Nonfiction Review by Robert Finley

David Leach, Chasing Utopia: The Future of the Kibbutz in a Divided Israel (Toronto: ECW, 2016). Paperback, 304 pp., $22.95.

Chasing Utopia“You can’t understand the world without telling a story. There isn’t any centre to the world but a story,” says Anishinabe writer Gerald Vizenor. The profound and profoundly fraught relationship between storytelling and world-making is manifest everywhere around us: the stories we tell about place are at once visionary and, where they contradict, often violent; utopian and intransigent; hopeful and impossible; the engine both of conflict and of reconciliation. That such stories burn with a special heat in the contested territories of Israel is no surprise. In Chasing Utopia, David Leach approaches this complex, compressed, and layered region by listening to and recording a vast array of voices laying claim to place through their stories of and dreams for home.

Part memoir, part travelogue, part long-form investigative journalism, the book begins by establishing one of Leach’s key qualifications for the work at hand: that he is in regards to his subject altogether an outsider. Not Jewish, but, in 1988, a twenty-year-old suburban bred Canadian youth recently disappointed in love, Leach takes himself off to volunteer for eight months on Kibbutz Shamir in Israel’s far north just under the lip of the Golan Heights. Twenty years later, “Google stalking” his past, he is astonished to discover that his former commune, “part of Israel’s renowned experiment in direct democracy, communal living, and absolute equality,” is listed on the NASDAQ. The questions that ensue from that disconnect between the founding socialist principles of the kibbutz movement, “often described as the ‘purest form of communism in the Western world,’” and its variously conflicted iterations, both past and present, form the backbone of the book.

Leach returns to Shamir, and from there travels to visit communities through the whole length and breadth of the country, interviewing as he goes. It is in these conversations that the genius of the book lies. Leach’s interlocutors are legion but carefully chosen. (The book’s acknowledgements run to seven full pages—a compact list of those who have lent their voices to the project). His exquisite portraits are wonders of economy, and populate the book’s pages with an utterly engaging and visionary cast of characters. At the same time, they provide a frame and human context for the impossibly complex regional history that lies behind each story.

Leach introduces us to ninety-one year old Surika Braverman, a founder of Kibbutz Shamir and a hero of the war against Naziism who says of her home: “I love this place very much. I’m proud of it—with all the changes. It’s impossible for a social movement to live 100 years without changes… My whole life, I believed in peace. And I know there is no solution other than peace. And it will cost dearly… We have in this country tons of bravery. But we lack a few grams of courage to make peace.” We meet Yoav, a reclusive conscientious objector who lives in temporary camps on the outskirts of Shamir. Salman Fakhiraldeen, a Syrian Druze, takes us to the “Shouting Fence” at Majdal Shams, where families separated by the no-man’s-land of the mined border between the Golan and Syria carry out a “poignant semaphore of longing and regret” across the valley. “‘They speak to each other, their lovers, with loudspeakers… They have to fly something in their hands to be recognized by their relatives.’” We sit down with Israel Oz, the economic consultant called in to help privatize failing kibbutz economies. We hear from Miri Sela, one of the founders of the powerful Four Mothers movement that grew out of kibbutz based resistance to the war with Lebanon. We go to Sderot (“a good place to get bombed”) near Gaza where Nomika Zion and her friends have established the urban Kibbutz Migvan with its explicit mission to improve lives in the city around it, and to work towards peace through education. We meet the developers and dissenters of Rawabi, Palestine’s projected planned city and its largest ever construction project. We talk with Mouhamed and Yonatan of System Ali, a Palestinian/Israeli hip hop collective in Jaffa, who tell us “Jaffa is more than a house, it’s life. All of our struggles are for one thing—to bring back the good life for the people of Jaffe.” And we meet many, many more, each with a vision.

The effect is to raise a chorus of voices, a loud kibitz on the kibbutz, its values, its history, its meaning, its transgressions, its possible transformations. But as the stories accumulate a kind of pure harmonic overtone emerges from the reading: all of these individuals throwing themselves at the problem of how to live better with each other, articulating and struggling to enact a cooperative ideal in the face of real risk, real opposition, all of them engaging with the “life,” as Mouhamed and Yonatan put it, that is Jaffa, or Rawabi or Migvan, or Sderot, or Galilee, or Shamir, or Lotan, or the Golan. In the face of so much loss, and waste, and daily humiliation and fear at the checkpoints, it’s not exactly optimism that the book leaves off with, but in its pages David Leach bears compelling witness to the resilient human ability to imagine things better than as they are and celebrates the enduring will to chase (e)utopia: a ‘good place’ even as it is understood to be, as yet, ‘no place’ at all.

—Robert Finley

As in The Malahat Review, 200, Autumn 2017, 179-180