Neoclassical Zionism

Yoel Marshack fights for both sides in his struggle for human rights and economic equality.

yoel marshack 88 (photo credit: )
yoel marshack 88
(photo credit: )
A "congress" was about to convene, promised social activist Yoel Marshack at about 8:30 on a recent Friday morning, and after he made a few heated cell phone calls, it got underway by nine. Driving up to attend were the commander of the IDF brigade in the Nablus region, a few of his soldiers, two policemen, four men of standing from the Palestinian village of Salem and a half-dozen or so Israelis there to protect the Palestinian olive harvesters from feared attacks by settlers. On a highway embankment in the middle of the West Bank, the local IDF commander and all the others wrangled for a full hour-and-a-half over whether the villagers should be allowed to harvest their groves that day. All because of a few pointed, strategically-placed calls from Marshack. Such is his ability to stir things up. Officially, he heads the department of social projects for the Takam kibbutz movement, the mainstream kibbutz movement in Israel. In effect, he is the field organizer of neoclassical, "strength-and-justice" Zionism in Israel today. Sitting at the wheel of his maroon Isuzu truck van with his three cell phones and three telephones on the dashboard, Marshack tells photographer Jonathan Bloom and me, "This is all because of you." We had explained we needed some action for the profile we were doing on him, so, being a believer in the power of the press, he took us out to one of the flash points in the olive harvest wars now in season. The IDF had decided to close Salem's groves to the villagers for the weekend because hundreds of settlers would be passing through on their way to the settlement of Eilon Moreh for a Shabbat of Torah study in honor of Shabbat Lech Lecha. Incensed, Marshack got on the phone to try to coerce the army into reopening the groves for harvest. "Urgent. Urgent. This is Marshack. If you want to help, call me now," he said into his cell phone, leaving a message for one of his contacts in the Defense Ministry. "You bring the council head [of Salem], I'll bring the brigade commander," he shouts at one of his allies in the field over the phone. "This is a terrible problem, we have to straighten it out," he tells the brigade commander, who replies testily, "I'm going there now," over the speaker in the Isuzu. Marshack had been waiting for us in Kafr Kasim since 7 a.m. A jowly, gravel-voiced, gruff but genial and tirelessly voluble man looking to be in his early 60s - he won't give his age - Marshack says he leaves his house at Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha, near Petah Tikva, by 6:30 a.m. and returns home from work between 11 and midnight. Married with four grown daughters, he says he works seven days a week. WHEN WE met him he was dressed, as always, all in black - not because he's making a political statement, but because he's colorblind and doesn't want to look foolish. His most public activity now is protecting the Palestinian olive harvesters, but driving into the West Bank he gets on the phone to try to get some food and mattresses to the temporary workers then on strike at Ben-Gurion Airport, which he refers to anachronistically as "Lod airport." He plays us a week-old tape of IDF Radio announcer Dudu Elharar, a right-winger who went off on a tirade against Marshack's involvement in the olive harvest, accusing him of caring about Palestinians but not Jews. "Where were you born? Go over to the Palestinians' side," Elharar urged him. "Listen to IDF Radio between four and five - he's going to apologize," Marshack tells us. One of his friends heard the broadcast and got hold of IDF Radio station manager Avi Benayahu to complain of slander. On his program that afternoon, Elharar would tell his audience that he had "received numerous documents proving that Yoel Marshack and his volunteers help the needy whoever they are." Saying he'd learned that Marshack and his minions had assisted "Palestinians and settlers both" during the olive harvest, had also helped the displaced settlers of Gush Katif and had aided the home front during the summer war in Lebanon, Elharar offered his "full apology, without reservations, to Yoel Marshack and the kibbutz movement's department of social projects." Elharar had mentioned only a fraction of the seemingly "nationalistic" causes this kibbutznik who defends Palestinians against settler violence has taken up over the years. He organized volunteers to found a kibbutz in the West Bank's Jordan Valley. After the second intifada broke out, Marshack, a retired IDF brigade commander, organized some 5,000 ex-soldiers to volunteer