Struggle for smooth flow distils Israel’s political division
KIBBUTZ NIR DAVID, Israel – A whimsical chain of inflatable rafts tied together by a fragile rope floated along the Asi, a gentle stream that flows for a mile across a sunny plain in northern Israel.
The boats were packed with locals, their children, and day trippers from further afield, but it wasn’t a picnic, even though it was a vacation. The goal of this unarmed armada was nothing less than to reconquer the little river.
“It’s a strategic takeover! the motley team leader, Nati Vaknin, shouted through a megaphone as he walked past the group.
The destination of the flotilla was a forbidden paradise: an exquisite aquamarine expanse of the stream running through, and which was effectively monopolized by, Kibbutz Nir David, a communal farm founded by the first Zionist pioneers, the Ashkenazi Jews of Europe. who have historically formed the Israeli elite.
The “new pioneers,” as Mr. Vaknin called his cadre, were young activists, mostly from the nearby town of Beit Shean. Many of the city’s older residents, Mizrahi Jews who immigrated from North Africa and other Middle Eastern countries, worked as laborers at Nir David.
On the surface, the dispute over the Asi is very local.
On one side is the Free Asi campaign, a group fighting for public access to a place of cherished beauty and against perceived privilege. On the other, a kibbutz anxious to retain its hard-earned assets and quiet lifestyle. The dispute has landed in the courts, awaiting resolution; in late May, the State of Israel weighed in, supporting the public’s right to access the stream through the kibbutz.
But underlying the battle are much greater tensions that spread across Israel.
The Asi conflict pits the advantaged descendants of the country’s socialist founders against a new educated class from a traditionally marginalized group. And it resonated throughout Israel as a distillation of identity politics and divisions that deepened under Benjamin Netanyahu’s long tenure as prime minister.
The clash over who can use the Asi is a “quintessential” reflection of contemporary Israel, Zionist historian Avi Shilon said.
“Kibbutzniks, once seen as the elite serving the state and warriors protecting society, have become ‘exploiters’,” Mr. Shilon said. “The once proud kibbutznik must now apologize because Israeli society has changed. “
The courageous farmers who founded Nir David, then called Tel Amal, in 1936 were joined by a group of Holocaust survivors in the 1940s. Together they worked the land, drained the surrounding malarial swamps and fought resistance local Arabic. Soon the kibbutz extended from one bank of the Asi to the other.
The stream begins just west of the kibbutz, in a national park known for its natural springs. It ends on the east side in a concrete irrigation canal feeding local agriculture and fish ponds.
In the mid-1990s, Nir David rehabilitated the half-mile section running through his residential areas, reinforcing riverbanks with concrete, planting lawns and gardens, and developing a lucrative tourist industry by renting seaside vacation cottages. water in the popular spot.
According to Israeli law, rivers and streams are intended for public use. But in the Asi dispute, the two sides differ on the meaning of “public use” and whether the path through the kibbutz is a public road.
Nir David locked the steel gate at his entrance about a decade ago and fenced off the community as protesters began picketing the kibbutz. The protests became more stormy after Mr. Vaknin and other activists began their “Free Asia” campaign in 2019. The kibbutz then hired a private security company.
Kibbutz officials say they can’t just open their doors and turn their house into a public park.
Chaya Mozer, 71, a kibbutz veteran, said she understood the protesters’ wishes. “Look at the beauty! She cried, as butterflies flew among the brilliant flowers. “But it is impossible. We live here. This place has been nurtured by us.
For those who support young activists, the denial of access is a powerful symbol of what critics have long denounced as the unequal allocation of the country’s resources and the institutional discrimination suffered by the Mizrahis who arrived in the years following the founding of Israel in 1948.
Each side to the Asi dispute accuses the other of using hateful online rhetoric and stoking ethnic demonization to advance their cause.
Beit Shean has long embodied the less privileged “other” Israel. The modern city grew out of a transit camp for Mizrahi immigrants, and its relations with the surrounding kibbutzim have been fraught with resentment from the start.
In the March elections, Israel’s fourth in two years, 93.5 percent of the vote in Beit Shean, with a population of around 18,000, went to right-wing or religious parties mostly aligned with Mr. Netanyahu, then prime minister. Five kilometers from Nir David, a community of about 650 people, more than 90% of the vote went to the centrist or leftist parties belonging to the new government coalition that toppled him.
the Free Asi The campaign drew a variety of supporters, including left-wing social justice advocates and environmentalists. But left-wing political parties have mostly remained silent to avoid alienating the kibbutz movement, their traditional base of support.
Some on the right have embraced the cause enthusiastically, such as Yair Netanyahu, the eldest son of the former prime minister, who called for the release of Asi on Twitter. It was a member of the Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi party, who lodged a complaint against the kibbutz.
“It is worth it for them to stir up the ethnic narrative,” said Lavi Meiri, the kibbutz’s chief administrator. “It gives them votes.”
Nir David denies any discrimination, to affirm that 40 percent of its population is now Mizrahi.
To end the stalemate, Nir David supported the development of a new recreation area outside the kibbutz or the extension of the flow from Asi to Beit Shean. But Free the Asi executives said it could set a precedent for the privatization of natural resources.
Perah Hadad, 36, campaign manager for Beit Shean, said the relationship with Nir David had always been one of “us on the outside and them on the inside”.
Ms Hadad, a political science student, argues that part of the kibbutz could be open to the public with fixed hours and bans on barbecues and loud music.
“After all,” she said, “there aren’t many streams like this in Israel.
The flotilla led by Mr. Vaknin took place in Mimouna, a North African Jewish holiday marking the end of Passover.
Mr. Vaknin, 30, an information systems analyst, had organized a noisy and festive demonstration which had started in front of the door of the kibbutz, decorated with a DJ and piles of mufletot, mimouna pancakes dripping with honey.
“Open your doors and open your hearts! Mr. Vaknin shouted, inviting the residents of the kibbutz to join in the fun.
An eclectic mix of about two dozen people showed up to protest.
While the kibbutz offers the most convenient entry into Asi, it is possible to reach the water where the stream meets the irrigation canal. But this way involves several dangers, including going down a steep slope on a busy road and the possibility that sharp boulders in this untamed part of the creek would tear a raft apart.
Despite these obstacles, the protesters moved from the kibbutz on the road to launch their flotilla from this unblocked location and then disembarked near the kibbutz cemetery. Children swam and chased ducks under the ominous gaze of security guards, filming on their cell phones.
The wet intruders then wandered through the heart of the kibbutz. No one stopped them and they posed for victory photos on the manicured shore of the Asi.