Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Making History

There is an interesting news item in Ha'aretz about plans to lobby UNESCO to declare the kibbutz system in Israel a "world heritage site". One of the proponents is Dr. Galia Bar-Or, who co-curated the exhibit about kibbutz architecture at the recent Venice Biennele and whom I interviewed at the art museum at Kibbutz Ein Harod, which she oversees.

Israel already has six UNESCO world heritage sites (not surprising for a squib of land that encompasses so much world heritage), which commemorate built environments of significance to history ancient (Masada; the old city of Acre; the Nabatean cities in the Negev; the biblical sites of Megiddo, Be'er Sheva, and Hazor) and more recent (the Bahai Gardens in Haifa; Tel Aviv's "White City" of modernist design). The Old City of Jerusalem is also on the list, proposed by Jordan in the 1980s.

The idea of historically sanctifying the kibbutz as an institution in this way raises some intriguing questions:
  • Is it more evidence that the kibbutz, as a social ideal, is past its prime—a museum piece, a fossil of history rather than a living, breathing entity with an evolving future? 
  • How do you commemorate a movement that was, at its height, a network of 270+ communities, each a little (sometimes a lot) different from the next one in ideology and practice and industry? Right now, plans are to propose Kibbutz Degania—the original settlement—within the UNESCO designation, while potentially inscribing other kibbutzim (like Ein Harod) that played an important role during certain stages of the movement's 100-year history.
  • Does the proposal even have a chance of negotiating the highly political hallways of the United Nations? The idea is to commemorate one of the most important forms of settlement—if not the most—of the secular Zionist movement in the years before 1948. (It would also honour an applied ideal of social equality that must stand, despite its diminished status today, as one of the successes of the otherwise abandoned philosophy of utopian socialism.) Israel isn't exactly the most popular nation on the block when it comes to U.N. voting... so I won't be holding my breath for the kibbutz to get so honoured.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

After the Fire

Here is some evocative and moving footage and interviews with Kibbutz Beit Oren residents about the recent conflagration on Mt. Carmel that threatened to engulf the kibbutz—and that killed more than 40 prison workers who were caught in the blaze.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Walking Israel

I was catching up with my Google News Updates (all "kibbutz", all the time!), when I read this short interview with Martin Fletcher, the author of what sounds like an interesting travelogue, titled Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation. (Israeli-based journalist Daviel Gavron undertook a similar ambulatory literary journey down the length of the country, although Fletcher chose the coastal route.)

What jumped out was his visit to Kibbutz Beit Oren and his discovery of the story of the kibbutz's near-bankruptcy and how members brought their community back from the brink of debt and dissolution—and paved the way for future privatization projects in the kibbutz movement. Of course, the story of Beit Oren's fall and rise is now shadowed by the damage wrought by the recent forest fires. (Twenty homes were damaged in the blaze.) Most of my Google Alerts since this interview was published have all been about the devastation on Mt. Carmel and the ensuing fallout

I imagine Fletcher's chapter about Beit Oren would have a very different ending if he were to write it now. And maybe a different one again, if he returns in two years, such is the ever-oscillating way of life—from light to dark and back again—in this always complex corner of the world.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Tragedy on the Carmel

It was with sadness and trepidation that I followed the recent new of the unprecedented forest fires that swept Mt. Carmel in Israel for days and that killed more than 40 people, most of them employees of the nearby prison. Earlier this summer, I had travelled through this very region with Jerry, my research assistant. He had described a sea-to-sea (Mediterranean to the Kinneret) hike he had done through the steep, rocky brush-covered valleys. We passed the prison, strung with barbed wire, and stopped at Kibbutz Beit Oren, which was evacuated and badly damaged during the fires.

Beit Oren is something of a paradox: a handsome kibbutz in a spectacular setting (the lush, often misty Carmel is sometimes described as the “Switzerland of Israel”) that has become a symbol of the kibbutz movement’s bad times. In the 1980s, it was one of the first settlements to approach the brink of bankruptcy and nearly dissolved amidst great debate in the community and amid the movement itself. (Kibbutz historians refer to it as the “Beit Oren Affair”.) I’d read that it had dissolved as a kibbutz, but a member with whom we spoke this summer denied that fact—he said that already-privatized kibbutz was moving in that direction, though.

Now, who knows what will become it. Tourism in its expansive mountain-top guesthouse is the main source of income. (Agriculture must have been difficult on this remote and rocky ridgeline.) Who knows if the kibbutz will rise again, like a phoenix from the ashes, or whether this will be the final, ignominious chapter in the story of a once-proud community.

I was equally concerned about Avraham Eilat, the father of my friend Yoav, and one of Israel’s leading visual artists, who lives—or perhaps lived—in the village of Ein Hod. I only now learned that Ein Hod has also been badly damaged by the fire. I haven’t heard whether Eilat lost his beautiful art-filled house overlooking the valley.

Gideon Levy of Ha’Aretz provided a moving and insightful report from behind the lines of the forest fire and those most affected by it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Kibbutz at 100

Here's an informative (if dry) news report from the Associated Press about the 100th anniversary of the kibbutz movement—and the shift from communalism to capitalism—that has been widely republished in other papers. It also notes the sale of 50% of Shamir's Optical operations to an outside company.

Even more fascinating is this snippet from an interview with social critic Noam Chomsky, in which he reminisces about his own time, many decades ago, on a kibbutz. (It was Kibbutz HaZorea, which I passed many times while staying at a nearly kibbutz last summer and which was documented in the film of the same name.)

