“Chasing Utopia: The Rise and Fall – and Transformation – of the Kibbutz Ideal in Israel”
(October 27, 2016, American Unviersity, Washington, D.C.)
by David Leach
Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
I was asked to provide an overview of the rise, the fall and the transformation of Israel’s kibbutz movement… and keep that history under 20 minutes!
Consider my talk a brief overture to today’s symphony—a series of motifs that our other speakers will explore in more depth and rigour, all of which will reach a crescendo this evening The Children of Sun, Ran Tal’s visual tone poem about the kibbutz children’s house.
But first a disclaimer: I am not an academic historian but rather a journalist. My interest in the kibbutz is serendipitous. At the age of 20, I dropped out of university, bought a plane ticket to Tel Aviv and landed as a volunteer on Kibbutz Shamir in Upper Galilee. I’m not Jewish. I wasn’t motivated by politics. I was mostly fleeing a broken heart. And so I was also a perfect blank slate on which the kibbutz could imprint its stories and its values.
Twenty-five years later, I googled “Shamir” and discovered that my former kibbutz, founded by Romanian Marxists, had listed its lens factory on the NASDAQ stock exchange. Around the same time, an Israeli kibbutz sociologist gave a talk at my university titled “The End of Utopia?” I knew the there was an important story to uncover about the kibbutz. And so began eight years of reading and interviews and travels to dozens of kibbutzes and other utopian communities throughout Israel.
Of course, I wasn’t the first outsider to investigate the kibbutz. The kibbutz is distinct from other international communities in its openness to visitors seeking to study its communal experiments. And so the literature of kibbutz studies is as vast as it is contradictory.
One example: American author John Hersey visited multiple kibbutzim for The New Yorker and told its readers: “The kibbutz today is in mortal crisis.” His article was published in 1952. That same premature obituary about a “utopia in crisis” has been published in every decade from 1910 until today.
So, I’d like you to think of my sprint through a century of the kibbutz as “The History of a Movement in 10½ Crises.”
Crisis #1: Settlement
If there is one essential account of the early kibbutz, it’s Joseph Baratz’s memoir A Village by the Jordan: The Story of Degania—a testament to the 10 men and two women who founded the first kvutza. “It was known,” wrote Baratz, “that conditions in Palestine were discouragingly hard. Indeed the whole thing still seemed utopian, but with the growing pressure on the Russian Jews it was something even to dream about.” Fleeing anti-Semitism, the pioneers welded Zionism and socialism into a vision of equality that challenged traditional economic relationships: “This was not the way we hoped to settle the country,” recalled Baratz, “this old way with Jews on top and Arabs working for them. We thought there shouldn’t be employers and employed at all. There should be a good life. But how was it to be achieved?”
That question became the central dilemma of the kibbutz movement—tested decade after decade. The simple answer: “With difficulty.”
Malaria, hunger, loneliness, despair, Arab unrest, and even suicide took their toll on the pioneers and made them question their choice to live communally. The late historian and longtime kibbutznik Henry Near described how the ordeals faced by the pioneers helped to shape the movement: “There was a process of selection and self-selection that weeded out all but the toughest, both mentally and physically.”
Crisis #2: Expansion
Degania and other early settlements quickly faced a new challenge: How should they grow? How do you maintain an intimate community of equals if you get big? How do you found a nation and spark global revolution if you stay small?
Degania voted to split in two—and so begat Degania Aleph and Bet. Elsewhere, on Ein Harod, members developed a vision of the “great and growing” kibbutz that could contain multitudes and have more influence on the world beyond its fences.
The early years gave way to the Tower and Stockade Era, during which Zionist leaders identified strategic locations for settlements. One example is Kibbutz Hanita, founded in 1938, on a rocky ridge land near Lebanon bought by David Ben-Gurion against his advisors’ wishes. Fifty trucks carried several hundred settlers to complete a watchtower and a prefabricated dining hall, with double walls stuffed with gravel to stop bullets. Hanita could then defend a vital pass between Lebanon and Palestine, but its rocky slopes were far from ideal terrain to start farming.
That tension between what was best for the community and best for the future nation would persist. But the pioneers made sacrifices to fulfill both visions.
