Monthly Archives: August 2011

Relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Living and working in the kibbutzim of the Arava, it’s easy to forget the outside world. The kibbutz world is quite small, especially in Neot Semadar.

In Neot Semadar, there is no radio or television. No mobile phones in public. Newspapers are available only in the newspaper room. Internet only in the internet room. The outside world is only available to the extent that you seek it out and bring it with you into the kibbutz.

There is no money inside the kibbutz because there are no places where you can spend money. And so there is no reason to carry money with you. No doors are locked. Trust is abundant.

There is no pomposity. Everybody is equally poor. Everybody works 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. Everybody eats the same food in the dining hall. Nobody seems to shirk or complain. Everybody is there because they want to be there. It is the life they want to lead at this point in their lives.

There are no advertisements. No banners or billboards or signs or flyers or stickers. No unexpected grabs for your attention. No hi-jacking of your train of thought. You learn to be with your undistracted self. You calm.

Living in Neot Semadar reminded me of the anarchist society described in Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction novel The Dispossessed. The anarchists live on an arid and desolate planet called Anarres. They migrated there from the rich and fertile planet Urras on the condition that they would be left alone to develop their own kind of society on their own terms. They accepted the devil’s bargain of moving away to Anarres in order to be able to live according to their ideas and values, accepting that they would leave behind everybody else to the war, insecurity and oppression of the regimes they opposed on Urras.

The parallel to the Arava kibbutzim is pretty striking to me: They live an isolated, quiet life far from the conflict. They have resigned from relating to the conflict. They have given up taking any active part in the peace process and attempting to solve the conflict. Instead they focus on making their own communities as peaceful, beautiful and serene as possible. They live in peace in a land at war.

These are people who have grown up with the fact of the occupation of the Palestinian Territories and the Golan Heights, which has lasted for almost 45 years now. To most of them, the conflict is a fact of life. Unsolvable and bitter. Even though they all want peace, they don’t see how it can ever be achieved when extremists are so thoroughly entrenched on both sides. Rather than spending their energy fighting for an impossible cause, they have chosen to live in a beautiful parallel universe where a small community live in trustful, loving cooperation.

At first, I was fascinated by the strength of their community. Of how much they have achieved out there in the desert. And I relished the opportunity to be part of such caring, tightly-knit communal life. I enjoyed the undisturbed peace of the desert immensely. It is something that I would wish that everyone could experience. It is the perfect counterpart to balance the stressed-out, over-exposed, too-busy experience of living in the city. I think a lot of people would be much happier living in a place like Neot Semadar.

But looking back on my experiences there, I wonder whether it will ever really be okay to give up and ignore the conflict like this? When resourceful, intelligent and caring people like these have given up working to resolve the conflict, how can it ever be resolved?

It highlights the delicate balance between being true to your values and fighting for what is right on one hand, and taking care of yourself, exploring your interests and leading a good, peaceful life on the other. I know a lot of people who have been very dedicated activists, and who have taken it upon themselves to fight to resolve great systemic issues. And at some point, it has become too much for them, and they’ve collapsed with stress or depression or exhaustion from the never-ceasing crush of the fight.

The question is, how much should you be willing to sacrifice for peace? Is it ever possible to balance your desire for a better world for all with your desire to live better life yourself? Can you lead a good life when so many people don’t have equal opportunity to do so?

I guess most people can. Even the most dedicated idealists eventually mellow out and focus on the small scale of their own life and their immediate community. They tire of the constant struggle. They aren’t saints. They want to raise their kids in peace and they want to eat good food and laugh and drink and sing songs just like everybody else.

What irks me when the kibbutzniks ignore the conflict is the sheer proximity of it all: All Israelis have their share of the responsibility of resolving this conflict. Just like all Palestinians have their share. But when Israelis choose not to work to resolve the conflict, they indirectly accept the status quo. A status quo that leaves them free to live the lives they want to live but keeps the Palestinians unfree and unable to do the same.

It doesn’t really matter how beautiful and egalitarian a life you choose to lead if you refuse to relate to a political situation that keeps your neighbours unable to do the same. I’m not blaming the kibbutzniks for the fact that the conflict is still unresolved. Far from it. The extremists on both sides are obviously the biggest culprits on that account. But as Edmund Burke is supposed to have said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

How close do you need to be to a problem to feel an obligation to help solve it? When we look around and see other people engaged in solving that problem, does that make it okay for us to step away? Can you give up relating to a problem without even trying to solve it?

Once we give up trying, we give up hope. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is suffocating from lack of hope. They haven’t given up but only because they don’t have any other options but to keep going. They need our help to restore that hope. I hope we have some hope to spare.

The kibbutzim

My initial interest in going to Israel and Palestine was driven by my fascination with the kibbutz as a unit of community. A weird 20th century socialist utopian sort of colonial settlement where people live together, sharing livelihoods and living in an state of acknowledged interdependence. In a century marked by a string of failed utopian experiments, the kibbutz was “an exemplary non-failure” as Martin Buber called it. And as I am a leftist with a bit of a weakness for utopian fantasies, I wanted to experience the kibbutz myself and learn from kibbutzniks’ experiences and mistakes.