Chomsky makes an interesting observation about the paradox that the early hardcore socialist kibbutzniks found themselves in, between the ideals of founding a bi-national Arab-Jewish state and of not wanting to employ Arab labour in their communities for fear of becoming just another capitalist overlord:
If you know the history, you know that most idealistic anti-nationalist settlers insisted on a closed Hebrew society, you can't hire outside labor, that sort of thing. You could see the motivation. They didn't want to become what the first settlers were: landowners who had cheap Arab labor. They wanted to work the land. Nevertheless, there's an exclusionary character to it. Which then led into the policy of the state and became quite ugly later. So it was kind of an internal conflict that was never resolved.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Kibbutz Trends and Controversies

I'm finally getting a little free time to sort through some recent (and not so recent) news items about the kibbutz movement and reflect on the ongoing changes there. Here are a few that caught my eye and are worth a second look:
  • West Bank settlers who have decided to move to an abandoned kibbutz in the Negev—a hopeful trend (if you can call it that), if you believe that the expansion of settlements in the Occupied Territories is the major obstacle to peace in the region. Plus, it suggests that the (largely) right-wing settlers can still take a little impetus from the (largely) left-wing kibbutz movement, which has always been more interested in settling the empty regions beyond the Green Line rather than the contested (and densely populated) areas within what many consider the future state of Palestine.
  •  a good little article, on the centenary of Kibbutz Degania, about the Hadera Commune and Umm Juni and the site that would become the first kibbutz (described, in a bit of hyperbole, as an "ideological Taj Mahal"). As the article says, it's not about the architecture that was built there, but the ideas that sprang from the soil. I remember seeing that famous black and white photo of the founders outside the dining hall at Degania, and an old woman's eyes misting over as she pointed out her father to us.
  •  A conflict between the Kibbutz Movement and the Israel Land Authority about what (mostly what not) kibbutzim are allowed to use their lands for, as the nation increasingly privatizes its vast public land holdings. Kibbutzim that are trying to profit (or just survive) by building subdivisions non-members, or sell services like daycare or elder-care to non-outsiders are finding themselves afoul of the ILA's regulations. As the articles says, many kibbutniks "feel the ILA has rebranded them from hard-working farming pioneers into greedy real estate sharks."
  • And then there is another article that looks briefly at just these kinds of expansions and entrepreneurial ventures that different kibbutzim are undertaking in an attempt to maintain their membership and economic viability, as they move away from agriculture and even heavy-industry as their major sources of income, and look to attract new members seeking to escape the hurly-burly of urban life. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The President on the Kibbutz

It's dangerous to have heroes who are politicians, as they have a bad habit of disappointing you. But Shimon Peres, the former Labor leader and current president of Israel, has always stood out to me as a politician with more moral integrity and vision than most—a man who has been forced to make difficult decisions and compromises, and yet has done so without losing his sense of justice.

He recently gave an address at the UN Millennium Development Goals summit. Not surprisingly, he ascribes much of that collective sense of purpose to the time he spent as a young man on a kibbutz. (He lived on Kibbutz Geva and was a founder of Kibbutz Alumot.) As he recalled in his UN speech:
In my youth I was a member of a kibbutz, cultivating poor land. I owned, like all members, two shirts and two pairs of pants. There was a third pair of pants: made of flannel reserved for grooms only. I was lucky to wear them for two full days during my wedding. The main dish in the kibbutz was eggplants. Meat was available once a week, but not every week. There was no private money and little collective money. 
We were poor and happy. The sort of happiness felt when a person as is turning desert into garden. Today the kibbutz has a thriving agriculture and a profitable guest house. Food is plentiful. It is in the kibbutz, in scarcity, where I learned to respect pioneers. And developed an affinity to creative minds and laborious hands. Actually, my early dream was to see the world as a great kibbutz. Free, peaceful, productive.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Cartoon Kibbutz Nostalgia

I'm finally back from summer vacation and ready to get back to my kibbutz research. Of course, first I have stacks of class preparation to do before school begins next week. In the meantime, let me share this quirky little video—what appears to be an animation film project—that captures a nostalgic look back at life on a kibbutz.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Post #100: Sunrises and Sunsets

Mentions of Kibbutz Shamir, in Upper Galilee, often describe an unusual celestial phenomenon: a sunrise in the west. Each morning, when the early rays emerge over the Golan Heights and the steep eastern slopes of the valley, on which the kibbutz sits, they first strike the taller ridges on the far side of the Jordan River, on the border between Lebanon and Israel, and then spread across the Huleh, giving the illusion that the sun is about to make its grand entrance from the wrong direction.
I don’t remember people talking about this effect when I lived on Shamir. I do remember the sunrises and sunsets, though, from our perch on the slopes of the Golan, and how they illuminated the rich earthen palette of the valley, from autumn, through winter and into the spring. I probably watched more sunrises in Israel than anywhere else, thanks to pre-dawn shifts in the cotton fields and the apple, kiwi, or avocado orchards. 
We would drag ourselves from our cots, alarm clocks screaming, and descend into the valley amid the murk of first light, in the back cab of an old Toyota truck. The light would begin to illuminate our surroundings as we shook off sleep (and often hangovers) with caffeine, nicotine, small talk or silence—whatever it took. And there we were, as the day began to warm, in the wide embrace of the Huleh: pulling stones from the cotton fields, burning stubble, trimming the branches of the kiwi trees, digging irrigation trenches past the apple stands, clambering up the long limbs to reach the last avocado. 
The end of the day, long after our work shift had finished, tended to be more dramatic. I’d often have a siesta and go for a jog around the kibbutz’s ring road (or perhaps I’m embellishing my athletic activity—I did do a few circuit loops), as the sun started to descend into Lebanon, a burning ball extinguished against the mountains’ silhouettes, and the rock rabbits would release their surreal, almost mechanical squeals from their warrens and farther away, amid the hills and the scrub, the wild dogs would take up a howling call and response. 
Night would fall. The electric lights of the valley would flicker on. Qiryat Shmona would appear as a constellation across the river. And I would get anxious for activity: a drink (or more), a conversation, some gossip, laughter around the TV or the bar, a friend or two to fend off the loneliness of the night. And then, the next day, the sun would rise again in the east.

* * *

I lost track for a few days and realized that this post marks the 100th of my blog—and my goal of writing 100 to celebrate the centenary of the kibbutz movement. Of course, I never intended to end at 100—especially when I’m only halfway finished describing my trip to Israel this summer and have barely begun to relate my experiences (and embarrassing journal entries) from more than 20 years ago. So I thought it best (especially before taking time off for two weeks of family vacation) to mark Post #100 by looking back to Galilee from a more personal perspective and touching once again on some of the images and memories burned into my own imagination by the kibbutz I once called home.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Kibbutz As Bridge

A short article in the Associated Press caught my attention. It describes how a 62-year-old Arab resident of Gaza still holds positive memories from 23 years of working on a nearby kibbutz, while his 21-year-old son only has anger for the Israelis beyond the fence that surrounds Gaza because he has only ever encountered soldiers. 
The elder Hamami spent what he considers the best 23 years of his life working on Israeli kibbutzim, or collective farms, near Gaza. He had his own room, took Hebrew classes, swam in the community pool with kibbutz members and danced at their parties. "They were all my friends," he said, "from the old man to the child."
It’s a reminder of the important bridge that many kibbutzim formed, on the edge of the nation, between Jews and Arabs. And a reminder of how so much of that connection has been lost because the two sides rarely encounter each other in daily life anymore, rarely work together, rarely play together, rarely have the chance to build trust and friendship—that unity at the core of the original kibbutz founders’ vision of the future.

