Monday, July 2, 2007

The first kibbutz

We travelled today to the Jordanian/Golan Heights frontier -- and stopped at a Renault tank, left from Syria's greatest advance at the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. Israeli defenders used primitive anti-tank weapons and Molotov cocktails to stop the tank -- the vanguard of the Syrian advance, near the entrance of Kibbutz Dagenia Aleph, which just happens to be Israel's first Kibbutz, the beginning of the movement that represents perhaps the only truly successful application of communist worker-based equality in the world.
Before heading into an immersion of political/geographical and social history (more later), we had a stop, on the Jordan River, at a recreation facility with rather crude imitation totem poles, and very real canoes. In a rather unsuccessful imitation of the Canadian frontier, Eric and I paddled down the Jordan River, not far from a facility that attracts thousands of Christian pilgrims each year, purportedly because the water is near where Jesus was baptized. (The true point of action for Jesus actually is several miles away, but Israel developed the facility when that part of the Jordan River was under Jordanian jurisdiction. Unfortunately, the devout Christians dipping their toes in the Jordan River and purchasing baptismal water at the site got an unexpected surprise -- a rather nasty brush fire. We left the scene just as the fire engine came racing down the road. I hate to think what a fundamentalist Christian might have thought as the very real black smoke and flames billowed near the purportedly holy site.
Anyways, after seeing fire and brimstone, and floating down the Jordan in a Canadian-style canoe (and stopping at a store specializing in Israeli dates) we headed to the frontier area on the Sea of Galilee, near Tiberius.
Here, history and geography, and the complex rules of international geopolitics and water really are obvious -- as is the unbelievable complexity of the story.
First, we have to look at the area's rather unique geography. The Sea of Galilee feeds the inlet of the Jordan River here -- several hundred feet below sea level. Syrians and Jordanians have been diverting water that would feed into the Sea of Gaililee and ultimately the Jordan River, resulting (says our guide) in the drying up of the Dead Sea. But there is something good in all of this -- the Jordanians, perhaps inefficiently, are using their water to irrigate their side of the Jordan River here, creating fertile and prosperous communities and making it so the Jordanians want nothing to do with 'terrorists' infiltrating the Israeli border (which abuts directly here -- the 'West Bank' is further south.)
Fair enough, but what about the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in 1967, and Syria. Well, here the story gets really complex. First, our guide told us, when the British and French divided up the territories in the World War I era upon the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the borders marked for Palestine actually covered the entire Sea of Galilee and certain resort and other lands on the Syrian side of the frontier. When the U.N. passed the partition resolution in 1947, these lands were supposed to be transferred to Israel. But the Syrians captured much of the land, to the the point of that first Israeli Kibbutz (Kibbutz Degania Aleph), which Israel only reclaimed in 1967. (Israel also grabbed the entire Golan Heights area -- we'll visit that part of the world I think tomorrow or maybe Thursday).
As for Kibbutz, it survived good and hard times -- certainly until 1967 it was in dangerous territory, with frequent Syrian attacks (and a disused bunker to show the evidence). But the Kibbutz prospered, until the 1980s, when it was lured by its bank to borrow money (from the bank) to invest in bank stocks. Unfortunately, the late 1980s stock market crash was coupled with an attack of hyper inflation, and things fell apart. The Kibbutz movement, overall, faced bankruptcy. Kibbutz Dagenia Aleph survived, but only after some really hard years. It is fascinating to see that the Kibbutz survived war, hostility, and all kinds of problems, but almost failed because of 'capitalist greed'.
We could see the Galilee's fertility (from volcanic residue) first hand. They grow corn, cotton, bananas, grapes, figs, exotic herbs, pomegranates, lemons, dates, and dozens of other crops here. This area also has recorded some of the first Zionist Jewish settlements in the Ottoman era. The lands initially were bleak, swampy, malarial horror stories -- the settlers turned the lands into fertile communities.
So where does this leave me? I certainly won't forget my canoe ride with Eric; but ultimately I am reminded of this land's amazing complexity and intensity.

No comments: