Sunday, June 27, 2010

Day Thirteen: Achzibland and Klil

 We packed up and drove west toward the coast above Akko. Destination: the “state” of Achzib. For more than 40 years, eccentric squatter Eli Avivi has lorded over this “micro-nation”, based around the abandoned mansion of an Arab sheik who fled after 1948. I had visited Achzibland at least once when I was a volunteer 20 years ago—in fact, I was married there in a boozy ceremony around the campfire—and have at least two passports with the crude stamp that Eli applies for visitors. Last year, I was the only visitor, so Eli coaxed me into driving him into Naharya and having coffee there and then driving him to the grocery store to buy cat foot. (It’s a good bet I will never do that with another head of state.) I was hoping that Jerry could meet him on this trip, but alas Eli was under the weather and not doing interviews anymore. Still, he’s a legend in my mind—a stubborn visionary who withstood every attempt by authorities to uproot him from his nation on the beach until they finally gave up and installed a highway sign with his name on it instead. From outlaw to tourist attraction.

Finally, we drove east into the hills again until we got lost in the back roads of the “village” of Klil. Actually, it’s not officially a village, which we learned from longtime resident (and scientist, and herbalist, and peace activist, and Buddhist teacher) Stephen Fulder is a good thing. Klil is on land purchased from local Druze Arabs, so residents can own a plot (unlike kibbutzim, which sit on property leased from the Israel Land Authority), but because it doesn’t have official status, any construction on these properties is technically illegal and could be ordered torn down by the local bureaucracy—an unlikely outcome, but one that keeps people from moving in and building unsightly monster homes.

Instead, many of the homes in Klil are off-the-grid or temporary. When we got lost, we called Stephen and said we were near the yurt—not a useful landmark, it turned out. “There are 14 yurts in Klil,” he replied. When we finally connected, we had a fascinating conversation with Fulder about his various careers and how he came to settle up in the hills of western Galilee. Later, we had a great meal at a local hippie café, and then had another wide-ranging chat with Rachel, Stephen’s wife, the next morning. She is a Talmudic scholar who did graduate work to—in her own words—“bring feminism to Jewish learning.” She grew up in Jaffa and has a close connection to Arab culture, and told us many stories about life in these hills, amongst the hippies, the back-to-the-landers, and the Druze. 

Day Twelve: Vertigo Eco Arts Village and Amirim

We stayed the night at Kibbtuz Revadim, so Jerry could visit with his sister, a sculptor on the kibbutz, before she flew to upstate New York and her summer job at an arts camp. Then we drove back toward Beit Shemish and stopped at Kibbutz Netiv HaLemad-he to visit with the founders of Vertigo Dance Company and the Eco Arts Village. It’s a wonderful project they’ve created—out of old chicken houses. They convinced the kibbutz to rent them the space, and now they use it for rehearsals for their dance company, complete with a kitchen and eating area, clay-walled resting rooms that can be used for overnights. Everything is design to be eco-friendly, with compost toilets, grey-water reuse, solar energy, etc..

We got to watch the rehearsal of a mesmerizing new contemporary dance that the company is working on. They also hope to rent out another chicken house and use it for the visual arts in a similar way. The co-founders described going door to door to dozens of kibbutzim between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, looking for a space and a community interested in joining in their vision. Netiv HaLemad-he is privatized, so the kibbutzniks welcomed the income of new tenants, but they also liked the cultural aspects of the Eco Arts Village—that it wasn’t just dropping a McDonald’s on kibbutz property. (We would see one of those later in the day, at Gan Shmuel.) As one member told us, “It’s the best thing that has happened to the kibbutz.”

The biggest danger in Israel these days, I already knew, isn’t from terrorism, but rather from road accidents. (In fact, during our visit, the son of a supreme court judge was killed by a drunk driver while cycling on the highway.) Everyone told us to drive safely when we left. Alas, the biggest danger—at least to our rental car—wasn’t from speed-mad Israeli drivers but rather from a rusty Canadian one. Jerry managed to guide us through the rush of traffic that crosses Tel Aviv everyday, and we switched seats at the mall at Kibbutz Gan Shmuel. I managed to get us all the way to the quirky hillside village of Amirim, a collection of guest houses, restaurants and various new-agey outfits based around a vegetarian philosophy—and then promptly scraped the hell out of the front bumper while backing into our parking spot. Oops. That took a little luster off a good day of travel and meetings. If that’s the worst accident on this busy trip, however, I will be thankful.

