Cry me a river

A struggle over public access to a brook that runs through a kibbutz blends political trauma, social pain, and uniquely Israeli hard feelings

The Asi River at Kibbutz Nir David (photo credit: SHLOMO MISHALI/PIKIWIKI ISRAEL)
The Asi River at Kibbutz Nir David
The Promised Land, said Moses, is blessed “with streams, and springs, and fountains issuing from plain and hill.”
It was an overstatement. Yes, Israel’s mountains are endowed with many springs and its valleys do shoulder several streams beside Israel’s largest river, the Jordan.
However, compared with regional rivals like the Nile and the Euphrates, even the Jordan is but a glorified puddle, and its eastbound tributaries are even humbler, as are the westbound streams that end up in the Mediterranean, like the Yarkon, which runs through Tel Aviv.
Modern Israel overcame this minimalistic hydrology’s economic challenge, but naturally flowing water remained an aesthetic rarity and a psychological quest, so much so that one Israeli river now feeds a public struggle which blends political trauma, social pain and uniquely Israeli hard feelings.
Emerging from the Gan HaShlosha National Park – a celebration of aquatic nature and landscaped greenery that Time magazine once listed among the world’s most beautiful parks – the Asi River flows for four kilometers before joining the Harod Creek, which feeds the Jordan’s lazy flow some 10 km. to the Asi’s east.
Adorning the western entrance to the exceptionally hot Bet She’an Valley, where summer temperatures regularly exceed 40°, the park’s continuum of breezy pools, little waterfalls, and palm shaded lawns makes tourists compare it to the Garden of Eden.
Vindicating this impression, a Kibbutz tucked several minutes’ walk beyond the park’s eastern fence looks like a misplaced Alpine hamlet, with the Asi’s turquoise water meandering gently under four quaint bridges between this community’s red-roofed houses and manicured lawns.
The kibbutz, Nir David, adds up to an exceptional sight in Israel, a combination of affluence, shade, gardening, and flowing water that made some claim this community of 730 people is as close as an Israeli town comes to paradise. It is also as inaccessible. That is what the struggle over its future is about.
CARRYING SIGNS like “The Asi is Public Property,” several dozen demonstrators arrived at Nir David’s gate on a mid-August Friday and reportedly broke through its locked gate before plunging into its creek and soon posting on social media photos of their signs of protest waved aloft from within the Asi’s flow.
It was but part of an ongoing, and increasingly noisy effort, which – according to Nir David’s kibbutzniks – included a motorized convoy that the previous evening emerged at their community’s gate and, disrupting its fabled serenity, burst in a cacophony of honks.
With demonstrators arriving at its gate every Friday, the kibbutz hired security guards to block the protesters, and a public-relations firm to handle the press.
The protesters’ argument is legalistic: Israel’s water, like its air and land, belongs to all Israelis, and should therefore be accessible to all.
Indeed, this environmental struggle is not about preservation, but about access, a variation of the recent struggle over the regulation of Israel’s gas deposits, which activists wanted nationalized.
The Asi had been publicly accessible for more than 70 years, until Nir David shut its gates in 2010 after continuously arriving picnickers and bathers left behind them mountains of garbage, and in some cases, according to the locals, also urinated by the residents’ homes.
It was a big mistake. The unilateral move and its explanations were seen by residents of nearby Beit She’an as an affront aimed at them. Some of the predominantly working class town’s 20,000 residents decided to act.
“We have a right to nature’s resources just like everyone else,” the struggle’s initiator, social activist Nissim Zamir, told reporters.
Five years on, the struggle produced a lawsuit in which the activists charged at the Beit She’an Magistrate Court that Nir David is violating Israel’s Water Law, which defines the country’s water as public property. Claiming that Nir David’s gating constitutes “a harsh violation” of public rights, the plaintiffs further accused the kibbutz of “bullying” the public and acting in bad faith.
The court produced a deal between the parties, whereby the part of the river that is within Nir David’s houses will remain blocked, but the kibbutz would allocate another segment of the stream for a public park. The park’s creation would be the responsibility of the local government, namely the regional council, but the kibbutz would finance and deliver to the council a development plan by April 2020.
