Just over twenty years ago, I took my tuition money for second-year university and bought a plane ticket to Israel instead. I'd heard about a kind of communal farm called a "kibbutz" that welcomed international volunteers—often wander-lost souls like myself—on working vacations. Once in Israel, I was assigned to Kibbutz Shamir, in northern Galilee, on the slopes of the Golan Heights. I only intended to stay for a month or two and then continue travelling. I ended up working there for nearly seven months—and was sorely tempted by an offer of a longer term job.
I returned to Canada profoundly changed by my experiences on Kibbutz Shamir. I tried to write about my time there in poetry, fiction and drama, but never felt satisfied with these creative expressions. My life and studies and work in Canada took over, and I never returned to Israel as I had intended.
A year or so ago, I decided to google "Kibbutz Shamir" out of curiosity—I had lost touch with friends from my time there—and was startled to see that many of the documents that came up were about how, in 2005, the lens-making factory (where I had often worked) had made its debut on the NASDAQ stock exchange.
A kibbutz founded by Romanian socialists, part of a communal movement often described as "the purest form of socialism in the western world", was getting wealthy in the free market. Shamir had obviously changed since I'd left. So, too, I was soon to discover, had much of the movement.
Last June, I had the opportunity for a two-week return visit to Shamir and Israel and a chance to talk to members of Kibbutz Shamir and many experts in the field of kibbutz studies. I hope to return again some time soon for a longer visit.
This new year—2010—marks the centenary (okay, some people mark it as 2009, others as 2011, but more on that later) of Israel's kibbutz system, with the founding of Degania, the original kibbutz, along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where the River Jordan flows south, by a dozen young Jewish pioneers. There will be many celebrations to mark this anniversary and much soul-searching amongst critics and kibbutz members who fear that the movement has lost its ideals and its positive influence on the state of Israel.
This blog is just one small, highly subjective attempt to chart some of these debates about the most influential communal movement in the world, as well as an opportunity (kindly supported by a fellowship at the Centre for Co-operative and Community-Based Economy here at the University of Victoria) for me to share research, conversations and memories as I reflect on what I experienced on Kibbutz Shamir and what I'm continuing to learn about the kibbutz movement. In a more general way, it will also be about our shared search for utopia—for a better place—in an often divided world.
Please join me on this journey of discovery and share your own thoughts and comments at the different stops along the way.