Urban Legend

Twenty-one years ago, Nomika Zion, granddaughter of Mapam co-founder Yaakov Hazan, pioneered the urban kibbutz in Sderot. Now her 86-year-old mother, Hazan's daughter, is joining the venture.

Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg
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Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg

At first glance, Shaked Street in Sderot looks like a typical street in a bourgeois suburb: well-kept private homes, latest-model cars, an attractive tree-lined boulevard. But this street is actually a kibbutz, an urban kibbutz called Migvan. Ten of the 15 families living on it share their property and pool their salaries in a joint treasury. The other families on the street also have some kind of link to the kibbutz. Some only share the public institutions like the dining room and kindergarten; others also receive an ongoing supply of goods via centralized purchasing by the kibbutz. Migvan is a full member of the United Kibbutz Movement; when the movement was split into several kibbutz federations, it belonged to Hakibbutz Haartzi (Hashomer Hatzair). Migvan has been in Sderot for 21 years. For the first 13 years, the members lived in small apartments. Eight years ago, shortly after the onset of the Qassam attacks from Gaza, they moved to their permanent location. The construction was contracted as a group and the members paid for it themselves, including mortgages. The street is the "kibbutz lawn."

Naomi (Nomika) Zion is one of the founders. She has been here for 21 years, and is a somewhat mysterious figure. She carefully keeps her exact age a secret, claiming that "for the members of the kibbutz I'm always 26 years old"; only a cross-referencing of her biographical details reveals that she is about 46. She is single. She grew up in a home with a strong connection to art, and paintings cover almost every centimeter of her living room wall; in the sitting area there are also several statues, including one made by a kibbutz member and general director Nitai Schreiber. Zion says of herself, with unconcealed pride: "I'm a woman who is different and unique in many ways."

Her life story is also unique: She grew up in Kibbutz Reshafim in the Beit Shean Valley, which belongs to the socialist Hashomer Hatzair movement. When she informed her parents, Nissim and Ruth Zion, that she was leaving the kibbutz for an urban kibbutz in Sderot, they encouraged her. On the other hand, she had a big problem with her grandfather, because he was Yaakov Hazan, one of the two legendary leaders of Mapam, the movement to which the Hashomer Hatzair kibbutzim belonged. Grandfather Hazan, she says, was definitely opposed, not so much because he didn't admire the idea, but more because he was afraid it was unrealistic.

"He was afraid that Israeli society was not ready to absorb cooperative units within an urban space, and that in the end we would be absorbed and lose our identity," she says. "I assume that it was a combination of a conservative attitude and fear for his lifelong kibbutz enterprise. But I sensed a lot of admiration on his part too. In the end he said to me: I have no monopoly on values of partnership and socialism, and gave me his blessing. I'm sorry he's not alive today to see the success of this project."

And now, 21 years later, her mother, Ruth, Hazan's daughter, has also announced that she will join Migvan. In a few months, when her apartment is ready, she will leave Reshafim and begin a new life in Sderot at age 86. "I'm an only child, and I live very far from her," explains Nomika Zion. "It's very hard to grow old on kibbutz when you have no family, certainly on a kibbutz that has privatized all its systems and where there is no regular public transportation from there to here. So that this is first of all a private and humane decision. In addition, she comes here a lot in any case and is very close to the spirit of the place. She likes the atmosphere in the community, and for 14 years she used to give us lectures once a month on Fridays - on cinema, theater, art, all the subjects that she's involved with. Here she'll be able to experience a vibrant life in these fields - at the Sderot Cinematheque, at Sapir College."

Zion finds a unique symbolism in her own name and that of her mother: "Mother called me Naomi because she loved the Book of Ruth and the story of Ruth the Moabite who follows her love for her mother-in-law, Naomi. And now in our story, too, Ruth is following Naomi, but this time Naomi is the young daughter."

The power of words

Zion's family tree is interesting not only because of Yaakov Hazan. Her paternal grandfather, Rabbi Daniel Zion, was the chief rabbi of Bulgaria, "a fascinating man whose good connections with the royal family played an important role in the fact that the Jews of Bulgaria were saved from extermination in the Holocaust," she says. With the establishment of the state he immigrated to Israel with his family and settled in Jaffa. Their younger son, Nissim, her father, left religion in Bulgaria and became a communist, and eventually came to Kibbutz Reshafim. He was a shepherd and a director of various kibbutz factories, and in 1976 was appointed to direct the Tzavta center for performing arts in Tel Aviv, a position that he held until his death from cancer in 1994. Zion says that her father was a loving and attentive man. "When someone wanted to consult with him, he would drop everything, close the door and make time. He was a very warm person who used to tell me every few hours, 'I love you.' That's a great asset for life," she says.

