Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Review: Inside-Out

One of the things I love about researching a book or an article are the serendipitous encounters and discoveries along the way. One good example: last year, on my research trip to Israel, I made plans to visit Kibbutz Urim, in the Negev Desert, on the slightest of pretexts. Jerry, my guide and translator, had been conceived on Urim—his parents’ kibbutz—and so we made contact with the new general secretary there, on a whim, and he offered to put us up for a few nights. It was a convenient spot to visit nearby Sderot, where we would be interviewing one of the founders of Kibbutz Migvan.

Then, after a bit of Googling, I stumbled across weblinks, protest letters and academic articles by Julia Chaitin, an Israeli professor working on peace and social justice issues, who also collaborates with some of the activists at Kibbutz Migvan. Coincidentally, she lives on Urim. I decided to set up a meeting, and we interviewed her in her and her husband’s apartment on the kibbutz. It was a wide-ranging, fascinating and convivial conversation, after which Chaitin gave me a copy of her latest book, Inside-Out: Personal and Collective Life in Israel and the Kibbutz

Last week, I finally had time to read it, and it offers wonderful insight into the tensions within her country and her community, from the perspective of a deeply curious insider. Chaitin describes her book as an “autoethnography”, a term I’ve only come across once or twice. In it, she takes the analytical skills she developed as a social scientist (she has a B.A. in behavioural sciences, an M.A. in organizational psychology, and a PhD in social psychology, all from Ben Gurion University of the Negev) and applies them to untangling and examining the different threads of her own life history, her sense of place, and its connection to her many-layered identity.

She charts her journey from the U.S. (born in New York, raised in Detroit to secular parents deeply involved in the Jewish community) to Israel (to which she immigrated, as a committed Zionist, in 1972) and then to some place in between (she taught in the States, while returning to live in Israel between terms). “Other than steadfastly holding on to my Jewish identity,” she writes in the Introduction, “I am now questioning (on a daily basis) if I am Israeli, American, a kibbutznikit (a kibbutz member), or a Zionist.”

In each of 15 short chapters, Chaitin circles themes or moments from her life experience—a visit to her son’s army base, an academic symposium about Holocaust trauma (one of her areas of study), conflicts on her kibbutz about cows and parking spaces—and finds in them all symbols of her community, her country, and her sometimes ambivalent relationship to both. Her observations are often both comic and insightful, as when she mentions her bouts of “labyrinthitis”—an inner-ear inflammation that affects her balance—and then suggests that perhaps Israel “is also suffering from recurring and long-term labyrinthitis”… which might explain why the path to peace seems like an endless maze. “Kibbutz cars are always dirty,” she observes in another wry aside, “it’s just a matter of degree.” (As a member of a car-share co-op, I know what she’s talking about, although I’m likely more a culprit than victim.)

As a non-Hebrew speaker, I appreciated (and learned from) how she peppered the memoir with key words and their English translations, including kibbutz terminology like chalutzim (pioneers), mitapelet (child caretaker or nanny, the job she did before going to university), bnei meshek or bnei kibbutz (children of the kibbutz, who have the highest social status), vatikim (elderly members or kibbutz founders, who are similarly honoured), ovedet chutz (an outside worker—a job situation that brings Chaitin into conflict with her own kibbutz), aziva (leaving the kibbutz), toshavim (non-member residents, an increasing category) and asepha (the general assembly, where key issues are decided in a democratic vote), as well as lingo peculiar to Israeli society and its circumstances, such as Nut-bug (shorthand for Ben-Gurion airport), aliyah and yirida (immigration to and emigration from Israel, literally, “rising” or “descending”), kibbush (the Occupation) of the shtachim (Territories) and the sarbanim (refusesnik soldiers) unwilling to serve there on their mi’luim (reserve duty), yafei nefesh (“gentle souls”—a right-wing jibe at dovish peaceniks), the bitter conflict between dati’im (religious) and chilonim (secular) Israelis, and the fear (especially after the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin) that it might explode into a Jewish milchemet ezrachim (civil war).

