Sunday, February 16, 2014

A kibbutz in Africa

During my research, I've been curious about the impact of the kibbutz as an idea and an institution beyond the borders of Israel. 

Living or volunteering on a kibbutz has shaped the lives of tens of thousands of non-kibbutzniks, of course. But the idea of the kibbutz, as a communal settlement, has never really been successfully transplanted — not on a large scale — outside of the nation where it was founded.

I'd heard that it played a role in shaping the early ideas of the Danish co-housing movement. And I'd stumbled across Jewish summer camps and an art colony and a briefly lived intentional co-op in Seattle that all wore the label of "kibbutz". Even an eco-resort in Costa Rica. All were relatively small scale. None truly reflected the revolutionary communalism of the original kibbutz.

One of the most intriguing kibbutz-inspired communities is the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village—and, alas, I only learned of it from the obituary notices of its founder, Anne Heyman, who died recently in a horse-riding accident. Heyman had founded the youth village, in Rwanda, as a way to help and to help the many orphans, now adults, who had lost their parents in the horrific genocide in 1994.

Heyman, a New York lawyer and Jewish communal activist who was born in South Africa, viewed Israeli kibbutzes that took in Holocaust orphans as a model for coping with the hundreds of thousands of children orphaned by the Rwandan genocide.

She had looked back at history, to the lost generation of the Holocaust, and how the kibbutz movement had welcomed these orphans into their sanctuaries. She had seen the power of the communal ideal to provide the support — nurturing relationships, meaningful education, and purposeful work — to help repair the unfathomable losses suffered by these children, to help them find a path to a hopeful future out of the darkness of the past.

The Agahozo Shalom Youth VIllage is perhaps the best example I've found of the kibbutz dream evolving and taking a new yet equally inspired form in soil far beyond that of Israel/Palestine. It's so tragic that the woman with the vision to make it a reality has died, so young (just 51), before she could truly see what it might grow into. I only hope that it, too, survives her passing. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Kibbutz controversy on Findhorn

I've been shamefully neglecting this blog, while busy with teaching—and also finishing the manuscript whose research this blog was set up to track! In short, the first draft of the book is nearly done. It's too long—by nearly 100,000 words—but then again, there's a lot to say about the kibbutz, its 100+year history, and the utopian impulse that continues to spring from this experiment in radical sharing.

Last month, I travelled to the north of Scotland, to the International Communal Studies Association triennial gathering, in the fascinating New Age community of Findhorn—a place that deserves a book entirely of its own. (In fact, it has several.) The last ICSA meeting had been in Israel, to mark the centennial of the kibbutz movement, and it was there that I had met many research contacts and experts in kibbutz studies.

This time, I'd agreed to give a paper on how the lessons of kibbutz architecture and design might be applied to improve the community life and reduce the ecological impact of run-of-the-mill suburbs (like the one I grew up in). It was, to be honest, a reworking of the TEDxVictoria talk I gave in 2011:

I also led a fun workshop / design charrette / hackathon called "Greening the 'Burbs," which encouraged participants to brainstorm in groups to generate ideas on how to retrofit suburbia for a greener future. About 20 people took part and came up with wonderful concepts, including neighbourhood "skill-sharing" sessions, "defencing" backyards, edible community gardens, and a "boutique" (like Findhorn's) where people can drop off unwanted clothes and other goods—and pick up (rather than purchase) "gently used" items. Think of the neighbourliness that develops when you spot someone wearing your old sweater! (Check out all the conference abstracts here.)

In a pique of over-enthusiasm, I'd also agreed to give a literary reading, from my book-in--progress, at an evening event called "The Great Sharing". The selection I'd brought was a darkly comic excerpt from a chapter about a strange and charismatic German volunteer named Wolf and his raucous birthday party on Kibbutz Shamir—which ended with the night sky lit up by flares, over northern Israel, as the IDF tracked down and killed (as we later read in The Jerusalem Post) several Palestinian insurgents from Lebanon. The chapter was a reminder that for all of our drunken volunteer revels, we were still living in a land forever on the edge of violence. I'd read the excerpt, to good response, at our faculty literary evening last spring. 

But then a mini-controversy erupted at Findhorn. And it centered on the kibbutz. And Israel. And the Palestinians.

Even here, in the far north of Scotland, it turned out that this divisive issue could threaten to over-shadow an academic gathering advertised as a way to discuss and promote "communal pathways to sustainable living"....

What happened? 

A group called the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign had got wind of the ICSA conference and noted that a number of Israeli academics and kibbutz members were attending. (In fact, the ICSA has been founded and has its main office based in Israel.) They planned to protest. Those of us in attendance noticed something was up when police cars appeared during the opening day of the conference. At one point, two Scottish cops inspected a bulletin board on which photos of every presenter was pinned. 

