Last June, when I was visiting the Institute for the Study of the Kibbutz and the Cooperative Idea, at the University of Haifa, I was asked by one of the researchers there if I had a name for the book I was working on about the kibbutz movement.
“Look Back to Galilee,” I said.
“That sounds very Christian,” he replied.
I don’t think he meant anything negative by it—it was a simple observation, and an accurate one at that. What Israelis call Lake Kinneret, Christians know as the Sea of Galilee. And the “Man from Galilee” is pop-hymn shorthand for J.C. Himself.
I have my reasons for clinging to this title, even though I have an alternative name squirreled away in my back pocket. One is to acknowledge that the book (or whatever this project becomes) is hardly a 100% objective historical account of the kibbutz movement, but rather the perspective of one non-Jewish outsider who has a fascination with the subject of communal life in Israel.
The title seems fitting, too, for the memoir aspects of the writing—I do plan to “look back to Galilee” and recall my experiences and the people I met during my tenure at Kibbutz Shamir, in the HaGalil, or Upper Galilee.
Finally, the phrase itself come from one of the founders of Degania, the first kibbutz.
A little history, courtesy of Henry Near: Four young men from the Ukraine, who had participated in a Zionist group in the town of Romni, formed a commune and promised to share wages and accommodations once they boarded a ship for Palestine in 1907. The next year, now five, The “Romni Group” started work at a “training farm” at Kinneret, along the Sea of Galilee. Their relationship with the farm’s manager deteriorated, however, because of the manager’s over-optimistic profit estimates and, later, his use of Arab labour, which the Romni Group saw as “a violation of Zionist principles”. They held a strike and were asked to leave, although as a concession, they were offered a chance to cultivate a farm near the abandoned village of Um Juni.
They declined and, maintaining their communal arrangements, worked for different farmers near Hadera in 1909. Another group of six accepted the offer to work at Um Juni, which they did with some success, making a small profit, and then dispersed. The Romni Group were again offered the chance to move their communal arrangement to Um Juni, where the Jordan River flows out of the Sea of Galilee. This time, the Romni Group (now a dozen men and women) felt ready to grasp the opportunity and, in the autumn of 1910, returned to Galilee to found a community that, in August 1911, would be renamed Degania. (Hence, the problem of dating the centenary: Did Degania “begin” in 1909, 1910 or 1911?)
As Joseph Baratz, one of the founders, later recalled of their time in Hadera and their dreams of communal life:
Thanks to our communal life, a feeling of intimacy between the members grew up. We talked a great deal about the ‘commune’; for a certain time, this was the main idea … communal life not just for a chosen few, but as a permanent social system, at any rate for the bulk of the pioneers who were immigrating to Palestine.
Our chief aspiration was to be independent—to create for and by ourselves. We came to realize that it was a Sisyphean task to achieve this if we were working for somebody else, and we began to look back to Galilee.