The book reaches its climax with an ultimatum. After several terms teaching abroad, Chaitin is confronted by the mazkir (or head) of her kibbutz and forced to make a decision: Choose between her academic job or her continued membership as a full kibbutznik—a chaverat kibbutz. In the end, it’s an easy choice. Chaitin will keep her academic career, give up kibbutz membership, and become instead an eshet chaver, a wife of a member, without full rights and privileges. (Interestingly, Urim at the time was still communal—and is only now considering shinui or “privatization” changes—so the social conflict didn’t arise, as it has on other kibbutzim, from the economic pressures of privatization.)

“I see our kibbutz as having become ideologically bankrupt while remaining a bureaucratic nightmare,” Chaitin writes. “For years I have not had the sense of brotherhood or of equality or of justice or of the kibbutz being a light unto the other segments of Israeli society—the reasons why I so wanted to become a kibbutz member in my youth, and as kibbutz life was conceived in its early and formative years.” In her most melancholy note, she admits: “All I have is an empty space where my love for the kibbutz used to be strong.”

But she also admits that, in the end, the kibbutz helped her realize which elements of her identity are more important than others. While she laments the lost ideals of the original kibbutz, she can now devote her energies to the causes once championed by the movement. And her own daughter has joined an urban commune in Tel Aviv, carrying on the traditions of social justice and community engagement in a new way. The kibbutz is dead; long live the kibbutz.

But saying goodbye is never easy… not to a sense of identity, nor a sense of place. In the final chapter, Chaitin links her own personal dilemmas to much larger general conflicts over land and belonging: specifically, the Jewish settlers who were forcibly removed from nearby Gaza in 2005 and the Palestinian refugees who, generations later, still carry keys to homes in Israel that many have never seen and that often no longer even exist. In each case, these people—and Chaitin herself—have been told that their home is no longer their home. But what does that mean?

“I also know that belonging and identity cannot be mandated from above, from the outside, by another,” Chaitin concludes. “We—Israelis, Palestinians, kibbutz committees, and I—must learn to find a definition of home and belonging that does not exclude the other. … For while one’s sense of identity and belongingness may be complex, and even contradictory at times, our identities and homes are intertwined, and these knots will not be unraveled.”

Friday, May 20, 2011

Rumours & Myths

Life as a kibbutz volunteer was sustained by a variety of necessities: cold beer, free cigarettes, chocolate from the shop, all-you-could-eat chicken and rice, bad Jordanian TV, a weekly movie in the sports hall. Mostly, though, we thrived on gossip, rumour and myth.

Gossip, of course, greased the engine of the kibbutz as a whole, just as it does in any small self-contained community, from a rural village to an urban high school. But since volunteers were cut off, by our lack of Hebrew and our transience, from the general circulation of kibbutz news, our gossip tended to be even less rooted in fact. Stories got passed along and embellished with little regard to sourcing. They quickly evolved from eavesdropped speculation to well-established hunch to encyclopedic fact to a story of mythic stature, true beyond all reproach. These stories eased the monotony of the work day and relieved our anxiety about being so far from home.

I can still remember a few of these tales, although I can’t vouch for their veracity. Many involved the secret lives of kibbutzniks or new volunteers. The unassuming Israeli from the apple orchards who had been a heroic tank commander in one of the wars. (Quite likely.) The German who was on the lam from the authorities back home for connections to the Baader Meinhof Gang of left-wing terrorists. (Possible, though perhaps mere slander.)

Some of the rumours and myths were about the place itself. They made the kibbutz seem a little more exotic, even if these “facts” might not hold up under closer scrutiny. One I recall involved the “rock rabbits” that lived in the stony outcroppings that overlooked the Hula Valley. These rodent-like critters (technically called a Hyrax) lacked a rabbit’s floppy ears (or cuteness) and looked more rotundly wombat-like. You’d spot them occasionally sunning themselves, camouflaged against the grey stone, but really noticed the rock rabbits when they “sang” their shrill, gear-grinding mating call, which sounded like a large, tuneless bird getting slowly eaten.