"Are they looking for one of us?" we joked. "Is there a criminal in our midst?"

Details of their "investigation" leaked out. First as rumour, then as fact. The police wanted to make sure any protest was peaceful. The visiting Israelis had been briefed about the SPSC and its intentions.

I never saw a protester in the flesh, but I did spot a couple of cars labelled with signs and fact-sheets putting forward the SPSC's position. Later, a kibbutz-based professor whom I knew complained that the SPSC website had explicitly targeted him under an article titled "Findhorn Community 'proudly hosts' supporters of ethnic cleansing". Tensions were rising, even if most non-Israelis were largely unaware on the online attacks on the conference and Findhorn. Organizers—already stretched with running a major international conference—were meeting with the SPSC, members of the Findhorn community sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and the Israeli attendees to broker a compromise. An anonymous leaflet about the issue, dropped off (and then quickly removed) on dining-room tables before a meal, only sparked more concerns.

In the end, both the Findhorn Foundation and the ICSA board (which I had just joined) hammered out statements about the controversy. Both were read aloud at the conference's final event.

And my literary reading? Well, I decided to scratch my name from the reading list for the Great Sharing, an hour before the show. People would likely prefer to hear the musicians do their thing anyway, I figured. I didn't need to throw fuel onto a fire that was already making kibbutz colleagues feel uncomfortable and was distracting from the discussions about intentional communities and sustainability. (The organizers of both the conference and the talent show both agreed.)

Yes, there is a good panel discussion to be had about the kibbutz movement's checkered relations with the Palestinian people, the role the kibbutz played in both establishing the state of Israel and (to a lesser degree) extending its reach into the West Bank and Gaza. My book research has dealt, in part, with some of the failures of the kibbutz—and some of the efforts of new utopians and kibbutzniks—to bridge that divide. People like Anton Marks, of Kvutsat Yovel, who was at the conference to talk about the urban kibbutz movement and its social-justice efforts—and who went to prison as a conscientious objector rather than serve in the Occupied Territories. However, I don't think the SPSC was especially interested in having such a nuanced conversation on the issue. 

I'm trying to tackle it in my manuscript, knowing full well that my take on the topic will likely please neither side in a debate in which Black shouts down White and vice versa, while Shades of Grey cower in the corners and try to get a whisper in edgewise.

Perhaps a panel session at the next ICSA conference, in 2016, might tackle the thorny problem of the kibbutz's relationship with the Palestinian people from a variety of angles, historical and contemporary. It could be a way of moving past the Israeli/Palestinian debate as a litmus test for ideological correctness and instead engaging in a genuine debate about how to build peace by cultivating truly inclusive communities. 

Utopian? I sure hope so. Because that's what the ICSA—and my book—is all about.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Kibbutz divorce from Labor?

For years, kibbutzes in Israel reliabley delivered the votes of their members to the left-leaning Labor Party (and its predecessors) in exchange for a guaranteed seat in the Knesset and (back in the days when Labor actually formed governments) a hand on the levers of the power. That decades-old wedding may be headed for divorce court.

News out of Israel suggests that the Kibbutz Movement is pissed off by a proposal, by new Labor head and former journalist Sheli Yachimovich, to combine the guaranteed seats for each the Kibbutz Movement and the Moshav Federation into a single seat that would represent the whole spectrum of Israel's communal settlements. That doesn't sit well with kibbutzniks, who always saw themselves as more ideologically committed as pioneers than the wishy-washy cooperative farmers on the moshavs—even if most kibbutzes have since "privatized" and operate far more like moshavs (or even gated country suburbs).

The article can't resist a poke at the puzzling distinction between a kibbutz and a moshav—a huge difference to kibbutzniks but a bewildering hair-splitting to everyone outside their fences: 

"An old joke best explains the distinction between a kibbutz and a moshav: if a kibbutznik had enough, he’ll probably move to a moshav (easier communal rules); but if a moshavnik had enough – he sure as heck is not moving to a kibbutz (even more stringent communal rules)."
Of course, the Labor Party bickering, amid polls that show right-wing Benyamin Netanyahu likely to form another coalition in the next election, only underscores the growing disfunction of the Israeli Left and the profound loss of influence (even among traditional allies) of the once powerful Kibbutz Movement.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Comics without Borders: Review of Guy Delisle's Jerusalem

Guy Delisle’s new graphic travelogue, Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City (Drawn & Quarterly, 2012), is framed with images of a plane arriving and then departing. In between, he recounts a narrative of the year he spent in East Jerusalem, Israel and the West Bank with his wife, who was assigned there for Medecin sans Frontieres (and who remains a distant presence, perpetually busy with her NGO work, throughout his book) and two young kids, Louis and Hanna, who occupy far more of his time.

