Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Kibbutz divorce from Labor?

For years, kibbutzes in Israel reliabley delivered the votes of their members to the left-leaning Labor Party (and its predecessors) in exchange for a guaranteed seat in the Knesset and (back in the days when Labor actually formed governments) a hand on the levers of the power. That decades-old wedding may be headed for divorce court.

News out of Israel suggests that the Kibbutz Movement is pissed off by a proposal, by new Labor head and former journalist Sheli Yachimovich, to combine the guaranteed seats for each the Kibbutz Movement and the Moshav Federation into a single seat that would represent the whole spectrum of Israel's communal settlements. That doesn't sit well with kibbutzniks, who always saw themselves as more ideologically committed as pioneers than the wishy-washy cooperative farmers on the moshavs—even if most kibbutzes have since "privatized" and operate far more like moshavs (or even gated country suburbs).

The article can't resist a poke at the puzzling distinction between a kibbutz and a moshav—a huge difference to kibbutzniks but a bewildering hair-splitting to everyone outside their fences: 

"An old joke best explains the distinction between a kibbutz and a moshav: if a kibbutznik had enough, he’ll probably move to a moshav (easier communal rules); but if a moshavnik had enough – he sure as heck is not moving to a kibbutz (even more stringent communal rules)."
Of course, the Labor Party bickering, amid polls that show right-wing Benyamin Netanyahu likely to form another coalition in the next election, only underscores the growing disfunction of the Israeli Left and the profound loss of influence (even among traditional allies) of the once powerful Kibbutz Movement.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Comics without Borders: Review of Guy Delisle's Jerusalem

Guy Delisle’s new graphic travelogue, Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City (Drawn & Quarterly, 2012), is framed with images of a plane arriving and then departing. In between, he recounts a narrative of the year he spent in East Jerusalem, Israel and the West Bank with his wife, who was assigned there for Medecin sans Frontieres (and who remains a distant presence, perpetually busy with her NGO work, throughout his book) and two young kids, Louis and Hanna, who occupy far more of his time.

A Quebecois animator and graphic novelist, Delisle strikes a wry, self-deprecating persona: a kind of bumbling house-hubby Everyman, naive, prone to faux pas while also quietly judging people based on how much they know and like comics. In Jerusalem, the world's most complex city—an urban jigsaw puzzle drawn by Franz Kafka and die-cut by M.C. Escher—he finds an endless supply of paradoxes and ironies to befuddle him. What has become "normal" in Israel, East Jerusalem and the West Bank appears in all its tragedy and folly when described in minute journalistic detail. But the “journalism" practised by Delisle is as much eavesdropping and observing as researching and interviewing.

His sense of bewilderment begins when old Russian man with concentration camp tattoos lifts up and calms his crying daughter on the plane. It continues when he says “Shalom!” to the driver who picks them up at Ben Gurion Airport—and realizes he should have said “Salaam!”

The next day, an MSF officer tries to explain the political-geographical complexities of the city after Guy and his wife get settled into an apartment in East Jerusalem: They are in the capital of Israel according to the Israelis but in the future state of Palestine according to the international community, many of whom consider Tel Aviv the capital of Israel.

“I don’t really get it,” Guy reflects, “but I tell myself I’ve got a whole year to figure it out.”

By the end, though, it’s hard to know if he knows whether he has come closer or farther away from understanding the funhouse mirror chamber of identity and ownership in this densely packed (with people, with cars, with history, with religion) urban space.

He finds himself constantly caught off-guard by the the quirks, the rituals and the conflicts of all three major religions: the wail of the muezzin that wakes his daughter just after she goes to sleep; taking his family to lively West Jerusalem, only to discover it completely deserted on shabbat (“It reminds me of Sundays in Pyongyang,” he says); feeling guilty about munching an apple on Ramadan; the literally and figuratively Byzantine politics of the various Christian denominations jostling for influence (sometimes physically) over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; or leading a comics seminar for veiled Muslim women, who are studying to be art teachers yet are prohibited by their religion from drawing people or animals.

When he mentions to a shawarma shop owner, in East Jerusalem, that his girlfriend “works for Doctors without Borders,” there is a long pause, as the owner slices off strips of meat, and then replies: “There’ll always be borders.”

