Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Self-Governing Socialism

I'd never heard the term "self-governing socialism" (in contrast to the "state socialism" of China or the former USSR) before, but recently stumbled across a blog devoted to discussing the idea and its implementation. The kibbutz, of course, is a classic example of the concept—a community based on radical economic equality in which everyone has an equal say, via the general assembly vote, in how things are run. The most recent post on the SGS blog gives a useful overview of the kibbutz movement (with one minor error: A.D. Gordon, the philosopher behind the kibbutz's "religion of labour", wasn't actually a founder of Degania but was later associated with the first kibbutz). I'm especially interested in the many other examples, from around the world, that the author has lassoed under the umbrella of self-governing socialism.

Harnessing the Sun

Here's a cool video about a solar farm recently installed at Kibbutz Yavne, a religious kibbutz south of Tel Aviv. Many kibbutzim, especially in the Negev Desert region of Israel, have invested in green technologies, such as alternative energy and water-conserving irrigation methods. I'm looking forward to touring some of these inspiring facilities when I next visit the country.

The New Volunteers

When I visited Kibbutz Shamir last June, I was surprised to learn that the kibbutz no longer takes international volunteers, that it hadn't for five or six years. The reasons were largely economic: since privatization, much of the work formerly done by volunteers is now assigned to kibbutzniks or to hired outside labour, from nearby communities or Asian guest labourers, which maintains a more efficient continuity—you're not always training a new set of backpackers—for managers.

My friends on the kibbutz said that they missed the volunteers—the energy and new perspectives that they brought to the kibbutz. (Of course, my friends are biased: most are either former volunteers or kibbutzniks who married former volunteers.) When I visited the kibbutz movement's Volunteer Office in Tel Aviv, there was a line of disappointed travellers who were being told that there were no spots available anywhere at that time, which suggests that other kibbutzim have also cut down or eliminated their use of international itinerant labour.

One kibbutz spokesperson also told me that, despite the line-up I witnessed, volunteering has become less attractive because there are fewer agricultural jobs for young volunteers to do (like me, most come from the city and find toiling in the cotton fields or avocado orchards for a few months an exotic working vacation) and the remaining needs tend to be for "service" jobs like kitchen and clean-up duty—and who wants to travel halfway around the world for a McJob they could get at home?

It's clear the heyday of the kibbutz volunteer movement has passed. (When I told a friend recently I'd been a volunteer, he said, "That's a very 80s thing to do.") Travellers who might once have journeyed to Israel to work on a communal kibbutz or moshav now often head to different countries to do WWOOF'ing—that is, to be a Willing Worker On Organic Farms. There's a whole movement, which began in the U.K. in 1971 and which I'd first heard about over a decade ago, and I was reminded of it again by a recent article about a WWOOF experience titled "Costa Rica: A 21st-century kibbutz."

I find it interesting that, for international travellers at least, ecological-minded communities and farms such as the WWOOFers, the Eco-Village Network and the Green Kibbutz Group now embody the spirit of communal learning and adventure that the kibbutz movement as a whole once held out for them.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tony Judt remembers...

British academic and historian Tony Judt has been an often controversial Jewish critic of Israeli foreign policy, as well as other ideologies on the left and right. In 2008, he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease and is now paralyzed from the neck down but is still, apparently, lecturing and writing. He has been publishing a series of memoirs and reflections in the New York Review of Books, including one titled "Kibbutz" about his early experiences of and passions for "Labour Zionism" and "muscular Judaism" as a young kibbutznik in Israel.

He writes with a typically contrarian slant that, from a memoirist's position of retrospection, refuses to indulge in nostalgia and instead peels away his early idealism and the surface of kibbutz life to observe more critically the essence of who he and his compatriots really were and what they were doing. As he writes about kibbutz life:

I adored it. Eight hours of strenuous, intellectually undemanding labor in steamy banana plantations by the shores of the Sea of Galilee, interspersed with songs, hikes, lengthy doctrinal discussions (carefully stage-managed so as to reduce the risk of adolescent rejection while maximizing the appeal of shared objectives), and the ever-present suggestion of guilt-free sex: in those days the kibbutz and its accompanying ideological penumbra still retained a hint of the innocent “free love” ethos of early-twentieth-century radical cults.

In reality, of course, these were provincial and rather conservative communities, their ideological rigidity camouflaging the limited horizon of many of their members. Even in the mid-1960s it was clear that the economy of Israel no longer rested on small-scale domestic agriculture; and the care that left-wing kibbutz movements took to avoid employing Arab labor served less to burnish their egalitarian credentials than to isolate them from the inconvenient facts of Middle Eastern life. I’m sure I did not appreciate all this at the time—though I do recall even then wondering why I never met a single Arab in the course of my lengthy kibbutz stays, despite living in close proximity to the most densely populated Arab communities of the country.

