Friday, November 27, 2015

And we've got a winner!

... or at least a winning sub-title for my book. Technically, I think it was my editor who helped slash through the kudzu of potential taglines and help me arrive at the words that will appear under Love & Rockets. Drum roll, please!

Chasing Utopia in a Divided Israel

I think "Chasing" works better than the "Stumbling Towards" (too cute, too unclear) and conveys the sense that utopia — that dream of a better society — is always something we are in search of, the greener grass on the other side, the mirage on the horizon. It also (I hope!) suggests that the book is both about the kibbutz movement's search for utopia and my own quest to discover what became of that dream, 100 years after the first pioneers created Degania.

So, the Chase is on. Next up: going through the editor's notes. ANother thorough fact-check. And hopefully some cover options to mull over.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Helen Mirren, kibbutz volunteer

British acting legend Helen Mirren was recently honoured in Los Angeles at the Israel Film Festival and spoke about her experiences in the country—including a stint as a volunteer on Kibbutz Ha'on six months after the Six Day War, when the first wave of foreign visitors arrived to kibbutzes across Israel to fill in for members called up for Army service to defend the country. She recalls sleeping on the beach in Eilat—a pleasure that I shared, too, although two decades later.

"That visit to Israel was one of the important building blocks, in my life," she told the audience. "The courage and the commitment of those early people working on the kibbutz that I was luck enough to meet briefly. These building blocks that make personal lives and that make countries."

Kibbutz Ha'on, however, is no longer a kibbutz. In 2007, the indebted community returned its land to the state and became a semi-cooperative moshav instead.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Insert [Sub-Title] Here

The good—no, great—news: my book has a publisher and a publication date. I'm thrilled to announced that ECW Press has acquired the world rights to my kibbutz book with a publication date of Fall 2016.

The manuscript is with an editor and I am working with the publisher and production staff to hash out the cover design and final title-sub-title combo... 

... which is the bad-ish news: I'm stumped.

I'll be the first to admit that writing display copy was never my forte as a magazine editor. I was okay at it ("Land of the Lox" for a feature about indigenous fish-farming in BC!), but I also worked with other editors who were masters at the catchy title/subtitle combo. It's not easy.

My kibbutz book has proven that conundrum. It has evolved through several title variations:

  1. The Shouting Fence: That was the title of a poem I wrote, as a 21-year-old writing student, in the voice of a Druze man. It was briefly the working title of the manuscript and remains as a chapter title about my visit to Majdal Shams. It's catchy and dramatic—but misleading. It evokes the divisions in Israel but nothing of the utopian enterprise of the kibbutz. Nixed.
  2. Look Back to Galilee: The name of this blog was the working title of this project for years. It comes form a phrase used by one of the founders of Kvutsa Degania, who urged his compatriots to return to the Kinnereth—and the Galilee—to found their commune. But as one kibbutz researcher in Haifa told me on a visit in 2009: "It sounds kind of Christian." And while it evokes a sense of memoir, it isn't especially catchy either.
  3. Who Killed the Kibbutz? emerged late in the process as a front-runner when a grad student read a draft and suggested the manuscript needed more narrative drive and tension. What was the throughline? For a while, I thought it was the search for who or what had led to the decline of Israel's utopian communities. (I'm still kind of fond of this title.)
  4. Love & Rockets: And then a bolt from the blue. I can't even remember how I came up with this title—perhaps mining all my memories from the late 80s reminded me of the band of the same name (and it's cover version of "Ball of Confusion"—which seems apropos to the book's themes). It echoes Erna Paris's The Garden and the Gun, a wonderful travelogue about Israel that heavily influenced my own decision to write his book. It's the title under which I finally sold the project—so I think it stays. (Famous last words...)
But I still need a sub-title. Why? Because nonfiction books have sub-titles! And as Jack David, ECW's publisher, explained to me: book buying (and promotion) is less about browsing physical store shelves these days and more about discovering a book online via key word searches. And a sub-title is the best place for such key words. Utopia was always a key theme and therefore a key word in all my proposed sub-titles

I just reviewed my progression of titles and subtitles and found the following:
  • The Shouting Fence: Slouching Toward Utopia in a Divided Land (2009)
  • Look Back to Galilee: Stumbling Toward Utopia in a Divided Land (2011)
  • Who Killed the Kibbutz: Searching for Hope in a Divided Israel (2014)
  • Love & Rockets: Stumbling Toward Utopia in a Divided Israel (2015)
But the sub-title isn't quite there—and could use the word "kibbutz" somewhere in its syntax. Another writer also tsk-tsk'ed the use of a gerund in the sub-title, too. So I've been on a brainstormy voyage to come up with the perfect partner for Love & Rockets. Here's a list of ideas (some okay, others simply awful) that have poured out of my imagination:

  • The Broken Dream of Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz  
  • The Broken Promise of Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz
  • The Promise of Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz
  • The Problem of Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz
  • Stumbling Towards Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz  
  • Slouching Towards Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz  
  • Looking for Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz  
  • The Long Road to Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz  
  • Cast Out of the Garden of Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz
  • Cast Out of Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz
  • Leaving Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz
  • Losing Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz

