The story of Israel’s Ashkenazi supremacy in one river

A river running through an Israeli kibbutz has turned into a site of controversy and violence that highlights how irrelevant the Zionist left has become.

Israeli activists and supporters enter Kibbutz Nir David and swim in the Asi River for a couple of hours on August 14, 2020. (Photo by Mati Milstein)
Israeli activists and supporters enter Kibbutz Nir David and swim in the Asi River for a couple of hours on August 14, 2020. (Photo by Mati Milstein)

A river that runs through an Israeli kibbutz has in recent weeks become a seething arena of controversy, violence, and hatred.

Interestingly — and unconventionally — the usual suspects in the Israeli political landscape have been turned on their heads in this particular struggle, with prominent Israeli leftists standing in staunch support of gated communities and against equality and distributive justice, all while vocalizing harsh opposition to the enforcement of law. At the risk of recycling a tired cliché: the story of this struggle can teach you everything you need to know about Israeli politics, and the growing irrelevance of the Israeli Zionist left. 

Nir David is a kibbutz in northern Israel, situated between the working-class, largely Mizrahi cities of Afula and Beit She’an. Like other kibbutzim, it is predominantly made up of Ashkenazim: Jews of European descent who founded the country and dominated its resources — as well as its economic, cultural, and military institutions — primarily through the Labor Zionist Mapai party.

The Asi River, a stunning blue waterway with a year-round temperature of 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit), passes through the kibbutz. According to Israel’s Water Act, waterways are public property that must remain accessible and open to all. Nevertheless, the residents of Nir David decided that access to the Asi River will not be free, and have erected fences and barriers to prevent public access to the river.

In recent years, a group of residents from communities around the kibbutz have been waging a struggle to ensure free, public access to the Asi River. They filed a lawsuit against the kibbutz in 2015 that resulted in the kibbutz vowing to open access to sections of the river — a promise they never kept.

The history of kibbutzim in Israel provides a crucial backdrop for this current struggle. Nir David was established in 1936 as the first of dozens of “Tower and Stockade” settlements that — with the approval of the British colonial leadership — were key elements in the Zionist campaign to ensure Palestinian Arabs were kept away from strategic areas. A 1960s account appearing in Hashomer Hatzair, a newspaper associated with the kibbutz movement, described how “that morning, 25 years ago, the Arab residents of the tents and huts of Tel Souk and the Sakhne rubbed their eyes in astonishment: Overnight, a new geographical fact had been established on the map of the land!” 

The historical justification for erecting fences and towers around the kibbutzim, intended as strategic fortresses, was to keep Arabs out. Those same walls and fences now keep both Palestinians and Mizrahi Jews out of Nir David.

Kibbutzim — including Nir David — also contributed to  the vast socio-economic gaps that characterize Israel today. Ashkenazim enjoy near-unadulterated privilege and access to land and natural resources, which in turn yield significant economic opportunities. Meanwhile, Mizrahi “development towns” that sprang up around them house tens of thousands of people in small, cramped geographic areas that offer little opportunities for economic advancement.

A Beit She'an activist outside the main gate of Kibbutz Nir David calling on residents to allow free public access to the Asi River, on Friday, 14 August 2020. (Photo by Mati Milstein)
A Beit She’an activist outside the main gate of Kibbutz Nir David calling on residents to allow free public access to the Asi River, on Friday, 14 August 2020. (Mati Milstein)

For comparative purposes: residents of the regional council in which Kibbutz Nir David is situated enjoy some 21,000 sq. meters of land per person, while in the nearby working-class town of Beit She’an, residents must make due with an average of some 400 sq.  meters per person — meaning Nir David residents enjoy 48 times more land per person. Over the years, Nir David residents have built villas and established thriving tourism enterprises on the banks of the Asi River. On the rare occasion that the kibbutz does accept new residents, admission is conditional on a vetting process that includes evaluation by a personality assessment institute.

Against this backdrop, and given the kibbutz’s continued refusal to adhere to the Water Act and their promise to the court, the struggle to free the Asi River has intensified. Over the past few months, residents of the surrounding towns together with activists from around the country have been showing up at the kibbutz gates every day in an attempt to access the river. In response, they have been met with locked and guarded gates, as well as  violence from kibbutz members, who attacked them with belts and sticks

Activists held their largest demonstration to date last Friday, with hundreds joining in support. The protesters successfully entered the kibbutz and were able to reach and enjoy the river. The day nevertheless ended with violence, as kibbutz members trapped one of the protesters inside the kibbutz gates, kicking him while he lay on the ground — an attack which sent him to the hospital with a concussion and a bruised kidney. Other protesters found their tires slashed.

At first glance, one would not suspect that the struggle to free the Asi would trigger so much controversy. At its core, the struggle aims to secure free access to public spaces. When the city of Afula tried banning outsiders from its parks, that decision was immediately (and rightly) labeled as racist for trying to keep Palestinians out of the city. Actions to force Afula to open its parks received broad and unreserved support from the Israeli left and from human rights organizations. And yet, the struggle to free the Asi is receiving dramatically different reactions from Zionist left-wing institutions and many self-described liberals.

