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.



  1. leebarzel says

    Consul-General Daniel Kutner notes that Israel received 40,000 migrants last year, not 400,000.  
    (It was correct in my notes, but wrong in the publication.)

    Hannah Lee

Leave a Reply