Category Archives: Israel and Palestine

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.

Practicing creative ecology

I only stayed in Lotan for two weeks, but in that time I did get to try my hand at some of the creative ecology practiced there.

First of all, I got to join the Green Apprentices for some of their lectures and activities. These included learning how to construct strawbale houses, learning about Earthships and other sustainable building practices, discussing how to apply permaculture design practices in the city and more.

A definite highlight was our excursion to the nearby Kibbutz Ketura to visit their experimental organic orchard, which is part of the Arava Institute of Environmental StudiesCenter for Sustainable Agriculture.

We spent a morning with the director of the Centre, Dr. Elaine Solowey, who is a leading researcher in the field of desert agriculture and sustainable agriculture. She has spent the last 25 years experimenting to adapt various kinds of perennial crops, mainly trees, to the extremely arid climate of the Arava. Here, crops need to be both salt-tolerant, heat-tolerant and be able to manage on relatively little water.

Solowey sees the task of adapting crops to desert climates to be of vital importance in a world where deserts are spreading every year as a result of global climate change. Being able to grow food even in the most inhospitable climates may prove to be vital in the long run. Among Solowey’s current experiments are Mezquite trees, Marula trees, Neem trees, and perhaps most interestingly, Coconut palms, which nobody apparently have tried as a crop in Israel before.

Elaine is committed to her cause, and she is definitely not afraid to answer the typical critical questions of commercial viability and the relevance of trying to grow stuff in one of the driest places on the planet with razor sharp wit. She nearly bit the head of one of the students here for asking why she just didn’t grow olives like everybody else. It was a lot of fun.

A big part of the practical work that I’ve been doing here has involved mud. I have learned that mud is also a verb. And in Lotan, there is a lot of mudding going on. There is a wide array of buildings, walls, benches, sculptures, outdoor ovens, lamps, playgrounds that have been built out of mud (typically, the mud is covering tires and other old rubbish). In the photo above, long-time volunteer Yotam is applying a final coat of mud to a wall.

It was fun to learn to mix and apply the varying consistencies of mud. But I eventually graduated to the more artistic, decorative mudding. This was my little mud masterpiece: the Super Mario Bros. minigolf castle:

The castle was part of a 3-course mud minigolf course at the Centre of Creative Ecology’s playground and ecological experimentarium known as the Eco-Kef (“Kef” is “Fun” in Hebrew).

But two weeks pass quickly, and I have left Lotan to go back to Denmark this Friday. In a way, it feels to soon. Denmark is overcast with a grey continuous drizzle that provides a monotonous backdrop against which the trees and grass appear to be so GREEN. Even so, I’ll miss the desert, especially the times of day when the sun wasn’t blazing down upon us all:

Kibbutzment

On one of the walls in the Kibbutz Lotan dining hall you’ll see a number of framed marriage certificates. These are marriages between kibbutz members and the kibbutz itself. A way for the reform jews in the kibbutz to indicate their commitment (kibbutzment?) to the community upon becoming full kibbutz members:

Unfortunately, like most other forms of marriage in our modern times, these kibbutz marriages don’t tend to last until death do them part.

Of the 130 kibbutz members whose names hang on the wall, only 55 currently live in Lotan. And only 10 of the members who helped found the kibbutz back in 1983 still live here.

In addition to the 55 permanent members, there are around 60 children, 20 foreign volunteers and around 30 other non-member residents living at Lotan. Around 150 in total. A couple of families are currently engaged in the 2-year long absorption program to become new, permanent members.

Welcome to Kibbutz Lotan

I have now arrived at Kibbutz Lotan where I’ll be volunteering for 2 weeks. Lotan is located only 20 minutes’ drive from Neot Semadar, in the Arava valley, right on the Jordanian border (there’s only 50 metres from the eastern gate of the kibbutz to the border).

Lotan is famous for its Centre for Creative Ecology, with its permaculture garden and alternative low-energy mud buildings. I’m volunteering at the centre, and will hopefully have an opportunity to learn some more about sustainable living along the way.

This is what Kibbutz Lotan looks like. A little green spot in the arid Arava valley right on the border to Jordan with the beautiful mountains of Edom visible in the distance.

A few facts about Kibbutz Lotan:

  • It is one of only two reform judaism kibbutzim in Israel.
  • It is also the only kibbutz affiliated with the Global Eco-village Network, and has even won an award as Eco-village of the year in 2006.
  • Both ecology and reform judaism features heavily in Lotan’s mission statement.