The story exchanged about the rock rabbits—the one snippet of natural history everyone on the kibbutz seemed to know—was that these furry, tone-deaf Tribbles were the closest living relations, on the branching evolutionary tree, to the elephant. It seemed unlikely in retrospect, a connection too absurd to be fact. That elephantine heritage turns out, at least according to the fact-checkers on Wikipedia, to be at least semi-true

"Here come the Swedes!": a rock rabbit in action
 Two other myths sprang from the Optical Factory on Shamir where volunteers had to operate the noisy, messy lens-polishing machines. We were told we were making lenses for reading glasses, but how could we be sure? Speculation flourished that—despite the low-key, unkempt look of the factory—we were secretly supplying high-tech glassware for military purposes. Maybe laser sights for missiles. Something cool like that. 

Truth quotient: zero. It turns out that the factory was, in fact, making bifocal lenses for old guys like me and now (in a bigger, fancier factory) is making (fancier, more profitable) progressive lenses for old guys like me. Or at least that’s what they would like you to believe.

Finally, perhaps the most pervasive rumour, one that swept through every kibbutz in the country like the flu on a regular basis, was the news that soon, in a week or two, there would arrive a new group of volunteers—a group with a mythical allure, like the Valkyries or the Sirens—the All-Girl Swedish Group. 

The buzz would build. People would swear they had heard solid “intell” straight out of the Volunteer Coordinator’s office that the news was true. They had seen the paperwork. Young men among the kibbutzniks and volunteers would begin to salivate like Pavlov’s puppies. Male hygiene suddenly improved dramatically. Every flash of blonde hair (even mine) that entered the dining hall would send a pulse of anticipation through the room. Was it them? Kibbutzniks we had never seen before would show up to the volunteer bar, in the hopes that the Swedes had arrived.

And then, almost without fail, there was disappointment when a group did arrive. They were British. They were Danish—which was close, but not quite the same: not as blonde, not as legendary. They were Swedish… but men.

The anticipation would crash and disappear for a few weeks. Then the cycle of rumour would start all over again. 

Next Year in Jerusalem was the cry of the Jewish people during their long exile. Next Week from Stockholm—that was the myth that sustained young male volunteers (and many kibbutzniks), through our monotonous work shifts and our own wanderings, a cry that sounded as comically desperate at times, a note of pure fantasy, as the shriek of the rock rabbit.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Review: The Syrian Bride

It’s not every day that the village of Majdal Shams gets mentioned on the front page of Canada’s national newspaper. (Actually, other than this Monday, it’s probably been never.) Oddly enough, I was thinking a lot about Majdal Shams last week, even before the news that hundreds of Palestinian refugees had marched from Syria, crossed the no-man’s land that divides that country and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, climbed over the “Shouting Fence” and embraced villagers on the other side—before most were dispersed and chased back to Syria by the Israeli army. (At least one of these demonstrators was killed during the clash.)

I had been reviewing video and audio recordings of my visit last summer to Majdal Shams, a village on the slopes of Mt. Hermon, and drafting a chapter about the activists and artists and citizens I’d met there, as well as memories of working (and drinking) with some of the Druze labourers from Majdal Shams who were hired to help in the apple orchards of Kibbutz Shamir. I had also borrowed the library a DVD of The Syrian Bride, a 2004 film by an Israeli director and Palestinian screenwriter set in the town. I’d been told last summer that this fictional tale had been inspired by a real family and real events in Majdal Shams. I finally got a chance to watch it last night.

It’s well worth the time, especially for anyone interested in the complex sociopolitical dynamics of this part of the world, especially for anyone who wants to learn about the Druze and their strange Limbo status in the Golan.

Who or what are the Druze? They are Arabs living mostly in Lebanon, Syria and Israel. Their religion is an outgrowth of Ismaili Islam—a splinter off a splinter of the Muslim faith. It’s also highly secretive in its beliefs and practices. Even among believers, there are “initiates” who can learn its tenets and others that can’t. They are not even considered Muslim by many Sunni Muslims. In Israel, they mostly live in the western Galilee: they volunteer in the army, they elect politicians to Parliament, they are full citizens of the nation. (Fun fact: the most famous Druze in the U.S. is Casey Kasem, the Top 40 music personality.)

