Israeli History Clowns in the Dining Room

In writing about the death of Kibbutz Afikim, Assaf Inbari adopts a distant point of view that both sharpens and weakens his argument.

Habayta (Going Home)

by Assaf Inbari; Yedioth Books, 276 pages, NIS 88

Assaf Inbari was born on Kibbutz Afikim in 1968, when the kibbutz movement was at its peak. His new book, "Going Home," tells the story of that kibbutz, beginning with the socialist and Zionist dreams that gave rise to it, through its development and growth, and up to its collapse in the past decade. It should be said at the outset: This is a readable and entertaining book. That fact is both its strength and its weakness.

No less important, "Going Home" is told by a third-person narrator who observes his characters from the outside, refraining almost entirely from probing their inner worlds. As a result, readers can easily see how the kibbutz expanded, but its members, and their daily lives, remain out of focus. The reader, too, is kept at a distance. You smile, but you don't really care what happens to anyone in the book, because in most cases they remain cardboard characters who advance the overall plot but are not sufficiently fleshed out.

Magic realism

Kibbutz Afikim was founded in the early 1930s by members of the socialist-Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair from post-revolutionary Russia. After modest beginnings, Afikim, which is situated at the northern end of the Jordan Valley, just south of the Kinneret, became one of the largest and most successful kibbutzim (partly due to Afikim's profitable Kelet plywood factory), and a spearhead of the kibbutz movement. But Afikim was not altogether immune from the processes that caused other kibbutzim to fall apart, "and the dismantling of the kibbutz progressed from the first stage, in which services were privatized, to the second stage, of differential salaries," Inbari writes. "Equality disappeared, and members who had sat side by side in the row of potties in the children's house now sat [on different levels], one with his high salary and the other with the 'safety net' that supported those who did not pull their own weight." The position of kibbutz general secretary was dead; long live the community director general.

Inbari adopts wise tactics for telling the tale of Afikim. He focuses on seven central figures responsible for the founding of the kibbutz, its ideology, its economic successes and its cultural ones. The stories of these figures, especially in the early chapters, are told with a tendency toward magic realism, which suits the adventurer-dreamer-visionary nature of these people. The author skillfully weaves their personal stories into that of the growth of Afikim, helping readers follow along as the kibbutz comes together socially and culturally, and gradually becomes more accepting of the religious Judaism it had initially rejected.

However, Inbari writes from the point of view of someone very familiar with the importance of the deeds of these people, and who therefore permits himself to deflate the reputation of legendary kibbutz founders. Elazar (Lesya) Galili, for example, the founder of the movement, is repeatedly described as something of a buffoon, obsessed with some historical battle involving elephants and interested mainly in finding more and more jobs for himself outside the kibbutz. But readers likely to be unfamiliar with the deeds of Galili (who is considered the father of Israeli military history and founded the Israel Defense Forces publication Maarachot), are in effect left only with the burst balloon. Among the things that are not at all clear to them is how Galili attained the rank of colonel (a fact mentioned toward the book's end) and what interest David Ben-Gurion had in listening to his opinions. By the same token, it is not at all clear why Lunya Geler (who Hebraicized his name to Aryeh Bahir) became one of the important activists of the Mapai Party (the forerunner of Labor) or how he made his way into the Knesset.

Flowery language

Worthy of mention are the letters, reproduced in the book, that Galili's wife Klara wrote him while he was on his frequent trips away from the kibbutz. She tries to conceal her longings and her loneliness and to convince him to come back, by means of short reports about how their children are growing up without a father.

But most of these texts come from festive events, from special occasions, from eulogies. How did the kibbutz look between one festival and the next, between one funeral and the next? How did members behave with one another in the dining room? What was life like in the many children's houses on the kibbutz? What was daily life like? Why did the second generation leave en masse even before the economic crisis of the 1980s? The book does not answer these questions at all, because its distant descriptions and mocking, ironic tone lead it to focus on amusing incidents while skipping over the routine, the minor developments hidden from view - in short, the things that make up life. The passages from speeches, the letters, the articles from the kibbutz newsletter, the diaries: none fill this vacuum. The history of Afikim is presented here as a series of amusing anecdotes, the type of stories the gang used to tell on the lawn in front of the dining room in the evening, stories that perpetuated the wondrous, naive and even absurd nature of the kibbutz founders.

Anyone who has written about the kibbutz is very familiar with the temptation to make use of this local folklore. Inbari writes as someone fascinated by these stories, and he tells them like an experienced teller of tall tales, but history is presented here as the private, unique story of Afikim, and only rarely does more general human meaning emerge from the local materials.

For instance, Inbari describes the absorption of new immigrants into the kibbutz in this way: "The Romanians were not absorbed, but 10 Austrians were, and Yekkes [German Jews] like Haim Arad and Peretz Harari, to name two exemplars. Haim Arad was a certified electrician and a collector of pistols and women. The kibbutz needed an electrician and an expert on pistols, and the women of the kibbutz, both the more single and the less so, needed Haim Arad. Peretz Harari had brought a gramophone and records with him from Hannover. He could whistle in two-part harmony. Quite a phenomenon. When he walked around the kibbutz, whistling a Bach double violin concerto, all activity ceased, and even Haim Arad, who was installing the electricity in the apartment (and the body) of one or another of the female members, stopped and listened."

The entire passage is based on wit and fun: calling the members exemplars; describing the female members as more or less single; creating a link between collecting pistols and women, and between installing electricity in the apartment and in the body of some female member of the kibbutz. But as much as Inbari may succeed in entertaining the reader, it comes at the expense of genuine discussion of the difficulties of absorption into the kibbutz. The "exemplars" mentioned here appear on the page momentarily and disappear without leaving behind any real trace, and the same is true of dozens of other figures.

Without names

Such a brief stint in Inbari's spotlight is the fate not only of the new immigrants who joined the kibbutz, but also of those born there. The book focuses on the founders, naming the kibbutz sons and daughters only if they fell during one of Israel's wars, received some kind of recognition as athletes or poets, or invented new agricultural implements. Who are these kibbutz children? What are they good for except dying in Sinai or the Golan Heights? How were they affected by the revolutionary lifestyle of their parents? On these questions the book remains silent.

The author hints at his personal experiences toward the end of the book, in his description of a boy who runs to his parents' house at night because he is afraid of the witch he sees through the window of the children's house. The same scene was described by Inbari in first person in his story "Misderon Hamivtzar" ("The Corridor of the Fortress"), which was published in the local newspaper Zman Tel Aviv in 1993, but in "Going Home" he avoids the personal and confessional; the story is therefore told in the second person ("You lifted yourself up and, thanks to the witch, dropped onto the bushes outside"), which greatly weakens it.

Since Inbari presents his characters from the outside, from a distance, without penetrating their inner lives, he has no choice but to present the history of the kibbutz from the outside as well.

What caused the collapse of this particular kibbutz? Although the author mentions several reasons for the "undermining of the foundations" (including the transition from sleeping in the children's houses to sleeping at home and the decision to allow members to own private property), the book's last chapters indicate that the failure of Afikim originated in misguided financial investments.

Inbari would have us believe that, had it not been for the bank crisis of the 1980s, and the subsequent fall of the stock market, Afikim would still be flourishing. But the truth is that when the economic crisis arrived at the gates of Afikim, the members of the second generation were already far from the kibbutz where they were born, living in Tel Aviv or Los Angeles, and new members had not been knocking at the gates for a long time. In fact, the collapse of the kibbutz was due to internal reasons, but the book barely touches on them.