About the Book

Chasing Utopia

Published Fall 2016 by ECW Press

Shortlisted for the Vine Award for Canadian Jewish Literature, Non-Fiction

Jerry Seinfeld did it. So did Susan Sarandon. Noam Chomsky couldn’t resist the call to come to Israel either.

Future Hollywood stars and famous intellectuals all did time on a kibbutz. Since 1910, more than 275 kibbutzes were founded, from the snowy slopes of Mt. Hermon to the waters of the Red Sea. The elite of Israeli society grew up on these experiments in utopian socialism, which attracted more than 400,000 young backpackers for a sleeves-rolled immersion in cotton picking, beer chugging and the ideal of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” On the kibbutz, international volunteers saw a vision of Israel absent from the doom and gloom of the news cycle: liberal, secular, cooperative, peaceable. Over the past decade, however, the kibbutz’s dream of solidarity crashed against the rocks of economic rupture and political reality. Three-quarters of the socialist villages (including Degania, the first kibbutz) embraced the go-go capitalism of “Start-Up Nation.” A few became gated communities of millionaires; many more teeter near bankruptcy. Distraught kibbutz members attempted suicide—or worse. Their vision of peaceful co-existence with Israel’s Arab neighbors seems more elusive than ever.

While the kibbutz may be fading, its spirit remains alive in unexpected corners of the nation it helped to create. A new generation of Israelis is forging versions of utopia to heal a wounded land. In Chasing Utopia: The Future of the Kibbutz in a Divided Israel, David Leach offers an in-depth exploration of what went wrong with the kibbutz’s dream of perfect equality and narrates a dramatic road trip through the communities of hope that now rise from the ruins. Crisscrossing Israel and Palestine, Chasing Utopia takes curious readers off the beaten track to meet people and places overlooked by the simplistic storylines about the region. At every turn, the book challenges biases and busts preconceptions—including the author’s.

The investigative travelogue mixes profiles of remarkable people and places in Israel/Palestine with a raucous memoir of life as a kibbutz volunteer. In a tragi-comic journey of political awakening—part Animal Farm, part Animal House—the author reveals how much Israel changed him and how much Israel has changed since he lived there. The transformation of Kibbutz Shamir, where he once worked, symbolizes the evolution of the nation itself. Founded in the shadow of the Holocaust by Romanian Marxists, Shamir became the Little Kibbutz That Could—the celebrated home to war heroes and artists, the traumatic site of a deadly terrorist attack, and now a high-tech success story on the NASDAQ exchange.

Readers will meet unique characters and communities, including the ruthless business consultant whose “Final Solution” turned socialist communes into capitalist suburbs; the green-thumbed “eco-Zionists” remaking the desert into an Eden for the age of climate change; the Four Mothers, who stood firm and stopped a bloody war in Lebanon; the urban activists who demand peace with Gaza in the shadow of falling rockets; a Jewish/Palestinian hip-hop collective who rap protest songs in the four tongues of their divided homeland; the free-love breakaway Republic of Achzivland and its cantankerous ruler/pornographer; the mysterious Druze people kept apart by the poignant Shouting Fence; a high-tech urban utopia in the hills of occupied Palestine wired for a nation-in-waiting; and the one-of-a-kind Oasis of Peace, founded by a Roman Catholic priest and visited by rock stars, where Arabs and Jews live, work and teach in (occasional) harmony. Only in Chasing Utopia will readers encounter such eccentric visionaries in a land (and a book) where peace and violence, hope and despair, comedy and tragedy walk hand in hand toward a future that is always uncertain but never dull.

Chasing Utopia pushes past the clichés of the Mid-East conflict that dominate North American media and explores a complex and compelling vision of Israel’s landscapes, history and people that most readers never encounter. Written in a quick-paced, vividly descriptive and darkly funny style by one of Canada’s most in-demand travel journalists and creative nonfiction writers, the book is part cultural history, part adventure tale, and part coming-of-age comedy. Imagine Cheryl Strayed (Wild) on a road trip with Thomas Friedman (From Beirut to Jerusalem), and you’ll get a sense of the provocative mysteries to be discovered when readers open the covers of Chasing Utopia.