In the Golan Heights, their situation is different. The 20,000 or so Druze there live in four villages; Majdal Shams is the largest. Many Druze fled from the Golan for Syria, in 1967, after Israel conquered this strategically located plateau (from which Syrian soldiers often took potshots at kibbutzim in the Hula Valley, like Shamir). In 1981, Israel annexed the Golan and extended Israeli citizenship to the remaining esidents, but that declaration has never been accepted by Syria or other nations, and most of the Golani Druze refuse to take up this offer of citizenship. Instead, as the opening of The Syrian Bride explains, their nationality is listed as “undefined”… which can make life tricky.

Druze families have been separated from each other for 40 years now. In Majdal Shams, on the edge of town, they meet on either side of the two fences that define the no man’s land between Israel and Syria (which was breached in the recent protests) and call across to each other using megaphones. Because of this practice, the location became known as The Shouting Hill or (as I heard it) The Shouting Fence. Some Druze prefer to call it the Valley of Tears. These days, such visits are less common, as people can communicate via the Internet or cellphone, or meet in neighbouring Jordan.

The film is fascinating as it explores different tensions within one family in the town. Mona, the bride, is marrying a Syrian Druze actor from Damascus, who she will meet for the first time when she crosses the border from Israel—and exchanges one passport for another, never to be allowed to return to see her family. (Mona is played by Clara Khoury, who also appears in the hilarious and pointed Israeli sitcom Arab Labor.) Her father, Hammed, is a political activist and local leader, recently jailed, who faces a return to prison if he breaks parole and visits the restricted border to see his daughter off.  One brother, Hattem, has become an outcast from their father (and the religious leaders of his community) because he married a Russian woman and lives abroad. Mona’s older sister (the movie’s main focus) is caught in a loveless marriage with a well-meaning but traditional Druze husband who can’t understand her independent streak. (And their teenaged daughter is having a briefly described Romeo & Juliet affair with a young Druze man whose father, an Israeli collaborator, has “disgraced” his family.)

The slow pace of the film reunites the family members as they prepare for Mona’s wedding and departure, and the final Kafkaesque bureaucratic hurdles, on both sides of her divided community, keeping her from an uncertain new life in Syria. (A life that would seem even more uncertain now, given the recent violence and unrest there.) In the end, it’s a story about the fences that divide families as well as nations. And it’s well worth watching.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Dishwasher

I had come to Kibbutz Shamir for what I knew would be a working vacation, and so, after a free day to tour the community and get oriented to my new living arrangements, I was assigned my first work shift. Like every fresh arrival, I began behind the controls of the dishwashing machine. The kibbutz wasn’t meant to have any hierarchy. The community, at least in its origins, was founded on a belief in radical equality. Every job was as important as the next. Every worker was as vital as his or her neighbour. There was no “men’s work” or “women’s work”. No such thing as “menial” labour. All labour was good labour—as long as you put in your shift and didn’t complain. All labour strengthened the body and cleansed the mind of selfish doubts. All labour brought the individual closer to the collective.

Except manning the dishwasher. That job sucked, and nobody could pretend otherwise. There was a reason it was assigned, without fail, to a volunteer. Because kibbutzniks didn’t want to do it. And another reason that it was assigned, again without fail, to the freshest volunteer meat to fall off the bus. Because volunteers learned to hate it, too. But you had to start somewhere. And so I pulled on a blue workshirt, tied an apron, and began my apprenticeship behind the kibbutz dishwashing machine.

Dishwasher. The word doesn’t do justice to the trundling, steaming, hissing, clattering assembly-line contraption. If you’ve ever lived on a kibbutz, you know the beast, ubiquitous to communal dining halls from Dan to Be’er Sheva. Forget the squat, hygienic, self-contained Maytag parked under the counter of a North American kitchen. Imagine instead a Chinese dragon screwed together out of scrap metal and industrial duct-work, thin legs bolted to the concrete floor, circling its own tail as it huffs and belches and disgorges the acrid ingestimenta of someone’s half-finished dinner. 

A conveyor belt fed plastic trolly squares—some ribbed to hold plates and trays, others open to catch scatterings of cutlery and cups—in an endless triangular circuit.  Kibbutzniks sloughed off the leavings from their plates and trays, and deposited everything onto this hot-steam merry-go-round. The dishwasher on duty had to keep up with the post-dinner rush and pull scalding hot flatware from the trays and sort and stack everything in special trollies and dollies and containers and scrub any gristle or grime that the machine missed. When the growling, retching, scraping soundtrack of the machine ever rose to a pitch like it was in mortal pain, then you had to jump for its stop button and reach into its murky belly to retrieve the errant fork that was jamming up the works. If the dishwashing machine died on your watch, there would be hell to pay. I bet you’d be on the next bus out of the kibbutz.

