Sunday, March 28, 2010

Emerald Isle Kibbutz

The idea of the kibbutz continues to inspire, often in surprising places. On this website, an author makes his case for a system of kibbutzim in Ireland, as part of a country-wide contest called Your Country Your Call to brainstorm new ideas for social enterprises. Beyond its back-to-the-land philosophy, I'm not sure how much his idea aligns with the actual kibbutz; his Irish farms would be designed to attract Irish-Americans for temporary stays and have vaguely religious overtones. 

Still, I found it interesting that the author would look to the kibbutz as a successful model. Plus, I liked the notion that each "Irish kibbutz" might be built and marketed around a theme, including Irish literature and creative writing. I'd love to live and work in a kibbutz-style community and be nourished  by the works of Yeats, Joyce and Guinness. 

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Closing the Children's House

One thing I’ve learned from my research is that the “end of the kibbutz” has been predicted from practically Day 2 of its founding. Every decade—almost every year—a new threat appeared to pose a crisis for this utopia. In fact, it’s hard to read a book or an article about the kibbutz without encountering both those words: crisis and utopia
Most recently, the privatization schemes of various kibbutzim—in particular, different wages for different work and the ability to own your own house or apartment—have prompted observers, inside and outside the movement, to claim that the sky is falling again and that this change marks the end of the kibbutz.
Before that, though, one of the biggest and most controversial changes had been the decision to “decommunalize” the children’s houses—to vote to let kibbutz children stay home at night and be raised by their parents, rather than by a metapelet (aka, the kibbutz’s “super-nanny”) with other children of the same age, from almost the day of birth until they went off to do army service. This communal child-rearing was one of the most original, studied and debated elements of kibbutz life. (Interestingly, I recently learned that it wasn’t party of the mutual arrangement at Kibbutz Degania, the original settlement, although they did debate who should name the first child there: the parents or the kibbutz.)
The decision to move toward family-based child-rearing from communal children’s houses began in the 1970s and accelerated throughout the 1980s, until Kibbutz Bar'am, the last kibbutz to raise children communally, was deciding to give way to this trend in 1995. For many people, that decision marked the end of the kibbutz as a unique social arrangement. Here is a fascinating short documentary from that time, done at Kibbutz Bar'am, that looks at the history of the “children’s society” (as this system was known) and the decision to eliminate it. 
As a parent myself, I can appreciate the freedom the metapelet system most have given couples to remain an active part of their community. (My wife and I are lucky if we get out for dinner together three times a year and we have lost touch with too many old friends.) At the same time, I would find it hard to give up the simple pleasure of waking up with my kids, aged four and two, curled up and cozy in our bed. I realize how fast they are growing and how soon I will look back with nostalgia on these often sleep-disturbed nights. It must have been a terribly difficult decision for the parents of the so-called “children of the dream” to make as a community.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Evolution of the Revolution

Here is a little video news story from that takes a more optimistic view of the changes to the kibbutz movement, with images from the pioneer times and interviews with contemporary kibbutzniks. Life on a "privatized kibbutz", it seems, still offers a greater sense of community and extended family for many residents.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Walk the Talk

Well, I did my talk about the lessons on kibbutz life yesterday, and I think it went well. (Maybe that’s just the energy drink I had beforehand speaking!) It was reasonably well-attended with familiar and new faces. People seemed to be focused and attentive on my potted history of the kibbutz movement, even if the “comic relief” photos from my kibbutz experiences fell a little flat. I’d hoped there might be more discussion in the Q&A, as I’d promised in my talk’s title, about how the lessons of the kibbutz movement could be applied here in Canada. But most people wanted to talk about big issues like socialism vs. Marxism and Israel vs. Palestine. Several people came up to me afterwards and shared stories of their own kibbutz experiences, which I appreciated.
The Q&A got briefly sidetracked by a woman who showed up early to distribute leaflets and claimed my talk left out “half the story” — how the kibbutz had been built on “stolen land” and with the blood of the Palestinian people. I’d anticipated this objection, but I don’t know if I responded to it satisfactorily. (I felt it was a particularly ill-timed critique, considering a guest worker on a kibbutz in the south of the country had been killed by a rocket fired from Gaza that morning.) Instead, an audience member pointed out that most kibbutzim were built, in fact, on land bought by the Jewish National Fund. 
Anyway, I’ll write more about the talk (and post a link to the podcast when it’s ready) next week. In the meantime, I wanted to share a few key points that a good friend, who attended and who lived on a kibbutz (as did his parents), sent me today. They are definitely areas I’d like to follow up in my own research:
A few ideas:
Most kibbutz chalutzim (pioneers) came from Eastern Europe, smaller numbers from the relative wealth and security of North America. Kfar Menachem, where my parents lived, had quite a few Canadians and Americans. This might be an interesting area to explore--why North Americans left relative comfort and safety to live the tough life on kibbutzim in the early days. (One American couple I knew lost both their sons within a few days in the 1967 war.) 
Arab Israeli relations: this is an encyclopedic topic of course but again I think some kibbutz members took leadership in forging better relations, learning Arabic and working with their Arab neighbours. When I visited the Arab village next to KM and asked the men who lived there if the kibbutzniks were their friends, they said "Lo chaverim, achim," Not friends, brothers.
Thanks for the feedback: dialogue is what I hope my talk promoted. And that’s a phrase I think we should all add to our vocabulary: Not friends, brothers. And sisters, too, for that matter!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Geek Kibbutz

Today, I was polishing up my presentation for Thursday, titled "Look Back to Galilee: What a Century of Kibbutz Life Can Teach Canadians about Co-operation and Community," when I took a break, surfed through some YouTube kibbutz videos and came across this gem: "The Geek Kibbutz".