And how were the relations between the grandfathers, the rabbi and the Mapam leader?

"I don't think there was any real connection between them. Maybe they met a few times, but not more than that. After all, those were very different worlds."

She recalls a very happy childhood. "I'm not one of those who suffered as children on the kibbutz," she says. "I can definitely understand the pain of all kinds of people who grew up on kibbutzim, but I had no problem growing up in the children' group or in the children's house. One thing did bother me very much: the fence between us and the world. In my opinion, it was not only a physical fence, but a mental and emotional one too, which separated us from the neighboring town of Beit Shean. I felt that something was very distorted in the fact that there was no encounter between us, that it didn't accord with the equality of man that they talked about all the time.

"There's a formative story that I always tell in connection with that: In fourth grade I made contact with several girls from Beit Shean and invited them to visit the kibbutz. They came one Shabbat to visit me, but there were boys who shouted at them: 'Get out of here, black Beit Sheanites.' Of course they left, and I remained with a very deep wound in my heart. This dissonance was also blatant in our school system. On the one hand, it was a wonderful group of young people, rich in experiences, teachers who had still been educated as Renaissance men, and on the other hand, a very closed and homogeneous society. We did lots of simulation games in high school about the real world, but we didn't meet the reality itself. It remained outside the fence."

Focus on the individual

After army service as a teacher-soldier, Nomika Zion joined the national leadership of Hashomer Hatzair, and at about the age of 25 she conceived the idea of founding an urban kibbutz, in order to preserve the collective framework while living within a society, without fences. A core group of kibbutznikim was formed, and they argued among themselves about where to locate the new kibbutz; some suggested Jerusalem, others preferred Holon.

Zion insisted on Sderot. "During the period when I was working in the Hashomer Hatzair leadership," she says, "I met several members of the new leadership group of Sderot in those days - Amir Peretz, Sami Ben-Yaish, Araleh Cohen, Zohar Avitan - and I was fascinated by their vision. This is a group that grew up in Sderot and felt that if they wanted to remain in the city, they had to take over the leadership. They placed Amir Peretz at the head, and won. This is a group that changed the entire discourse in the city, from a discourse about deprivation to one about taking responsibility. I felt that we were partners to the vision and the language, and that was in fact the period when Sderot flourished." (Today, incidentally, Zion is active in promoting the election of Ahlama Peretz, Amir's wife, as mayor).

And thus, in the summer of 1987, the six founders arrived in Sderot. "We were greeted with tremendous openness," she recalls. "As opposed to the attitude in the kibbutz movement, which saw [our project] as a kind of youthful mischief. Nevertheless, Amir, who was mayor at the time, described the conflict between us very clearly. He told us: 'First, in the youth group, you were the counselors and we were the members. In the army you were the commanders and we were the foot soldiers, and when we were discharged, you were the bosses in the regional factories and we were the manual laborers.' The urban kibbutz grew just because of the desire to break this patronizing pattern of relations, and to replace it with egalitarian ones."

And did suspicion and hostility still remain?

"I have no doubt that during the first years, some of the people continued to feel suspicion, and there were also those who made political capital of it. On our side too there was caution, even too much caution, like walking on eggs. But look at the neighborhood around us and you'll see that the entire pyramid has turned upside down: There are houses of 300-400 square meters here, two cars, four cable TV converters. The people have the kind of economic prosperity that we can only dream about. My mother, for example, calculates every shekel before coming here for a visit."

So how is life conducted on Kibbutz Migvan? The members work in any field they wish, but put their entire salary into a common fund. A secretariat decides on the allocation of money for special needs. There are general meetings, but Zion admits that "we have never had votes; because in a vote a majority defeats the minority, and we wanted the decisions to be made on the basis of an understanding of the general atmosphere among the members."

The secretariat is responsible for practical interpretation of this spirit. "Every family decides for itself about the children's education, and we do not have any list of regulations. Each person lives according to his own understanding, and the only formal rules are the legal rules regarding economic partnership."