The "and" between "Israel" and "kibbutz"might be confusing, though, even though the book is about the utopian impulse in the kibbutz movement (which helped to found Israel) and in Israel in general (both inspired by and a reaction to the kibbutz). I previewed some options at our Grad @ Home party last Friday and got warm response to the "lost dream" theme in some of the sub-titles, so a few more variations....
  • The Lost Dream of Utopia in Israel's Kibbutz
  • The Lost Dream of Utopia in the Kibbutz
  • The Lost Dream of Utopia of the Kibbutz
  • The Kibbutz's Lost Dream of Utopia
  • The Kibbutz's Lost Dream of Utopia in a Divided Israel
  • The Kibbutz's Lost Dream of Utopia for a Divided Israel
  • The Kibbutz and the Lost Dream of Utopia in a Divided Israel
  • The Lost Dream of Utopia in the Legendary Kibbutz
  • The Lost Dream of Utopia on the Legendary Kibbutz
  • The Lost Dream of Utopia on Israel's Legendary Kibbutz
  • The Lost Dream of Utopia in Israel's Legendary Kibbutz
  • Israel, the Kibbutz, and the Lost Dream of Utopia
  • Who Killed the Kibbutz and its Dream of Utopia? which point I just want to slam down my laptop and run screaming from the room. Nothing yet feels quite right.

Any suggestions? Any favourites? Anything that can save me from the madness of subtitle writing?

Update: I'll offer a reward—and give a copy of the book when it comes out to anyone who can dream up the perfect sub-title!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Crowdsourcing the Quest for Bernie's Kibbutz

The search for Bernie Sanders' former kibbutz has apparently heated up in Israel. Ha'aretz reported that the Kibbutz Movement has taken to social media (Facebook to be exact) to generate leads on where the current Democratic presidential candidate might have volunteered in the 1960s. Non-Hebrew speakers can click on Google translate to get some comic suggestions. The crowd might not always have wisdom, but it always has fun.

Alas, my own lead came up dry. An elderly kibbutz researcher I know from Kibbutz Mefalsim  (which has many South Americans) recalled an American volunteer on his home kibbutz named "Bernard" (which Sanders went by as a young man). A search through the Mefalsim archives turned up no evidence of Bernie, however.

Still, I want to stake my claim to the Sanders' Search Reward right now by saying I'm 99% he stayed on Kibbutz Mefalsim!

Of course, the bigger question remains: Why won't Bernie 'fess up to the kibbutz where we briefly stayed? What went on there that he wants to hide? Yes, it was the 1960s. We don't need to stretch our imaginations. Perhaps it was in Israel that he learned to play the bongoes like this...

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Bernie Sanders' kibbutz (an update)

As soon as I shared my last blog post on Facebook, a writer friend who had also lived on a kibbutz pointed out a glaring flaw in my Venn diagramming. The clues from Bernie Sanders' brother and his professor friend can, in fact, all be true: Sanders' kibbutz wasn't necessarily founded by Argentinian immigrants; it just needs a significant enough influx of South Americans before 1964 to have made an impression on the young volunteer from Brooklyn.

So a revised Venn Diagram does have the potential for an intersecting middle: We should be looking for a kibbutz (likely in Western Galilee) founded between 1910 and, let's say, 1936 that also accepted large numbers of Argentinean Jews—probably in the wake of World War Two or the founding of the state. 

Any suggestions?

So far, going through the list of kibbutzim on Wikipedia, I haven't found anything that fits that bill. Few of the listings enumerate where immigrants came from after the founding garin or group.

I did start a list of kibbutzim founded by Argentinean or South American groups before 1964:

  • Mefalsim (1949)
  • Ga'ash (1951)
  • Metzer (1953)
  • Bahan (1954)

  • Nothing that could be confused as one of the oldest kibbutzim in Israel....

    On which kibbutz did Israel feel the Bern?

    Okay, I'll admit I haven't paid much attention to the looooong silly season of U.S. presidential nominations south of the border, beyond the Donald Trump memes floating across the Internet. I've been more engrossed by our own national elections here in Canada, especially the prospect of pro-Israel left-wing leader Tom Mulcair forming our country's first NDP federal government.

    However, I couldn't ignore the growing momentum of the David vs. Goliath campaign of Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont and lone U.S. socialist (as he's often billed), and the whole #FeelTheBern viral campaign to wrest the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton. What intrigues me most, of course, in the many profiles of Sanders—including articles and bios that pre-date his presidential bid—are the casual mentions that the progressive Jewish politician volunteered on a kibbutz in Israel back in 1964. But the articles never, ever name the kibbutz.

    Only Sanders knows which kibbutz taught him socialism can work

    I was intrigued. So were others. The Hunt for Red Bernie's Mystery Kibbutz was soon on. And yet so far, no luck. We've all struck out. Bernie Sanders and his press folks have declined to answer inquiries about which kibbutz he stayed on, perhaps because Sanders has already suffered from ridiculous accusations that he is a dual Israeli-American citizen.

    So let's piece together the clues so far  to which of Israel's 270 or so kibbutzim Sanders might have worked.