Maybe I'm brain dead from reading and writing and not enough sleep (we could use a metapelet in my house these days!), but I found this spoof of kibbutz documentaries just the comic relief I needed. It certainly looks like the filmmakers had fun producing their low-budget mockumentary homage to computers and kibbutz life.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Subdividing Happiness

A friend and colleague passed along a fascinating news story, from two years ago, about the development of subdivisions on Israel’s kibbutzim. These are new neighbourhoods, with lots or houses sold to non-kibbutzniks, attached to the kibbutz. The owners have access to the kibbutz facilities—the grocery store, the dining hall (if it’s still operating—many have been shut down), the daycare and schools, the gym and swimming pool, etc.—but aren’t part of the collective ownership of the kibbutz’s agricultural and industrial enterprises.

The kibbutzim are developing these subdivisions as a way to survive financially. The kibbutz gets money from the sale of the houses (although not the land—that is still owned by the state) and then for providing municipal services to the new residents. But this trend also causes social friction, as newcomers begin to mingle with kibbutz members, both of whom have differing levels of emotional and financial investment in the community. (Some kibbutzniks, however, see the developments as a chance for kibbutz-born children who are reluctant to be members to return and live on the kibbutz with their extended families.) One scholar told me of how religiously inclined residents at one of these new neighbourhoods demanded that "their" kibbutz—founded by members who were not just non-religious but all-out anti-religious—build them a synagogue.

Last summer, I certainly saw evidence of construction wherever I went. I walked past the bulldozed ground of new lots at Kibbutz Hanita. I saw an attractive Santa Fe style development on Kibbutz Shamir. Like communities near the Gaza Strip, both of these northern kibbutzim (and many others ear the border with Lebanon) have been the target of rocket attacks. Yet that doesn’t seem to bother prospective buyers, who are quickly buying up kibbutz-based properties. As one kibbutz scholar told me, “The kibbutz is a name, a kind of social good. It’s a brand.” Even if kibbutzniks aren’t as respected as they once were in Israel as pioneers, the communities they’ve created—with high-quality daycare and schools, stores and dining rooms, swimming pools and libraries and other amenities within walking distance, all in an often-picturesque rural setting—are seen as enviable locations to live and raise a family.

The benefits of that way of life, despite the turmoil over “privatization” on many kibbutzim over the past decade, was confirmed by a just-released study (based on 2009 surveys) from the University of Haifa that found that 70% of kibbutz members are satisfied with their lives, only 5% are unsatisfied, and that 78% are happy at their jobs. That compares with 58% of members who said they were satisfied in 2002, the last time the survey was conducted and a turning point in the evolution of the “new kibbutz”. As the movement marks its 100th anniversary, with many changes to its original communal ideals, the kibbutz itself still carries a utopian attraction, it seems, for anyone who hopes to escape the lonely crowd of city life and pursue happiness in a more self-consciously integrated community.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Tale of Love and Darkness... and Translation

Amos Oz is Israel’s best-known literary author, peace spokesman and kibbutznik. (He joined Kibbutz Hulda at age 15 and has often written about kibbutz life.) His autobiography, A Tale of Love and Darkness, is on my to-read list. Now readers in the Arabic world will get a chance to appreciate his storytelling, thanks to the controversial efforts of a Palestinian man whose family has been torn asunder by the strife in the Middle East. The New York Times ran a fascinating story about Elias Khoury, whose family land was expropriated by Israeli authorities shortly after the War of Independence, whose father was killed in a Palestinian terror bombing in downtown Jerusalem two decades later, and whose son, six years ago, was “mistaken” for a Jew while jogging in Jerusalem and shot by terrorists.

“So in memory of George, a charismatic law student and musician, Mr. Khoury did something that shocked many in his community,” writes Ethan Bronner. “He paid for the translation into Arabic of the autobiography of Israel's most prominent author and dove, Amos Oz."

It’s a reminder that if the pen isn’t always mightier than the sword, it is often more resilient, and that literature—the act of imagining the perspective of another person, of seeing ourselves as others see us—may be the only hope of bridging the gulfs that too often divide us.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Purim Photos

I've been buried away the last week or so, devoting all my free time to preparing for my upcoming (yikes!) talk about kibbutz life for the Centre for Co-operative and Community-Based Economy on March 28th. But I did want to take a moment and post a link to a wonderful collection of photos taken of the Purim celebrations on Kibbutz Merhavia in 1963.

It reminded me of the Purim festivities on Shamir that I participated in. The whole story will take more time than I have now to tell, but sometimes an image really is worth a thousand words, so let me include a photo from my experience of Purim, airborne and dancing a mashed-up version of Swan Lake for the entire kibbutz. It was one of the craziest moments of my life... And as you can tell, while more than 25 years separate the photos from Merhavia and Shamir, the irreverent spirit of Purim remains the same. I wish we had the goy-ish equivalent in Canadian culture!