By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
For the last six months or so there has been a scavenger hunt in Israel to track down the mysterious kibbutz that Bernie Sanders was supposed to have lived on. Naomi Zeveloff at The Forward spearheaded the search and finally tracked it down. She noted “anyone like Sanders who volunteered at Sha’ar HaAmakim would have picked up valuable lessons about life — and a political imperative to improve the lot of others.” He was there for a few months in 1963. Yossi Melman was credited with digging up an article from 1990 in Haaretz where he described Sanders as “the first socialist” and revealed the name of the kibbutz back then. Sanders was a guest of “hashomer Hatzair”, a heavily socialist kibbutz movement group.
As the Washington Post noted, it wasn’t clear if anyone at the kibbutz even remembers Sanders. The Mondoweiss blog critiqued the coverage for not including the “ethnic-cleansing” behind the foundation of the kibbutz. PJMedia claimed that it was evidence of the “Stalinist” background of Sanders. Sanders himself is quite mum on the whole experience. Whereas he has expressed support for Israel in the past, he has not used this as a storyline or formative experience. Perhaps that is because it wasn’t. Perhaps it is because it was. No one can do anything more than speculate.
One article discusses the “kibbutz values” that are still enshrined in the Sanders message. “All the members were equal in all ways,” said one kibbutz member in the article, “They lived in identical houses. There wasn’t a salary; everyone received according to their needs. The kibbutz gave everything: food, shelter, education, health.”
There is a lot of talk of equality in these stories. Similar outfits, hard work in the fields. But what is left out, even in the critical account by Mondoweiss, is another dark side to this environment. The kibbutz system in Israel was what is known as an “intentional” community, a form of communal settlement that was uniquely strong in Israel, but was not unique to Israel. It borrowed much from other utopian and socialist concepts then being experimented on in Europe. The one that Sanders may have lived on was founded in 1935 its members were deeply intwined with this phase of Labor Zionism.
The problem was that these types of structures of Jewish-only communal settlement were not just a small minority in the land that became Israel, and with Israeli independence they took on a very different tone than they had before 1948 when they represented a minority population. After 1948 their members were founders of the government and leading soldiers. Now their government connections helped them accumulate some million dunams of land, mostly confiscated from abandoned Arab villages. A two part series (first part has been posted here) at Haaretz about a small Armenian village near Atlit reveals the brutal process by which “realizing socialism” and “helping others” resulted in the destruction of a small village. For one group’s utopia to be realized, others had to go.
But this system of disenfranchisement of others was not only directed at Arabs or non-Jews. Some of the early communal settlements, such as kibbutzim, had been founded specifically against the indigenous Jewish inhabitants of the area. Jews who were not from Europe were often not permitted to join kibbutzim. Yemenite Jews, for instance, who worked in agriculture were pushed off the lands or told they could work the fields, not be members. This happened in areas near Ben Shemen and north of Rosh Pina. This concept of “Jewish conquest of labor” had its communist overtones, but it became more ethno-nationalist quickly. It wasn’t just Jewish labor, it was a certain ethnic type of Jewish labor.
When the 1940s-1950s came around the leaders of Labor Zionism and it’s bureaucrats and sociologists such as Arthur Ruppin, noted that Hebrew labor must be based on an ethnic system whereby “lesser” groups such as Mizrahi Jews from Muslim countries who were considered “primitive” should not be mixed with the “stronger stock” of those from Europe. Even the communist Iraqi Jewish immigrants were shunned by their Western Jewish peers, an issue author Sasson Somekh covers in agonizing detail. This was classic eugenics, one I and others have written about. Jews from Europe were permitted to join kibbutzim, Jewish immigrants to Israel from other countries, such as Iraq or Morocco, were sent to urban “development towns”, similar to the European concept of the Banlieues or ‘council estates’, or the ‘projects’ in America.
