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.

Friday, July 23, 2010

A 100 Years of Kibbutz: Jewish Quarterly

The centenary of Degania has already started a outpouring of articles about 100 years of kibbutz life and philosophy. Some of the writing has been detailed and well-informed; some of it, less so. (I’m hoping mine falls in the former category!)
A worthy addition to the historical discussion about the importance of the kibbutz is a recent posting, by Lawrence Joffe, on the website of the Jewish Quarterly (with an unfortunately dodgy weblink to it). In a short space, Joffe gives a thorough history of the kibbutz movement, but he also evaluates its legacy from many critical angles, asking when it has—and when it hasn't—lived up to its high ideals, including the movement's often ambivalent relations with  the original Arab residents and the waves of new Jewish immigrants in Israel/Palestine. 
His post is peppered with specific details and historical facts and figures that bring the story to life. I only found one error with which to quibble: "In 2007 Degania A again led the way," he writes, "this time by becoming the first kibbutz to be privatised." Not  true: by 2007, according to stats compiled by Dr. Shlomo Getz, at the University of Haifa, and his American research colleagues, 65% of the 264 kibbutzim had voted in differential salaries—the Rubicon of privatization. Degania was a latecomer to the capitalist love-in, not a pioneer.
Joffe is much better at analyzing the kibbutz movement's evolving political philosophy and its tricky relationships with Israel’s ever-changing parliamentary parties. He makes the important point that attitudes to the current "situation" vary from kibbutz to kibbutz, and likely kibbutznik to kibbutznik, now more than ever—that it's a stretch to say there is anything that resembles a unified "movement" anymore. 
I like that he mentions the ecological innovations underway at Kibbutz Lotan, and how he concludes his essay on a note of hope, by citing two communities that similarly impressed me with their commitment to Arab-Israeli relations in good times and bad: the Givat Haviva Institute (founded by the the Kibbutz Artzi federation) and Kibbutz Eshbal, the "youngest" official kibbutz, which runs the Galil Arab-Israeli School. I'll write more about both places in upcoming posts from my own trip.

Another Gaza flotilla...

... set sail yesterday, according to Ha'aretz. This one, however, safely navigated the Sea of Galilee, not the Mediterranean. This one contained two thousand kibbutz teenagers, not international activists. This one probably won't get nearly as much media attention. But it crossed the waters for the cause of peace, too—to lobby for the release of captured soldier Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas in Gaza, and one of the biggest obstacles to negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians:
A flotilla of 90 rafts made its annual crossing of Lake Kinneret yesterday, with 2,200 kibbutz teens participating. The flotilla, organized by the Kibbutz Movement, adopted as this year's theme the campaign to free captive soldier Gilad Shalit. The crafts' sails bore slogans calling for Shalit's release, including calls to accept the German negotiator's proposal to negotiate with Hamas. The teens began building their rafts a week ago along the Kinneret's shores. They set sail for Dugit Beach on the eastern shore with the westerly afternoon breeze behind them.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Day 14: Kibbutz Beit Oren, Ein Hod, Moshav Tsrufa

I’m finally getting back to updates from my recent Israel trip….
The next afternoon, after our wide-ranging shabbat conversation with Rachel Fulder, we packed up and departed Klil. On our way out, we picked up Renat, a young hitchhiker who was on her way to the music festival at the village of Jat, part of an even more hippy-dippy community on the opposite hilltop from Klil. Jerry talked to her about the “rainbow gatherings”—temporary communities of art and activism organized around the world—and Renat agreed that the Jat festival was something like that. We mentioned our interest in the history of the kibbutz and its evolving ideals. “Klil is like the opposite of the kibbutz,” Renat told us. “Everybody does their own thing.” And yet the community, for all its anarchic origins, still seems to have a communal spirit. A remarkable place.

Kibbutz Beit Oren
We drove south toward Haifa and then navigated the switchbacking road up the flank of Mt. Carmel, past the University of Haifa (and its conspicuous mountain-top office tower, which always makes me think of Babel—but in a good way), and then followed the ridgetop road to Kibbutz Beit Oren.  It was a sweltering day, but on the heights of Carmel, the weather was mild and the views back down the valley toward Haifa and the sea were breathtaking. We were surrounded by trees for the first time on our trip, and I wished I had my mountain bike with me: I could see why Mt. Carmel is such a singletrack hotspot.
We wanted to find a place to eat (but couldn’t because it was shabbat) and also to visit Beit Oren, which is infamous as one of the first kibbutzim to teeter toward bankruptcy as a communal society. It became a canary in the coalmine for the movement as a whole: the government didn’t want to bail it out and members tried to disband it as a kibbutz proper, against the wishes of the kibbutz federation. We chatted to a few people there, but didn’t learn much more about Beit Oren’s current status. It’s a picturesque spot for a community, and it’s easy to see why it’s a popular holiday resort. But it also marks the failure of a bigger ideal.

