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.