Chasing Utopia: The Future of the Kibbutz in a Divided Israel

Chasing Utopia: The Future of the Kibbutz in a Divided Israel

by David Leach
Chasing Utopia: The Future of the Kibbutz in a Divided Israel

Chasing Utopia: The Future of the Kibbutz in a Divided Israel

by David Leach


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A fascinating, non-partisan exploration of an incendiary region
Say the word “Israel” today and it sparks images of walls and rockets and a bloody conflict without end. Yet for decades, the symbol of the Jewish State was the noble pioneer draining the swamps and making the deserts bloom: the legendary kibbutznik. So what ever happened to the pioneers’ dream of founding a socialist utopia in the land called Palestine?
Chasing Utopia: The Future of the Kibbutz in a Divided Israel draws readers into the quest for answers to the defining political conflict of our era. Acclaimed author David Leach revisits his raucous memories of life as a kibbutz volunteer and returns to meet a new generation of Jewish and Arab citizens struggling to forge a better future together. Crisscrossing the nation, Leach chronicles the controversial decline of Israel’s kibbutz movement and witnesses a renaissance of the original vision for a peaceable utopia in unexpected corners of the Promised Land. Chasing Utopia is an entertaining and enlightening portrait of a divided nation where hope persists against the odds.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781770413405
Publisher: ECW Press
Publication date: 09/13/2016
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 8.80(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.60(d)
Lexile: 1050L (what's this?)

About the Author

David Leach is the chair of the Department of Writing at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. His award-winning feature writing has appeared in Canadian Geographic, Financial Post Business, Communities, Explore Magazine, and other publications. His first book, Fatal Tide: When the Race of a Lifetime Goes Wrong, investigated our modern appetite for “extreme” experiences. He lives in Victoria, B.C.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 12: Buying Cat Food with the King of Achziv

My return flight from Tel Aviv touched down in Toronto, and I shoved my passport under the Plexiglas edge of a customs booth. The young agent flipped the pages, ready to bless my return, until his finger paused.

“What’s this?”

His digit incriminated two blue-inked stamps. The crude markings stood out next to the bureaucratic icons from Israel proper; they looked like a daycare art project, carved and inked into wobbly, spud-like ovoids. On the bottom stamp, Hebrew lettering and the words Medinat Achziv encircled a half-ruined mansion with a palm tree sprouting between Moorish domes.

“It’s from the State of Achziv,” I said, as though the location were common knowledge.

“Where’s that?”

“It’s a micro-nation on the coast of Israel,” I explained, and then added, with the slack authority of a Wikipedia citation: “It’s in the Lonely Planet.” Achziv’s Lonely Planet listing appeared in an eccentric guidebook to “homemade nations,” which included a country whose monetary system fluctuated with the price of Pillsbury cookie dough, another that had elected a poodle as president and an island nation known as the Conch Republic that seceded from Key West.

“Is it a Jewish state?” the agent asked.

Why did that matter? Was it a trick question?

I suppose it was true: Achziv was a Jewish state. One of only two in the world. But it was so much more.

I simply answered, “Yes.”

The agent waved me through.

A bonfire threw sheets of flame at the stars. Beyond the circle of dancing light, behind a scrubby lip of eroded dune, the tide drummed against the Mediterranean shore. Pair by pair, kibbutz volunteers descended the stone steps of an amphitheatre toward the heat of the fire pit, like the first animals approaching the ark. There, silhouetted against the inferno, awaited our Noah, our Moses, our Abraham. Decades of salt spray and snorkelling had blanched and bristled his once-dark beard, while the sun had bronzed the wrinkled dome of his bare skull. A long, loose, dirty-white jalabiya—an Arab tunic—hung to bare ankles; on his leathery feet were scuffed sandals ready to disintegrate.

Eli Avivi looked like a caricature of a pop-eyed desert prophet. His soft voice lacked oratorical rumble, but his words still carried above the snap and hiss of the bonfire, the pounding of the surf, the snickering of the tipsy audience of volunteers from Kibbutz Shamir. Eli had presided over hundreds such rituals of holy mischief with the solemnity of a temple priest.

“In our time under the sky,” he began, “two truthful, naked people have come to join together . . .”

