Yoel Marshak has to be the most slippery kibbutznik I’ve never met. Let me explain. Even before my last trip to Israel, I was tracking media reports about his provocative activism and how it has pissed off critics on both sides of Israel’s always-divided political spectrum. I thought at first that he was actually the head of the Kibbutz Movement, as his name kept appearing alongside virtually every new mention of the organization. Instead, the retired Lieutenant Colonel and member of Kibbutz Giv’a Hasholsha runs a vaguely titled “task force” associated with the movement.
Before that, he was head of the Youth and Settlement Division of the United Kibbutz Movement (before it amalgamated with the Artzi Movement) and successfully lobbied the organization to found its first new settlement in more than a decade: Kibbutz Eshbol, near the Arab town of Sakhnin in the Galilee, which is now populated by idealistic members of the Noar Haoved Vehalomed youth movement, who work as educators and social activists. (I got a tour of this small hilltop kibbutz last summer from two members.)
More recently, he has been at the forefront of efforts to pressure Hamas to release IDF soldier Gilad Shalit—and to lobby the Israeli government to do more to secure the release of the young soldier, kidnapped and held captive since 2006, whose face was everywhere during my visit to Israel: on billboards, on posters, on T-shirts and flags. Marshak’s credentials as an activist are well-established: he backed Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza and helped settlers relocate in kibbutzim; he has helped Arab farmers of the West Bank defend their olive groves against vandalism from settlers; he played chaperone to a group of children from Gaza, whose fathers had been killed in the conflict, so they could visit Haifa and see a different side of Israel than they were accustomed to; he has arranged joint rallies between Palestinians and Israelis (including delivering gifts from Gaza to prisoners in Israel) and a flotilla of young kibbutzniks crossing the Sea of Galilee to raise awareness of Shalit’s plight; and he helped to organize the massive week-long walk last summer , with the Shalit family, from Gilad’s home in the north of the country to the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem. All of this has pissed off right-wing commentators who dismiss Marshak as a pinko pie-in-the-sky enemy-appeasing typical kibbutznik. Or as one Internet scold wrote, “He has spent too much time in the orange groves.”
And yet he has managed to offend left-wing kibbutzniks, too, with his other stances and actions. (Several activists I met last summer visibly fumed when I mentioned Marshak by name. At least one had signed an open letter to the media condemning his actions and opinions.) He has promoted the settlement of kibbutzim in the Jordan Valley with demobilized soldiers, so that this territory—inside the Green Line and therefore, according to his critics, on occupied Palestinian land—can remain under Israeli control. In his efforts to pressure Hamas to release Shalit, he has also organized a blockade of aid to Gaza and stopped Palestinian mothers visiting their sons in Israeli jails to make them “ambassadors” for the cause of Gilad’s release.
This week, Marshak was back in the news for his plans to visit Gaza—the only Jew in a delegation of Arabs—and meet with representatives of Hamas to ask for movement in the negotiations to release Gilad Shalit, who has become a poignant symbol in this divided nation and whose continued captivity has become, to many observers, a serious obstacle (although one amongst many) to any peace efforts.
When my research assistant and I toured through Israel last June, we tried to track down Marshak for an interview several times. We offered to meet at his kibbutz or in Tel Aviv. Name a spot and we would be there. He always managed to evade us: asking us to call back later, not returning our calls, shunting us over to his staff, or claiming he didn’t have much to say. (A claim belied by his frequent and often provocative quotes in the media.) Granted, he was probably busy organizing the massive Walk for Gilad.
Still, he remains the “one that got away” on that trip. I got as close as the Kibbutz Movement office in Tel Aviv. I realized, after interviewing one Member of Parliament and another ex-MK, that Marshak worked out of the address next door, I charged over and tried to set up an interview there. His puzzled secretary, though, just looked at me and explained that he wasn’t in; he was at a meeting at the Defense Department offices. I’d missed the mysterious Mr. Marshak again.