Crisis #3: Defending a Nation
When David Ben-Gurion declared Independence, kibbutzim and outlined the borders of the future state—and formed the front lines against the armies of neighbouring Arab states. In the North, Kibbutz Degania deepened its reputation by holding back a Syrian armored advance. A lone tank sits at the kibbutz gates as a reminder. Kibbutznik soldiers would make similar sacrifices during the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars.
To the south, Kibbutz Kfar Etzion became a symbol of loss—Israel’s Alamo—when its defences were overrun and the survivors killed after they surrendered. After 1967, the call to restore Kfar Etzion as a kibbutz helped to spark the religious settler movement in the West Bank.
Meanwhile, the flight and expulsion of Palestinians in the aftermath of 1948 thrust many kibbutzim into a moral quandary: What to do with the abandoned fields and property?
Joshua Sobol, the Israeli playwright who lived on Kibbutz Shamir, told me the kibbutz movement has what he calls a “suffering soul”: “This was the slogan: ‘Zionism, socialism and fraternity between people—between nations.’ Three things that did not go together somehow! You could be a fervent Zionist, but then what do you do with the fraternity with other people who don’t agree with you? The kibbutz lived all these conflicts very deeply.”
Crisis #4: Immigration
The next challenge for the nation —and for the kibbutz —was the integration of the waves of Jewish immigrants into the new state, especially Mizrahi Jews from Arab countries in the Mediterranean. These immigrants were rarely integrated into existing kibbutzim, which felt overwhelmed. Instead they worked for hire while living in quickly built development towns in the country’s periphery. And so the seeds of the Ashkenazi/Mizrahi divide were planted.
Nomika Zion, the granddaughter of kibbutz leader Yaacov Chazan, described to me an incident on the kibbutz on which she grew up. When she was 10, she brought several girls from a development town to visit her home, only to have boys from her school throw stones and taunt the visitors: “Get out, you dirty Moroccans!” That incident would inspire her to found an urban kibbutz in the development town of Sderot.
“The kibbutz,” she told me, “surrounds itself with a fence—and that fence becomes a wall…. an emotional and mental wall. A profound conflict started to develop between the people from the kibbutz and the people from the development town.”
That conflict would haunt the kibbutz for years to come.
Crisis #5: Ideological
Of course, there was also the great schism of the early1950s — around the time that John Hersey diagnosed the “mortal crisis” in the kibbutz. Many members were divided in their allegiances to the major political parties in Israel as well as their attitudes to the Soviet Union. They underwent a bitter divorce that still seems operatic in retrospect: Many communities split in two, creating separate kibbutzes under separate federations. In at least one case, members strung barbed wire across the dining hall to separate the two sides of their community.
After this split, it was hard to believe the kibbutz movement could transcend ideological differences and achieve its vision of a unified communal movement.
Crisis #6: Industrialization
From the 1950s onwards, kibbutzim transformed their agricultural base by adding industrial operations, mostly manufacturing. They produced everything: plastics, diamond saws, chocolates, books, medical supplies, and the famous drip irrigation systems that helped to make the deserts bloom. Some succeeded; others didn’t. On Shamir, members retooled an old bifocal factory to compete with Nikon and Zeiss and become the toast of NASDAQ. Down the road, another kibbutz went bankrupt when its diaper factory couldn’t keep up with Huggies and Pampers. Socialist communes were at the mercy of their own capitalist ventures.
An unintended consequence of kibbutz industrialization was the rise of a cadre of experts, as it no longer made economic sense to follow the traditional job rotation. The managers and engineers who ran the factories became a professional class within the class-less kibbutz. In later decades, they would lead the charge for privatization.
Crisis #7: The Role of Women
One of the most debated aspects of kibbutz experiment is the role of women. In the direct democracy of the general assembly, a woman’s vote counted as much as any man’s. The communal children’s house was meant to liberate women from domesticity, so they could participate in social and political life. They could also work in any branch of the kibbutz: agricultural, industrial, leadership.
In reality, women often got shunted into more traditional roles in the kitchen, administration or childcare. As Betty Friedan wrote in an introduction to Sexual Equality: The Israeli Kibbutz Tests its Theories, in 1983: “The kibbutz is a model example of the problems and plusses of the first stage of feminism … in that it made an attempt to include women in the productive sector of the workplace. …. The founders of the kibbutz movement could not see beyond the first stage—that equality cannot be achieved in terms of male values alone and only in terms of redefining the female role.”
