A Day in Herzl’s Negev

When I look at the yellow sands and the pink mountains at sunset, I can’t help but long for the old pioneering aesthetic of Israel.
March 15, 2023
Sunset in the Negev desert. Ramon Crater. (Anton Petrus/Getty Images)

I have a habit of romanticizing the Negev desert and its kibbutzim. Those who have lived there see the reality: that kibbutz life is difficult, that collective living isn’t for everyone, and that in such an arid climate the summers can be all but crippling. And yet, when I look at the yellow sands and the pink mountains at sunset, I can’t help but long for the old pioneering aesthetic of Israel—the way of life that was treasured by the first and second waves of immigrants to the land, the isolation that was idolized by David Ben-Gurion.

I also can’t help but be intrigued by the possibilities of the desert. Ben-Gurion once said: “It is in the Negev that the creativity and pioneer vigor of Israel shall be tested.” Although I carried the first Prime Minister’s book Recollections in my backpack last week, I went to Kibbutz Ketura in the heart of the Arava valley to discuss a different man, the one whom a young Ben Gurion raced to gaze upon when it had been announced that “Messiah had arrived” in his neighborhood, which could only be Theodor Herzl.

After a five-hour journey from Tel Aviv, and upon entering the grounds of the kibbutz, I was immediately reprimanded for touching horses that I was not allowed to touch, but the scenery made up for it. It reminded me of my childhood home in Arizona, also once a remote desert outpost inhospitable to its residents, and I thought of Leonard Cohen singing “So Long Marianne” in the Sinai at the height of the Yom Kippur War. Upon my arrival, dozens of children darted around the hot pavement in their Purim costumes, seemingly without a care in the world. Adults greeted each other. Old folks tended to gardens and gossiped. In the communal dining hall of the kibbutz, I heard more Hebrew and Arabic woven together than in any other place I had been in Israel. I learned relatively quickly that this was because Kibbutz Ketura is home to the Arava Institute, which combines environmental science students from Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan—as well as international students—in the hope that regional cooperation on regional issues will lead to a better shot at peace.

After a fair amount of loitering, I met with Yossi Abramowitz, the former head of the Arava Power Company, which, under his direction and with an impressive leadership team, created our view for the conversation: the first solar panel field in the Middle East. The panels look almost surreal in contrast with the towering mountains and barren landscape. I learned later that they power the entire kibbutz, and a sizable portion of the city of Eilat, as well.

BF: So, here we are. Where are we, exactly?

YA: Well, right over there is the Jordanian border. We’re about thirty-five minutes north of Eilat, and therefore from the Egyptian border. From the point in Eilat, you can also see Saudi Arabia. So, we’re at sort of an inflection point in terms of geo-politics.

BF: You wouldn’t know that. This place looks like a horse ranch in Tucson. It’s very peaceful. It’s hard to imagine how bitterly this land was fought over in the past.

YA: This is an oasis. You have here Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian young people all working together in environmentalism and climate, subjects that concern all three lands. After all, there is no such thing as solving air pollution here and not there, and the same thing with water. Everything is regional. And with that mindset comes a peaceful environment.

BF: And do you think working together expands the possibility of peace beyond the kibbutz as well?

YA: Well, we are in the third driest region of the world, so we’re in a literal hot spot. But we are also in a “hope spot.” How do you think renewables, like solar panels, jumped to other parts of the Middle East? Because Palestinians and Jordanians were taught here, they were nurtured here, and they go back home with the capability to teach and nurture their communities. That forms human connections that are important for any peace process.

“Well, we are in the third driest region of the world, so we’re in a literal hot spot. But we are also in a ‘hope spot.’

BF: How optimistic are you that this can create lasting benefits in the region?

YA: Incredibly. At some point, especially as the climate crisis worsens, the Israeli energy officials need to pick up the phone and call anyone who is willing to partner with them.

BF: Well, that’s certainly good to know. After the last couple of weeks and the terrible things we’ve seen happen in the region, from the murder of Israelis in the West Bank to the settler riot in Hawara, how does the perspective you have offered translate into how kibbutzniks react to news from the rest of the country?

YA: The director of the Arava Institute, Dr. Tarik Abu-Hamed, who was once the highest-ranking Palestinian in the Israeli government, says often that when tragic things happen on one side, Israelis cry, and when tragic things happen on the other side, Palestinians cry. But here at Kibbutz Ketura, Israelis and Palestinians cry together.

BF: You and others at Kibbutz Ketura are championing a path to peace that runs through innovation and technology. And although we are surrounded today by relatively new technology, this idea, from a Zionist perspective, isn’t exactly new at all.