Alas, the deadline came and went and the plan was not produced. That is when the activists resumed their struggle, in earnest. Now the activists sued not at Beit She’an, but in Tel Aviv, and their claim was not just access, but a class action of NIS 36 million that would be paid to the residents of Beit She’an and others who have been denied access to the Asi River. Lurking beyond this legal veneer is a clash of communal histories.
WHEN NIR DAVID’s founders broke its ground in 1936, the waters that now feed some of Israel’s prettiest places were flowing aimlessly, feeding instead a swamp that bred disease. The kibbutzniks dried the swamp and channeled the valley’s waters at a great effort, and while at it expanded the adjacent Jezreel Valley’s cultivation as the future state of Israel’s breadbasket.
Moreover, by sheer coincidence Nir David’s scheduled establishment in 1936 fell just before the Arab Revolt’s outbreak, which for the Jewish farmers at the foothills of Mount Gilboa meant braving routine sniper fire and agricultural arson.
The Zionist movement’s response to the revolt, the creation of 52 kibbutzim through the rushed method known as “Tower and Stockade,” was spearheaded by Nir David, whose founders fought malaria and terror simultaneously.
It was those kibbutzniks’ pioneering and resourcefulness that eventually allowed the touristic developments that would attract thousands to Gan HaShlosha and other local water attractions, like Nahal HaKibbutzim, a recreational park offering bicycle and golf-cart rides between shady picnic areas along a stream that runs two km. south of the Asi.
Nir David is but one of 20 kibbutzim that were spread west of the Jordan between Mount Gilboa and Lake Kinneret, including history’s first kibbutz, Deganya Aleph, which was planted in 1910 at the lake’s southern tip.
Tucked in the midst of these kibbutzim is Beit She’an, which since the early 1950s became the home of thousands of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa. Their encounter with the predominantly Ashkenazi farmers of the surrounding kibbutzim was harsh.
Beit She’an’s housing projects were ramshackle, their inhabitants were penniless and undereducated, and they had no political power. The kibbutznikim represented to them all the wealth, connections, and power of which they could only dream.
That these tensions fed Likud’s rise to power in 1977 is famous, and by now almost prehistoric.
Beit She’an has changed since the days when thousands of its inhabitants were unskilled production workers in the surrounding kibbutzim’s factories. Now sporting spacious villas and a new train service’s comfortable commute to Haifa, Tel Aviv, and their employment opportunities, the city’s average income has caught up with the national average, and it prides on nearly 90% matriculation eligibility among its three high schools’ graduates.
Once an epitome of the social periphery’s political impotence, Beit She’an has since become the home of a political dynasty of which the neighboring kibbutzim can only dream, namely, former foreign minister David Levy, his children Jackie and Orly who are, respectively, mayor of Beit She’an and minister of community empowerment, and David’s late brother Maxim, who was mayor of Lod.
Even so, yesteryear’s envy and anger still linger, and many in Beit She’an still perceive their town as marginalized. These feelings fuel the Asi River controversy.
The kibbutzniks, for their part, feel they are victims of an identity politics fed by cynical activists who conveniently forget that Nir David’s pioneers tamed the Beit She’an Valley’s waters, and that they built their houses on the Asi’s banks when no one else would come and live in the valley that was notorious for its mosquitoes and heat.
Whatever the history, the idea that the public will be allowed to roam freely the lawns between a community’s private houses strikes most people as unreasonable.
Fortunately, the length of the brook within the houses is a mere 1,000 meters. The kibbutz therefore now decided to open to the public another part of the brook, in the spirit of its original agreement, even before presenting the plans whose deadline it missed back in the spring.
Eager to restore peace, Beit She’an Mayor Jackie Levi and his colleague Yoram Karin, who heads the region’s kibbutzim in his capacity as Head of Nahal HaMaayanot Regional Council, said in a joint communique they will act together to re-channel the Asi, so it will also flow through Beit Shean. The idea, which would give one of Israel’s grayest cities its own turquoise water, much like the jewel in Nir David’s crown, was received by some activists with disbelief. “They are just throwing the dog a bone,” one wrote on the “Liberating the Asi” Facebook page.
The original protester, Nissim Zamir, disagreed. “It’s a great decision,” he said. “A great decision for Beit She’an.”