Degania: The First Kibbutz Fights its Last Battle is a documentary with a definite point of view—the film’s bittersweet subtitle should make that clear—like a Michael Moore film without the presence of the lumbering U.S. agent provocateur. It is also a fascinating account of a watershed moment in the 100-year history of the kibbutz movement: the decision by members of Kibbtuz Degania A, the original communal settlement in Israel, to privatize their community in 2007. This news broke internationally, as the world finally took notice of the changes that had been transforming kibbutzim over the previous 20 years. It also became used — by free-market bloggers around the Internet — as the final nail in the rhetorical coffin of socialism.
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.
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.
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.”
Yitzhak Rubin’s 56-minute account of the last days of Degania as a fully communal kibbutz begins, curiously, with scenes of American Christians getting baptized along the banks of the Jordan River, not far from where Kibbutz Degania Aleph was founded. The movie then outlines the founding myth and storied history of this influential community (including its vital and valiant role in the War of 1948) through interviews and archival footage. But it soon makes clear that changes are afoot. Despite nearly a hundred years of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (and relative wealth compared to other kibbutzim), some members and leaders at Degania have been lobbying to alter the fundamental egalitarian structure of their community.
Here, the movie excels at letting viewers play fly-on-the-wall to the heated debates and civil strife caused by the public (and private) debate that precedes the vote to privatize—how it sets brother against brother, friend against friend, neighbour against neighbour. As one anti-privatization member asks, Why do members who want to privatize need to irrevocably change what is unique about Degania, when anyone who wants to live in a private neighbourhood can simply walk out the gates and find a “normal” community like that anywhere in Israel or the world.
Despite the radical origins of Degania, in 2007 its more bourgeois trappings are what make people want to stay: its slowed-down rural life, its sense of family, safety and security, where kids can run free and parents know that someone will bring their children home, amidst a world (and a country) of potential danger and uncertainty. It’s pretty clear that the filmmaker sides with the traditionalists of Degania, but we still get to see the arguments of the other side, led by kibbutz director Shai Shoshany (who I interviewed last year). Even for longtime residents, like Yoya and Alan Shapiro (a daughter of a Degania founder and her American-born husband), the choice is tough: they know that many of the younger members want change or they might leave.
Finally, the filmmaker takes us right into the final pre-vote general assembly before balloting on the proposed initiatives. Shoshany asks Rubin, the director, to wait outside and not film the proceedings, but the canny filmmaker keeps his camera rolling and captures memorable footage of the turbulent back and forth of this all-important historic debate. This is how a dream ends: democratically and divided. (That said, in Degania and other kibbutzim, a vote to change the economic structure of the community requires a super-majority, usually 75 to 80%, rather than 50% plus one.)
In the end, the anti-privatization members lose the vote and must accept the will of their peers. In 2007, Degania introduced differential salaries and other free-market initiatives to their once communal economic structure. When I visited last year, I only had a chance to interview Shai Shoshany, the kibbutz director, so I got little personal sense of how the privatization plans have panned out for the other kibbutzniks. That said, I did come across this interesting news video, shot a year after the vote, which suggests that the Shapiros, originally resistant to the changes, have seen benefits to their community—or at least accepted the inevitability of change.
In any case, this film is a vital document both as a historical record of the first and best-known kibbutz and as an incisive sociological unpacking of how privatization occurs in such democratic communities. It’s well worth watching as Degania marks 100 years since its founding with a year of celebrations and a huge three-day ceremony in early October, when Israeli president Shimon Peres and members of cabinet will visit Degania and help to honour the occasion.
Degania can be purchased or watched as pay-per-view online here. As I was looking for links, I also came across this fascinating footage from 1937 of Degania from the Spielberg Jewish Film Archive. The narration is perhaps typical of its time—a bit over the top—but it makes for fascinating viewing on the centenary of the first kibbutz. Whether it has fought its last battle, I leave up to others to debate…