Opinion

The Vacation That Taught Me Kibbutzim Are Worse Than Settlements

The kibbutzim's secret to the good life: to live in the past like perspiring pioneers and to profit from the present like corrupt businesspeople

A Lake Kinneret beach.
Gil Eliahu

Howdy, my name is Israel Israeli. Like everyone, I went to Lake Kinneret for a vacation this summer. Me, the wife and the kid, with a couple from America and their daughter. The whole way we listened to Shlomo Artzi and Eyal Golan. We sang their big hits out loud. We stopped at a gas station, where we bought lemon and pineapple popsicles, Bisli, Bamba and Coca-Cola. Then we had hummus. We also ordered fries and salad. We complained about the weather and we sweated like donkeys. We heard on the news that Bibi is king of Israel. Really? Really. We got to the hotel, put on bathing suits and smeared ourselves with sunscreen. We jumped into the water. We did everything you’re supposed to do. Everything we’re obligated to do. Everything that’s expected of us. Like good Israelis.

First rule: If you’re not a good Israeli – you’re a bad Israeli.

Second rule: The good Israeli has to support the status quo. If he doesn’t support it, he’s against it. He’s working for change. He’s an indefatigable subverter, a leftie. Yuck, scat! The good Israeli is a loyal citizen of the status-quo state. He toes the line. Not because he’s pleased about the way things are, but because that’s how he was educated. Not to make too much noise. Not to shake things up. The good Israeli “flows” with what he’s given. Swallows it all. Has no vomiting reflex.

Third rule: If you don’t like something, keep your mouth shut. Israel is not a state. It’s an intelligence organization. You have to maintain collegiality, secrecy and loyalty to the system. You don’t wash your dirty laundry in public. You got a complaint? Print it in three copies and send to the operations officer.

Because we’re good Israelis, we took a room at a kibbutz “hotel.” Which kibbutz doesn’t matter. Let’s say it was a generic kibbutz on the shore of Lake Kinneret and that “hotel” is a word that’s a few sizes too big for it. We’re not talking Four Seasons or The Venetian in Las Vegas. We’re talking kibbutz guest house that’s been adapted to the measurements of local tourism. Meaning that there’s a spasmodic air conditioner and an intercontinental breakfast with tuna from a can and a tasteless, odorless omelet, and the sheets are no longer khaki-colored. They’re white, like in hotels all over the world. There’s also a reception clerk. He’s an Arab, but we’ll get to that in a minute. For all this pleasure, we paid 1,200 shekels (that’s $330) a night. We were told it was a special price. It’s not clear what was special about it. Maybe a special-ops raid code-named “Screw them big-time.”

Israel really is a totally disturbed place. You can’t go on vacation in the summer without going bankrupt. In countries that are slightly more developed and, if I may be permitted, also more aesthetic – like Italy and Spain – you can find modest hostels for 50 euros a night, even at the height of the season. But the good Israelis don’t rise up against the system, even when they’re victims of highway robbery.

Illustration.
Sharon Fadida

A night in a guest house that costs a quarter of the monthly minimum wage? Fine, let it be. We’ll pay what’s needed. If the kibbutzniks set the price, they must know something we don’t. Maybe it’s a donation to the war effort or a gesture to the Zionist ethos. Hey. It’s a kibbutz. After all, it’s thanks to them that we’re here, on this land, in this holy place. When you pay 1,200 shekels a night for a grubby room, you don’t do it for the experience or, heaven forbid, your personal enjoyment. You do it to salute the fathers of the country. There’s no sauna, but the winds of history are blowing all around you. At night I dreamed I was sleeping with Yigal Allon.

The kibbutzim haven’t decided whether they have adopted capitalism or still advocate socialist Zionism. So they choose to be betwixt and between. Neither here nor there. To profit from both the one and the other. On the one hand, a night in a hotel for 1,200 shekels is a sum of money that characterizes the worst and the greediest of the local hotel tycoons. It’s an existential declaration of intentions: We are players in the game of the swinish, unrestrained contemporary Israeli economy. We don’t intend to pretend that our God is Tabenkin or any other Zionist ideologue. We worship the Hilton and the Sheraton and the dollar bill and the market forces. The kiosk by the pool sells Cookilida ice-cream cookies for 14 shekels ($3.90) each. That’s socialism?

On the other hand, the kibbutz is still a kibbutz. Almost hermetically sealed off from its external surroundings. The kibbutz we stayed at has a private beach that’s not accessible from the outside, with rusting “private property” signs scattered all around. This is exclusive territory that’s not ashamed to say so. The kibbutzim want to maintain their moral façade as the gatekeepers of the Israeli society. They made the desert blossom and drained the swamps. They deserve it. They won a prize for their achievements: real estate ghettos of coveted land and steel fences. Until when? Until forever and ever.

It’s customary to complain to settlers that they’ve segregated themselves, and have turned their backs on the public domain, but there are kibbutzim that are far worse than the settlements. They are clinging to an ideology that’s long since crumbled, in order to safeguard their power and privileges.

The kibbutzim make a fortune from the vacation and tourism industry. The money is invested for the benefit of the kibbutzniks. They live in detached homes; the grass is trimmed, the idyll is safeguarded. These are the flowerbeds of the Zionist left, these aren’t settlers, the despised land grabbers. The kibbutzniks are allowed to live in villas, cut off from time and place. They are on the right side of twisted Israeli reality.

Just look at neighboring Tiberias. It looks like a slum from hell, with peeling, deteriorating houses. The formerly magnificent hotels and the thousands of tourists won’t help. Tiberias is doomed to perdition and extinction by means of excruciating torments. And in the meantime, the kibbutzim around it are blooming and flourishing. They’ve learned the two-way trick: to live in the past like perspiring pioneers and to profit from the present like corrupt businesspeople.

And while we’re on the subject of comparing settlements and kibbutzim – the majority of the guests in our “hotel” were from the religious-Zionist movement. Together with the good old kibbutzniks, they constituted and continue to constitute, the spearhead of Zionist ideology. And of course they don’t lift a finger. They’re here to vacation. What are they, suckers? The maids are Arabs, the reception clerks are Arabs, the cooks are Arabs, the waiters are Arabs, the lifeguards are Arabs. The Cookilida seller is a Jewish woman. But the gardeners who keep the grass green – Arabs. Not Palestinians, heaven forbid. They are Arabs because that is their fate. To be erased citizens, devoid of political and social aspirations. Condemned to be hewers of wood and drawers of water. Here you have a brief history of Zionism: be a master, not a slave. That’s the basic principle. All the rest is inventions and excuses.

And the good Israelis? They’ll go on paying 1,200 shekels a night and 14 shekels for an ice-cream treat. And the good kibbutznikim? They’ll go on fencing themselves off, for their private and exclusive enjoyment. Because that’s how it should be and that’s how it will always be.