In other words, while the kibbutz was willing to treat women like men, it couldn’t overhaul the entire patriarchy. As the current U.S. election makes clear, we’re still far from that here, too.
Crisis #8: The Rise of the Right
In 1977, Likud leader Menachem Begin attacked kibbutzes as a country club for champagne socialists. He later dismissed kibbutzniks as “like millionaires lolling around their swimming pools.” His smears struck a chord with poorer, conservative Mizrahi Jews. Many kibbutzniks blamed Begin for sticking a knife in their backs after all they’d done for the nation. His reply: you had it coming. His electoral success tilted the axis of power in Israel to the right, away from its 30-year foundation of soft socialism, and began the decline of the kibbutz as a political force within Israel.
One scholar described the kibbutz to me as “a brand, a kind of social good.” For years, the image of the kibbutz pioneer was the symbol of the model Israeli — the Hebrew Marlboro Man. Internationally, that lustre would last for another decade or two, but by 1977, it had lost its shine within a large part of Israel.
Crisis #9: Economic Crisis
In the 1980s, the Israeli economy suffered profound hyperinflation, with interest rates rising to nearly 500%. Many kibbutzes had taken on debts to expand. Depending on whom you ask, kibbutz managers were at fault for over-extending their communities or the victims of a bad deal with the government and the banks for repayments. By the 1990s, virtually every kibbutz had to cut costs even as they lost younger members to the lure city life.
Dining halls were reduced to lunch meals or closed entirely. Other services were slashed. The last children’s house was shut down. More members worked outside the kibbutz, and the agricultural branches turned to cheap Thai guest workers.
Near-bankrupt kibbutzim debated the unthinkable: breaking from the original promise that every member is equal. By the turn of the millennium, incremental tweaks had become Shinui: “The Change.” Dr. Shlomo Getz is a sociologist who has surveyed kibbutzes for the last 25 years. He describes Shinui like this: “Total change, multi-system change… There are three or four crises at the same time.”
Crisis #10: A Crisis of Identity
You might argue that identity has been in crisis from Day 1 of the kibbutz—perhaps of Israel itself. Who are we? Where are we going to? What are we becoming?
For the kibbutz, that crisis peaked in 2004 when the government struck a committee to review the legal status of the kibbutz. The Ben-Rafael committee made a Solomonic compromise and divided the kibbutz in three: there is kibbutz shitufi, which retain the original communal ethos; kibbutz mitkhadesh (or “renewing kibbutz”), which have adopted differential wages and other changes but retain a mutual guarantee; and then there is now recognition of the irbutz or urban kibbutz, non-agricultural city-based communes.
One kibbutz scholar lamented that the Committee turned kibbutz into a “zombie category” — a definition that can mean everything and nothing, as lifeless as privatized communities that are little more than gated suburbs.
Dr. Ben-Rafael told me that he felt the changes have liberated a new energy within the movement that lets each to choose its path. And now, after years of declining populations, young families are returning to the kibbutz.
Crisis #10½: What Next?
This is the crisis to come—or rather the opportunity to be seized or lost as the kibbutz moves into the future, no longer a coherent movement and now more a series of unique possibilities — what I often call an “archipelago of hope”.
Today, you have a dwindling number of traditional kibbutzim. And a growing number of privatized kibbutzes — although what means on the ground varies greatly. Some have disbanded. Others have become moshavs. Some have rallied around new missions — a dance centre in Kibbutz Ga’aton, a home for adults with disabilities in Kishorit and Kibbutz Harduf, a Christian “kibbutz” in the Galilee that is becoming a community for Jewish/Palestinian co-existence. You will hear from Anton Marks about the extraordinary growth of urban communes.
As journalist and ex-kibbutznik Daniel Gavron once wrote: “The values of equality and cooperation are eternal” — but they need an extra bit of “glue”. “In the early communes it was religion; in the case of the kibbutzim it was pioneering and Zionism.” Kibbutzim — like every intentional community — must rediscover the glue that gives their members collective purpose.
In the Arava Desert, several relatively young kibbutzim — including Lotan, Ketura, and Samar — have found that new glue in facing the global environmental crisis. David Lehrer is the director of the Arava Institute of Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura, where Jewish, Palestinian and international students work together on problems of global sustainability. A few years ago, Lehrer tried but failed to forge a “green kibbutz movement” that would unit communities across Israel under this common goal.