to guard the Green Line against infiltration by Palestinian terrorists. When the refusal movement among reserve soldiers began, Marshack helped organize some 13,000 reservists who offered to take the refuseniks' place. During the disengagement, he organized some 10,000 volunteers - as usual, by advertising in the press - to help the Gush Katif farmers pack up their greenhouses. During the summer war in Lebanon, he and his volunteers brought supplies to Kiryat Shmona and other besieged northern cities, joining residents in bomb shelters and visiting nearly 20 families who'd lost sons in the fighting. As an ongoing project, he runs pre-army camps for kibbutz youth, motivating them to become combat soldiers and officers. "I'M NOT a leftist," Marshack says. "I'm for the Allon Plan. I don't want to give up the Jordan Valley, which is our security border, and I don't want to give up the Golan." At the same time, though, he sees the West Bank occupation as a moral disaster for Israel, so after the first intifada began, he organized "Force Yoel," a group of 120 similarly troubled reserve officers who tried to influence soldiers to do their job without mistreating innocent Palestinians. Of Machsom Watch, the organization of women who monitor IDF behavior at West Bank checkpoints, he says, "They're very, very important." He is also convinced that if it weren't for the media's attention - as meager as it is - the army would feel even freer to mistreat Palestinians. Alongside his opposition to the occupation, his belief in the IDF - as filled with criticism as it may be - and his commitment to Jewish settlement so long as it's away from Palestinian-populated areas, Marshack holds to the principle of economic equality. On a personal level, this led him to insist that Takam pay him the same roughly NIS 9,000 monthly salary that his secretary receives; at the national level, it led him to provide the logistical and moral support to Vikki Knafo's 2003 hunger strike in Jerusalem, one of the highest-profile Israeli anti-poverty campaigns ever, but which ended in defeat to the welfare-slashing policies of then-finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu. "You're talking to one of the last of an old breed," says Marshack behind the wheel, noting that he doesn't like the free-market changes in the kibbutz movement, either. "They've created huge income gaps between members," he says. "There are hungry people today on the kibbutzim." ACTUALLY, HE is a modern version of an old breed. Marshack comes out of a Zionist tradition, centered in the kibbutzim, of the "enlightened warrior" - the patriotic, materially austere pioneer who believes in settling and defending the Land of Israel, but who also believes in defending the Palestinians' right to a fair share of that land, as well as their right to be treated with respect. This tradition essentially died out decades ago. His father, Palmah and kibbutz movement leader Benny Marshack, started out in that tradition, although after the Six Day War he became a Greater Land of Israel devotee. "But if he was alive today, he would have changed his views," his son is convinced. Asked why that old tradition faded, Marshack replies that settlement became associated with right-wing religious extremism in Judea and Samaria, instead of with kibbutz socialism as it once was. The Left, he continues, turned away from national missions and economic equality to focus exclusively on ending the occupation. Finally, he notes, "Israel has fallen in love with America, with the free market. Money is everything. The goal is to outdo your neighbor. It's every man for himself. This isn't just a problem in Israel, it's a problem all over the world." As we approach the Tapuah Junction, Marshack says, "Here there's shooting [by Palestinians] all the time. But they know this vehicle, they know we're coming to help, so they know not to shoot at us." This was a wild exaggeration born out of a heightened sense of self-importance, a sense that seems to be part of the make-up of many people, not only Marshack, who devote their lives to helping others. Citing a survey showing that kibbutzniks were considered by Israelis to be the most dedicated volunteers in the country, he asks us, "Who does the public think of when they think of kibbutz volunteers?" His answer: "Us!," delivered with a beaming smile and a thumbs-up sign. By "us," he means the Takam kibbutz movement's department of social projects, or, more specifically, Yoel Marshack. Pulling up to the entrance of Salem's olive groves, he finds the gate, which was put there by the IDF, locked. A half-dozen Palestinians are standing behind it, not knowing if it's safe to go harvest their trees. It's not clear