Day Eleven: Kfar Aza and Motze Elite

We said goodbye to Mark and his wife, and drove a short distance to Kfar Aza, where we met Sofie Berzon—actually at a gas station café because her husband had just come home from a late shift. She is a photographer whom I had discovered on the web who has done some intriguing creative work based on her community’s close proximity to the heavily fortified border with Gaza. Her latest project involves Saturday walks along this border with a cheap plastic camera to take shots of the wall and desolate military materiel. Her photographic approach gives an almost dream-like quality to her stark documentary subjects. She talked a lot about the challenges aofout being an artist on a kibbutz, her friendship with a fellow female photographer in Gaza (who she has only been able to meet a handful of times), the anxiety of living in the shadow of war (a kibbutznik was killed last year by a mortar), and the power of photography to bear witness and even alter our perceptions of a place.

Afterwards, we drove north and stopped in Motze Elite, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, to chat with Daniel Gavron, an English-language journalist and author of one of my favourite books about the kibbutz movement: Kibbutz: Awakening from Utopia. Published 10 years ago, his book ended on a pessimistic note about the ultimate prospects of the kibbutz to remain anything other than a comfortable rural neighbourhood. Today, however, he told us he has seen a resurgence in the movement, especially focused around the small communes being formed in the cities by ideologically motivated youth groups. It was fun to chat with a fellow author—or rather complain, as authors usually do, about short-sighted publishers, woeful book marketers, and other perils of the trade.

Day Ten: Kibbutz Urim and Migvan

 We woke the next morning, and joined Mark Marcus, the mazkir (i.e., kibbutz secretary), for a quick tour of Kibbutz Urim, just outside the “Gaza Envelope”.  There have been changes at Urim (a paid dining room, for instance), but it still remains shitufi (or traditional) in terms of equal salaries for all members. Mark is in the midst of designing changes for his kibbutz that would allow two types of membership: the traditional type of equality and a more independent form of association (and salary) to attract new members.

Then we drove down to Sderot, a “development town” (where the Israeli government has helped settle new immigrants over the years) best known as ground zero for many of the Qassam rockets fired out of Gaza. There we visited Kibbutz Migvan, another urban kibbutz, this one on a tree-lined street on the outskirts of the city. We got to interview one of the founders, Nomika Zion, an extraordinary woman who regaled us for close to two hours with her personal history, the early debates and social-justice motives of Migvan, and her own work with the Other Voice movement that tries to create solidarity between the civilian communities in Gaza and Israel to break the cycle of violence that is usually the only reason outsiders ever hear about Gaza or Sderot. (Later we met Julia Chaitin, another key member of Other Voice, back in Urim.)

We left Sderot—a city most associated with anxiety and violence—moved and inspired by her vision of peace.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Day Nine: Ketura and Lotan

Alas, our last day in the intellectually fertile mindscape of the Arava Valley. We wrapped up interviews on Kibbutz Lotan with Mark Naveh, the mazkir (ie, kibbutz secretary), about the challenges of his evolving community, and Mike Kaplin, one of the brains behind the creative ecology centre. Afterwards, we walked down the stairs of a bomb shelter—and into a student seminar about peace and social justice.

We returned to Ketura, where I had one of those only-in-Israel conversations with a Palestinian student in the swimming pool of the kibbutz. He described his intellectual aspirations and the frustrations of growing up and trying to do business as a Palestinian in East Jerusalem.

Finally, we sat in on several student presentations  about their research at the Institute before we had to hop into the car and drive across the Negev Desert, past tank-training facilities and down into the Ramon Crater (where we nearly ran out of gas) before finally pulling into Kibbutz Urim. We were both intellectually and physically drained. We had seen visions of different ways of living together in the desert and it will take days, probably longer, to make sense of all that we learned there.

Day Eight: The Arava Institute

We woke up at Kibbutz Ketura and wandered just a few hundred feet to the offices (in the old turkey house) of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. First, we got a tour thanks to Tamar Norkin, an intern from the U.S., and then afterwards, we learned about the philosophy and programs from executive director David Lehrer. If Lotan takes a creative, hands-on approach to permaculture and ecological literacy, then Arava offers an intellectually focused program of university-level studies.

The Institute also brings together students from a range of often conflicting demographics: Israeli Jews, international students, Palestinians, Jordanians. As Lehrer told us, after the recent flotilla incident, the Arava Instiute was likely one of the only places where Israeli Jews and Palestinians were in the same room communicating with each other—they may have been shouting at times, but at least they were communicating.

