Yesterday we visited Kibbutz Beit Oren, which was devastated in the Carmel fires. The ostensible point of our visit was to see the damage and the recovery efforts. The damage was terrible and the recovery is continuing.
But my own interest, really, was to see what a privatized kibbutz looks like. A “privatized kibbutz” is an oxymoron, because a kibbutz is, by definition, a socialist collective. Like all socialist projects, the kibbutz movement failed. Yes, yes, we all heard the propaganda–the kibbutzim show that socialism can work, isn’t it amazing, these beautiful, efficient collective farms where the babies are raised by day-care workers. Well, that was complete rot.
I worked on Kibbutz Afikim, in the Jordan Valley, when I was about eighteen years old. The path between working on a kibbutz and writing a book called “Why Margaret Thatcher Matters” was a straight line. It did not escape my notice that I was working on a collective farm–a place devoted to the production of agricultural goods, in other words–yet the only vegetable served in that dreary collective dining hall, ever, day in, day out, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, was the cucumber, and there was never any fruit. I farmed my brains out that summer and still nearly came home with a case of scurvy. I have no idea where the bananas I picked that summer went, but it surely wasn’t the dining room table.
Beit-Oren was founded as a die-hard socialist settlement in 1939. Predictably, it went bankrupt, because socialism doesn’t work. By the 1980s it had no means of subsistence, and the world’s ideological tides having turned, the larger kibbutz movement cut it off. In 1987 about half the population of the kibbutz decided to leave, an event known as the Beit Oren Incident. You can read between the lines of the brochure we were given yesterday, I’m sure:
During this difficult period for the kibbutz movement, a new concept was born at Beit Oren, of all places–the concept of “the new kibbutz.”
Much as it would give me pride to say that Israel was the birthplace of this new concept, they are of course not speaking of a new concept at all but rather a very old one–private property. Obviously–again reading between the lines–the old guard took this about as well as old socialists ever do when confronted with the idea of private property:
In 1988, after an intense period of discussion and decision, the New Kibbutz was on its way with renewed strength and vigor, and many new members. The kibbutz’s financial situation improved, empty apartments were rented to new residents, the kitchen and dining room became an events hall, and various kibbutz enterprises recovered. In June 1995, the decision was taken to privatize services and individual income. This was to be the first in a series of privatizations. Within a short time after this decision, most kibbutz members expressed satisfaction with this arrangement.
So in fact, what we were visiting was not a kibbutz. The proper term for what we saw is “a village.” A very lovely village. And even though this village had nearly burned to the ground, it had the hallmarks of a place where property is private, unlike the kibbutz at which I worked. What’s the telltale sign? The parts that had not burned were breathtakingly beautiful. Socialism never looks breathtakingly beautiful. And there were a variety of refreshments on offer beyond the cucumber.
Now, a few sad things that I have to point out. The fire was a terrible tragedy. The loss of life, in particular, was appalling–44 police officers died. (They died trying to evacuate a prison. All of the prisoners, Palestinian and Israeli, were saved.)
But it was abundantly clear on inspection that common-sense precautions to protect this village against forest fires had not been taken. One glimpse at this landscape is enough to see that it’s a tinder-box. Forest fires are obviously a huge risk here. Anyone from California would know that. There should have been nothing combustible on the hillside directly beneath this village. There should have been a safety zone of at least 30 feet between the houses and anything that could burn. There wasn’t. There were no fire hydrants.
The disaster was not only predictable, it was predicted:
After the “big fire” in the Carmel Forest in 1989, when “only” 3,000 dunam burned, an investigative committee had recommended that preventive steps should be taken, namely, creating fire breaks with no or restricted vegetation and limiting the kind of vegetation that proliferates in the woodland by thinning out and controlled burning. Further, when the plant life does regenerate, livestock or human volunteers should be put to work to keep it cropped. Sadly, these guidelines were not heeded.
The total damage estimate, they say, is about 70 million shekels. Their insurance only covers 20 million.
So. You’re living in a hot, dry, windy, heavily forested area known for the outbreak of fires. You’ve planted pine trees–pine trees, that resin is particularly combustible!–up to your windows. You don’t cut them back. The whole area is in range of Hezbollah rockets, let’s not forget that–they hit Haifa repeatedly in 2006, and you’ve got to reckon that doesn’t reduce the forest-fire risk. You don’t buy enough insurance to cover the damage if your house burns down.
Who makes a decision like that?
People who’ve only recently learned how to handle a checkbook and who have only recently come into contact with the idea of “Whatever happens, you’ll have to pay for it yourself,” I suppose.