Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Post #100: Sunrises and Sunsets

Mentions of Kibbutz Shamir, in Upper Galilee, often describe an unusual celestial phenomenon: a sunrise in the west. Each morning, when the early rays emerge over the Golan Heights and the steep eastern slopes of the valley, on which the kibbutz sits, they first strike the taller ridges on the far side of the Jordan River, on the border between Lebanon and Israel, and then spread across the Huleh, giving the illusion that the sun is about to make its grand entrance from the wrong direction.
I don’t remember people talking about this effect when I lived on Shamir. I do remember the sunrises and sunsets, though, from our perch on the slopes of the Golan, and how they illuminated the rich earthen palette of the valley, from autumn, through winter and into the spring. I probably watched more sunrises in Israel than anywhere else, thanks to pre-dawn shifts in the cotton fields and the apple, kiwi, or avocado orchards. 
We would drag ourselves from our cots, alarm clocks screaming, and descend into the valley amid the murk of first light, in the back cab of an old Toyota truck. The light would begin to illuminate our surroundings as we shook off sleep (and often hangovers) with caffeine, nicotine, small talk or silence—whatever it took. And there we were, as the day began to warm, in the wide embrace of the Huleh: pulling stones from the cotton fields, burning stubble, trimming the branches of the kiwi trees, digging irrigation trenches past the apple stands, clambering up the long limbs to reach the last avocado. 
The end of the day, long after our work shift had finished, tended to be more dramatic. I’d often have a siesta and go for a jog around the kibbutz’s ring road (or perhaps I’m embellishing my athletic activity—I did do a few circuit loops), as the sun started to descend into Lebanon, a burning ball extinguished against the mountains’ silhouettes, and the rock rabbits would release their surreal, almost mechanical squeals from their warrens and farther away, amid the hills and the scrub, the wild dogs would take up a howling call and response. 
Night would fall. The electric lights of the valley would flicker on. Qiryat Shmona would appear as a constellation across the river. And I would get anxious for activity: a drink (or more), a conversation, some gossip, laughter around the TV or the bar, a friend or two to fend off the loneliness of the night. And then, the next day, the sun would rise again in the east.

* * *

I lost track for a few days and realized that this post marks the 100th of my blog—and my goal of writing 100 to celebrate the centenary of the kibbutz movement. Of course, I never intended to end at 100—especially when I’m only halfway finished describing my trip to Israel this summer and have barely begun to relate my experiences (and embarrassing journal entries) from more than 20 years ago. So I thought it best (especially before taking time off for two weeks of family vacation) to mark Post #100 by looking back to Galilee from a more personal perspective and touching once again on some of the images and memories burned into my own imagination by the kibbutz I once called home.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Kibbutz As Bridge

A short article in the Associated Press caught my attention. It describes how a 62-year-old Arab resident of Gaza still holds positive memories from 23 years of working on a nearby kibbutz, while his 21-year-old son only has anger for the Israelis beyond the fence that surrounds Gaza because he has only ever encountered soldiers. 
The elder Hamami spent what he considers the best 23 years of his life working on Israeli kibbutzim, or collective farms, near Gaza. He had his own room, took Hebrew classes, swam in the community pool with kibbutz members and danced at their parties. "They were all my friends," he said, "from the old man to the child."
It’s a reminder of the important bridge that many kibbutzim formed, on the edge of the nation, between Jews and Arabs. And a reminder of how so much of that connection has been lost because the two sides rarely encounter each other in daily life anymore, rarely work together, rarely play together, rarely have the chance to build trust and friendship—that unity at the core of the original kibbutz founders’ vision of the future.

The Dining Room as Parable

To a visitor who has never eaten regularly at one, a kibbutz dining room might look like a glorified (or even unglorified) cafeteria: the stainless-steel smorgasbord of salads and meats and breads, the long table-clothed tables and conversation-filled open room, the noisy conveyor-belt dish-washing machine. Echoes of high school perhaps, with more gossip and fewer food fights.