The Dining Room as Parable

To a visitor who has never eaten regularly at one, a kibbutz dining room might look like a glorified (or even unglorified) cafeteria: the stainless-steel smorgasbord of salads and meats and breads, the long table-clothed tables and conversation-filled open room, the noisy conveyor-belt dish-washing machine. Echoes of high school perhaps, with more gossip and fewer food fights.
But for a longtime kibbutznik (and even a nostalgia-drunk volunteer like myself), the dining room is so much more. It’s the heart and soul of the kibbutz. It’s the centre of activity. It’s the thrice a day (sometimes more) gathering place. It’s as much a symbol as a setting. It is, as the title of a recent exhibition at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv suggests, a parable. So it’s little wonder that the dining room has proved the fascinated focus for many artists, like the photographers in the Eretz Israel show, or Avraham Eilat (who uploaded a time-lapse film sequence of the dining room at Kibbutz Shamir, with the members gathering around the TV for news of a terrorist attack by the Red Brigade), and others. 
Over the past two years, I also “read” the dining rooms at the different kibbutzim I visited as parables. I tried to discern the state of their social and community life from the state of their dining room. At Kibbutz Hanita, my host took me to the dining room explicitly to show me how life there had declined since privatization: there was a cash register, half the room was closed off, the remaining side was half-empty and occupied mostly with retirement-age kibbutzniks, and he admitted that since most of his friends had left the kibbtuz, he rarely ate there himself.
Kibbutz Lotan, by contrast, had a small but lively dining room, still communal, still free, and packed shoulder to shoulder, with challa and wine on the table, for Shabbat dinner. I watched two male friends hug warmly as they met near the kitchen. The heart of this dining room was still beating strongly. It felt the same at Kibbutz Samar, although the dress-code was more hippie-chic, and its kitchen is probably unique in the entire country for being open and unlocked at all hours of the day or the night: anyone can drop by for a snack at the anarchist dining room. 
Kibbutz Ketura was a bit more complex. It had a more spacious dining room, but the social geography of the space was carefully sub-divided, likely unconsciously, perhaps because of the many different groups who coalesce at the kibbutz: international volunteers sat at one table, students at the Arava Institute at another (and Mulsim students tended to cluster together amongst themselves), several tables were reserved for one of the many tour groups (in this case, young Swedes) who come through, and there was food station reserved for guests of the hotel—we got a slightly choice of food fixings, because we were paying for our meals.
Kibbutz Urim’s dining room was lightly attended for breakfast, but during our meal, our host ran into his university-aged son, who is living in a student apartment on the kibbutz, and they had coffee together—a nice moment. Urim is struggling to stay communal and considering different statuses for different members, to give some flexibility and freedom without fully embracing privatization: the dining room seemed to mirror that trend.
Kibbutz Revadim was the most depressing. Jerry and I were the only people eating in its huge dining room, because we were staying at the guest house. The dining room’s kitchen were privatized, and only used for catering functions and guest-house breakfasts. A panorama of photographs outside the entrance showed the kibbutz’s expansion, from an aerial view, over 60 years, with the dining room at its hub. But now that hub is empty of its original purpose.
Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek has a huge L-shaped dining room, usually busy, with stacks of high-chairs and newspapers to be picked up outside. It remains the proud centre of this bastion of the kibbutz movement. Kibbutz 
Kibbutz Shamir’s dining hall was much like I remembered it, with its sun-filled vertical windows and huge tapestry, although the kitchen itself has been renovated and cash registers added to pay for the (heavily subsidized) meals. It was open for breakfast and lunch and two dinners per week. Workers from the factory, in their blue overalls, still used it, although because agriculture plays a smaller role, with far fewer workers, in the kibbutz economy, I didn’t see the lines of muddy field-hands in their sun-hats and work-shirts, a cigarette tucked behind their ears, trundle in for a meal like I used to do. We were only there four days, but it wasn’t long before we were chatting to and nodding at friends and acquaintances that we had met—the social glue of eating in the same place was starting to set.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Day 17: The Women of Israel

