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.