But for a longtime kibbutznik (and even a nostalgia-drunk volunteer like myself), the dining room is so much more. It’s the heart and soul of the kibbutz. It’s the centre of activity. It’s the thrice a day (sometimes more) gathering place. It’s as much a symbol as a setting. It is, as the title of a recent exhibition at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv suggests, a parable. So it’s little wonder that the dining room has proved the fascinated focus for many artists, like the photographers in the Eretz Israel show, or Avraham Eilat (who uploaded a time-lapse film sequence of the dining room at Kibbutz Shamir, with the members gathering around the TV for news of a terrorist attack by the Red Brigade), and others. 
Over the past two years, I also “read” the dining rooms at the different kibbutzim I visited as parables. I tried to discern the state of their social and community life from the state of their dining room. At Kibbutz Hanita, my host took me to the dining room explicitly to show me how life there had declined since privatization: there was a cash register, half the room was closed off, the remaining side was half-empty and occupied mostly with retirement-age kibbutzniks, and he admitted that since most of his friends had left the kibbtuz, he rarely ate there himself.
Kibbutz Lotan, by contrast, had a small but lively dining room, still communal, still free, and packed shoulder to shoulder, with challa and wine on the table, for Shabbat dinner. I watched two male friends hug warmly as they met near the kitchen. The heart of this dining room was still beating strongly. It felt the same at Kibbutz Samar, although the dress-code was more hippie-chic, and its kitchen is probably unique in the entire country for being open and unlocked at all hours of the day or the night: anyone can drop by for a snack at the anarchist dining room. 
Kibbutz Ketura was a bit more complex. It had a more spacious dining room, but the social geography of the space was carefully sub-divided, likely unconsciously, perhaps because of the many different groups who coalesce at the kibbutz: international volunteers sat at one table, students at the Arava Institute at another (and Mulsim students tended to cluster together amongst themselves), several tables were reserved for one of the many tour groups (in this case, young Swedes) who come through, and there was food station reserved for guests of the hotel—we got a slightly choice of food fixings, because we were paying for our meals.
Kibbutz Urim’s dining room was lightly attended for breakfast, but during our meal, our host ran into his university-aged son, who is living in a student apartment on the kibbutz, and they had coffee together—a nice moment. Urim is struggling to stay communal and considering different statuses for different members, to give some flexibility and freedom without fully embracing privatization: the dining room seemed to mirror that trend.
Kibbutz Revadim was the most depressing. Jerry and I were the only people eating in its huge dining room, because we were staying at the guest house. The dining room’s kitchen were privatized, and only used for catering functions and guest-house breakfasts. A panorama of photographs outside the entrance showed the kibbutz’s expansion, from an aerial view, over 60 years, with the dining room at its hub. But now that hub is empty of its original purpose.
Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek has a huge L-shaped dining room, usually busy, with stacks of high-chairs and newspapers to be picked up outside. It remains the proud centre of this bastion of the kibbutz movement. Kibbutz 
Kibbutz Shamir’s dining hall was much like I remembered it, with its sun-filled vertical windows and huge tapestry, although the kitchen itself has been renovated and cash registers added to pay for the (heavily subsidized) meals. It was open for breakfast and lunch and two dinners per week. Workers from the factory, in their blue overalls, still used it, although because agriculture plays a smaller role, with far fewer workers, in the kibbutz economy, I didn’t see the lines of muddy field-hands in their sun-hats and work-shirts, a cigarette tucked behind their ears, trundle in for a meal like I used to do. We were only there four days, but it wasn’t long before we were chatting to and nodding at friends and acquaintances that we had met—the social glue of eating in the same place was starting to set.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Day 17: The Women of Israel

Myriam Dagan Brenner of Givat Haviva
On the morning of June 22, we rendezvoused with Myriam Dagan Brenner at a noisy coffee-shop on the outskirts of Afula, near the moshav where she lives. Myriam is a lively, opinionated, and big-hearted coordinator at Givat Haviva (which I never got the chance to revisit this summer) with a busy schedule, so I was pleased that we could connect, even though I had hoped to see her in action during one of her programs for Arab and Jewish women. As it turned out, we talked for more than two hours in one of the most fascinating conversations of the entire trip. 