A Quebecois animator and graphic novelist, Delisle strikes a wry, self-deprecating persona: a kind of bumbling house-hubby Everyman, naive, prone to faux pas while also quietly judging people based on how much they know and like comics. In Jerusalem, the world's most complex city—an urban jigsaw puzzle drawn by Franz Kafka and die-cut by M.C. Escher—he finds an endless supply of paradoxes and ironies to befuddle him. What has become "normal" in Israel, East Jerusalem and the West Bank appears in all its tragedy and folly when described in minute journalistic detail. But the “journalism" practised by Delisle is as much eavesdropping and observing as researching and interviewing.

His sense of bewilderment begins when old Russian man with concentration camp tattoos lifts up and calms his crying daughter on the plane. It continues when he says “Shalom!” to the driver who picks them up at Ben Gurion Airport—and realizes he should have said “Salaam!”

The next day, an MSF officer tries to explain the political-geographical complexities of the city after Guy and his wife get settled into an apartment in East Jerusalem: They are in the capital of Israel according to the Israelis but in the future state of Palestine according to the international community, many of whom consider Tel Aviv the capital of Israel.

“I don’t really get it,” Guy reflects, “but I tell myself I’ve got a whole year to figure it out.”

By the end, though, it’s hard to know if he knows whether he has come closer or farther away from understanding the funhouse mirror chamber of identity and ownership in this densely packed (with people, with cars, with history, with religion) urban space.

He finds himself constantly caught off-guard by the the quirks, the rituals and the conflicts of all three major religions: the wail of the muezzin that wakes his daughter just after she goes to sleep; taking his family to lively West Jerusalem, only to discover it completely deserted on shabbat (“It reminds me of Sundays in Pyongyang,” he says); feeling guilty about munching an apple on Ramadan; the literally and figuratively Byzantine politics of the various Christian denominations jostling for influence (sometimes physically) over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; or leading a comics seminar for veiled Muslim women, who are studying to be art teachers yet are prohibited by their religion from drawing people or animals.

When he mentions to a shawarma shop owner, in East Jerusalem, that his girlfriend “works for Doctors without Borders,” there is a long pause, as the owner slices off strips of meat, and then replies: “There’ll always be borders.”

Delisle tries to negotiate, as an outsider, the perplexing political nuances of life in East Jerusalem. He checks out a supermarket in a nearby Jewish settlement but resists buying his favourite cereal (Shredded Wheat, which he can’t even get in France) so as not to support the controversial West Bank settlements. But then, as he is leaving, he spots “three Muslim women loaded down with bags". He visits protests at the checkpoints around the Separation Barrier and sketches the wall obsessively.

He gets moved most noticeably from his otherwise resolute neutrality—more a knowingly ignorant curiosity than high-minded journalistic objectivity—by three separate visits to Hebron: one led by an MSF staffer; another by a member of Breaking the Silence, the NGO that records testimony from Israeli soldiers; and a third by a right-wing religious settler who elides or even contradicts the stories Delisle has heard on the other tours. (The settler mentions only one of the city’s two infamous massacres.) The bitter separation between the tiny Jewish community and the larger group of Palestinian citizens of Hebron is poignantly symbolized by the netting strung over the souk, to catch garbage hurled onto Arab passers-by by angry religious settlers.

The month by month chronology of his family’s year in East Jerusalem gives the book an anecdotal quality, which gains resonance with repeated images or visits to different sites (like Hebron, or the wall, or Tel Aviv). No single incident acquires more prominence—not even Operation Cast Lead, the IDF assault on Gaza midway through his stay, which draws NGOs, like his wife’s, into a flurry of activity. Delisle’s later attempts to negotiate access to Gaza for himself get rebuffed when officials find out he is a comic artist. The imbroglio over the Danish cartoons of Mohammed has been in the news; Delisle also wonders if he hasn’t been mistaken for the more politically motivated comics journalist Joe Sacco.

One mini-chapter that most resonated with me is Delisle’s first visit
to Ramallah, driven there by an acquaintance form the Alliance Francaise. “I’m quite surprised,” he notes. “I thought Ramallah would be a dead city, crippled by the conflict.” He meets a Palestinian animator who says it is easier for him to “get to London than travel five km to Jerusalem” for work. A foreign correspondent tells him: “Ramallah is like the Tel Aviv of the West Bank. People are freer and more open-minded here.”