Delisle tries to negotiate, as an outsider, the perplexing political nuances of life in East Jerusalem. He checks out a supermarket in a nearby Jewish settlement but resists buying his favourite cereal (Shredded Wheat, which he can’t even get in France) so as not to support the controversial West Bank settlements. But then, as he is leaving, he spots “three Muslim women loaded down with bags". He visits protests at the checkpoints around the Separation Barrier and sketches the wall obsessively.

He gets moved most noticeably from his otherwise resolute neutrality—more a knowingly ignorant curiosity than high-minded journalistic objectivity—by three separate visits to Hebron: one led by an MSF staffer; another by a member of Breaking the Silence, the NGO that records testimony from Israeli soldiers; and a third by a right-wing religious settler who elides or even contradicts the stories Delisle has heard on the other tours. (The settler mentions only one of the city’s two infamous massacres.) The bitter separation between the tiny Jewish community and the larger group of Palestinian citizens of Hebron is poignantly symbolized by the netting strung over the souk, to catch garbage hurled onto Arab passers-by by angry religious settlers.

The month by month chronology of his family’s year in East Jerusalem gives the book an anecdotal quality, which gains resonance with repeated images or visits to different sites (like Hebron, or the wall, or Tel Aviv). No single incident acquires more prominence—not even Operation Cast Lead, the IDF assault on Gaza midway through his stay, which draws NGOs, like his wife’s, into a flurry of activity. Delisle’s later attempts to negotiate access to Gaza for himself get rebuffed when officials find out he is a comic artist. The imbroglio over the Danish cartoons of Mohammed has been in the news; Delisle also wonders if he hasn’t been mistaken for the more politically motivated comics journalist Joe Sacco.

One mini-chapter that most resonated with me is Delisle’s first visit
to Ramallah, driven there by an acquaintance form the Alliance Francaise. “I’m quite surprised,” he notes. “I thought Ramallah would be a dead city, crippled by the conflict.” He meets a Palestinian animator who says it is easier for him to “get to London than travel five km to Jerusalem” for work. A foreign correspondent tells him: “Ramallah is like the Tel Aviv of the West Bank. People are freer and more open-minded here.”

Then Delisle’s acquaintance, who still has other business, suggests he take a bus back through the army checkpoint to East Jerusalem—technically, not allowed under MSF rules. What follows is the darkest page and a half of the book (literally, in the inky shadowing of the frames): 10 panels, without any text, in which Delisle depicts  his claustrophobic point-of-view amid the crush of people queued to pass through the barred-in checkpoint for bus and foot traffic through the Qalandia checkpoint. (It immediately brought back my own memories of an hour and a half lined up at the same checkpoint.) He emerges into the light from the prison-like enclosure with a swirl of incomprehension over his own cartoon head.

That scene could be a metaphor for the book as a whole: a wise narrative filled with insightful observations that only prove how darkly puzzling and incomprehensible life in the holy—and wholly divided—city of Jerusalem really is.  

Jerusalem is a must-read for anyone interested in this part of the world. (Download a preview here.) 

I realize, of course, that there is not a single mention of a kibbutz in his book. But that fact is also telling: Delisle's chronicle is about life in modern Israel, and especially the city of Jerusalem, and the kibbutz, as an institution that long symbolized the modern Israeli, is now increasingly divorced from and irrelevant to this reality.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

RIP: A man of peace

It was great shock that I read, via Twitter, of the death (at age 60) of Abdessalam Najjar, one of the founders and leaders of Wahal-al-Salam/Neve Shalom—the village of Palestinians and Jews located near the Latrun Monastery. I'd interviewed him, in 2010, and found him a remarkable man: super-smart, funny, wise, an engaging storyteller, and a committed man of peace. I spoke to him for more than an hour, and knew throughout talk that I had to try to squeeze as many of his words as possible into my book (should I ever finish writing it). 

Born in Nazareth, Abdessalam—perhaps more than anyone I met on my different trips—exemplified the utopian spirit of the original kibbutzniks. He had taken the path less travelled and chosen to live, in peace if not always harmony, with the people who he'd been taught were his enemy. He had helped to create in the "Oasis of Peace" a model that proved that Arabs and Jews could sit together and talk about their different situations, their competing narratives and grievances, could live together, could go to school together. That the walls of hate (and concrete, too) that had been erected too hastily could be pulled down, brick by brick.