“I never lived on a kibbutz,” Myriam told us, without regret, when I explained the focus of my research. “I don’t see it happening.” 
She only moved to Israel from France in 1984 after marrying an Israeli man, who had to return to attend to his sick father. (“A very big Zionist reason for coming here!” she admitted with a laugh.) In 1989, after a serendipitous meeting with the coordinator of the Children Teaching Children program at Givat Haviva (which brings together Jewish and Arab high-school students), Myriam was invited to lead a few seminars at this educational institute founded by the Kibbutz Artzi movement. Over the past 21 years, she deepened her relationship with Givat Haviva and has helped to develop many of its outreach programs, including sessions that address gaps in Israeli society between Arabs and Jews, Mizrahi (Middle-Eastern/Mediterranean) and Ashkenazi (Northern European) Jews, and new immigrants and Israeli-born sabras.
In 1994, after the assassination of P.M. Rabin, she started the Counselling for Peace Education Centre. In 1999, thanks to a $500,000 grant, she co-founded the Women in Communities program to help social workers to address women’s issues. (“It was like a fantasy,” she admitted of the sudden influx of money for their otherwise cash-strapped efforts. Later, she lamented that international groups who support confrontational actions like the Gaza Flotilla don’t seem as keen to fund the peace work being done at a place like Givat Haviva.) 
She has strong views about how feminism can transform the still-traditional notions of family in her otherwise modern nation. She admits there is a paradox in Israel: It is a country where a student can enroll in gender studies in all universities, many colleges and even a few high schools, and yet women are still without a voice in most major political, social and economic decisions. 
Why? Myriam cited three main reasons.
First, despite mandatory army service, women can’t serve in combat units and therefore can’t become part of the officers’ network that still underlies much of Israeli politics and business. “[Women] don’t have the status or the network that men can have in the army,” she explained.
A second issue is the traditional expectation, in both secular and especially religious families, Jewish and Muslim alike, that women will be responsible for taking care of the family—and that the family ought to be big. (“Two children is not a family” is a common saying.) Myriam called these gender expectations (man as the provider, woman as the nurturer) a “magic circle” that both men and women are caught within and can’t escape without a struggle.
Thirdly, the gender question, she argued, is especially important to The Conflict (as the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation is known locally). “Women are not see as partners in thinking, talking, making a difference. There are no women involved in the peace talks,” she lamented, citing Hannah Ashrawi as an exception on the Palestinian side that proves the rule—Ashrawi is no longer a player. “The Jewish women think they can’t be part of it because they aren’t involved in the army issues. The Palestinian women think that the men are right so there is nothing to argue about. We [at Givat Haviva] think that women have the capacity to speak to each other and are much more mindful to have peace and quietness than men.”
“One of the problems we have in Jewish-Arab women’s groups, after they connect very strongly on the personal level—’We are all women, we are all mothers, we are all dealing with the same problems on the personal, family level, sometimes community level’—is that when we get to the conflict level, they adopt the male discourse of the conflict. When before they spoke about themselves, it was ‘I do, I feel, I think’, but when they get to conflict, they speak about ‘we’ and ‘you’. In Hebrew, it is like ‘you’ in French: ‘you’ that is singular and ‘you’ that is plural. We go from ‘me’ and ‘you’ on the personal level, to ‘we’ and ‘you’ on the collective level.” And from connection to disconnection.
She talked about the two competing historical narratives in the conflict—Jewish versus Palestinian—a concept we heard repeated several times on our trip. “The two narratives are very strongly opposed to each other,” said Myriam, at least when it comes to the “facts” of the conflict or even the recent flotilla incident. Both sides can’t see through the other’s eyes, even momentarily. They tell two completely different stories. “There is nothing you can say that convince them that there is something in the middle.”