Then Delisle’s acquaintance, who still has other business, suggests he take a bus back through the army checkpoint to East Jerusalem—technically, not allowed under MSF rules. What follows is the darkest page and a half of the book (literally, in the inky shadowing of the frames): 10 panels, without any text, in which Delisle depicts  his claustrophobic point-of-view amid the crush of people queued to pass through the barred-in checkpoint for bus and foot traffic through the Qalandia checkpoint. (It immediately brought back my own memories of an hour and a half lined up at the same checkpoint.) He emerges into the light from the prison-like enclosure with a swirl of incomprehension over his own cartoon head.

That scene could be a metaphor for the book as a whole: a wise narrative filled with insightful observations that only prove how darkly puzzling and incomprehensible life in the holy—and wholly divided—city of Jerusalem really is.  

Jerusalem is a must-read for anyone interested in this part of the world. (Download a preview here.) 

I realize, of course, that there is not a single mention of a kibbutz in his book. But that fact is also telling: Delisle's chronicle is about life in modern Israel, and especially the city of Jerusalem, and the kibbutz, as an institution that long symbolized the modern Israeli, is now increasingly divorced from and irrelevant to this reality.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

RIP: A man of peace

It was great shock that I read, via Twitter, of the death (at age 60) of Abdessalam Najjar, one of the founders and leaders of Wahal-al-Salam/Neve Shalom—the village of Palestinians and Jews located near the Latrun Monastery. I'd interviewed him, in 2010, and found him a remarkable man: super-smart, funny, wise, an engaging storyteller, and a committed man of peace. I spoke to him for more than an hour, and knew throughout talk that I had to try to squeeze as many of his words as possible into my book (should I ever finish writing it). 

Born in Nazareth, Abdessalam—perhaps more than anyone I met on my different trips—exemplified the utopian spirit of the original kibbutzniks. He had taken the path less travelled and chosen to live, in peace if not always harmony, with the people who he'd been taught were his enemy. He had helped to create in the "Oasis of Peace" a model that proved that Arabs and Jews could sit together and talk about their different situations, their competing narratives and grievances, could live together, could go to school together. That the walls of hate (and concrete, too) that had been erected too hastily could be pulled down, brick by brick.

I included a short transcript from our interview earlier on my blog. But Abdessalam had so much more to say—to me, to the world. It is a profound loss to his homeland and for the hope for peace over violence in Israel and Palestine.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

News from Oz

[Yes, it's finally time to emerge from my teaching shell and update my blog!]

A new book by Israeli author Amos Oz is cause to celebrate for any lover of world literature. But for a kibbutz-o-phile obsessed with the inside story of communal life, a fresh collection of Oz’s wry, ironically observed stories of life set on a rural commune can seem heaven-sent. And then you realize it’s still only in Hebrew. Which you don't read.
Oh well, at least the weekend magazine of the newspaper Ha’aretz has published a long interview with the the 73-year-old ex-kibbutznik and elder-statesman of Israeli letters about his life, his politics, his literary influences and his new anthology of stories, Between Friends, set on apocryphal Kibbutz Yikhat. (Why it is so hard to find this level of literary discussion, let alone 5,000 words devoted to a writer, in a Canadian publication is another story…)

In the article, Oz talks about the utopian dreams of the kibbutz founders:
The first ideal of the kibbutz was sharp: to transform human nature instantaneously. Effectively, they [the founders] set out as a youthful camp, in the innocent belief that they would remain 18 and 20 forever. A camp of young people who were liberated from their parents, from all the prohibitions and inhibitions of the Jewish village and Jewish religion − a camp in which everything is permitted, suffused with perpetual ecstasy, and where life is always at a peak. You work, argue, love and dance until your strength runs out. It was childish, of course. In time, it became dulled. And then what came to the fore were the constants of human nature. The vulnerability, the selfishness, the ambition, the materialism and the greed. It was a forlorn dream, imagining that it would be possible to triumph over all those forces, be reborn and create a new human being without the shortcomings of the old one

He discusses why he left Kibbutz Hulda (because of his son’s health), and how his new collection allowed him to reflect on what he left behind, good and bad:
There were a few things I didn’t like about kibbutz life. But I feel the absence of those things that I did like. And in this book I wanted to go back and look at them. Especially at the loneliness in a society where there is ‏(supposedly‏) no place for loneliness. In a few of the stories a situation is portrayed of “almost touching”: People very nearly touch, but something blocks it. Like in the painting by Michelangelo where finger almost touches finger.