I’d like to end with his words, which are both pessimistic and optimistic, as another take on this perpetual utopia in crisis. He told me: “I don’t think the kibbutz movement has much of a future. Cooperative movements all over the world last for a hundred years and then become privatized—that’s what’s happening here… The question is: What does the kibbutz have to offer to problems like poverty and climate change? Do we have something special to say to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? If we are irrelevant to these issues, then we’re irrelevant. It may mean that we have a lot fewer kibbutzes, but those left may lead us to a new era of sustainability and community life.”
After a more or less smooth trip (as smooth as getting up at 3 am for a taxi, two planes, a train and a rental car can be), I made it to Israel and have slept off most of my jet lag. I paused briefly, to rest and get my bearings at Nes Ammim—a “kibbutz” of German Christians in between Nahariya and Akko. I return there tomorrow for three more days to learn about their history, their evolution, and the interfaith dialogue workshops they run, as part of their dream of healing the rifts between Germans and Israelis, Christians and Jews.
On Friday afternoon, I drove north to the Hula Valley and my old kibbutz at Shamir. I’m staying with friends and visiting old acquaintances and, later this morning, interview Uzi Tzur, the first-born ben kibbutz (i.e., child of the kibbutz), who has played a huge role in both the defense of Shamir (he shot the terrorists who tried to infiltrate the kibbutz in 1974) and the success of Shamir Optical as a multinational enterprise.
I made it in time foe one more shabbat dinner on Shamir, always one of my favourite nights (the weekend, at last!) when I was a volunteer. The dining hall is privatized (open for lunch and Tuesday and Friday dinners now), and was maybe two-thirds full—not quite the clamouring packed hall from years past, but still alive with conversations between old friends and family members. You pay for your meal now, at the cash register till, and there is no longer free (albeit cheap and watery) white wine to be poured into jugs by the litre from industrial beverage dispensers.
I’d seen evidence of religious leanings on other kibbutzim, but Shamir seems still to be resolutely secular: no prayers, no candles, no shabbat songs, none of the Jewish rituals I’d witnessed at erev shabbat on Kibbutz Lotan in the Arava or the Ravenna Kibbutz in Seattle. If anything was sacred here, it was the family—Shamir seems in the midst of a baby boom—and Friday night, the communal dinner was honouring the extended family, related by blood or proximity, so central to kibbutz life.
Yesterday, after a restful sleep-in, my friends Kari and Danny took me for a shabbat day trip. We tried to go to the Agamon-Hula Park, but the parking lot was crammed with bird-watchers and other tourists for the annual Hula Bird Festival—the valley’s blue sky is alive with migrating cranes and hawks and other Rift Valley migrants—so we headed up north, nearly to the Lebanese border, and walked the forest trails (much quieter) of Tel Dan instead. We had lunch beside one of the streams that feeds the Jordan River.
The Hula remains as beautiful as I remember, this crook of farm fields and marsh land, peppered with kibbutzes and moshavs, in between the Golan Heights and the Napthali Mountains. It has been a pleasant reminder of my time here 22 years ago, during the same autumn season when I first arrived as a volunteer, the days still sunny and yet the nights cooling quickly, the rainy season and the cold winds off the snowy top of Mt. Hermon on the horizon. Harvest over, a new year marking off its days.
Nobody seems optimistic about the immediate future of Israel, with the looming showdown with Iran and the uncertain changes in neighbouring countries, with a right-wing government firmly entrenched in power and completely at odds with the traditional values of the kibbutz. But it’s hard not to find a certain peace, here in the hills of northern Galilee, amid the tree-shaded lanes and bird-song and cries of children in the playground, here on Kibbutz Shamir.
I’m excited (and nervous) to be in transit again, for a two-week research trip in Israel. I’m hoping that my interviews there will cap off all the material I need to complete my book. (Actually, what I need is the discipline—and perhaps a manacle around my ankle—to simply buckle down and finish a first draft.)
The next 14 days promise to be a flurry of travel and meetings and interviews and observations. Some highlights from my itinerary:
- Nes Ammim: A German-run interfaith “kibbutz” that coordinates dialogue workshops and peace-building initiatives. I’m hoping to drop in on a session with Arab and Jewish theatre students from Haifa.