At Givat Haviva, she tries to get the two sides to talk about feelings rather than argue over “facts”. “When you speak about facts you don’t get out of it,” she said. “But when you speak about the feelings—the feelings of fear and frustration—with feelings you can’t argue. If I am afraid, you can tell me 30 times there was nothing on the boat, but that doesn’t change my fear. You can’t argue that I feel differently. The fear doesn’t come from the flotilla; the fear comes from 100 years of conflict. The same thing for the Palestinians. The second thing, you can connect with the same feelings. You don’t agree about the facts. But we can connect about the feelings we have about the event or the conflict as a whole.”
She talked a little bit about the Four Mothers movement and how—in part because these activists leveraged the power of motherhood within traditional Israeli society—they managed, slowly and with great resistance, to alter the discourse about the army’s role in Lebanon and play a key role in the military withdrawal of 2000. Already, however, the role of this group of women (one of whom I met later in the trip) was being forgotten by the public or diminished in the media. “Most people would say about the Four Mothers, they didn’t have an impact, they weren’t relevant,” said Myriam.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“I think without them we would still be in Lebanon. I don’t have any doubt about it,” she replied. “But think of it: they were the four mothers. We had a significance to the struggle, not as citizens, not as women, but as mothers. It’s so much Israeli! As mothers you have legitimacy.” That’s why Myriam felt, despite the efforts of groups like the Women in Black, there couldn’t be an equivalent popular movement to change the debate about the Occupation. “It’s not a motherhood issue,” she said. “It’s a civic issue.”
I was struck by how Myriam could step back and take both an optimistic and a pessimistic view of the state of her nation and its ever-elusive prospect for peace. 
“The full-half glass is that I started working at Givat Haviva at 1989, during the First Intifida. During that time, there was almost no talk in Israeli society of the possibility of a Palestinian state. Only the left-wing people were talking about two states for two people. If you look at the reality today, the majority of Israelis see the possibility of two states for two people. The agreement in Jewish Israeli society for a Palestinian state already exists. There is a problem with Jerusalem, there is a problem with the settlements. There are problems with the borders. But as an idea, the possibility that there will be a Palestinian state is in the mind of every Israeli. Even those who are against it, they know it will be happening. And somehow they accept it.
“In the Palestinian society, the fact that there will be an Israeli state is also accepted. Twenty years ago, it was not. There was a Palestinian discourse on the full Palestine and an Israeli discourse on a full Israel, from the Jordan to the sea—Palestine or Israel, one or the other. Today, I think it’s obvious and acceptable to both sides that there will be two states for two people… That’s a very, very big change. This is something that should be seen as very important. I would like to think that we, as Givat Haviva, were a part of this change.”
However, the glass often looks more empty than full these days, she admitted.
“On the other hand, almost nothing has changed. The ideas have changed, but on the ground almost nothing has changed. The relationships between Jews and Arabs are as tense as they’ve always been. … The political situation is very much depressing. It seems there is no other option. There is no political leader in Israel that you would like to be the prime minister. This I find very depressing. I personally am much more concerned by the religious movement. But I am not sure they are more significant than they were before. For many years, they have been running the politics and business in Israel. It’s much more frightening.”
In darker moments of the conflict, her family, who all have foreign passports, circles around a common question (“like a tradition,” she said) about whether they should emigrate. “With a foreign passport, I can go anywhere I want. I can go any place in Europe and work and have social security. We can put our things together tomorrow morning, get on a plane and go. On the one hand, it makes things easier, because we can say if things get worse we can go. On the other hand, it makes things worse, because everyday we have to decide: do we stay here when we don’t have to?”
During the height of the Second Intifada, amid terrorist attacks and bus bombings, Myriam said she was relieved, despite her desire to see them, that her three older children were living abroad. “But my youngest daughter was in Madrid during the train attack,” she recalled, “and I thought, ‘There is no safe place to be!’”
So what keeps her in Israel?
In part, she doesn’t want to abandon the fight so easily. “If people like us don’t stay in Israel, we give up on what is Israel. The right-wing will stay here, the ultra-orthodox will stay here.” It’s a refrain that we heard from other progressive voices in the country, although Myriam wasn’t 100% convinced.