    Jas Chana's "Straight Outta Brooklyn" for Tablet Magazine is an excellent primer to the life and times of Bernie Sanders. Chana outlines how, after graduating with a poli sci degree from University of Chicago and working for the Head Start program in New York City, Sanders and his brother Larry decided to travel to Israel for a bit of adventure. Here are key details from Chana's story

    Both brothers decided to spend their time in Israel living and working on kibbutzim. Bernie arrived in Israel first and was there for six months total; Larry showed up four months after Bernie’s arrival and didn’t leave until 1967. In that time, Larry met his first wife and lived on two kibbutzim: Matsuva in the north and Yotvata in the south. Unfortunately, no one I spoke to for the purpose of this article had any idea or recollection of the name of Bernie’s kibbutz. However, Professor Richard Sugarman, a religious-studies professor at the University of Vermont, one of Sanders’ closest friends, and the man who encouraged him to run for mayor of Burlington in 1980, told me it was one of the “oldest kibbutzim.” 
    Chana's interviews with both Professor Sugarman and Larry Sanders give the profile the most detail in any story I've read about how the kibbutz experience might have shaped (or at least confirmed) Bernie Sanders' beliefs in mutual aid and social justice. During his stay, Sanders was apparently curious about kibbutzniks economic plans, how socialism could work, how communal life gave parents more free time, and even just watching fellow Jews as farmers.... he had grown up in Brooklyn, after all. Sanders felt the kibbutz was "a utopian form of existence" (according to Sugarman) and proved that socialism could be put into practice (according to his brother).

    But on which kibbutz—and from which federation—did he learn these lessons?

    Naomi Zeveloff traipsed through Israel to find out—and the title of her article for Forward makes clear her lack of success. "The name of Sanders’s kibbutz might seem like a minor detail, but it’s important," she writes. "Among other things, it could build on our understanding of his formative years."

    Her interview with Sanders' brother gives a teasing clue, when Larry tells her that he thought Bernie had stayed on "a kibbutz near the Mediterranean where there were a large number of Argentine volunteers in the 1960s." Through various sources, she zeroes in on three kibbutzim: Zikim and Sa'ad (near Gaza), and Ga'ash in central Israel. She spoke to several kibbutz representatives I'd also met during my travels (Dudu Amitai at Givat Haviva and former MK Avshalom Vilan). Unfortunately, because Sanders arrived in 1964, before the big influx of volunteers that followed the Six Day War of 1967 and the subsequent bureaucracy to track these new arrivals—Zeveloff could find no record of Bernie's visit. She also had no luck contacting members at the three kibbutzim she identified. A dead end. So she has  out a call for clues—both in Israel and through The Forward.

    In Israel, Ha'aretz  put its own reporter on the case, but the title of Judy Maltz's article also reveals her frustrated quest: "Mission Impossible? Finding Bernie Sanders' Kibbutz". She wondered, as she set off, if she could track down an old-timer from the kibbutz where Sanders stayed who "might recall his hot romance with the gorgeous young kibbutznik who refused to return to the United States with him". (Shades of Not Quite Paradise....

    She hits all the right offices: the Kibbutz Movement, the archives of Yad Tabenkin and Yad Ya'ari. Nothing. Emails and messages to Sanders and his media advisers come up empty, too. Even Professor Huck Gutman, a longtime friend and co-author of Sanders' political memoir, doesn't know. "The only person I know who knew Bernie then was Larry," he replies.

    So Maltz spoke with Bernie's brother, too, and he repeated the somewhat vague clue he gave Zeveloff: 
    “I am pretty sure it wasn’t the Negev. It had a number of South American members. I remember Bernard being impressed by one of the kibbutznik’s explanation of how they would transform Argentina. Without any reason to believe I am right, I would guess near the Mediterranean coast.”
    So Maltz rounded up a dozen kibbutzim that fit these clues and emailed their names to Larry. But no bells ring, although Bernie's UK-based brother also admits: "I don't the name is stuck anywhere in my brain." Dead end.

    So, let's examine the sparse clues and see if we can "profile" the potential locations for Berne Sanders' formative socialist—and Zionist— experiences:

    • Not the Negev
    • Near the Mediterranean Coast
    • members from Argentina
    • one of the oldest kibbutzim
    Another potential clue: Larry Sanders' stay in Israel overlapped with his brother's by two months but it sounds like they never actually spent time together in Israel—or visited each other's kibbutzes.

    Larry stayed on Matsuva near the Lebanese border (and the Mediterranean) and Yotvata just north of the Red Sea, so I'm tempted to rule out any kibbutzes in close proximity to either of these regions, as I think Larry would remember if his brother had stayed on a kibbutz near his own.

    Using Larry Sanders' others clues, we can triangulate a few possibilities, as Zeveloff did, of Argentinean kibbutzes near the coast... although I'm surprised that Mefalsim didn't make her cut. It was founded in 1949 by Argentinian immigrants, not far from the coast... or from the Gaza Strip. That would make a curious coincidence, as Mefalsim is also just minutes north on Highway 232 from Kibbutz Be'eri, where Michele Bachmann—the other presidential candidate to do time on a kibbutz—volunteered in 1974. Mefalsim is technically in the northern Negev, so perhaps it should be disqualified for that reason—although it's further north than Sa'ad, which did make Zekeloff's short list. Still, I've got a note to a contact there to see if I can find out more.

    The bigger problem?

    Larry Sanders' clues (Argentinean kibbutz near coast and not Negev) don't square with the single mysterious detail from Professor Sugarman (one of the oldest kibbutzes). The kibbutz movement began in 1909, with Degania. By 1939, there were 73 kibbutzim, most of them concentrated away from the Mediterranean in the Jezreel Valley, the Hula Valley, the Beit Shean Valley or around Lake Kinnereth (aka the Sea of Galilee). More problematic: I don't know any kibbutzim founded by South Americans before the Second World War; most were started with the immigration from South America after Israel's independence in 1949.

