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 mix of memoir and history offering “a nuanced, unflinching look at the Israeli dream of the kibbutz and its demise . . . darkly comic . . . utterly engrossing” (Ayelet Tsabari, author of The Art of Leaving).
The word “Israel” today 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 making the desert bloom: the legendary kibbutznik. So whatever happened to the dream of founding a socialist utopia in the land called Palestine? In this book 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, he chronicles the controversial decline of the kibbutz movement and witnesses a renaissance of its original vision in unexpected corners of the Promised Land. Chasing Utopia is an entertaining, enlightening portrait of a divided nation where hope persists against the odds.

“An informative history . . . laced with interviews with Jewish and Palestinian activists.” —Publishers Weekly 
“Upon his return to Israel twenty years later, now a middle-aged father with children, Leach found enormous changes—not only to [Kibbutz] Shamir, which had embraced privatization in the mid-2000s and listed its Optical Industry on NASDAQ, but the whole kibbutz system. . . . Leach’s report is both affectingly personal, delving into many intimate stories of visionaries, and a sound historical study.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Exceptionally well-researched and beautifully written . . . readers wondering about the allure and challenges of utopian communities will find a probing examination that takes them to lesser-known corners of Israel and the West Bank.” ―Jessamyn Hope, author of Safekeeping
“Leach maintains a neutral stance when discussing the conflict that is tearing Israel apart, and writes with great empathy for all sides . . . He is at times funny and self-effacing, but he is also keen-eyed and generous in his observations . . . a stellar achievement.” ―Quill & Quire

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781770909380
Publisher: ECW Press
Publication date: 08/03/2022
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 320
Lexile: 1050L (what's this?)
File size: 3 MB

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

Chasing Utopia

The Future of the Kibbutz in a Divided Israel

By David Leach


Copyright © 2016 David Leach
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-77090-938-0


Ghetto Life in the Finger of Galilee

Every child is born utopian. Our urge to create new worlds kicks in as soon as we can lift a block or wield a crayon. We build towers as precarious as Babel. We design tiny cities, guided by the divine laws of Lego or Fisher-Price — and now Minecraft. We imagine societies with leaders and followers, heroes and villains, histories and intrigues. Our instincts to build worlds and tell stories are entwined, a double helix of human creativity. Overshadowed by an adult society we can't quite understand, let alone control, we build microcosms over which we can rule.

Like most kids, I was obsessed with building worlds. Growing up, I engineered neighbourhoods for legless, bullet-headed toy figurines and played grade-school Jane Jacobs in my parents' basement. An old Kodachrome photo reveals a boy in a blond bowl cut, ever the good Catholic, arranging his Star Wars action figures on tiny wooden pews so they can attend Sunday Mass; in my galaxy far, far away, Boba Fett the bounty hunter needed to attend confession. My oddest obsession was the Maginot Line. At 11 or 12, I read about France's military fortifications in an illustrated history text. Built in the 1930s to withstand a German assault, the Maginot Line became a Second World War footnote when the Nazis did an end run through Belgium on their blitzkrieg to Paris. I didn't care if the Maginot Line worked. To my young eyes, it was a marvel of design, an entire world carved beneath the surface of the earth. I was fascinated by the architecture, the cross-sections of underground chambers, tunnels and armaments — a subterranean network for a strategically inept nation of mole people. I filled notebooks with Maginot renovations and populated my corridors with bustling stick men.

Lewis Mumford, the American social critic and urban historian, called our instinct toward city-making a "will-to-utopia." "It is our utopias that make the world tolerable to us," he wrote in 1922. "The cities and mansions that people dream of are those in which they finally live." In The Story of Utopias, Mumford distinguishes between different types. Our childhood visions of alternate realities satisfy what he calls the "utopia of escape." In fantasy worlds, the human mind finds temporary respite from the drudgery and pain of daily life. A science-fiction novel. A postcard of a tropical beach on a cubicle wall. A Disneyland of the mind. Utopia as a flight from reality, a return to innocence.

One of the first urban scholars, Mumford was less interested in utopia as escapism than in "utopias of reconstruction" — utopia as an ambitious social-engineering project; utopia as a blueprint for a better life; utopia as a cure. The utopia of reconstruction, he explains, is "a vision of a reconstituted environment which is better adapted to the nature and aims of the human beings who dwell within it."

When I first read those lines, I thought, That sounds like the kibbutz.