“There is a joke in Hebrew,” she said, “that Moses had—how do you say?—a stutter, and when he said where should the Jewish people go, and it was to Canaan, but what he really said was ‘Ca-ca-ca…’ And he meant ‘Canada'!” 
And then Myriam Dagan Brenner released one of her warm yet ironic laughs.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Movie: Operation Grandma

If you’ve got an hour to kill, a decent Internet connection, and are looking for a good laugh, you could do worse than watching the Israeli comedy Mivtza Savta. When I was in Israel and mentioned I was giving a talk about kibbutz cinema, several people smiled and said, “Have you seen Operation Grandma?” Shown on Israeli TV in 1999, the movie has become a cult classic—a wicked satire about military machismo and kibbutz life. 
I thought I’d never be able to track down a copy in Canada, until I found it yesterday streaming on Google Video. The English subtitles are erratically spelled but at least they explain some of the more obscure Hebrew puns, Arabic profanity and cultural allusions.
The screwball comedy features three brothers who grew up on the fictional Kibbutz Asisim, in the Negev Desert, founded by their deceased parents: Edan, the youngest, is a nebbishy nature guide for a kids’ camp; Benny is an indebted techno-savant whose girlfriend is an aspiring judo champion; and Alon (nicknamed Krembo, because he once ate all the famous chocolate treats intended for the kibbutz’s Purim festival), is a semi-psychotic IDF commando planning a secret mission to Gaza who has moved back to the kibbutz as an “external inhabitant” and is infuriated that they won’t give him his own fridge. 
The premise: after their grandmother—who has been moved by the kibbutz into an old-age home far to the north in Netanya—dies, the three brothers need to organize a post-haste military operation to claim her body and bury it at Asisim as quickly as possible: so that Alon can fulfill his own secret mission in Gaza, Benny can install enough TV cables to earn his monthly bonus and make his next rent payment, and Edan can organize the “fire parade” with his disgruntled, switchblade-wielding campers. Think Mission: Impossible meets Weekend at Bernie’s.
Of course, their plan quickly goes off the rails and the corpse gets lost along the way (actually, it gets confiscated as a potential explosive), while other obstacles—including Dvora, the over-sexed and bureaucratic kibbutz secretary, and a techno-mad Swiss volunteer in charge of making the coffin—conspire against their attempts to give their grandma a final (and fast) send-off on the kibbutz.
The movie is quick-paced, over the top, and very, very funny. There are some in-jokes and references about kibbutz life (while never mentioned, it seems that Asisim has been privatized), but the comedy is broad and low-brow enough for almost anyone to enjoy. And I can understand now why it became such a campy cult classic of Israeli cinema.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Book: The Road to Ein Harod

Coincidentally, just after writing about my visit to Kibbutz Ein Harod, I picked up a library copy of Amos Kenan’s 113-page novella The Road to Ein Harod, published in Hebrew in 1984 and in English (translated by M. Hutzpit for Al Saqi Books, in London) two years later. The book really doesn’t have much to say about Ein Harod or the kibbutz movement. In fact, The Road to Ein Harod is a surreal, savage and satirical dystopian misadventure, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or other post-apocalyptic escape narratives.
In this case, the book’s first-person narrator, an older Jewish soldier who fought in the War of 1948, describes tuning his radio late one night and catching an urgent message that begins: “This is Radio Free Ein Harod calling.” We never find out exactly what has happened, but the narrator (and later the reader) figure out that some sort of military coup d’etat has taken over Israel and is enforcing a brutal martial law in the midst of civil war. Enemies of the coup, including artists and intellectuals, are being rounded up or shot on sight. 
The narrator eludes capture, hides in his attic, swims to Jaffa, and then begins a long journey by night in the seemingly futile hope of evading army patrols and reaching his family and what he believes is the last outpost of democracy and resistance: Kibbutz Ein Harod. On the way, he befriends an Arab refugee—they decide to delay killing each other and cooperate instead—and captures a brigadier general and his mistress as hostages. (One of the odd jokes is that almost every male character is named Rafi: the narrator, the general, the general’s driver, even the Arab’s Hebrew code name.)