To be truthful, we weren’t naked. Not yet anyway. Our wedding procession approached in work shorts and T-shirts, flip-flops and canvas boots.

“Behold!” our host commanded. The first couple stepped forward. “The virgin son of god and the virgin daughter of nature!”

In English and Hebrew, he pronounced a pair of Swedish volunteers husband and wife. We raised a toast with bottles of Goldstar beer and arak. More couples tied the knot. Finally, I stood with my intended. Mikkel was a new arrival from Denmark, with a thick neck, square head and blonde crewcut. He peppered his rudimentary English with obscenities, chain-smoked with self-serious nonchalance and owned a pair of elephant-faced gag underwear with an anatomically incorrect trunk sheath. I’m not sure how I knew this last fact or whose idea it was to get married. When our busload of kibbutz volunteers disgorged on the Shabbat trip, Eli had asked if he could perform any weddings. Looking back, I now cringe at our frat-boy hijinks, how we thought it would be hilarious to get married—two beery-eyed blonde bros—by an odd old man in a ratty tunic.

It was the spring of 1989. Even then, I doubt we were the first same-sex union Eli had validated. He adapted his spiel to the moment: “Two truthful people join together, the virgin son of god and the virgin son of nature”—he didn’t make clear who was whom—“are getting married!” He produced a certificate he’d hand-written in red marker and then burned the paper’s white edges with a cigarette lighter to give the document the raggedy-edged faux-antique patina of a pirate map or a Dead Sea Scroll. We signed the top corner, and Eli inked his own name, as witness and legal authority.

Technically, the only authorities in Israel allowed to sanctify marriages were Orthodox rabbis, Christian priests or Islamic imams. Non-religious marriages weren’t permitted, let alone same-sex ones. For a civil union or a marriage between faiths, couples travelled to Cyprus or another country. What Eli Avivi had done that night violated the spirit of his land and the letter of its law. He didn’t care. The ground on which we stood was no longer part of Israel. He would never bend to the endless thou-shalt-nots enforced by the rabbinate or the government on its citizens. He had declared his independence years ago. If Eli wanted to wed young, drunk foreigners in mass moonlit marriages, that was his business.

He rolled his passport stamp across an ink pad and slammed it down on our certificates. It was official. Just twenty years old, I was now a married man in the Free State of Achziv.

Before I returned to Israel, after a 20-year absence, I looked up Achzivland. It now had an email address and a website, so I decided to return and stay at the ramshackle hostel by the sea. Older Israelis recalled Eli Avivi as a relic of the country’s hippy youth. Most thought he was dead or in jail. Eli had been a legend in this land, but his fame, hot and bright in the ’60 and ’70s, had faded. I wanted to find out what had become of Israel’s most infamous utopian.

As I drove the coast road north from Haifa, I spotted Eli Avivi on a highway sign in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Israel’s authorities generally reserve street names for long-dead Jewish philosophers, Zionist politicians and military heroes, not hippy squatters who caused endless bureaucratic headaches. Achzivland looked unchanged from my wedding night. The old mansion and its hodgepodge of additions dominated the grounds. White stone walls and shuttered windows formed the building’s wide ground floor, while a semicircle of stone stairs led to a pair of heavy, sun-bleached wooden doors decorated with a constellation of rusty horseshoes; its handle was made from the hefty thighbone of an unknown vertebrate. Inside lay Eli’s museum, where he housed 50 years of archaeological digging and an extensive archive of homemade pornography. I’d seen both.

I knocked on the door of a small modern bungalow, waited, knocked again. Through the screen, a bleach-blonde woman inspected me. If Eli was the founder and figurehead of Achziv, then for the past 40 years Rina Avivi was the firm administrator who made sure the nation ran on time—more or less. She was a large woman, thick-set and unsmiling, with a deep voice and lightning-white bangs hanging over thick, dark eyebrows. Her bare arms were mottled by the sun and wrapped in silver bracelets that jangled as she swung open the screen door. “One moment,” she said, took my money and disappeared.

