Sunday, July 31, 2011

Revenge of the Kibbutz?

The kibbutz movement began, over 100 years ago, when a handful of young Zionist pioneers grew fed up with the manager of the Kinnereth training farm where they were working and decided, rather than continue to be exploited, that they would start their own community based on an economy of mutual aid.

This past weekend, more than 120,000 Israelis took to the streets, in cities throughout the country, to protest from a similar sense of injustice. What began as a student-led pushback and tent encampment against high rents and food prices has swollen into a nation-wide uprising and demand for “social justice”. This time around, kibbutzniks have little to do with the mass protest. Privatization in the kibbutz movement has dimmed its political influence, and their rural enclaves on the nation’s periphery have been largely untouched by the spiralling house and rental prices in Israeli’s urban centres. (In fact, many kibbutzes have built subdivisions to cash in on outsiders looking for affordable homes.)

But, as this short report from the movement’s Givat Haviva Institute makes clear, the growing protest movement springs from the same desire to create a just society rather than simply compete within a dog-eat-dog free market. The signs of the protesters (as reported by the blogging and tweeting journalists of the essential +972 Magazine) make this sentiment clear: “The answer to privatization. Re-vo-lu-tion,” “The market is free and we are slaves,” “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask why it’s robbing you,” and “The people want social justice.”

Now, if only the popular uprisings of the Middle East's so-called “Arab Spring” would blow their way across the Atlantic and shake up the me-first-and-me-last neo-conservativism of the U.S. Tea Party and the fire-sale dogmas of Harperland…. 

The kibbutz is dead, long live kibbutzism.

UPDATE: This excellent editorial from author and activist (and, if there's any justice in the world, future Nobel Prize for Literature winner) Amos Oz makes a very similar (though more eloquent) point.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Book: Mourning a Father Lost, by Avraham Balaban

The kibbutz might have remained just a footnote in the history of Israel or 20th-century socialism if it weren’t for one major twist: the decision to raise the “children of the dream” communally, separated from their parents except for evening visits, eating and sleeping and learning together, amongst peers of the same age, in “children’s societies” that were designed as a microcosm of the larger kibbutz.

Communal child-raising was something of an accident in the early kibbutz, an ideological improvisation borne out of necessity—the need to free mothers to keep working—rather than ingrained philosophy. It quickly became part of the entrenched belief of the kibbutz leaders’ socialist vision, however: an opportunity to deal with the “problem of the family”; to make women equal to men in the field of work; and to cultivate in the minds of the young a belief that the collective, rather than the individual or the family unit, always came first.

The disappearance of this communal child-rearing began in the late 60s and accelerated through the 70s and 80s, until the last kibbutz (Bar’am) allowed its children to sleep in their parents’ apartments during the First Gulf War (in part, because of the threat from Saddam Hussein’s Scuds). For traditionalists, the decision to turn the children’s societies into mere daycares (highly respected ones, even today) was the beginning of the end of the kibbutz movement—a succumbing to the temptations of individualism and “familism”. For critics of the system, the return to the family (democratically decided by each kibbutz) only proved that socialist ideology can’t trump human nature, that it might take a village to raise a child, but that doesn’t mean the child should be removed from his or her parents’ care.

Of course, in its first flourishing, this experiment in communal child development drew, like moths to the flame, curious sociologists and psychologists from around the world to study different kibbutz communities and the generations being raised in this manner. Most famous amongst them was Bruno Bettelheim, author of the 1969 study Children of the Dream (based on his observations at Kibbutz Yohanam). “I found their system not entirely successful,” he concluded, “but certainly not a failure.” Other observers weren’t so kind, and claimed that communal living creating a generation with a “Metapelet Complex”—named after the all-powerful “nanny” or care provider who took on the role of the parents—in which kibbutz-raised adults came to expect that the kibbutz, or the movement, or society in general would look after them. Skeptics of this theory pointed out that, per capita, the kibbutz system produced an inordinate number of independent-minded high-achievers: politicians and artists, military commanders and academics. 