From the beginning of the kibbutz movement (the first kibbutz was founded in 1910), the kibbutz was in part a military tool used to claim land in Palestine. Many of the early kibbutzim were built as part of the so-called “tower-and-stockade” campaign in the 1930s. Basically, the settlers arrived in the morning and had one day to set up tents, a watch-tower with a spotlight and a stockade for basic defense. Because that very night, they would be attacked by local bedouins or Palestinians who saw the kibbutzim as yet another landgrab.

Examining the history of Israel, I realized that the country is the last colonial power. It has used 19th century colonialist tactics of settlement, immigration and defense to establish a 20th century Jewish colonial settlement in the Middle East (there are, of course, marked differences from the establishment of other colonies in that the Jewish people didn’t have a state of their own before, and were fleeing from terror and genocide in both Europe and the Middle East).

Throughout the early history of the Jewish settlement of Palestine and the foundation of the state of Israel, the kibbutz has stood as the archetypical Israeli settlement, and thus an symbol of Israeli independence and resourcefulness. But whereas the settlements of earlier colonial eras typically were built to mirror the conservative values of the empires that funded them, the kibbutzim were built on socialist and even anarchist values.

There are now more than 270 kibbutzim in Israel and the occupied territories. But since the big kibbutz debt crisis of the mid-1980s, more than 75% of the kibbutzim have been privatised. This means that these kibbutzim no longer have collective economies. Rather than following the old socialist credo of everybody working according to ability and receiving according to need, the individual kibbutz members now own their own houses and some shares in the kibbutz farm and factory, and are not under any obligation to work in the kibbutz. These kibbutzim have become ordinary villages where the villagers happen to co-own the local industry.

Following my utopian slant, I was interested in the 25% of the kibbutzim that still have collective economies. A fair number of these are among the last wave of kibbutzim that settled the Arava desert in the early 1980s. The Arava desert is an extremely inhospitable place. Annual rainfall is around 20 cm, and there are around 350 days of sunshine each year. Summer temperatures easily reach 45 degrees celsius. Very few people have been living there for the past 3000 years. But it is part of the state of Israel, and as such, the Israelis are dedicated to making the most of even these barren parts of the country. To make the desert bloom, as David Ben-Gurion put it.

Like other waves of kibbutz settlement, these Arava kibbutzim received support from the Israeli state (and the Jewish National Fund before that) to get started. But even so, settling the most remote and unhospitable part of the country would only attract the most idealistic and/or foolhardy people. Thus, the kibbutzim in the Arava are mostly populated by a mix of idealists. From the reform jews of Yahel and Lotan to the socialists of Grofit and the anarchists of Samar to the ecologists and bird watchers of Lotan and Ketura to the self-learning organic farmers of Neot Semadar.

In short, the Arava is the freaky fringe of Israel. A place so remote that it provides space and shelter for some of those social experiments that there is no room for in the rest of the country. And that’s where I ended up spending most of my three months in Israel.

An ethical test

Since I came back to Denmark three weeks ago, lots of people have asked how I feel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and what I have learned about it in my three months there.

I have a lot of friends on the progressive left who were taken aback by the fact that I chose to volunteer at a kibbutz. To them, working at a kibbutz is a kind of indirect expression of support to the state of Israel. And thus, by extension, it is an expression of support to the Israeli Defense Forces, which has been occupying the Palestinian Territories for 44 years now. An occupation that continues to cause Palestinians to suffer – both directly through the IDF’s oppressive control in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as indirectly through the continued exclusion of Palestinian refugees stuck in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and elsewhere.

In this perspective, working in an Israeli kibbutz means helping to produce Israeli goods (such as dates and jams and wine), some of which will be exported to Europe and North America, which can provide the Israeli government with increased tax revenue, which in turn can be used to fund the continued occupation of Palestine. And so, volunteering at a kibbutz can be seen as an indirect way of condoning and supporting the Israeli part in the conflict.

In this way, relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict posed something of an ethical test for me: Should I discard the kibbutz experience out of hand because of its relation to the Israeli state? Should I refuse to work and live among Israelis because of how their elected government has chosen to act in the conflict?

But as I see it, there is already plenty of preconceptions of how the two sides of the conflict act, and a big part of the conflict does seem to be that both sides relate to their own preconceived, stereotypical representations of one another rather than to each other as human beings.

And I realised that I would only be reinforcing such unfruitful and segregating preconceptions by acting on a perspective that any action that can be construed as an expression of support for the state of Israel cannot be condoned. It would be to support the vilification of an entire nation and a whole people without ever even deigning to meet them and talk with them. And surely, no good has ever come of such an approach.

Indeed, much the same argument, built on similar preconceptions, could be used to claim exact opposite: that any visit and volunteer effort in the Palestinian Territories can be construed as an expression of support to Palestinian terrorists who use suicide bombs and kidnappings to pressure Israel.

The complexity of the conflict seems to escape easy schemes of categorization. And no set of preconceptions can do justice to all of the ethical and political nuances of the intertwined peoples and lands of Israel and Palestine.

I find that to be pretty intriguing. So I decided to postpone my judgment of the conflict as a whole until I had had the opportunity to experience everyday life in Israel and the kibbutzim, and to see how the Israelis themselves relate to the conflict.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll write a series of posts on what I’ve learned during my stay in Israel. About the conflict. About the kibbutzim. About how the Israelis relate to all of it. And about how I feel about the conflict now that I have seen it for myself.