I’ve been shamefully neglecting this blog, while busy with teaching—and also finishing the manuscript whose research this blog was set up to track! In short, the first draft of the book is nearly done. It’s too long—by nearly 100,000 words—but then again, there’s a lot to say about the kibbutz, its 100+year history, and the utopian impulse that continues to spring from this experiment in radical sharing.

Last month, I travelled to the north of Scotland, to the International Communal Studies Association triennial gathering, in the fascinating New Age community of Findhorn—a place that deserves a book entirely of its own. (In fact, it has several.) The last ICSA meeting had been in Israel, to mark the centennial of the kibbutz movement, and it was there that I had met many research contacts and experts in kibbutz studies.

This time, I’d agreed to give a paper on how the lessons of kibbutz architecture and design might be applied to improve the community life and reduce the ecological impact of run-of-the-mill suburbs (like the one I grew up in). It was, to be honest, a reworking of the TEDxVictoria talk I gave in 2011:

I also led a fun workshop / design charrette / hackathon called “Greening the ‘Burbs,” which encouraged participants to brainstorm in groups to generate ideas on how to retrofit suburbia for a greener future. About 20 people took part and came up with wonderful concepts, including neighbourhood “skill-sharing” sessions, “defencing” backyards, edible community gardens, and a “boutique” (like Findhorn’s) where people can drop off unwanted clothes and other goods—and pick up (rather than purchase) “gently used” items. Think of the neighbourliness that develops when you spot someone wearing your old sweater! (Check out all the conference abstracts here.)

In a pique of over-enthusiasm, I’d also agreed to give a literary reading, from my book-in–progress, at an evening event called “The Great Sharing”. The selection I’d brought was a darkly comic excerpt from a chapter about a strange and charismatic German volunteer named Wolf and his raucous birthday party on Kibbutz Shamir—which ended with the night sky lit up by flares, over northern Israel, as the IDF tracked down and killed (as we later read in The Jerusalem Post) several Palestinian insurgents from Lebanon. The chapter was a reminder that for all of our drunken volunteer revels, we were still living in a land forever on the edge of violence. I’d read the excerpt, to good response, at our faculty literary evening last spring. 

But then a mini-controversy erupted at Findhorn. And it centered on the kibbutz. And Israel. And the Palestinians.

Even here, in the far north of Scotland, it turned out that this divisive issue could threaten to over-shadow an academic gathering advertised as a way to discuss and promote “communal pathways to sustainable living”….

What happened? 

A group called the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign had got wind of the ICSA conference and noted that a number of Israeli academics and kibbutz members were attending. (In fact, the ICSA has been founded and has its main office based in Israel.) They planned to protest. Those of us in attendance noticed something was up when police cars appeared during the opening day of the conference. At one point, two Scottish cops inspected a bulletin board on which photos of every presenter was pinned. 

“Are they looking for one of us?” we joked. “Is there a criminal in our midst?”

Details of their “investigation” leaked out. First as rumour, then as fact. The police wanted to make sure any protest was peaceful. The visiting Israelis had been briefed about the SPSC and its intentions.

I never saw a protester in the flesh, but I did spot a couple of cars labelled with signs and fact-sheets putting forward the SPSC’s position. Later, a kibbutz-based professor whom I knew complained that the SPSC website had explicitly targeted him under an article titled “Findhorn Community ‘proudly hosts’ supporters of ethnic cleansing”. Tensions were rising, even if most non-Israelis were largely unaware on the online attacks on the conference and Findhorn. Organizers—already stretched with running a major international conference—were meeting with the SPSC, members of the Findhorn community sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and the Israeli attendees to broker a compromise. An anonymous leaflet about the issue, dropped off (and then quickly removed) on dining-room tables before a meal, only sparked more concerns.

In the end, both the Findhorn Foundation and the ICSA board (which I had just joined) hammered out statements about the controversy. Both were read aloud at the conference’s final event.

And my literary reading? Well, I decided to scratch my name from the reading list for the Great Sharing, an hour before the show. People would likely prefer to hear the musicians do their thing anyway, I figured. I didn’t need to throw fuel onto a fire that was already making kibbutz colleagues feel uncomfortable and was distracting from the discussions about intentional communities and sustainability. (The organizers of both the conference and the talent show both agreed.)

Yes, there is a good panel discussion to be had about the kibbutz movement’s checkered relations with the Palestinian people, the role the kibbutz played in both establishing the state of Israel and (to a lesser degree) extending its reach into the West Bank and Gaza. My book research has dealt, in part, with some of the failures of the kibbutz—and some of the efforts of new utopians and kibbutzniks—to bridge that divide. People like Anton Marks, of Kvutsat Yovel, who was at the conference to talk about the urban kibbutz movement and its social-justice efforts—and who went to prison as a conscientious objector rather than serve in the Occupied Territories. However, I don’t think the SPSC was especially interested in having such a nuanced conversation on the issue. 

I’m trying to tackle it in my manuscript, knowing full well that my take on the topic will likely please neither side in a debate in which Black shouts down White and vice versa, while Shades of Grey cower in the corners and try to get a whisper in edgewise.

Perhaps a panel session at the next ICSA conference, in 2016, might tackle the thorny problem of the kibbutz’s relationship with the Palestinian people from a variety of angles, historical and contemporary. It could be a way of moving past the Israeli/Palestinian debate as a litmus test for ideological correctness and instead engaging in a genuine debate about how to build peace by cultivating truly inclusive communities. 

Utopian? I sure hope so. Because that’s what the ICSA—and my book—is all about.