Sunday, September 6, 2015

On which kibbutz did Israel feel the Bern?

Okay, I'll admit I haven't paid much attention to the looooong silly season of U.S. presidential nominations south of the border, beyond the Donald Trump memes floating across the Internet. I've been more engrossed by our own national elections here in Canada, especially the prospect of pro-Israel left-wing leader Tom Mulcair forming our country's first NDP federal government.

However, I couldn't ignore the growing momentum of the David vs. Goliath campaign of Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont and lone U.S. socialist (as he's often billed), and the whole #FeelTheBern viral campaign to wrest the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton. What intrigues me most, of course, in the many profiles of Sanders—including articles and bios that pre-date his presidential bid—are the casual mentions that the progressive Jewish politician volunteered on a kibbutz in Israel back in 1964. But the articles never, ever name the kibbutz.


Only Sanders knows which kibbutz taught him socialism can work

I was intrigued. So were others. The Hunt for Red Bernie's Mystery Kibbutz was soon on. And yet so far, no luck. We've all struck out. Bernie Sanders and his press folks have declined to answer inquiries about which kibbutz he stayed on, perhaps because Sanders has already suffered from ridiculous accusations that he is a dual Israeli-American citizen.

So let's piece together the clues so far  to which of Israel's 270 or so kibbutzim Sanders might have worked.


Jas Chana's "Straight Outta Brooklyn" for Tablet Magazine is an excellent primer to the life and times of Bernie Sanders. Chana outlines how, after graduating with a poli sci degree from University of Chicago and working for the Head Start program in New York City, Sanders and his brother Larry decided to travel to Israel for a bit of adventure. Here are key details from Chana's story

Both brothers decided to spend their time in Israel living and working on kibbutzim. Bernie arrived in Israel first and was there for six months total; Larry showed up four months after Bernie’s arrival and didn’t leave until 1967. In that time, Larry met his first wife and lived on two kibbutzim: Matsuva in the north and Yotvata in the south. Unfortunately, no one I spoke to for the purpose of this article had any idea or recollection of the name of Bernie’s kibbutz. However, Professor Richard Sugarman, a religious-studies professor at the University of Vermont, one of Sanders’ closest friends, and the man who encouraged him to run for mayor of Burlington in 1980, told me it was one of the “oldest kibbutzim.” 
Chana's interviews with both Professor Sugarman and Larry Sanders give the profile the most detail in any story I've read about how the kibbutz experience might have shaped (or at least confirmed) Bernie Sanders' beliefs in mutual aid and social justice. During his stay, Sanders was apparently curious about kibbutzniks economic plans, how socialism could work, how communal life gave parents more free time, and even just watching fellow Jews as farmers.... he had grown up in Brooklyn, after all. Sanders felt the kibbutz was "a utopian form of existence" (according to Sugarman) and proved that socialism could be put into practice (according to his brother).

But on which kibbutz—and from which federation—did he learn these lessons?


Naomi Zeveloff traipsed through Israel to find out—and the title of her article for Forward makes clear her lack of success. "The name of Sanders’s kibbutz might seem like a minor detail, but it’s important," she writes. "Among other things, it could build on our understanding of his formative years."


Her interview with Sanders' brother gives a teasing clue, when Larry tells her that he thought Bernie had stayed on "a kibbutz near the Mediterranean where there were a large number of Argentine volunteers in the 1960s." Through various sources, she zeroes in on three kibbutzim: Zikim and Sa'ad (near Gaza), and Ga'ash in central Israel. She spoke to several kibbutz representatives I'd also met during my travels (Dudu Amitai at Givat Haviva and former MK Avshalom Vilan). Unfortunately, because Sanders arrived in 1964, before the big influx of volunteers that followed the Six Day War of 1967 and the subsequent bureaucracy to track these new arrivals—Zeveloff could find no record of Bernie's visit. She also had no luck contacting members at the three kibbutzim she identified. A dead end. So she has  out a call for clues—both in Israel and through The Forward.

In Israel, Ha'aretz  put its own reporter on the case, but the title of Judy Maltz's article also reveals her frustrated quest: "Mission Impossible? Finding Bernie Sanders' Kibbutz". She wondered, as she set off, if she could track down an old-timer from the kibbutz where Sanders stayed who "might recall his hot romance with the gorgeous young kibbutznik who refused to return to the United States with him". (Shades of Not Quite Paradise....


She hits all the right offices: the Kibbutz Movement, the archives of Yad Tabenkin and Yad Ya'ari. Nothing. Emails and messages to Sanders and his media advisers come up empty, too. Even Professor Huck Gutman, a longtime friend and co-author of Sanders' political memoir, doesn't know. "The only person I know who knew Bernie then was Larry," he replies.

