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.