For years, they would set Fridays aside for study meetings, "but busy lives and the economic effort involved in building this street, as well as the growth of families, brought an end to the custom." Today the regular joint events are the Friday night dinners, during which everyone gathers (without coercion) to say blessings over the food (secular blessings) and to talk about the week's events. Aside from that, there are communal events all year long, such as summer camp and a Pesach trip.

In general, Migvan is faithful to the original principles of collectivism of the kibbutz movement and even belongs to the movement's "collective stream" - the umbrella organization for kibbutzim that have not been privatized. But Zion emphasizes that as opposed to the rural kibbutz - as she makes sure to call kibbutzim that are involved in agriculture - "our kibbutz places the individual before the collective. We all left kibbutzim in which the individual sacrificed his dreams for the collective, and was in effect a type of servant of the collective. We placed the individual at the center and said: If you want to live in a community at all, it's so that it can enable you to fulfill dreams and needs."

She gives examples: "We have a member who is a lawyer, who worked in Ashkelon in the private sector and was very successful. But after a year, he felt that it didn't suit him, and he started working in the State Prosecutor's Office. I don't have to tell you the financial difference between the salaries, but it was clear to the kibbutz that we were going along with him, because what is most important is for people to do what suits them."

Desspite the differences in outlook

One of the main assets of the kibbutz, which enables it to pay for the members' professional freedom, is its computer services company, Migvan Effect. But even there, says Zion, the operating principles differ from the usual ones of the high-tech world. "The executives earn exactly the same as the salaried workers, and there were certain periods when the salaried workers received higher salaries than the executives. In this company, work stops at 4 P.M., to enable people to be with the family for a few hours. It's true that during high-pressure periods they continue to work from home even at night, but at least the evening hours are devoted to the family."

Eric Yellin, one of two company executives from the kibbutz, says that "most of the salaried workers earn more than we do, for the simple reason that we have to compete with the salaries they can get elsewhere. Therefore in this case the principle of not overdoing the salary differences serves us, the executives, as well." Adi Shiovitz, a Be'er Sheva resident who is a salried employee of Migvan Effect, confirms: "We don't have a division into senior executives who receive huge salaries and junior workers. We eat our lunch in the kibbutz dining room. Up until four months ago, we also took turns preparing meals, but the work load grew and we decided to hire a cook."

The main instrument through which the kibbutz sought to become part of city life and to influence it is the non-profit organization Gevanim, which was founded in 1994 and to date has created a variety of social welfare and educational activities, including services for people with disabilities at at-risk youth. It has about 250 employees, the vast majority are whom are not members of the kibbutz. The power of the organization in a small town like Sderot is so great that some people say that together with the garin torani (a group of religious settlers who came to Sderot), which also operates a range of social welfare activities here, it in effect runs the city. However, it is important to note that Gevanim has been separated completely from the kibbutz and in recent years has been run independently, even if the director general, Nitai Schreiber, is still a kibbutz member.

What kind of relationship do you have with the garin torani? After all, they are not only religious but also very right wing, and you are secular and leftists.

"Our relations are very good. There are many differences between us that I have no ability or interest in bridging. And at the same time we have created productive cooperation for the good of the city. We have the ability to define the boundaries of the dialogue and the place where we can meet and do things together. Personally speaking, I feel that I have given up the illusion of wanting to speak to all the residents here in the same language. I have given up the romantic dream of the melting pot in favor of the realization that we are living in a society that has many languages, and that nevertheless people can cooperate within it."

Shlomit Eckstein, the head of the religious group, sees things the same way: "Migvan is an amazing group that came to do important Zionist work in a place like Sderot. It's a very high-quality group; each person there really is above average. In spite of differences in outlook, we cooperate in many areas. The differences have never created an obstacle to cooperative work, not even on the level of something that has to be overcome."

As for the complaints against the two organizations to the effect that they are taking over the city's affairs, she says: "I think that it's directed more toward them than toward us, because Gevanim really does receive money and salaries from the municipality, but it's not justified criticism. For the most part these are complaints from people who were not hired by one of the organizations and then they remember to voice complaints about 'taking over' the city."