From an anecdotal perspective, perhaps the most damning indictment of communal childhood on the kibbutz comes from Avraham Balaban’s memoir, first published in 2000 (curiously, by the leading kibbutz movement) and then translated into English in 2004, titled Mourning a Father Lost: A Kibbutz Childhood Remembered. Its original Hebrew title was simply Shivah, after the week-long Jewish rite of mourning, and the series of remembrances is ingeniously structured around the seven days that Balaban (now a poet and professor of Hebrew literature at the University of Florida) spends on his former kibbutz (Hulda, where author Amos Oz also once lived), with his mother, his siblings and various visitors after the death of his father. The shivah becomes a metaphor through which he mourns not just his father (with whom he had a distant relationship), but his own childhood (and especially the gap put between him and his mother) lost to the collective ideology imposed on him and his peers by the founding generation. It’s a shivah, as well, for the kibbutz movement, which he can see is in decline—although he feels little sorrow at its fading.

The book is also an engrossing work of literature, creative nonfiction in the finest sense, and a reflection on the nature of memory and the collective narratives that shape our lives. “What does memory remember?” he writes. “The friction of body against body, of flesh against the door, a crushed entry into words.” His return to his abandoned home triggers mental journeys back into the past, moments and episodes from his childhood (the teasing of one of his peers, the loneliness of his own teen years), long-suppressed fears (the jackals howling outside the fence, a recurring nightmare of the kibbutz overrun by Arab attackers), and percolating anger and resentment at being subjected to this grand experiment in re-education, of being a ”child of a dream, child of a laboratory”.

His old kindergarten teacher visits, to extend her condolences, as do friends from his kibbutz days. Their conversations, often without quotation marks, bleed into Balaban’s own narrative voice (much as Amos Os does in his own memoir of growing up), identities blur in the poetry of his prose, as if he were channelling the spirit of these other characters, rather than transcribing their words. Batsheva, a classmate, says at one point—in a damning echo of the author’s own opinions about kibbutz life:  “What amazes me, when I think about our childhood, is the members’ conviction that we were a clean slate on which they could write whatever they saw fit. So they wrote on us: be brave and not afraid of the dark and the jackals, and be the very opposite of everything we hated about our parents and ourselves. We won’t actually be your parents, but please love us as a child loves his parents. And above all, be loyal to the kibbutz and the movement. And they were naive enough, or stupid enough, to believe that this is what would happen.”

Balaban doesn’t pull any punches in his memoir—about his disappointments with his father, or his upbringing, or even with himself. “The children are sheltered by the finest theories, surrounded by nurses and educators, but the nurses soon discover that a mother’s love no more resembles her feeling for her friend’s children than blood resembles sweat. The children develop survival strategies, like street kids, toughening their skin to the best of their abilities. When they grow up they will evince the selfishness of people who never got enough protection and security. The motto of the kibbutz movement—’What’s mine is yours, what’s yours is mine’—likewise contributed to this: in time, all that remains of it is the habit, and later the wish, that what is yours is mine. Like children who grow up too soon, they would age in time but never reach maturity” (8-9).

He aims his sharpest barbs at the leaders of the movement that tried to transform the first generation of kibbutz-born children through their collective theories: “The movement’s gurus also did the damage. The old family is obsolete, the educationalists proclaimed. We shall create a new family, the education committee told her [my mother]. Away from mother’s apron strings we shall bring up natural, healthy children, echoed the general meeting. And she believed everything she was told, as a Hassid believes his rabbi” (11). A later discovery of a memo, in which the lead educator on Kibbutz Hulda makes the case for reducing the time allotted for kids to visit parents down to one hour (it’s for both their good!), sends Balaban into a froth of disgust. “‘A child cannot long for what it never had, it cannot miss what it has never known,’ the lecturers at the ideological seminars and the training courses for children’s nurses persuaded one another” (13).

His rebuke of his dead father is especially blunt: “That enthusiasm had led him to believe that he was in the social vanguard, when in fact he was a small component in a doomed experiment. He imagined that he was in the storm, when in fact he was a leaf that it blew away. Rest in peace, you hard, selfish, and naive man.” And yet, at the book’s end, the author breaks down emotionally because he has missed the chance to reconcile himself with, and properly mourn, this absent parent.