Myriam Dagan Brenner of Givat Haviva
On the morning of June 22, we rendezvoused with Myriam Dagan Brenner at a noisy coffee-shop on the outskirts of Afula, near the moshav where she lives. Myriam is a lively, opinionated, and big-hearted coordinator at Givat Haviva (which I never got the chance to revisit this summer) with a busy schedule, so I was pleased that we could connect, even though I had hoped to see her in action during one of her programs for Arab and Jewish women. As it turned out, we talked for more than two hours in one of the most fascinating conversations of the entire trip. 
“I never lived on a kibbutz,” Myriam told us, without regret, when I explained the focus of my research. “I don’t see it happening.” 
She only moved to Israel from France in 1984 after marrying an Israeli man, who had to return to attend to his sick father. (“A very big Zionist reason for coming here!” she admitted with a laugh.) In 1989, after a serendipitous meeting with the coordinator of the Children Teaching Children program at Givat Haviva (which brings together Jewish and Arab high-school students), Myriam was invited to lead a few seminars at this educational institute founded by the Kibbutz Artzi movement. Over the past 21 years, she deepened her relationship with Givat Haviva and has helped to develop many of its outreach programs, including sessions that address gaps in Israeli society between Arabs and Jews, Mizrahi (Middle-Eastern/Mediterranean) and Ashkenazi (Northern European) Jews, and new immigrants and Israeli-born sabras.
In 1994, after the assassination of P.M. Rabin, she started the Counselling for Peace Education Centre. In 1999, thanks to a $500,000 grant, she co-founded the Women in Communities program to help social workers to address women’s issues. (“It was like a fantasy,” she admitted of the sudden influx of money for their otherwise cash-strapped efforts. Later, she lamented that international groups who support confrontational actions like the Gaza Flotilla don’t seem as keen to fund the peace work being done at a place like Givat Haviva.) 
She has strong views about how feminism can transform the still-traditional notions of family in her otherwise modern nation. She admits there is a paradox in Israel: It is a country where a student can enroll in gender studies in all universities, many colleges and even a few high schools, and yet women are still without a voice in most major political, social and economic decisions. 
Why? Myriam cited three main reasons.
First, despite mandatory army service, women can’t serve in combat units and therefore can’t become part of the officers’ network that still underlies much of Israeli politics and business. “[Women] don’t have the status or the network that men can have in the army,” she explained.
A second issue is the traditional expectation, in both secular and especially religious families, Jewish and Muslim alike, that women will be responsible for taking care of the family—and that the family ought to be big. (“Two children is not a family” is a common saying.) Myriam called these gender expectations (man as the provider, woman as the nurturer) a “magic circle” that both men and women are caught within and can’t escape without a struggle.
Thirdly, the gender question, she argued, is especially important to The Conflict (as the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation is known locally). “Women are not see as partners in thinking, talking, making a difference. There are no women involved in the peace talks,” she lamented, citing Hannah Ashrawi as an exception on the Palestinian side that proves the rule—Ashrawi is no longer a player. “The Jewish women think they can’t be part of it because they aren’t involved in the army issues. The Palestinian women think that the men are right so there is nothing to argue about. We [at Givat Haviva] think that women have the capacity to speak to each other and are much more mindful to have peace and quietness than men.”
“One of the problems we have in Jewish-Arab women’s groups, after they connect very strongly on the personal level—’We are all women, we are all mothers, we are all dealing with the same problems on the personal, family level, sometimes community level’—is that when we get to the conflict level, they adopt the male discourse of the conflict. When before they spoke about themselves, it was ‘I do, I feel, I think’, but when they get to conflict, they speak about ‘we’ and ‘you’. In Hebrew, it is like ‘you’ in French: ‘you’ that is singular and ‘you’ that is plural. We go from ‘me’ and ‘you’ on the personal level, to ‘we’ and ‘you’ on the collective level.” And from connection to disconnection.
She talked about the two competing historical narratives in the conflict—Jewish versus Palestinian—a concept we heard repeated several times on our trip. “The two narratives are very strongly opposed to each other,” said Myriam, at least when it comes to the “facts” of the conflict or even the recent flotilla incident. Both sides can’t see through the other’s eyes, even momentarily. They tell two completely different stories. “There is nothing you can say that convince them that there is something in the middle.”
At Givat Haviva, she tries to get the two sides to talk about feelings rather than argue over “facts”. “When you speak about facts you don’t get out of it,” she said. “But when you speak about the feelings—the feelings of fear and frustration—with feelings you can’t argue. If I am afraid, you can tell me 30 times there was nothing on the boat, but that doesn’t change my fear. You can’t argue that I feel differently. The fear doesn’t come from the flotilla; the fear comes from 100 years of conflict. The same thing for the Palestinians. The second thing, you can connect with the same feelings. You don’t agree about the facts. But we can connect about the feelings we have about the event or the conflict as a whole.”
She talked a little bit about the Four Mothers movement and how—in part because these activists leveraged the power of motherhood within traditional Israeli society—they managed, slowly and with great resistance, to alter the discourse about the army’s role in Lebanon and play a key role in the military withdrawal of 2000. Already, however, the role of this group of women (one of whom I met later in the trip) was being forgotten by the public or diminished in the media. “Most people would say about the Four Mothers, they didn’t have an impact, they weren’t relevant,” said Myriam.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“I think without them we would still be in Lebanon. I don’t have any doubt about it,” she replied. “But think of it: they were the four mothers. We had a significance to the struggle, not as citizens, not as women, but as mothers. It’s so much Israeli! As mothers you have legitimacy.” That’s why Myriam felt, despite the efforts of groups like the Women in Black, there couldn’t be an equivalent popular movement to change the debate about the Occupation. “It’s not a motherhood issue,” she said. “It’s a civic issue.”
I was struck by how Myriam could step back and take both an optimistic and a pessimistic view of the state of her nation and its ever-elusive prospect for peace. 
“The full-half glass is that I started working at Givat Haviva at 1989, during the First Intifida. During that time, there was almost no talk in Israeli society of the possibility of a Palestinian state. Only the left-wing people were talking about two states for two people. If you look at the reality today, the majority of Israelis see the possibility of two states for two people. The agreement in Jewish Israeli society for a Palestinian state already exists. There is a problem with Jerusalem, there is a problem with the settlements. There are problems with the borders. But as an idea, the possibility that there will be a Palestinian state is in the mind of every Israeli. Even those who are against it, they know it will be happening. And somehow they accept it.
“In the Palestinian society, the fact that there will be an Israeli state is also accepted. Twenty years ago, it was not. There was a Palestinian discourse on the full Palestine and an Israeli discourse on a full Israel, from the Jordan to the sea—Palestine or Israel, one or the other. Today, I think it’s obvious and acceptable to both sides that there will be two states for two people… That’s a very, very big change. This is something that should be seen as very important. I would like to think that we, as Givat Haviva, were a part of this change.”
However, the glass often looks more empty than full these days, she admitted.
“On the other hand, almost nothing has changed. The ideas have changed, but on the ground almost nothing has changed. The relationships between Jews and Arabs are as tense as they’ve always been. … The political situation is very much depressing. It seems there is no other option. There is no political leader in Israel that you would like to be the prime minister. This I find very depressing. I personally am much more concerned by the religious movement. But I am not sure they are more significant than they were before. For many years, they have been running the politics and business in Israel. It’s much more frightening.”
In darker moments of the conflict, her family, who all have foreign passports, circles around a common question (“like a tradition,” she said) about whether they should emigrate. “With a foreign passport, I can go anywhere I want. I can go any place in Europe and work and have social security. We can put our things together tomorrow morning, get on a plane and go. On the one hand, it makes things easier, because we can say if things get worse we can go. On the other hand, it makes things worse, because everyday we have to decide: do we stay here when we don’t have to?”
During the height of the Second Intifada, amid terrorist attacks and bus bombings, Myriam said she was relieved, despite her desire to see them, that her three older children were living abroad. “But my youngest daughter was in Madrid during the train attack,” she recalled, “and I thought, ‘There is no safe place to be!’”
So what keeps her in Israel?
In part, she doesn’t want to abandon the fight so easily. “If people like us don’t stay in Israel, we give up on what is Israel. The right-wing will stay here, the ultra-orthodox will stay here.” It’s a refrain that we heard from other progressive voices in the country, although Myriam wasn’t 100% convinced.
“There is a joke in Hebrew,” she said, “that Moses had—how do you say?—a stutter, and when he said where should the Jewish people go, and it was to Canaan, but what he really said was ‘Ca-ca-ca…’ And he meant ‘Canada'!” 
And then Myriam Dagan Brenner released one of her warm yet ironic laughs.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Movie: Operation Grandma