I waited in the foyer. Through an open door I could see a small bedroom with a leopard-print sheet thrown over the mattress. One wall was a shrine to Rina’s early years in Israel. Eli had framed and hung a dozen photographic portraits, in colour and black-and-white, some candid, some posed. In the earliest images, she looked into his camera lens with the wide, distant eyes of a prepubescent starlet. In the living room, I spotted a stuffed mongoose perched on a shelf with bared fangs. Eli lounged on a sofa-futon in his sandals and jalabiya, watching The Karate Kid on a plasma TV the length of a surfboard. He looked up, nodded and returned his attention to the high kicks of Ralph Macchio.

I dropped off my bags in my room and strolled to the sea. The water at dusk was long past wine-dark. At the old fire pit with its amphitheatre of stone seats, I wondered how many weddings had Eli conducted here, how many vows were made, and broken, in the licentious revels that followed. (I’d married a Mikkel in the evening and woken up with a Mandy in the morning.) The stone rings sat empty. In the lagoon, a lone swimmer from the neighbouring park splashed in the sea. I was Achzivland’s only guest.

Eli appeared. The Karate Kid was done and he’d noticed my car. “Are you hungry?” he asked. “Do you want to go into town?” I’d already eaten. “Nahariya has lovely girls,” he pressed. He was angling for a night out and I was the only chauffeur. I helped Eli into the passenger seat. His health had deteriorated in the last few years, he told me. His body was frail, his eyes glassy, and he spoke in a hesitant rasp. In town, we stopped at a sidewalk café owned by a Moroccan-born friend. Eight middle-aged men idled on the patio, smoking and arguing about a reality show on a small TV. They looked up, greeted Eli and returned to the debate. I talked briefly with the café owner. “His daughter is very beautiful,” Eli whispered, after we’d received our espressos. “What happened to the boy you married?”

“I never heard from him again,” I said.

The kibbutz had once brought regular tour groups to visit Eli’s compound. “Always, they were very nice from Shamir,” he recalled. “They came often but not in the last years.”

I told him the kibbutz had privatized and no longer took volunteers. The 2006 conflict with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon hadn’t helped Achziv’s economy either. Katyusha rockets landed as far as Haifa; eight railway employees were killed at the city’s train depot, as were several Arab residents. Eli told me 150 buildings had been damaged in Nahariya. All the missiles passed over Achziv, but visits still plummeted. A Club Med resort along the beachfront closed.

Eli encouraged me to stay longer. We could visit a nearby kibbutz, he said, and sample its organic yogurt. We could tour nearby Druze villages. I could join the revelries tomorrow evening. “Friday is full of people,” he promised. “They make fire. Full house!” Where did they come from? “Everywhere. Tourists. Young people. Girls!” Summer weekends offered a faint echo of Achziv’s glory years.

As we idled in the warm night air, Eli retold the creation myth of the nation he had founded. He had been born to stern, religious parents in Iraq who moved to Tel Aviv in 1931. He longed to escape their house. As a teenager, he vandalized railway lines to protest British colonial rule and joined the underground Jewish navy. He smuggled illegal immigrants from Europe and, after the declaration of independence, took part in guerrilla action, including a midnight mission behind enemy lines in the spring of 1948. “We were 35 people from the commandos,” he said. “We left from Haifa to Lebanon and destroyed a village. Somebody died there, some people were wounded from the big fighting.” His voice trailed off.

After the war, Eli renewed his romance with the sea, the longest of his many affairs. He left Israel to work aboard a deep-sea fishing boat that plied cold waters far from his Mediterranean home. “The North Sea?” I asked. “No, further north,” said Eli. Greenland, Iceland, beyond. “The North Pole almost.”

When he returned, five years later, Israel was a fledgling nation, a new society being built from the ground up. The only independence that interested Eli, however, was his own. One evening, walking along a remote stretch of Mediterranean foreshore, far from any city or major settlement, he noticed a rocky promontory and the remnants of an Arab village, abandoned during the war, which overlooked a saltwater lagoon. An ancient palm tree leaned like a forgotten flagpole. As night fell, he explored the ruins. He felt as though he had met his true love: Achziv. The name of the old village, in Arabic, proved to be prophetic. It meant “The Trickster.”