A visit to the kibbutz, 10 years before the shivah, to give a lecture to its aging members, prompts more general reflections about the institution’s failure to create the New Man, the homo kibbutznik, the socialist subspecies of natural altruism: “They were humanity’s finest dream in this century, the most consistent attempt to forget humanity’s inglorious origins. Every morning for decades they rose early to adapt themselves to the dream that had brought them here. And again I saw that forty, fifty years in one house did not create a wonderful comradeship, but hostile silent elbows. This way of life, designed for saints and angels, detracted from their humanity … I sat with them with an aching heart: how they were misled, misguided from the outset.” Tough words.

As a parent, there have been times of sleepless and harried frustration when I might have seen the wisdom of the collective project—how a “children’s society” of nightly babysitting might free a young couple to fulfill more fully their work lives and social lives and community lives and creative lives. (And, yes, even their sex lives.) But I also read several chapters of this tough yet sensitive book, this hauntingly candid memoir, while holding my sleeping three-year-old daughter in the crook of my arm. I couldn’t imagine giving up those precious moments of intimacy with my two children, waking up in the middle of the night to find that they had climbed into our bed, being greeted by their warm bodies and laughter (and even tears) every morning—and certainly not giving up those moments for some abstract ideology imposed by my peers. I can understand how Balaban must feel like something vital had been stolen from him by the kibbutz.

“Between us and the kibbutz, they chose the kibbutz,”he writes of his parents’ generation. “I cried for my nurse, and other children cried for my mother, who was their nurse.” In his loneliness, the teenaged Balaban finds himself drawn to literature—to the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, to the philosophies of Freud and Schopenhauer, to the latter’s belief that “to be happy one must be entirely free, self-sufficient.”

During the shivah, he tells his sister: “No one got enough love in the children’s house.” For that reason alone, Balaban refuses to forget, or forgive, the theft of his family life as a boy, stolen and replaced by the dream of brave new children’s society that, its leaders hoped, would one day transform the world. But never did.

Mourning a Father Lost: A Kibbutz Childhood Remembered, by Avraham Balaban. Translated by Yael Lotan. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, 2004.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Film: Not Quite Paradise

The film Rex Reed called, uh, "Charming!"

If you were a volunteer on an Israeli kibbutz in the 1980s (like me), then Not Quite Paradise is your Breakfast Club, your Quadrophenia, your Hair. It’s the film that captures the cultural moment of your rebellious youth and repackages it for the masses in all its cheesy glory. It’s your Zeitgeist redone as a 106-minute light-as-fluff romantic-comedy. It’s a “timeless” cinematic achievement that will look quaint and dated and over-rated to anyone from another generation, anyone who wasn’t there. (They wouldn’t get it, right?) And I can’t believe I never watched it till now. In fact, I’d never even heard of this British production until last year. 

Check out the original trailer here...

The screenwriter, Paul Kember, rewrote the script for this 1985 film (directed by Lewis Gilbert, who had been responsible for three of the hammier James Bond outings, as well as Alfie and Educating Rita) from his 1982 play (titled Not Quite Jerusalem—also the film's title in Britain, I believe). I’d accuse Kember of ripping off my life story for the main plotline—a young, blonde North American takes a year off his studies to seek romance and adventure on a remote communal farm in Israel—except for a few key facts in his defense:

1) The swoop of blonde locks atop lead actor Sam Robards (later of American Beauty and Gossip Girl fame) deserves the Best Supporting '80s Coif more than my raggedy, Swiss Army knife-trimmed, Miss Clairoled mullet.
Joanna Pacula as the fiery kibbutznik Gila

2) I never had a tumultuous affair with a kibbutznik that left me with a should-I-stay-or-go-to-med-school dilemma, let alone with one as tempestuously sexy as Gila, played (with distinctly choppy English) by Polish-born starlet Joanna Pacula.

3) While I did visit Masada with my volunteer group, we weren’t kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists along the way and rescued by hordes of IDF soldiers in a climactic shoot-out. (The film gives a thanks to the Ministry of Defense in its credits.) Or at least I don’t remember that. I might have been hungover.

4) Oh, and I didn’t go to Israel until three years after the movie came out. So I think Kember is covered.

