Apples and Oranges

Really interesting documentary looking into the history of the kibbutz.

Now, before seeing this, I had only a vague notion about what a kibbutz was like, combining ideas of settler colonies, summer camps, and hippy communes. Having now watched this film, you see the great range of kibbutz experiences, and how they changed over time.

I was also worried that the film would erase Palestinian existence completely, but it kinda brings it in as it explores how, as time went on, idealism and optimism gave way to a more critical view of the kibbutz.

So was a kibbutz religious or secular? Full of free love hippies, or conservative devotees? Made for the expansion of Israel, or a student holiday camp? The answer is all, yes, no, both, and different from place to place.

The documentary starts in the 60s where flower power and hippies combine with ideas of socialism in a new country which is seen a beacon of hope to people around the world. The idea of working together, sharing the work and sharing the benefits, in an environment of social equality was appealing to people. Young people especially saw it as a chance to come and contribute to a new country which would hopefully harbour in safety the Jewish people who had seen such horrors in the decades before.

They were sold the idea that they were going to open, virgin desert, and their job was to make it bloom and turn green, like a miracle of sheer idealism bearing fruit. No one seemed to question that maybe the land had never been desert, that it was already fertile, and whoever had previously been making it grow had been ‘relocated’.

But the wave of sheer joy and hope that comes off the volunteers is infectious, you really feel their belief that they were bringing a new world to bear, helping the dispossessed find a new home, in a new type of society, and that equality and common humanity would win out.

What a beautiful dream.

As the 60s roll around to the 70s, you see the drug and sex culture start to intensify. There is less of an engagement with the ideas of socialism, and more of an escape from society. So you have these communally raised kibbutzniks growing to sexual maturity, sometimes in religiously strict environments, mingling with this never-ending rotating cast of teenagers from around the world, whose ideas about sex are very different, and who are also on their summer holidays looking for a jolly. It was a fuckfest.

So too you get the waves of resistance from Israeli society to the kibbutz movement, as the positives are offset against the rising numbers of ‘mixed marriages’, as couples form between Jewish Israelis and gentile foreigners. This leads to two problems, the emigration of Jews from Israeli, or the immigration of non-Jews to Israel, which either way conflicts with the purpose of Zionism.

The concerns around miscegenation created the first inkling in the volunteers that maybe there was going to be a racism and discrimination problem in the Israel they were helping to build. And the shine really came off the apple during the Beirut massacre. Seeing Israel participate in war crimes against the Palestinian people in Lebanon made a lot of people wonder, hey, what if we’re not the good guys?

As the 80s rolled in, a colder cynicism took place in the culture, and a real analysis of what the kibbutz system had become. The communal life had devolved into a 2-tier system, with volunteers being given the shittiest jobs, and kept in substandard shacks, in some places referred to as ‘the ghetto’. The kibbutz extracted months or years of unpaid labour from people, many of whom were flocking to the kibbutz purely because they had nowhere else to go. With rising unemployment all across Europe, people with absolutely no hope were coming to the kibbutz to have the bare minimum of a roof over their head and food in their belly.

And someone said, hey, isn’t this a bit exploitative? As a former volunteer put it, the reason they were there was racism. They would rather hire white foreigners than Arab Israelis. Plus, it kept wages low if you have a massive unpaid migrant workforce. Far from the ideals of socialism it was founded on, the kibbutz movement was hugely damaging to the cause and conditions of workers.

So the whole thing starts to wind up, and as one spouse of a former volunteer puts it, with media coverage and the internet, watching the First and Second Intifadas, the Gazan War and countless killings, idealistic young people nowadays are far more likely to go and volunteer in a Palestinian refugee camp, than a kibbutz.

So ends a story that began with the best of intentions. A really fascinating look at a really interesting piece of history.