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Another Regular Day in Israel

peres1 Shimon Peres. Photo by David Shankbone on Wikipedia Commons

Greeting Shimon Peres

Over the din of people eating and schmoozing, I heard my name.

"Galia, come over here."

I looked towards the source of the voice. It was Shimon Peres, head of the opposition Labor Party.

I'm not trying to be a name-dropper. It's more that I was dropped into a reality where Names gathered. I've always found it so odd, yet exciting, how the average citizen in Israel has such close contact with elected officials. When I made aliyah at age 21, I never dreamed that a few years later, I'd be interacting with prime ministers, members of the Knesset, and top journalists. After all, I was just a simple pioneering moshavnik, a member of a new moshav, in the Jordan Rift Valley during the 1970s. I'm still amazed at this phenomenon. Most people in America go their whole lives without seeing, let alone talking to governors, congressmen or presidents.

Why was Shimon Peres calling out to me? It started one morning in 1978. I was standing in the office of my moshav, talking on the phone while gazing out the window at the path towards the kindergartens, when my view was blocked by Peres and thirty other people. Seeing Peres in the moshav's center wasn't a surprising sight as he had visited us recently with high-ranking members of the Labor Party. The anomaly was that they just weren't supposed to be here now.

Peres, party members and the press were all supposed to be visiting a neighboring moshav, before holding a joint meeting of the Labor executive committee and Labor party representatives from the Jordan Rift settlements at Kibbutz Kalia, near the Dead Sea. I would also be attending as a representative of the moshav's Action Committee campaigning against withdrawal from Sinai.

But here they were – our benefactors – our political allies – roaming, unattended in the moshav's center (merkaz), where members came when they needed the office, the grocery, the clinic and the kindergartens. No one was there to smile and shake hands and make them feel appreciated.

I alerted the head of the moshav and together we rushed to welcome them. Peres remembered me from his previous visit and shook my hand. There I stood, engaging in small talk with the leader of the Labor Party and former minister of defense as if he were just one of the members I happened to meet in the merkaz on the way to check my mailbox. Where would this happen in America?

The gathering broke up after fifteen minutes but when it did, reporters approached me, asking more questions about the moshav, and about the proposal for political autonomy put forward by Menachem Begin's ruling Likud party. This proposal would mean self-rule for the Arab residents of Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza District. I knew to be on guard with my answers.

The meeting was scheduled for 2pm. I drove south along the stretch of Road #90, the view changing between desert, green fields and palm trees, through Jericho, where we'd often go for hummus and shopping, then down towards the Dead Sea, finally reaching Kibbutz Kalia. When we arrived we joined other Labor Party officials who were having lunch in the clubroom. I saw Rina Dotan, head of the women's section of the Labor party – and the mother of a member of my moshav. She had loved me ever since she heard the hour-long radio interview with me on the national radio station during Sukkot of 1977, when I managed to hold my own against an antagonistic interviewer.

I filled a plate with the simple offerings and sat down next to Rina. I looked up from my salads and cold cuts only to realize that I was also sitting with Yitzhak Rabin and Yigal Alon, former minister of foreign affairs. Rabin was known as the former prime minister, but to me as the prime minister who arranged for us to have a new bathroom floor in 1975! Now, however, I had nothing good to say to them. Rabin was too dovish and Alon talked a good game but didn't vote against the Camp David Accords that the Knesset ratified on September 27th, 1978. He abstained.

Soon the buses carrying Peres and his entourage arrived after having made stops in other settlements. And that's when it happened. Shimon Peres called me by my name. I quickly, but calmly I hope, walked over to him.

"I'd like you to speak at the Central Committee meeting," he said. "Tell everyone about the settlements in the Rift Valley."

Not only could I not refuse, I jumped at the opportunity. I loved speaking before groups and especially our politicians. My Hebrew was good but not academic, and riddled with grammatical errors, but that's the norm in a country full of immigrants.

TV cameras were already set up and waiting, along with the Knesset reporter and the correspondents from various newspapers. Peres started with a little speech, followed by two other politicians. Then it was my turn.

"This is Galia, who immigrated from California straight to the Rift Valley," he announced. What? My name, yes. My history? How does he know that? (Later, Rina Dotan told me that she had passed Peres a note with the information about my aliyah.)

Although this wasn't my first time speaking to the Central Committee, this time I had an agenda. The three speeches before me had all related to the current situation - the recent signing of the Camp David Accords and the decision to remove the 18 settlements from the Sinai – and the town of Yamit – in return for a peace agreement with Egypt. And the talk of political autonomy. Needless to say, this was not a popular view in the Rift Valley moshavim and kibbutzim. Would we be next? I was not about to just stand there and only relate historical tidbits about our settlements. I forgot about being careful.

"We're having trouble attracting new members," I told them. "Potential candidates are afraid to take a chance in the Rift Valley after you voted to uproot all the settlements in Sinai." I was head of my moshav's absorption committee, so I knew what we were up against. "You must do something to convince young people that they can come here without fear of being abandoned soon after arriving. And we don't want autonomy!"

Everyone laughed. "Neither do we."

It certainly wasn't as eloquent or as organized as I would have liked, but the worst part was that the reporters ate up my comments about the problem of finding new members. I was quoted the following day in The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz newspapers. The quotes were correct but not complete and presented a distorted picture of the absorption situation, which could have affected prospective candidates.

For the moment, however, I was right there with leaders who would become prime ministers, ministers and even the president of Israel.

Before leaving, Peres came up to me again, shook my hand and thanked me. For what, I'm not sure. But what I am sure of is that this day was another example of the unique aspects of Israel that I love.



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Sunday, 21 July 2024

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