I am very curious about loneliness and grace, or a moment of grace amid loneliness, because that is a description of the human condition. The stories are set on a kibbutz, but they tell about universal situations, about the most basic forces in human existence. About loneliness. About love. About loss. About death. About desire. About forgoing and about longing. In fact, about the simple and profound matters which no person is unfamiliar with.

He explains how curiosity can make us more “moral”—that, in effect, literature’s ethical function isn’t necessarily to teach us lessons but to let us see the world through another’s eyes:
I think a person who is curious is slightly more moral than one who is not curious, because sometimes he enters into the skin of another. I think a curious person is even a better lover than one who is not curious. Even my political approach to the Palestinian question, for example, sprang from curiosity. I am not a Middle East expert or a historian or a strategist. I simply asked myself, at a very young age, what it would be like if I were one of them.

He admits he still has no regrets about living (and leaving) on a kibbutz. Writers will be especially interested to hear Oz discuss how communal life offered the ideal milieu to develop his literary ear and eye:
I do not regret it for a second. I regret a few of the experiences my children underwent on kibbutz. There were some hard bits, but I left Hulda without anger. For me, the kibbutz was an ultimate university of human nature. I spent 30 years with 300 people in intimate proximity. I saw everything − them and their lives − and knew their secrets. If I’d spent 30 years in Tel Aviv, or New York, I would not have had the slightest chance of becoming so intimately acquainted with 300 souls. The price was that they knew more about me than I would have wanted them to know. But that’s a fair price. In terms of my writing, I learned much of what I know about human nature on kibbutz.

And I love his metaphor for how he has come, if not exactly to praise the kibbutz, then definitely not (like so many critics in recent years) to slay this once-legendary institution:
Unlike others, I am no longer slaughtering sacred cows. There was a time when I did. Not today. Besides which, in every cowshed there is one sick old cow left, surrounded by a herd of exultant, gung-ho slaughterers. I am almost always on the side of the cow. It’s not that I don’t know what a foul smell that cow gives off. And it’s not that I worship it. But between the cow and the slaughterers who gather around − I prefer the cow. I am talking about Zionism, the kibbutz and the labor movement.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Living in Glass Houses

If it walks like a kibbutz and talks like a kibbutz—or rather, looks like a kibbutz and works like a kibbutz—then surely it must be one, no? That was the question I puzzled over, on my recent trip to Israel, when I stayed for four days and nights on the fascinating community of Nes Ammim.

First a correction: In a blog post from the road, I hastily described Nes Ammim as a “German-run kibbutz”. People there, who had googled my blog, quickly corrected me. Yes, there are Germans among the leaders and volunteers. But Nes Ammim was founded, in the early 1960s, by Dutch and Swiss citizens, led by Dr. Johan Pilon from Holland and Dr. Hans Bernath from Switzerland, both physicians working in the Galilee. Americans volunteers arrived later, as well as a steady contingent of Germans—but only after German nationals were finally permitted to visit Israel. (A basic history can be found here.) But German-run? Hardly! 

A rose by any other name: erecting the "glass houses"
 My confusion, perhaps, is understandable. Nes Ammim confuses the basic definition of a kibbutz. When most people picture a kibbutz, they imagine a rural settlement of secular Jews, founded by blue-shirted pioneers inspired by the ideals of utopian socialism. Marxist farmers with bronzed arms and short-shorts. (Yes, there are a handful of religious kibbutzes, but they never played as large a role—except for Kfar Etzion—in the mystique of the kibbutz movement.) People never imagine a village of blonde Christians growing roses.  

Nes Ammim isn’t even on the radar among kibbutzniks within Israel. When I told Israeli friends and acquaintances that I was visiting a kibbutz of European Christians, they gave me incredulous looks, as though I’d said I was staying with the Tooth Fairy: they had never heard of Nes Ammim. In fact, after four years of intense research into utopian communities throughout the region, I only stumbled across the website for this community by accident, a couple of months before visiting.

On my first afternoon in Israel, in late November, as I entered the grounds of Nes Ammim, it certainly felt like I had arrived at a kibbutz. There were the surrounding fields, the gate (open) and guardhouse (empty), a swimming pool and a carpentry shop, a dusty ring road and winding pedestrian paths, the rudimentary tin-roofed volunteer cabins, with everything focused on the the dining hall and office complex at the centre of the property. The kitchen has a bit of a split personality on Nes Ammim. Most of the kibbutz’s revenue now comes from its guest house, popular with Israelis escaping the summer heat and Europeans escaping their own winter, so the kitchen prepares food for tourists in the restaurant as well as residents and volunteers in a more barebones, buffet-style communal dining hall. 

The original kibbutz movement had two goals: establish the borders of a future state in Palestine for the Jewish people (ie, Zionism) and create a new model for living in equality (ie, utopian socialism). 

