Yaniv Sagee, a lifelong member of an Israeli kibbutz, is a political activist, a dairy farmer, and a high school teacher. For thirty years he has fought for civil rights for Palestinians and Arab Israelis, and advocates for peace. Plough’s Timothy Keiderling spoke with him about why it’s crucial to recover Zionism’s roots to build a shared society.
Plough: Questions about Zionism, about communal living, and about brotherhood between nations – other people can opt into wrestling with them, but you were born into them. Can you tell us about your background?
Yaniv Sagee: I was born in 1963 in Kibbutz Ein HaShofet in northern Israel. True to the original vision of kibbutz living, we shared all things in common: my family had no private property. I grew up in the children’s house, where we also slept and had our classes. It was a very good childhood.
Then, when I was seventeen, my father died. He was a Zionist, a Holocaust survivor. His ideals shaped me. His life was a quest for peace and justice for all. And he taught me that we will never have justice and peace if the Palestinians don’t also. That has guided me ever since. He also taught me that I needed to be responsible for my community, for our movement: Ein HaShofet was created by the Hashomer Hatzair Youth Movement, started in 1913. It held three values: Zionism, socialism, and brotherhood of people.
What’s the connection between those three things? They seem pretty far apart. Israel is a capitalist country; when a lot of people think of Zionism, the brotherhood of all people is the last thing that comes to mind. What would you say to them?
Zionism, for my father and our movement, meant we must take responsibility for the future of the Jewish people, to create a Jewish homeland where we will have shelter from anti-Semitism.
But it wasn’t just about having a nation like other nations, a place of safety. It was also meant to be a better place than any other, built on equality and justice. That’s where socialism came in. What we meant by socialism was that all people should live in community, in conditions of legal and material equality. And we wanted to do that without waiting. We wanted to create a new society and jump right to the final stage of socialism. It’s not something out there in the future. It was to be built by the movement, there and then, in the land of Israel.
It was so practical, when I was growing up! You don’t just speak about things, you actualize them. I started work at age seven, cleaning our children’s house, taking care of the children’s mini-zoo – we had a zoo to learn to be responsible for animals. If we didn’t take care of the animals, they would die. So, we needed to work hard to build this land.
But there were already people in that land.
We believe that the Jewish people need a homeland. We are coming back to Zion because this is the historical and natural homeland of the Jewish people. But we also believe it’s possible to live together with the Palestinian people that have been living in this place for so long. Those were the values I learned from my father.
But it hasn’t been a straightforward path. What happened after your father died?
I went into the army – everyone has to serve. We have three mandatory years and then serve about one month a year as reserves. As soon as I could, I came back to the kibbutz. Then, at twenty-five, I was elected to serve as general secretary of the kibbutz. It was just for a term – we rotate positions, that’s part of our way to live. There should not be the managing class and the simple people. People came to me and I helped them. This is the basic doctrine: we give everything we can, and we receive everything we need.
The kibbutz had put me through Tel Aviv University; once I finished my studies the plan was for me to manage the dairy business, though I wanted to be a teacher at the high school. But what I do – this is not a personal decision. About a year after I got back, people started wanting to make their own decisions professionally. I said, “No, the kibbutz needs to decide where to send me.” They tried to tell me that’s not how we do things anymore, but I said, “This is my vocation. I am going to be a public servant, so I need the public to decide where I am needed.”
So I was the manager of the dairy for one year and then joined the high school as a teacher and educator. By that time I was married, and this service was a part of how I understood what it was to be a husband to Galia, a father to my children. It’s not that I’m this big figure running organizations; rather, first I’m taking all the burden of the family on my shoulders. It’s our way as a couple. We share the vocation. We find a way so that even when I’m elected to big positions, it always becomes part of the family and the family becomes part of the community.
Later I was elected as the head of our youth movement and after five years as general secretary of the kibbutz. Through that, I started working with the government, and other kibbutzim.
You’ve linked the future of the kibbutz movement with what you’ve called “shared society” and with peace. How are all these things connected to Zionism?
They’re all connected, even though they seem to contradict each other. The kibbutz is a Zionist socialist community, but Zionism is about the Jewish people, while socialism is international. For years, Zionism has struggled with these contradictions. As in the State of Israel, so it’s been with the kibbutz movement: Zionism has come first. And when Zionism contradicted the brotherhood of people, then the kibbutzniks put brotherhood of people aside. This is a big problem.
Theodor Herzl, in the nineteenth century, called not for a Jewish state but a state for the Jews, to connect all Jewish people. Herzl understood that the land where we want to come back, Zion, is not empty. Arabs, too, have their homes here.
