I pull into a parking spot to the one grocery store in Kfar Tavor. The engine is still buzzing, and so are my ears. The talk show host on the car radio tries to calm down the invited guests. It’s not going well. The explosive debate races from zero-to-sixty faster than a Ferrari.
The subject: Land
It’s not the standard battle of words between “Us and Them,” between Jews and Arabs who claim they have first rights to the land. This battle is between “Us and Us,” between Jews and Jews. And the land in question is the land farmed and used by Kibbutzim, collective settlements that blend socialism and Zionism. There are 270 Kibbutzim in Israel, most of them established in the periphery, from the tip of the Lebanese border in the north to the Negev Desert in the south. Many were founded decades before Israel was established in 1948. Back then, they were distant from city centers. Kibbutzim were the frontier, guarding the water sources of River Jordan, the first line of defense against Arab attacks.
Things have changed. Cities have grown and spread, forming urban sprawl in every direction in this small country. Today most kibbutzim are within 40 kilometers (25 miles) from city limits. And here lies the new battleground.
The city folks want the land “owned” by Kibbutzim. In fact, the kibbutzim land is owned by Israel Land Administration, a government entity whose predecessors had “leased” the land to Kibbutzim for renewable terms of 49 years each. This is in step with God’s biblical command, Leviticus, chapter 25: “The Land shall not be sold forever; for the land is mine, for you are strangers and foreigners with me.”
This command had practical implications, according to Dr. Oren Yiftachel from Ben Gurion University. “By not being able to sell the land, only use it, Arabs can’t buy it.”
The city dwellers of Tel Aviv might raise a stink about so much land being controlled by so few Kibbutniks, but the people spearheading the debate are those living in what are commonly called Development Towns. During the 50s, The Israeli government built these Towns in the “periphery,” not far from the kibbutzim to help absorb the hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants. The immigrants who settled in these Towns were primarily Sephardic Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. They lived far from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa and worked in low-paying factory jobs. The Eshkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe who’d arrived in Israel decades earlier settled in the Kibbutzim (Many, of course, had settled in Tel Aviv, but that’s another story).
These circumstances set the stage for the ongoing friction between Eshkenazi Jews (kibbutzim) and Sephardic Jews (provincial towns).
Kibbutniks make up only 2% of Israel’s population, yet use millions of acres. They claim they came first; they endured hardship, gunfire; they sacrificed; they improved and tilled a stubborn and dry land. The Sephardic public doesn’t dispute their claim. Through their well-oiled public relations machine, The Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow, they say that so long as Kibbutzim remained true to their mission statement: Use the land for agriculture, all is fair. But once they deviated from that mission, started building high-tech factories, built guest houses for tourists, sold the land to the sons and daughters of the kibbutzim at favorable rates – then all bets are off. Kibbutzim should now return the land back to the government for re-distribution.
The kibbutzniks see it as nothing more than sour grapes. “No one gave us the time of day in the old days. You left us for dead. Now you covet our land.”
People from the neighboring Development Towns remember things differently. “The kibbutzim never wished to employ us in their factories or to pick the fruit in the fields. They kept us out.” They even mention Menachem Begin, Israel’s fromer prime minister who’d sided with them. In 1981, Begin, a shrewd politician who’d wanted to rally votes from the Sephardic block accused the Kibbutzniks as nothing more than “millionaires with swimming pools.” Begin had won in a landslide back then. The kibbutzniks put on gloves. They throw punches. “It was against kibbutz policy to employ non-members. We have nothing to apologize for. We earned what we have today.”
Because of the scrutiny and public debate, Israel Land Administration is keeping an eye on how kibbutzim are using the land. It borders on the rediculous. Undercover agents went into a kibbutz and confiscated money collected as “season tickets” to non-kibbutz members for the use of its pool. Chocolate milk sold at the canteen to “outsiders” was also banned. The message: We gave you the land, we’ll tell you what to do with it.
The kibbutz of yesteryear is gone. They can’t rely on agriculture alone. Subsidies from the government are down. Prices are down. Competition from other countries is stiff. Many kibbutzim have gone “private.” The population is old. Many of the kids who’d gone to war, travelled the world, and couldn’t afford to live in Tel Aviv, are coming home to the kibbutz. They hope to buy affordable land on which to build a home, to infuse the old kibbutzim with renewed energy and purpose. They may have to compete with city folks who want a piece of that same land.
The radio host concludes the morning show. “We made little progress in bridging the divide.”
I step out of the car and enter the grocery store to buy avocados, most likely grown in kibbutzim.