The work itself wasn’t strenuous or nerve-wracking. (Not compared to the chicken house.) But you soon got ground down by the Sysiphean monotony of the ever-cycling trays of dishes, the dearth of on-the-job camaraderie (beyond the “I’m-glad-I’m-not-you” salutes from the far side of the machine), and how the tiled-walls held the moisture rising out of the machine’s furnace and turned the dishwashing chamber into a fetid sauna that left even the freshest work shirt steeped to its last fibre in the malodorous memories of a hundred meals. Quite simply: by shift’s end, you looked bad and smelled worse. Food scraps seemed in infiltrate every nook in your clothing, hot-pressed into your skin’s exposed pores. A long shower in the communal bunker could hardly rid your body of the stink of that place. A full exfoliation seemed in order. But why bother? You had to do it again the next day for breakfast. And lunch. And dinner again.

Still, I learned to take small satisfactions, even in this job. By the end of my first week, the routine had helped me integrate into what had first seemed an alien environment. My presence, cloaked in a veil of mist behind the steampunk contraption, announced my arrival to the community of the kibbutz, as members glanced up from their trays and briefly took note of a new face. Outside employees weren’t yet the norm on the kibbutz. Certainly not ones with shoulder-length blonde hair.

I fell into the rhythms of each shift. Gathering the empty dishware trollies and utensil containers. Summoning the machine into noisy motion. Peeking out the side door as the first diners arrived—the elderly residents, the families with children. Rolling up my work shirt as the shift reached a crescendo of discarded plates and bowls, half-swept of food, and kibbutzniks exchanging greetings in the tight space of the dish-dropping chamber. Then, after the rush of diners was nearly done, there arrived the stacks of scraped-out aluminum serving pans and meatball trays and oily soup tureens and the other messy collateral from the kitchen and dining hall. I bent to this task, my audience diminished, the echoes of friends and neighbours disappearing through the dining room’s doors. By the time it was all ready for the next meal, and I could shut down the machine, the once clamouring hall had quieted. The silence was striking. Only a few kitchen staff remained. Perhaps a still-hungry kibbutznik poked amongst the fridges.  

Work was assigned by rotation at least. You knew you weren’t stuck at a job for good. At least that was the way it was supposed to work. In the equation of the classic kibbutz: Every job was equal and every worker, equal, too. Ergo, every worker was equal to every job. Members could be shuffled willy-nilly between positions, so that it wouldn’t seem that one was being favoured with a cushier assignment than the next. Of course, this was perhaps not the best way of acquiring experience and technical savvy in a particular line of employment. That didn’t matter. Not in the pioneer years at least. Specialization was a bourgeois failure. Specialization is what the shtetl Jew had been forced into—as tailor or cobbler or money-lender—by the mercurial dictates of their oppressors. Specialization is what they had left behind in the Old World.

Here, on the hard soil of the Galilee, specialization wouldn’t get you far. It wasn’t needed to pull rocks from a cotton field, or drain a swamp, or erect a fence, or geld a bull… well, perhaps gelding required a little practice, at least for the cow’s sake. 

Most famously, the kibbutz secretary—the leader of this leaderless community, the person charged with ensuring that direct democracy ran smoothly—was allowed to hold his position (and it was usually a he) for a year or more. But when that term concluded, and a new kibbutz secretary elected, the old leader was assigned, by the rules of the rotation, to the job of the dishwasher (or perhaps to peel potatoes in the kitchen or pitch food to the pigs). It was an institutionalized gesture of humility, a reminder to leave pride at the gates of the kibbutz. That you can never rise above your station in a village of equals. That nobody should be too proud to scrub a pot or two. It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.