If you’ve got an hour to kill, a decent Internet connection, and are looking for a good laugh, you could do worse than watching the Israeli comedy Mivtza Savta. When I was in Israel and mentioned I was giving a talk about kibbutz cinema, several people smiled and said, “Have you seen Operation Grandma?” Shown on Israeli TV in 1999, the movie has become a cult classic—a wicked satire about military machismo and kibbutz life. 
I thought I’d never be able to track down a copy in Canada, until I found it yesterday streaming on Google Video. The English subtitles are erratically spelled but at least they explain some of the more obscure Hebrew puns, Arabic profanity and cultural allusions.
The screwball comedy features three brothers who grew up on the fictional Kibbutz Asisim, in the Negev Desert, founded by their deceased parents: Edan, the youngest, is a nebbishy nature guide for a kids’ camp; Benny is an indebted techno-savant whose girlfriend is an aspiring judo champion; and Alon (nicknamed Krembo, because he once ate all the famous chocolate treats intended for the kibbutz’s Purim festival), is a semi-psychotic IDF commando planning a secret mission to Gaza who has moved back to the kibbutz as an “external inhabitant” and is infuriated that they won’t give him his own fridge. 
The premise: after their grandmother—who has been moved by the kibbutz into an old-age home far to the north in Netanya—dies, the three brothers need to organize a post-haste military operation to claim her body and bury it at Asisim as quickly as possible: so that Alon can fulfill his own secret mission in Gaza, Benny can install enough TV cables to earn his monthly bonus and make his next rent payment, and Edan can organize the “fire parade” with his disgruntled, switchblade-wielding campers. Think Mission: Impossible meets Weekend at Bernie’s.
Of course, their plan quickly goes off the rails and the corpse gets lost along the way (actually, it gets confiscated as a potential explosive), while other obstacles—including Dvora, the over-sexed and bureaucratic kibbutz secretary, and a techno-mad Swiss volunteer in charge of making the coffin—conspire against their attempts to give their grandma a final (and fast) send-off on the kibbutz.
The movie is quick-paced, over the top, and very, very funny. There are some in-jokes and references about kibbutz life (while never mentioned, it seems that Asisim has been privatized), but the comedy is broad and low-brow enough for almost anyone to enjoy. And I can understand now why it became such a campy cult classic of Israeli cinema.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Book: The Road to Ein Harod

Coincidentally, just after writing about my visit to Kibbutz Ein Harod, I picked up a library copy of Amos Kenan’s 113-page novella The Road to Ein Harod, published in Hebrew in 1984 and in English (translated by M. Hutzpit for Al Saqi Books, in London) two years later. The book really doesn’t have much to say about Ein Harod or the kibbutz movement. In fact, The Road to Ein Harod is a surreal, savage and satirical dystopian misadventure, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or other post-apocalyptic escape narratives.
In this case, the book’s first-person narrator, an older Jewish soldier who fought in the War of 1948, describes tuning his radio late one night and catching an urgent message that begins: “This is Radio Free Ein Harod calling.” We never find out exactly what has happened, but the narrator (and later the reader) figure out that some sort of military coup d’etat has taken over Israel and is enforcing a brutal martial law in the midst of civil war. Enemies of the coup, including artists and intellectuals, are being rounded up or shot on sight. 
The narrator eludes capture, hides in his attic, swims to Jaffa, and then begins a long journey by night in the seemingly futile hope of evading army patrols and reaching his family and what he believes is the last outpost of democracy and resistance: Kibbutz Ein Harod. On the way, he befriends an Arab refugee—they decide to delay killing each other and cooperate instead—and captures a brigadier general and his mistress as hostages. (One of the odd jokes is that almost every male character is named Rafi: the narrator, the general, the general’s driver, even the Arab’s Hebrew code name.)
Throughout his nightmarish, shadowy midnight journey of cat and mouse, the narrator reflects on his days as a soldier in the War of Independence—he still knows how to kill when necessary—and the legacy of violence that haunts his life and his homeland. “Yes,” he thinks, “the punishment we inflict on the victim of our oppression is to lead him to oppress others and to deprive him of awareness of it.”
Their escape route leads north toward Megiddo, the biblical ground zero of Armageddon—the end of the world—and an archaeological site just south of Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek. But before they can cross the Jizreel Valley, the refugees are cornered within a labyrinth of caverns by the sinister General of the Northern Command, a leader of the coup who shares with General Rafi an embarrassing secret about their time as captive young soldiers together in Syria. And then the book gets even weirder.
The General of the Northern Command takes the narrator back to a secret hideout, like the command-post of a super-villain, where he plans to enact his master plan (based on the writings of the “great military theorist Amos Kenan”) to go back in time and change Jewish history by refighting old wars and preventing the destruction of the Temple and the Spanish Inquisition. “The essential point is that History cannot be corrected after the fact,” he tells the narrator. “If you want to change the course of history, what you have to do is not foresee it in advance but fuck it from behind, in accordance with the doctrine of retroaction.”
SPOILER ALERT: In the end, the narrator escapes, and everyone except for him ends up dead in the dust. All that is left is for him to complete his journey to Ein Harod. But as he crosses the Jezreel Valley, he sees no evidence of the region’s famous settlements: “No Balfuria and no Merhavya. No town of Afula. On the mountain opposite, where Lower Galilee begins, I could not see the slopes of Nazareth. No Tel Yosef and no Geva. No Road of the Rule, not a single eucalyptus tree, not a single water tower. What could it all mean?”
All he can see is evidence of the natural, not the human, world: giant plane-trees, oleanders, willows, prairie, tracks of wild boar and panther. Not even the “derelict foliage” that signals a former settlement, even one thousands of years gone, like mallow, nettles, fennel, alder, thistles or thorn bushes. Just this land before time. “Ein Harod is the place where it all began,” he says, “and I knew how to get to the beginning. But there was nothing there.”
He stands on this empty, prehistoric plain, and then the book ends with its haunting last few lines:
When I turned to look behind me the world had gone dark.
I don’t know if I’m blind. I can hear no sound, and I don’t know if I’m deaf.
I remember that beautiful song I learned as a kid: How happy we are in Ein Harod.
Now at last I’m happy: I’m in Ein Harod.
The ending echoes the first words of the book, in which the narrator tells us: “I kept thinking about that lovely song: ‘The road to the kvutza is not short, neither is it long.’” His journey begins with a kibbutz song and ends with a kibbutz song.
The Road to Ein Harod is a strange story that resists easy interpretation. But I think it’s important that is was published in 1984 (the title of Orwell’s famous fascist dystopia), seven years after the right-wing Likud had taken power and the influence of the kibbutz movement (and the left-leaning Labour party) was in serious decline. 
For the narrator, Kibbutz Ein Harod stands for the fading hope of a distant past—a path not taken for his beloved country. His dangerous journey back to Ein Harod represents a dream of returning to that past, a chance to begin again from scratch, to rewrite history in a narrative of peace and sharing rather than (as the General of the Northern Command desires) one of total war and absolute victory. Ein Harod—the first kibbutz—becomes a symbol of hope and reconciliation and refuge. But in Amos Kenan’s sly, satirical, deeply troubling vision of the near-future, all such hope may be nothing but a comforting mirage. And I don't think it's an accident that the book's symbol of hope—Ein Harod—was also driven apart by an ideological "civil war" of its own.
Kenan died last summer, and is buried on Kibbutz Einat. As his biography makes clear, he had a complex, controversial and highly creative relationship to Israel’s political and artistic development—much like the kibbutz movement itself.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Day 16: Kibbutz Ein Harod