You might not always—or ever—agree with Judt's political take on Israel but it's hard not to appreciate his attention to detail as a memoir writer and his willingness to chronicle his own naivete, even as he dissects the impassioned illusions of those around him.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Representing Change

I got some good news over the weekend when an email arrived with news that my proposal for a talk had been selected by the organizers of the International Communal Studies Association conference, to be held late next June in Israel. My presentation will be titled "Representing Change on the Israeli Kibbutz" and will discuss how the controversial evolution of the kibbutz movement has been depicted by filmmakers from different perspectives.

I've already watched four recent kibbutz movies—three documentaries and one fictional comedy-drama—and I plan to order two more recent docs and view them before the conference. Coincidentally, the producers of one of these films, titled Keeping the Kibbutz, have just launched a new website to promote their film, as they complete post-production. It includes a trailer that gives a sneak peek of some of the kibbutzniks and their experiences.

I'm especially intrigued by Keeping the Kibbutz, as it centers on Kfar Giladi, a community on the opposite side of the Huleh Valley from Shamir. The footage and still photos from the film capture the beauty of the hilly landscape. One of the filmmakers was born on the kibbutz (his mother was a kibbutzniks, his father a Welsh volunteer) but moved to the U.S. when he was three. The film documents his return to the kibbutz and the gulf that now exists between the utopia his parents described and the privatized arrangements of the 21st-century community. Judging by the trailer, it has a great soundtrack, too. Congrats to all involved at Eidolon Films for nearing the end of this project.

I especially liked the description of their filmmaking philosophy on their website: "Eidolon Films specializes in character-driven documentaries that inspire, engage and inform. The individuals and communities we film are not simply subjects, but collaborators in the telling of their stories." That should be the motto of literary journalists and creative nonfiction writers as well.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Review: HaZorea

While academic studies have tracked the extent of changes on Israel’s kibbutzim over the past 20 years, for the best window into how those changes have been debated and how they have affected the lives of individual kibbutzniks, I’ve turned to documentary film. Over the past decade, a new sub-genre of Israeli filmmaking could earn the label “privatization cinema”—mostly documentaries, but also some fascinating fictional work, too. I’ve watched four already, and am looking forward to the upcoming release of a fifth. Each offers a different perspective and has helped me triangulate the emotional nuances of changing life in these communities.

One of the first I saw was HaZorea, a documentary produced and directed by Ulrike Pfaff, a former volunteer from Germany (now studying to be a police detective), who did several tours of duty on the kibbutz of that name. (Curiously, I discovered that linguist/political critic Noam Chomsky also spent a month on Kibbutz HaZorea with his wife in 1953; he is a controversial Jewish critic of Israeli foreign policy but retains fond memories of kibbutz life.) Pfaff returned to HaZorea for two weeks in September 2007 to film 50 hours of interviews and footage with a crew of three and a budget of about $25,000.

I watched the film three times as I prepared to give a post-screening talk about Pfaff’s documentary and the general changes to the kibbutz movement at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival last November. The film offers what feels like an objective glimpse at the lives of the kibbutzniks at the time and some of the anxiety around potential changes to the lifestyle of the kibbutz. (HaZorea was still a traditionally communal kibbutz but in the midst of debating and voting on privatization measures; the documentary ends with the results of that vote—SPOILER ALERT!—in which the changes are not approved.) There is a slow-paced, casual atmosphere to the movie as a whole that reflects the languorous mood so typical (and so attractive) of kibbutz life and so at odds with the speed-tweaking pace of a city like Tel Aviv.

While Pfaff includes interviews with many kibbutzniks, young, old and middle-aged, two become the focus of the narrative: Hanna, one of the German-speaking pioneers who founded HaZorea, and Oriel, a “son of the kibbutz” who now lives in Tel Aviv and has returned to decide whether or not to become a member. (Pfaff actually returned to Israel to film two days of footage and interviews with Oriel, once she heard of his situation, because he was the perfect vehicle for the documentary’s drama—a kibbutz sitting on the fence between past and future.) “The kibbutz is a paradise for children and old people,” Oriel says, reflecting nostalgically about his freedom growing up in HaZorea’s “society of children”. “And for dogs!” quips Ran, a friend who still lives on the kibbutz (and provides much of the movie's comic relief).

But the young adults and the middle-aged couples (and even, more reluctantly, the older residents) in the movie all seem to want changes to the communal rules that have guided their lives. When I spoke to Pfaff via Skype, she admitted that her own main criticism of the movie was a failure to find and interview those kibbutzniks—who remain in the majority—who don’t want changes to their community. She also admitted that while reaction to the film has largely been positive, criticisms have come from both ends of the spectrum.

I don’t know if it’s possible to make a really objective film because in the end I can decide by editing what I want to put and what I don’t,” she told me. “There are other people that didn’t think it’s objective. [One viewer] was very, very mad at me about this movie. He said that I did it too negative and not objective. And there was another girl, born on the kibbutz, and she said it was too romantic and too positive about everything. So I think probably it is not possible to do it objective.”

Still, whether objective or not, HaZorea does a wonderful job of capturing both the pioneering spirit of the kibbutz founders, the charms and frustrations of one community’s current incarnation, and the uncertainty faced by the young people who will lead Hazorea into the future.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Kibbutz Etc.