- Kishorit: a former kibbutz that has been transformed into a rehabilitation centre and home for adults with physical and mental disabilities, where they can find meaningful work (including producing a TV show) and community.
- Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company: I had brief visit to the studios and rehearsal spaces on Kibbutz Ga’aton 2.5 years ago, but on this visit I will spend time talking to artistic director Rami Be’er and then seeing this internationally renowned troupe perform in Tel Aviv.
- Ran Tal, the director of the “collage” documentary” Children of the Sun, which weds archival footage of kibbutz children, from the 1930s onwards, with interviews with early kibbutzniks (including Tal’s mother) about the positives and negatives of growing up (and raising their own children) in these isolated and idealistic communal outposts.
- System Ali, a hip-hop collective, with members who are Arab and Jewish, native-born Israelis and Russian immigrants, that sprung from the Sadaka Reut commune that I visited in the summer of 2010.
- Eliaz Cohen, a poet from Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, one of the most historic settlements, who writes verse informed by his deep spiritual roots and his communal home.
- And more…
First, though, I’ve got a 10.5-hour flight to Tel Aviv (with an exit-row seat!), negotiate the 20 Questions of Israeli Customs, grab an hour-and-a-half train ride to Nahariya, rent a car there, and make the short drive (thankfully) to Nes Ammim. The next morning I hit the ground running with interviews and then a drive up north to Kibbutz Shamir. No time for jet lag.
It’s been several weeks since I watched Fog, an hour-long documentary film from 2008 by director Rafik Halabi, and yet I remain haunted by its story, as though I’d been immersed in an epic novel or dramatic film. What I mean is that Fog, a fact-based foreign video project made on what was likely a tiny budget, has all the elements of great literature and art: War! Death! Family! Spirituality! Mystery! And a relentless quest for the truth. It is also one of those true stories that seems, on its surface, so preposterous that it has to be the work of fiction and fantasy.
The fog of the film’s title is the mist that wraps the slopes of Mt. Hermon, on the disputed border between Israel and Syria, into which Sergeant Mu’in Halabi, a Druze Arab soldier in the Israeli Defence Forces from Western Galilee, disappears during the early days of the October War of 1973. It’s the last that his three army companions see of Halabi during an abortive assault on the Syrian-held summit. Weeks later, army officials report to his family that his body has been found, with its eyes gouged out, but it is in an advanced state of decomposition and rapidly buried.
Later, a girl from his village claims to have heard his voice in a radio broadcast from Syria. Might he have been captured and still be alive instead? The story grows more complicated when a four-year-old Druze boy, who had been born just a month after Halabi’s disappearance in a nearby village, reveals striking knowledge of the details of the soldier’s disappearance, as though he had been there, and claims to be the reincarnation of Mu’in Halabi. The Druze religion, a highly secretive outgrowth of Ismaili Islam, includes reincarnation as one of its beliefs. Even largely secular members of the Druze people don’t discount the possibility of being reborn in another body.
At age 22, Roni Ganam, the boy who claimed to be the reincarnated Halabi, has grown up to be a local soccer star, but is killed during his own army service, when his bus is destroyed by a suicide bomber. Again, not long after this tragedy, a new child is born, who reveals, a few years later, intimate knowledge about Roni’s life and sudden death. Has the spirit of Mu’in Halabi found a new incarnation? What seems undeniable is the consolation that the family members of both deceased soldiers take in their faith that their lost boys live on in another embodiment—that death is but a transition into a new life.
Enter Rafik Halabi, a veteran Druze TV news reporter (and author of The West Bank Story), who sets out as the director of this investigative documentary to pick through the evidence, disentangle the varying accounts of Halabi’s last hours and try to reach the truth—but who only finds himself drawn deeper into the mystery. By the end, the documentary sheds new light on what likely happened in the mists of Mt. Hermon, and yet still leaves the viewer looking through shades of ambiguity, too.
I’d ordered Fog mostly because I’d worked with several young Druze on Kibbutz Shamir and finally visited Majdal Shams last summer. The Druze seem to symbolize the immense complexity of life in Israel, which often gets lost in black-and-white accounts we receive in the North American media, let alone the one-sided pro-Israel or pro-Palestine rhetoric that divides the blogosphere and Internet comment boards.
