Essay: Ode to a secular kibbutz Zionist - and secular kibbutz Zionism

Hanging out on kibbutz in a young country rendered many of our questions about meaning in life moot.

Gil Troy (photo credit: )
Gil Troy
(photo credit: )
Laurie Levy died suddenly last month at 54. Born in England, he had lived on Kibbutz Nirim in the Western Negev since 1974. His passing is not only a tragedy for all of us lucky enough to have known him, but it highlights the dying out of the kibbutz aliya and the dwindling phenomenon of non-religious aliya from Western democracies. Flipping through Laurie's photo albums at the shiva, I saw so many images familiar to those of us lucky enough (and, er, old enough) to have lived in Israel in the 1970s and early '80s. In one faded no-longer-so-colorful photo after another, Laurie is beaming, looking tanned and strong while invariably hugging a beautiful woman. This proper London boy is tasting freedom kibbutz-style. True, the 1970s was a decade of rebellion throughout the West, when the mostly elite revolution of the 1960s became a mass phenomenon. Still, the Israeli taste of freedom had its own unique flavor, especially on kibbutz. Israel was still a halutzic, pioneering country, barely 25 years old. The Yom Kippur War had illustrated its fragility and the entire Jewish world's vulnerability less than 30 years after the Nazi slaughter ended. The kibbutz ideal, while never as popular as Diaspora Zionists believed, still gripped the public's imagination. The kibbutz ethos of communitarianism, self-sacrifice, Spartanism and an all-hands-on-deck, fluid, cooperative eclecticism attracted thousands of suburban Jewish youth. Working and hanging out on kibbutz in a young, strikingly small but charmingly dynamic country rendered many of our angst-ridden questions about meaning in life moot. KIBBUTZIM WERE filled with characters straight out of a Zionist novel. New Jewish superheroes, they were as intellectual as anyone we knew back home, but tragically adept on the battlefields and wondrously competent in the growing fields they preferred. These bronzed, muscular, modern macho cowboys could have ridden desks like our fathers did, but chose to ride tractors instead. These ideological farmers were also impressively well-rounded, modern Renaissance men and women. One might be an archeology enthusiast, one might be an amateur musician - with time to practice - and one might be a budding biblical scholar, loving the land and learning about it while living on it and tilling it. Kibbutz life had its frustrations, limitations, perpetual controversies and sometimes draining workload. Still, many kibbutzniks seemed to express themselves more fully and diversely than the overworked, stressed-out super-specialists we knew and were aspiring to become back home. Most of us nevertheless moved on, although many of us still share the fantasy and warm nostalgia for those Wild West-like days. Some, like Laurie, made living on kibbutz their life's work. Laurie was lucky, he chose well. His kibbutz, Nirim, has not only survived, it still derives much of its income from agriculture. Laurie - who had an impressive entrepreneurial streak, too - worked in various kibbutz businesses as Nirim, and Israel, evolved. But well into his 50s, his first love remained the fields. Our serious but oh-so-bourgeois consciousness about overexposure to the sun forced him to stop working shirtless, wear a floppy hat and even use sunscreen, but he never let the dangers of too much sun or falling Kassams keep him from his crops. WESTERN ALIYA has always been small, and the minority who went to and stayed on kibbutz even smaller. Yet, just as the kibbutzim had an outsized impact on Israel's self-image and public identity, these capitalist suburbanites-turned-collectivist-farmers starred in the broader Zionist narrative. Although the admirable recent jump in Western aliya has been mostly an Orthodox phenomenon, secular olim like Laurie are a blessing to the Jewish homeland and their original home communities. The confusion people like Laurie trigger among many Israelis is healthy for Israel. Even secular Israelis can better understand religious olim; moving to Israel simply fulfills another religious obligation. But in a country that spends too much collective energy worshiping Western materialism, voluntary refugees from centers like London provide Israelis with a much-needed kick in the Zionist adrenals. These idealists prove there is more to life than the next promotion or purchase. That the move is voluntary forces Israelis to recognize their own country's appeal. These secular olim are also important living links between Israel and the many Jews - unlike religious Jews - who are growing distant from Judaism and Zionism. The wonderful life Laurie built for himself with a great, loving wife (full disclosure - my first cousin), four children, dozens of friends and hundreds of kibbutznik neighbors illustrated Israel at its finest - and most normal. Olim encourage friends and relatives from the Diaspora to visit more frequently. Even more important, people think about Israel more intensely and maturely thanks to these lifelong emissaries. During crises, these human connections bring home the poignancy of Israel's plight. These past few years, having close friends or relatives right on the Gaza border sensitized all of us in Laurie's extended family to the evils of Hamas's assault on peaceful Israelis just living their lives in territory internationally recognized as Israel's, within the historic pre-1967 Green Line. Fortunately, this constructive, important secular aliya, while diminished, has not disappeared. We have already started seeing something of a birthright bounce - some birthright israel returnees parlaying their free 10-day trips into lifelong Israel adventures. The Jewish Agency's investment in the Masa program, subsidizing 20-somethings who study, intern or work in Israel for at least six months, should also help. But until we make Israel, Zionism and peoplehood relevant to more young Diaspora Jews, we won't have enough people following Laurie's example, wherein a combination of noble Zionist motives and personal impulses propelled him toward the fun, meaningful and worthwhile life he lived so grandly but, alas, all too briefly. The writer is professor of history at McGill University and the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.