Sunday, May 4, 2014

Israel/Palestine 9: The Kibbutzniks


The other day friends took us to dinner at an Arab restaurant in the Upper Galilee. We enjoyed a grand spread of hummus, eggplant ten different ways, Pita breads, and various yoghurt dressed cold dishes.  Delicious. No alcohol because this is a Muslim establishment, but great conversation. 

On the way, at the very south end of the Kinneret, Shaul had us stop next to an old sandstone building.  “This is an important place, “ he said earnestly.  “This is Degenya, the Kibbutz that started it all.” 
The Kinneret near Kibbutz Deganya

Shaul and Dudu are members of Kibbutz Ashdot-Ya’acov, which sits at the intersection of the Yarmuk and Jordan rivers, just down the road from Deganya.  The border fence separating Israel and Jordan runs along a forest of date palms on their kibbutz.  Watchtowers, relics of a time not long ago when the kibbutz imposed itself on land purchased by James Rothschild, are sprinkled on the land.  The kibbutz started in Gesher, a few kilometers down the Jordan valley in 1922, but soon the kibbutzniks were tired of waiting for permission to work the larger, richer Rothschild land and marched up to their present location and started working the land without permission.  The growth of the Kibbutz was aided by the Zionist Fourth Aliyah (1924-1928) and the Fifth Aliyah (1929-1939), a period when more than 300,000 Jews immigrated to the land.  By the 1940’s Ashdot-Ya’acov was one of the largest kibbutzim with more than 4,000 members.  They named the kibbutz after the waterfall next to the kibbutz and in honor of James (Ya’acov) Rothschild. 

It was an idealistic time.  At the beginning, golden grass covered the parched countryside.  The two historical rivers were harnessed with dams and channels, and the kibbutznicks plowed and irrigated the land, began to grow crops, and raise cows, chickens, and goats.  They developed drip irrigation and started a plastics factory.  Children spent their days together in the Children’s House; they ate there, slept there, and went to school there.  Children saw their parents for only a short time each evening.  The Kibbutz provided housing, a job, basic needs for all members.  Everyone worked hard, and there was not much left over. 

Dudu’s parents arrived from Poland.  The photograph hanging on the wall shows a sophisticated, intellectual, beautiful couple.  “They had no God,” says Dudu, “ideology was their religion.” “Work was their religion,” adds Shaul.  Ari Shavit, in his book My Promised Land, says that ideological fervor is just what was needed to extract the personal sacrifices necessary from an entire generation in order to forge the state of Israel: to tame the land and make it bloom, to create industries, an economy, and to do the hard acts required to establish borders, defend them, and drive out or subdue the existing population.  Moshe Dayan, the heroic general of the Six-Day war, was the second child born on Kibbutz Deganya.  The religiously orthodox, many of whom don’t subscribe to the state of Israel to this day, could never have done it. 

The sacrifices were large.  Individual gain and advancement were subordinated to the community.  Life was communal; property and children were communal.  The members worked the fields with a gun at the ready.  In the early days there were intruders.  The Kibbutz was at the front lines during the war of independence, and again during the Six-Day war in 1967.  During the “war of attrition” that followed, the PLO operated from just across the river in Jordan.  Land mines were frequently placed in the fields at night.  One exploded under a wagon crowded with farm workers returning from the fields.  Four were killed.  A memorial marks the spot. After the peace treaty with Jordan, a Jordanian soldier killed seven school girls on an outing to the “Peace Island,” immediately adjacent to the Kibbutz.  We visited the memorial on the way in to the Kibbutz. 

The ideology didn’t last. Today, most kibbutzim have either failed or they have made the transition to some type of privatized model. The growing prosperity of the country provided options for advancement and more prosperous lives off the kibbutz.  Membership declined.  The Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of Stalinism and its inability to implement an efficient pricing system for the planned economy.  And Ashdot-Ya’acov split in two:  Ashdot-Ya’acov Ichud, and Ashdot-Ya’acov Mechuad.  One continued on the communist model and is languishing; one is pursuing socialism with capitalistic characteristics and seems to be making the transition.


Shaul and Dudu have the good fortune, their description, to be members of Ashdot-Ya’acov Ichud.  The kibbutz has largely made the transition to a modern capital economy.  Many members pursue careers off-kibbutz.  Dudu is a professor of physics at two local colleges; his wife, Bracha, is a fine artist and runs the art program at the college.  Their salary goes directly to the kibbutz, but they get most of it back, minus the governmental taxes, and some additional kibbutz taxes.  They have their own apartment, but their laundry is done in the kibbutz laundry, they drive a kibbutz car-pool vehicle.  I infer that as members of the kibbutz they also receive a share of the profits.  The plastics factory, as well as the farming operations of the kibbutz utilizes cheap outside labor.  They run their own day care, schools, and old age home.  Today Ichud and Mechuad share only two things: the basketball team and the cemetery.
Dudu and Bracha 



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