusalem Post - July 11, 2005

Ask where Mitzpe Revivim is and the response might well be "in the middle of nowhere." Take Highway 40 south of Beersheba, and for about 30 kilometers emptiness and desolation prevail: erosion-clawed sand dunes, a few long-haired Beduin sheep and their canine caretakers, a pair of camels silhouetted against the horizon.

With no people and few cars, the silence is deafening.

Today, the isolation is an illusion. Drive a few kilometers west on Highway 222, and a lush, green, man-made oasis springs up. Mitzpe Revivim ranks among the Negev's best-kept secrets - a highly innovative agricultural community that also produces patented automobile parts.

With modern transportation, Revivim is no longer remote. In the early 1940s, when Beersheba was a sand-blown Beduin town, there were virtually no Jews in the Negev.

In 1943, three young immigrants left their homes in Rishon Lezion and walked 120 kilometers south, carrying everything they'd need: food, water, and a few tools. Their goal was to see if people could survive in the Negev.

"No one knew," recalls Yoel De Malach, the 80-year-old founder of Kibbutz Revivim.

"Under the British, it was illegal for a Jew to even spend a night anywhere south of Beersheba because the Negev was going to be given to the Arabs. But we knew what was happening in Europe. We knew there would be refugees."

With his bushy white hair and a playful twinkle in his eye, De Malach bears an uncanny resemblance to Israel's other Negev lover, David Ben-Gurion. Like Ben-Gurion, Yoel and his wife Paula have settled into active retirement in the Negev community they built, never for a moment losing sight of the original vision.

De Malach is now a sought-after speaker and worldwide authority on desert agriculture and irrigation, winner of the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement, and holder of an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Not bad for a kid who left his native Italy and came to Israel alone at age 14.

Revivim's existence officially began as a research project. No Jewish settlements were possible, but a loophole existed in the form of scientific research. Scientists were curious about the Negev: Was it possible to grow anything? Could people survive the temperature extremes, the lack of water? Could they endure the isolation?

De Malach and his fellow pioneers jumped on the research opportunity as a means to further their goal of creating a place for Jews after WW II. They were more than happy to hang their hats on the peg of agricultural research.

They were not the only visionaries. In 1935, Ben-Gurion said that he wanted "a million farms in the Negev." Activists like Yehoshua Hankin were buying up thousands of dunams of land wherever they could, some of it in the Negev. The Jewish Agency was buying land -- unlike in some other areas, land in the Negev could be purchased. But no one knew if people could survive in the harsh climate with no water.

The three pioneers took up residence in a Byzantine cistern, a man-made cave originally dug by the Nabateans along the Spice Route. In 1944, nine more men -- including De Malach -- joined them. Their first task was to plow a furrow. The land had been purchased from the Beduin but, under Turkish law, a further step was necessary: the land had to be cultivated, so plowing was the first objective.

They named their new community Mitzpe (outpost) Revivim (rain).

"In a way, the name was prophetic. We became experts on all kinds of irrigation. We were the pioneers of drip irrigation and using brackish water to grow plants. We were the rain, so to speak," says De Malach.

There was another reason for the name, he notes.

"There was a popular socialist newspaper at the time called Revivim. We were socialists, so we were honoring that tradition. Revivim was a fortress -- not just a physical fortress, but a moral fortress too. The early days were very difficult, especially before the women came. Life was very basic. None of us could cook, so we went hungry. A larger group had planned to come but were forced to wait. We had no schools or anything else children would need, so they went to other kibbutzim," he says.

"In 1944, there were 20 of us, mostly Youth Aliyah immigrants from Germany and Italy. I was 19 years old, and I'd been in Israel for five years by then. In the late 1930s my father, Guido, wanted our whole family to come to Israel, but he couldn't arrange it so he decided that I should come first, by myself. 'You are the future of the family,' he told me. He was very clever, my father. He understood how things were. He had a good job as a government clerk until 1938 but was thrown out because of the anti-Semitism. My parents and two younger sisters survived the war and came after me. One of my sisters still lives in Revivim, and the other is now in Haifa," says De Malach.

Today, the kibbutz is a haven of palm tree-lined streets with generous lawns, the epitome of gracious living. But in the early days, even after the original pioneers moved out of the cistern into tents, daily life was a struggle. Nothing was available on site, and everything had to be hauled in. Before the Hagana installed a wireless, the only communication was by carrier pigeon. The trip to Beersheba - the nearest town - was a dangerous five-hour wagon ride. Water was brought in by camel, although they soon built a water tower, then began experimenting with brackish well water.

"We all worked, women alongside men. We constructed a tall building out of local stone. An engineer from the Jewish Agency supervised, but we did the hard labor. Water was the biggest problem. At first, we tried to collect rain, what little there was. Then we found a small old well. It yielded very little, but it helped. We drank, washed, and cooked with the water, but it was very salty. We got used to salty water - in coffee it was okay, but tea wasn't good," he recalls.