Of course, one solution to the problems at Kibbutz Hanaton would be to follow the wisdom of Solomon and make the split literal by chopping the community in half. That’s what happened during the much more contentious schism—a political divide about which left-wing party to support—that racked the kibbutz movement in the 1952. Some members simply left their homes and moved to communities that supported their preferred political party.
In a couple cases, most famously at Kibbutz Ein Harod, the kibbutz itself was physically and socially split into two, and the separated communities became known by the suffix Meuhad or Ihud, depending on which federation its members aligned with. Kibbutz Ein Harod—Meuhad and Ihud—is famous for more than just this split… which seems, from the distance of history, like political hair-splitting by a pack of socialists but was of the utmost importance to the committed members in the early years of the State of Israel, when everything seemed possible, even a socialist Jewish nation on the shores of the Mediterranean.
Ein Harod is perhaps the most important kibbutz after Degania. It was founded in 1921 as a reaction to the small kvutzot, like Degania, and intended to be a “big kvutzot” or communal society instead—a thousand people, maybe more, something more sustainable than the 20 to 50 individuals that had founded the earlier communities. In this way, Ein Harod was the first kibbutz per se—as the word “kibbutz” became applied to these larger settlements and eventually replaced “kvutza” as the generic term. Ein Harod was also the home of Yitzhak Tabenkin, who turned the kibbutz into the centre of a nationwide movement (eventually called Meuhad) to promote this vision of large, economically robust socialist communities expanding across and hopefully transforming pre-state Israel. 
In the end, Ein Harod was changed by Israeli society, rather than vice versa. Political divisions between the weakening movements died down, and the Ihud and Meuhad federations joined to form the United Kibbutz Movement in 1981, although the two Ein Harods remain separate. Last September, Kibbutz Ein Harod Meuhad voted to privatize, an event as significant perhaps as the same decision that was made by Degania Aleph two years earlier. Tabenkin’s socialist utopia is now embracing the capitalist ethos—a change that his 79-year-old son says the founder of the “big kibbutz” movement would not have approved.
That was all just context to our visit to the Art Gallery at the kibbutz, where I spoke with Galia Bar-or, who is co-curating an exhibition about 100 years of kibbutz architecture for the Israeli pavilion at the upcoming Venice Biennale. Our discussion added to my understanding of the built-environment of the kibbutz—what makes it unique and how it has changed—from my earlier interview with the Chyutins in Tel Aviv. 
Dr. Bar-or emphasized that the thinking behind the design of the kibbutz is not simply of historical interest, even in the era of the capitalist kibbutz. “It’s still relevant,” she told us. “It’s not a long exhausted idea. It’s very fruitful to think about different kinds of solidarity. This is an alternative form to the generic city or suburbs.”
Kibbutz architects, she explained, were conscious of planning public spaces and building arrangements that encouraged social interaction, especially the all-important dining room, the centre of most kibbutzim, where so much of communal life took place—eating, voting, dancing, you name it. “It’s very nice that the heart of the community is linked to food,” she said. “Now with the changes, with privatization, in many cases the community is not able to maintain that big building because people eat at home.” Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai is contributing to the Venice exhibition an experimental film focused on the dining room of Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk, especially its sounds.
Dr. Bar-or talked about the pressures being placed on the social spaces of the kibbutz. “We are in a crucial time when, in many cases, the privatization of land has violated the space of the kibbutz. There are also rules of the state that force you to make fences—” We had seen high wire fences that Kibbutz Urim had to erect around its daycare. “—and roads for ambulances to enter.” I had mentioned how I had always appreciated the way many kibbutzim are made for people walking not for cars driving. “There is a need for rethinking and to preserve that common space and to maintain that social space.”
And what about the future?
“I’m not certain that the kibbutz will survive even in the form of the new kibbutz,” Dr. Bar-Or admitted. “I think the idea, the courage to try, that thing that makes you human—that you are looking to make the future better—that’s the main thing. Even if it will disappear, it’s like a ghost. It will come back.”