    Here's the rub: If we assume both Larry Sanders' clues to be true and Professor Sugarman's hint, too, we end up (as far as I can tell) with a Venn Diagram with no overlapping middle. So who's right and who's wrong?

    Argentinean kibbutzes by the sea / oldest kibbutzim

    Larry Sanders admits his memory is fuzzy, but the detail about Argentinian kibbutzniks seems so precise, he can't have fudged that. The two kibbutzes Larry lived on were founded by Germans and young native-born Israelis, so he hasn't transposed his own kibbutz kibbutz experiences for Bernie's.

    And yet Professor Sanders is an acclaimed Yale-trained scholar of Jewish philosophy—i.e., not one to casually toss off half-remembered "facts" about an old friend's time in Israel. 

    Dead end. Or at least a puzzling crossroads.

    And so the quest to find Bernie Sanders' kibbutz only grows more mysterious. 

    Dear fellow questers: Shall we put a wager on it? The first to find where American socialism's last great hope once learned the ropes of communal life gets an extra week off from dining-room duty...

    Ready, set, go!

    Monday, November 10, 2014

    The Big Picture about Jerusalem

    Yesterday, I took my eight-year-old son and his friend to an IMAX showing of the documentary Jerusalem. I doubt it was their favourite IMAX: Vikings or Lemurs were likely more to their taste for armoured battles and funny critters. But I left the expansive theatre unexpectedly moved by the words (narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch) and eight-storey images of the National Geographic profile (written, directed and co-produced by Canadian Daniel Ferguson) of the Old City of Jerusalem, its ancient history and contemporary life, the sacred home to three major religions and geographical nexus between the civilizations of Africa, Asia and Europe. 

    I’ve visited the city at least 10 times over the last 25 years, perpetually drawn through the stone gates and into the Escher-like labyrinth of the walled city. But I had never seen Jerusalem from the hovering and zooming aerial perspectives of the IMAX team, nor explored its subterranean depths—the ancient water springs that allowed its first peoples to settle on these rocky heights—or, in the unintentionally loaded phrase of one Israeli archaeologist in the film, the city’s “layers of occupation.” 

    Likewise, the digital recreations of the landscape before settlement, the complete structure of the Second Temple, or the Temple Mount before the Dome of the Rock was erected allowed the architectural and religious history of the city—impossible to disentangle—to unfold in mere minutes. And the film brings to vivid life on the very big screen the pulsing music and song of the modern city, the chants of the faithful, the rituals of the holy days—Ramadan, Passover, Easter—that fill the narrow streets with celebrants who pour down from the hills and into the ancient city. Enough even to touch my own agnostic heart.

    Unlike many IMAX features, Jerusalem doesn’t force too much of a saccharine narrative onto its cinematic showpieces. The threads of the three faiths—Jewish, Muslim and Christian—are joined through the lives and voices of three real teenage girls who live in or near the city. The city’s long history of conflict is acknowledged but not dwelled upon, and the three girls’ hopes for peace in their city remains shadowed by their acknowledgement that the three faiths remain isolated from each other in their geographical, spiritual and political quarters. The movie’s concluding image—a fine touch I won’t spoil—emphasizes the tenuous, ambivalent theme of reconciliation in a historically burdened and deeply divided city.

    It’s a movie worth seeing, for anyone interested in the Golden City, especially as Jerusalem descends into new levels violence, with Palestinian protests over increased Jewish building in East Jerusalem, and vehicular attacks and stabbings in and around the city. Any hope for peace or even just stability in Israel and Palestine needs to address the paradox of Jerusalem and the obstacles of its various orthodoxies. Each side in the conflict must learn to transcend its narrow interests and internecine suspicions and see the big picture. It’s hard to imagine a bigger picture of Jerusalem right now than the one projected on IMAX screens around the world.

    Wednesday, July 30, 2014

    Life on (and Leaving) a Border Kibbutz

    Even half a world away from the conflict in Gaza, in an area code as safe as Khan Younis is deadly, I still feel the weight of helpless despair as I comb through the news—on Twitter, via Facebook, dominating the nightly news and newspaper headlines—broken only by fits of outrage as I want to argue (and sometimes do) with one person or another on the Internet for posting a status update or a link that I find blindingly one-sided, naive or outright hateful. As if my words—or theirs—could have any meaningful effect on the outcome of the endless violence an ocean away. As if anything we say could take away the pain and suffering already inflicted and sure to come on all sides.

    Then I turn back to my own life here in Canada. And try to finish a book about the kibbutz movement.

    So I was intrigued to read this story, on the front page of Ha'Aretz—which I stumbled upon first, of course, in my Facebook feed—about the Jewish-Israeli border communities, most of them kibbutzim like Nir Am, that dot the frontier with the Gaza Strip. 

    Yes, the situation and carnage are far worse in Gaza itself. But reading the account of kibbutz residents fleeing—many for the first time, despite years of threats—struck home, as I've visited many similar communities on the northern border and a few (like Urim and Kfar Aza) close to Gaza. Destroying the so-called "terror tunnels" built by Hamas terrorists to infiltrate these communities, or to carry out a kidnapping like that of Gilad Shalit, was one of the purported reasons Israel launched its attack on Israel. (Of course, there are plenty of competing theories about the "real" reason for the conflict—from destroying Hamas to securing natural gas—that range from the plausible to the downright loony.)