"Once a week, a wagonload of food and supplies came from Rishon Lezion. Everything we needed was on that wagon: food, equipment and mail. Many of us had left families in Rishon Lezion and the wagon's arrival was a big event. It was very lonely."

The pioneers tried several methods to find and store water.

"It took us a whole year to build an asphalt basin. The Jewish Agency brought in asphalt, and we built a deep pond to hold water. You can still see where it was. It worked fine for the first year, but there was a drought in the second year and the base dried out and cracked. We pioneered drip irrigation here --- when you irrigate by drip, the soil doesn't become quite so salty. By always keeping the soil wet, the salts can be controlled. We planted all kinds of crops; we tried grapes, pomegranates, all kinds of fruit. We had a reasonable yield, but not enough to succeed as a commercial venture. We did a little better with dates, but it was too cold for them in the winter, so the yield was poor. The olives did better. They seemed to thrive on the salty water, producing olives that were better than olives irrigated with fresh water," says De Malach.

By 1945, the group had put down roots. Revivim numbered 30 members, with more on the way. They owned two cows and a few chickens, while their crops grew well enough to show that a permanent settlement was feasible. As the political movement toward a Jewish state began to take hold, a larger question loomed: Would the Negev be kept?

"Revivim played a part in that decision," De Malach says. "A United Nations commission visited Revivim in 1947, saw pomegranates, dates, olives, flowers, and couldn't believe what they were seeing. Up to then, no one had thought the desert had any value. One of the UN officials walked out into a field of gladiolas, pulled a plant out by the roots, and checked it carefully. Then he pulled out several more plants. He thought it was a trick, that the flowers had been brought in for the occasion. Finally, they recommended that the Negev be included in Israel."

On November 29, 1947, the UN approved partition, with Israel receiving the Negev. This jump-started Revivim: permanent housing was approved, and more people arrived from Rishon Lezion. Then came the War of Independence.

"We didn't believe that the war had started. We'd heard rumors, of course, but the first thing that happened was when Egyptians attacked from the Hebron hills. They started shooting at us, and we shot back. We lost 10 people in that war. We were a very small group, so for us to lose 10 members was a huge loss. At one of the funerals, a member lamented, 'We've inaugurated a graveyard before we build the settlement.' Within three days, he himself was killed," recounts De Malach.

"We fought back. We became part of the Palmach. I'd been in the Hagana and the Fascist Youth in Italy until I was kicked out because I was a Jew, so I knew how to shoot. We were using the little 'sport' airplanes for whatever we needed by then. We were hungry during the war. Because of all the fighting, it was hard for us to get food in. We had bread but not much else. The flour could be flown in by plane, so that was what we ate. During the war, the old cistern and cave became a hospital. Injured soldiers were taken there for immediate care, then airlifted out when possible."

War stories are legion. After the war was over, an Egyptian colonel explained why Mitzpe Revivim had not been bombed directly: When the pilots looked down, they thought they saw a massive number of gun barrels aimed at the sky. In actuality, when reinforcing the retaining wall at the entrance to the cave, the kibbutzniks had stuck some old pipes left by the British into the ground as stabilizers. What the Egyptians thought were guns were actually rusty pipes protruding out of the sand. In fact, the 35 residents had been virtually defenseless.

As the political situation stabilized, conditions improved. In 1956, the kibbutz was connected to the national water system, and from 1969 a much deeper well provided better water.

"The well was actually dug to explore for oil, but they found a large aquifer. It was like a miracle. But irrigation is not simple - it's expensive to drill so deep, and the water is brackish and hot at about 40 degrees Celsius - but we've learned what we can do with it."

The kibbutz now has a thriving dairy, a huge chicken hatchery, and grows all kinds of crops. Their star product is the prize-winning olive oil marketed under the Halutza label. Revivim olives are sweeter because of their water supply, while the kibbutzniks have reinvented harvesting and processing. Using a "just-in-time" pick-and-press system, the olives are not picked until they can be processed immediately, rather than languish in sacks for days or weeks. This supposedly creates a better oil.

De Malach is philosophical about their achievements.

"I'm proud of our successes, but we've failed, too, in many ways. Here on the kibbutz, we have an ulpan. I usually visit each group, give a little talk, and tell them what it was like in the beginning and during the war. At the end I ask if there are any questions. A few months ago, a young man raised his hand. "I don't understand," he said. "You said there were just 25 of you. Why didn't you just leave? You could have left, couldn't you?" I was astonished. You see, for us, leaving, running away, never entered our minds. We were there to stay, to build."

"We've worked hard and had many successes. But morally, we've failed. We haven't impressed people with the idea of what Israel was all about. I'm very satisfied with our physical fortress, but our moral fortress needs attention. Our work isn't complete."