Tragedy on the Carmel

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

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

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

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

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