This is a story that continues to this day in Israel. Kibbutzim are almost entirely Ashkenazi-Jewish-only. Even today immigrants with certain groups from the UK, Argentina or South America come to Israel and are aided to settle on kibbutzim by Zionist youth movements not open to their poorer peers in Israel. Arabs are not permitted to join either. This is presented as being due to keeping members confined to people from “similar heritage” or “values.”
When asked if it’s true that kibbutzim and “intentional” communities are one-ethnicity only, one member notes: “That would be unfair to say. The Kibbutzim were, in my opinion, tolerant, liberal and anti-racist communities, striving for peace and justice. The fact that members were mostly Jewish doesn’t make it an ethnic community, if you meant that in the excluding sense. Just as it makes sense for a family to aspire to be a part of the same culture, heritage and language, it also makes sense for an intentional community, which in many ways is an extended version of a family.”
In some ways the values of Orania in South Africa are similar. In Israel when outsiders who are not the same want to move even to kibbutz-owned housing, they have been told they are the wrong “blood”, even after they have submitted bank statements and allowed deep intrusion into their married and family life.
The concept of “values” and “heritage” has often been used to excuse “separate but equal” and “separate development” abroad as well. It’s the same reason racists and xenophobes in Europe use to say why Muslim immigrants should not be permitted in. It’s the code word that people in America use to describe why African-Americans shouldn’t move to a neighborhood.
Yet in Israel this segregation is very real. It is officially supported segregation because these closed communities like kibbutzim and moshavim and others number around 1,000 or more. Basically everywhere in Israel outside a major city and town has an ‘acceptance committee’ used to regulate who may live there. They may say the reason is “heritage” and “values”, but those are the code words to keep out everyone who is not part of a narrow mostly Ashkenazi or European-Jewish upper middle class. It is used to insulate that group from others. It is also used against religious communities, Arabs, Russians, Ethiopians, non-Jews, mixed families, homosexuals, Mizrahim and others. The concept is ethnic-purity, so that each community is its own ethnic enclave. For that reason some other groups, like religious nationalist groups, have their own communities.
The groups that are not permitted to have kibbutz-style intentional settlements are the poorer and weaker members of society. Bedouin don’t get them. Ethiopians can’t have them. Why is that? Because they aren’t communal? Ethiopian villages were communal in Ethiopia. It is because in Israel one’s race and country or origin and religion determine where one lives and how they live for the most part.
The kibbutz culture of “white’s only” as it is means that not only can they insulate from the others, but they go to high school together. No mixing. More than 99% of all schools in Israel are segregated between Jews and Arabs. From high school, people go to the army in Israel. Many army units were traditionally drawn from kibbutzim. That means that one’s life, ones choices and one’s opportunities are heavily created by the segregationist culture one is born in to. At the root of that injustice, oddly in the name of “social justice”, is the relic of the kibbutzim. Even when they are privatized, the segregation and “acceptance” continues.
One hopes that Bernie Sanders didn’t pick up any of these kinds of values. There is a reason he is often portrayed as out of touch with the black community in America and other minorities, coming from a very white state such as Vermont. In some ways Vermont has an aspect of that “our values” culture. Because inside some of those progressive socialist circles has always been a feeling that its “white’s only”, which means “we know what is best for you” but this is “our club.” There is lip-service about minorities, but not too many minority faces.
Americans don’t want kibbutz values. They don’t want “white’s only” communities. They don’t want every rural community deciding that people of color can’t live there because of their “values” and “heritage”. Americans welcomed outsiders, including those like Sanders whose family were Jewish minorities, into the fold because America has tended to open its gates to others. America has its deep racial cleavages and segregation, but it has tended to try to mollify those. Israel has not. Israel has a tragic history of segregation, often hiding behind “socialist” notions, that have no place in a modern society. Yet they are perpetuated.
When people talk about the values learned in Israel, it’s important to wonder what those values might have been. 1963 Israel was a place with curfews for minorities and segregation, not dissimilar from the Old South, the same civil rights issues Sanders fought for in America were never realized in Israel. One hopes that he didn’t bring those values home with him.