A slowly drifting cloud of dust marks the trail of a desert nomad as he winds his way through dry river bottoms to the market at Beersheba. His sandals have been powdered white by the same choking path that his ancestors have used for over 2,000 years.
As he wanders through Israel’s Negev Desert, he appears to be a mirage from the past, certain at any moment to top the ridge and gaze upon a valley crawling with caravans heavy with goods from as far away as China.
He does top the ridge, but instead of caravans, he gazes upon the Ben Gurion University and the high-rise apartments and office buildings that have been plugged into the middle of the ancient city where Abraham built his well. It is a great contrast to what his fathers saw, but everywhere he turns, he finds contrast. Even his native desert shows contrast; where there is water, the land is lush and green, where not, it is parched and barren.
Reaching the marketplace, he gently prods his camel to its knees and pulls the large bundle of goat-hair rugs to the ground. They have been the trade of his family for generations. Spreading them before him, he becomes a bit puzzled at tourists trying to take his picture. Some rush forward and shove long, black lenses that look like cannon barrels into his face. Others stand back with small, automatic cameras at their eyes, waiting for a break in the throng of sellers and buyers.
Next to the nomad a man dressed in a sport shirt and gray shorts lays out his tray of silver jewelry. Tourists stop to buy from him, but they don’t take his picture.
Across the street a city bus pulls into the swarm of traffic and a large bulldozer belches great puffs of black smoke as it clears the area for a new office building. The nomad blinks uncaringly and turns to find two men examining his rugs. His long black robe hovers over the ground as he approaches them, and he flashes a gold-toothed smile as the bartering begins. He is an expert and will settle only for the best price.
In the northern part of the country, the black robes of a Greek Orthodox priest glide over the mosaic floors of the Church of the Nativity in Nazareth. He stops before a wooden stand and begins to read from the immense Bible it supports. Time has had little effect on his sermon, and only the sharp whisper of a tour guide explaining the story of Christ’s birth in the grotto to his right seems to interrupt his rhythm.
A few miles away in the middle of Jerusalem, several orthodox Jews in black suits and wide-brimmed hats rock in rhythmic chanting at the western wailing wall, the only remaining structure of Herod’s temple. Again, contrast. Three of the major monotheistic religions of the world—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—all have some of their most sacred and holy areas within a few miles of each other.
These contrasts are, in part, what has for centuries led men to this small strip of land on the east shore of the Mediterranean Sea. In all the great civilizations of the world, Israel has been a critical piece of land to own and control.
Following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D., the Jewish people were scattered to the four corners of the earth. For nearly 2,000 years they ended their Sabbath prayers with “Next year in Jerusalem.” Not until 1948, when Israel became an independent country, could those prayers begin to be answered. From all over the world, Jews emigrated to the new country, and now, only 30 years later, Israel has become a great melting pot of language, culture, and society.
These waves of immigrating Jews have kept the Israeli government constantly seeking ways to avoid the creation of slums and destitution. To avoid this and reduce cultural shock, immigrants are placed in adaptation centers where they study Hebrew and vocational skills. They are then encouraged to move to one of the many new settlements throughout the country. This way they immediately become an asset and not a liability to the struggling new country.
Some of the most successful contributions to the growth of Israel and the taming of its fierce desert have been made by those who live on the 250 kibbutzim—cooperative communities established for agricultural or industrial production. Here the people share all things in common and work together to become self-sufficient as a community. They operate as free agents to themselves, and none are forced to stay against their will. Each individual is responsible for a certain amount of work according to his or her capabilities. In return the kibbutz takes the responsibility for the welfare of each person, providing daily food and other living requirements, housing, education, and cultural development.
These people are very hardworking and industrious, and honesty and integrity are fundamental traits of their character. While visiting a kibbutz, I asked for a key to my room. My host replied, “Nothing is locked up on a kibbutz. Everything is open to everybody. We have no reason to steal from each other.” The kibbutzim are probably the safest places is Israel.
In the cities, life is especially hard on young married couples. Private homes are almost unheard of, and a two- or three-bedroom apartment is very expensive. The government has been forced to subsidize several commodities in order to help the people survive. For example, since oil is very expensive, the transportation industry is subsidized in an effort to keep bus fares down to a few cents a ride. Wheat is also scarce, and so the bakeries are subsidized in order to keep bread at affordable prices. All must work very hard in order to survive in this harsh land.
