Kibbutz

My Sixties were a little different from those of my contemporaries. Of course, I joined in the enthusiasm for the Beatles, mild drugs, political dissent, and sex (the latter imagined rather than practiced, but in this too I think I reflected majority experience, retrospective mythology notwithstanding). But so far as political activism was concerned, I was diverted from the mainstream in the years between 1963 and 1969 by an all-embracing engagement with left-wing Zionism. I spent the summers of 1963, 1965, and 1967 working on Israeli kibbutzim and much of the time in between was actively engaged in proselytizing Labour Zionism as an unpaid official of one of its youth movements. During the summer of 1964 I was being “prepared” for leadership at a training camp in southwest France; and from February through July of 1966 I worked full time at Machanayim, a collective farm in the Upper Galilee.

This decidedly intense sentimental education worked very well at first. At least through the summer of 1967, when I graduated from voluntary work on a kibbutz to auxiliary participation in the Israeli armed forces, I was the ideal recruit: articulate, committed, and uncompromisingly ideologically conformist. Like the circle dancers in Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I joined with fellow feelers in happy collective revels, excluding dissenters and celebrating our reassuring unity of spirit, purpose, and clothing. I idealized Jewish distinction, and intuitively grasped and reproduced the Zionist emphasis upon separation and ethnic difference. I was even invited—at the absurdly immature age of sixteen—to make a keynote speech to a Zionist youth conference in Paris denouncing smoking as a “bourgeois deviation” and threat to the healthy outdoor commitment of Jewish adolescents. I doubt very much whether I believed this even at the time (I smoked, after all): but I was very good with the words.

The essence of Labour Zionism, still faithful in those years to its founding dogmas, lay in the promise of Jewish work: the idea that young Jews from the diaspora would be rescued from their effete, assimilated lives and transported to remote collective settlements in rural Palestine—there to create (and, as the ideology had it, recreate) a living Jewish peasantry, neither exploited nor exploiting. Derived in equal measure from early-nineteenth-century socialist utopias and later Russian myths of egalitarian village communities, Labour Zionism was characteristically fragmented into conflicting sectarian cults: there were those who believed that everyone on the kibbutz should dress alike, raise their children and eat in common, and use (but not own) identical furniture, household goods, and even books, while deciding collectively upon every aspect of their lives at a mandatory weekly gathering. Softer adaptations of the core doctrine allowed for some variety in lifestyle and even a modicum of personal possessions. And then there were multifarious nuances between kibbutz members, often as not the product of personal or familial conflict recast as fundamentalist discord.

But all were agreed on the broader moral purpose: bringing Jews back to the land and separating them from…


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