By day, Eli explored the coast in swim trunks, catching meals from the lagoon with a snorkel and spear. After sunset, in the glow of a candle, he inspected artifacts he had extracted from the sea and sand. The tiny settlement and seaport had passed from one empire to the next, as far back as the 11th century BCE: the Canaanites and the Jews, the Assyrians and the Phoenicians, the Arabs and the Crusaders, the Ottomans and the British, and now back to the Jewish people again. Each civilization had left behind shiny baubles and sacred vessels, rusty armaments and maritime gewgaws, hidden in the sediment. Eli preserved these stories piece by piece.

He indulged a Robinson Crusoe fantasy of absolute independence—except he wasn’t, as the government kept reminding him, alone on a desert island. The outcrop of land, so close to the Lebanese border, held strategic value. In 1946, Jewish resistance fighters in a guerrilla campaign against the British Mandate had tried to blow up a railway bridge over a nearby creek; 14 died during the operation. The Israeli government now wanted to evict Eli; officials had plans for a park around the archaeological site that included the old Arab village. Eli wouldn’t move. And so began a running battle of threats and counter-threats, lawsuits and government injunctions, passive resistance and active outrage—and worse. When officials began to erect a fence next to Eli’s house, he climbed atop the roof, in a bathing suit, and fired a salvo overhead with an old tommy gun. Then he lowered the barrel at the workers. “If you don’t move,” he told them. “I will kill you.” They stared at the machine-gun-wielding hippy in a Speedo and decided the fence could wait.

After years of harassment, Eli was fed up with the government. “I’ll make my own government,” he decided. “I’ll drive them crazy!” He launched his own Two-State Solution and seceded from Israel. (Like Palestine, he is still awaiting full UN recognition.) He declared himself ruler and sole authority of Achzivland, also known as “Aviviland.” He performed marriages and stamped passports and set the rules for his new nation. (Rule #1: There are no rules.) He maintained a hermetic solitude during the winter. Come spring and summer, his beachside republic—his Temporary Autonomous Zone—became a magnet for Israel’s growing counter-culture in the 1960s. Achzivland hosted protests and “be-ins” and rowdy folk and rock concerts. Young Israelis grew their hair long, shucked the stern morality of the secular kibbutz and the religious yeshiva, and embraced a Hebrew Summer of Love. “Every year we come back here,” wrote Yehuda Amichai, Israel’s leading poet, in a lyric titled “Return to Achziv.” “This, too, is the beginning of a new religion.” Achzivland drew others with rumours of a strange man who lived in a cave—Eli was described as “a kind of pharoah”—and only emerged to lord over a hallucinogenic host of merry pranksters. When officials tried to oust Eli again to create a national park, his hippy acolytes and artist friends protested. He photographed the government’s attempts to evict him. Bulldozers ploughed into the foundations and knocked Eli off a stone wall, camera in hand. His case rose to the heights of power and troubled the agenda of Prime Minister Golda Meir. Eli also took pictures of famous visitors, like Sophia Loren, who cooked spaghetti for him, and various happenings, like the “Night in Achziv” rock festival in 1972, Israel’s own Woodstock moment of musical madness.

With his camera, Eli captured intimate moments, too. He convinced hundreds of young female visitors to pose naked, atop the shoreline rocks or amid the village ruins, as the morning sun rose over Achziv. Then he rushed into Nahariya to develop the film. From behind his viewfinder, Eli built, shot by shot, one of the largest collections of beach-blanket pornography in all of Israel, if not the Middle East. By his own accounting, the collection of lithe young nudes numbered more than a million negatives and prints. I remember, on my first visit, stumbling upon a photo album of young women, in various states of undress and sandy repose, strewn amongst the artifacts in his museum. It was like finding a copy of Playboy in your father’s underwear drawer, the same unsettling jolt a young man feels when he discovers that lust never sleeps, even in the wrinkled flesh of his elders. Two decades later, Eli locked his pictures away in a stone vault filled with plastic milk cartons stacked 10 feet high, where he indexed the folders and envelopes of photographs with a curatorial eye for erotic detail: A Blonde from Sweden. A Sort of Auburn. Two German Girls. A nearby kibbutz had offered to archive his vast collection of artisanal smut.

Eli’s reputation as the Hugh Hefner of the Jewish state was six decades old. He never shied away from his own libertine proclivities, his lust for a life less ordinary, even after 40 years of a very open marriage. As a nation, Achziv’s philosophy had always been more amorous than political. It was a free-love zone, a celebration of the hedonistic urge, founded amid a national culture that was puritanical from its inception. Kibbutz pioneers shared everything except their sexuality. They sublimated the erotic urge for the greater good of the collective—mostly.

