Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Israel Journal VI: Kibbutz

Watercolor of Kibbutz Merom Golan by Hallie Cohen
Having a shared aspiration is a wonderful thing. For recovering alcoholics, for instance, the common purpose of staying sober provides a sense of unity in which differences of social and economic status lose their importance. Back in the heady early days of independence, Israeli society was united by one cause: survival. A form of utopian socialism derived out of a shared aspiration and the egalitarianism and humanism of kibbutz life all derived out of a condition in which it was not only desirable but necessary to put the needs of the group above those of the individual. Kibbutzim are no longer as powerful and important a presence as they were in the 50’s, in which left leaning American folks singers like Pete Seeger and the Weavers included “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena" in their repertoires-- though some of these values still are still evidenced in everyday Israeli life (one of these is a shared devotion to military service that is not to be found in almost any other country in the world). One reason for this is that Israeli economy has changed. In the fifties Israel was an agrarian society (remember the tree campaigns). Now it’s country of technocrats famed for its cutting edge computer industry. The Kibbutz Merom Golan in the Golan Heights voted itself to be a “communal village” rather than an “agricultural settlement.” Starting in 1996, it began to be run like a company with stock issued and people paid on the basis of the basis of the kind of work they performed. Rather than agriculture, Bental, a company that made electrogmagnetic engines for tanks, provided a large source of income—along with a steak house. In its capitalist form, as a restaurant with bungalows rented out to travelers, it bears some resemblance to a Club Med. And of course on a more global level there is what Max Weber once termed the "routinization of charisma" at work. The sect became a church and the early fervor was institutionalized. You can still see the fading socialist realist style architecture of the fifties (Danish modern meets Soviet) in most cities and towns; indeed the architectural in some public spaces like national parks has an anachronistic look that competes unfavorably with the new construction that is flourishing. At Merom the walls of some of the housing were built with 40 cm thick fortified concrete. Function preceded form and the structures, which could house a tank, are like fallout shelters. It may be a sad commentary on Israel and the Mideast that these residences still remain desirable due to the constant threat of attack.

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