Lessons From an Erotic Zionist Cult

Bitania was a singular, if short-lived, experiment in the annals of Zionism that remains relevant today

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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Meir Yaari, founder of the Bitania commune in the Galilee, surrounded by young acolytes.
Meir Yaari, founder of the Bitania commune in the Galilee, surrounded by young acolytes. Credit: Ein HaShofet Archive
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

Readers of books about Zionist history will have encountered various forms of criticism aimed at the Labor Movement over the years. The communist left accused the Zionist workers parties of espousing nationalism, and the Revisionist right accused them in turn of appeasement and of being disloyal to the nation. Religious groups hurled accusations of apostasy and heresy at Labor Zionists, while liberals said they were centralists, just like the Bolsheviks. But there was another trenchant criticism which, from the start of modern Jewish settlement in Palestine, was directed at the socialist parties that would later form Mapai, precursor of the Labor Party. The charge: They were not erotic enough. They lacked passion.

That critique was the motivation for establishment of a small commune, Bitania, exactly a century ago, in August 1920. Bitania, the first settlement community of the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement in Palestine, would become a legend in Zionist history. Of the hundreds of communities that were established in the Yishuv period, Bitania, at the southwestern tip of Lake Kinneret, is probably alone in continuing to pique the erotic imagination of historians, playwrights and writers to this day. Its story is at the center of Joshua Sobol’s acclaimed play “The Night of the Twentieth.” But a hundred years after Bitania’s founding, it’s worth recalling what impelled the group’s members.

Bitania was less a kibbutz of the familiar type than a kind of anarchistic cult. It consisted of about 20 men and four women from Polish Galicia, in Eastern Europe, all of them in their 20s and most of them with a broad education. They devoted their nights to rituals intended to help them achieve catharsis, centering around confessional sessions and intimate conversations. The head of the order was Meir Yaari (born Meyer Wald), afterward the leader of the Mapam party (later a component of the left-wing Meretz). By means of hypnotic oratory, which at times recalled a Hasidic rabbi or a charismatic psychoanalyst, Yaari was able to transport the group’s members into a state of emotional exposure. Anyone who objected was in danger of being expelled by Yaari and his loyalists.

Like other pioneers of the time, the Bitania group worked in the olive groves from morning to evening. Still, they differentiated themselves from the other laborers who had settled in the country before them and whom regarded with great disdain. Yaari found the members of Kinneret and Degania, the kibbutzim that formed the elite of the Second Aliyah – the second wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine, between1904 and 1914 – to be rigid, insensitive and narrow-minded. They drew their inspiration from Russia’s dogmatic socialism; Yaari considered their politics mechanical and petty-minded. Although they purported to be revolutionaries, they were really just petit bourgeoisie in costume. Yaari had no liking even for the pioneers’ circle dancing and their now-iconic songs. In his view, their behavior was an unsuccessful substitute for true erotic fulfillment. “That hoarse singing is the only orgy in which release will be found. The passions evaporate together with the perspiration,” he wrote.

Yaari desired a great deal more than that. Work, he believed, was more than a matter of economics and survival. It was an erotic act, sanctification of a primal urge, an orgy that transformed the group into a “wellspring of cosmic love.” At Kinneret he lectured to Berl Katznelson, a leading Labor Zionist intellectual, about the role of eroticism in a masculine society and gave him a fright he didn’t forget for the rest of his life, as he described in several articles in the Labor newspaper Davar. The disagreement over the eroticism issue was the start of the rift between Mapai and Mapam – and perhaps between the Labor Party and Meretz.

At the time, Zionist ideology of the regular party variety did not especially occupy Yaari. Hashomer Hatzair was not an ordinary political party. Yaari maintained that eroticism – meaning a sensual, spiritual and authentic approach to life, as opposed to a cold, materialist and mechanistic approach – should be the group’s unifying factor. Influenced by German ideas of the time, he was referring mainly to erotic attraction between young men. At a certain stage, we know from a variety of sources, he planned to eject the women from the group and leave only the men. However, it should not be inferred from this that Yaari was a homosexual, at least not in the usual sense today. Even as he hailed male eroticism, he married his girlfriend, Anda. Nor does it seem likely that orgies were held in Bitania. In practice, they probably allowed themselves very little sexual release. The orgy largely took the form of work and soulful talks.

Yet, the Bitania group was ahead of its time in its ability to identify the limitations of party politics. In their perception, revolutionary politics was pointless if it was based on the suppression of the erotic. As the historian Ofer Nordheimer Nur has shown, in his book “Eros and Tragedy: Jewish Male Fantasies and the Masculine Revolution of Zionism,” Bitania antedated the ideas that were developed in Europe and the United States in the 1960s by the philosopher Herbert Marcuse and others, who accused Bolshevik socialism of suppressing eroticism. In the case of Bitania, the criticism was directed at the parties that would later form Mapai. These Polish young people were the first to identify the emotional aridity of left-wing Zionism.

The Bitania episode was a fleeting one: By 1921, the community had been dissolved. Within a few years, Hashomer Hatzair had abandoned its occupation with psychoanalysis and anarchism, and veered sharply toward Marxism. It became the left-wing branch of the Labor Movement and outdid Mapai in terms of dogmatism and ideological rigidity. Yaari continued to be the charismatic leader of the movement, which grew and established dozens of kibbutzim. Elements of a cult of personality – which were customary in the party during Yaari’s period – can be found in Aviva Halamish’s biography of the leader (English edition: “Kibbutz: Utopia and Politics: The Life and Times of Meir Yaari, 1897–1987,” published in 2018). But he had jettisoned the erotic ideology in 1924. In almost one fell swoop he rejected the ideas he himself had advanced in Bitania and prohibited the use of the term “Eros.” Certainly there was no place for homoeroticism. Subsequently, “ideological collectivism” was introduced in Hakibbutz Ha’artzi – the Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz movement – and enforced rigidly.

From Bitania to millennials

The decade that began in 1920 was perhaps the most fertile in terms of creativity and ideas in modern Western history. It’s hard to think of a more artistically and intellectually turbulent period. Even in our remote land, a brief time frame ensued in which radical ideas flourished that were afterward stifled by harsh politics for decades.

The Bitania group can be seen as ideologically pious and tough pioneers who have nothing in common with our era. But their story can be of interest even to those who aren’t numbered among the hardcore veterans of Hashomer Hatzair. The idea of life in a commune becomes relevant in the present period of crisis, and the questions that occupied them also remain valid. Like the millennials in our time, they were young people who had been born on the brink of a new century. Like them, they were skeptical about politics in its usual sense, and they too were suspicious of parties that the previous generation sought to impose on them. Although they grew up in remote Polish towns, they read decadent literature. They vacillated between devotion to their inner world and the implacable, if not dreary national project. Being confused young people, questions related to sex and eroticism perhaps occupied them more than socialism and Zionism.

In fact, one of the lessons of the Bitania episode is that even contemplative youths who are occupied with psychology and sexuality can speedily morph into hardboiled ideological warriors. In appropriate circumstances, that may also happen to the young snowflakes of our time.

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