Streaming Rights: How a Beautiful Kibbutz Waterway Became Ground Zero for Israel's Culture Wars

The Asi stream is at the center of a dispute that’s been billed as a clash between Israel’s ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ its old elites and working-class towns. Haaretz visits Kibbutz Nir David and Beit She’an to hear from both sides

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A protester in the Asi stream with a placard stating that it belongs to the public.
A protester in the Asi stream with a placard stating that it belongs to the public.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Posting on its Arabic-language Facebook page recently, Israel’s Foreign Ministry invited “our brothers” from the United Arab Emirates to hop over for a visit now that relations between the two countries have been normalized. The post featured several aerial photos of well-known tourist attractions – among them the marina in Eilat, Haifa’s Bahai Temple and Tel Aviv’s beachfront.

Your average Emirati probably wouldn’t have recognized one particular photo in the collage, though: that of a gorgeous, turquoise-colored stream running through a lush village. But until recently, neither would most Israelis.

Over the summer months, the Asi – a stream that flows through Kibbutz Nir David in northern Israel’s Beit She’an Valley – has been the focus of a growing protest movement that, in an unusual feat, has managed to unite forces on both the far right and far left.

While the vast majority of Israelis, for reasons that will soon be clear, have probably never visited the Asi, they will surely recognize a photo of it by now. They probably also have very strong opinions about who its rightful owners are.

At issue, at least on the face of it, is whether Kibbutz Nir David has the right to prevent those Israelis who do not live on its grounds from swimming in what is arguably the country’s most beautiful waterway.

The Asi stream running thought Kibbutz Nir David, northern Israel.
The Asi stream running thought Kibbutz Nir David, northern Israel.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Since all natural sources of water in Israel are legally public property, leaders of the Free the Asi protest movement argue that the kibbutz is obliged to open its gates and allow in any citizen wishing to bathe in the stream.

“By closing its gates, Nir David is breaking the law,” says Yair Amar, 25, a student of political science and communications at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a leading activist in the movement.

“A population of 700 – that’s the number of people who live on this kibbutz – can’t just steal one of the most magnificent natural spots in this valley and keep everyone else out.”

Rebutting this argument, the residents say that back in 1936, when members of the left-wing socialist Hashomer Hatzair movement founded this kibbutz, the Asi was nothing but a mosquito-ridden, malaria-spreading swamp. It was their pioneering parents and grandparents who cleared the swamp, built a dam that would cause the waters to rise, cemented the sides, and turned the kilometer-long section of the Asi that flows through their land into the gem it is today.

The kibbutzniks are quick to point out that only part of the Asi is off-limits to outsiders. Its source is about a kilometer away, in Gan Hashlosha (aka Sahne), a popular national park known for its warm water pools, which draws some 5,000 visitors daily during the high season.

Gan Hashlosha originally belonged to Nir David too, but the kibbutz handed the land back to the state, of its own volition, in the early 1960s.

Nir David is unique in that it’s the only residential community in Israel with a natural body of water running through it. Many of the homes and facilities on the kibbutz, including an assisted living center, are situated barely a few feet from the stream. The water may belong to the public, the kibbutzniks say, but all the land between the gates of Nir David and the Asi is private property.

Free the Asi activists Yair Amar, left, Rotem Shapiro and Nati Vaknin.
Free the Asi activists Yair Amar, left, Rotem Shapiro and Nati Vaknin.Credit: Gil Eliahu

“You can’t turn a residential community into a public park,” says Shlomo Glazer, the 68-year-old head of Nir David. “We’re not equipped to deal with thousands of visitors, and that’s what would happen if we opened the gates to everyone. We don’t have parking for that number of people, we don’t have restrooms and we don’t have enough lifeguards to make sure they don’t drown. Turning this into a free-for-all would be a recipe for disaster.”

The protesters, however, question whether this is really about maintaining peace and quiet on the kibbutz. If that were indeed the case, they say, why would Nir David have built a large resort on the shores of the Asi? This resort, incidentally, has become one of its main revenue streams.

