October 29, 2004

Communism and Pacifism on the Israeli Kibbutz

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KIBBUTZ METZER, Israel — From Erit Rom’s backyard in northern Israel, I could see into the neighboring Arab village of Meiser.

“We go there for Id-al-Fitr and they come here for our holidays,” she proudly proclaimed. “We are living proof that co-existence is possible.”

I had come to visit Erit at her home on Kibbutz Metzer, an Israeli commune and a relic of a bygone era in Israeli history.

Erit explained the kibbutz system:

“Everything here is owned collectively by all the members. I don’t work in the kibbutz, but my salary goes directly to its central fund. Every month, my family gets a stipend. It’s not a lot, but enough to get by.”

These sorts of communities were the foundation of Zionism. The movement’s pioneers, mostly Jewish socialists from Eastern Europe, urged Jews all around the world to resettle their ancestral homeland under the banner of secular collectivism. The kibbutz was their vehicle.

The kibbutz has always been an integral component of Israeli national culture. But as the country’s economic focus has shifted increasingly from agriculture to technology, most of these communities have either disbanded or undergone privatization.

One thing that typifies “kibbutniks” like Erit is their left-wing political leanings. I suppose it should come as no surprise that people voluntarily living a communist lifestyle would hold liberal views on social and defense issues as well.

In fact, the initial decline of the Israeli kibbutz in the late 1970’s roughly coincided with the rise of Israel’s right-wing Likud Party (now led by Ariel Sharon) to challenge the socialist Labor Party, which had ruled Israel continuously from 1948 to 1977. Labor and Likud — Israel’s Democrats and Republicans, so to speak — are, however, only the largest two of twelve political parties represented in the Israeli Knesset.

The members of Kibbutz Metzer, Erit told me, usually vote for the far-left Meretz Party, Israel’s Green-Party equivalent. “This time around,” however, Erit insisted they would vote for Labor “just to get Sharon and the Likud out of power.”

I had come to Metzer on a Friday afternoon, intending to spend the weekend in Hebron, the West Bank Palestinian city with a highly fortified Jewish section of less than 1000. Hearing my plans, Erit scoffed:

“Why in the world would you want to go to Hebron?” she asked.

To religious Jews, Hebron is Judaism’s second holiest city, the burial site of the Biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah; to Erit and the rest of Israel’s secular majority, the settlers there and elsewhere are drains on the Israeli military and obstacles to the realization of the two-state solution — a peace formula favored among Israelis by a 3-1 margin in most polls.

“My son’s in the army right now,” Erit said. “Do you think I want him to risk his life to defend the settlements? I call on all my brothers and sisters in the West Bank to come home.”

The Massacre at Metzer

Kibbutz Metzer isn’t in the West Bank, but it’s awfully close. Before the September 2000 breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Kibbutz Metzer had held ties with Palestinian-Arabs in the West Bank as well as with the Israeli-Arabs of neighboring Meiser.

Across a valley from the kibbutz, I could see the fence Israel has been building between it and Palestinian areas to keep out suicide bombers; the section near Metzer had been built only a few months before my visit.

Because the fence inconveniences many Palestinians and juts into the West Bank in some areas to encompass Jewish settlements, it has been condemned by many around the world, including left-wing Israelis like Erit.

“The other week,” Erit said, “several of our teenagers went with their Arab friends from Meiser to an anti-fence protest. People think I’m crazy for opposing the fence after it happened.”

“It” was a terrorist infiltration into Metzer that had occurred two years ago, before the fence. A Palestinian, Sirhan Sirhan — the nephew and namesake of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin — from the nearby West Bank city of Tulkarem crossed into Israel on foot one night with a Kalashnikov, entered the community, and murdered five of its residents.

Erit walked me to the memorial erected in their honor, a few yards from the attack scene, and proceeded to map out Sirhan’s movements in detail… He entered through some bushes, first shooting Tirtza Damari, 42, out for a nighttime walk with her boyfriend, who escaped to tell a guard, Yitzhak Drori. Drori rushed over with his gun to help, but was shot before he could confront the attacker. Sirhan then turned his attention to the nearest house, home of a divorced mother, Revital Ohayon, 34, and her two sons Noam, 4, and Matan, 5. Revital was reading the boys a bedtime story when she heard shots fired outside her front yard. When her front door was kicked open seconds later, Revital desperately tried to blockade the doorway to the boys’ bedroom. But Sirhan riddled her with bullets, entered the room, and shot the boys in their beds.

“… And then he escaped.”

These last four words caught me off-guard. Knowing the man to be held in an Israeli jail, I had assumed he was apprehended at the scene. “Wait,” I said, “if he got away, then how did they find him?”

“He became a celebrity back in Tulkarem,” Erit answered matter-of-factly. “The local newspaper published his name the next day.”

The authorities who removed the bodies from the Ohayon house found five-year old Matan’s corpse beside one of his pacifiers. It was covered in his blood.

“Nothing will deter us…”

Many of the community’s Arab friends from Meiser came to the funerals to express their condolences. Some Kibbutz Metzer residents believe they were attacked because their relations with Arabs were viewed as a threat.

“It was a planned and deliberate attack on the idea of peace,” said Dov Avital, a longtime resident, “because that is what Metzer stands for.”

As we continued our walk through the kibbutz, Erit spoke of the attack’s aftermath: “People thought that the murders would somehow change us, that it would make us — I don’t know — less pacifist. I tell you now that nothing will deter us from working toward peace.”

“What role must the Palestinians play in all this?” I asked.

“They have to meet us half-way,” she answered. “We can’t make peace with ourselves.”

She then spoke about the need for third parties to play a constructive role in the peacemaking process:

“The BBC was doing a documentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” she said, “so they interviewed me and others here for a left-wing Israeli perspective. When I saw the final version, I was mortified. They had created a simplistic picture in which they [the Palestinians] were the victims and we [the Israelis] were the monsters.”

“Make no mistake,” Erit continued. “The Palestinians are victims, but we are not monsters.”

Archived article by Benjamin Birnbaum
Sun Staff Writer