Achzivland was the anti-kibbutz, the reverse negative of the communal ideal. Instead of working for the common good, Achziv boasted a utopia of individualism, a hippy paradise of infinite freedom, a garden of earthly desires that rose from the beach like a mirage.

No real estate is neutral in Israel. That was the biggest lesson I’d learned on my travels. The first kibbutzniks hoped to build a socialist utopia in Palestine where Jewish colonists might ally with Arab workers for the greater good. That dream collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions: one land, two peoples, too much history. Even here, in splendid isolation, Eli Avivi and the independent state of Achzivland were entwined in the larger conflict. Eli had pitched his battle against bureaucracy as a David-beats-Goliath tale, one man versus the state. But his situation was more complex than he admitted.

Achziv had been populated before Eli found it empty. On his commando mission to Lebanon, in May 1948, the boat passed Al-Zeeb, a fishing and farming village of 2,000, and the Arab villagers hurled rocks and curses at the Jewish partisans. By the time the mission returned, the village was empty of residents. Jewish fighters of the Carmeli Brigade had fired mortars at and then captured Al-Zeeb. Most villagers fled to Lebanon; the few who remained were relocated to Mazra’a, a village to the south. The Jewish commander ordered Al-Zeeb destroyed; only a handful of buildings were left standing, including the mukhtar’s two-storey house to which Eli had claimed squatter’s rights. In 1971, Palestinian militants from Lebanon landed on the beach to kidnap the ruler of Achziv. Tipped off about the assault, Eli or Rina—their stories vary—grabbed a pistol and disarmed an insurgent, as the army swarmed Achzivland to capture the others. The next day, a tabloid newspaper ran the headline: “Terrorists wanted to kidnap Israel’s number one nude photographer!”

Eli’s opinions about his nation’s former occupants remained elusive. In the past, he told visitors he was a caretaker for the property who awaited the return of the original Arab owners. More recently, he seemed to consider Achziv his private fiefdom. Others could debate its status after he died.

Achzivland was a metaphor for Israel itself—a splinter of the country that symbolized its triumphs and troubles. Eli had imagined a new world out of nothing. But this nothing had a history, another people in exile, a counter-narrative with a plot line a thousand years long. “It’s an illegal settlement what Eli has done,” one of his supporters admitted to an interviewer. “A charming one, mind you.” How different was Achziv from a kibbutz in the Golan Heights or a settler outpost on Arab lands in the West Bank? Was Eli a freedom fighter against bureaucratic conformity and capitalist greed? Or was he another cog in the colonial machine that had dispossessed so many Palestinians? I’d laughed at his irreverent antics, his audacious act of self-determination, but his utopia-building had a dark side. That tension confounded the history of the kibbutz, too.

“Fifty-eight years, it’s a long time . . .” Our coffee was cold. Eli was feeling reflective.

I asked if Achziv was his utopia.

“I love it here. If I did my life over again, I would do the same.” He considered the texture of his autobiography, the smooth and the rough. “Even with all my problems here. With the government. With the permissions. They try all the time to destroy everything here.”

His tenure in paradise had been secured only through decades of struggling. How had he fought the law and won?

“I was strong,” he said, “and I didn’t care.”

I mentioned the road sign with his name. It had appeared one day, he told me, without any notice. Did that mean the authorities accepted Achzivland?

“Some people,” said Eli. But others were biding their time until he grew ill or died. “The Israeli government doesn’t like individualists. They want everybody to look the same. They want your number, so they can find out about you.”

We stopped at a grocery store, and Eli shuffled between the neon-lit aisles, searching out cat food for the feline menagerie that roamed his compound. Kibble in the trunk, we drove along an unlit side road that paralleled the beach, with only flickering cottage lights to remind us this wasn’t the barren shoreline Eli had walked a half-century ago.

The next morning, I joined Rina and Eli on the patio for tea and strudel. She had arrived in 1967 and stayed. After their wedding, Eli had tossed his wife into the sea and carried her back to the sheikh’s bedroom. They were two months shy of their 43rd anniversary, so I asked for the secret of such a long marriage.

