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					                                                           Kibbutz Trends 46 (Winter 2002)

Going against the grain
                                                                                          Neil Harris
Sitting on a spacious apartment balcony in a quiet Jerusalem neighborhood. A warm July
evening. It’s late, and the residential block opposite us reveals late-night TV viewers, a
teenage party with some lively music, a baby crying. Nothing remarkable.

For those sitting opposite, gazing at us, the feeling of indifference is probably similar. Just a
couple of guys chatting over a coffee and some cigarettes. But in reality, there is a difference.
This is not just one more family apartment in the neighborhood of San Simon. I have come to
visit Kvutsat Yovel – an urban kibbutz community established three years ago by graduates
of Habonim-Dror from the UK, Canada, the USA and Australia. Trying to provide a new
direction for socialist immigrants from the youth movement, Yovel is one of a growing chain
of urban communes/kibbutzim sprouting all over Israel. They have set themselves the target
of not just surviving as a socialist community in an urban setting, but also to significantly
influence and improve the community and society within which they are situated. Jerusalem
has been home for the past three years, but soon the Yovel community plans to move to their
permanent base in Migdal Haemek. In an attempt to get inside the heads of these 21 st century
pioneers, to understand the challenges that they are taking on, I’m sharing my coffee and
cigarette with Anton Marks. Twenty-eight years old. One of the founders.

“In many ways I did that „normal‟ Habonim-Dror thing. I went
down the standard route. Having lived in Manchester in the
north of England till the age of 18, I then took a year out, and
went on Shnat Hachshara, a kibbutz based year program in
Israel. After that, three years studying psychology at
Wolverhampton University, followed by some full-time work in
the youth movement, some travelling in Southern Africa, then
back to London. I had a nice trendy job, in a nice trendy part of
London. A real cool place. I was hanging out with designers in
the company where I worked – all that stuff – but it was
nothing. There was no meaning. It wasn‟t grabbing me.
Everyone else was saying „this is what you should be doing.‟
                                                                      From left, Emma, Adam and Anton, the Rabin
You can have fun doing it, but so what? It‟s empty. It‟s not a life   Memorial, Kikar Rabin, November 2000.
that I want to lead. It‟s very individualistic and simply buying
into the capitalist dream. Everyone in Britain is telling you that
this is the dream, but in fact, they‟re just going through the
motions like robots.

“It all started way before that. I remember talking to James on Shnat Hachshara. We were at a seminar on
Kibbutz Tuval about how the kibbutz movement was falling apart, and changing. This was totally devastating
for us. We were gutted. We had a relationship with Tuval as a British Habonim kibbutz. We felt part of it and
attached to it, we knew people there, people who had worked with us in the past. And in a way we almost felt
responsible for the changes that were happening. From then on we talked a lot about the impact it had on us.
And even though that‟s a million miles away from where I am now, it was probably the first seed that led me to
this balcony in Jerusalem.

“At the time we didn‟t know what we could do about it. Maybe we thought about coming to Tuval and „sorting
the kibbutz movement out,‟ but we never really acted on that, and we were only a bunch of 18 year old kids, so
nothing happened then.

“In reality, to this day, I feel that the kibbutz movement is my responsibility. I grew up in Habonim, and over
the last few years I have spent a lot of time looking at the history of the organization and it‟s relationship with
the kibbutz movement. It felt as if we had a responsibility to carry on our commitment to the movement and to
kibbutz. We had to do something. We had to change the world in whatever way we could for the better. It was
frustrating to see that connection between Habonim and the kibbutz diverging.

“The bottom line for me is that I believe in that „kibbutz thing.‟ I bought into the stories that my madrichim
(youth leaders) sold me. Sadly, the madrichim themselves were weaving stories that they didn‟t really believe
in. But they were good at selling them, and I swallowed them. Another thing that has always driven me is
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leading by example, and moving here was a logical conclusion, even though I could see my madrichim
abandoning the dream. They had no intention of moving to kibbutz. They preferred to stay in the UK, with
their mortgages and their PR and accounting jobs. But I cared enough to put the cynicism aside, to reclaim the
legacy that they had educated about but not acted upon, and live up to the ideal.

“For most people, Socialism and Zionism are games that you play when you are in a youth movement, not
something that you do in the real world. But for me, I‟d taken them on board as a goal in my life. I believed in
that goal and I wanted to do something about it, not just talk about it. So of course, that‟s a battle, and it‟s
always going to be a battle, but I feel that I‟m willing to engage in that.

“Of course there could have been easier choices. What I have done in the last few years has not been simple. It
would have been easier not to make decisions, as so many people do. They just fall into things, and wake up at
the age of 40 or 50, and then they realize that they have never made a real life choice. To go against that grain
is difficult. It‟s a challenge.

“If I try and examine what has shaped my thinking, unquestionably a strong belief in socialism has been, and
still is, a guiding factor. Alongside that, I can‟t ignore my sense of alienation with the Jewish community in the
UK, as well as my alienation from the non-Jewish community there. On an immediate basis, I enjoy a
phenomenal support framework from friends around me.

“People always laugh when they hear that I feel „alienated‟ from people in Britain. Here I am with this
unmistakable Mancunian accent, added to my football addiction, and it doesn‟t sound like a formula for
alienation. But something just wasn‟t right. Listen, a lot of my metaphors are from the football world. I
remember it was the 1990 World Cup. I was staying with a friend in London. England was playing Cameroon,
and was awarded a penalty kick. I said that I didn‟t really care whether England scored this penalty, and they
almost kicked me out of their house! „What are you talking about? This is England!‟ they screamed at me. But
however crazy I am about my football, I really didn‟t care. I always had that feeling that England is not quite
my place, not really home, not where I should be or where I want to be. But it took a long time to know what I
wanted to do with that feeling.