    This quote—about border kibbutzim turned into ghost towns—stood out:
    One Israeli security official with long experience of operations in Gaza refers to the phenomenon as “the biggest success of Hamas that nobody is talking about.” 
    The voices in this story echoed many of the kibbutzniks I've spoken to on my visits to Israel: the nostalgia for a time when Israelis once visited and shopped—and even had Palestinian friends—in the West Bank and Gaza. And how that seems like a dream time lost to the shadows.

    The story also highlights the stark difference in reactions between the secular kibbutzim, from which many members have evacuated around the so-called "Gaza Envelope", and the one religious kibbutz of Alumim—still communal, still sticking out the dangers together. That same trend has played out in the larger kibbutz movement. 

    It's also a reminder that religious nationalism, not secular socialist Zionism, is what motivates the "new pioneers" in Israel — like the always controversial settler movement in the West Bank (and once in Gaza) that pose one of the biggest political challenges to resolving the Conflict. 

    Monday, July 21, 2014

    War Diary from the Gaza Envelope

    [This excerpt from my book-in-progress seems tragically all too relevant given the latest violence in Gaza.]

    After my visit to the Arava Desert, I drove north out of the desiccated rift valley, headed west, dipped into and rose out of the earthen maw of the Rimon Crater, and then continued across the moon prairie of the Negev Desert. On the dusky pink horizon, Israeli tanks kicked up veils of dust. Approaching the coast, disoriented by nightfall, I missed a highway turn-off and unknowingly drove toward one of the gates to the Gaza Strip. Then I spotted a sign. A panicky U-turn corrected my navigational error before the Army checkpoint and the barbed-wire wall that contained the impoverished coastal enclave of Palestinians. 

    The next morning, I headed out from my room on Kibbutz Urim. A mammoth satellite dish dominated the skyline of a military base near the kibbutz. In the distance, above hemmed-in Gaza, hovered several white balloons, like weather gauges although more likely rigged with high-tech gear to eavesdrop into the Palestinians' communications networks. By the time I reached the outskirts of Sderot, my nerves felt jangly. I was half-expecting a rocket to drop at random on the bingo card of the urban grid of Sderot.

    The blue-collar city of 24,000 is like the Cleveland or Detroit of Israel. Sderot might get praised for its heartland values, but it remained the butt of hard-luck jokes from big-city snobs. A nice place to be from, but you wouldn't want to live there. Or visit. Or pass through. The general attitude was summed up in an episode of Arab Labor, the caustic TV comedy described as "Israel's Seinfeld"—except with a sharper bite. In one episode, a Jewish-Israeli photojournalist tries to woo a feisty Palestinian lawyer by promising to follow wherever she might move: "For you, I would live in Nazareth, I would live in Nablus…" He lists Arab cities no Jewish-Israeli would ever venture, except in an Army vehicle, before delivering the punchline: "I would even live in Sderot!" Ouch.

    Sderot was established in the 1950s, a kilometre from the Gaza Strip, as a transit camp for Kurdish and Persian Jews, and grew into a "development town," a euphemism for communities hastily erected to house waves of new immigrants: mostly Moroccans in Sderot, followed by Ethiopians and later Russians from the Caucasus. The city remained out of mind for most Israelis until 2001. During the Second Intifada, Palestinian militants fired crude unguided, short-range rockets (known as Qassams, after the military wing of Hamas) at Jewish settlements within Gaza, border kibbutzes and eventually Sderot—more than 2,000 rockets by 2008. A "code red" warning gave residents 15 seconds to sprint to the safety of a bomb shelter. In 2007, the Israeli government gave special privileges to Sderot and nearby kibbutzes and towns within seven kilometres of Gaza—what became known as the "Gaza envelope" or, more cynically, "Qassamland." After Gaza became the international symbol for the plight of the Palestinians, the Jewish side promoted Sderot into the role of civic martyr.  When Justin Bieber toured the Holy Land, the Israeli Prime Minister's office tried to rope the Canadian teeny-bop star (and evangelical Christian) into meeting fans from Sderot, a goodwill gesture with a political bent. (Bieber balked.) "What about the children of Sderot?" became a refrain to justify any action by the Israeli Army. In late 2008, after an uptick in rockets, the IDF launched the Cast Lead assault on Gaza and 1,400 Palestinians died. By 2011, the Israeli military had deployed the "Iron Dome" missile-interception system to protect the city, even as the municipal government teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. 

    Sderot would seem, then, a shaky foundation on which to construct a new utopia. And yet one of the most ambitious attempts to reboot the kibbutz had broken ground amid the city's maze of bomb shelters.

    I expected a city under siege. My route through Sderot took me past nondescript scenes of concrete buildings and red-tiled rooftops like dozens of other towns I'd visited in Israel. Shopping malls and apartment blocks. A community college and wide boulevards. Not a bombed-out shell. Not the Stalingrad-by-the-Sea I'd expected from newspaper headlines. Yes, I spotted graffiti-decorated concrete shelters. But that was all. The cobbled sidewalks and tree-shaded crescent of Kibbutz Migvan might have been a suburban lane in Anywhere, USA. 

