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SPECIAL REPORT / ISRAEL at 50 | TALE OF A NATION: Israel
through the eyes of a Jewish family

Living the Dream Amid the Reality

The Bittner family has grown up with Israel. Sacrifice and idealism have given way to prosperity and contention.

April 12, 1998|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DEGANIA, Israel — Yisrael Bittner walked hand in hand with his father along a narrow path facing the Sea of Galilee and Golan Heights. The year was 1944, and Bittner was 4 years old, entering the kibbutz nursery school for the first time.

Older children lined up on either side of the walk to welcome the new students with white flags bearing the blue Star of David. The young Bittner turned to his father and asked the meaning of the pennants.

"This is the flag of the Jewish state that shall be founded here," his father answered with certainty.

Strolling that same path on the 50th anniversary of modern Israel, Yisrael savors this memory as his daughter cares for children in the schoolhouse he once attended. He is clearly proud of the symmetry here, of the parallels between his family, his kibbutz and his country, and of the enormous challenges they have undertaken in the last half-century.

Yisrael's father, Yitzhak, emigrated from Poland with a Zionist youth movement in the mid-1930s. Yitzhak was a socialist who believed Jews must abandon their traditional roles as scholars and merchants to till the land and labor with their hands. He settled on the first kibbutz, or collective farm, and fought to establish the state of Israel.

Yisrael, his sister, Edna, and brother, Haim, were born on Degania, where the Jordan River emerges from the Sea of Galilee to irrigate groves of citrus trees and date palms. Although their parents had come from Poland, the Bittner children spoke only Hebrew at home. They were taught the value of hard work and sacrifice for the collective good and applied these lessons in the army during what they viewed as Israel's wars of survival.

But only Yisrael remained on the kibbutz. Edna eventually migrated to the suburbs of Tel Aviv to teach Hebrew to new immigrants, and Haim moved into high-tech engineering.

"I have gone from the date fields to computers," said Haim, who at 50 is the same age as the state. "I feel more at home in computers, but sometimes I miss the dates."

Ten Bittner grandchildren have been born in Israel, a state whose existence is secure now. In so many ways, they are their grandfather's dream--the new Israeli, hard-working and Hebrew-speaking, at home in a modern, Jewish state.

They live in a more developed country than their parents did as youths--in what some Israelis call "a nation like all other nations"--but with more questions and moral conflicts.

Yisrael's son Dotan and Edna's daughter Moran are citizens of a far less idealistic country than the one their grandfather helped found and, as they saw with the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a religious nationalist in 1995, a more deeply divided one.

By the same token, it is a less ideological society--a change that has safeguarded the survival of their grandfather's kibbutz, where manufacturing--not agriculture--now accounts for a majority of the community's income. A more pragmatic Israel allows Dotan and Moran to develop their creativity and individual interests. Moran, 21, has entered Tel Aviv University's faculty of law, one of the "traditional" fields for European Jews that her grandfather had rejected.

As different as their Israel is from their grandfather's, however, Dotan and Moran have nothing but admiration for the generation that toiled for 20 years to build the state where they envision raising their own children.

"I always want to live in Israel," Moran said. "This is my country."

Staking Out a Life in the Kibbutz

Israel was a Jewish dream, but not a country, when Yitzhak Bittner sailed into Haifa port in 1936 and traveled overland to Degania. He remembers being struck by the vast open spaces and large population of Arabs in what was then British-ruled Palestine.

"Our group leaders stressed that we should know that these people will one day be our neighbors," Yitzhak said. "The thinking then was that we had to build good, neighborly relations."

If that was the goal, it wasn't to be. The Zionist drive for statehood nourished Arab nationalism; as one grew, so did the other. The Arabs of Palestine feared that armed Jews meant to uproot them and grab all of the land for a Jewish state; Arab Palestinians armed themselves to fight a takeover.

Yitzhak joined the British Guard to help protect his remote kibbutz and was put in charge of weapons storage. Like most adult members of the kibbutz, he also joined the underground Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary force fighting for independence, and allowed his comrades to use the British weapons for training.

He married and moved into a 12-room house--one room per family--where his first two children were born. Despite his desire to till the land, Yitzhak was put in charge of the kibbutz finances; his wife, Naomi, worked the farm, milking cows morning and night.

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