Nor will I make the case that Not Quite Paradise doesn’t deserve its mediocre 50% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (Besides, that only means half its viewers liked it, and the other half didn’t; it did, however, get savagely reviewed in the L.A. Times at the time.) Yes, it has an overwrought soundtrack of swooning violins during the corny romantic episodes. (And a gratuitous nipple shot, mandatory in '80s flicks, for a bedroom scene with the Dome of Rock—or at least a cardboard cut-out of the Jerusalem icon—rising suggestively in the background.)
Didn't every poster for an 80s comedy look like this?

Yes, some of the comic stereotypes are egregiously broad, like the icy Finnish twins; or the swarthy, malevolent Palestinian terrorists (the leader played by the recently murdered Jewish-Arab actor Juliano Mer); or Rothwell T. Schwartz, a geeky more-Jewish-than-thou volunteer from the States who annoys the kibbutzniks of apocryphal Kibbutz Azra, amid the bleak yet gorgeous desert surroundings of the Arava Valley (filmed on location in and around Kibbutz Eilot and Grofit), with rhapsodies about his cultural pilgrimage to the Promised Land of his people. (Their eyes shoot daggers when he announces, “My father’s money helped build this country.”)

Many of the broad caricatures of life as a kibbutz volunteer, though, are rooted in truth. Kember must have been a volunteer before he wrote his play and script. Yes, our shorts were that short (Adidas gets thanked in the credits, too), our jeans were that tight and that high-cut above our ankles, and the free cigarettes handed out were that toxic. (“No wonder they’re free," complains a character. “You get cancer just looking at them.”)

Kevin McNally (who went on to many other roles, including a recurring part in the Pirates of the Caribbean series) plays Pete, a whingeing yet funny British volunteer (there were plenty in my time)  who nearly gets booted off the kibbutz when he and another buddy moon an audience of kibbutzniks at a volunteer talent show. (I heard a similar tale about a crew of Brits who offended kibbutz members by dressing as Jews and Arabs and then performing a Full Monty “Dance of the Balloons”; they only survived the calls to expel them because it was the festival of Purim.) His British friend—a
Liam Gallagher lookalike called Dave—suffers “volunteer’s asshole” after the dietary switch from English “cuisine” and proves even more annoying than Pete. Both end up becoming kibbutz heroes after one of the film's few plot twists.

Action! Romance!
Gila and Michael, the young American played by Robards, try to keep their affair under wraps, even though Gila knows that secrets are impossible to keep in her small, gossip-filled community: “A kibbutz is 200 people,” she warns, “and 2,000 mouths.”

And the reasons for the volunteers coming to Israel are realistically varied: some come to escape the bleak climate, both meteorological and economic, of grotty old England; some come to connect to their ancient heritage; others come for a good time and a break from their studies. And two of the volunteers in the film are running from troubled pasts and psychic traumas—which was often the case, at least in my experience. Psychological breakdowns amongst kibbutz volunteers weren’t just Hollywood plot devices to add drama to a romantic-comedy. They were semi-regular occurrences. It was a place where a lot of buried secrets emerged.

“Volunteers!” scoffs Dave the Brit at one point. “The world’s rejects!”

A bit harsh perhaps. But as the movie suggests in its closing scenes, the kibbutz of the 80s was also a place where bumblers and dreamers, geeks and wanderers from around the world could, for a brief time together, find common cause and create their own eccentric little home away from home.

While I’d never heard of Not Quite Paradise before I went to Israel, apparently the movie did inspire at least some viewers (likely Brits) to make the leap and volunteer on a kibbutz—as one website by a former volunteer and fan of the movie makes clear. And watching the movie is like eating a Proustian madeleine (with a higher cheese quotient) for those of us who lived on one: an almost instant evocation of buried memories and emotions. And bad fashion choices.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book: The Volunteer: A Canadian's Secret Life in the Mossad

I’m likely the only reader of Michael Ross’s memoir, The Volunteer, who wished he had written more about his life on a kibbutz. I’m sure his co-author, his agent, his editor, and just about everybody who bought his book wanted him to skip quickly through his two years of kibbutz life and get down to the juicy details: the too-amazing-to-be-fiction story of how an Anglican kid from the suburbs of the Canadian West Coast ended up as a secret-agent fighting terrorists for Israel’s legendary Mossad.

