And so the Sea, Stones & Stories tour continues. I was looking forward to visiting Degania Bet, one of the earliest kibbutzim to be established in the land of Palestine, (now Israel) in 1920. Kibbutz means ‘gathering’ and each kibbutz was originally a socialist community of pioneers, acquiring land for farming or industry. There are currently 274 kibbutzes (or kibbutzim, as the are known), although in recent decades many have been privatised.
Very few retain the original communal way of life.
Degania Bet recently celebrated 98 years of communal living. It runs a large dairy and produces food including bananas and avocados as well as owning a small factory.
Our guide, Idan Ben Shalom describes himself as a ‘native patriot of this place’.
He’s a kibbutz member (Degania B has 210 members) and a film-maker. He doesn’t receive a salary and any money members make goes to the kibbutz and is shared equally among the members. No-one gets more than their neighboor. No-one is different or better than their neighbour.
Idan says all kibbutz members are looked after in their own homes until they die.
Until the age of three Idan stayed apart from his parents in a kindergarten. But separating children from their parents during childhood wasn’t a feature at this particular kibbutz.
I love these brilliant, idealised images of Degania Bet taken in the late 1930’s and 1940’s by Israeli-Hungarian photographer Zoltan Kluger. (Wikimedia Commons, from the National Photo Collection of Israel).
I enjoyed Degania Bet’s archive which is housed in the former home of Levi Eshkol, Israel’s Prime Minister from 1963-1969. He lived on a kibbutz like former Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defence Minister Moshe Dayan (who actually lived in the neighbouring kibbutz, Degania Alef).
Each year since the 1940’s, someone with excellent Hebrew hand-writing (the archivist) writes down the history of the kibbutz: who was born, who died, what milestones were achieved. The history is recorded in these large volumes.
It was great for our group to catch a quick glimpse of this lifestyle which sounds like an admirable antidote to 21st century life. This is the original sharing economy. I gather however, that below the surface it's not as idyllic as it seems.
Being a member of a community involves the need to conform and there are implications if you don't.
One of the highlights of the Sea Stones & Stories tour, as we prepare to leave Tel Aviv, was the home of former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion.
Most of the Tel Aviv house is now home to Ben Gurion's library.
The founding Prime Minister was, like many leaders, an insomniac. He collected more than 22,000 books in eleven languages! Our young guide said he taught himself so many languages because he believed it was important to read a book in the language in which it was written.
Other facts about Ben Gurion which I enjoyed, the gnome-like leader practised Feldenkrais and was taught to do a headstand. Apparently he summoned the media to the beach so they could capture him posing. The buff gentleman in the background is his bodyguard.
We heard so many glowing things about DBG I asked whether, apart from being a great Prime Minister, he was a good husband and father.
Our young guide admitted that he was not.
A book about Ben Gurion's private life, published this year by historian Tom Segev, poses the question "if the leader isn’t faithful to his wife, maybe he’s not faithful to his voters, either".
I enjoyed the peek into his shrine former home. It made me think about the creation of myths. They abound in this land.
So I’m trying to stay awake watching the sun sink over the Mediterranean Sea.
When I was asked to lead this tour, I chose the title Sea, Stones and Stories because I felt these elements were images I retained from the time I lived in the Middle-East from 2003-5. I always felt the presence of the sea, whether it was the ocean or the Dead Sea. The sea is also part of the story-telling landscape. Stones, because all over the West Bank, incredible rocks dot the biblical landscape. And Stories because every person, every issue here tells a story. Sometimes it’s a mythologised story, but there’s always a narrative and I am here in my capacity as a storyteller.
So with Sea, Stones and Stories in mind, here’s the culture list I provided to members of the Renaissance Tours group I'm about to meet.
I've read most of the books and I’ll be using the content in my presentations. The films and newspaper articles are useful background and context. I'm so excited to be in the Mid-East. Happy Reading!
Jerusalem, the biography - Simon Sebag Montefiore
City of Oranges - Adam LaBor
Jerusalem (the cookbook) - Yotam Ottolenghi
Where the Line is Drawn - Raja Shehadeh (memoir)
In Search of Fatima - Ghada Karmi (memoir)
To the End of the Land - David Grossman (novel)
Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life - Sayed Kashua (personal essays)
Kingdom of Olives and Ash - Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman (commentary)
American Priestess - Janet Fletcher Geniesse (non-fiction biography)
City on a Hilltop - Sara Yael Hirschhorn (commentary)
Letters to my Palestinian Neighbour - Yossi Klein Halevi (commentary)
This question came up during a panel at the Wheeler Centre a few years ago and I messed up! Enthusiastically, and thinking of my own style of biographical interview, I exclaimed, Yes! it is a privilege to interview people.
Then up spoke fellow panellist investigate journalist, Gold Walkley winner and Monash University Professor Phil Chubb (who sadly died last year). Without glancing at me he replied that interviewing was a right and part of the process of accountability that we undertake as journalists.
“I think we have a right to ask questions of people who set themselves up as public figures. We have a right to anticipate that they'll give us answers which are truthful,” he said.
I felt foolish and small as I listened to him wax passionately about the valuable programs he’d made (ie Labor in Power) and the politicians and kingmakers he’d held to account. I realised that our interviews were the polar opposite. Thankfully the third panellist, Ramona Koval weighed in.
“I think when you're interviewing public figures it's a right. It's a privilege when you're interviewing people who aren't necessarily public figures, people whose lives have come to public attention…they just might be opening their hearts and minds and lives to you. That is a privilege, I think.”
I've been thinking about the right/privilege question since Sarah Ferguson's recent Steve Bannon interview. I didn't find the interview particularly satisfying (I don't imagine it was much fun either), but Bannon is absolutely newsworthy and there's no question that 4C's should have pursued and put to air that interview.
We need hard-hitting investigative interviews; those which hold individuals to account (when they choose to be interviewed). And, according to Ramona Koval:
There are a whole range of interviews which make us ponder what’s meaningful in life and how people navigate fortune or misfortune or hold a light to the shadows.
Unearthing gems like this is certainly a privilege. But next time, I'll opt to go last on the panel :)