The Qassam test

Like the other residents of the city, the members of Migvan have also lived in the shadow of the Qassams for the past seven years. "During the early years we had a sense of strength that stemmed from our solidarity as a community," says Zion. "When the municipality decided to close a school or summer camps, we decided to organize camps, because in these situations, of all times, they are necessary. Every time that there were moments of escalation, people gathered together, even spontaneously, in order to talk about it and to become strong together."

But all that was not enough. "In the past year, with the improvement of the rockets' range and their large numbers, we found ourselves in crisis," she says. "It began one night in May 2007, when there were 30 rockets. Each person here picked up himself and his children and simply left, and there was a feeling that the community was falling apart. We went to Kibbutz Hatzerim for a week, and to their credit it must be said that they emptied out their children's houses for us and treated us very well. It was clear that we had to reconnect ourselves and we began group therapy, aside from the individual therapy that many of the members here are undergoing. Between January and April of this year, there was another major attack, including a missile that fell here in the street on February 6."

Are there thoughts of leaving?

"I never have them, but many people did. I feel that I built this home with blood, sweat and tears, that I can no longer reinvent myself in another place. There was one day when there was a sense of disintegration, and we discussed the idea that maybe we would all move to some other place. But in the end only one family left, after they felt that they couldn't take it any more. That was very tough, because it's a veteran family, truly flesh of our flesh. But we don't have any complaints: This is a family with four children who underwent a serious trauma. A few months ago another family went to live in Kibbutz Bror Hayil, but they are continuing their membership in the kibbutz. As a rule, people say that for them, the red line will come if a member of the family stops functioning. That will be a sign that they have to move."

Did the fact that the firing of Qassams only intensified after the disengagement cause any political soul-searching among the members of the kibbutz?

"It's possible that among some of the people, especially in the past year, there may be a feeling that a military solution is essential, just because the ruling group in Gaza is Hamas. I still have a strong belief that a belligerent solution will only increase the cycle of violence. After all, we already tried it for seven years. Therefore I personally believe only in rapprochement, in open and clandestine agreements, and in my opinion both sides are equally responsible for the present situation. Both sides have a narrow-minded leadership, which over the years has missed endless opportunities for an agreement."

On this issue, there is no agreement between the members of Migvan and the members of the religious group. "At all the demonstrations in front of the Prime Minister's Office we always found ourselves alone, only the religious people," says Shlomit Eckstein. "It was hard for me to understand why, after all the Qassams fall on us exactly the same way as on them. I assume that they were afraid that it would be seen as a political demonstration against the government, and that's why they didn't want to participate."

Zion has not only remained faithful to her left-wing views, but is even a partner to the Kol Aher ("another voice") initiative, which began in January this year and is designed to give voice to peace-loving, dovish views from Sderot and the communities near Gaza. When the group meets, they try not only to speak of themselves, but also to telephone Palestinians from Gaza who hold similar views, in order to strengthen them and be encouraged by the fact that there are partners to peace.

Three weeks ago Kol Aher held its first public event, a bicycle trip with a peace message, which ended with a rally on a hill near Kibbutz Kfar Aza, in order to enable a shouted conversation with Palestinians from the parallel group. But the battles between Fatah and Hamas, which broke out at the time, prevented the direct encounter. The group once again had to make do with telephone conversations, which were played on a loudspeaker to those attending the rally.

Zion does not want to talk about her private life. All she is willing to say is that over the years she has had several partners in the center of the country, but none of them was willing to move to Sderot, and she, for her part, was not willing to give up the kibbutz. And thus she lives on the kibbutz by herself, with trips to the center. "The kibbutz accepts me as I am," she says. "I'm a woman who is different in many ways, and one of the great things about this kibbutz is that people can contain the difference and accept it, and respect my private life as well."

Zion turns over to the kibbutz the salary she receives from the Yaakov Hazan Center for Social Justice of the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, which she has been running for the past eight years. The academic directors are Prof. Yitzhak Gal-Nur and Dr. Amir Paz-Fuchs, along with a staff of 15 researchers; the center's main project is a comprehensive study examining the policy of privatization.

The center is named for her grandfather. "The members of Hakibbutz Haartzi were looking for a way to commemorate Hazan through involvement with ideas rather than with another building," she says. "Yaela Granot, the director of our ideological seminar in Givat Haviva, proposed a partnership with Van Leer that would produce studies, conferences, and a public discourse to promote the idea of social justice. In the end, Yaela decided to work with children in Kiryat Shmona, and asked me to run it." W

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