Throughout his nightmarish, shadowy midnight journey of cat and mouse, the narrator reflects on his days as a soldier in the War of Independence—he still knows how to kill when necessary—and the legacy of violence that haunts his life and his homeland. “Yes,” he thinks, “the punishment we inflict on the victim of our oppression is to lead him to oppress others and to deprive him of awareness of it.”
Their escape route leads north toward Megiddo, the biblical ground zero of Armageddon—the end of the world—and an archaeological site just south of Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek. But before they can cross the Jizreel Valley, the refugees are cornered within a labyrinth of caverns by the sinister General of the Northern Command, a leader of the coup who shares with General Rafi an embarrassing secret about their time as captive young soldiers together in Syria. And then the book gets even weirder.
The General of the Northern Command takes the narrator back to a secret hideout, like the command-post of a super-villain, where he plans to enact his master plan (based on the writings of the “great military theorist Amos Kenan”) to go back in time and change Jewish history by refighting old wars and preventing the destruction of the Temple and the Spanish Inquisition. “The essential point is that History cannot be corrected after the fact,” he tells the narrator. “If you want to change the course of history, what you have to do is not foresee it in advance but fuck it from behind, in accordance with the doctrine of retroaction.”
SPOILER ALERT: In the end, the narrator escapes, and everyone except for him ends up dead in the dust. All that is left is for him to complete his journey to Ein Harod. But as he crosses the Jezreel Valley, he sees no evidence of the region’s famous settlements: “No Balfuria and no Merhavya. No town of Afula. On the mountain opposite, where Lower Galilee begins, I could not see the slopes of Nazareth. No Tel Yosef and no Geva. No Road of the Rule, not a single eucalyptus tree, not a single water tower. What could it all mean?”
All he can see is evidence of the natural, not the human, world: giant plane-trees, oleanders, willows, prairie, tracks of wild boar and panther. Not even the “derelict foliage” that signals a former settlement, even one thousands of years gone, like mallow, nettles, fennel, alder, thistles or thorn bushes. Just this land before time. “Ein Harod is the place where it all began,” he says, “and I knew how to get to the beginning. But there was nothing there.”
He stands on this empty, prehistoric plain, and then the book ends with its haunting last few lines:
When I turned to look behind me the world had gone dark.
I don’t know if I’m blind. I can hear no sound, and I don’t know if I’m deaf.
I remember that beautiful song I learned as a kid: How happy we are in Ein Harod.
Now at last I’m happy: I’m in Ein Harod.
The ending echoes the first words of the book, in which the narrator tells us: “I kept thinking about that lovely song: ‘The road to the kvutza is not short, neither is it long.’” His journey begins with a kibbutz song and ends with a kibbutz song.
The Road to Ein Harod is a strange story that resists easy interpretation. But I think it’s important that is was published in 1984 (the title of Orwell’s famous fascist dystopia), seven years after the right-wing Likud had taken power and the influence of the kibbutz movement (and the left-leaning Labour party) was in serious decline. 
For the narrator, Kibbutz Ein Harod stands for the fading hope of a distant past—a path not taken for his beloved country. His dangerous journey back to Ein Harod represents a dream of returning to that past, a chance to begin again from scratch, to rewrite history in a narrative of peace and sharing rather than (as the General of the Northern Command desires) one of total war and absolute victory. Ein Harod—the first kibbutz—becomes a symbol of hope and reconciliation and refuge. But in Amos Kenan’s sly, satirical, deeply troubling vision of the near-future, all such hope may be nothing but a comforting mirage. And I don't think it's an accident that the book's symbol of hope—Ein Harod—was also driven apart by an ideological "civil war" of its own.
Kenan died last summer, and is buried on Kibbutz Einat. As his biography makes clear, he had a complex, controversial and highly creative relationship to Israel’s political and artistic development—much like the kibbutz movement itself.