So what was the founding vision of Nes Ammim? Obviously not the first: Israel existed by the time the idea for Nes Ammim arose. And the second? Perhaps only tangentially—certainly the spirit of radical sharing was in the air at the time. But the founders of this unique community had a more specific goal in mind: to create a community within the young state of Israel that would help Europeans and Christians, and especially European Christians, emerge from the dark shadow of the Holocaust, from millennia of pogroms and anti-Semitism, and heal the deep chasm of suspicion with the Jewish people. It would be a new community, modeled on the successful Jewish invention of the kibbutz, where dialogue groups and encounter sessions between leaders of the two religions could take place. The name of the kibbutz—Nes Ammim—means “a banner for the nations” and comes from the Book of Isaiah.  It refers to God’s promise of everlasting peace in paradise for all the people on earth, which will be announced by such a sign. 

The idea for Nes Ammim earned the support from kibbutz leaders (it would become an associate member of the movement) and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. However, influential rabbis worried that Nes Ammim would be a front for evangelizing Christians trying to convert Israeli Jews. They opposed the plan—and the community—for many years. Once rumours circulated, thousands of people in nearby Nahariya marched in protest, too. The founders only got government permission to settle the property, purchased from a Druze sheikh, after they signed an agreement that promised never to proselytize. Every new volunteer must sign a similar “no-preaching” contract.

Swiss Family Kibbutznik: the famous bus at Nes Ammim

In 1963, a Swiss family drove a rickety old school bus with faulty brakes—a “gift” from Israeli friends—off the heights of Nazareth and across the untilled fields of the property. They parked on a hill: the bus would become the first building of Nes Ammim. It remains today as a museum and a reminder of its ad-hoc origins. Slowly, residents and volunteers who moved to and lived on Nes Ammim earned the trust of their Jewish neighbours, in part by never abandoning the settlement during the six wars that threatened the nation. Eventually, Germans—who weren’t even permitted to visit Israel during its early years—were permitted to stay as volunteers in the 1970s. 

Nes Ammim developed a communal economy around avocado orchards, olive groves and its famous “glass houses”: greenhouses that deployed the horticultural expertise of Dutch residents to grow and sell roses. Bouquets of Nes Ammim roses became a sought-after decorative element at receptions for visiting foreign dignitaries. While the settlement was always intended to be permanent, residence there wasn’t. Leaders stayed on Nes Ammim for perhaps five or six years at most and then returned home. Volunteers usually lived there for a year or less. The kibbutz followed this pattern for years, slowly growing, adding buildings and residences, while new people cycled through and gave it energy and life.

Like the rest of the kibbutz movement, though, the turn of the millennium saw Nes Ammim suffer an identity crisis. The community could no longer compete with cheap flowers imported from Africa and had to shut down the glass houses—for decades, the signature feature of its economy. The violence of the Second Intifada and the Second Lebanon War cut into bookings at the guest house.The population of European families moving there had declined and many of the houses were being rented out to Israeli tenants.

And there were existential questions, too: What was the purpose and value of this place, 40 years after its founding? The European attitude toward the state of Israel—once wracked with guilt, now more aligned with the plight of the Palestinian people—was also shifting. How should Nes Ammim react to these changes? Could it evolve with the times?

I had walked unknowingly into the midst of this debate. For the last few years, Nes Ammim has focused not only on dialogue work between Christians and Jews, but also between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews. The site of the kibbutz, leaders realized, could be used as neutral ground (or as neutral as any ground gets in Israel) for different groups within the country to meet and talk and build trust. 

Nes Ammim had just broken ground on an even more ambitious project. Like almost every other kibbutz in the country, they are building a rural subdivision to be marketed to outsiders. Unlike almost every other kibbutz, Nes Ammim plans to use a new law that allows community settlements, in the country’s north and south, to interview and select residents—to screen newcomers, in other words—as a way to populate a mixed neighbourhood of Arabs and Jews, much like Neve Shalom/Wahat-al-Salaam. (This law has proven controversial, and come under legal challenge, because it has been used to exclude Arab residents interested in moving into Jewish settlements. Of course, membership by vote has been the kibbutz model from the very beginning.)

Not everyone I spoke with at, or associated with, Nes Ammim was keen on these changes. Some doubted that the community would attract enough Jewish residents to balance the population of this new neighbourhood. Others worried that Nes Ammim would lose the European character that had made the place unique, and with it, the focus on healing the division between Christianity and Judaism, between modern Europe and modern Israel, which has only grown in recent years. 