“Because he don’t love me,” said Rina, “and I don’t love him.”

Eli nodded. “I have to find a nice girl, 16 years old,” he said, “like she was in the beginning.” They both laughed.

I asked again what would happen to Achziv when he was gone. Eli shrugged. “Do you have children?” I pressed.

“No, I didn’t want children. Not me, not my wife.”

Even if he acquired the legal title to the property, Eli had no second generation upon whom to bequeath Achziv. All that remained were his memories, his museum of artifacts, his trove of erotica, his unshakeable sense of independence. “My country is doing the best in the world,” he said. How can you have an economic crisis when your nation barely has an economy? Eli and Rina eked out a living from camping fees, hostel guests and wedding parties. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness—these weren’t empty slogans in Achziv. “Everything is better here than any other country.”

I said goodbye to the royal couple and glanced in the rear-view mirror as they soaked in the warmth of a new day and listened to the Mediterranean tide lap against the sands of their kingdom by the sea.

From Chapter 19

Israel can be a hard place to leave, too. Once you wander its hills and alleys, its shorelines and shuks, its cities and synagogues, its mountains and mosques, once you listen to the stories of the people who call it home, the nation exerts a gravitational tug on your imagination, even for someone without an ethnic or religious or family connection to the land. When I walked away from Shamir, after my 21st birthday, I assumed I had closed a chapter in my history. Here I was again, half a lifetime older, looking for answers to questions seeded in my imagination back on the kibbutz.

Israel can be hard to leave for other reasons, too. Airport security in the country that invented “homeland security” is intense. Ben Gurion International had tightened its protocols in the decades since my first trip: post 9/11, post-Gulf War (I and II), post-Intifada (I and II). Its officials had practically invented profiling. On my first return visit to Israel, I’d been grilled by a customs agent: “Are you visiting any Arab towns? Do you have any Arab friends?” I wondered if she would ask next whether I liked Arab food or used Arabic numerals. Flying home through Ben Gurion, I fielded the standard airport questions: “Did you pack your own bags? Did anyone give you something to carry? Do you have any gifts?” Then the X-ray operator ejected my bags through the cannon of a scanning machine, slapped a sticker on my luggage and waved me toward the next stage. On a stainless steel table, I opened my luggage for a bored young security officer who fondled my unwashed clothes with plastic gloves. “Where did you visit on your trip?” she asked.

Honesty, I figured, was the best policy. “A few days near Nahariya. Kibbutz Shamir. Tel Aviv. Jerusalem. Ramallah. Haifa—”


Her ennui vanished. She extracted a map of the West Bank city from my luggage and examined it with a colleague. Then she called her supervisor. He was stocky, bald, light-skinned, six inches taller, a decade older and 40 pounds heftier than the crew of twenty-something baggage inspectors. I could tell he was the Grand Inquisitor of the airport. He stared at my passport and inquired about the “Achzivland” stamp. I said I’d been married on the beach by Eli Avivi, and he smiled.

“How long did you stay at Shamir?” he asked, casually.

I told him.

“How long at Tel Aviv?”


“And Jerusalem?”

Two nights.

“How long in Ramallah?”


“And how long were you in Nablus?”

“I wasn’t in Nablus.”

“How many days in Hebron?”

“I wasn’t in Hebron either.”

His smile was gone. I waited for him to say, “Who is Massoud Falsometer?” Instead my interrogator asked, “Did anybody give you anything?”

I had a pot of honey from Kibbutz Shamir, knick-knacks bought in the Jerusalem market and two bottles of craft beer from the West Bank; one was from a Christian Arab brewery in Taybeh, the other from a Jewish settler operation near Kfar Etzion. And then I noticed, nestled in my underwear, the Rawabi Cube. Oh, shit. At the end of my site visit, Amir Dajani had handed me a keychain and a green-and-blue cardboard box, with a glossy finish, covered in English and Arabic text. Palestine, it read. A gift for you.

The Bald Inquisitor glared and handed the offending box to an underling.