When I start talking about my writing project, I’m often asked “What is a kibbutz?” It’s a tricky question to answer. There is a specific definition of the kibbutz as a communal agricultural settlement founded by secular Jewish immigrants to Palestine in the early 20th century. There is also the more flexible legal definition established in 2004 by the Ben Rafael Committee in Israel to distinguish between traditional, privatized and urban communal arrangements of differing degrees of income redistribution and mutual reliance.

And then there is “kibbutz” as a sort of floating signifier, a word and a concept that often acquires different meanings from the different people who use it and the different communities who have been inspired by (and then adapted) the vision of the original settlements. I track “kibbutz” as a term using Google Alerts, and it’s fascinating to discover the strange new contexts in which the word arises.

Take the Ravenna Kibbutz in Seattle, for instance. It’s not a socialist experiment in the same was as the original kibbutz. Instead, it’s an intriguing group of young Jews living together in a co-housing arrangement in the Pacific Northwest. (I’ve heard of similar groups in Brooklyn, Portland, and Toronto.) I love their tagline: Would it kill you to find a nice Jewish commune?

There is Kibbutz Lubner, in South Africa, which uses the kibbutz-style collective model to create a community of caring for intellectually disabled adults. A factory and a farm allow them to find fulfilling work in a communal environment. Also in South Africa, an apocalyptically minded religious prophet has dreamed of a global chain of “whites-only kibbutzim” (missing the irony of a racist settlement inspired by a Jewish commune) but recently ran into trouble with the law.

Even before the disastrous earthquake in Haiti, some observers of this long-suffering nation were suggesting that Haitians look to the kibbutz for inspiration to revive their economy at a grassroots level. After the disaster, the kibbutz may offer a way to rebuild together. Haitians already have many forms of co-operative economy, such as the kombit, which could be adapted to the communal model of the traditional kibbutz, as one commentator noted:

Now is the time to bring the kibbutz model to Haiti or at least a kibbutz with some Haitian flavor. Just as [novelist] Jacques Roumain romanticized the kombit as the ultimate cooperative labor, Haiti should amalgamate the two and call her version a kombutz. … A kombutz can grow fruits and vegetables; raise cattle for beef and dairy; goats, chickens for meat and eggs; turkeys big enough to feed a village, and creole pigs. It can grow sugar cane, tree saplings for reforestation, or jatropha for biodiesel to power its own generators

Back in Israel, there is Kibbutz Givat Menachem—not actually a kibbutz, but rather another of the roughshod illegal outposts that right-wing settlers keep erecting in the occupied West Bank. This time, they used the term “kibbutz” to point out that many kibbutzim have also been built upon once-occupied Arab lands. The Israeli Civil Administration didn’t bite and replied, “This is a cynical attempt to build illegally by using the term 'kibbutz'.”

Some uses of kibbutz are cynical. Others are inspired. (If readers know of any others, please email me.) What’s clear is that the word and the concept still carry great currency in Israel and around the world.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Shouting Fence

While not directly kibbutz-related, there was an interesting article by Saleem Ali about a proposed “peace park” along the Syria-Israel border, in the Golan Heights, not far from Kibbutz Shamir (which once was on the border with Syria before the Six Day War). The posting discussed a symposium last month in Tel Aviv about how ecological projects can help peace-building in the Middle East.

The Golan Heights are an especially complicated piece of land, even by Mideast standards. Formerly part of Syria, captured by the IDF in 1967, and populated largely by Druze Arabs who don’t consider themselves Muslim or Palestinian or Israeli and practise a highly secretive splinter sect of Islam. (Confused yet?) What I most remember about visiting the Golan Heights when I lived in Israel 20 years ago was the Shouting Fence. Located near Majdal Shams, one of the major Druze villages on the slopes of Mt. Hermon, this barbed-wire no-man’s land had separated friends and family members since 1967. For years, they had come (usually on Fridays, I believe) to communicate via megaphone or loud voice to other Druze across the new border in Syria.

I’m not sure if the Shouting Fence still exists in that form, but it was strikingly symbolic of the complex and sorrowful divisions in this part of the world. (I wrote a poem with that title years ago and have been tempted to call other projects by that name.) That’s why the idea of a borderland peace park holds such hope (even if many critics consider it mere dreaming), especially for the Druze people, who have never really cared much for the national borders that divide them.

In his article / blog entry, Ali, the author of a book about peace parks, did mention (although didn’t name) a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley that has a special arrangement to grow crops on the Jordanian side of the border and a “peace island” in that region, where Israelis and Jordanians can visit without visas. He also acknowledged skpeticism on both sides of the debate, noting that “Arabs are highly suspicious of conservation efforts in this context just as Native Americans have been suspicious of the US. National Park system, whose establishment often excluded them from their land. Thus any peace park must be one where access and economic development are concurrent with conservation.”

Still, I find it hopeful that the idea of ecological conservation might be used as a tool to get two deeply divided nations talking about peace and, more importantly, to get deeply suspicious peoples meeting each other on common ground.