'They're doing everything to make our lives unbearable'

Since early summer, demonstrators have been gathering outside the shuttered kibbutz gates every Friday, demanding the right to swim in the Asi. Equipped with bullhorns and hand-made protest signs, they chant “Open the gates” and “The Asi belongs to everyone.” When the gates do open to allow authorized vehicles through, the protesters sometimes slip through and run to the water.

The younger and nimbler among them have at times even managed to climb over the fence, now protected by hired security guards. One day last week, protesters made their way into the kibbutz late at night, waking up residents as they marched through with their bullhorns. Equipped with tents and sleeping bags, they came prepared to spend the night on the banks of the Asi, but were turned back by police following a scuffle with kibbutz members.

“What haven’t they called us? Robbers. Thieves. Rapists. Exploiters. Nazis. Kapos,” says Glazer, whose parents were among a large group of Holocaust survivors who joined the kibbutz a decade after its founding. “They’ve told us to go back to Auschwitz. They’ve threatened to keep us awake at night if we don’t give in to their demands. They’re doing everything they can to make our lives here unbearable.”

Shlomo Glazer, secretary of Kibbutz Nir David.
Shlomo Glazer, secretary of Kibbutz Nir David.Credit: Gil Eliahu

The protesters say they, too, have been threatened and called names. “We’ve been called Hamas, Hezbollah and barbarians,” says Amar, who hails from the nearby town of Beit She’an. “They’ve threatened to electrocute and shoot us if we climb over the gate. And for what? For standing up for our right to swim in a stream that belongs to us.”

It’s easy, and even tempting, to explain the controversy as part the struggle between the so-called two Israels: the “first Israel,” referring to the country’s founding, secular and left-leaning elites, who came mainly from Eastern Europe; and the “second Israel,” referring to traditional, working-class, right-leaning Mizrahi Jews who immigrated after the state was founded.

The kibbutzim are considered one of the last major strongholds of the founding elites. Often situated near the kibbutzim, in remote parts of the country, the so-called development towns are where many Jews who immigrated from North Africa and the Middle East in the ’50s and ’60s were housed.

Polar opposites

Nir David is a 10-minute drive from Beit She’an, a town of nearly 20,000 residents, located close to the Jordanian border, which is also home to some of the key activists in the protest movement, like Amar.

Residents of development towns often faced discrimination from the ruling Labor Party during the early years of the state. This explains why many evolved into strongholds of Likud and the religious right, while kibbutzim like Nir David remain loyal to the center-left. The results of last March’s general election clearly illustrate this political divide: Likud captured 63 percent of the vote in Beit She’an but only 4 percent in Nir David, where the center-left parties were the big winners.

“The kibbutzim and the development towns are as polar opposite as it gets in Israel,” says Bar-Ilan University Prof. Avi Picard, an expert on Mizrahi immigration.

Protesters on the banks of the Asi in August. The sign on the right says "I want to swim in the Asi too."
Protesters on the banks of the Asi in August. The sign on the right says "I want to swim in the Asi too."Credit: Gil Eliahu

Shlomo Getz, a historian of the kibbutz movement from the University of Haifa, recalls that former Likud leader and Prime Minister Menachem Begin famously exploited the tensions between these two communities back in the ’80s in his bid to win over voters from the so-called second Israel. “At the time, he referred to the kibbutznikim as millionaires lolling around their swimming pools,” he notes.

Some of the Asi protesters have invoked similar themes about the “haves” (kibbutznikim) and “have-nots” (development town residents) in their current campaign against Nir David.

Yet if there’s one thing that both the protesters and Nir David residents who spoke with Haaretz last week agree on, it’s that their dispute has nothing to do with the “two Israels.”

“Rubbish,” Amar says, noting that most of the regulars at the Friday protests aren’t from Beit She’an. “We’ve had people join us from as far away as Eilat and the Golan Heights, from the settlements and, yes, even from other kibbutzim,” he says. “We’re an extremely diverse group that transcends the usual political divides.”

