“Is this your first time in Israel? Really? How do you like it?” Then they wait breathlessly for an answer.
I am 39 years old, the son of a Polish Jew who fought in 1948 for the Jewish State. I learned that in Israel you don’t take the above question lightly. They are asking for my endorsement of their life, country and policies. After some consideration, I usually said “It’s a beautiful country”, which it is.
But Israel is more than beaches, mountains and banana groves. It is also more than rocket attacks and bombing raids. When the state of Israel was refounded, there was a clear sense that this wasn’t just going to be another country like the other 195 already in existence. There was a great amount of idealism and a longing for justice and brotherhood. Bankers, lawyers and musicians left highly-paid jobs and joined ‘ghetto rats’ to work the same beautiful soil that their ancestors worked on years ago. The drive for personal gain at the expense of others was frowned upon – surely not by everybody – but it was enough to flavor the entire nation. Together, men and women drained the swamps, made the deserts bloom, and still had enough energy left to dance all night. All this I learned from my father, and together we went to Israel to seek among the ruins for traces of this spirit.
The kibbutz movement, which since 1910 has braved its way through many wars and uncounted hardships, was the obvious place to start. This movement has held aloft the flag of equality and sharing among men and women for over 100 years. Martin Buber famously said, “The Kibbutz is the only Utopia that has not failed”. Although the majority of kibbutzim have recently privatized, the leaders of the remaining sharing movement are bravely soldiering on. We were told by some that we should not be so naïve as to think that there is still anything alive here. Let me put it this way: To the extent that even a few strive to live for equality, the world continues to marvel. This movement continues to be an example to the rest of the world that claims it can’t be done. Yes, the sharing is not perfect, but we noticed embers of the original spark, and we were encouraged.
What is more, thousands of ‘youth movement’ graduates are now seeking to redefine what community and sharing mean. They are setting up small cells of ten people who live together in sharing community. These join together with other cells to form a bigger kibbutz. Unlike the former traditional kibbutz, it often has no distinct address to call home, but is immersed in an urban neighborhood and in the hearts of the members. Their mission? Education. Through proper education, they feel they can change society. They are creating teachers and educators who are making radical changes in the lives of many disadvantaged immigrants, children from poor homes, and in some cases Palestinians and Druze. They hope that some of these children will grow up to form the next generation of teachers and so widen the circles of influence in society. Far from perfect, the vision is amazing and they’ve been at it now for over 15 years… Will it really change Israeli society? We certainly hope so.
Why should I be interested in these community attempts?
Living in community myself, I know that it is never easy or straight forward. It requires a constant listening to the spirit that moves between people and steering by the wind of the good spirit. It means sacrifice, trust and commitment. It also means balancing home and solid family life with the desire to “change the world…” This means that unless a clear line is drawn on morals and values that we all know are right, our own perversity rots into our work and our mission. Finding this balance is not easy and needs daily re-centering.
Does this Israeli attempt at community have anything to do with us Christians?
Absolutely! We visited one of these communities in Nazareth, close to the place where Jesus gave his first sermon (Luke 4). There he proclaimed the return of property to original owners and the freedom of slaves – in other words: equality and brotherhood. As we discussed this over dinner, they understood instantly. This is not a Jewish / Israeli phenomenon; this is as Christian as it gets and exactly what the first Christians practiced.
So, do I like Israel?
Yes! But with that ‘yes’ goes a caveat. Jew and Palestinian, religious and secular, rich and poor all need to find a way to live in harmony and true justice. Rather than the constant news feed of individualism and bloodshed, the world needs to hear of Israel as an international leader in cooperation and sharing. My journey, and what I learned is a great encouragement: There are the beginnings of a different way.