Ein Hod 
We descended the western flank of Mt. Carmel to the quirky town of Ein Hod, an “artists’ village” founded in 1953 by Dadaist Marcel Danco and his creative collaborators. It has long been a centre of extra-urban bohemian life in Israel, with its narrow roads and galleries and studios overlooking the valley. One artist we had met at the Eco-Arts Village had warned us that Ein Hod has become gentrified, and the village did have the quaintly upscale feel of a Gulf Island getaway. But it’s still home to a number of Israel’s top artists, as well as more crafty folks shilling their wares to tourists.
We were there to meet Avraham Eilat, the father of my friend Yoav from Shamir, and one of Israel’s innovators in the visual arts. He has been living in Ein Hod for several years, and we joined him in his comfortable, book-lined cottage where he had been working on a series of ink drawings. We spoke to him for an hour or so about his life on Kibbutz Shamir, as well as his friendship with playwright Joshua Sobol, who he knew from the kibbutz and who he lived with when they were both young artists in Paris. Eilat designed the set for the debut performance of Sobol’s legendary play The Night of the 20th, and Sobol wrote the introduction for a recent collection of art photographs done by EIlat, called The Silence of the Sea. (The photos—and especially Sobol’s memoiristic introduction—seemed especially poignant and ironic in the light of the Gaza Flotilla controversy that was the main topic of conversation during our trip.)
Eilat was a delightful and charming host, and I was entranced by his stories of his early life on Shamir. He also filled in details about one famous incident that has become part of the mythology of the kibbutz: the deadly attack of 1974, in which two kibbutz women (one of them pregnant) and a young volunteer from New Zealand were killed by four terrorists who had slipped across the border from Lebanon, with plans to either attack the dining room at breakfast or take kibbutzniks hostage in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. Their plans went awry and, after killing the three women, they holed up in the apiary building and were killed by kibbutzniks who surrounded it. 
Eilat had been working in the dining room that day. In fact, he was in the middle of photographing an agit-prop art installation of four dining trays, in various states of cleanliness (his mischievous protest against members who didn’t clear their own trays), when someone rushed into the dining room and breathlessly told him that he had seen terrorists with guns on the kibbutz grounds. The other members quickly rallied and grabbed their own weapons, while Eilat documented the final siege with his camera. His image of the smoking ruins of the bee house, which I later saw in the kibbutz archives, is a haunting reminder of the losses of that day and of the dangers even in a bucolic rural location as Shamir. 

Moshav Tsrufa
We bid adieu to Eilat and his wife and drove just 10 minutes down the coastal highway to Moshav Tsrufa, a pleasant bedroom community of Haifa. There we met documentary filmmaker Yitzhak Rubin, who was relaxing on his front lawn with his wife. I had wanted to meet Rubin ever since watching his provocative exposé about the privatization of Kibbutz Degania, subtitled “The First Kibbutz Fights Its Last Battle.” His account of the privatization debate contrasted sharply with what I’d been told by the kibbutz secretary, Shai Shoshany, when I visited Degania Aleph last year. 
Rubin told me that after his film came out in 2007, Shai Shoshany sent a note to other kibbutzim telling people not to watch the movie because it was filled with half-truths and distortions—which was the best marketing Rubin could have asked for: suddenly every kibbutz member wanted to see what the fuss was about. Rubin has since screened his film and done talks at more than 50 kibbutzim.
We also talked about one of his earlier (and equally controversial) films, a profile of convicted spy Udi Adiv subtitled “A Broken Israeli Myth”. Adiv was born on Kibbutz Gan Shmuel and was a classic Sabra: a handsome athlete and soldier, the pride of the kibbutz, the son of a founder and former secretary. He was also a committed socialist who imagined himself as a latter-day Che Guevera and who was disillusioned by the lack of peace in his country. He got talked into secretly visiting Syria, where he thought he would be meeting Palestinian representatives but instead was interrogated about israeli military installations by Syrian security personnel. (In the movie, he claims to have told them only facts known to anyone who lived in Israel.)
After he returned to Israel, he and several fellow leftists, both Arabs and Jews, were charged with spying, tried and convicted in a much-publicized trial in 1973. Adiv got sentenced to 17 years in jail and served 12. He know teaches at the Open University in Israel. In Rubin’s film, he comes across as naive and idealistic, but hardly a traitor, and perhaps even a victim of dubious detective work on the part of the Israeli security services. 
Rubin also told us that he believes the Udi Adiv controversy was, in a key way, the beginning of the end of the kibbutz movement, at least its prominent status in the State of Israel. For many people, Adiv became a symbol of kibbutzniks’ disconnection from the political reality and popular sentiment in the country; he became the caricature of the radical socialist, ready to betray his countrymen for the revolution. Menachem Begin would use similar stereotypes to ostracize the kibbutz movement and the Israeli Left in the election of 1977—a shocking victory for the his right-wing Likud party that severed the kibbutzniks’ connection with the corridors of power.
Like Adiv, Rubin seems a complex and charismatic character, hard to pin down, although more loquacious, a larger than life shit-disturber in the Michael Moore mold. When I asked if he was worried about pissing off people at Degania, he laughed and replied that, because of his Adiv documentary and other films, his phones were likely tapped by the security service and even the police. He taped all his calls. He watched his back. In other words, he had taken on far bigger fish than the secretary of a kibbutz and hadn’t backed down yet.
During our visit, we were interrupted twice by a phone call from a prisoner, whom Rubin has been interviewing because he thinks the man was wrongfully convicted of killing a judge and railroaded into jail because the police needed a quick conviction. He let me talk to the prisoner briefly. “How do you like Israel?” the voice on the phone asked.
“It’s interesting travelling here,” I admitted, a little disoriented by suddenly chatting to a convict.
“Better than being in jail at least!” he replied, and Rubin joined him with a hearty laugh.
Interestingly, Rubin seems to have developed the same sense of being surrounded and isolated by the international community, and its criticisms of Israel, as many other Israelis that we met—a prisoner in his own nation. Rubin is a longtime leftist, who has been involved in many causes to promote peace and Arab-Jewish relations. But the conflict with Lebanon in 2008 left him dispirited and pessimistic about the future. When the rockets from the Hizbollah started to hit Haifa, he moved south from the city to the moshav. “I have the illusion that missiles will fall less here,” he said with a laugh. 
He worries about the rise of anti-Semitism (his mother is an Auschwitz survivor) and his next film, which he gave us a sneak peek at, examines this phenomenon through the personal lens of the director’s long-standing and now contentious relationship with an Arab activist from a nearby village. 
“We are at the magic number again: six million,” he told us. “I’m afraid.”

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Mishmar HaEmek Memorial

David Dagan's three-part account of his time on Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek ends appropriately with an intriguing discussion of the Holocaust memorial on the kibbutz grounds—and how this intimate expression of personal grief feels more powerful than the better-known but more abstract memorial in Berlin, where the author is usually based. 

Last summer, I visited the same sculpted memorial, which is still pocked with bullet holes from the fierce fighting in 1948, and listened to Mishmar HaEmek member Lydia Aisenberg describe the annual service held on Holocaust Day. The images embedded in the rock are simple yet haunting. The central location of the memorial must carry a deeply symbolic resonance for the kibbutzniks, who have maintained a strong sense of solidarity even amid the changing social and political environment of their nation.

I've visited other Holocaust sites and memorials, of course: the Yad Vashem Museum near Jerusalem; the reconstructed death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland; and the walled town of Terezin in the former Czechoslovakia (which was used by the Nazis to dupe the Red Cross about the conditions and functions of their concentration camps). The memorial at Mishmar HaEmek is smaller in scale, narrower in focus, but has a similarly troubling effect. Through its imagery and words, the memorial connects your immediate sense of place—in this case, a kibbutz in the Jizreel Valley, a community that played a key role in the birth of the State of Israel and developing the ideals of the whole kibbutz movement—with a historical event of such profound and unfathomable horror that it feels like the ground is about to open beneath your feet.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Kibbutz Diary: Huffington Post

Of course, I'm not the only international visitor obsessed with the legendary history, contemporary issues and uncertain future of the kibbutz, in this its centennial year. David Dagan, a Berlin-based American journalist, has started a series of blog posts for the Huffington Post about the five weeks he spent working on Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek

I also spent time on Mishmar HaEmek, this year and last (as the guest of member and Givat Haviva instructor Lydia Aisenberg), and enjoyed my own brief time on this large, relatively successful and still resolutely communal kibbutz. The kibbutzniks of Mishmar HaEmek, in the Jezreel Valley near Haifa, have always seen themselves as elite members of the pioneering kibbutz movement—that commitment to socialism and the settlement of Israel (plus, the success of their plastics factory) has allowed them to stand against the winds of change that have swept through 70% of other kibbutzim.

As Dagan's blog post makes clear, members are still debating possible changes—but they have resisted the trend toward different salaries or privately owned homes. One of the issues being discussed while I was there was the cost of the dining room and whether members (and their guests) should be charged a fee, even a highly subsidized one, for their food as a way to cut down on waste. (I'll admit, after learning of this debate. I felt a little guilty chowing down on the kibbutz's dime while we stayed there for four days.) 