The pioneers of Israel's kibbutz movement had chased a vision of a new life and a better world. Their utopias of reconstruction didn't remain on the page, like Plato's Republic. Instead, they etched their schemes into the rough earth, one settlement at a time, until an archipelago of communities stretched from the northern mountains to the Red Sea. Every wall they erected, every garden they sowed, every pathway they paved reflected a model society based on a communal way of life. "We shape our buildings," Winston Churchill once wrote, "and afterwards our buildings shape us." If you create the perfect village, in other words, the village will perfect you in turn.

That was the dream. But a blueprint for paradise is one thing. Making the vision a reality tends to be messier.

* * *

When people ask why, at the age of 20, I dropped out of university to live on a commune in Israel, I reply, "Look at my wrist." There you can read a faded map of my past, a thin white scar that runs as straight as the Jordan River. It's all that remains, aside from the odd arthritic pang, of what I like to call my "old college football injury."

Which is true to a point. Fact: I fractured my right wrist in a scrimmage during my first semester of university.

A little macho-deflating context: I'd been playing touch football. In the snow. With journalism students.

Still, that bad break meant deferred exams and months in a cast and, after the tiny bone refused to heal, a screw and a bone graft. More time in a cast nixed plans to join my hometown high school sweetheart on a tree-planting contract in northern Alberta. She promised she would only be gone for a month and vowed to write every day. This was the summer of 1988, a more innocent and disconnected era: pre-satellite phone, pre-email, pre-Facebook and Skype. Our relationship would live or die on the wings of Canada Post.

I worked a temp job filing accident reports for the city's transportation department. At home, I taught my left hand to type soppy love letters to a remote P.O. box in the boreal forest. I kept mailing these letters, even when the replies diminished and then stopped.

In the wilderness, my hometown high school sweetheart had soured on our saccharine suburban dreams and traded up for someone new. He was, I would learn, ten years my senior, a veteran tree planter from the west coast and, worse, an artist. He had a thing for dinosaurs and topless chorus girls that he depicted in canvas collages slopped together from airplane glue, marbles and dismembered Barbie dolls. He had once been a heroin junkie but now only drank till his eyeballs went yellow. How could I compete?

I considered pulling a Lancelot, stealing my parents' Malibu Classic and driving across the continent to win her back. My friends talked me down from that fantasy. "Dude," they told me, "get over her."

It wasn't so easy. I had a broken heart, an aching wrist and enough money for tuition or trans-Atlantic airfare. I chose Door #2 and bought an open plane ticket to Tel Aviv.

Why Israel? A friend had backpacked around the Mediterranean and told me about something called a kibbutz. "What's that?" I asked. A kibbutz, I learned, was a cooperative farming village where backpackers could swap manual labour in fields or factories for room and board. Israel had hundreds of kibbutzes, from the grassy foothills of Mt. Hermon to the desert valley that led to the Red Sea; many had established the borders of what would become, in 1948, the Jewish state. Kibbutzes could be as small as 80 members or as large as 2,000. They ran collective economies, often described as "the purest form of communism in the Western world," uncorrupted by the police-state bureaucracies that ruled Russia, China and Cuba. Every year, thousands of young travellers passed through the gates of the frontier farms and lived together briefly, and intensely, as volunteers. By the late 1980s, volunteering on a kibbutz had reached a peak of popularity; the 1985 film Not Quite Paradise — a hammy romantic-comedy by the British director of Educating Rita and The Spy Who Loved Me — dramatized the clash of cultures between rough-edged Israeli kibbutzniks and oversexed, hard-drinking backpackers.

I'd never been political, and if all I'd wanted was a rural sabbatical, my prairie uncles could have put me to work on their wheat farm. The kibbutz, however, promised an exotic land filled with history, adventure and camaraderie, far from my own romantic failures. I'd been raised on Sunday school stories, too, and still had a fascination with the ancient geographical names of the Bible: Gethsemane, Golgotha, Galilee. In Hebrew, DavidI meant "beloved." That seemed a good sign, too. And it was a chance to live, however briefly, like a true utopian.