Ross arrived in Israel, in 1982, like many young backpackers. He had tramped through London, Paris, Rome and other European towns, and as winter approached, he was looking for warmer climes. He had heard vague rumours about how you could work and live on communal farms in Israel, so he arrived at the offices of the kibbutz movement in Tel Aviv (on Hayarkon Street at the time) and got assigned to a kibbutz (unnamed in his memoir) in the Bet Shean Valley.

Ross was less typical than other backpackers in that he wasn’t just taking time off from work or university studies but had just done three tough years in the Canadian armed forces—part of a long family tradition of military service. He found much to admire in the sturdy, martial character of the kibbutzniks: “Though they always comprised a small percentage of Israeli society,” he writes, “kibbutzniks formed the core of Israel’s founding warrior class—once staffing as much as eighty per cent of the country’s top military jobs. To this day, whole special forces units are still composed of kibbutzniks. Getting up early, working the land, camping, and hiking were activities kibbutz children did practically from the cradle. They were tough and self-confident, and they knew how to work as part of a team.”

As many volunteers do, Ross found himself drawn to Jerusalem on his days off, where he experienced a mild case of what’s often called the “Jerusalem Syndrome”—an awakening of faith in the presence of so much religious history and reverence. “I was barely an adult at the time, at the stage in life when many of us begin to look for meaning—something beyond the quest for girls and peer-group acceptance that dominates the teenage years,” he writes. “Looking back, perhaps it was fate that I found myself in Israel at this impressionable time of life. … As I traversed the country and drank in more of its history, I began to feel the stirrings of spiritual interest in Judaism, I felt something of a political awakening as well.”

His Road to Damascus moment came on a bus from Haifa, when he noticed the arm of the old man in the next seat and recognized the tattooed numbers of a Holocaust survivor. “At a time when I needed direction in my life,” Ross realized, “it awoke in me a reflexive need to protect and defend those who cannot protect themselves.”

He had other reasons for wanting to stay. While out walking a kibbutz dog, he would encounter and chat up another attractive dog-walker, a kibbutznik who eventually became his wife. The kibbutz leaders helped to arrange an Orthodox conversion program, and for the next year, Ross lived on a religious kibbutz and studied Judaism until he passed the rigorous set of written and oral exams set by the Chief Rabbinate (only three of the original 28 students to complete the program). Soon after, he was granted Israeli citizenship, became a father, and (at age 24) began his mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Force. (That’s all summarized in chapter 1.)

After his service (which includes a tense ambush of Hezbollah operatives in southern Lebanon), Ross returned to the kibbutz, where he received a mysterious invitation from an enigmatic government agency. After a couple interviews, some hesitation, a brief return to Canada, and a Byzantine series of training tests, Ross decided to go down the rabbit hole and enter the high-stakes and highly secretive world of the Mossad. The narrative of his training, missions and colleagues, overseas and at Mossad headquarters, forms the the bulk of his memoir—and is what most readers will keep flipping the pages to learn more about. Like many agents, Ross eventually tired of the stress, the long hours, the endless travel and the all-consuming secrecy. He resigned from the Mossad and was in the midst of training his replacement when the attacks of 9/11 occurred. For the previous 12 years, he had been a close witness to the growing threat of fundamentalist Islamic terror groups, but no one—not even the Mossad—had predicted the attack on the Twin Towers.

His marriage over, his job done, his aging father in decline, Ross experienced what he describes as “your standard and banal midlife crisis—compounded by the not-so-standard occupational stress that goes along with the spy trade.” He also missed Canada, now that his “romantic attachment” to Israel, while not over, had weakened due to (in his words) “the endless traffic jams, the scorching heat, the low wages, and the confiscatory tax rates.” All that, and the perpetual threat of another terror attack. In 2001, he returned to Victoria, where he lives and works and occasionally writes for The National Post.

