Monday, March 14, 2011

Project Israel- Mishmar ha Emek

One our second full day of the Holy Land pilgrimage, we visited a Kibbutz called Mishmar ha Eemek. A Kibbutz is a collective community, most of which were begun in the early twentieth century by Jews immigrating from Europe before the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948. As of 2000, there were approximately 268 kibbutzim in Israel (according to the Jewish Virtual Library), but they hardly look alike, as operate on a variety of different models due to generational shifts in philosophy.

Mishmar ha Emek means "guard of the valley" in Hebrew. It is located in Northern Israel, just west of Megiddo. It was also the site of a battle between Israeli and Arab Liberation Army (supplied by the Syrians) forces in 1948.

What really struck me about kibbutzim in general is that they were begun as utopian communities for Jews fleeing persecution, but they were all non-religious, and most of them staunchly atheist. Their Jewish identity was more rooted in ethnic heritage, which was made stronger by the anti-Semitism they experienced in their countries of origin.

I've been pondering why that was so surprising to me, and I'm pretty sure it's because I'm very steeped in the modern, Western understanding of what religion is- sets of beliefs and practices that are almost entirely divorced from ethnicity, region, culture and language. I'm used to people being able to change religions any time they feel like it, so it still surprises me when someone identifies themselves as an atheist, and at the same time as Jewish.

Lydia Eisenburg, our guide around the kibbutz, told us about growing up in England being asked by other kids where her horns where and being called up in front of her class at school to explain why her people killed Christ. So even though it seems unusual to me, I can understand why such treatment would cause you to identify with a particular ethnic and cultural heritage even if you didn't subscribe to its theological beliefs.

One question our group got to ask a bit about, which I wish we'd had more time to explore with her, was why she felt so particularly attached to the land of Israel. I understand wanting to leave a society that treated you as a second class citizen because of your Jewish heritage, but why this particular land rather than, for example, the United States (where 5 million of the world's 12 million Jews reside) or any other place?

This question particularly sticks with me in light of the conversation I had several days later with a self-identified "Fundamentalist Zionist" who grounded all of his arguments for possession of the land in his understanding of God's promises in the Torah (the full story on that conversation is forthcoming). Clearly, as Avihai Stollat of Breaking the Silence told us, there are many different understandings of what "Zionism" is among the people of Israel.

Lydia's answer: "What Zionism means to me? This!" as she picked up a rock from the path we were walking on. So for a member of a kibbutznik (member of a kibbutz) who is not particularly religious, what causes them to cling to their Jewish identity is a mixture of early life experience, tradition they have received from their families, and some transcendent sense of connection to this land that can't really be put into words.

As I said before, I wish I'd gotten to ask her further questions about this connection to the land, and I think some in our group may have done so during the rest of our brief visit. If any of them can expand on this, please comment below!

Next I'll be posting on our visit to the Tent of Nations and and the al Arub refugee camp: two of the first Palestinian voices we heard on our pilgrimage.

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