So Maltz spoke with Bernie's brother, too, and he repeated the somewhat vague clue he gave Zeveloff: 
“I am pretty sure it wasn’t the Negev. It had a number of South American members. I remember Bernard being impressed by one of the kibbutznik’s explanation of how they would transform Argentina. Without any reason to believe I am right, I would guess near the Mediterranean coast.”
So Maltz rounded up a dozen kibbutzim that fit these clues and emailed their names to Larry. But no bells ring, although Bernie's UK-based brother also admits: "I don't the name is stuck anywhere in my brain." Dead end.

So, let's examine the sparse clues and see if we can "profile" the potential locations for Berne Sanders' formative socialist—and Zionist— experiences:


  • Not the Negev
  • Near the Mediterranean Coast
  • members from Argentina
  • one of the oldest kibbutzim
Another potential clue: Larry Sanders' stay in Israel overlapped with his brother's by two months but it sounds like they never actually spent time together in Israel—or visited each other's kibbutzes.

Larry stayed on Matsuva near the Lebanese border (and the Mediterranean) and Yotvata just north of the Red Sea, so I'm tempted to rule out any kibbutzes in close proximity to either of these regions, as I think Larry would remember if his brother had stayed on a kibbutz near his own.

Using Larry Sanders' others clues, we can triangulate a few possibilities, as Zeveloff did, of Argentinean kibbutzes near the coast... although I'm surprised that Mefalsim didn't make her cut. It was founded in 1949 by Argentinian immigrants, not far from the coast... or from the Gaza Strip. That would make a curious coincidence, as Mefalsim is also just minutes north on Highway 232 from Kibbutz Be'eri, where Michele Bachmann—the other presidential candidate to do time on a kibbutz—volunteered in 1974. Mefalsim is technically in the northern Negev, so perhaps it should be disqualified for that reason—although it's further north than Sa'ad, which did make Zekeloff's short list. Still, I've got a note to a contact there to see if I can find out more.

The bigger problem?

Larry Sanders' clues (Argentinean kibbutz near coast and not Negev) don't square with the single mysterious detail from Professor Sugarman (one of the oldest kibbutzes). The kibbutz movement began in 1909, with Degania. By 1939, there were 73 kibbutzim, most of them concentrated away from the Mediterranean in the Jezreel Valley, the Hula Valley, the Beit Shean Valley or around Lake Kinnereth (aka the Sea of Galilee). More problematic: I don't know any kibbutzim founded by South Americans before the Second World War; most were started with the immigration from South America after Israel's independence in 1949.

Here's the rub: If we assume both Larry Sanders' clues to be true and Professor Sugarman's hint, too, we end up (as far as I can tell) with a Venn Diagram with no overlapping middle. So who's right and who's wrong?



Argentinean kibbutzes by the sea / oldest kibbutzim

Larry Sanders admits his memory is fuzzy, but the detail about Argentinian kibbutzniks seems so precise, he can't have fudged that. The two kibbutzes Larry lived on were founded by Germans and young native-born Israelis, so he hasn't transposed his own kibbutz kibbutz experiences for Bernie's.

And yet Professor Sanders is an acclaimed Yale-trained scholar of Jewish philosophy—i.e., not one to casually toss off half-remembered "facts" about an old friend's time in Israel. 


Dead end. Or at least a puzzling crossroads.


And so the quest to find Bernie Sanders' kibbutz only grows more mysterious. 

Dear fellow questers: Shall we put a wager on it? The first to find where American socialism's last great hope once learned the ropes of communal life gets an extra week off from dining-room duty...

Ready, set, go!

7 comments:

  1. OK, David; now that you’ve whet my appetite (good job!), my level of anxiety and preparation for disappointment have peaked.

    I, long ago, posted the question to two Facebook forums: MERETZ Kibbutzim and North American Hashomer Hatzair.

    This “Argentinian” element really has me going. Therefore, I will quiz my in-laws (Argentinians, here since ’56) for any recollections from the ’64 – ‘67 period and look in our archives for the list of volunteers.

    I want to open some of the cracks in what you’ve written, possibly widening the search.

    • “…it was one of the ‘oldest kibbutzim.’” For a kid who had almost no historical scope of Zionism or the kibbutz movement, that could just mean that the Sanders boys might have mentioned this to Prof. Sugarman because they knew someone from Kerem Shalom or some other fledgling kibbutz of the time, and thought that theirs (in comparison) was an “old” kibbutz.
    So any pre-1960 kibbutz might qualify. And Shomrat was the first kibbutz founded after the declaration of independence of the State of Israel.

