Romney’s Kibbutz Thing

— by Bernard Avishai

Mitt Romney’s knowledge of Israel is so impressionistic that contradicting his claims about the kibbutz movement hardly seems worth anyone’s time. I would like to think that a physicist would not feel impelled to post every time a public figure said something stupid about the uncertainty principle. The thing is, what he says about the kibbutz gives us yet more insight into what he thinks about, and how he would run, America.

First, of all the kibbutz was a “collective” to be sure, and its founding was influenced by the same Eastern European currents that brought many Jews to socialism; but it was first and foremost a model to create a cultural revolution in Palestine that could not otherwise be brought off: the revival of the Hebrew language in contiguous settlements that did not hire (cheap) Arab labor and thus turn Jewish colonists into Arabic-speaking overseers.

The kibbutz was also a way pioneering Zionists created an economy with virtually no class conflicts like those in the Rothschild settlements established in the 1880s; the British had stipulated that Jewish immigration after 1917 would be limited by the absorptive capacity of the land. The kibbutz made absorption virtually unlimited. And it created a way for people to endure dark and difficult days with a sense of togetherness. The movement as a whole supported the larger Zionist project by appropriating each kibbutz’s surplus. Remind you of anything?

Well, Mitt, the kibbutz may not be American but it is awfully reminiscent of the pioneering Mormon settlements of Utah, where even if you ignore husbands taking many wives (on the kibbutz, you just bedded other men’s wives), communitarian ideals were deeply inculcated, hierarchy and missionary zeal were taken for granted, and every family tithed to a corporate whole run by elders who, in turn, invested in stabilizing and proselytizing the larger Mormon project.

Of course, Romney doesn’t care about the kibbutz at all. He is trying to make a larger point. America, he says, is about “individuals pursuing their dreams and building successful enterprises which employ others and they become inspired as they see what has happened in the place they work and go off and start their own enterprises.” And here he just moves from ignorance to callousness. You don’t have to be Rosa Luxemburg to know something about the exploitation and impoverishment and insecurity of ordinary working people in the old industrial capitalism, a problem the kibbutz was in its way trying to solve.

Everyone from Charles Dickens to Peter Drucker understood that inspiration alone does not buy a worker land or provide him the means to buy industrial machinery. You do have to be born to a rich father to think, `gee, running a business is neat: I’m going to do that.’ Some people without means hit the jackpot or had some great luck. Most were condemned to working for others. The question for them was how to work, at least in part, for themselves-to have a say in how the conditions of work are set, to enjoy that dignity.

Now, capitalism and the technologies of industry have changed a great deal since the kibbutz was founded. Virtually every kibbutz in Israel has been privatized. Romney said he liked the start-up culture in Israel. Much of it started up in the 1970s and 1980s, at various kibbutzim, where agricultural production simply wasn’t profitable enough to support the educational aspirations of new generations. In fact, kibbutzim are now mainly corporations run by stock-holders who were once kibbutz members. In microcosm they are a model quite like the system Drucker prophesied, when he wrote about worker pension funds owning much of the stock of major corporations. If that isn’t America, where does Bain Capital think it lives?

Perhaps the most cautionary signal is that Romney thought to pick on the kibbutz when he could have picked on a hundred other Fox-News targets. I mean, it is just so obvious that he has Likud apologists writing his stuff for him. The only people who opposed the kibbutz movement from the start were revisionist Zionists, their descendants now in the Likud, who liked to depict kibbutz members a little like the way Ayn Rand liked to depict union leaders. Can we really expect a Romney presidency to view the Middle East this much through lenses ground for him by fellow-travelers?
Reposted from Open Zion, a featured section of The Daily Beast, where Bernard Avishai contributes a regular column.

Two Fabulous Films About Kibbutzim and Refugees

— by Hannah Lee

The Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Short Topic for 2010, Strangers No More, was shown on January 30th as part of the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival as well as the 2011 documentary,  Inventing Our Lives: The Kibbutz Experiment, at the Prince Music Theatre.

More after the jump.
Inventing Our Lives: The Kibbutz Experiment, is Toby Perl Freilich’s 79-minute new film, which explores “the longest experiment in collective living,” says presenter Dr. Ranen Omer-Sherman, Professor of English and Jewish Studies of the University of Miami, and the “final word on the kibbutz movement has not been said.”  Freilich’s film intersperses interviews with the three generations of kibbutzniks (kibbutz residents) with actual footage from the time.

At its peak, the kibbutz movement only comprised 5% of the population in Israel, but its influence has been far-reaching, with its radical proposals for change in social organization– parenting even, as children were raised in separate children’s quarters– and economic cooperation.  It was said in the film that Israel’s defense forces and Knesset (parliamentary government) have both been affected, with many of its leaders coming out of the kibbutz movement.  Indeed, the current consul general of Israel for the Mid-Atlantic region, Daniel Kutner, hails from Kibbutz Ein Shemer where his family landed when they first arrived to Israel.