The box itself was simply a vessel for . . . well, I wasn’t quite sure. A paperweight perhaps. A puzzle. A public-relations boîte. The Rawabi Cube was the size of its Rubik’s cousin, with a two-by-two-by-two configuration of squares. It folded outward on cardboard hinges to display the city’s name, its trademark heart-shaped leaf and its motto: Live. Work. Grow. The cube turned inside-out to reveal illustrations of tiny people ascending urban staircases, a close-up of a white-stoned arcade, a photo panorama of the scrub-topped hills that gave Rawabi its name, the white-turning-deep-blue sky above and the faintest hint of a settlement along its acropolis. Utopia in the palm of your hand. I knew my kids would love it.

The airport interrogator ordered my belongings through the X-ray scanner again, and I was sent to a windowless back room with a blasé young agent who asked me to loosen my belt so he could pat down my waist inside my pants. Afterwards, as I redid the buckle, he groomed his hair in a full-length mirror. Back at security, I assumed a bomb-unit robot had detonated my Rawabi Cube in a basement bunker. I was wrong. Despite its provenance, my gift from Palestine proved to be made only of ink and paper. A harmless token. I could take it home. The Bald Inquisitor still looked unimpressed.

“Why did you say, ‘No’ when they asked if you were given anything to carry? What if it was a bomb? Why would you put all these people in danger?”

He was right. What better deception than to insert a box of explosives as a souvenir in the luggage of a gullible visitor from Canada? The inspector waved me along with contempt for my naiveté. I tucked the cube in my bag and hurried to catch my flight.

I had come to Israel to look for the legacy of the original dreamers, the kibbutzniks, the ones who believed that a rough and beautiful land could be both settled and shared. To these pioneers, Palestine felt like a gift. I’d wanted to find out, a hundred years later, what had become of their version of the good place. Why had it withered? Where did it survive? I witnessed the faded dreams of the kibbutz, hundreds of socialist communes turned into country suburbs or bankrupt retirement homes. Still, I want to believe their collective vision of utopia was rising again, despite the odds, in communities like Rawabi and Nes Ammim, the Oasis of Peace and Kibbutz Migvan, in the eco-villages of the Arava Valley, on the hilltops of the Galilee, among the activists and artists of Givat Haviva and Zochrot and System Ali, in the voices of resistance like those of David Sheen and Nomika Zion and Eliaz Cohen. I want to believe these new experiments in radical sharing, co-existence and political dissent will take root and grow broad and strong, as the kibbutz once did. I want to believe the concatenation of unique communities can shade a path for the peoples of Israel and Palestine to walk together into the future. I want to believe they can make the desert bloom, and the cities thrive, this time for all the peoples of the Promised Land.

Utopia, I know, only ever exists in our imagination. In the pages of historians and philosophers and poets. In the blueprints of architects and the rhetoric of politicians. In rosy guidebooks for starry-eyed tourists oblivious to the shadowy corners of the countries they hurry through. Perhaps utopia is a disposable paperweight, a Pandora’s takeaway box. Shiny and colourful on the surface. Lift its lid and look inside, however, and you will find its vessel contains nothing more substantial than that most helium-light and elusive and all-too-human of elements: hope.

And maybe that’s enough.

Table of Contents

PROLOGUE: It Is Dangerous to Read Facebook — xi

PART ONE: Who Killed the Kibbutz? — 1

Chapter 1: Ghetto Life in the Finger of Galilee — 2

Chapter 2: Between the Hammer and the Anvil — 23

Chapter 3: A Few Grams of Courage — 43

Chapter 4: A Village Under Siege — 59

Chapter 5: The Final Solution — 73

Chapter 6: Stories from the Ass — 89

Chapter 7: Moving the State — 105

Chapter 8: The Shouting Fence — 119

Chapter 9: The Architecture of Hope — 131

PART TWO: Look Back to Galilee — 143

Chapter 10: Born This Way — 144

Chapter 11: Buried History — 157

Chapter 12: Buying Cat Food with the King of Achziv — 168

Chapter 13: Living in Glass Houses — 181

Chapter 14: A Dry Season in the Garden of Eden — 194

Chapter 15: Love and Rockets — 206

Chapter 16: More Than a House — 219

Chapter 17: Broken Promises in the Promised Land — 231

Chapter 18: Revival of Faith — 244

Chapter 19: Boxing Hope — 261

Sources — 277

Acknowledgements — 295

More About the Book — 303

About the Author — 304

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