After the Fire

Here is some evocative and moving footage and interviews with Kibbutz Beit Oren residents about the recent conflagration on Mt. Carmel that threatened to engulf the kibbutz—and that killed more than 40 prison workers who were caught in the blaze.


Walking Israel

I was catching up with my Google News Updates (all “kibbutz”, all the time!), when I read this short interview with Martin Fletcher, the author of what sounds like an interesting travelogue, titled Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation. (Israeli-based journalist Daviel Gavron undertook a similar ambulatory literary journey down the length of the country, although Fletcher chose the coastal route.)

What jumped out was his visit to Kibbutz Beit Oren and his discovery of the story of the kibbutz’s near-bankruptcy and how members brought their community back from the brink of debt and dissolution—and paved the way for future privatization projects in the kibbutz movement. Of course, the story of Beit Oren’s fall and rise is now shadowed by the damage wrought by the recent forest fires. (Twenty homes were damaged in the blaze.) Most of my Google Alerts since this interview was published have all been about the devastation on Mt. Carmel and the ensuing fallout

I imagine Fletcher’s chapter about Beit Oren would have a very different ending if he were to write it now. And maybe a different one again, if he returns in two years, such is the ever-oscillating way of life—from light to dark and back again—in this always complex corner of the world.

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.

Day 14: Kibbutz Beit Oren, Ein Hod, Moshav Tsrufa


I’m finally getting back to updates from my recent Israel trip….
The next afternoon, after our wide-ranging shabbat conversation with Rachel Fulder, we packed up and departed Klil. On our way out, we picked up Renat, a young hitchhiker who was on her way to the music festival at the village of Jat, part of an even more hippy-dippy community on the opposite hilltop from Klil. Jerry talked to her about the “rainbow gatherings”—temporary communities of art and activism organized around the world—and Renat agreed that the Jat festival was something like that. We mentioned our interest in the history of the kibbutz and its evolving ideals. “Klil is like the opposite of the kibbutz,” Renat told us. “Everybody does their own thing.” And yet the community, for all its anarchic origins, still seems to have a communal spirit. A remarkable place.

Kibbutz Beit Oren
We drove south toward Haifa and then navigated the switchbacking road up the flank of Mt. Carmel, past the University of Haifa (and its conspicuous mountain-top office tower, which always makes me think of Babel—but in a good way), and then followed the ridgetop road to Kibbutz Beit Oren.  It was a sweltering day, but on the heights of Carmel, the weather was mild and the views back down the valley toward Haifa and the sea were breathtaking. We were surrounded by trees for the first time on our trip, and I wished I had my mountain bike with me: I could see why Mt. Carmel is such a singletrack hotspot.
We wanted to find a place to eat (but couldn’t because it was shabbat) and also to visit Beit Oren, which is infamous as one of the first kibbutzim to teeter toward bankruptcy as a communal society. It became a canary in the coalmine for the movement as a whole: the government didn’t want to bail it out and members tried to disband it as a kibbutz proper, against the wishes of the kibbutz federation. We chatted to a few people there, but didn’t learn much more about Beit Oren’s current status. It’s a picturesque spot for a community, and it’s easy to see why it’s a popular holiday resort. But it also marks the failure of a bigger ideal.

Ein Hod 
We descended the western flank of Mt. Carmel to the quirky town of Ein Hod, an “artists’ village” founded in 1953 by Dadaist Marcel Danco and his creative collaborators. It has long been a centre of extra-urban bohemian life in Israel, with its narrow roads and galleries and studios overlooking the valley. One artist we had met at the Eco-Arts Village had warned us that Ein Hod has become gentrified, and the village did have the quaintly upscale feel of a Gulf Island getaway. But it’s still home to a number of Israel’s top artists, as well as more crafty folks shilling their wares to tourists.
We were there to meet Avraham Eilat, the father of my friend Yoav from Shamir, and one of Israel’s innovators in the visual arts. He has been living in Ein Hod for several years, and we joined him in his comfortable, book-lined cottage where he had been working on a series of ink drawings. We spoke to him for an hour or so about his life on Kibbutz Shamir, as well as his friendship with playwright Joshua Sobol, who he knew from the kibbutz and who he lived with when they were both young artists in Paris. Eilat designed the set for the debut performance of Sobol’s legendary play The Night of the 20th, and Sobol wrote the introduction for a recent collection of art photographs done by EIlat, called The Silence of the Sea. (The photos—and especially Sobol’s memoiristic introduction—seemed especially poignant and ironic in the light of the Gaza Flotilla controversy that was the main topic of conversation during our trip.)
Eilat was a delightful and charming host, and I was entranced by his stories of his early life on Shamir. He also filled in details about one famous incident that has become part of the mythology of the kibbutz: the deadly attack of 1974, in which two kibbutz women (one of them pregnant) and a young volunteer from New Zealand were killed by four terrorists who had slipped across the border from Lebanon, with plans to either attack the dining room at breakfast or take kibbutzniks hostage in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. Their plans went awry and, after killing the three women, they holed up in the apiary building and were killed by kibbutzniks who surrounded it. 
Eilat had been working in the dining room that day. In fact, he was in the middle of photographing an agit-prop art installation of four dining trays, in various states of cleanliness (his mischievous protest against members who didn’t clear their own trays), when someone rushed into the dining room and breathlessly told him that he had seen terrorists with guns on the kibbutz grounds. The other members quickly rallied and grabbed their own weapons, while Eilat documented the final siege with his camera. His image of the smoking ruins of the bee house, which I later saw in the kibbutz archives, is a haunting reminder of the losses of that day and of the dangers even in a bucolic rural location as Shamir. 

