Let’s talk about Israel! (Let’s not, you say, cringing.) I’ve long noticed that many otherwise well informed people know very little about life in Israel beyond the conflicts that make the news. Here, I’m going to write about an Israel topic that isn’t I/P. The Song of Zion series is, after all, intended to be a shelter from the storm.
So: Welcome to A Song of Zion, our weekly check-in and virtual minyan for Jews on Daily KOS. How’s your week going? This is an open thread, and we treat it as a safe space for Jewish folks here. Non-Jews are welcome but we ask that they listen more than speak. No squabbling, please: if you want to fight, please step outside.
Most people have some idea of what a kibbutz is. The closest English word is probably “commune,” and most kibbutzim operate with some level of collectivism, though nowadays not necessarily to the extent as when they were founded, mostly in the early 20th century, infused with socialist idealism. Traditionally most of them functioned as agricultural collectives, but as kibbutzim – and agricultural practices – have modernized, many of them have shifted or diversified their economic bases.
One of the more interesting developments is the emergence in recent decades of “eco-kibbutzim.” With guest houses already in place to accommodate visitors, many kibbutzim were well placed to try their hand at ecotourism. While Israel tourism has tended to focus on religious heritage and archeological sites, eco-tourism is a natural match, given the commitment to environmentalism and resource conservation inherent in the philosophies and lifestyles of many kibbutzim. And Israel’s spectacular natural landscapes! Packed into a small space (New Jersey is typically cited for scale for American audiences) are deserts, green woodlands and wetlands, mountains high enough to be capped with snow in the winter, and varied and distinctive bodies of water (Med Sea, Red Sea, Dead Sea, and the freshwater Sea of Galilee).
Moreover – and this is where my interest as a biologist kicks in – the animal and plant life of Israel is fascinating. Sitting at the junction of continents, Israel’s location maximizes its biodiversity: the northernmost portion of the range of many African species, the westernmost point for Asian species, and the eastern and southern extents of European species. It is also a major corridor for birds migrating between Europe and Africa – the land route for those species that cannot cross the Mediterranean Sea. Some 500 million birds pass through Israel, many using it as a critical resting and refueling stop.
It was through a birding kibbutz that I first learned about eco-kibbutzim. I received an email from a distant cousin, who was doing some genealogical research and reached out with some questions about my side of the family. Like those of many American Jews, my family is one that split up in the 1930s, Germans and Czechs, some of whom managed to immigrate to the US, others to then-Palestine. I didn’t know this cousin, though, as he was from a somewhat more distant branch (3rd or 4th or 5th cousin, I’d have to check his genealogy to figure it out again). Upon learning that I’m a zoology professor, he invited me to visit his kibbutz – Kfar Ruppin, home of the Jordan Valley Birding Center and Lodge, and I was able to do so a few years later. The kibbutz sits on the Jordanian border south of Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). The adjacent Jordan River Valley and the wetlands south of Kinneret are important bird habitat, and a thruway for migrants, while fish farms and irrigated crops at the kibbutz attract a variety of birds including many migratory waterfowl. The staff conducts educational outreach and research projects, including bird banding.
Several other kibbutzim have made birding a focal point of their tourist business. I’m actually not much of a birder myself, but the eco-themed kibbutzim seem to have something for every naturalist. Not far from Kfar Ruppin is a religious kibbutz that focuses on insects – entomology being my area of scholarly specialty, I had to check it out. Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu is internationally famous in my field for its contributions to sustainable agriculture. They pioneered the commercial mass-rearing of parasitic wasps for natural control of pest insects in crops, and their products are exported worldwide for use in organic farming (i.e., as a replacement for chemical pesticides). They also raise and package bumblebee colonies for use in pollination, particularly in greenhouses.
One of the most dramatic spots I’ve even been is Kibbutz Ein Gedi, on the Dead Sea, an oasis in a formidable desert landscape. The springs and waterfalls of Ein Gedi have been attracting visitors for thousands of years, and it is mentioned many times in Biblical texts, for example, in the Song of Songs:
Before the king arrives at his couch,
My perfume hovered fragrantly
My love will lie between my breasts.
Like a sack of myrrh,
A cluster of blossoms,
Picked from the vineyards of Ein Gedi.
The modern Kibbutz Ein Gedi has made some improvements since King David’s time, and besides the nature trails and botanical gardens, it boasts a guest house, swimming pool, and quick access to nearby tourists sites such as Masada. I recall they have a nice pub, as well.
Environmental conservation and sustainability in general are common themes in tourist-oriented kibbutzim. Kibbutz Lotan, in the southern desert, for example, has eco-tours that show off the kibbutzniks’ innovative solar energy and recycling methods and organic food production, and offers workshops and classes on various topics in ecology and sustainability.
Just prior to October 7 I was making plans to visit Kibbutz Ketura, which houses the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Located in the southern desert near Eilat, the AEIS sponsors desert ecology research and renewable energy studies. But perhaps most interesting is their commitment to interweaving sustainability research with diplomacy, bringing together students and teachers from around the region and around the world. From their website:
In the hyper-arid, drought-stricken Middle East, one resource is more precious than water: Trust. Over the past 26 years, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies has demonstrated that cooperation on environmental issues that impact all the people of the region is an effective path to building cooperation among communities that have been locked in conflict for generations. Since 1996, AIES has brought together nearly 1,800 Palestinian, Jordanian, Israeli, and international students. AIES educates future leaders who can meet the Middle East’s environmental challenges with innovative peace-building solutions and ensure a sustainable future for the region. With on-the-ground projects, cutting-edge research, and a university-accredited academic program, AIES works to protect fragile shared environmental resources, eliminate conflict over these scarce natural resources and serve as a model for constructive peacemaking for wider areas of conflict.
So is there hope to be found here? Eco-kibbutzim are well aware that the natural resources they treasure must be shared, and conservationists have a tradition of international cooperation. Plants and animals aren’t known to respect international boundaries, nor does water. Symbolic of the nation’s founding and growth, kibbutzim helped build the state of Israel, and perhaps they will help build the peace.
Did I leave out your favorite kibbutz? Sorry. I’m no expert and this wasn’t meant to be an exhaustive treatment, just a smattering from my own interests and experience.