YA: I like your transitions! Let’s bring him into this, shall we? Theodor Herzl was the original visionary for climate justice and climate justice in a Jewish state. Two years before he wrote “Der Judenstaat,” he wrote a play called “The New Ghetto,” and in this play, the protagonist, who is a fictionalized Herzl himself, is deeply pained at the profiteering, exploitative and stock market-manipulating aristocracy that the Jewish people were becoming more involved with. The young protagonist chooses to join a coal miner strike. He cared about the conditions of the workers, of course, but he was also bothered by all the smoke pollution in Europe. In envisioning his future state, a core principle was just not the rebirth of the Jewish people but also what they could do in turn to make the world a better place for everyone, to mitigate the damage of industrialization, which, at that point, it was already clear that it was taking a toll.

BF: And in comes the kibbutz. A place that held the ideal that by working the land and making it more sustainable, not only the Jewish people were strengthened but so were the prospects of the entire world. The kibbutz was both particular and universal, in that regard. Do we think Herzl understood this as intrinsically as the young halutzim who would come to pioneer the Negev, even if he didn’t use their same terminology?

YA: Herzl only had one trip here. And he described a land that was desolate and miserably poor. He knew that in order to attract people here, he had to present the opposite of everything that he saw. Which is why in his utopian novel “Altneuland,” literally “Old-New land,” the land is bursting with life. Everything is lush and green. He certainly tried to make the connection that with the renewal of the land came the renewal of the Jews and this would contribute to a better world. He didn’t use the same words as the socialists who would actually be building communities, but he came close. This place, Kibbutz Ketura, is about as close as you can get to Herzl’s vision.

BF: Herzl wasn’t exactly a socialist.

YA: Correct, but he deeply distrusted exploitative capitalism. He believed that the profits of the workers should be distributed among the community, while still warm to the idea that trade and economic growth were of importance. Which is why, here, the community lives socialistically on the inside, but they partner with the outside world in constructive, capitalistic endeavors. Members of this kibbutz simultaneously serve as board members of private companies, and yet everyone inside, from the chairman of the board of a public company to a parent on kitchen duty, receives the same paycheck from the same bank account. It is a mix of socialism and capitalism, which is entirely Herzlian.

BF: And are there other things besides economics that you feel that kibbutz succeeds at in furthering Herzl’s vision?

YA: Oh sure, loads of things. Herzl idolized a Jewish state that was pluralistic in regard to faith, and one where shul and state didn’t mix, where religion didn’t influence national policy. We certainly live by those norms here. Herzl also envisioned full political and legal rights for minorities, which, as I’ve explained, is a given here. There are things happening today that—if Herzl knew—he’d been turning in his grave. Which is why hope spots like Ketura remain so important.

Herzl idolized a Jewish state that was pluralistic in regard to faith, and one where shul and state didn’t mix, where religion didn’t influence national policy. We certainly live by those norms here.

BF: Many people from across the political spectrum would criticize Herzl for being naive, for being foolish in not realizing that the prophesied Jewish state would need to defend itself and couldn’t possibly commit to the collectivism that the early Zionists idealized while the country constantly faced outside threats.

YA: Well, the kibbutz model sort of contradicts this. Why do you think that so many kibbutzim are placed along Israel’s borders? The state strategically placed communities in these areas, especially along borders, to act as a bulwark against enemies. The kibbutz model, since the founding of the state, has proven to be remarkably effective at organizing self-defense and at galvanizing a community to act as one. More efficiently, I would say, than a city or even a small town. The kibbutz originally produced many important generals and commanders, and today the number is still disproportionate in regard to representation in the more elite units, so I would say that critique needs to be explored more. Herzl may have been a bit naive in underestimating how powerful the winds of Arab nationalism or jihad would be in regard to a threat against Israel, but he developed his vision when the Ottoman Empire ruled and there were no national borders in this region among what are now states.

BF: So, what we really see here is a blending, albeit an imperfect one, but a successful combination of both communitarianism and of “bourgeois” nationalism. Everyone gets the same paycheck, everyone looks after everyone in the areas of health and education, and yet the commitment to peoplehood remains rock solid. That formula has failed in most other places in the world, so what makes Israel, and more specifically, the forty kibbutzim who remain true to their original principles, succeed?

YA: Well, to that I would say we really didn’t have a choice. I mean, the Jews were struggling, to put it lightly, to build their own society and contribute effectively to other societies. So, this was an existential undertaking far less than even the classic socialist revolutions. And that’s also why, in the years since we’ve seen kibbutzim drift from their original principles, that existentialism went down, and the pull of the market went up.

BF: Which would, at least, I like to think, make Herzl smile.

YA: I think so too.

The next morning, just before sunrise, Yossi and I walked from the kibbutz to a long strip of desert on the Jordanian border, where his infamous solar panels awaited the light. On one side was a large field of half-grown palm trees. From in between their trunks was the sound of donkeys bellowing. On the other was a truly marvelous feat of innovation and technology, which promised, as I had learned, to not only benefit the Jewish people, but also those who surround us. As Yossi wrapped tefillin and said a few prayers to bless the day, I couldn’t help but smile, and conclude that perhaps Herzl’s “Altneulandwas not such a far-fetched fantasy after all.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Blake Flayton is the New Media Director and Columnist of the Jewish Journal.

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