That afternoon, we had an illuminating discussion with Uri Gordon, author of Anarchy Alive!, who teaches environmental politics and other courses at the Arava Institute. I was especially interested in his opinions (which he nearly did his PhD on, until he decided to focus on contemporary anarchism) about how A.D. Gordon, the intellectual godfather of the kibbutz movement, was also a forerunner of modern environmental thought. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Day Seven: The Arava Valley

The next morning, after another healthy Israeli breakfast, we drove just a little south to the legendary Kibbutz Samar. Variously described (and sometimes derided) as the “hippy kibbutz” or the “anarchist kibbutz”, Samar has famously combined communal economics with individual freedom. There are few committees or other bodies lording over the decisions of members. Instead, they share a single bank account (they used to have a common cash box, from which they just took money as they needed it), they work where they want and when they want, and not according the demands of a set job rotation.  They don’t use hired labour for the grunt work. (Most of their money comes from growing organic dates.)

And despite the fears of the Kibbutz Movement and the predictions of skeptical observers, Samar still works in its own weird, anarchic way. We had a wonderful visit with Musa Menahem and his wife, both of whom were among the early settlers., and they told me many funny and inspiring stories about communal life on Samar. (More later.) I also asked about whether their children plan to stay on the kibbutz when they grow up. (They’re still not sure.) And we all wondered what a teenager on Samar would have to do to rebel against his or her parents: Become a lawyer for the Likud in Tel Aviv, I guess.

As several people told me, both on the kibbutz and off, Samar is an amazing experiment in communal sharing and personal freedom, but one whose structure has never been replicated becase it’s more about the unique people who live there than their rules (or lack thereof) for living together.

Afterwards, we dropped by Kibbutz Yotvata, the oldest and most successful (thanks to its dairy) community in the arid valley, and stopped for gelatos and a dip in the Red Sea in the resort town of Eilat. A perfect end to an inspiring day with amazing people who have found a way to live outside the mainstream of pure self-interest and hyper-capitalism.

Day Six: Kibbutz Lotan

After our meeting with the minister, we suffered rush-hour traffic one more time, fought our way out of Tel Aviv and headed south, past Beer-Sheva (where years ago I visited the market, bought a keffiyeh like the typical young tourist, and later saw several Bedouin men running beside my bus, laughing and shouting, “Arafat! Arafat!”) and, as night fell, descended off the plateau of Negev Desert and down into the Arava Valley. We dropped our bags in a guest room at Kibbutz Lotan and then woke the next morning for breakfast and a tour of the kibbutz’s innovative eco-education facilities.

Netta, a resident (but not a member), gave us a brief history of Lotan, and then led us to the Bustan, the student quarters where she also lives—a series of energy-efficient mud-covered straw-bale huts, like earthen igloos or Luke Skywalker’s home on Tatooine. We tried out some of the solar ovens and then walked to the Ecokef, a demonstration park and teaching area, with a cool playground made up of clayed-over garbage, composting toilets and an organic garden, where we plundered tea leaves and the last of their tomatoes. “Permaculture is my religion,” Netta told us. And it’s here on Lotan (where members also practise Reform Judaism) that newcomers get initiated into this philosophy of living lightly on the land.

After lunch, we hooked up with Alex Cicelsky, the director of research and development at Lotan’s Center for Creative Ecology, and had a long, wide-ranging and engaging conversation about the history of this unique kibbutz, its mix of spiritual and ecological philosophies (an environmental spin on tikkun olan), the challenges of building eco-friendly buildings, and other topics related to how ecological literacy has sprouted out of the communal life of Lotan. He invited us to the kabalat shabat ceremony later that evening and for Friday night dinner, where we met some of the students and volunteers. The song and prayer and shared meal helped us appreciate the melding of spiritual and communal life in this fascinating desert community.

The only disappointment of the day? The sign on the gate to the swimming pool: “Closed due to sandstorm.”

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Day Five: Tel Aviv

One last day in the big city—this time, to talk with some big wigs. First, we met with Abu Vilan, a former MK for the Meretz party and longtime player in the Artzi Federation of the kibbutz movement. He talked about his life on his own kibbutz and the challenges faced by the Israeli left in the current right-leaning political climate. (Part of it is image, he noted, pointing out how I look like the typical Israeli lefty with my reading glasses.)

Afterwards, we were lucky enough to have a half-hour meeting with Haim Oron, a kibbutznik and sitting member of the Knesset for the left-leaning Meretz Party. He expanded on a recent column he write about the creeping fascism—he told us McCarthyism might be more accurate—in Israeli politics, the way that any kind of dissent against the government is quickly demonized as unpatriotic. A fascinating conversation with that rare beast: a principled politician.