    But appearances can be deceiving. This was, I would learn, a city straining under the psychic pressure. Life as a symbol wasn't easy.

    I parked the car and met Nomika Zion, one of the founders of Migvan. She showed me her book-filled townhouse and walked me through the kibbutz—a street of similar houses, with a shared building for meals and meetings, an open yard and volleyball net for recreation, and smaller top-floor apartments for younger members. I had to adjust my image of what a kibbutz should look like: no cotton fields, no orchards, no farm equipment, no factories, no country vistas and swimming pools, no barbed wire encircling the grounds. No drunken volunteers. Migvan looked more like one of the "co-housing" developments that were sprouting in progressive European and North American cities: Copenhagen, Berkeley, Vancouver. (The Danish founder of the international co-housing movement had been inspired, in part, by the kibbutz movement.) Migvan took the co-housing model one step further. They didn't just live together and eat together. They kept a common purse, too. Like the first kibbutz, everyone pooled their earnings. 

    Nomika Zion, co-founder of Kibbutz Migvan in Sderot
    Nomika had been born, like many of her neighbours, on a traditional kibbutz and raised among kibbutz aristocracy, political leaders and left-wing artists and intellectuals. Now in her 50s, she still had the liquid fire of her early idealism, as we spoke in a quiet office room. Her dark hair fell in coils past her shoulders, and her kohl-shadowed eyes pulsed between humour and sadness, outrage and inspiration, as she outlined the rocky journey she had taken to get here, from a rural kibbutz in the Jordan Valley to an urban commune next to the Gaza Strip. 

    "I grew up in a very political family," said Nomika. Her grandfather, Yaacov Hazan, was a legend in the Labor movement, a founder of Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek and the  Artzi Kibbutz Federation, and an elected M.K. in the first seven Israeli Parliaments. Her grandmother edited a psychology imprint for a publishing house. Her mother worked as a journalist and theatre director; her father was a public figure who career-hopped between socialist politics and avant-garde theatre. Nomika's early years bridged the pastoral idyll in Kibbutz Reshafim, where she'd been born, and her parents' cosmopolitan friends and colleagues in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. "I grew up in the kibbutz but also in bohemia, with actors and writers," she recalled. "I developed social sensitivity at a very early stage."

    As a young girl, she saw that kibbutzniks' ideals weren't always reflected in their behaviour. Reshafim was near Beit Shean, a development town, like Sderot, populated with poor Jewish immigrants of Mizrahi origins, from the Arab countries of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. There was little communion between the well-educated, well-connected Ashkenazi members of Kibbutz Reshafim—children of European immigrants—and the dark-skinned arrivals from North Africa.
    "The kibbutz surrounds itself with a fence—and that fence becomes a wall. I'm talking about an emotional and mental wall," Nomika told me. "And a profound conflict started to develop between the people from the kibbutz and the people from the development town."

    One Shabbat, when she was 10, Nomika invited several Mizrahi girls from Beit Shean to visit the kibbutz. When they arrived, boys from her school threw stones and taunted her guests: "Get out, you dark Moroccans! You Beit Sheanites! We're going to call the police!" The girls ran away, and Nomika never saw them again. Three decades later, she felt haunted by the incident.

    "It's an emotional wound in my heart," she said. The pain reminded her that human conflict springs from an ignorance, a lack of human contact, that well-meaning abstractions can't overcome. Later, at her kibbutz high-school, Nomika's peers were all high-achieving students from the same background, cut off from the country's cultural or political diversity. "When people don't meet each other, they start to develop stigmas and stereotypes and prejudices toward each other. And this is what happened to us." Kibbutzniks were locked in an echo chamber, a suburb for socialists, in which they never heard opposing points of view. 

    "You build your identity in the reality of conflict," observed Nomika, "much better than in a homogenous society where people all come from the same ideological roots, the same background, the same mentality. And we were a very homogenous society." 

    During a pre-Army year of civil service, Nomika worked with high-school drop-outs. In her second year in the IDF, she taught in the slums of Netanya, a coastal city north of Tel Aviv. "Very violent young people—teenagers," she recalled. The year was 1981. The rancour of a national election split Israel into factions: Labor Party supporters versus the Likudniks, Ashkenazi versus Mizrahi Jews, secular versus religious Israelis, kibbutzes versus development towns. In Netanya, Nomika represented everything the kids from impoverished immigrant families had learned to despise. "I remember so much hostility and hatred and violence toward me—not as Nomika, but as a symbol," she said. "So I realized I had to make a major change in my life and try to create a true dialogue with these young people."

    Many of her friends had left the country. Nomika stayed home. She worked briefly as a journalist. She taught in a kibbutz high school. For three years, she worked in the offices of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. She convinced parents and school officials to remove kibbutz students from the homogenous high-school system to study for a year instead in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, among non-kibbutz peers. 

    "The idea was to expose them to a different reality, different voices. To break the wall that we had built around ourselves," said Nomika. "This was the seed of the urban kibbutz."

    That idea, however, took a few years to germinate. She began to talk with friends from college about founding a new social model of living together—neither the lonely crowd of the multicultural city nor the isolated collective of the old kibbutz. Something different. A fusion. An evolution. An urban kibbutz. 