Mu’in Halabi, from Western Galilee, was a Druze Arab and an Israeli citizen and a soldier in the IDF. In the October War, he was fighting against Syrian army units that would have also included Druze soldiers, loyal to Syria. They were fighting over the captured territory of the Golan Heights, where the Druze residents—after centuries of being a minority caught between major powers—are careful to hedge their allegiances. They now live in land that was formerly Syrian, but has been annexed by Israel, but could one day (however unlikely) be returned to Syria. Confused yet? There is little wonder that the Druze religion, and even society, has clung to secrecy (and a belief in the eternal cycle of reincarnation) as a survival mechanism. Fog is both a metaphor and a way of life.
So what’s the kibbutz connection to this fascinating documentary? Okay, beyond my rubbing shoulders with Druze guest workers on Shamir, it’s pretty minor. But there is one: the sumptuous, moving and note-perfect score was written and performed by Yair Dalal, a well-known Israeli musician of Iraqi background (known especially for his oud playing) and peace activist who lived during his thirties on Kibbutz Samar (where encounters with Bedouin musicians sent him off on new artistic directions).
In short, Fog is one real-life tale of death, life and mystery that is worth getting lost in.
“Anyone who has never lived on a kibbutz doesn’t understand the first thing about it,” one of the characters warns the lead detective in the delightful mystery novel Murder on a Kibbutz, by the late Batya Gur. “It’s impossible to understand from the outside and this whole investigation of yours is pointless. You’re wasting your time.”
Michael Ohayon, the Moroccan-born and Jerusalem-based investigator in Gur’s popular series, has little experience of the closed society of the Israeli kibbutz. But that doesn’t stop him from infiltrating ever deeper into the complex relationships and hidden divisions of this particular community to solve the enigma of how and why one of its most influential members had died.
I’ve meant to read this novel for more than a year now, and now that I have (thanks to Ranen Omer-Sherman, for the final push to move it up on my to-read list), I can whole-heartedly recommend the book to anyone interested in a lively (if somewhat pessimistic) overview of kibbutz life in the early 90s or even just an absorbing summer read. I’m not a mystery buff by nature, but the quality of the writing (Gur taught Hebrew literature and wrote for Haaretz before her untimely death from cancer) and the psychological nuances of its moody hero (a charismatic, driven loner with an existential streak) add up to a page-turner whose narrative engine is as much its vivid, feuding characters as its well-wrought plot.
And while I don’t believe she was ever a member, Gur also understood the kibbutz at a more than superficial level; her novel, published in Hebrew in 1991, seems prescient in its anticipations of the challenges that would transform the movement over the next two decades. The fictitious commune, located in the northern Negev, is shocked when the sudden death of a widowed kibbutz leader turns out to be a suspected homicide. But then possible motives start emerging, along with other secrets, from beneath the surface solidarity of the seemingly peaceful kibbutz: political, ideological, financial, psychological, romantic. I won’t spoil the ending, but there are enough twists and red herrings to satisfy any reader.
Gur’s imaginary kibbutz also seemed, in many ways, a lot like Kibbutz Shamir when I lived there. (Except for the murder, of course.) Like Shamir, it belongs to the more left-of-centre Artzi Federation (the Givat Haviva educational seminar gets mentioned several times); it is relatively prosperous, as the kibbutz managed to largely avoid (apparently) the devastating financial crisis and grey-market borrowing fiascos of the late 80s; it also developed a profitable factory (like Shamir’s optical plant) that produces cosmetics from cactus plants. Gur wrote the novel and set its action amid the rising tension and violence of the First Intifada (which began in 1988, the year I arrived at Shamir). In the book, the kibbutz’s leaders are debating proposed changes that will unsettle their traditional and ideologically pure way of life: the use of hired outside workers; building an off-site retirement home in tandem with other kibbutzim; and, most controversially, letting kibbutz children live and sleep with their parents rather than in the communal children’s houses. (Characters acknowledge that they are one of the last hold-outs to consider this shift.) There is even a minor character (who plays a major role in the plot), described as an eccentric bachelor, known as “Dave the Canadian”!
I admit I paused when I read the line that, for someone exploring the social dynamics of a kibbutz, it’s “impossible to understand from the outside” and had to wonder if my whole book project isn’t “pointless” too. But then again, I think I have a bit of the dogged curiosity of Michael Ohayon, the perpetual outsider who nevertheless insinuates his way toward the truth, by whatever means necessary. A detective and a writer, especially a nonfiction author, share a few things in common perhaps.