There is plenty to be gleaned about geopolitics, the face of Islamic militancy, and the complexities of life in Israel from Ross’s memoir. (While Ross is purposefully circumspect about many details of his missions, Mossad agents aren’t supposed to go pubic, and the publication of his memoir stirred some controversy in Israel.) But I was most fascinated by it as an account of a young Canadian who went to a kibbutz in the 80s (like myself) but was then drawn deeper than almost any non-Jewish immigrant to the nation into the heart of the culture and the conflict. A story from someone who understood the idea of being a “volunteer” as more than just a temporary lark, but rather as a calling, a duty, an act of self-sacrifice for a greater cause.

The Volunteer: A Canadian’s Secret Life in the Mossad, by Michael Ross (with Jonathan Kay), McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 2007.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Until Daybreak: stories from the kibbutz

The kibbutz movement has always been well documented in literature, from the poet Ra’hel to the memoir of Degania pioneer Josef Baratz to internationally acclaimed novelist Amos Oz. I recently finished an anthology, selected by Oz in 1984 and translated into English, called Until Daybreak, which brings together a dozen stories by kibbutz-based, kibbutz-born or kibbutz-curious Israeli writers, all set in and around these unique communities.

It might be dangerous to draw generalizations from such a small sample, but a few similarities emerge. While these themes may be common to world literature, they stand out in greater relief due to the communal setting of the kibbutz stories.

Not surprisingly, there is a fondness among authors for narrating in the first-person plural—the communal rather than the royal “we”—as in the comic tale of quarrelsome kibbutzniks, by Yitzhar Smilansky (a former parliamentarian born in 1916), struggling to erect a water tower. In “The Last Concert” by David Maletz (from Ein Harod), a disgruntled singer, laid off from the National Opera, reluctantly travels with his laconic pianist to give a concert at a distant kibbutz—and is surprised, as the power of his voice releases the tamped-down emotions of the kibbutzniks in a fervour of dance, which he witness in their dining room, and the story spreads out to envelop their shared consciousness and awakening.

One of my favourite stories, “Bells” by Amnon Shamosh (a founder of Kibbutz Maayan Baruch), also alternates between the first-person plural and singular, as the narrator describes how a young shepherd boy from a refugee camp becomes a stand-in for a kibbutz friend killed in war, while offering a perplexed yet admiring outsider’s perspective on the austerer, topsy-turvy way of life in the kibbutz.

Another recurring motif is the tension between the generations on the kibbutz, between the founders and the members that follow in their shadows, as in “The Choice” by Nathan Shaham (of Kibbutz Beit-Alfa), in which a young kibbutznik is stranded with an older member, at night, in dangerous territory with a broken-down truck. Another clash of personalities ensues in “Bella, Bella…” by Aharon Megged (from Kibbutz Sdoth-Yam) between a lively young arrival from France and Bella, the stern moral conscience of the kibbutz (again, observed by the narrating “we”).

As a semi-closed society, the kibbutz is the perfect setting through which to explore such eruptions of passion and jealousy sparked by outsiders and newcomers, such as the vain theatre director from the city who has an affair with a kibbutz wife in “Polka” by Yigal Mossinson, or the mysterious beauty who comes to visit an eccentric neighbour and causes the narrator of “On the Last Bus” by Dan Shavit (Of Kfar Szold) to indulge in foolish fantasies.

“All happy families are alike,” Tolstoy famously wrote, “but an unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same might be said of a kibbutz, doubly so perhaps, as the traditional nuclear family is put under pressure by the extended family of the collective. This theme is most memorably expressed in “Until Daybreak”, by Moshe Shamir (a former member of Mishmar Ha-Emek and M.K.), in which the “work-rosterer” of a kibbutz (the unlucky fellow who must assign everyone else their work duties) struggles with his commitments to his community, his co-workers and his wife—who has left the kibbutz after members voted to disband the music program she was leading.

There is also the percolating gossip and jealousies peculiar to collective life, as in “Dubin and his Brother,” by Yossl Birstein, in which kibbutzniks suspect (wrongly) that the title character has secretly kept a large inheritance, left by his brother in Australia (who was in fact a fraudster) rather than share it with the community.

The anthology features a short introduction by Amos Oz and ends with “The Way of the Wind,” his odd and tragic parable about a misguided parachute jump above a kibbutz, from Where the Jackals Howl. As a collection, it makes for a rich and varied portrait of kibbutz life during the seven decades between the founding of the movement and the economic crisis, just beginning at the time of publication, that would profoundly shatter the kibbutz’s communal values.