My friends threw a going-away party. Or rather they invited me to drop by the same parent-free townhouse where, every Friday night for the past three years, we gathered in the basement to shotgun six-packs of beer, watch a VHS bootleg of The Breakfast Club and renew the great Ally-Sheedy-versus-Molly-Ringwald debate that had paralyzed a generation. When I arrived, they presented me with a handcrafted goodbye gift: a joint the size of a baby's arm. Sadly, they knew as much about street drugs as they did about contemporary cinema. The fat wand of loose tobacco was so parsimoniously seeded with rat turds of low-grade suburban hash that it was less a monster joint than the representation of a monster joint, a dim Platonic shadow of a mega-doobie. It didn't matter: they had only rolled it for the placebo effect. As the evening grew hazier, a high-school acquaintance interrogated my motives for dropping out of school to live in Israel. "Why are you throwing away your life —" he shouted, inches from my face "— for a girl?"

I passed around an address book for postcards I knew I would never write. Days later, in the airport departure zone, an Israeli security agent from El Al Airlines scattered the contents of my backpack across a steel table. My mother had sewn a red maple leaf into the top corner of the pack; the fabric talisman was meant to confer diplomatic immunity upon all young Canadians abroad, mostly by proving you weren't American. Now on public display, the net worth of my newly transient life ranged from the pretentious (a paperback copy of James Joyce's Ulysses) to the pathetic (long bandoliers of Trojan condoms; hope, amongst other things, sprang eternal). But the agent's suspicion was piqued by my address book.

He pointed to an open page. "Who is Massoud Falsometer?"

I blanked. I'd never heard the name. What was it doing in my book? Then I recognized the handwriting. Under the letter F, a friend had scribbled an Arabic-sounding pen name.

I explained to the skeptical agent that, honestly, I didn't know a Mr. Falsometer. That, no, he hadn't given me any "packages" to transport. That, in fact, he probably didn't exist. That the person who had entered the address was a Kyle from Quebec, not a Massoud from the Middle East. That the name was a gag. ("Falsometer, get it?") A joke at my expense.

The agent's glare darkened. "What kind of joke is that?"

Good question. How could I explain to this dour gatekeeper the emotionally stunted rituals of the North American male? I barely understood them myself.

I'd tried to leave early from my going-away party. But the host wouldn't let me escape. He grappled me in a sumo hold and demanded I stay. I resisted. He resisted back. Robert Bly and Iron John were still two years off, so this is what passed for a man-hug in the late-'80s. We caromed off kitchen counters and through the screen door and down the back steps and into the small yard of his absentee parents. We scrummed, laughing mirthlessly, until I felt too tired to care. We staggered backwards and crashed through the sliding metal doors of a garden shed. There we lay, panting, limbs tangled amid corroded rakes and pruning shears. Our fraternal farewell consummated in blood, my friend dusted off his jeans and left me sprawled in the dark.

At least, I thought — pinned in the broken embrace of a hardware-store cabana, hypnotized by the vertiginous dance of the autumn stars above me — at least, I knew, wherever I was going couldn't be any more fucked up than where I was leaving.

Of course, even about this, I was so very wrong.

* * *

"Are you Jewish?"

I've fielded that question since running away to the kibbutz. My blond crewcut and boiled-ham pigmentation suggest my people weren't chosen by anyone other than sunscreen marketers. I grew up Catholic and lapsed a few years before leaving for Israel. My knowledge of the Promised Land got fuzzy after the first century A.D. In my mind, Jerusalem didn't extend beyond the walls of the Old City; Bethlehem and Nazareth were the other metropolises, while sandalled disciples netted fish from the Sea of Galilee to go with their loaves. The Holy Land had likely been touched up since its Biblical heyday, but I didn't have a precise image in my head.

I had serious homework to do. Before I left, I arranged a letter of introduction from the Jewish Community Centre. The coordinator set me in front of a Welcome to Israel! VHS tape and gave me a few brochures that showcased a romantic image of kibbutz life. Swarthy men and women bent over shovels in orchards and cotton fields, shaded by white sun hats and kerchiefs, sleeves rolled on proletariat-blue work shirts. Muscled legs stretched short-shorts that would make Kareem Abdul-Jabbar blush. Kibbutzniks, I learned, were the native-born descendants of pioneers who had left Eastern Europe for Palestine in the early 20th century, inspired by the utopian dreams of socialism and Zionism, the conjoined philosophies of Karl Marx and Theodor Herzl. They'd been promised "a land without a people for a people without a land" — a sales pitch that turned out to be only half-true. In the epic of the kibbutz, the first pioneers had abandoned Europe's stifling and persecuted Jewish shtetls to live in secular communes. They governed their relations by direct democracy and absolute economic equality. Everyone shared everything, from their profits to their boots. Everyone voted on everything, no matter how minor — and the majority ruled. Together, the young idealists built a nation out of swamp and rock. They settled the frontier and defended its future borders. They were Hebrew Marlboro Men with Marxist leanings.