The Pen and the Sword

The pen, they say, is mightier than the sword. Except when it isn’t. We like to assure ourselves that the subtle power of creative expression is greater, in the long run, than the more overt force of physical, mortal violence. But two tragedies in the last month—each with a slight kibbutz connection—make one wonder about the truth of that saying. Perhaps only history can say for sure.

The first news item: the death of British photojournalist Tim Hetherington in Libya on April 20 from mortar fire. Hetherington (who co-directed, with Sebastian Junger, the Afghanistan doc Restrepo) was part of that clan of fearless photographers who risk their lives (and too often lose them) to bring the world the stark images of what war zones are really like.

The kibbutz connection? When not on assignment, Hetherington had been living in an semi-anarchistic apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, nicknamed for its communal nature:
His apartment building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is a hive of energy known by its occupants as the Kibbutz. “I stayed on his couch,” [his friend] Mr. Kamber said on Wednesday. “Other people stayed on his couch. It was the kind of place where we would come together and look at photos and talk about photos and look at films and edit. It was a creative hub. He was a creative center for so many photographers in New York."
The second news item: the murder of theatre director Juliano Mer-Khamis in the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin on April 4. Juliano was the the son of Arna Mer, a Jewish woman, born in Rosh Pina, who served in the Palmach (the pre-state version of the Israeli army) during the War of Independence and later married Saliba Khamis, a Christian Arab and the leader of the Communist Party in Nazareth. Arna was an ardent peace activist who established educational programs in the refugee camp in Jenin, in the occupied West Bank, and used money awarded to her for the Alternative Nobel Peace Peace to establish there the Freedom Theatre school for young Arab boys and girls.

Juliano shared his mother’s contempt for the borders and violence that divided his homeland. “I’m 100 per cent Jewish,” he would tell people who asked about his ethnic heritage, ”and 100 percent Palestinian.” He refused to choose sides. He became an actor himself, and played bit parts and leading roles in Hollywood, European and Israeli films. He also produced a moving film, called Arna’s Children (which you can watch below in its entirety on Google Video), that followed up on interviews he did with his mother’s young proteg├ęs between 1989 and 1996. 

In the documentary he returns to Jenin in 2001—after his mother’s death, after the theatre has been closed, and after the outbreak of the brutal Al-Aqsa Intifada—to find that the hope and joy he witnessed among the young boys has dissipated into violence, despair and death. One has been killed in the Battle of Jenin, another died in a suicide attack in the Israeli city of Hadera (after first killing four women and wounding many others), and others are involved in guerrilla operations against the Israeli army. (One more dies during the filming.) The footage and interviews reminded me of the inner-city kids in the fourth season of The Wire, and how their youthful dreams and optimism become damaged and corrupted by the inescapable gravity of their environment.

Juliano later returned to Jenin and re-opened the Freedom Theatre to restore some sense of hope to their lives. But even this gesture has been cut short. Despite his (and his mother’s) long philanthropic connection to the community, Juliano—a secular critic of both sides of the conflict, half-Jewish, who had served in the IDF—was still viewed with suspicion, even contempt, by elements in the camp, especially fundamentalist militants, who disliked the freedom he preached, especially to young women, and some of the productions he staged. He was shot at close range, not far from the theatre, while driving with his infant son and babysitter; he left behind his wife, six months pregnant with twins, and an older daughter—and thousands of grieving friends and admirers. He was in the middle of staging a production of Alice in Wonderland.

After a public ceremony at a theatre in Haifa, his body was driven in a procession—with a special permit—into the West Bank, so that his Palestinian friends and students could say farewell, before it was buried, next to his mother’s, in the cemetery at Kibbutz Ramot Menashe. Neither was a kibbutznik, but when his mother had died after a long battle with cancer, the kibbutz was the only community that would accept the body of this controversial social activist. 

Arna and Juliano Mer-Khamis (and Tim Hetherington for that matter) represented the ideals of what might be understood as “kibbutzism”: a passion for social justice, a willingness to take risks, a desire to create new worlds and new ways of living, a restless need to question authority and bear witness, and a belief that it is through creative expression, not political repression, that we will find our way to collective peace. That might seem, today, like a naive dream in the shadow of their deaths—and amid the ongoing violence throughout the Middle East. But we can only hope that their work, which carries on, and their vision, which is shared by others, will win out in the end.