The young Dutch and German volunteers I met on Nes Ammim, however, seemed excited by the prospect of change. Their experiences on the kibbutz had been enriched, they told me, by the opportunities to see and hear about the complex nature of Israel from multiple perspectives: to learn Hebrew from native speakers, to tour the Holocaust Museum at the nearby Ghetto Fighters Kibbutz, to teach English to kids at the next-door Arab village, to meet school groups from both sides of the conflict, to visit the West Bank, to realize how many shades of grey exist behind the black-and-white stories of the region they were fed by the media back home. (I was envious of the rich experience these volunteers were getting on Nes Ammim, a far more intimate and honest look at life in Israel—especially the mixed Arab-Jewish region of Western Galilee—than 99.9% of foreign visitors will ever encounter.)

Nes Ammim was a place, sleepy as it might seem, that will always attract a whiff of controversy. How can you bring different religions together and not expect some friction? Perhaps that tension between its harmonious aspirations and its contentious reality is best symbolized in the sculpture that rests in the foyer of the kibbutz’s “church”. The building itself has been largely stripped of evidence of any faith or denomination. No cross, no icons, nothing but chairs facing a bare altar. The entrance, with a koi pond and rock garden in its centre, has the aura of a Zen Buddhist sanctuary more than anything else.

Then your eye is drawn to the sculpture in the pond, like a nativity scene floating on a disc. Three sets of ten figurines face a central pillar with three doors. The terracotta-coloured figures are arranged in a V-shaped 1-2-3-4 pattern, like bowling pins, aimed toward the three-doored hub. A closer inspection reveals the particulars of each faith in the figurines’ genuflections: Muslims prostrate on the ground, Christians kneeling, Jews—a minyan of them—standing, heads bent, holy books in hand.  
A pool for prayer: the many-layered sculpture at Nes Ammim

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Peace Dividend

Few communities illustrate the contradictions of the contemporary kibbutz more than Sasa. This community
(often called the "first all-American kibbutz") was founded by North American immigrants and members of the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement  in the aftermath of the 1948 war on the high country near the border with southern Lebanon. It remains among the dwindling number of kibbutz shitufi—fully communal in its economy. It has also been, over the last decade, the most financially successful of the 270 kibbutzim scattered across Israel.

Evidence, it would seem, that you can maintain a kibbutz’s traditional philosophy of peace and equality and still thrive as a community. That capitalism doesn’t trump all. 

Well, not so fast.

The ideals of Sasa, while strong, are still compromised in revealing ways. The kibbutz was founded on the ruins of an Arab village, destroyed and depopulated during the War of Independence. An interview with one of the founders, in Toby Perl’s excellent documentary about the kibbutz movement, reveals an ambivalence about settling the site after the new arrivals realized its recent and troubling history—the ghosts that dwelled there, the original occupants now refugees across the border with Lebanon. (They stayed nonetheless.)

A similar asterisk must be added to Sasa’s economic success, which has allowed it to maintain its communal ideals. The members didn’t get rich growing grapefruits or (as at other kibbutzim) making plastics or irrigation devices or bifocal lenses. They made millions and employed thousands over the last 10 years by selling armored plating to the American military via the Plasan factory. In other words, the kibbutz was one of the main beneficiaries (along with shady military suppliers like Halliburton) of the the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The wheel thing: A Plasan-made "Sandcat" combat vehicle

The recent American withdrawal from the former and scaling down of operations in the latter have affected the economy of Sasa. News recently circulated about lay-offs at the kibbutz factory, and the Kibbutz Industries Association cited a drop of 13% from the nation's kibbutz-based industries, largely as a result of the decline in profits at Sasa.

Peace dividend? 

Not at Sasa. In this unusual utopia in the mountains, communal life has been preserved, and difficult decisions deferred, in part, thanks to the exorbitant American expenditures on foreign wars. Of course, one could always argue that Sasa didn’t manufacture weapons per se, and instead made its money keeping soldiers safe against improvised explosive devices and land mines. But that seems like splitting hairs. This kibbutz remains intermeshed, more than any other perhaps, in the global military industrial complex. What will it do now that the U.S. Armed Forces' money machine has been turned off? Can the community's values survive in times of peace as well as war?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Great Not-so-white North

After a more or less smooth trip (as smooth as getting up at 3 am for a taxi, two planes, a train and a rental car can be), I made it to Israel and have slept off most of my jet lag. I paused briefly, to rest  and get my bearings at Nes Ammim—a "kibbutz" of German Christians in between Nahariya and Akko. I return there tomorrow for three more days to learn  about their history, their evolution, and the interfaith dialogue workshops they run, as part of their dream of healing the rifts between Germans and Israelis, Christians and Jews.