“Apart from the Habonim scene, I never managed to find myself a real place in the Jewish community. I was a
non-orthodox Jew, living out all of the hypocrisies that I despise, playing mad games with kashrut (Jewish
dietary practices) which made absolutely no sense. I tried to get involved in the Jewish Society at university,
but that was also a failure for me. Basically, my Judaism was there, it was important to me, but as a secular
Jew, it wasn‟t clear to me what to do about it.

“It‟s not about breaking frameworks for the sake of it. I don‟t think so. No. That‟s not what it‟s all about. I
didn‟t want to be my parents, but who does? I love them deeply, but the Jewish thing specifically was really
hypocritical, and the whole family synagogue scene of an Orthodox Judaism that none of us believed in was
totally bewildering. It‟s just that my values system is so very different from my family. Maybe that‟s because of
my time in Habonim. It empowered me to question.

“With all of my talk about alienation, there were still things that were difficult to leave behind. The standard
answer is my family, my friends and my football – the three f‟s. After my three f‟s, I start comparing how
cultural things are done here in Israel rather than in the UK. That also revolves around the three f‟s. So
regarding football – it‟s rubbish here! As for friends, well, I have a lot less friends around me here. But apart
from that…

“Sometimes I find myself thinking, what am I doing here? Is this the right thing? I need to continually question
that. To check whether it‟s the right thing for…. Well…just the right thing.

“Personally, am I fulfilled? Am I achieving anything? Am I helping? Am I building something? Giving
something? Or am I just caught up in my own rebelliousness? Is that all this is? Of course I also just want to be
happy in the simplest sense of the word. To wake up in the morning and feel good about getting out of bed, and
to know that I feel good about the people that I‟m sharing my life with.

“My life has to involve challenge. Listen, it‟s nice having an easy day, without all those obstacles and challenges
in the way. But things can get tedious very quickly. Sometimes I look at all the challenges I took on myself. I
came on Aliyah to a war zone, Bibi Netanyahu was in power at the time I came here, politically I‟m part of the
real fringe of the left in Israeli politics, and on top of that I‟m living in a socialist commune. The list is pretty
long. But I didn‟t choose any of those things because I saw them as a challenge; they were just a natural
expression of my values and the way I think I should live my life.

“What keeps me going at the moment is the kvutsa. The people around me are really important to me, and one
of the main advantages of moving up north is the opportunity to widen that circle of like-minded people once
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we get to Migdal Haemek. There are people there who are trying to do similar things, trying to make a change
and make a difference.

“There will be about 8 of us moving north. There are already 4 groups up there with a total of about 35 people
of our age and a bit younger. So we‟ll be the fifth group in Migdal Haemek, living communally and with our eye
on influencing, and being involved in, the wider community. We‟ll maintain our autonomy as a separate group,
but at the same time we‟re looking for places where we can interact and function in partnership with the other
groups.

“Of course this can all sound so dreamy and ideological. There certainly hasn‟t been a shortage of difficult
things to overcome since arriving in Israel. Living in a war zone is probably top of the list. And when I say “war
zone” it means a hell of a lot of things. It also means where this country is at politically. Am I part of the
problem or am I effectively trying to bring about the solution? It‟s a question I ask myself especially when I‟m
out there on a street corner with five other nut-cases from Peace Now, waving our banners opposite the Prime
Ministers‟ residence saying he‟s a disaster. That‟s when it gets tough. For every ten curses and 50 being-spat-at
incidents, every now and then someone gives you the thumbs up, and that‟s really important. Realizing that
someone agrees with you and doesn‟t just see you as a fringe loon. The support for that far-from-mainstream
activism comes primarily from the kvutsa here at home.

“With all those feelings of being on the fringe and being a political outsider, I still believe that the Left can win
in this country. Ultimately I have faith that people believe in justice, and I know that this is what we represent.
A purer form of justice. We have a long battle ahead of us, but I‟m still optimistic that one day we‟ll be
victorious. It‟s almost a coping mechanism. Putting myself out there on the streets all the time. I promise you
that living in Jerusalem and being left wing, you can often feel helpless, so this is my way of proving to myself
that I can make a difference. However hard it might be out there being spat at, I still prefer to be there trying to
influence, rather than sitting safe and warm at home, doing nothing.

“If I look forward a few years, I have a vision. I want
people to know that we exist and that we are actively
making a difference in the town, by practically being out
in the community educationally or physically. But I also
want the wider community to see how we live our lives,
to understand the choices that we have made about
lifestyle. To live in that community and to feel that it‟s
home, and to feel that we are part of the daily cycle of the
place. I want to get away from the messages of western
capitalist society where the person standing opposite you
is there in order to provide you with a service, rather
than creating a real relationship with them, whoever they
are, and in whatever setting, both inside and outside the       Kvutzat Yovel in their Moadon, Anton Marks seated
kibbutz. I believe that this community gives me help and        center.
support and belief and practice in how to do that.

“In three years time, once we have moved north, I still want to be in this community. I want to be living with
these people and with more people who have chosen this life style. I‟d like to be sharing my life with a partner.
I‟d like to be working in something that really makes me feel that I‟m influencing other people‟s lives.

“But three years is so far away, especially in this crazy country. I‟m 28 years old, and sometimes I feel like
retiring! But then what would I do? Exactly the same stuff that I‟m doing today. “

If you are interested in reading more about Kvutsat Yovel, they can be found at:
www.kvutsatyovel.com

Neil Harris is a member of Kibbutz Tuval, is an editor of Kibbutz Trends and works in
Experiential Education for Social Change.




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