For many of the immigrants, Israel is a step up from the situation they have come from, while others must give up many material privileges to come here. Gail Hachstadt came to Israel a few years ago with her family for a vacation. Before long she decided to stay and make Israel her home. Her family returned to New York, expecting Gail to become disillusioned and return to America.
“My family wants me home,” she explains, a slight hint of a Bronx accent still touching her words. “They can’t believe I can work for so little and enjoy it, but I do. Sure I miss them and my friends, but though life is hard here, this has become my home and I love it.”
Gail says a degree from an American university carries a lot more weight in the job market, and so she plans to finish her last six months of social work in the United States. “My parents think that once I go back to the States, my materialistic desires will convince me to stay, but no way.”
She is not the only one who feels so strongly about her new home. Dina Waik came to Israel from Australia when she was nine. Now 16, Dina claims she has become a stronger person by living here. “I have learned the value of work, and I know what it is to struggle for something.”
What is it that causes people like Gail and Dina to leave their native homelands and material possessions to live in the arid land of Israel? David Galbraith of the LDS district in Israel has taken a great interest in the future of the Jewish people, and he explains it this way. “It is important to note that Moses appeared to Joseph Smith in 1836 in the Kirtland Temple and restored the keys of the gathering of Israel.”
A few years later, Orson Hyde was sent to dedicate Palestine for the return of the Jews and the eventual preaching of the gospel. No missionaries serve in Israel today, since proselyting is punishable by imprisonment, but due to the increasing interest in the Church, the members who live there are able to answer the growing questions about the Latter-day Saints.
Brother and Sister Wayne Hansen tell of an experience that is becoming almost a daily occurrence to the members there. While riding on a city bus, they were asked where they were from. “When we said we were from Utah,” Sister Hansen relates, “the lady said, ‘Oh, are you Mormons? Would you come to our place and tell us about Mormons? We’ve always wanted to know about them.’” That encounter led the Hansens to a meeting with several people at Kibbutz Gash.
Kathy Ludlow, a BYU student who spent time in Israel on a study abroad program, said, “I was just walking down the street and a man stopped me and asked if I were a Mormon. When I told him I was, he said he could tell because my face was shining.
“The Church is very respected here,” she continued, “and the people are sincerely interested in knowing more.”
It is estimated that only 10 to 20 percent of the Jews in Israel are orthodox in their beliefs. Moshe, a young Israeli at Kibbutz Chepsibah points out, “We study the Bible as a history book; the religious part we don’t believe. We are Israeli first and Jewish second.” But that doesn’t stop them from being a warm and loving people. Though proud and nationalistic, the Israeli people are some of the most hospitable to be found anywhere.
Even though they are in a constant state of preparation, ready on a moment’s notice in case of an outbreak of war, they live each day as if there were total peace in the world. If not for the occasional glimpse of soldiers or the loud passing of a jet fighter, one could almost believe it were true. It is also noticeable that very few young people between the ages of 17 and 21 are visible without a uniform. Following high school, Israeli women must enlist in the army for two years and the men for three. The exception to the rule is the Arab youth. They are not required to enlist, since in the event of war, they might be fighting their cousins.
Living in such constant contrast might be frustrating to even the most stable nerves, but the attitude and spirit of the Israeli people generate a climate of serenity and confidence—serenity in knowing they finally have a country they can call home, and confidence in knowing they can build it into a place respected on an international scale.
Through hard work and sacrifice they have transformed Israel into one of the most industrially advanced and powerful countries in the Middle East. There are many struggles ahead, but the Israeli people are confident they can handle them, even to the extent of their highly successful work in taming the harsh desert.
The desert is one of the few places that remains largely unchanged since the time of Christ, but in the new cities struggling to survive in the intense heat, trucks, buses, and pleasure cars are swiftly replacing the camels and donkeys of old.
As the sun approaches its midday arc, the nomad is already preparing to return to the desert. Once or twice an impatient driver will honk his horn at this specter of the past as he fades into the desolation of the Negev. In a few years, he might only be remembered in a tourist’s photo album.
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