Of course, many other communities have been forced to privatize or shut down their dining rooms entirely. By contrast, Mishmar HaEmek's large dining hall remains the centre of casual meetings and communal decision making.

I look forward to reading more of Dagan's upcoming posts about his time on this important and fascinating kibbutz.

Up, Up and Away!

One of the great scenes in the soon-to-released documentary Keeping the Kibbutz is shot from a glider, high above the Huleh Valley, in which Uzi, one of the kibbutzniks from Kfar Giladi, has taken director and cameramen Ben Crosbie for a ride. The vistas of northern Galilee are dizzying and spectacular—and were apparently quite an adventure to capture, as Crosbie describes in a stomach-trurning blog posting about the making of the documentary.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Volunteers invited to Kibbutz Centenary

I seem to have jumped the gun with my recent visit to Israel. The Kibbutz Movement is just now inviting former volunteers to return to the country to help mark the centenary of Degania, the first kibbutz. They plan to organize an event, for this fall, to attract a thousand or more former volunteers.

Sadly, most kibbutzim no longer employ international volunteers. The agricultural jobs that were the staple of the volunteer experience—I did everything from picking avocados to removing rocks form the cotton fields—and that were part of the attraction for the often city-raised visitors from abroad are now largely mechanized or done by cheap Thai labourers who drink less and work harder.

Depending on who you ask, the influx of international volunteers during the 1970s and 1980s either had a positive influence (new multicultural perspectives, youthful enthusiasm, etc.) or a negative one (sex, drugs and rock and roll, corruption of kibbutz youth!). One thing is certain, as the coordinator of the Volunteer Office told me last year: volunteers often returned home and became unofficial diplomats for the State of Israel, because their experience living and working with Israelis (and particularly some of the most educated and liberal citizens of the state) gave them a more intimate and complex view of the country than what is depicted in the international media.

Israel could use some of that good P.R. again. Perhaps a nostalgic return to the country for some of the 350,000 volunteers who worked on a kibbutz might help. 

The Green Kibbutz

The kibbutz was, in its own way, a back-to-the-land movement, a way for disconnected young urbanites to renew their souls by reconnecting with the soil. So it shouldn't be a surprise that kibbutzim have become leaders in the areas of organic farming and environmental technology, as well as eco-education. I saw evidence of this trend especially in the communities in the Arava Desert (Samar, Ketura and Lotan), although I was disappointed to learn that attempts to coordinate a national "green kibbutz movement" have essentially withered on the vine.

A recent Bloomberg article, however, did list a number of interesting kibbutz-based projects and cooperative business ventures in the field of environmental technology, alternative energy and organic farming. And a lot of people with whom I spoke saw promise in such environmental consciousness as a way of renewing the social-political mission of the original kibbutz pioneers.

Long Live the Kibbutz!

Or at least long life on a kibbutz. That was one of the bits of evidence mentioned in a recent article in The Guardian about how to "age successfully": 

Longitudinal studies of ageing in Israeli kibbutzim are particularly revealing of the importance of continuity. Successful ageing was commoner if the elderly person felt they still had a working role and responsibility for their own health. The highly developed social networks proved effective at replacing the steady loss of peers. Hence, if a kibbutz closed and the person had to go and live in a conventional city, successful ageing was much less likely.
The study being cited is by Uriel Leviatan, of the University of Haifa, who I met last year and who gave a paper at the recent ICSA conference last month. Of course, the privatization of kibbutzim—as well as the neglect of some of the retirement-aged residents at poorer communities, as described in a recent Ha'Aretz exposé—may mean that kibbutz oldtimers, once the longest living amongst the already long-living Israelis (usually second only to the Japanese), may find their life expectancies regressing to the mean, as they feel their social connections and sense of purpose and contributions to the community decline. 

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Home Again

I’m back in Victoria and starting to emerge from my jet-lag fog and feeling guilty about how far behind my blog is. I only got halfway through describing my trip, before our busy schedule (and erratic Internet access) kept me from updating. I probably should have Tweeted the trip instead!  I’ll try to catch up and fill in the blanks of the last few weeks, which were as equally fascinating and inspiring as the first half of the trip. In the meantime, let me break down my journey by the numbers.

Days: 30
Kilometres driven: 2,942
Damage I did to rental car: $140 US
Kibbutzim visited: 23
Other intentional communities visited: 6
Swims in the ocean: only 1 (we were working!)
Humous and pita consumed: too much to count
Shoe stores visited in Jerry’s ultimate fruitless quest for the perfect man-sandals: 10+
Members of Parliament we interviewed: 1 (Haim Oron)
Heads of state who declined a meeting: 1 (Eli Avivi of Achzibland was under the weather)
A month in Israel: priceless