“Redeeming” the land: from kibbutzniks to Hilltop Youth

Israeli soldiers standing near Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank. (Mouid Ashqar/MaanImages)


“Organic eggs labeled ‘Harduf’ are coming from a Jewish settlement in the West Bank,” I exclaim to my aunt over the phone to the kibbutz that allegedly harvested the eggs. “There is no way,” she says, astonished. Eventually she comes to believe the validity of this claim. “We all buy them,” she admits, adding that it’s what they sell at the kibbutz grocery. “I don’t think people in Harduf know.”

The Harduf organic food company is managed by one kibbutz member, but owned by Israeli food giant Tnuva. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz and the Israeli peace group Gush Shalom, Tnuva buys the organic eggs from illegal outpost Gvaot Olam near the West Bank Palestinian village Yanoun.

The anthroposophic community of Harduf, while distinguishing itself from the kibbutz movement, comes from the kibbutz tradition — a Socialist Zionist agricultural commune built on avodah ivrit (exclusively Jewish labor). Kibbutzim, once regarded as utopian communes, in recent years have moved towards private ownership, graded wages and hierarchical governing bodies, while farming is being replaced by production plants and industrial companies.

The kibbutz was instrumental in defining territory for the Jewish State of Israel. Yitzhak Tabenkin, a spiritual leader of the kibbutz movement, described the movement as “a builder of communal settlements whose aim is to colonize the country in order to establish a territory for the Jewish people.”

Most kibbutzim were strategically situated on the peripheries. Before and during the 1948 War kibbutzniks fought in the Haganah military underground to hold their settlements and later went on to establish the “Israel Defense Forces.” Kibbutzniks also formed a major part of Israel’s military elite up until the past decade.

“They were the pioneers of this colonization, even though ideologically at least some of them objected the colonization and that way of expelling the Palestinians,” points out Eitan Bronstein from Zochrot, an Israeli organization that educates citizens about the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe, referring to the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians by Israel in 1948). In many cases they settled Palestinian houses and cultivated and picked the fruits of Palestinians’ fields. “The new practice of the Zionists was that after buying land, they did what they call redeeming the land. It means that after buying that land only Jews can live off that land,” explains Bronstein.

By the late 1970s the political climate shifted to the right as the government liberalized the Israeli economy. The history of the kibbutz’s rise and fall is commonly understood as stemming from massive organizational debts and the dismantling of the Jewish labor economy, in turn shifting people’s relation to communal values. This led towards an industrial economy and eventual privatization.

But a central factor in this transformation often left unmentioned is that after the 1967 war the value of the kibbutz as a frontline force had become obsolete. The then burgeoning settler movement soon came to replace the kibbutz as a central colonizing body. Occupying Palestinian land and cultivating it to be inhabited by exclusively Jewish communities, the strategies of settlers are not much different than early kibbutzniks.

Some Jewish settlements positioning themselves deep inside the West Bank and far beyond the Green Line have even called themselves kibbutzim. Recently, an outpost was erected under the name “Kibbutz Givat Menachem,” pointing out that both kibbutzim and illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank were established on Palestinian land and should not be treated differentially. The “kibbutz” was evacuated in November.

The so-called “Hilltop Youth,” young devoutly religious settlers committed to the idea of an ethnically exclusive socialist commune of God (a socialism derived from Jewish scripture rather than Marxism) are restoring the Socialist Zionist tradition. Setting up caravans as illegal outposts in the West Bank, farming the land, and using violence to deter Palestinians from reclaiming their fields, The Hilltop Youth are the new frontier, renewing the custom of avodah ivrit lost to the free market economy. From these outposts, Jewish settlements in the West Bank can grow.

Movement leader Avri Ran is the founder of the Gvaot Olam illegal outpost farm, where Harduf gets its eggs. Organic vegetables, fruit and dairy are cultivated by an exclusively Jewish workforce and then sold at most natural food stores in Israel. Ran, an Israeli army reserve captain, is a kibbutznik himself who grew up on Kibbutz Nir Chen according to IsraelNationalNews.com. The kibbutz is in the Negev desert less than 30 kilometers northeast of the Gaza Strip.

I asked a relative in Kibbutz Hatzor (about 40 kilometers south of Tel Aviv) what he thinks about the comparison of settlers to kibbutzniks. Hatzor is a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz, one of the most leftist and secular youth movements amongst the kibbutzim (originally affiliated with the International Revolutionary Marxist Center and now associated with the Zionist social democratic party Meretz). “The prevailing attitude among ‘our’ kibbutz movement,” he says, framing it in the context of Israel’s internal religious and secular divide, “Is that there’s a distinct difference between the absolute need for a state, and the steps that were taken to realize that need, and the approach that says that the land is God-given and thus there’s only one legitimate claim.”

The Arab-Jewish border in the 1947 UN partition plan ran right through Hatzor’s fields, as my uncle himself has told me. Before Hatzor existed, Palestinians lived in the area, but after Israel’s declaration a battle between Israeli and Egyptian forces in the south resulted in the Palestinians being pushed south into Gaza. Now, not a single Palestinian can be seen on the kibbutz.

On Hashomer Hatzair Kibbutz Lehavot Haviva — just west of Israel’s boundary with the West Bank, kibbutz members aided the army in expelling and preventing the return of the Palestinian residents from Khirbet al-Jalama after the 1948 War. These actions, which included blowing up the remaining Palestinian homes, were carried out despite an Israeli court decision to allow the Palestinians to return to their homes.

The irony of this Israeli political division is that the Hilltop Youth, who have gained international notoriety for being on the vanguard of Palestinian dispossession and racism, generally live in open fields on hilltops inside their own caravans. Meanwhile, the movement considered the source of Israel’s moral consciousness wiped out Palestinian villages and forcefully ejected Palestinians from their homes.

Carmelle Wolfson is an independent Canadian journalist based in Jaffa. This column was originally published on The Daily Nuisance (www.thedailynuisance.com) and is republished with the author’s permission.