Until Daybreak: Stories from the Kibbutz. Selected and with an introduction by Amos Oz. Edited by Richard Flantz. Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House and the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, Tel Aviv, 1984.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Review: The World of Yesterday

I’ve had a DVD copy of Did Herzl Really Say That? (ordered through Ruth Diskin Films) for six months now but only got around to watching it last week, in part because I wasn’t sure (from the back cover blurb) what the film was exactly about. It turns out that Herzl is a documentary TV series (which was nominated for an Oscar) co-hosted by two young Israeli academics (science historian Dr. Oren Harman and biologist Dr. Yanay Ofran), who travel through Israel and beyond to explore (and argue about) issues of history, politics, culture and identity.

The episode I’d ordered (called The World of Yesterday) looks at the evolution of both the left-wing secular kibbutz movement that helped to found the nation of Israel and the right-wing settler movement that built new towns, after 1967, in the West Bank and Gaza. At first glance, these two communities couldn’t be farther apart in ideology, and yet Harman and Ofran find and discuss interesting parallels between the “pioneers” on the far-left and the far-right of the political spectrum.

What most intrigues the curious hosts is the challenge of sustaining a revolution after the first generation, and how the second and third generations that follow these pioneers either angrily reject their parents’ values, become more radical, or learn how to adjust their own ideologies to the here and now. Harman and Ofran talk with three generations of kibbutzniks on Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’Golan (including Aviv Leshem, the spokesman for the entire Kibbutz Movement, who I also interviewed several times). 

“Most of our dreams came true,” says one elderly member, “except for creating a new man.”

(One host paraphrases a nugget of wisdom from author Amos Oz: Ideological movements carry two dangers: one is that their dreams will be shattered; the other is that their dreams will come true. The Kibbutz Movement suffered both.)

They also visit an urban kibbutz in Migdal HaEmek and talk to several of the young members, who have become radicalized again in the third generation, rejecting the bourgeois country kibbutz of their parents’ generation for social and education work in urban environments. “Most of what we want to do is in the city,” says a member. “Our mission is here.” One host can’t contain his bewilderment at a kibbutz without farm land or  the other traditional trappings of kibbutz life that still talks in the rhetoric of the socialist Internationale: “It looks like a parody!"

The spirited, irreverent, opinionated attitude of both hosts makes the documentary especially watchable, as they challenge the statements of their interview subjects and then argue about the issues amongst themselves. They are interested in making connections, teasing out new ideas and testing the contradictions in the lives of their subjects rather than just playing fly on the wall like traditional documentary-makers.

Oren Harman (left) and Yanay Ofran (right) talk to a young settler
At one point, they sit down and talk with a young right-wing religious settler, who makes increasingly provocative statements about how he plans to build a house on the hill and take potshots at passing Arabs or even cut one up with a knife. The hosts stand up in disgust and leave. “That’s enough,” one says. “We don’t need to listen to this.”

“So you are carrying out the vision of the kibbutzniks?” they ask another settler, an older one, less violent but just as ideological in her mission to settle Judea and Samaria.

“Of course!” she replies.

“This is pioneering!” says another second-generation settler. “We are the new pioneers!”

The older kibbutzniks on Sha’ar Ha’Golan can only shake their head at the settlers’ responses. “We came here with a humane approach,” says one. “No movement in the world has achieved so much in people’s lives as the kibbutz.”

When the hosts press further, one kibbutznik admits he can see faint similarities in the challenges faced by the two movements to sustain their pure, utopian vision of the just life in Israel. “I am ideologically opposed to them,” he says, “but I can sympathize with them.”

In the end, both hosts admit that they could never give up their own busy, rich urban lives for the sacrifices and ideological resoluteness of kibbutz life—let alone that of the settlers. Still, they end their documentary with a quote from George Bernard Shaw that sympathizes with the sometimes quixotic, sometimes misguided and sometimes noble goals of utopian movements: “The rational man adjusts himself to the world. The irrational man adjusts the world to himself. Progress in the world depends on the irrational man.”