Day 16: Kibbutz Hanaton

Kibbutz Hanaton sits on a brush-covered plateau overlooking the blue waters of the Lake Eshkol reservoir in Lower Galilee, ringed by Arab villages. It’s picturesque location for a bitter legal, ideological and even religious battle that, according to some observers, threatens to tear apart the entire kibbutz movement.
I only knew the barebones of this story when we drove to Hanaton on a Monday morning. I was more interested in the community as the only kibbutz founded by Jews from the Masorti or Conservative movement. There are about a million Conservative Jews in North America, but the movement—which sits between Orthodox and Reform Judaism on the spectrum of adherence to Jewish law—has made few inroads in Israel. Kibbutz Hanaton hopes to change that. As one kibbutznik told a journalist, their community can act as a “bridge” between the increasingly divided secular and religious communities within Israel.
As it turns out, the kibbutz is even more divided that the nation it hopes to heal. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
First, we met up with the newest residents of Kibbutz Hanaton. A new “garin” or group of families in their mid-30s, all Masorti Jews, had been attracted to the kibbutz and arrived a year earlier. I had a brief chat with Rabbi Yoav Ende and Yanov Gliksman about why they came to Hanaton and what they hope to achieve here, before getting a quick tour and longer interview with Jonny Whine, originally from London. He filled us in on Hanaton’s brief yet tumultuous history, since its founding in 1984. 
The kibbutz was never financially well off—not surprising, considering it was founded just as the entire country was lapsing into a profound economic crisis. In 2004, it was near bankruptcy and had to bring in outside management. Many of the original members had left. Only a dozen of the founders remained. The Kibbutz Movement tried to prop up the kibbutz by sending new groups, including members of the socialist youth movement known as HaNoar HaOved VeHaLomed (Federation of Working and Studying Youth). 
As the kibbutz continued to struggle, a split developed between the remaining original members (who had become a minority), who wanted to turn Hanaton into a “renewed” or privatized kibbutz (which they did), and the youth group residents (who tended to work in educational projects around the area), who wanted it to hold to its socialist roots but perhaps not its religious philosophy. The Working and Studying Youth applied for membership in the kibbutz as a group, but were consistently voted down by the older members, who feared that a majority of new, youth-group members would simply take over control of their kibbutz by democratic means.
Then things got really complicated. An independent trustee was assigned to oversee the kibbutz’s precarious financial situation; he sold off part of the property to a private developer, so now the kibbutz is ringed with flashy suburban homes owned by outsiders. (In a twist on the privatization trend, the outsiders worry that the kibbutz, where they send their kids to daycare and use the swimming pool, will become too religious—most Israelis know little about Masorti Judaism—and demand that kindergartners dress modestly, eat kosher, etc.) The youth-group garin appealed to the Kibbutz Movement for control of a community that they saw spiralling toward privatization and irrelevance. And the lawyers began to circle like vultures.
Into this mix came the group of new families that included Jonny Whine and the others I first met. They opened a thriving Masorti educational centre, which runs programs for visiting North American Jews, but also find themselves in the midst of an internecine conflict between the kibbutz founders and the young socialists—a split in the community in which neighbours quite literally don’t talk to each other and would like each other evicted. The arguments spilled into the popular press. The most detailed account in English appeared in Ha’Aretz here.
The situation was especially sore when we visited in mid-June. A Hebrew article in a kibbutz paper had just appeared. Residents thought the feature was supposed to promote their community. Instead it focused almost exclusively on the split. A recent court decision had gone against the youth group members, and they had been served eviction notices, but they still planned to fight on. In their minds, the legal battle was a property grab that will allow the other kibbutzniks to profit from the privatization of Hanaton—and not have to share the wealth. For the older members (and the new Masorti group), they see the split as ideological—that the young idealists want to reshape the kibbutz into their own vision of a socialist community, rather than respect its Masorti origins and the wishes of the remaining founders. Outside observers from other youth groups worry that a final legal judgement could open the floodgates to other kibbutzim who want to privatize and profit from property development. 
We spoke to representatives of all three camps, and I’m sure the truth—if there is one in such a muddle—lies somewhere in between. But it’s hard to see any sort of compromise arising out of such  bitterness. (One of the older members described the youth-movement residents “like ants”—a mild annoyance to be swept away and also a metaphor that showed the depth of disdain on the kibbutz.) It’s a sad irony that both groups are committed to what Jews know as tikkun olam—the “repair of the world”, a devotion to good works and social justice—and yet can’t transcend their own ingrained suspicions of each other to make the community work together. 
As Jonny Whine told us, with a note of regret in his voice: “This place is too small to share it.” It certainly felt claustrophobic after our short visit to this troubled paradise.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Day 15: Haifa

Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek
The night before, after an incredibly busy day, we pulled into Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek around 10:00 pm and were greeted by Lydia Aisenberg, a member who was graciously letting us stay at her apartment (and her son’s, who was away) for four nights while we did research in the area. We chatted with Lydia for a bit before bedtime, and then again before she headed off to work at Givat Haviva (where I had met her the summer before). Later, we would have dinner with her at the huge dining hall of the kibbutz—one of the largest, most successful and most resolutely communal in Israel. 
Lydia had told us that even here, at Mishmar HaEmek, members were considering changes to their way of life. There had been grumbling (as there was from the first days of the first kibbutz) about “free riders” who don’t carry their weight and the amount of waste and economic inefficiency involved in the communal system, especially the dining hall and its free food. Charging a fee for food—the first step in privatizing the dining hall—was being discussed. 
By the rules of the kibbutz, guests were supposed to eat at the hall with the members. But because Lydia had to leave for work early and we tended to return from our interviews late, that was hard to coordinate, so Jerry and I ate alone. I felt self-conscious and even a little guilty eating on the kibbutzniks’ dime, even if it was just a handful of meals. We stood out—or at least I thought we did. An old woman at the table where we sat asked us who we were. Friends of Lydia’s, we explained. Later, she chided Jerry for eating from a bowl without a tray—he was going to get the table-cloth messy, she suggested, and cause more work. At our last meal, she asked what we did all day. We were researching a book about kibbutzim, Jerry explained. That seemed to satisfy her curiosity—for now. We definitely got a sense of what it must be like to live in the fish bowl of a kibbutz, where what you do is everyone’s business.