    "It was only a title. An empty word," she admitted. "We had to build the vision of what it would be about."

    One friend brought another. A nucleus coalesced around the notion of a city commune. They met every month and organized cultural evenings and seminars with readings and debates, how to build this new society. Typical hippy-dippy stuff. People came and people left until, as Nomika recalled with a smile, "after two and a half years, we said, 'Okay—it's time to give birth!'" 

    But to what? And where?

    There was an urban kibbutz, in a poor neighbourhood of Jerusalem, named Reishit, founded in 1979 by former members of Nomika's home kibbutz. Reishit had been an inspiration. So her group visited Jerusalem as a possible location. They considered Holon, too, an industrial suburb south of Tel Aviv. Nomika suggested they add Sderot to the short list. Then they debated the options: Where could they do the most good? 

    They voted. Sderot won. Everyone who didn't like the result left the group. A core of six remained. "Young, very ideological!" Nomika raised her fist and smiled at the memory. "We decided to come here because we wanted to make some tikkun—personal and social tikkun, yes?" She asked if I understood the Hebrew word for "repair" or "heal." "The first goal was to repair the damage and build a new relationship with the people from the kibbutzim and the people from the development towns."


    "Sderot today is a multicultural and multi-tribal city," said Nomika. "So what do you think we have in common?"

    I didn't know. It wasn't politics obviously. It wasn't religion. It wasn't social status or ethnicity.

    "The ultimate answer, of course, is the rockets. Qassams!" Nomika laughed darkly. "External threats always unite people."

    Sderot had enough to worry about with its rapidly growing population, its mix of immigrants, its poverty and exclusion from mainstream Israeli life. Then, in 2001, the city added downpours of rockets to its forecast. The Second Palestinian Intifada broke out, more violent then the first, with bus bombings and Qassams and infiltrations. Sderot was the closest, densest urban centre to Gaza. And a target.

    "Eight years we were living under Qassams," recalled Nomika. Thousands of rockets and mortars dropped on the streets and buildings of Sderot. The Israeli Army responded with devastating air and ground attacks. Still, the rockets rained down. Even after the Israel's unilateral pullout from Gaza in 2005, the citizens of Sderot felt anxious, depressed, eager to escape. Rates of crime, substance abuse and divorce rose in the city. A 2007 study revealed that half the residents suffered from symptoms of post-traumatic stress; nearly two-thirds admitted they would flee Sderot if they could afford to. A tenth had already abandoned the city. (Other residents with a dark humour posted a banner that read, "I came to Sderot because it enchanted me," punning on Kassum—the Hebrew for "enchant"—and Qassam.) Worst of all for Nomika was the hardening of attitudes toward the Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere by the citizens of Sderot, even her fellow kibbutzniks. In January 2008, the conflict was at a low point. Upwards of 50 rockets hit the city every day for a month, without respite. The wail of sirens was a soundtrack to daily routines. Citizens kept one foot ready to spring into their personal shelters—a requirement, since the 1980s, in Israel's building code—when they were at home. They kept an eye out for the nearest bomb shelter when they walked the streets. 

    Like others, Nomika felt helpless under the barrage, without a voice. So she and a fellow Migvan member gathered 20 people from Sderot and nearby communities to discuss their feelings about the situation, how the tit-for-tat reactions between the militants in Gaza and the IDF had only escalated. "They hit, we hit back. Always stronger and stronger. And we were trapped in this vicious violent cycle which never stops." They named their new group Kol Aher, or Other Voice. The members connected with citizens in Gaza who shared their hope. The two sides couldn't meet in person so shared stories via phone and email. 

    In late December of 2008, the IDF launched Operation Cast Lead. Residents of Sderot cheered as Israeli fighter jets dropped deadly payloads on Gaza. Two families left Migvan for good. "Because the relationships are so close here, it's like cutting an organ from your body," said Nomika. "We didn't know if we were going to survive as a community." Other members would have abandoned Sderot were it not for a loyalty to the disadvantaged populations of Sderot they served. Within the kibbutz, political tensions percolated among friends once united by progressive beliefs.

    "The people of Migvan became very extremist," said Nomika, her voice tinged with disappointment. "The war brought a lot of tension to our community. It was better not to talk about it, because to confront other people all the time just leads to a dead end. I can feel the tension today."

    Staying quiet didn't come naturally to Nomika, so she wrote an open letter to the government about life as a citizen under siege with a front-row seat to the deadly fireworks of Cast Lead. She acknowledged her own anxiety about the Qassams but argued that changes in her friends and neighbours—in her homeland—scared her more. "I am frightened," she wrote, "we are losing the human ability to see the other side, to feel, to be horrified, to show empathy. With the code word 'Hamas' the media paints for us a picture of a huge and murky demon that has no face, no body, no voice, a million and a half people without a name."

    She did not want anyone to believe the war was for her benefit, as a citizen of Sderot. "Not in my name and not for me did you go into this war," ran a line that would become a chorus. "The bloodbath in Gaza is not in my name nor for my security." The newspaper editor who published her letter used that phrase as a headline. Overnight, her cri de coeur, so out of tune with the martial demands for payback from other corners of her country, went viral on the Internet. Her "War Diary from Sderot," as it became known, was translated into more than 20 languages as it jumped from website to website, from nation to nation. Television crews showed up on her doorstep. She did a half-dozen media interviews—every day.