Philosopher Avishai Margolit of Hebrew University was quoted in the film calling the kibbutz movement “a children’s crusade,” because the pioneers were young men and women who’d moved to the barren land that was Israel before the intensive efforts at re-forestation and drying out the swamps.  They worked without older adult supervision and they taught themselves– many with an urban upbringing– how to work the land.  In the film, a first-generation kibbutznik called her peers “children of nature.”

The population in Israel in 1948 was 600,000 and four years later, the population tripled, mostly from the influx of immigrants from Islamic countries.  Alas, according to one person interviewed in the film, a major tragedy for the kibbutzim was that they did not try to integrate the newer immigrants.

The golden period was of the second-generation, who enjoyed the rewards of their pioneer parents– the kibbutzim now had running water and some even had swimming pools– while still proud that they were the heroes of a new country.  Then, two outside forces greatly stressed the movement:  In 1977, Begin’s Likud party of Oriental Jews gained power and rejected Labor’s Zionist ideals.  And during the 1970’s, inflation rose to 400%, and many kibbutzim could not survive the economic pressures.   The youth left and the remaining kibbutzniks were demoralized.  

At the Prince Music Theatre, Professor Omer-Sherman noted that two groups that have faced re-identification in modern times are the Negev Bedouin and the kibbutzim members.   Many kibbutzim experimented with privatization to lure new investments and new members.  Now only 1% of the remaining 270 kibbutzim are still purely socialistic and egalitarian.  Kibbutz Ein Shemer voted three times to reject a differential income plan; it passed on fourth try.  Kibbutz Tamuz in Beit Shemesh is an urban kibbutz—  another variation for bringing the original values to a contemporary society.

>Strangers No More is the 40-minute long documentary directed by Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon about the remarkable Bialik-Rogozin School in central Tel Aviv where students hail from 48 countries.  This public school, encompassing  Kindergarten through 12th grades, and in addition to the local citizens (mostly from the lowest socioeconomic sectors of Israeli society), it welcomes the children of migrant and refugee families, with and without legal status.  Professor Omer-Sherman noted while Jews have long had the Biblical tradition of welcoming the stranger; for the first time, Israel has the opportunity to do so and it’s finally with the power to help others.  But, does it have the will?

The staff and faculty of the Bialik-Rogozin School are shown as generous, patient, and kind, even visiting parents in their home when they cannot meet them at school for the regular student evaluations.  Principal Karen Tal (and now superintendent) extended her school’s hours from 7 am to 7 pm, when she realized that her parents worked way beyond the average work day, because  “We want to be like a home, and a home doesn’t close at 1 in the afternoon.

The film highlights one school year for three new students: 16-year-old Mohammed from Darfur who came to the school after witnessing the killing of both his grandmother and father; 12-year-old Johannes from Ethiopia and a Sudan refugee camp who had never attended school before entering Bialik-Rogozin; and Esther from South Africa who’d also witnessed her mother’s murder.   Mohammed is an orphan who has to work to support himself, but he is so determined to succeed that he “made up four years [of study] in one year.”  He wants to return to his own country and start a school modeled after the Bialik-Rogozin.  Johannes is struggling with the language and formal study until the school fits him for prescription glasses and he can finally see the teachers’ writing.  In just a few months, he is able to translate for a new boy in his native Tigrit.  In another poignant– and ironic  moment– Esther tells about her prized souvenir from her mother, a jewelry box for which “she must have paid a fortune” and the camera pans to show her layered plastic box.

The film does not detail the way that Tal financed her school, in order to provide her needy students with hot lunches, school books, and extracurricular enrichment (some lucky few get bicylces), but she reached out beyond Tel Aviv and Israel and has received financial assistance from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles (in cooperation with the Chais Family Foundation and the Rashi Foundation) and a committee that included support from high-tech companies and business leaders.

Afterwards, Professor Omer-Sherman reported on recent developments after the movie was released.  On the day the film won its Oscar, Esther’s family was threatened with deportation.  Last month, the Knesset approved “harsh new penalties on illegal migrants, a measure aimed at stopping the flow of African asylum seekers and economic migrants across Israel’s southern border with the Egyptian Sinai.  The amendment, to the existing Law to Prevent Infiltration, makes it possible to detain illegal migrants and their children for up to three years without a trial. Anyone caught aiding illegal migrants found to be carrying weapons, or trafficking in humans or drugs, could face prison terms of 5 to 15 years.” [10 January 2012, New York Times]  One angry audience member denounced this amendment and suggested diverting the money needed to enforce such measures to funding more schools like the Bialik-Rogozin , so that these children of circumstances beyond their control can become productive citizens and even serve in the Army.  Consul General Kutner rebutted this view, saying that Israel has become a magnet for Africans, not just political refugees but also economic aspirants to “the Promised Land.”  These government measures are a reluctant reaction to stem the tide of migrants, which totaled 400,000 40,000 last year.  That’s a big burden on a small nation.

The Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival concludes its “Documentaries and Dialogues” series with Eichmann’s End on February 6th at 7 pm.  

In addition, it’ll feature Louder than a Bomb and Live Poetry Slam on Sunday, February 12th, at 2:30 pm, also at the Prince Music Theatre at 1412 Chestnut Street.