On Friday afternoon, I drove north to the Hula Valley and my old kibbutz at Shamir. I'm staying with friends and visiting old acquaintances and, later this morning, interview Uzi Tzur, the first-born ben kibbutz (i.e., child of the kibbutz), who has played a huge role in both the defense of Shamir (he shot the terrorists who tried to infiltrate the kibbutz in 1974) and the success of Shamir Optical as a multinational enterprise.

I made it in time foe one more shabbat dinner on Shamir, always one of my favourite nights (the weekend, at last!) when I was a volunteer. The dining hall is privatized (open for lunch and Tuesday and Friday dinners now), and was maybe two-thirds full—not quite the clamouring packed hall from years past, but still alive with conversations between old friends and family members. You pay for your meal now, at the cash register till, and there is no longer free (albeit cheap and watery) white wine to be poured into jugs by the litre from industrial beverage dispensers. 

I'd seen evidence of religious leanings on other kibbutzim, but Shamir seems still to be resolutely secular: no prayers, no candles, no shabbat songs, none of the Jewish rituals I'd witnessed at erev shabbat on Kibbutz Lotan in the Arava or the Ravenna Kibbutz in Seattle. If anything was sacred here, it was the family—Shamir seems in the midst of a baby boom—and Friday night, the communal dinner was honouring the extended family, related by blood or proximity, so central to kibbutz life.

Yesterday, after a restful sleep-in, my friends Kari and Danny took me for a shabbat day trip. We tried to go to the Agamon-Hula Park, but the parking lot was crammed with bird-watchers and other tourists for the annual Hula Bird Festival—the valley's blue sky is alive with migrating cranes and hawks and other Rift Valley migrants—so we headed up north, nearly to the Lebanese border, and walked the forest trails (much quieter) of Tel Dan instead. We had lunch beside one of the streams that feeds the Jordan River. 

The Hula remains as beautiful as I remember, this crook of farm fields and marsh land, peppered with kibbutzes and moshavs, in between the Golan Heights and the Napthali Mountains. It has been a pleasant reminder of my time here 22 years ago, during the same autumn season when I first arrived as a volunteer, the days still sunny and yet the nights cooling quickly, the rainy season and the cold winds off the snowy top of Mt. Hermon on the horizon. Harvest over, a new year marking off its days. 

Nobody seems optimistic about the immediate future of Israel, with the looming showdown with Iran and the uncertain changes in neighbouring countries, with a right-wing government firmly entrenched in power and completely at odds with the traditional values of the kibbutz. But it's hard not to find a certain peace, here in the hills of northern Galilee, amid the tree-shaded lanes and bird-song and cries of children in the playground, here on Kibbutz Shamir.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On the Road Again

I'm excited (and nervous) to be in transit again, for a two-week research trip in Israel. I'm hoping that my interviews there will cap off all the material I need to complete my book. (Actually, what I need is the discipline—and perhaps a manacle around my ankle—to simply buckle down and finish a first draft.)

The next 14 days promise to be a flurry of travel and meetings and interviews and observations. Some highlights from my itinerary:

  • Nes Ammim: A German-run interfaith "kibbutz" that coordinates dialogue workshops and peace-building initiatives. I'm hoping to drop in on a session with Arab and Jewish theatre students from Haifa.
  • Kishorit: a former kibbutz that has been transformed into a rehabilitation centre and home for adults with physical and mental disabilities, where they can find meaningful work (including producing a TV show) and community.
  • Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company: I had brief visit to the studios and rehearsal spaces on Kibbutz Ga'aton 2.5 years ago, but on this visit I will spend time talking to artistic director Rami Be'er and then seeing this internationally renowned troupe perform in Tel Aviv.
  • Ran Tal, the director of the "collage" documentary" Children of the Sun, which weds archival footage of kibbutz children, from the 1930s onwards, with interviews with early kibbutzniks (including Tal's mother) about the positives and negatives of growing up (and raising their own children) in these isolated and idealistic communal outposts.
  • System Ali, a hip-hop collective, with members who are Arab and Jewish, native-born Israelis and Russian immigrants, that sprung from the Sadaka Reut commune that I visited in the summer of 2010.
  • Eliaz Cohen, a poet from Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, one of the most historic settlements, who writes verse informed by his deep spiritual roots and his communal home.
  • And more...
First, though, I've got a 10.5-hour flight to Tel Aviv (with an exit-row seat!), negotiate the 20 Questions of Israeli Customs, grab an hour-and-a-half train ride to Nahariya, rent a car there, and make the short drive (thankfully) to Nes Ammim. The next morning I hit the ground running with interviews and then a drive up north to Kibbutz Shamir. No time for jet lag.