MAY 30, 2020
THE PARTY OF ISRAEL’S FOUNDER David Ben-Gurion, the Labor Party, may now be more or less dead, a casualty of the nation’s right-wing shift, but it cannot be forgotten that its predecessor was the dominant force of the modern Jewish state in its first three decades. Israel was once a beacon of successful socialism in which the paradigmatic building block was the kibbutz, the utopian commune that fused egalitarianism, farming, and Zionism. It is this history of which Rachel Biale, in her memoir Growing Up Below Sea Level: A Kibbutz Childhood, reminds us.
Biale, a practicing psychotherapist who lives in California, was born in Israel to Czech Jews who narrowly escaped the Holocaust. She provides the vital service of reminding us what Israel used to be, but she dances around the issues that plagued the Jewish state then — fear and nationalism — that are responsible for propelling the country into its current illiberalism.
The memoir is largely retrospective and written from Biale’s view, but I was captivated immediately by its prologue, whose 53 pages are dedicated to her parents’ migration from Prague to Israel — with years at war in the Middle East and in a detention camp in Mauritius in between. They reached Haifa in 1940, but because Jewish migration to Palestine was still illegal, the British government shipped them off to the east African island of Mauritius. Her father then enlisted in the British army and served in Egypt while her mother remained in Mauritius.
Biale’s historical-familial approach to her parents’ extraordinary struggle is gripping and moving. She mines both her mother’s diary and father’s short stories for anecdotes of the life she did not live and that many of us, including even Jews well versed in Zionist history, cannot imagine.
“Moments of celebration were rare. Material deprivation, illnesses, and — surely the worst — complete ignorance of the fate of their families in Europe and hopelessness about an end to their own exile took a heavy toll,” Biale writes of her mother’s experience living in the Mauritius detention camp. “Many were despondent and apathetic; a few committed suicide.” It was only in 1946 — seven years after Biale’s parents left Prague — that they reunited and settled at kibbutz Kfar Ruppin in the Jordan Valley.
From this point on, Biale’s own memories of kibbutz life dominate the book. Writing now as an American adult, and as a parent, Biale repeatedly expresses shock at the freedom she was afforded as a child. But readers are more likely to be shocked by the socialist values that dominated Biale’s and Israel’s early life.
Jews did not keep Shabbat but they did keep un-kosher kitchens. Leftist children were taught to disdain “bourgeoise” slippers. The workers’ flag, adorned in its Marxist red, for years stood proudly next to the blue-and-white Star of David flag. That all this happened and was even considered normal in Israel likely comes as a shock to those who know only its current incarnation.
Anecdotes within this memoir will be familiar to many readers. The fact that “none of the kids I knew had grandparents” — presumably lost to the Holocaust — was on par for much of the early Israeli course. Fourth graders were required to undertake paramilitary training. Biale and a friend claimed to have seen Arabic-speaking keffiyeh-wearing intruders on their kibbutz; and while they indeed heard intruders, they heard no Arabic and saw no keffiyehs. In her early mind, however, the intruders, of course, must have been Palestinians or, at the least, Jordanians in Palestinian costume.
But Biale does not quite zero in on the rise of nationalism and fear that was present in Israel’s nascent state and eventually replaced its farming communes. She writes, for instance, about spending a year abroad in the United States in the late 1960s and having her political eyes opened by the Civil Rights movement. When writing about the Israeli inequality she began to notice, she fails, however, to mention the Palestinians or any non-Jews, focusing instead only on intra-Jewish inequality. She recognizes that she was at the time “blind” to this injustice. Even now, as an adult, she does not really factor in the Palestinians.
Growing Up Below Sea Level: A Kibbutz Childhood is, of course, a memoir — and one in which the author cannot be expected to litigate the entire conflict. But Biale’s neglect of the Palestinians shows a reality of Israeli life that is now even more pronounced: the “bad” Arabs are easily kept at bay, on the margins of society and out of sight, by much of Israel. It was evidently easy for Biale to in her early years walk through Kfar Ruppin largely without thinking of the Palestinians, except in reference to terrorism. It’s similarly easy to today walk through Tel Aviv’s streets and forget about the occupation and the Palestinians in general.
While this has stayed the same, so much has changed since Biale’s childhood. The Israel-Palestine peace process is now effectively over, and Israel’s politics are now dominated by the right and the seemingly eternal figure of Bibi Netanyahu. The kibbutzim have been in decline for years and their collectivist ideology is all but lost. Many have taken on explicitly capitalist ideologies.
The book briefly discusses Israel’s transition near its end, telling the story of an Arabic-speaking liberal Jewish man — “the personification of the Israel that no longer existed: pioneering, humble, idealistic, and modest to the point of poverty” — who recognized that his Israel, even four decades ago, was lost. Biale also admits that she did not think Israel could not be returned to its primordial state of left-wing optimism, but she does not explain why.
Like some of my own Israeli family members, Biale clearly albeit somewhat quietly laments Israel’s rightward evolution. But despite witnessing this change so personally, she does not offer her own interpretation of why this happened.
More broadly, where did the optimistic Israel go? What happened? How did this land of kibbutzim and utopian dreams become the sour and fearful country it is today? While she leaves these questions unanswered, her memoir is worth the time for anyone even vaguely interested in Israel, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the Middle East more broadly, or simply in a well-written piece of underdiscussed history. Growing Up Below Sea Level: A Kibbutz Childhood is a welcoming time capsule whose prose, complete with its bright imagery and the smart observations of a precocious child, teenager, and ultimately, an adult, draws readers in. Israel may have indeed shed its Marxist red to more fully embrace its nationalist blue, but with recollections like Biale’s, its past will not be written out of the Jewish state’s history.
Charles Dunst is an associate at LSE IDEAS, the London School of Economics’ foreign policy think tank, and a journalist who has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and the Council on Foreign Relations, among other outlets.