The director of the Centre where I’m a fellow fielded an email complaint about the content of my talk last month about my research into the kibbutz movement and the lessons that could be applied to Canada’s co-operative economies. Or rather the complaint focused on the lack of context I provided about the situation of the Palestinian people. While preserving the author’s anonymity, I’ve pasted the letter below:

As I mentioned when we spoke after the “Return to Galilee” talk, I … have lived and worked in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. The Palestinian community in Lebanon numbers approximately 400,000, and are the descendants of the almost 100 000 refugees who fled what we now consider Northern Israel in 1948 into Lebanon. One of the dominant founding myths of Israel is that Israel was a “land with no people for a people with no land”. Israeli historians Ilan Pappe and Benny Morris address the causes of the refugee “problem” in their work, and debunk these ridiculous assertions. In Jonathan Cook’s new book Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair , he chronicles the intentional and systematic dispossession and destruction of Palestinian villages following Israeli statehood. You can read up on the whole scale theft of Palestinian land and moveable goods in the following excerpt from Cook’s book

While many of the early kibbutz were founded on land that was purchased legally in British mandate Palestine (as stated by an audience member at the talk), this does nor render kibbutz in modern day Israel politically neutral. Kibbutz Shamir is a complicit and contributing community within the state of Israel. A state that continues to flagrantly break international law by continuing the illegal occupation and settlement of Palestinian land, and the construction of a wall that the International Court of Justice deemed illegal and ordered torn down in 2004. A state that uses policies of collective punishment against Palestinians, deploys white phosphorous weaponry and one of the world’s most powerful militaries against civilians (leading to Judge Richard Goldstone’s UN report, accusing Israel of crimes against humanity), and maintains a system that President Jimmy Carter (among reputable others) acknowledges as apartheid. There is nothing sustainable or cooperative about this broader context. Removing a small and economically viable element from the Israeli state (i.e. Kibbutz Shamir) and holding it up as an example of cooperative development in 2010 is morally and intellectually questionable. It is dangerous and irresponsible to decontextualize information in this way.

This is not an attack on yourself, Prof. Leach, kibbutz, kibbutzim or Israeli society. This is a criticism of the state of Israel, which has created a context and a situation deeply rooted in injustice and the violation of human rights – which no university should herald as sustainable. 

While I disagree with many of her points, I appreciate that the email writer didn’t resort to the fiery rhetoric or personal attacks that too often mar discussions about Israel and Palestine, especially on campuses across North America. (Concordia U. even banned talks on the subject because they were so often sources of conflict.) I tried to be equally respectful in my response:

[The director] forwarded your message and concerns about my recent talk at UVic that discussed the kibbutz movement. As I mentioned in the talk, I appreciate all feedback and debate.

In defence of my approach, I would emphasize that the mandate of my fellowship and talk was to draw lessons from the history of the kibbutz movement (whose principles were established well before 1948) that might inform the current thought and future actions of the co-operative movement and university system in Canada. Based on the range of questions I fielded after the talk and at our Friday tea, I think I accomplished that goal.

Tackling the divisive issues of contemporary Middle East politics was well beyond the scope of a 40-minute presentation. Even if I had 40 hours to “contextualize” that topic, I would be unlikely to change anyone’s opinions, which tend to be set in stone. Anyone who wanted to hear the context you suggest had plenty of opportunities; there were at least four talks on the topic as part of “Israel Apartheid Week” activities around the city.

 That said, I agree with your claim that the kibbutz movement is not “politically neutral”— and disagree that the kibbutz can be dismissed as a “complicit and contributing community within the state of Israel”.

 In fact, throughout its 100-year history, the kibbutz movement has been one of the strongest and most consistent voices, on either side of the debate, for peaceful co-existence in Israel/Palestine. For that context, you must start with the kibbutz’s anarchist roots and vision of a binational commonwealth (mentioned in my talk and documented in James Horrox’s recent book A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement). You can then look at the views of the Mapam Party (founded by Kibbutz Artzi members) that objected to the destruction of Arab villages in 1948 and argued that all refugees should be allowed home.

You can track the involvement of kibbutzniks and federation leaders in various peace initiatives since that time. These would include the Four Mothers Movement (of kibbutz activists) that precipitated the military withdrawal from Lebanon right up to the current efforts of the Kibbutz Movement spokesman to pressure both the Israeli government and Hamas to broker an exchange of Palestinian detainees for captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit—one of the major obstacles to peace negotiations.

 In this debate, every context can be further “recontextualized”. Firstly, I’d suggest that any mention of the Goldstone Report is incomplete if it doesn’t acknowledge how the judge also cited Hamas for war crimes for targeting rockets at civilian populations in Israel—often kibbutzim. (In fact, the most immediate context to my talk was the death of a kibbutz worker that morning from a Qassam rocket launched from Gaza.) Secondly, while you cite both Ilan Pappé and Benny Morris for their revisionist histories of 1948, I’d point out that Morris has more come to very different conclusions about the root causes and consequences of that war—views that likely no longer align with your own perspective.  

Finally, Ilan Pappé himself was the founder and director of the Institute for Peace Studies at Givat Haviva, an educational centre (which I’ve visited) devoted to Arab-Israeli co-existence and funded by the kibbutzim in the Artzi Federation, of which Shamir is one of the most prominent members. So, some of the evidence you cite has been bought and paid for in a real and direct way by kibbutzniks on Shamir. To turn around, then, and claim that “Kibbutz Shamir is a complicit and contributing community within … [a] state that continues to flagrantly break international law by continuing the illegal occupation and settlement of Palestinian land” is both morally and factually indefensible.

It’s like saying that you or I — or the entire co-op movement in Canada for that matter — is complicit with and contributes to the actions and policies of the current Harper government, because we are citizens and communities under its democratically elected, albeit minority, mandate. What sliver of truth might lie in that claim is buried under the sheer weight of an over-generalization that denies the possibility of individual conscience and dissent. Perhaps I’m naïve, but I continue to believe in the possibility for change from within a society. In fact, that belief forms the basis for my research into utopian thought throughout Israel/Palestine.

I don’t consider the kibbutz beyond criticism. In fact, part of my talk focused on how the movement has evolved away from some of its founding ideals. In the end, the tragedy of the kibbutz movement is how its original vision of equality and justice has been shunted to the margins, since 1977, by the rise of right-wing and religious parties in Israel—and violence on both sides. So I find it strange and self-defeating that anyone genuinely committed to peace in the region would similarly seek to diminish and deny this collective voice of compromise and cooperation.

Thanks for attending my talk and engaging in a dialogue on these important issues.