Moshav Tsrufa
We bid adieu to Eilat and his wife and drove just 10 minutes down the coastal highway to Moshav Tsrufa, a pleasant bedroom community of Haifa. There we met documentary filmmaker Yitzhak Rubin, who was relaxing on his front lawn with his wife. I had wanted to meet Rubin ever since watching his provocative exposé about the privatization of Kibbutz Degania, subtitled “The First Kibbutz Fights Its Last Battle.” His account of the privatization debate contrasted sharply with what I’d been told by the kibbutz secretary, Shai Shoshany, when I visited Degania Aleph last year. 
Rubin told me that after his film came out in 2007, Shai Shoshany sent a note to other kibbutzim telling people not to watch the movie because it was filled with half-truths and distortions—which was the best marketing Rubin could have asked for: suddenly every kibbutz member wanted to see what the fuss was about. Rubin has since screened his film and done talks at more than 50 kibbutzim.
We also talked about one of his earlier (and equally controversial) films, a profile of convicted spy Udi Adiv subtitled “A Broken Israeli Myth”. Adiv was born on Kibbutz Gan Shmuel and was a classic Sabra: a handsome athlete and soldier, the pride of the kibbutz, the son of a founder and former secretary. He was also a committed socialist who imagined himself as a latter-day Che Guevera and who was disillusioned by the lack of peace in his country. He got talked into secretly visiting Syria, where he thought he would be meeting Palestinian representatives but instead was interrogated about israeli military installations by Syrian security personnel. (In the movie, he claims to have told them only facts known to anyone who lived in Israel.)
After he returned to Israel, he and several fellow leftists, both Arabs and Jews, were charged with spying, tried and convicted in a much-publicized trial in 1973. Adiv got sentenced to 17 years in jail and served 12. He know teaches at the Open University in Israel. In Rubin’s film, he comes across as naive and idealistic, but hardly a traitor, and perhaps even a victim of dubious detective work on the part of the Israeli security services. 
Rubin also told us that he believes the Udi Adiv controversy was, in a key way, the beginning of the end of the kibbutz movement, at least its prominent status in the State of Israel. For many people, Adiv became a symbol of kibbutzniks’ disconnection from the political reality and popular sentiment in the country; he became the caricature of the radical socialist, ready to betray his countrymen for the revolution. Menachem Begin would use similar stereotypes to ostracize the kibbutz movement and the Israeli Left in the election of 1977—a shocking victory for the his right-wing Likud party that severed the kibbutzniks’ connection with the corridors of power.
Like Adiv, Rubin seems a complex and charismatic character, hard to pin down, although more loquacious, a larger than life shit-disturber in the Michael Moore mold. When I asked if he was worried about pissing off people at Degania, he laughed and replied that, because of his Adiv documentary and other films, his phones were likely tapped by the security service and even the police. He taped all his calls. He watched his back. In other words, he had taken on far bigger fish than the secretary of a kibbutz and hadn’t backed down yet.
During our visit, we were interrupted twice by a phone call from a prisoner, whom Rubin has been interviewing because he thinks the man was wrongfully convicted of killing a judge and railroaded into jail because the police needed a quick conviction. He let me talk to the prisoner briefly. “How do you like Israel?” the voice on the phone asked.
“It’s interesting travelling here,” I admitted, a little disoriented by suddenly chatting to a convict.
“Better than being in jail at least!” he replied, and Rubin joined him with a hearty laugh.
Interestingly, Rubin seems to have developed the same sense of being surrounded and isolated by the international community, and its criticisms of Israel, as many other Israelis that we met—a prisoner in his own nation. Rubin is a longtime leftist, who has been involved in many causes to promote peace and Arab-Jewish relations. But the conflict with Lebanon in 2008 left him dispirited and pessimistic about the future. When the rockets from the Hizbollah started to hit Haifa, he moved south from the city to the moshav. “I have the illusion that missiles will fall less here,” he said with a laugh. 
He worries about the rise of anti-Semitism (his mother is an Auschwitz survivor) and his next film, which he gave us a sneak peek at, examines this phenomenon through the personal lens of the director’s long-standing and now contentious relationship with an Arab activist from a nearby village. 
“We are at the magic number again: six million,” he told us. “I’m afraid.”