I live in the Bustan neighbourhood of Kibbutz Lotan. The Bustan is a model for sustainable living, consisting of 10 mud domes each housing one or two persons. They look like this:

The Bustan has composting toilets, solar heated water, a variety of mud and solar ovens, as well as a couple of photovoltaic cells that provide electricity for nighttime lighting. And indeed, most of the inhabitants of the Bustan are part of Lotan’s Green Apprenticeship programme – a five-month course in sustainable practices. It is just about as sustainable as you can get (living in the middle of the desert where there is 350 sun days a year and almost no rain, that is).

Also, Bustan is Hebrew for orchard, because the kibbutz orchard used to be located where the mud dome neighbourhood now stands.

The two-day weekend

In Israel, most people work a six-day week, having only Saturday off (though Friday is only a half-day). But now the Israeli parliament has opened discussion of extending the weekend to two full days. But which day should it be: Friday or Sunday?

The issue is well described in this International Herald Tribune article, which illustrates some of the many conflicting interests in Israeli society.

The holy land

I returned to Jerusalem more than two months after my first visit. This time I also visited the Mount of Olives, home to tonnes of churches, an immense Jewish graveyard and a brilliant view of the Temple Mount:

According to Jewish tradition, the Temple Mount, also known as Mount Moriah, is the foundation stone of the world. It is the rock upon which Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, and it is also where King Solomon built his great temple. Coincidentally, in Muslem tradition, the very same rock is said to be the point from which Mohammed ascended into Heaven, leaving behind his footprint in the rock.

That’s why they call it the holy land, I guess.

On the top of the Mount of Olives there’s a small chapel marking the spot where Jesus ascended into Heaven following his resurrection.

Like Mohammed, he is said to have left behind a footprint, pictured here:

Based on the size of the footprint, I’d estimate that JC used size 55 sandals.

The Galilee and the Golan Heights

From Haifa I went to the Galilee and from there to the Golan Heights – a relatively small area with huge political importance – both in terms of military strategic significance as well as in terms of resources. The Golan is a vital water supply for the region, and its many streams and rivers flow into the Kinneret lake, which is the main freshwater reservoir in Israel.

There are a number of national parks in the Golan. I visited the Yehudiah park. As the locals say, the yellow season has already set in, and the scenery is not as lush as in spring. But it is still a very beautiful place.

This is the Zavidan waterfall in the Yehudiah national park. Here the water falls 27 meters down into a deep pool where you can take a very refreshing little swim.

The eastern shore of the Kinneret, as well as the Golan Heights beyond is not really part of Israel. It is occupied territory won from Syria in the six-day war of 1967. But today it’s difficult to tell that a war took place here. Only in a few places when you come across signs like this are you reminded of Israel’s strained relationship with its neighbours.

Since 1974 and the end of the Yom Kippur war, there has been a cease-fire agreement between Syria and Israel. But Syria insists that a peace treaty won’t be possible until Israel hands over control of the Golan Heights. At present it’s doubtful if that will ever happen.

The day following my excursion into the Golan, I went for a very warm and sweaty bike ride around lake Kinneret. It’s a 61 kilometre roundtrip but it takes a whole day with all the sightseeing and swimming breaks along the way.

There’s a lot of Bible-related sights in the Galilee. I passed by the Mount of Beatitudes (where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount) and Capernaum (a sleepy fishing village in Roman times where Jesus recruited his first disciples), and several others. So naturally, there are a lot of biblical tour buses on the road.

Views of Haifa

I left Jordan. From Eilat I got on an express bus for Haifa in northern Israel. A six-hour cross-country journey.

This is Haifa. Israel’s third-biggest city, its biggest port, and home to a ridiculously big grain silo (the big grey building on the harbour). Apparently, this silo contains enough grain to keep all of Israel supplied for a full year in case the country is cut off from the rest of the world. It is a good example of the somewhat paranoid mindset that characterizes Israeli public policy. (though, as they say: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that people aren’t out to get you)

This is also Haifa. Home to the Baha’i gardens and the shrine of the Bab – a holy site for the Baha’i faith which around 5 million faithful around the world.

The gardens, which consist of 18 terraces – 9 below and 9 above the shrine – on the side of Mt Carmel, are meticulously trimmed and watered by 700 believers. The grass is of golf green quality. Everything is just right. And though the perfect symmetry of the gardens look nice at a distance, up close it’s kind of boring.

Instead of the Baha’i gardens, I found the nearby Ursula Malbin sculpture garden to be much more to my liking: not as tidy, but with much more life and character – especially through lovely and poetic sculptures such as this

I also liked this sculpted gate that I came across in the German Colony district of Haifa: it consists of two figures bending over, meeting in a kiss. I love the effect of looking up at the sculpture and into the blue sky above at the same time.