One of the most courageous and insightful writers in Canada—anywhere, in fact—is Deborah Campbell. A graduate of UBC’s MFA Writing program, who also studied in Paris and Israel, she brings an investigative journalist’s tenacity for nailing down the facts, a literary author’s sense of story and character, and an activist’s willingness to speak truth to power. In recent features in The Walrus and Harper’s, she has told underreported stories about life in Iran and the plight of Iraqi refugees in Syria.
I recently read This Heated Place, her book about her return journey to Israel, researched in the fall of 2001—she was traveling through the country when the events of 9/11 hit—and released in 2002. It’s a compelling (if too short—I wanted each chapter to be at least a couple pages longer) tour of a troubled nation, then caught in the spiraling violence of the Second Intifada, with suicide bombings and Israeli Defence Force retributions. In the book, she moves from the anxiety of Israeli citizens to the utter despair of Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip.
Her chapters about Rabbi Riskin, a hardline settler in the West Bank, and the photographer who took the famous photo that rocked the world of a Palestinian father trying vainly to protect his son in a Gaza crossfire are especially moving and depressing.
She looks briefly at life in a kibbutz and the decline of the movement in a chapter titled “The End of Utopia”. In it, she visits Kibbutz Ma’agen Mikhael, north of Tel Aviv, a successful community that has maintained its communal arrangement, and draws on Daniel Gavron’s excellent book The Kibbutz: Awakening from Utopia for general context about the struggles of the movement.
As Campbell writes of the allure of the kibbutz:
The kibbutzim, once the lifeblood of the fledgling nation, are part of what inspired my original interest in Israel. I was enamoured of the images of self-sacrificing pioneers who devoted their lives to planting gardens in the desert … and of people who placed national service ahead of personal gain.
As she tours the kibbutz with a member, Campbell observes that the beit yeladim —the famous “children’s houses” where children were raised and slept communally, with their parents visiting them for a couple hours in the afternoons and evenings—were disbanded in 1981. “Now, some kibbutz members believe that the end of the children’s houses,” she writes, “signalled the beginning of the end for the movement.”
The pioneering spirit and energy of the secular, left-wing kibbutz movement has been supplanted, controversially, since 1967 and the Six Day War by religious, right-wing settlers, who have built and defended communities in the Occupied Territories—the source of much of the violence and tension in the region.
Campbell ends the chapter on a poignant note:
The kibbutzniks, once held in such esteem, are losing influence at a time when their presence is most needed. As I leave Ma’Agan Mikhael … it is with the knowledge that a proud chapter in the short history of modern Israel has all but ended.
Has this chapter truly ended? Many observers and kibbutzniks would agree that it has. But I’m curious how (and if) the spirit of the original pioneers continues to evolve and inspire other people in unexpected ways.