I included a short transcript from our interview earlier on my blog. But Abdessalam had so much more to say—to me, to the world. It is a profound loss to his homeland and for the hope for peace over violence in Israel and Palestine.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

News from Oz

[Yes, it's finally time to emerge from my teaching shell and update my blog!]

A new book by Israeli author Amos Oz is cause to celebrate for any lover of world literature. But for a kibbutz-o-phile obsessed with the inside story of communal life, a fresh collection of Oz’s wry, ironically observed stories of life set on a rural commune can seem heaven-sent. And then you realize it’s still only in Hebrew. Which you don't read.
Oh well, at least the weekend magazine of the newspaper Ha’aretz has published a long interview with the the 73-year-old ex-kibbutznik and elder-statesman of Israeli letters about his life, his politics, his literary influences and his new anthology of stories, Between Friends, set on apocryphal Kibbutz Yikhat. (Why it is so hard to find this level of literary discussion, let alone 5,000 words devoted to a writer, in a Canadian publication is another story…)

In the article, Oz talks about the utopian dreams of the kibbutz founders:
The first ideal of the kibbutz was sharp: to transform human nature instantaneously. Effectively, they [the founders] set out as a youthful camp, in the innocent belief that they would remain 18 and 20 forever. A camp of young people who were liberated from their parents, from all the prohibitions and inhibitions of the Jewish village and Jewish religion − a camp in which everything is permitted, suffused with perpetual ecstasy, and where life is always at a peak. You work, argue, love and dance until your strength runs out. It was childish, of course. In time, it became dulled. And then what came to the fore were the constants of human nature. The vulnerability, the selfishness, the ambition, the materialism and the greed. It was a forlorn dream, imagining that it would be possible to triumph over all those forces, be reborn and create a new human being without the shortcomings of the old one

He discusses why he left Kibbutz Hulda (because of his son’s health), and how his new collection allowed him to reflect on what he left behind, good and bad:
There were a few things I didn’t like about kibbutz life. But I feel the absence of those things that I did like. And in this book I wanted to go back and look at them. Especially at the loneliness in a society where there is ‏(supposedly‏) no place for loneliness. In a few of the stories a situation is portrayed of “almost touching”: People very nearly touch, but something blocks it. Like in the painting by Michelangelo where finger almost touches finger.

I am very curious about loneliness and grace, or a moment of grace amid loneliness, because that is a description of the human condition. The stories are set on a kibbutz, but they tell about universal situations, about the most basic forces in human existence. About loneliness. About love. About loss. About death. About desire. About forgoing and about longing. In fact, about the simple and profound matters which no person is unfamiliar with.

He explains how curiosity can make us more “moral”—that, in effect, literature’s ethical function isn’t necessarily to teach us lessons but to let us see the world through another’s eyes:
I think a person who is curious is slightly more moral than one who is not curious, because sometimes he enters into the skin of another. I think a curious person is even a better lover than one who is not curious. Even my political approach to the Palestinian question, for example, sprang from curiosity. I am not a Middle East expert or a historian or a strategist. I simply asked myself, at a very young age, what it would be like if I were one of them.

He admits he still has no regrets about living (and leaving) on a kibbutz. Writers will be especially interested to hear Oz discuss how communal life offered the ideal milieu to develop his literary ear and eye:
I do not regret it for a second. I regret a few of the experiences my children underwent on kibbutz. There were some hard bits, but I left Hulda without anger. For me, the kibbutz was an ultimate university of human nature. I spent 30 years with 300 people in intimate proximity. I saw everything − them and their lives − and knew their secrets. If I’d spent 30 years in Tel Aviv, or New York, I would not have had the slightest chance of becoming so intimately acquainted with 300 souls. The price was that they knew more about me than I would have wanted them to know. But that’s a fair price. In terms of my writing, I learned much of what I know about human nature on kibbutz.

And I love his metaphor for how he has come, if not exactly to praise the kibbutz, then definitely not (like so many critics in recent years) to slay this once-legendary institution:
Unlike others, I am no longer slaughtering sacred cows. There was a time when I did. Not today. Besides which, in every cowshed there is one sick old cow left, surrounded by a herd of exultant, gung-ho slaughterers. I am almost always on the side of the cow. It’s not that I don’t know what a foul smell that cow gives off. And it’s not that I worship it. But between the cow and the slaughterers who gather around − I prefer the cow. I am talking about Zionism, the kibbutz and the labor movement.