Can Canna-Kibbutzim Restore Zion’s Vision of Agrarian Utopia?
It sounds like a quiz show brain teaser: what links late 19th Century Russian anarchist theory with Rastafarianism, 1970s hippie communes, the foundation of the modern state of Israel, and a new agricultural movement there today?
The surprising answer is cannabis. Thanks to an astonishing legal decision earlier this year whereby Israel was green-lighted to export its medical-grade products, an exciting innovation to kibbutz-living is emerging, one that, ironically, may re-align it with its founding philosophy.
Let’s start at the beginning with a Russian-Jewish Prince named Peter Kropotkin. Today, he’s largely remembered for; 1.) his friendship with Edwardian-era author, Edith Nesbitt, who used him as a model for Mr. Sczepansky in her beloved classic, “The Railway Children” was largely modeled after; and 2.) being pretty much the only other notable long-term resident of Bromley, an unassuming borough in South East London, besides David Bowie.
Prior to his lengthy exile in Britain (1886 -1917), and the reason for it, Prince Peter was already infamous in Russia and Europe for having given up aristocratic privilege to devote his life to social justice. His anarchism has nothing to do with the mayhem-causing, anti-social image that later became unfortunately attached to the word. In contrast, his was a peaceful revolution that proposed abolition of nation-state governments in favor of smaller, self-governing communes — agrarian, food-producing, and self-sustaining, with resources pooled collectively and no wage differentiation according to job status.
Fast forward to the definition of “kibbutz” currently published by the Jewish Virtual Library:
“A unique rural community; a society dedicated to mutual aid and social justice; a socioeconomic system based on the principle of joint ownership of property, equality and cooperation of production, consumption and education; the fulfillment of the idea “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs;” a home for those who have chosen it.”
Tastes a lot like Kropotkin’s jam, and with good reason. As Yaacov Oved noted in his 2015 essay, “Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement”:
“The doctrine of Kropotkin, who at the end of the 19th century comprehensively formulated the anarcho-communist theory, influenced the adopting of commune principles in the first kvutzot during the years that preceded World War I (during the first Aliya or wave of immigration)… Further evidence of (Kropotkin’s influence) is that one of the first books translated into Hebrew and distributed in Palestine in 1923 was Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid.”
Even Noam Chomsky has corroborated this, saying that the early kibbutzim “came closer to the anarchist ideal than any other attempt that lasted for more than a very brief moment before destruction.”
Although contemporary “leftist” rhetoric minimizes the anarcho-socialist origins of kibbutzim, due to the mainstream left’s alliance with anti-Israeli geopolitics, it’s important to note that the Zionism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries bears little resemblance to today’s neo-conservative brand of religious zealotry.
“The kibbutz culture stressed a commitment to a staunchly egalitarian and mostly secular Jewish culture,” admits an article published by “Anarchy in Action,” which also gave founders of the first kibbutz in 1910 credit for defining it as a “cooperative community without exploiters or exploited.”
Josef Trumpeldor, the influential kibbutz activist who brought Kropotkin’s theories to Israel, described himself as “an anarcho-communist and a Zionist” which would be considered hopelessly oxymoronic and contradictory by 21st Century interpretations of those ideological labels.
Kibbutzim were essential to the founding of modern Israel having been established 40 years prior. Originally populated by mainly Eastern European Jews who embraced the notion of returning “home,” they flourished for about 70 years, supplying an enormous share of the country’s agricultural needs, despite constituting only three percentage of the population at their peak. But in the mid-80s, financial woes triggered major alterations in kibbutz organizational structure that many lamented as contrary to core principles. Just as privatization eventually led to distorted economics in the post-socialist societies of Eastern Europe and the former U.S.S.R., the Israeli Economic Destabilization Program of 1985 pressured the kibbutzim to privatize and move from an egalitarian cooperative model to one more similar to capitalist society. As numbers of volunteers dropped, especially in the “menial” tasks (like agriculture), more outside paid workers had to be hired. Kibbutzim seemed to be a dying movement.
Then, just within the last few months, a flurry of stories about the New Green Hope primed to rejuvenate Israel’s kibbutzim appeared. From “High Times” to “Newsweek,” the press has been buzzing with tales of cannabis as the crop that could lure a new generation back from the cities to the communal farm life.
“This cannabis gold rush has to pan out for us. There’s simply no other choice. We need young people with good minds to come here, and medical cannabis is what can draw them.” So said Eilon Bdil, business manager of Kibbutz Elifaz, in a widely re-quoted interview with the “Times of Israel.”
Although Elifaz is the only kibbutz already growing medical cannabis, dozens more are in line to get licensed, now that the way has been cleared for legal exports.
Some early adopters with deep pockets are already revving up for the race to the pot of gold. As reported by leading financial media outlet “Benzinga,” one of Canada’s biggest cannabis producers — Cronos — is teaming up with Kibbutz Gan Shmuel to quickly install a low-cost facility in Israel. The reason has nothing to do with idealistic notions of a workers’ bucolic utopia. It’s purely about the other kind of green: Cronos bean-counters reckon Gan Shmuel can churn out five tons per year, with an average production savings of $1 a gram, due to Israel’s ideal climate, low kibbutz labor costs, and cheaper energy. That’s nothing to cough at. Is that great for Canada’s smaller cannabis farmers though?
Although Israel’s Ynet News claimed last August that Australia, the Czech Republic, and Germany are among countries that have already applied to import Israeli cannabis, why should any of them (especially sunny Australia) be eager to buy abroad rather than produce? It’s only logical that decriminalized countries would want to keep both crops and profits homegrown. Pioneer growers from Northern California to the Netherlands will surely resent, and strongly resist, any influx of foreign goods into their own, already flooded, markets.
Then there’s the boycott on Israeli products to consider. Wrong-headed though it may be, it would appear to draw supporters from the same left-leaning demographic as the pro-canna lobby.
I would venture that salivating over the potential for billions of dollars from an Israeli green rush is taking the wrong view.
Let’s instead look to the Rastafarians, who often refer to themselves as “the Israelites,” having long identified with the Jews as a dispersed, persecuted people, while considering themselves descendants of the lost tribe of Judah. Their concept of Zion is a mythic, archetypal one, identified literally with Ethiopia, but spiritually it represents the natural life of their ancient homeland, and rejection of “Babylon,” which symbolizes corruption, capitalist greed, rape of nature, and social inequality.
The lyrics of the great Rastafarian songwriters, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, Mutabaruka et al, are full of warnings about materialism, praise for the sacred green herb (which they identify with the “fruit-bearing seed” of scripture), invocations of Jah (i.e. Jehovah/Yahweh) and cries for social justice. Like Kropotkin and the 19th century anarcho-communist Zionists he inspired, the Rasta philosophy promotes a nature-orientated, communal lifestyle.
It’s unsurprising that the Western hippies of the late 1960s to present day also embraced cannabis, a philosophy of cooperative living, reggae music, and the “back to the land” movement. Some things just go together.
Thus, it is not necessarily this writers’ hope that Israel cashes in handsomely on cannabis farming, but instead that the new canna-kibbutzim will reinvigorate the mystical, visionary concept of Zion as a humble, rural cooperative; an egalitarian way of life that chooses simplicity, farms the land, rejects consumerism, and in so doing respects the planet.
Jah come to break down ‘pression, rule equality
Wipe away transgression, set the captives free
Exodus, movement of Jah people
Exodus, movement of Jah people
Movement of Jah people
— Bob Marley, “Exodus,” 1977