Kibbutz Hanaton sits on a brush-covered plateau overlooking the blue waters of the Lake Eshkol reservoir in Lower Galilee, ringed by Arab villages. It’s picturesque location for a bitter legal, ideological and even religious battle that, according to some observers, threatens to tear apart the entire kibbutz movement.
I only knew the barebones of this story when we drove to Hanaton on a Monday morning. I was more interested in the community as the only kibbutz founded by Jews from the Masorti or Conservative movement. There are about a million Conservative Jews in North America, but the movement—which sits between Orthodox and Reform Judaism on the spectrum of adherence to Jewish law—has made few inroads in Israel. Kibbutz Hanaton hopes to change that. As one kibbutznik told a journalist, their community can act as a “bridge” between the increasingly divided secular and religious communities within Israel.
As it turns out, the kibbutz is even more divided that the nation it hopes to heal. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
First, we met up with the newest residents of Kibbutz Hanaton. A new “garin” or group of families in their mid-30s, all Masorti Jews, had been attracted to the kibbutz and arrived a year earlier. I had a brief chat with Rabbi Yoav Ende and Yanov Gliksman about why they came to Hanaton and what they hope to achieve here, before getting a quick tour and longer interview with Jonny Whine, originally from London. He filled us in on Hanaton’s brief yet tumultuous history, since its founding in 1984.
The kibbutz was never financially well off—not surprising, considering it was founded just as the entire country was lapsing into a profound economic crisis. In 2004, it was near bankruptcy and had to bring in outside management. Many of the original members had left. Only a dozen of the founders remained. The Kibbutz Movement tried to prop up the kibbutz by sending new groups, including members of the socialist youth movement known as HaNoar HaOved VeHaLomed (Federation of Working and Studying Youth).
As the kibbutz continued to struggle, a split developed between the remaining original members (who had become a minority), who wanted to turn Hanaton into a “renewed” or privatized kibbutz (which they did), and the youth group residents (who tended to work in educational projects around the area), who wanted it to hold to its socialist roots but perhaps not its religious philosophy. The Working and Studying Youth applied for membership in the kibbutz as a group, but were consistently voted down by the older members, who feared that a majority of new, youth-group members would simply take over control of their kibbutz by democratic means.
Then things got really complicated. An independent trustee was assigned to oversee the kibbutz’s precarious financial situation; he sold off part of the property to a private developer, so now the kibbutz is ringed with flashy suburban homes owned by outsiders. (In a twist on the privatization trend, the outsiders worry that the kibbutz, where they send their kids to daycare and use the swimming pool, will become too religious—most Israelis know little about Masorti Judaism—and demand that kindergartners dress modestly, eat kosher, etc.) The youth-group garin appealed to the Kibbutz Movement for control of a community that they saw spiralling toward privatization and irrelevance. And the lawyers began to circle like vultures.
Into this mix came the group of new families that included Jonny Whine and the others I first met. They opened a thriving Masorti educational centre, which runs programs for visiting North American Jews, but also find themselves in the midst of an internecine conflict between the kibbutz founders and the young socialists—a split in the community in which neighbours quite literally don’t talk to each other and would like each other evicted. The arguments spilled into the popular press. The most detailed account in English appeared in Ha’Aretz here.
The situation was especially sore when we visited in mid-June. A Hebrew article in a kibbutz paper had just appeared. Residents thought the feature was supposed to promote their community. Instead it focused almost exclusively on the split. A recent court decision had gone against the youth group members, and they had been served eviction notices, but they still planned to fight on. In their minds, the legal battle was a property grab that will allow the other kibbutzniks to profit from the privatization of Hanaton—and not have to share the wealth. For the older members (and the new Masorti group), they see the split as ideological—that the young idealists want to reshape the kibbutz into their own vision of a socialist community, rather than respect its Masorti origins and the wishes of the remaining founders. Outside observers from other youth groups worry that a final legal judgement could open the floodgates to other kibbutzim who want to privatize and profit from property development.
We spoke to representatives of all three camps, and I’m sure the truth—if there is one in such a muddle—lies somewhere in between. But it’s hard to see any sort of compromise arising out of such bitterness. (One of the older members described the youth-movement residents “like ants”—a mild annoyance to be swept away and also a metaphor that showed the depth of disdain on the kibbutz.) It’s a sad irony that both groups are committed to what Jews know as tikkun olam—the “repair of the world”, a devotion to good works and social justice—and yet can’t transcend their own ingrained suspicions of each other to make the community work together.
As Jonny Whine told us, with a note of regret in his voice: “This place is too small to share it.” It certainly felt claustrophobic after our short visit to this troubled paradise.