Socialism in the Field: a Week at the Mata’im

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by Caden Feldman-Gubbay, Garin Techina

I live in Haifa, Israel in a kvutza of 14 (soon to be 15) olimot from Australia, North America, South Africa and Argentina. We are part of a large network of financially interdependent kvutzot, and together with nearly two thousand other like-minded people across Israel we are Dror Yisrael. We are attempting to renew the Socialist Zionist visions of old, and it is our mission to build a more vibrant, moral future for Israel through diverse forms of education and activism.

One way that our socialism manifests is through a project called Dror Mata’im Chinuchi’im (Dror Educational Farms). The movement’s farms, or mata’im, are on Kibbutz Ravid, a breathtaking kibbutz in the Galilee overlooking the Kinneret. I spent all of last week on the mata’im with a dozen other movement members my age, working the land. We woke up each day at 5:30AM and tended the mango orchards until early afternoon. We aligned hundreds of kilometres of drip-irrigation piping along some 350 dunams of mango trees. The mata’im are maintained by a steady supply of small groups of movement members who come from all over the country to spend a week working the land before returning to their far-flung kvutzot and homes.

We are by no means trained in this work. In fact, the vast majority of movement members who come to work the farms have not done agricultural work before. This is also completely different to how other farms in Israel work. The vast majority of agricultural work in Israel is done by hired workers as their full-time job. At the week’s close, we were told that the work we had done was of the highest quality that had ever been seen on the mata’im. Even more surprising was the amazing revelation that the agricultural work of untrained movement educators like us is consistently of a much higher standard than that of hired farmers who do this kind of thing for a living. How? I think part of the answer lies in the way we were able to approach our week’s work on the mata’im quite differently to how a hired worker might, because our perspective was informed by the rebellious codes of our movement.

One such code that guides my movement is that we try to live our lives as holistically as possible. We try to remove the separations that society has taught us to see in our lives, for example, between “work” and “leisure” time, and between “personal” and “collective” property. Within our own kvutzot and messimot we do this fairly well – we feel responsible for and connected to one another. For example, last week I, along with many other people from my shichva, travelled to Be’er Sheva to help two kvutzot move house because we felt that responsibility and connection. But I find it so much harder to do this outside of my familiar movement context. I was able to travel nearly three hours to Be’er Sheva in the South, but just two minutes from my house in Haifa is a park called Gan Binyamin. On one side of the small park is the Haredi neighbourhood, and on the other side of the park live olimot from the former Soviet Union. These people virtually live next door to one another, but almost never interact. When I am at Gan Binyamin I watch these two sectors of society exit the park via their respective gates to their respective neighbourhoods. Sometimes while watching, I wonder if one will exit via the other’s gate, and imagine what they might be up to. But it never happens. They move as if on cue; East gate, West gate, East gate, West gate. And then at some point I remember that I am also their neighbour, and that maybe I should say hello to one of them. But I never do.

Something we all need to get a lot better at is feeling responsibility and connection in wider circles, and to fight against these dangerous separations from each other. Why? Because bad things happen when we fail to deeply scrutinize our own impact over the vast network of humans and systems to which we are linked. As humans we might think we are really good at fostering an enlarged perspective, but we aren’t. Human beings are not naturally endowed with particularly good moral hardware. We are chronic ignorers and neglectors. We like to narrow our field of vision as far as it will go until all we see is our own clan – not because we are evil, but because it is easier to live in a bubble we aren’t scared of, that we don’t hold in contempt. We subconsciously create a narrative of the world in terms of “us and them” and tend to perceive virtue in “us” and strangeness and negativity in “them.”. There are too many nefarious examples of this phenomenon to point them all out, but take the current surge of anti-Semitism across North America for one, along with the recognition that we live in the age of Brexit, Donald Trump, and Binyamin Netanyahu. These are all glaring signs that mainstream politics now unashamedly deals in hate and distributes power over identity lines – “us and them.” This trend is extremely dire in Israeli society, which is splintering into deepening sectors that do not speak to one another, and are even pit against each other by politicians who regularly blame societal problems on one group to garner support from another.

Our challenge is to refuse these divisive narratives we come up against every day, and to strive for unity when our gut impulse is division. I am not proposing that we ignore all differences, pretend that oppression doesn’t exist, and sing kumbaya – but rather that we acknowledge our differences head-on while building partnership in a basic commitment to a shared future. It starts with feeling responsible for people outside your immediate circles, saying hi to someone you wouldn’t normally say hi to, getting better at empathy. Ask yourself: where do you stop feeling responsible for people, and why? The alternative is only more ignorance, bigotry, racism, misogyny and hate. Because doing nothing perpetuates a deteriorating status quo. Feeling responsible for that which extends beyond our line of sight is terribly difficult – I really struggle with it – but it is critical. As a whole movement we could do so much more, especially in fighting the occupation, if we really felt responsible over it, all the time. And the sort of perspective a mission like that requires is exactly what was strengthened in me when I went to the mata’im.

After work each day, we returned to our common space and talked for hours about the issues facing Israel and the Jewish people – about rising global Anti-Semitism, fractures within Israeli society, its agricultural crisis, the meaning of ownership, and human relations – always channelled through our own experiences in the fields. It became clear that the morning work enriched the afternoon conversations, and that those conversations in turn would enrich the following morning’s work. Experiencing the mata’im in this way allowed us to enlarge our perspective, to connect things, to understand the real impact of what we were doing.

The mata’im is a massive part of the movement’s economy. The profits that come in from the beautiful mangoes, lychees, grapefruits, clementines and avocadoes that we grow directly support the lives of thousands of movement members, its numerous educational projects, and the upkeep of the kibbutz’s agricultural infrastructure. When I internalized the fact that placing irrigation piping alongside a mango tree enables thousands of my partners to continue to educate our 100,000 unique chanichimot all over Israel, I was overwhelmed by the meaning of our work. Farming on state-owned land, I was part of a national project, and I cultivated its soil to instil in today’s chanichimot the values championed by our first chalutzimot. In short, I felt connected to and responsible over the largest amount of people I’ve ever felt that for in my life.

It is easy to be convinced that socialism is an old myth that belongs in the dustbin of history. But we rocked up for a week, and not only did we work under social codes, without hierarchy or payslip, but we did so more efficiently than any hired worker could have – because we understood that we weren’t just farming, we were building the nation, and building ourselves in the process.

If you think socialism is broken, come visit the mata’im.

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