Thursday, February 11, 2010

Zionist Cream

I went to Kfar Yeshoshua this past weekend, which feels like touching a kind of bedrock, and always has felt this way for me--at least since my coming to Israel as an 18 year old volunteer in 1967. The country is so peculiarly tuned to (what I can only call) world Jewish religiosity these days, and so defensive about its mixing of ultra-orthodox land claims with loose, nationalist talk of security--so strident, that is, in its use of the term "Zionism," and so vigilant against people who refuse the term--that one forgets the brilliant cultural innovations real, historical Zionism gave us.

Kfar Yehoshua was the farming cooperative I visited in 1967. Here is how I wrote about it in The Hebrew Republic:

In the summer of 1967, I fell in love with the Jewish National Fund. I was eighteen, and had just finished my first year at McGill University. In what still seems to me an exhilarating rush of events, I arrived in Israel about a week after the end of the Six Day War and wound up volunteering to work on Kfar Yehoshua, the moshav (farming cooperative) of an indomitable couple, Chanan and Esther Shiloh, whose close friend and neighbor had been killed in the Sinai early in the war. They were now working his widow's dairy farm in addition to their own, so they needed an extra hand—a volunteer like myself, Chanan took pains to explain to me, since members of the moshav had always refused to hire wage-laborers, certainly not Arabs, whom they refused “to exploit.”

Chanan did not quite rub it in, but he and Esther made it plain that Israel's collectives, unlike Diaspora Jewish communities, enjoyed a certain authentic self-reliance. The vanguard of the state lived, like them, in the “hityashvut ha-ovedet”—literally, the “working settlement”—from which the word moshav derived. The old Hebrew motto of Labor Zionism was “kibbush ha-avodah,” “the conquest of labor,” where the real thing to be conquered was a Diaspora Jew's civilized sluggishness.

And what had made it all possible was the Jewish National Fund, the Keren Kayemet, the jewel in the crown of historic Zionism, whose green logo was still painted on the sign to Kfar Yehoshua, and on all the collectives in the lush Valley of Jezreel. Members did not own their land, my friends explained; the land had been leased in perpetuity from the Keren Kayemet, which had raised money abroad, penny by penny, then bought Arab estates in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, eventually distributing parcels to socialist halutzim, Zionism's pioneers, that is, their parents.

As a child, I had myself slipped nickels and pennies into the Keren Kayemet's little blue tin collection boxes. I can still taste the sweet, leaf-shaped stamps, which I bought for a couple of cents, and stuck onto a cartoon-like tree. When I had filled up the branches with leaves the tree was “planted.” For the fund kept on raising money for reforestation and other projects after the state was founded in 1948, after Israel could as easily expropriate land as have the Zionist fund buy it—and, again, large tracts were expropriated after the 1948 war, effacing some 400 Arab villages. Anyway, we were now done with wars, and Kfar Yehoshua's land remained the “inalienable property of the Jewish people”—that is, mine. I worked until I dropped. After about a month of this I was smitten: the warmth of welcome, the √©lan of revolution, the conviction that just war had brought lasting peace—that Israelis had won the former and Jews deserved the latter—the pleasingly triangular smell of cow's milk, cow's feed, and cow's shit rising into Hebrew air.


Kfar Yehoshua is not the same--it is rapidly becoming a suburb of Haifa--and readers of my blog and books know how obsolete, and (now) corrupting of Israeli democracy, are the revolutionary institutions I fell in love with 40 years ago: the JNF, and so forth. But Hebrew air is something else again. And the person who paints it more movingly than anyone I know is Elie Shamir, a son of Kfar Yehoshua, who is in a restless dialogue with his parents' founding generation, much like Herman Melville was in dialogue with America's founders.

For Shamir, what the Zionist generation prepared (at least Kfar Yehoshua's did) was an Israeli culture inflected by the literatures, legal commentaries, and aesthetics of the historic Jewish people; but a uniquely Hebrew embrace of enlightenment that would transcend all of that. The founders thought that if they built their farms, and devoted themselves to the IDF, everything would follow. Shamir knows better, alas; there is a sense of tragedy in his giant canvasses. But what is culture if not the slow accretion of individual takes on collective tragedy?

The labor Zionist founder, A.D. Gordon, believed that Hebrew society would provide the milk in which cultural cream would rise. Think of the churning as you look at Elie's canvasses here, at his wonderful website. And while you're looking, listen to Chava's Alberstein's haunting, nostalgic rendition of "Days of Binyamina," about a boy who used to walk barefoot on the farm.