The kibbutz was most famous for the "children's house" in which kids were raised collectively, separated from their parents except for pre-dinner visits of an hour or two. In co-ed groups, they studied and played, ate and slept, all under the care of the metapelet or "nanny." The communal childcare system freed women to contribute fully to the economic, political and social life of the kibbutz while also teaching children the spirit of collective enterprise. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, psychologists studied Israel's experiment in communal child-raising; in 1969, Bruno Bettelheim published The Children of the Dream, in which he concludes the kibbutz "clearly reached its own goal: to create a radically new personality in a single generation."

By 1988, kibbutz brochures played down these socialist experiments. Communism wasn't a big draw for backpackers. Most volunteers came to Israel instead for the lusty promise, as one volunteer coordinator told me, of "sun, sand and sex." The brochures had air-brushed away mentions of wars and terrorism, but I couldn't ignore the headlines: the West Bank and Gaza, captured by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967, had erupted in clashes between Palestinian youths and the Israeli army. Thrown rocks versus rubber bullets. Molotov cocktails against live rounds. The protesters called the uprising an intifada, or "throwing off" in Arabic. I was walking into the thick of it.

After finishing the paperwork, the JCC coordinator asked for a favour. Could I deliver a care package for a friend in Israel? He gave me three hefty plastic bottles, stout as table lamps, filled with Head & Shoulders, at least according to the labels. "You can't get it over there," he said with a shrug. I left Canada in a late-October snowstorm and arrived in Israel to waves of heat shimmering off the tarmac. I disembarked, grabbed my backpack, stepped through the airport's sliding doors and felt the thick air chest-bump me. A corridor of faces barked greetings and thrust hand-scrawled cardboard signs. My dry eyes blinked, but the lettering refused to snap into focus until I realized, It's all Hebrew to me now.

By the time I reached Tel Aviv, I'd sweated through my T-shirt under the weight of the contraband shampoo. Scooters and sherut minibuses honked in the low canyons of dirty white buildings. Soldiers and street hawkers, businessmen and beach-goers flooded the sidewalks. Young women strolled together in olive army uniforms with Uzis slung like Gucci bags Lover their arms. I felt a clammy light-headedness, a jet-lagged dislocation, as I stepped out of the sun into the low-lit cloister of the kibbutz office.

I presented the introduction letter to the head of the volunteer department. He asked me to show my visa. Then he studied a list of kibbutzes looking for volunteers. "Where do you want to go?" It sounded like a philosophical query. "The north, the centre or the south?"

I stared at a map on the wall. Tel Aviv was in the middle, and I could feel myself dissolving in its heat. The south — and the expanse of the Negev Desert — would be hotter. My eyes drifted upwards till I spotted the cool blue bulb of the Sea of Galilee.

"The north," I replied.

"Shamir," he declared.

His finger traced a route up from Tel Aviv, past Haifa, and skirted the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, where I expected it to stop, but it then climbed the thin line of the Jordan River into a funnel of land near the top of the country. An inch or two below its edge, I noticed Shamir in small script and the bolder-faced names of its neighbours: Lebanon, Syria, Golan. That evening, I caught a bus for Kiryat Shmona, the nearest town to the kibbutz. As we drove into the dusk, young soldiers dozed in nearby seats, nestled like lovers against their rifles. By heading north, I realized, I had dodged the heat but not the fire.


Excerpted from Chasing Utopia by David Leach. Copyright © 2016 David Leach. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


PROLOGUE: It Is Dangerous to Read Facebook,
PART ONE: Who Killed the Kibbutz?,
1. Ghetto Life in the Finger of Galilee,
2. Between the Hammer and the Anvil,
3. A Few Grams of Courage,
4. A Village Under Siege,
5. The Final Solution,
6. Stories from the Ass,
7. Moving the State,
8. The Shouting Fence,
9. The Architecture of Hope,
PART TWO: Look Back to Galilee,
10. Born This Way,
11. Buried History,
12. Buying Cat Food with the King of Achziv,
13. Living in Glass Houses,
14. A Dry Season in the Garden of Eden,
15. Love and Rockets,
16. More Than a House,
17. Broken Promises in the Promised Land,
18. Revival of Faith,
19. Boxing Hope,

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