Life as a kibbutz volunteer was sustained by a variety of necessities: cold beer, free cigarettes, chocolate from the shop, all-you-could-eat chicken and rice, bad Jordanian TV, a weekly movie in the sports hall. Mostly, though, we thrived on gossip, rumour and myth.
Gossip, of course, greased the engine of the kibbutz as a whole, just as it does in any small self-contained community, from a rural village to an urban high school. But since volunteers were cut off, by our lack of Hebrew and our transience, from the general circulation of kibbutz news, our gossip tended to be even less rooted in fact. Stories got passed along and embellished with little regard to sourcing. They quickly evolved from eavesdropped speculation to well-established hunch to encyclopedic fact to a story of mythic stature, true beyond all reproach. These stories eased the monotony of the work day and relieved our anxiety about being so far from home.
I can still remember a few of these tales, although I can’t vouch for their veracity. Many involved the secret lives of kibbutzniks or new volunteers. The unassuming Israeli from the apple orchards who had been a heroic tank commander in one of the wars. (Quite likely.) The German who was on the lam from the authorities back home for connections to the Baader Meinhof Gang of left-wing terrorists. (Possible, though perhaps mere slander.)
Some of the rumours and myths were about the place itself. They made the kibbutz seem a little more exotic, even if these “facts” might not hold up under closer scrutiny. One I recall involved the “rock rabbits” that lived in the stony outcroppings that overlooked the Hula Valley. These rodent-like critters (technically called a Hyrax) lacked a rabbit’s floppy ears (or cuteness) and looked more rotundly wombat-like. You’d spot them occasionally sunning themselves, camouflaged against the grey stone, but really noticed the rock rabbits when they “sang” their shrill, gear-grinding mating call, which sounded like a large, tuneless bird getting slowly eaten.
The story exchanged about the rock rabbits—the one snippet of natural history everyone on the kibbutz seemed to know—was that these furry, tone-deaf Tribbles were the closest living relations, on the branching evolutionary tree, to the elephant. It seemed unlikely in retrospect, a connection too absurd to be fact. That elephantine heritage turns out, at least according to the fact-checkers on Wikipedia, to be at least semi-true.
|“Here come the Swedes!”: a rock rabbit in action
| Two other myths sprang from the Optical Factory on Shamir where volunteers had to operate the noisy, messy lens-polishing machines. We were told we were making lenses for reading glasses, but how could we be sure? Speculation flourished that—despite the low-key, unkempt look of the factory—we were secretly supplying high-tech glassware for military purposes. Maybe laser sights for missiles. Something cool like that.
Truth quotient: zero. It turns out that the factory was, in fact, making bifocal lenses for old guys like me and now (in a bigger, fancier factory) is making (fancier, more profitable) progressive lenses for old guys like me. Or at least that’s what they would like you to believe.
Finally, perhaps the most pervasive rumour, one that swept through every kibbutz in the country like the flu on a regular basis, was the news that soon, in a week or two, there would arrive a new group of volunteers—a group with a mythical allure, like the Valkyries or the Sirens—the All-Girl Swedish Group.
The buzz would build. People would swear they had heard solid “intell” straight out of the Volunteer Coordinator’s office that the news was true. They had seen the paperwork. Young men among the kibbutzniks and volunteers would begin to salivate like Pavlov’s puppies. Male hygiene suddenly improved dramatically. Every flash of blonde hair (even mine) that entered the dining hall would send a pulse of anticipation through the room. Was it them? Kibbutzniks we had never seen before would show up to the volunteer bar, in the hopes that the Swedes had arrived.
And then, almost without fail, there was disappointment when a group did arrive. They were British. They were Danish—which was close, but not quite the same: not as blonde, not as legendary. They were Swedish… but men.
The anticipation would crash and disappear for a few weeks. Then the cycle of rumour would start all over again.
Next Year in Jerusalem was the cry of the Jewish people during their long exile. Next Week from Stockholm—that was the myth that sustained young male volunteers (and many kibbutzniks), through our monotonous work shifts and our own wanderings, a cry that sounded as comically desperate at times, a note of pure fantasy, as the shriek of the rock rabbit.