Coming up: A consciousness-expanding journey into the desert...

Day Four: Jaffa and Beit Shemesh


We gave ourselves more time and fought our way through the traffic jam on the main highway. This time we arrived a half0hour early to our destination: the Sadaka Reut organization near the Old City. There, we met with Lena and Jawad, both 19, and Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian respectively. They’ve been living together with six other young people as part of “The Commune”, a one-year experiment in co-existence and co-operation. (Imagine “The Real World: Israel” with less binge-drinking, fewer cameras and way more political activism.”) They are amazingly passionate individuals doing impressive activities; every month they collectively organize a political or educational act: erasing racist graffiti, protesting house demolitions, producing educational videos about Gaza.

Jaffa can be a tough neighbourhood, we’d heard, and we saw evidence of that after leaving Sadaka Reut. Several police cars and ambulances had stopped by a house, and an Arab woman was crying on the sidewalk. Attendants with stretchers rushed through a door. We asked a nearby parking lot attendant what had happened. “There was a shooting,” he shrugged. “Someone got hit.” Time to get out of Jaffa.

Kibbutz Tamuz

After a swim at Neve Shalom, we drove to the town of Beit Shemesh and visited Kibbutz Tamuz—an urban kibbutz, which I’d heard so much about last year but had yet to see in person. There, Yiftah Goldman, one of the members, showed us around and gave us a history of the community, which combines urban co-housing and communal economics with a sense of social purpose. Tamuz has struggled recently, however, as Beit Shemesh has become an increasingly ultra-Orthodox town; these new religious residents have been resistant to cooperating with the Tamuz residents in the types of social projects that drew them to the city in the first place. That said, Tamuz looks like a wonderful place to raise a family, amongst close friends, with an open green space where residents gather and talk as the sun goes down. Again, we left with our heads full of new ideas and new ways of living.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Day Three: Tel Aviv

The next day was intensely busy—although it began with a slow and frustrating drive into Tel Aviv during rush hour traffic. We managed to reach the offices of Michael and Bracha Chyutin, husband and wife architects, just a few minutes late and had a brief but fascinating conversation about Michael’s interest (and recent book) about the architecture and especially urban planning of the Israeli kibbutz, as well as how it connects to earlier utopian schemes and experiments.

Then we rushed over (and got a little lost) to Tel Aviv University, where we met Assaf Razin, a leading international economist and also a former member of Kibbutz Shamir. His parents were part of the founding generation and were greatly disappointed when he decided to continue his career elsewhere and not remain a member. We had a long discussion about his life and philosophy. While Dr. Razin remained largely focused on academic work, he also briefly acted as chief economic advisor to Menachem Begin and vainly tried to warn his administration of the hyper-inflation that would eventually cripple the Israeli economy and set in motion the privatization of the kibbutz movement.

We had a brief break in which we met (and had some fabulous Turkish humous with) Jerry’s cousin Eitan, a former computer whiz who gave it all up to become an oud player (a stringed Arabic instrument a little like a lute).

Then we parked at Rabin Square, which was filled with booksellers for Hebrew Book Week, and walked around the very area where Prime Minister Rabin had been assassinated by a Jewish nationalist extremist for his peace efforts.

At the Book Worm, a literary café, we had a free-changing chat with Jonathan Paz, director of the film The Galilee Eskimos, and Joshua Sobol, Israel’s leading playwright, who wrote The Night of the 20th, a critical take on the early pioneers who settled the first kibbutzim—and set in motion the future state of Israel. He told us his play deals with the split between “moralists” (who want to consider the ethics of their behaviour) and “activists” (those who feel action must be taken right now)—a tension that has haunted both the kibbutz movement and Israeli politics ever since. (The raid on the Gaza flotilla could be seen as another example of the triumph—and failure—of acting before truly considering the consequences of those actions.) Afterwards, both men chatted in Hebrew about an upcoming collaboration on a new film.

Finally, we grabbed a coffee with Lavi Ben-Gal, the 37-year-old director of Eight Twenty Eight, a brilliantly quirky documentary about his early life on his kibbutz (Nitzanim) and his debate about whether to stay or to go. He was as funny in person as he is in his film.

All in all, a busy day that left our heads spinning with fascinating people and new ideas.

