Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Making History

There is an interesting news item in Ha'aretz about plans to lobby UNESCO to declare the kibbutz system in Israel a "world heritage site". One of the proponents is Dr. Galia Bar-Or, who co-curated the exhibit about kibbutz architecture at the recent Venice Biennele and whom I interviewed at the art museum at Kibbutz Ein Harod, which she oversees.

Israel already has six UNESCO world heritage sites (not surprising for a squib of land that encompasses so much world heritage), which commemorate built environments of significance to history ancient (Masada; the old city of Acre; the Nabatean cities in the Negev; the biblical sites of Megiddo, Be'er Sheva, and Hazor) and more recent (the Bahai Gardens in Haifa; Tel Aviv's "White City" of modernist design). The Old City of Jerusalem is also on the list, proposed by Jordan in the 1980s.

The idea of historically sanctifying the kibbutz as an institution in this way raises some intriguing questions:
  • Is it more evidence that the kibbutz, as a social ideal, is past its prime—a museum piece, a fossil of history rather than a living, breathing entity with an evolving future? 
  • How do you commemorate a movement that was, at its height, a network of 270+ communities, each a little (sometimes a lot) different from the next one in ideology and practice and industry? Right now, plans are to propose Kibbutz Degania—the original settlement—within the UNESCO designation, while potentially inscribing other kibbutzim (like Ein Harod) that played an important role during certain stages of the movement's 100-year history.
  • Does the proposal even have a chance of negotiating the highly political hallways of the United Nations? The idea is to commemorate one of the most important forms of settlement—if not the most—of the secular Zionist movement in the years before 1948. (It would also honour an applied ideal of social equality that must stand, despite its diminished status today, as one of the successes of the otherwise abandoned philosophy of utopian socialism.) Israel isn't exactly the most popular nation on the block when it comes to U.N. voting... so I won't be holding my breath for the kibbutz to get so honoured.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

After the Fire

Here is some evocative and moving footage and interviews with Kibbutz Beit Oren residents about the recent conflagration on Mt. Carmel that threatened to engulf the kibbutz—and that killed more than 40 prison workers who were caught in the blaze.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Walking Israel

I was catching up with my Google News Updates (all "kibbutz", all the time!), when I read this short interview with Martin Fletcher, the author of what sounds like an interesting travelogue, titled Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation. (Israeli-based journalist Daviel Gavron undertook a similar ambulatory literary journey down the length of the country, although Fletcher chose the coastal route.)

What jumped out was his visit to Kibbutz Beit Oren and his discovery of the story of the kibbutz's near-bankruptcy and how members brought their community back from the brink of debt and dissolution—and paved the way for future privatization projects in the kibbutz movement. Of course, the story of Beit Oren's fall and rise is now shadowed by the damage wrought by the recent forest fires. (Twenty homes were damaged in the blaze.) Most of my Google Alerts since this interview was published have all been about the devastation on Mt. Carmel and the ensuing fallout

I imagine Fletcher's chapter about Beit Oren would have a very different ending if he were to write it now. And maybe a different one again, if he returns in two years, such is the ever-oscillating way of life—from light to dark and back again—in this always complex corner of the world.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Tragedy on the Carmel

It was with sadness and trepidation that I followed the recent new of the unprecedented forest fires that swept Mt. Carmel in Israel for days and that killed more than 40 people, most of them employees of the nearby prison. Earlier this summer, I had travelled through this very region with Jerry, my research assistant. He had described a sea-to-sea (Mediterranean to the Kinneret) hike he had done through the steep, rocky brush-covered valleys. We passed the prison, strung with barbed wire, and stopped at Kibbutz Beit Oren, which was evacuated and badly damaged during the fires.

Beit Oren is something of a paradox: a handsome kibbutz in a spectacular setting (the lush, often misty Carmel is sometimes described as the “Switzerland of Israel”) that has become a symbol of the kibbutz movement’s bad times. In the 1980s, it was one of the first settlements to approach the brink of bankruptcy and nearly dissolved amidst great debate in the community and amid the movement itself. (Kibbutz historians refer to it as the “Beit Oren Affair”.) I’d read that it had dissolved as a kibbutz, but a member with whom we spoke this summer denied that fact—he said that already-privatized kibbutz was moving in that direction, though.

Now, who knows what will become it. Tourism in its expansive mountain-top guesthouse is the main source of income. (Agriculture must have been difficult on this remote and rocky ridgeline.) Who knows if the kibbutz will rise again, like a phoenix from the ashes, or whether this will be the final, ignominious chapter in the story of a once-proud community.

I was equally concerned about Avraham Eilat, the father of my friend Yoav, and one of Israel’s leading visual artists, who lives—or perhaps lived—in the village of Ein Hod. I only now learned that Ein Hod has also been badly damaged by the fire. I haven’t heard whether Eilat lost his beautiful art-filled house overlooking the valley.

Gideon Levy of Ha’Aretz provided a moving and insightful report from behind the lines of the forest fire and those most affected by it.