Kibbutz Nir David installs new barbwire on its perimeter fence the morning of a large planned demonstration demanding it opens the Asi River to the general public, on August 14, 2020. (Photo by Mati Milstein)
Kibbutz Nir David installs new barbwire on its perimeter fence the morning of a large planned demonstration demanding it opens the Asi River to the general public, on August 14, 2020. (Mati Milstein)

One after another, people who regularly support equality, justice, and egalitarian values came up with a variety of excuses not to back the struggle.

Some argue that allowing free access to the river would destroy it, as public visitors would not keep the river and its banks clean. This argument heavily relies on racist stereotypes regarding the hygiene and cleanliness of the surrounding area’s Mizrahi residents, while ignoring the fact that Nir David’s tourism enterprises already allow hundreds of people to access the river — as long as they pay. The claim sounds all the more absurd considering that Nir David itself dumps agricultural waste into a nearby river that passes through Beit She’an.

Other leftists claim that the river is part of the kibbutz members’ “home,” and that entering it amounts to a violent invasion. Some kibbutz members and supporters even surmised on social media whether Nir David residents are allowed to shoot protesters for entering their property. Heli Yaakobs, a senior Nir David official and board member of The Israel Women’s Network, the country’s largest national feminist organization, drew a parallel between the protests and sexual assault. One prominent left-wing personality suggested that the Asi River struggle is just not that important, and another jokingly ranked it at number 43 on a list of the 42 critical struggles for the future of Israel.

The reaction of key left-wing figures to this struggle, coupled with the deafening silence of the overwhelming majority of left-wing politicians and human rights organizations, is perhaps astonishing, but not surprising.

In addition to illustrating the Zionist left’s growing insignificance, it teaches us quite a bit about the entitlement of Israel’s Ashkenazi elites, both to the land itself and to the very idea of justice. The same kind of gatekeeping that keeps the protesters out of Nir David is also utilized in order to label their cause unjust, misguided, and irrelevant.

Historically, the Zionist left has taken an active part in the repression and violence integral to the state’s establishment — both against Palestinians and against Mizrahim. The left was responsible for designing the discriminatory land policy that, to this day, grants the residents of Nir David significant privileges vis-a-vis land allocation while maintaining vast economic gaps between Ashkenazim and other marginalized communities in Israel.

This is the same “left” that expelled Palestinians in 1948 and expropriated their land — much of which would come under the control of kibbutzim — and disappeared babies from Mizrahi families for decades. When the right came to power for the first time in 1977, many saw the political upheaval as a Mizrahi victory: a protest vote by those fed up with Mapai’s inequitable rule in the early years of the state.

Activists and supporters demonstrate outside the main gate of Nir David calling on the kibbutz to allow free public access to the Asi River on August 14, 2020. (Photo by Mati Milstein)
Activists and supporters demonstrate outside the main gate of Nir David calling on the kibbutz to allow free public access to the Asi River on August 14, 2020. (Mati Milstein)

Since then, the left remains identified and associated primarily with Ashkenazi elites, while the right wing mostly associates itself (at least symbolically) with Mizrahim and working-class communities, most of whom still harbor resentment against the historic left.

Mizrahi activists who insist on this historical context and its impact on today’s political alignments are usually told that they hold a grudge against Mapai, which no longer exists and has very little in common with today’s left. What more, they are told that this hostility leads Mizrahim to vote against their own interests.

The struggle over the Asi proves these claims are inaccurate. They illustrate just how irrelevant the Zionist left is when it comes to confronting this ongoing injustice. Zionist left-wing parties such as Labor and Meretz remain dependent on the kibbutzim for electoral support, and it is precisely this support that prevents them from standing alongside one of the most important struggles currently taking place. This dependency is perhaps why they also stay silent in the face of staggering inequality between development towns and kibbutzim.

The struggle to liberate the Asi has exposed the Zionist left for all to see. A brave and honest left would have unequivocally sided with the Asi River protesters, who are fighting against inequality and a government that maintains and promotes it, while championing justice, the fair distribution of resources, and equality before the law. Instead, the Zionist left hides behind racist excuses.

An activist holds a Hebrew sign that reads
An activist holds a Hebrew sign that reads “The Asi is public property” while swimming in the Asi River on August 14, 2020. (Mati Milstein)

There is no doubt that left-wing political parties that might take such a brave stand could face grave political consequences. Kibbutzim may feel betrayed and might not vote for parties that they perceive as not working in their interests. But there is no other way: a left that remains silent in the face of the injustices around the Asi and of the kibbutzim (as well as the injustices of Zionism itself) cannot speak about injustice elsewhere with integrity, and most certainly cannot offer a meaningful ideological alternative to the right.

Even if such a position costs the left its only electoral lifeboat, it is still the right thing to do. Let the Zionist left die out, to run its course. Perhaps out of its ashes a new type of Jewish left can emerge — one that does not center around supremacy but on genuine solidarity between those who have historically been kept outside the gates. 

It might not look and sound like the left we are used to, but rather resemble the coalition fighting to liberate the Asi — young people who may not necessarily identify as leftists, and yet are leading one of the most vigorous movements for redistributive justice in Israel today. By relinquishing historic commitments to Ashkenazi elites, such a left might finally be free to form new and transformative alliances. Alliances that knock down both ideological and geographical borders.