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.

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.