    "I started to get so many responses from all over the world and from Israel," she recalled. "People said, 'You are our echo—this is the saner and human voice we are afraid to express because everybody supported the war.'"

    She also received threats, accusing her of treason. But the positive reaction affirmed her belief that hope might lead out of the darkness. Her friends in Other Voice offered a forum for views not always welcome on her own kibbutz. On any kibbutz, for that matter.

    "This is a very significant group for me because my friends, my so-called leftists, are not leftists any more," said Nomika.
    A gardener in Migvan, one of the kibbutz founders, a man who had once been so opposed to serving as a soldier in the West Bank that he went to jail for six weeks as a conscientious objector, had spoken to Nomika about the situation in Gaza. "If they shoot one Qassam," he told Nomika, "we should destroy the whole village." 

    "What about the women?" she replied. "The children?"

    "I don't mind," he said. "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth."

    The encounter chilled Nomika. "This is the new game in this region," she told me. "Completely changed. And this is what happens to people. What the Conflict did. It has left a profound mark on their souls."

    Nomika Zion remained active in Other Voice, a public spokesperson, in Israel and abroad, against military action as the sole option to keep Gaza in check. In January 2013, the New York Review of Books published a translation of another letter she wrote, addressed to Prime Minister Netanyahu, in protest of yet another military operation against the people of Gaza. "We will continue to raise another voice in the dwindling light, as we wait anxiously for the next bloody round," she promised her country's politicians and an outside world that has grown numb to the endless news cycle of violence in the region.

    Monday, June 30, 2014

    The horror, the horror

    Despite its inevitability, it was the worst of all possible news today, from the West Bank, with the discovery of the bodies of the three yeshiva students not far from Hebron. Eyal Yifrach, 19, Naftali Fraenkel, 16, and Gilad Shaar had been last seen hitch-hiking from a Gush Etzion intersection. Israeli authorities had gotten a cellphone call from one of the panicked boys, but botched the response—and several have since been dismissed or demoted. Two Palestinians, associated with Hamas, are the leading suspects but have yet to be caught as the IDF and Israeli Border Police scour the West Bank. All hell is about to break loose.

    Two of the students had been studying at the yeshiva in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion. Coincidentally, I’d been working on a chapter—hopefully, the last in my book—about my visit to Kfar Etzion in December of 2012. To put it mildly, I’d be struggling with this chapter. And avoiding it for as long as possible. Almost everything is controversial in Israel/Palestine. But the combination of religion and an Israeli settlement in the West Bank is doubly so. And yet Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, and the people living there, represent to me the deep complexity of “The Conflict,” and how there are no easy solutions.

    It’s also why, amid the unbearable sadness of the news—and what has already been a forceful and fatal Israeli military response to the original kidnappings—I don’t have time for the social-media posturing on either side of this deep divide. The tit-for-tat calls for revenge. The whitewashing of terroristic murder by a crude accounting of past deaths and historical injustices. Or the belief that the killings were inevitable, maybe even justified, because the students were living and studying on occupied territory.

    A fact of the matter: Kibbutz Kfar Etzion is not going anywhere in any realistic peace agreement. (Even if the words “peace agreement” seem like a wild fantasy right now.) The settlement was built before the War of Independence, and fell on May 14, 1948, and 157 defenders of the village—all but four—were executed by Arab Legion and irregular forces. In 1967, after the Six Day War, the kibbutz was re-established, led by rabbi Hanan Porot, who had lived there as a child. Any peace agreement will likely draw its lines around the borders of the Etzion Bloc, just as negotiators must wrestle with what to do about Ariel, the city of 18,000 that squats in the centre of the northern West Bank and disrupts the contiguity of any future Palestinian State. 

    Other Israeli settlements might get uprooted, like those in Gaza during the unilateral disengagement. But smart money says the Etzion Bloc and Ariel are there to stay. No kidnappings or murders will change that. No international BDS movement will convince the residents to move or the government to move them. Kfar Etzion will remain and must be reckoned with, realistically, in any debate about the future of Israel and Palestine. 

    Eliaz Cohen (left), poet & peace-maker of Kfar Etzion
    During my visit there, I spent the afternoon with Eliaz Cohen, a religious poet and social activist who lives on the kibbutz. He is as complex, if not more so, than Kfar Etzion itself, and I will save a full profile of Eliaz for my book. In an essay of his own, he once linked the revival of Kfar Etzion to the plight of the Palestinians: “The unique characteristics of the return to Kfar Etzion offer a preparatory model for returns yet to come—this time, perhaps, returns by Palestinians. In whatever scenario comes to pass … we must not allow further dispossessions of residents of this land, whether Jewish or Arab, anywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.”

    He also published a book of poems, translated into English, written during the worst years of the Second Intifada. I will quote at length from one poem called “News” to cast light on these days of darkness:

    The news on the radio said
    another terrorist attack at the Kisufim
    and a woman met her death
    (which until now was lost in the valleys)


    they also said:
    at the government meeting they will discuss the threat of earthquakes
    (unaware that the earth is already trembling)


    a wayward bullet is searching for its soft address
    I saw a man seeking brothers all along the way
    in the analytical mind a red light went on long ago
    the weather will come in desolation and ruin


    the sea will be calm when at length we reach it with depleted strength.
    And that’s the end of the news.