if the villagers know of the army's closure of the groves, or if they will obey it, or what the soldiers will do later if they find Palestinians there or what the hundreds of settlers coming to Eilon Moreh will do. "My guess is that there's going to be some sort of riot today," says Marshack, juicing up the urgency of his peacekeeping mission. "I represent the Palestinians to the IDF, and the IDF to the Palestinians," he explains. He drives up a rocky slope featuring olive trees on both sides, looking for Palestinian harvesters to swap information with, but he doesn't find any. An IDF jeep pulls hurriedly up the slope to block his way back down. Four rifle-toting, helmeted soldiers get out, and one comes to the driver's window. "What are you doing here?" he asks Marshack. Marshack replies, "I coordinated with the brigade commander, so don't worry," and goes back to his cell phone arrangements for the imminent negotiations with the brigade commander. The young soldier seems at a loss; apparently he isn't used to being treated with such blithe indifference. Finally he says, "Uncle, we just want you to leave." Marshack finishes his phone call, puts the Isuzu into gear and tells the soldier, "I'm finished. Now you want to let me through?" The four soldiers go back to their jeep and obediently move it out of Marshack's path. Down at the highway, the army has arrived. As the Palestinians behind the gate look on, the brigade commander, "A.," vents his feelings over Marshack's accusation, based on information from a colleague in the field, that the army only informed the Salem villagers on the previous night that their groves would be closed, when, according to A., the word was passed two days ago. A brawny, plain-talking, seemingly fair-minded officer, A. says he's being accused of lying. "You people are spitting in my face," he tells Marshack. "Did I blame you for anything? Calm down," Marshack tells him. Then the selling job begins. Marshack pulls out a copy of the public opinion survey so favorable to kibbutzniks, saying, "The people of Israel appreciate what we're doing here." "What does this have to do with anything?" the brigade commander wonders, trying to get a word in between Marshack's onrushing monologue. Trying to impress upon him the importance of reopening the olive groves, as well as his own importance, Marshack tells A. that because of this dispute over the olive harvest, he is forgoing an invitation from the Rabin family to "an intimate gathering of only about 100 people at Mt. Herzl" for the 11th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's murder. "So I ruined your day," A. says quietly as Marshack rasps on with his case. IT'S NO use, though. In the end, the brigade commander's order stands - the villagers will not be allowed to harvest their olives until the weekend is over. "They didn't want us to dirty the highway for the settlers," complains one of the villagers. A., however, notes that "some of these settlers are extremists, they're crazy," and that keeping the villagers away from the groves is a sure way to avoid trouble. Over the Shabbat weekend, Marshack would be on the phone to the radio, TV and newspapers about how the IDF suspended the olive harvest because of the settlers coming to study Torah. Driving out of the West Bank, Marshack grumbles about A.'s inexperience and insecurity. As he passes the Tapuah Junction, he sees a family of Palestinians standing idly behind the IDF fence. He stops his van. "Everything alright?" he asks the family. "They're just checking our ID, then they're going to let us through," says the elder of the group. "Alright," says Marshack, driving away. A proud provincial, he says he's never left Israel his entire life, not even for a vacation. He's also a cornball, naming John F. Kennedy, Mother Teresa, Joan of Arc and Robin Hood as his heroes. (Among Israelis, he names the original Zionist martyr, Yosef Trumpeldor, Palmah commander Yitzhak Sadeh and the ultimate kibbutznik/warrior, Yigal Allon.) A theorist he's not, a wallflower he's not, but a doer he is. "Look, what do I have to offer?" he asks, then answers, "Vision, heart and soul, a household name, and contacts. Also determination and dedication." Even if one might like to, it's hard to argue with him. When Marshack is finished with us, he will be driving to Latrun to meet a pair of religious settler women about a religious-secular seminar he wants to set up. That evening he will continue his work at the Takam building in Tel Aviv. On this Friday night, the only light in the building, the only sign of life, will be coming from the office of the department of social projects and the one-man movement for strength-and-justice Zionism at its head.