The protesters have benefited from the strong backing of the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition, a 25-year-old social justice organization whose key activists are affiliated with the left and even far left in Israel. It’s best known for a Supreme Court case it won in 2002 that limits the ability of kibbutzim to redesignate farmlands received from the state for commercial and residential projects.

The Asi, the organization argues, is yet another example of a kibbutz profiting, at the expense of others, from its privileged access to state lands.

It would be far-fetched, though, to describe the protesters as a bunch of leftists. Nati Vaknin, 29, who hails from Beit She’an and is widely regarded as the movement’s leader, voted in the last election for Otzma Yehudit, a far-right, anti-Arab party founded by followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane. As did his second in command, Rotem Shapiro, who comes from the nearby agricultural community of Kfar Yechezkel. Asked if they would be willing for Arab citizens to join them on the banks of the Asi, Shapiro answers: “Of course.”

Glazer also refuses to see the battle as a case of the “second Israel” rising up against the first. “I would say that about half the people who live on this kibbutz today do not qualify as Ashkenazi,” the kibbutz secretary says. “It’s been a long time since we were the ‘first Israel’ – but who cares about that?”

A ‘ferkakte’ stream

A little over a decade ago, Nir David, like the vast majority of Israel’s roughly 230 kibbutzim, underwent a process of “renewal” – a code word for privatization. Forced to choose between ideology and economic survival, its members opted for the latter. Around that time, the kibbutz also started closing its gates to the public. Glazer says this move was prompted by the hundreds of visitors who would descend on it every weekend in order to swim in the Asi – showing little consideration, he adds, for the local residents.

Protesters and swimmers at the Asi stream, Kibbutz Nir David, in August 2020.
Protesters and swimmers at the Asi stream, Kibbutz Nir David, in August 2020.Credit: Gil Eliahu

The kibbutz was eventually taken to court by a group of environmental activists demanding free access to the Asi, and in 2015 a settlement was reached. As part of the deal, the kibbutz agreed to open a stretch of the Asi to the public and was given four years to follow through. But that never happened. Glazer blames the delays on bureaucratic red tape. “Nobody has more of an interest in seeing this settlement implemented than us,” he says.

The collapse of the settlement partly explains the timing of the recent protests. Indeed, the Free the Asi movement was established a year ago this month, just as the four-year deadline passed. It began to make national headlines this summer with the weekly protests, drawing even more attention when Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s eldest son and prominent online provocateur, got involved.

In an attempt to fire up his father’s base, Netanyahu Jr. tweeted the following to his tens of thousands of followers: “Damned communists who stole half the land in this country to the detriment of the development towns: Free the Asi to the residents of Beit She’an before you preach.”

“That tweet provided a huge boost to the protesters,” Picard says. “I would add, however, that not everyone who supports the protesters is necessarily a fan of Yair Netanyahu’s.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has prevented Israelis from traveling overseas this summer, could also explain the sudden interest in this “ferkakte stream” – as Glazer often refers to it, using the Yiddish pejorative. “Any other summer, we would have had 3 million Israelis traveling abroad,” he says. “Now they’re all cooped up in this tiny, boiling-hot country looking for an undiscovered place to swim so they can have a few meters to themselves.”

In response to the protests, Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel, together with Beit She’an Mayor Jackie Levy, announced a plan in late July that would divert the Asi to Beit She’an. Nir David, meanwhile, agreed to open up a 150-meter (490-foot) section of the stream to 50 preregistered visitors every day.

Levy, who comes from a prominent family of Likud politicians, issued a strong endorsement of the deal, calling it a win-win situation. But if the idea was to end the protests, it didn’t work.

“The mayor of Beit She’an is not authorized to make agreements on my behalf or on behalf of anyone else in this country,” Amar says. “Besides, what the kibbutz is offering, in terms of the amount of space and the number of visitors, is just ridiculous.”