A century ago, 1921, was the first conflict with the Arab Palestinians, a bloody confrontation in Jaffa. From then on, the question faced us: Would we push to have a Jewish state regardless of how we achieved it, or would we understand that first we needed to settle how we live together with the Arab inhabitants of the country? The movement I’m part of has tried to say, “We need to find a way to live with the Palestinians.”
After the Holocaust, it was even more clear than before that we needed a place of safety. And we do! But since then, Zionism became a nationalistic movement, not as focused on the ideals of the Jewish people. That’s earned us a lot of criticism, including the 1975 UN resolution that Zionism is racism.
Zionism is still needed, but it can’t be based on anti-Jewish morals. Zionism needs to come back from its nationalistic approach to become, again, a movement for Jewish people, where our homeland is just one tool in our toolbox for the continuation of the Jewish people.
Could you say a little about what you think a shared society would look like?
For fifty-four years, Israel has been an occupier in the West Bank. People there, and in Gaza, are living in cruel conditions. Hamas is a bloody terrorist group, but that doesn’t change that fact. Israel describes itself as a democratic Zionist Jewish state. We need to decide between the Jewish and democratic natures of the state. Israel must continue to be a homeland of the Jewish people, but also a shared state, where all citizens are equal. To make that work, Palestinian people need to have their own country, with the 1967 borders.
This is what I mean by a shared society – a place that all citizens view as their home. Inside Israel (without the occupied territories) the population is 80 percent Jewish and 20 percent Arab. We must start living together, going to the same schools. We need to have at least 20 percent Arabs in every public institution in Israel. Arabs, like Jews, need to do national service. And we also need to have processes of forgiveness, committees for truth and reconciliation.
It’s not so far-fetched! In most places, people feel good about the public sphere. We already share some spaces: go to the big mall in Nazareth, to hospitals, to restaurants, you’ll see Arabs and Jews together. Go to Jerusalem and Haifa and see that the notice that the bus will be ten minutes late is in Hebrew and Arabic. This is possible. We will learn how to do this.
What’s the place of the kibbutz movement in that shared society?
The kibbutzim were socialist Zionist settlements. What we mean by socialism is what you in the Bruderhof mean by it: each one gives according to his ability and receives according to his needs. No one is alone, everyone is taken care of. For this to work we have to trust each other. We’re secular – most kibbutzim are – but we’re based on faith in a mission, a purpose beyond simply communal living. That mission, that faith, was that it is our responsibility to create a better world, and at the same time a sustained existence for the Jewish people. We needed to create a better society in Israel, based on justice, which involves partnership with the Arabs. We needed to be agents of peace. And part of this peace is to build Jewish culture – arts, music, literature. The kibbutzim were carrying out this mission. That was a very good system. It worked great; that’s why there are 273 kibbutzim all over Israel.
But even by the early 1960s, this began to break down. We lost a sense of vocation. And even vocation is not enough. Another thing I learned from the Bruderhof, which is crucial but which was never a part of the kibbutz movement, is the centrality of forgiveness. The ability to live in an intimate society where you do not have a whole load of negative emotions towards others is essential. And you have a way to practice that, but we never had it.
I used to be a mediator. People would assure me a conflict was over, but we had no way to stop the feelings of hurt and hatred. We have people in the kibbutz hating others because they were hurt years ago. Some carry that to the next generation. You cannot run a community like this. We don’t have members with a sense of vocation beyond themselves. And we do not forgive.
Now, most of the kibbutzim are good homes, comfortable places to live. We have waiting lists; there are more kibbutzniks than ever. They all want to come to these privatized kibbutzim. People say it’s great. You get a good house. There’s good community that functions better than the city. We pay taxes. Good education, good healthcare. People are closer than in the city. It’s a nice liberal community, a comfortable suburban home. But it’s not going to last. We’re running on fumes.
In the past, we would tell people that didn’t subscribe to the ideas of the kibbutz, “OK, you don’t believe. Go, leave. This is who we are.” Now those people tell us, “We are staying. We are stakeholders like you and we are going to change things to suit us.” What happened in Ein HaShofet is that I stayed in the kibbutz, but the kibbutz left the kibbutz.
So what’s next? Is there a future?
I feel that the kibbutz is very important, so I am going to try. There needs to be change, but not just a change to privatization. We have to find a new path. We can’t rely on getting hold of the past, because it doesn’t exist anymore, the people don’t carry it in their heart. I believe the kibbutz needs a new model, a model I call a “braided kibbutz.” You have different levels of commitment woven together. On the most committed level, you’d have people holding a common purse. At the outer edges would be families living privately. You could choose your level of commitment, and all would be interwoven. There will be a common overarching circle for all.
A shared society, even for people who disagree on what that society means?
Yes, a shared society, based on partnership between differences.
This article combines three interviews from July 2021, edited for length and clarity.