Day Two

In the morning, we joined a congregation of Reform Jews from the Bay Area for further explanation of the life and philosophy at Wahat-al-Salam (which, like “Neve Shalom”, means “Oasis of Peace”) from Daoud Boulous, another Arab resident of the community. Later that day, the community had erected banner at the entrance protesting the recent fatal raid on the flotilla of activists bring aid to Gaza. This tragedy would shadow many of our discussions during our first week here,

In the afternoon, after a swim at the Neve Shalom pool, we returned to Revadim, and Jerry reunited with his sister Shlomit (and later his aunt, Rena). Shlomit told us about how she came to live on Revadim (part of the Artzi Federation—aka, the most left-of-centre kibbutzim) and more about the process of privatization that has altered the kibbutz. The most obvious evidence is the kibbutz equivalent of “monster homes”: big, boxy new family houses that dwarf the smaller, conjoined row-apartment residents of the oldtime members.

The First Week

Day 1

Neve Shalom/Wahad al-Salam

It’s been a hectic first week of my research trip in Israel: I arrived with Jerry, my research assistant and cultural guide, Sunday just before noon. We grabbed a rental car and drove to Neve Shalom/Wahat-al Salam, where we stayed for four nights at a guest house at this unique community. After dropping our bags, we got an introduction to Neve Shalom/Wahad al-Salam from Abdessalam Najjar, one of the earliest residents. The community was founded about 30 years ago, just off the Tel-Aviv/Jerusalem highway, as a place where Arabs and Jews could live in peaceful co-existence, while also running programs that encourage dialogue to help others do the same. Today, there is a long waitlist of other Arab and Jewish residents of Israel keen to take up residence. (Space on the limited amount of land, donated in a covenant by the nearby Latrun Monastery, is the main issue holding back expansion.) Abdesssalam admitted that his community is far from typical in his country; in fact, the government likes to use Neve Shalom in its feel-good press relations while giving no financial or other support to the community itself. Rather, it’s something of an isolated island of middle-class professionals who have managed to find a way of living with the conflict that divides this country while not ignoring it. It’s also a beautiful neighbourhood in an idyllic rural setting where the coastal plains start to rise toward the hills of Jerusalem—a soothing setting to sleep off some jet-lag while still running around and doing interviews.

Kibbutz Revadim

Next, we had tea at Kibbutz Revadim (where Jerry’s sister, a ceramics artist lives), and spoke with Uri Pinkerfeld, a founder as well as an activist who acts to protect Palestinian olive groves from destruction by settlers. He told us about the early history of the kibbutz, which was originally near Jerusalem but captured and then relocated during and after the War of 1948, and the process of privatization that it underwent, after careful consideration by its members. This “change” was less traumatic at Revadim, which wasn’t in as deep financial crisis as many kibbutzim.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

An Irish Writer Looks Back to Galilee

The Independent in Ireland ran an interesting column by a writer who spent time on a kibbutz, when he was 19, as a volunteer during the early 80s. He looks back on the nearly 30 years of increasing tension and violence between Israelis and Palestinians, while recognizing the complex society—or rather network of societies—that constitute modern Israel. He also contrasts the pastoral life of the kibbutz with the tension of current events.

His point of view is essentially the same as mine: a non-Jewish outsider who fell under the thrall of Israel—its landscapes, its cultures, its peoples, its history—as an idealistic young international volunteer, and who is now struggling to hold onto that idealism despite the grim tit for tat violence in the region and the decreasing hopes for peace.

As he writes, looking back on life on a kibbutz in the Galilee:

As someone who has visited Israel frequently and who spent a formative six months on a kibbutz at the age of 19, all of this saddens me. For despite the conflict, there is something magical about this tiny state, created by the Jewish immigrants of over 120 countries and built on the beautiful desert of their biblical homeland.
It is a country of paradoxes: an ancient land, steeped in the animosities of some the world's largest religions, and yet a dynamic sun-drenched country, with a booming agriculture and IT economy, a thriving gay scene and a celebrated dance culture.

Friday, June 4, 2010

On the Road

After a frenetic week of packing and repacking, I'm finally on the road (or rather in the air) for my research trip to Israel. I'm nervous of course (especially given recent events) and spent the last half hour mooning over photos of my family on my Ipod.

I'm excited too by the busy month of travel and interviews ahead. Jerry my research assistant and I will hit the ground running: we will be staying at Neve Shalom for four nights as we visit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as well as his sister on Kibbutz Revadim. Then we head south into the desert for four nights and many more kibbutzim: Lotan, Ketura, Yotvata and Samar. Then back north toward Gaza and Urim, Migvan and Kfar Aza.

Probably another day or two in Tel Aviv before heading north to Mishmar HaEmek. Finally I will get a few days to visit friends on Shamir before a 3-day conference near Kibbutz Mizra and a 2-day tour of nearby communities. Then one more day of wrap up interviews in Tel Aviv and home at last!

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