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Kibbutz Dwellers Don't Deserve More Just Because Their Grandparents Founded Israel

How long will kibbutzniks lord their pioneer past over the rest of us Israelis?

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Members of Kibbutz Amir going to work in the Hula swamps, 1940.
Members of Kibbutz Amir going to work in the Hula swamps, 1940.Credit: Zoltan Kluger, GPO

Why didn’t anyone warn me not to mess with the kibbutzniks? Never mind. I blame only myself. I didn’t think the subject was a potato so hot that anyone who picks it up would get burned on fingers and tongue. Actually, you’d think there would be a wall-to-wall consensus here: The kibbutzim are a social and economic anomaly, and despite the changes they’ve undergone, they continue to enjoy extravagant privileges, thanks to their absurd in-between status: neither socialism nor capitalism, but something far more convenient. A kind of ideology-free ideology, which has morphed into a typical mentality: From the moment people get something, they are convinced that they had it coming to them and are unwilling to consider forgoing it.

>> Read more: The vacation that taught me kibbutzim are worse than settlements >>

If you take a baby’s rag doll away, the baby will scream to the high heavens. He will experience the event as a significant loss that’s occurring now, in 2017. He won’t summon up explanations from the distant past. He won’t tell you: I inherited the doll from my parents, it’s registered in my name, what do you mean by taking it from me? Babies live in the ongoing present. They experience every crisis as though it were the first and last. They lack perspective. The doll is part of them, like another organ. They don’t draw a separation between themselves and external physical objects. You took away a baby’s toy? It’s as though you cut off a leg or an arm.

The baby finds it difficult to become a separate entity, just as the kibbutznik finds it difficult to leave the kibbutz. Or to leave the kibbutz that exists in his head.

Kibbutzniks still retain some very fancy toys, even if they’ll deny it until the cows come home. And as with babies, to touch their toys is forbidden – still less, to try and take them away. Nor is anyone allowed to talk about them or to hint that maybe having the toy is wrong altogether. But unlike babies, there are kibbutzniks who feel that their possession of the toy is not only personal, but that it is justified by dint of historical circumstances. In other words, it’s not just that mommy bought them the toy; mommy inherited the toy from her grandfather, who received it from Ben-Gurion, to whom it was handed down from Herzl.

It’s not just any old babyish toy. It’s a toy with pedigree. A toy with a genealogy. Who can argue with a claim like that? The sense of ownership makes the baby cry hysterically until he almost loses consciousness. In contrast, the kibbutznik does not stamp his little feet or drool on the carpet. He whips out a tall tale and heroic deeds of swamp drainage and the era of tower-and-stockade, so you’ll remember next time not to touch what belongs to him.

Illustration. Credit: Sharon Fadida

In short, a kibbutznik is a Zionist baby.

Thousands of responses were published to my column last month (“Rip-off at Lake Kinneret,” August 18) about the vacation I spent at a kibbutz guest house on Lake Kinneret, whose beach is private, gates closed and land fenced off. Quite a few of the responses dealt with the innate right of kibbutzniks to their land.

Here’s a tiny fraction of them, just so you’ll get the general idea: “The kibbutzim had a tremendous part in establishing the state and safeguarding its borders. Over the years they were among the pillars of the best of our sons who were sent into wars for the defense of the country,” one woman wrote, and added, “The rights of the kibbutzim are eternally enshrined in the revival of the Land of Israel.”

“Kibbutzim were among the establishers and defenders of the state They are legitimately entitled to rights,” someone else wrote. “We’re fed up with the detractors of the salt of the earth!!! The kibbutzniks – for those who somehow missed the history classes – built the country!!!” another woman wrote.

And the icing on the cake: “Nissan Shor, in your whole life you will never work as hard as my grandfather and my grandmother, who founded this country!”

Let me remind you that these comments were written in the present year. Not in 1967, not in 1948, certainly not in 1919. But some things don’t change. Israel is a country that’s stuck in a loop. The conflicts are unresolved, the plot is never unraveled, there’s no catharsis. There’s no moving forward, because it’s comfortable to stay in the same place.

I should have known that people who defend their privileges would be quick to resort to evoking Zionist history in order to try to validate their real-estate assets. That’s accepted Israeli practice not only in the kibbutzim, of course. It’s the way the elite defends itself.

Collective self-examination? Redistribution of capital and assets? What, have you gone mad? We are the salt of the earth. “We drained the swamps here! We ate dreck here, you get it? We were reconnaissance scouts in Walojeh.”

It’s only a pity that this isn’t a comedy skit by Uri Zohar and Arik Einstein. Patriotic nostalgia, which conjures up the pioneers and the original members of the Yishuv, the pre-1948 Jewish community, is another way to create a forced hierarchy and to cling to the high ground of privileges. As though there’s a difference between those “who established the state” and their progeny, on one hand, and “regular” citizens who are supposed to be content for life with their low place in the chain, on the other.

When someone cites the medals of their grandparents as a supposedly admissible argument, you know he has nothing to say about the current state of affairs. He’s bankrupt in terms of morals and values, and certainly has no desire to fix what’s broken. But he forgets that in the end people are meant to exist in their own right, not by right of their grandpa and grandma. Well, forget the grandparents. Don’t exhume them. Let them sleep in peace. Let’s see you get along without them.

In his seminal article “The Need to Forget,” published in Haaretz in 1988, Yehuda Elkana urged that we abandon the pan-Israeli yizkor (remembrance) mentality, and look instead toward the future. But it seems to me that we need to forget not only the catastrophes, but Zionist heroics as well. It’s important to recall that those who live in Israel today, including on the kibbutzim, are not the ones who drained swamps in the Jezreel Valley or blazed dirt roads on the way to Jerusalem.

In whose name are privileges being demanded? Forget it, guys. You don’t deserve a thing. It makes no difference where your grandmother and grandfather (them again?!?) were in the War of Independence, or whether they shared a tent with the poet Rachel in Degania or rode a horse with Yoel Moshe Salomon on a damp morn in the Hebrew year 5638, as the song goes.

That doesn’t give you first rights to the land or membership in the prestigious but imaginary club of descendants of the Yishuv veterans, who to this day deserve to enjoy vast dividends in economics, politics and education. And besides, how much longer will you go on dredging up the “We drained the swamps” argument? For another hundred years? Two hundred? For all time?

History can confer family pride, shared folklore or black-and-white photos to hang on the living room wall. No more than that. Memory is the greatest enemy of all those who want to reformulate Israel as an egalitarian state whose citizens don’t use the stories of the past as an obstacle; a fortified wall over which there’s hardly any chance of leaping. Forgetting is an equalizing line.

If only it were possible to erase everyone’s memory and go back to being newborn babies who haven’t yet had time to lose their toys and to scream and cry.