    • Zeveliff’s mention of "a kibbutz near the Mediterranean where there were a large number of Argentine volunteers in the 1960s." could also have been from a misunderstanding of the differentiation by Larry of the various status on a kibbutz at the time. I doubt that he understood who was a volunteer, as opposed to an Argentinian Garin member who was loosely in an absorption process, or siblings of Argentinian members who were just hanging around. Judy Maltz confirms my theory when she states, “It had a number of South American members.”
    So, let’s just leave it at "a kibbutz near the Mediterranean where there were a large number of Argentine_s in the 1960s."

    • “…but it sounds like they never actually spent time together in Israel—or visited each other's kibbutzes.” It wasn’t unusual NOT to travel relatively short distances that today seem “next door” because we now use our own cars and don’t have to resort to public busses or ordering a car in advance. For example, to visit my best friend on Gesher HaZiv, I used to have to walk a kilometer down to the 271 that would hourly only take me as far as Nahariya. Then, I’d have to wait for another bus to take me further north to G. HaZiv. I couldn’t check the as-of-yet not existent Internet or call Egged, cause I didn’t have a phone. As for Matsuva (and Max will either excuse me or support my claim), it also wasn’t on any bus line that ran more than a couple of times a day. One had to plan in advance for catching the bus. Larry was probably more occupied with the (probably female) volunteers than going to see his brother. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Perhaps not the females; not that there’s anything wrong with that! (You sense my loyalty to Seinfeld, a Kibbutz Sa’ar volunteer? After all, one cannot ignore that were tawkin about a Larry Sanders here. )
    So, I wouldn’t count out the possibility that they were on kibbutzim in a general proximity, but separated by more than one bus ride.

    • “I don't know any kibbutzim founded by South Americans before the Second World War.” Again, we might attribute this to a lack of attention to detail by two young Americans who couldn’t differentiate between a kibbutz with a predominant (at least to them) Argentinian population, and a kibbutz “founded” by Argentinians.
    So, even if one is today a professor and scholar of Jewish philosophy, that doesn’t make his youthful recollections accurate. Think of some “scholar of Jewish philosophy” that you totally disagree with about occupied territory or Jewish claims to Israel, etc. They also tend to remember history selectively, as we all do.

    Although your offer for one extra week off from dining room duty might sound attractive to some, our dining room was closed (as such) many years ago. I also used to enjoy running the place. So, as we say in Hebrew/Israeli humor (replacing consonants for fun, in this case the letter “zayin” with “yod”), “Al te-ayem al yona eim yayin.” :-)

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  2. Ha! Thanks, Moshe. Yes, I agree with your analysis: my venn diagram is probably more capacious than I first thought. The "oldest kibbutz" clue must be a red herring — potentially referring just to any community that existed before Bernie got to Israel!

    And I might only eliminate those kibbutzes that were right next door to the two Larry stayed on — and even that might be too drastic, as Bernie could have stayed on one nearby just before Larry arrived, as there time in Israel overlapped rather than exactly coincided. Even in 1987, when I lived on Shamir, we didn't visit neighbouring kibbutzes because of the poor bus connections and were more likely to save up our vacation days and go to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem instead.

    A kibbutz with a relatively sizeable Argentinian membership (rather than founders) seems to be the only clue that stands up to much scrutiny. It narrows it down somewhat, and tracking down kibbutzim with a large cohort of Argentinian immigrants is do-able (as you are doing!), if trickier than going by those with a founding garin of Argentines.

    I did have a bit of a breakthrough with a friend on an "Argentinean" kibbutz who remember a "Bernard" (the name Sanders went by at the time) as a volunteer in the early 1960s... although I may have implanted that memory in his head. He is checking with the archivist at the kibbutz to find any evidence—again, a longshot, given the sparse record of transient volunteers at the best of times, let along pre-1967.

    I must keep the kibbutz name secret for now, for fear of getting "scooped" by the other sleuthing correspondences. But I will post here if and when I hear back from my contact on the inside.... Inquiring minds want to know!

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  3. David, I'm a journo for The Wall Street Journal. Keen to get in touch on this funny mystery. What's the best way? I'm on rory.jones@wsj.com

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  4. Hi Rory: I just sent you en email w/ my contact info, incl. phone #'s My email = dleach[at]uvic.ca

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  5. Maybe Ma'agan Michael or Ma'abarot?

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  6. Maybe Ma'agan Michael or Ma'abarot?

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