The Baha’i World Center
Our next stop—after a few bewildering loops through the switch-backing mountain-side roads of Haifa—was the World Center of the Baha’i Faith. Everyone, including Jerry, asked me why I had decided to visit the Baha’is on a trip that was supposed to focus on the kibbutz movement. It was difficult to explain. But let me try.
One, my trip (and my project) had an interest in utopian communities in general, not just secular Jewish socialist ones. Of all the major religions (and minor ones for that matter) with their confluence in Israel, the Baha’i faith seems the most utopian in its philosophy—in the way it seeks to better our material lives and social practices even as it preaches spiritual transcendence. Its core belief is a unity of God, a unity of religion and a unity of humankind. 
Two, just plain old curiosity. I’d visited Haifa several times, but the closest I’d come to the World Center was viewing its expansive tiered gardens through the uppermost gates, after hours, during my visit to Haifa University last summer. The Center with its meticulous landscaping is a major tourist attraction, and not just for visiting Baha’is. I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. I’d visited the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—so why not the major shrine of the Baha’i faith?

The Baha'i Gardens, 2009

Third—and this is a combination of the first two reasons—I find Haifa such a fascinating city, one that is often overlooked because of the social and religious gravity of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. As the famous saying goes, ‘Jerusalem prays, while Tel Aviv plays. And Haifa works.” There is some truth to that stereotype. The relationship between Arabs and Jews in the mixed city of Jerusalem is increasingly tense, in part due to settler expansion into traditionally Arab quarters, and the status of East Jerusalem (i.e., will it become the capital of a future Palestinian state) is a major source of disagreement. Tel Aviv is a Jewish city, with the Arab character of nearby Yaffo being squeezed out by this expanding metropolis.

Haifa, by contrast, is a city where Arabs and Jews have learned to get along in ways that would seem alien in Israel’s other two major hubs. Islamic headscarves are a common sight at the bustling mixed university atop Mt. Carmel. Haifa has also played a small but important role in the kibbutz movement, as the first port of arrival for many new immigrants. Several new kibbutzim, like Shamir, started as training farms in the Haifa area before the settlers chose a permanent site and relocated. 
The sense of hope that Haifa represents—also symbolized by the universal nature of the Baha’i faith—seemed suited to my search for the utopian impulse in Israel. Haifa isn’t a perfect city by any stretch. But compared to the religious strife and social tensions of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, it’s a city, quite simply, that works.
We were met at the gates to the World Center by Robert Weinberg, head of the office of public information, who generously showed us around for the next two hours. He is the British-raised son of Jewish parents who had converted to the Baha’i faith before they met. I could tell he wasn’t a native-born Israeli by the fact that he wore a tie on a blistering hot morning; by the end of the tour, I felt guilty for the sunburn he must have gotten on his exposed hat-less forehead during our long walk.
What I didn’t know about the Baha’i faith could fill the Center’s vast library. My experience had been limited to meeting, over the years, a handful of Baha’is, who—warning, here comes a huge generalization—always seemed like generous, socially conscious folks, often activists (I worked with one at Greenpeace), who were also a bit high-strung. They didn’t want to proselytize about being Baha’i or anything. In fact, many were refugees from stricter, traditional religions that forced their philosophies on people. But they also seemed a bit impatient for the rest of the planet to see the light and march as one toward a better world. 
Our impeccably British host wasn't that way at all. Answering even my most ignorant questions, Weinberg patiently filled in the huge gaps in my knowledge about the history of Baha’ism—an outgrowth of Islam, now persecuted in Iran, where it was founded in the 19th century—and how its World Center came to exist in Israel. The “Hanging Gardens of Haifa” are sumptuous, spread across many levels, spilling colour and foliage like a waterfall (it has those too) down the flanks of Mt. Carmel. Walking there wasn’t entirely relaxing, however, due to the highway that bisects the grounds and the fondness among the international corps of volunteer gardeners for high-pitched hedge trimmers and leaf blowers. Another minor disappointment: the golden dome of the Shrine of the Bab, the centre-piece of the whole site, was shrouded in a huge tarp as part of ongoing restorations.
Before taking the job at the World Center, Weinberg had worked as a journalist, including a stint at the BBC and as a correspondent in Israel. When the World Center opened its new gardens in 2001 (declared a UNESCO site in 2008), he filed a story. His editor back in London asked him for “the Palestinian angle”—because every story from Israel, he assumed, even if it didn’t involve Jews and Palestinians, needed that perspective. Weinberg was perplexed. He contacted a PLO representative and asked him what he thought of the Baha’i Gardens.
“The gardens?” the PLO rep replied. “I love them!” And that was the Palestinian angle.
The Baha’is see their monotheistic faith as part of a spiritual evolution, in which other major prophets (e.g., Abraham, Jesus, the Buddha, Muhammad) have been messengers for a cumulative journey toward global peace, justice and harmony. There is a lot to admire in the Baha’i faith: its commitment to education and social work, its low view of gossip, its belief in the equality of the sexes and religions, the democratic nature of its governance, its focus on the spiritual void in many people’s lives without lapsing into fundamentalism. 
The Baha’i faith does have a utopian feel to its philosophy—that together, through faith, we can build a better world. “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens,” wrote the Baha’u’llah. And it is often described as the fastest-growing religion—although that’s in relative percentage terms, rather than in total numbers.
Still, I remain a skeptic, even after my illuminating visit. And I think I always will about the power of religion to change our postmodern world for the better. Maybe it’s my own lapsed faith. Maybe it’s my own lack of imagination. Maybe it is religion's poor track record for tolerance. But I kept having a sneaking feeling that Baha’ism is like the Esperanto of religions: a noble and well-meaning exercise in creating unity where there is only division, but ultimately doomed to remain a historical footnote amid the greater clash of ideologies that will define and shape our future. 
Maybe I’ll be proven wrong. And maybe that’s the whole point of a utopia: not to radically change the world into its identical image and way of life. But rather to act as a model, a beacon of hope to inspire those of us beyond its fences—those of us who have left (or been kicked out of) the garden, so to speak—to improve our own lives in small ways, to ascend toward a better life, step by step.