On Monday, Haifa District Court rejected a petition by Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi party, to force Nir David to open its gates to the general public immediately.

FENCED OFF: The Asi stream in Kibbutz Nir David.
FENCED OFF: The Asi stream in Kibbutz Nir David.Credit: Gil Eliahu

“The left has been pretty silent”

On a recent midweek visit, a few dozen Israelis could be seen taking advantage of the Asi’s newly opened “Green Beach” – including a group of middle-aged women from Or Yehuda, near Tel Aviv.

“It wasn’t easy to register,” says Suzy Korkos, the self-appointed spokeswoman of the coffee klatch. “We had to wake up very early to make sure we got a spot because they were getting filled very, very quickly.”

Until just a few months ago, these women admit, none of them had ever heard of the Asi. But their curiosity was piqued once it started featuring regularly in the national news. “We love freshwater streams and are always on the lookout for somewhere new to take a dip,” Korkos says.

Originally from Jerusalem, Nohar Krantz-Ravtal, 44, has been living on Nir David since she married one of its members. In the past three months, she says, life for her and the other residents has become a nightmare. “More than anything else,” she says, “I’m sad for my children who have been exposed to so much hatred.

“These aren’t the values upon which they were raised, and this is not how we behave,” she adds, referring to the protesters’ tactics.

A short drive away, in downtown Beit She’an, very few shopkeepers are willing to discuss the brouhaha. Their businesses depend, they explain, on maintaining good ties with Nir David and the other nearby kibbutzim. Not for attribution, some say they support the protests, though many more say they don’t.

Sharon Raviv. One of the few in Beit She'an willing to go on the record about the protesters' actions.
Sharon Raviv. One of the few in Beit She'an willing to go on the record about the protesters' actions.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Sharon Raviv, editor of a free weekly newspaper and among the few willing to speak on the record, doesn’t mince words when asked which side he’s on. “Those protesters are a bunch of crazy young hotheads,” the 60-year-old says. “I know the population here very well and, trust me, most people in this town are disgusted by their behavior.”

Sandy Kedar, a law professor at the University of Haifa and an expert on land rights, says the Asi conflict has exposed the hypocrisy of the Israeli left. “If this were about preventing Arabs from buying homes in a Jewish town, then the left would be up in arms,” he says, referring to a case several years ago in the nearby town of Afula, where the local mayor tried to stop Arab citizens from buying apartments and drew strong denunciations from left-wing politicians and organizations. “But because we’re dealing with kibbutzim, the left as a whole has been pretty silent.”

“I don’t recall hearing any member of Meretz [the left-wing, Zionist party] express support for the protesters,” he adds, “and that clearly has to do with the fact that it gets a lot of votes on the kibbutzim.”

He’s frustrated, though, that the controversy hasn’t prompted a wider discussion about distributive justice in Israel.

WISH YOU WERE HERE? A woman swimming with children in the Asi stream, August 2020.
WISH YOU WERE HERE? A woman swimming with children in the Asi stream, August 2020.Credit: Gil Eliahu

“Beit She’an was an Arab town before 1948,” notes Kedar, who’s also a founder and director of the Association for Distributive Justice. “That’s also part of the story, but nobody wants to talk about it.”

For Glazer, accepting the demands of the protesters – which would mean opening the kibbutz gates to the public at large – is out of the question. “You can’t solve one injustice by creating another,” he says. “If the state wants to turn this into a national park, then fine. But they’ll have to move us somewhere else, because that would be the end of the kibbutz as we know it today.”

That’s obviously not his best-case scenario. “There are several solutions on the table right now,” he says, “and I hope we’ll eventually reach an agreement on one of them.”

Would he be willing to host Emirati princes and have them bathe in the Asi, should they take up the Israeli government’s offer to visit?

“Why not?” Glazer responds. Only half-jokingly, he adds: “Maybe they’ll want to even buy this kibbutz.”

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