Growing A Generation Of Israeli Idealists


Avital Geva — artist, educator, activist — saw no reason to leave his kibbutz and travel to Manhattan, just to exhibit something of his life’s work. And on Sukkot yet, his favorite holiday on the kibbutz. Who needs the hopes and disappointments and ego roller-coaster of trying to make an impression in the big city? Anyone in New York who wanted to see the Ecological Greenhouse, Avital’s world-renowned educational center, was welcome to come visit in Kibbutz Ein Shemer.

But Avital, I argued, this is an opportunity for New York Jews to get a taste of your remarkable work. Help deepen the connection between the diaspora and Israel. … Avital was unconvinced.

Fortunately, the Greenhouse staff insisted on his accepting the invitation by the JCC in Manhattan to bring something of the spirit of the Ein Shemer Greenhouse to Amsterdam Avenue.

And so the JCC is now hosting (Oct. 11-16) an exhibit about the ecological greenhouse, whose centerpiece will be a sukkah constructed from plastic bottles filled with bubbling algae. Why algae? Because the Greenhouse is focusing its research on seaweed, the food which Avital believes will one day feed the world. Avital’s living, bubbling sukkah is also, perhaps, a metaphor for the State of Israel, a fragile but enduring structure in a state of constant turmoil, within which we Israelis have learned to create and thrive.

Avital, 70, founded the Ein Shemer Greenhouse in 1977, as a place in which high school students could experiment on ecological projects. Israel’s future, Avital said then, depends on raising young people able to deal creatively with earth, wind, water. Avital invited some of Israel’s leading scientists to work with his kids. Some of the young people who would eventually launch Israel’s high tech revolution got their first creative encouragement from Avital. Before there was a start-up nation, there was a start-up greenhouse.

Avital opened wide the plastic flaps of the Greenhouse to children from every part of Israeli society. Even more than the ecology of nature, Avital was concerned with the human ecology of the state of Israel: balancing among all of its disparate groups, creating a society that respects and celebrates its differences.

Miracles are routine here — not only in the scientific breakthroughs that periodically happen when curious kids are paired with scientists and high-tech entrepreneurs, but also in the Greenhouse’s human connections. When the three Israeli boys were kidnapped this summer from a yeshiva in the Etzion bloc, their classmates came to work in the Greenhouse to escape the pressure. Here, Arab girls in hijabs and Jewish girls in T-shirts and shorts experiment together with growing seaweed, but their deeper work is overcoming mutual fear and forming friendships. Ethiopian immigrant children, Russian teenagers in a drug rehabilitation program, children from gifted programs and children with Down syndrome — all have found a home and a refuge in the vibrant life force of the Greenhouse.

The Greenhouse is a paradoxical place of activity and calm. Israeli Zen: serenity in the midst of frenetic work. One day, while visiting the Greenhouse, I met the former director of the Israel Museum, Martin Weyl, sitting on a bench and taking in the raucous young people moving between the rows of giant lettuces and the fish ponds and the multicolored bottles of algae, the flow and drip and ripple of the Greenhouse. Whenever I’m in the area, Weyl said, I come just to sit here. It helps restore me.

Avital — a pre-privatized kibbutznik far more comfortable with the word “we” than “I” — will hate that I write this but I’ll write it anyway: He is one of Israel’s heroes. I mean a hero of the spirit: one of those who has taken responsibility for nurturing the soul of Israel.

Avital is proudly archaic: He still wears his old kibbutz blue work shirt and torn matching pants. Amidst the consumerist and electronic noise of contemporary Israel, Avital struggles to preserve the old kibbutz values — respect for physical labor and cooperative work, love of the land of Israel and of social justice, appreciation for each individual as part of a greater whole.

For Avital everyone is “chevreh” — that essential Israeli concept of “the gang,” the extended family of friends ready, if necessary, to die for each other. Even the donkeys he keeps behind the Greenhouse are chevreh. Anyone who enters this place, whether a 16-year-old kid or the minister of education, receives an Avital hug, along with Turkish coffee that is always brewing on the burner.

Reluctant To Be Interviewed

My friendship with Avital Geva began through my recent book, “Like Dreamers,” which tells the story of a group of paratroopers — Avital among them — who fought in the 1967 battle for Jerusalem, an Israeli band of brothers who go on to take opposing sides of Israel’s left-right divide. Avital, then a young lieutenant, was nearly blinded by a mortar shell. He went on to help found the Peace Now movement — from which he eventually broke, in part because it refused to blame the Palestinian leadership for bearing most of the responsibility for the collapse of the Oslo peace process in 2000.

When I first proposed to Avital that he agree to be included as one of the central characters in my book, his response, characteristically, was, Why me? There were hundreds of others, after all, who fought in the brigade. What made me him so special?

Like a frustrated Jacob in pursuit of Rachel, I persisted in courting Avital. He nearly drove me to despair. Invariably, on the morning of a scheduled interview, he would call: He couldn’t get a car from the kibbutz pool. Or something has just come up in the Greenhouse that required his urgent attention. Anything to avoid my prying questions about his childhood in the kibbutz and his fights with the art establishment and his experiences in the Yom Kippur War.

I refused to give up, because I knew he was central to the story I was trying to tell — the story of the generation of Israelis who came of age with the state and who represented its highest, if contradictory, aspirations. What finally convinced him was when I said: This isn’t about you, you’re only the means to a greater end, which is telling your generation’s story to the next generation, before it gets lost.

Reluctantly, he yielded to the call of duty.

(He still hasn’t read the book, of course. He’s waiting, he says, for the Hebrew edition. But I suspect that he won’t read that either.)

Through all the wildly varied stages of his life, what's remained constant for Avital is his sense of mission, of serving Israel.

In the 1970s, Avital was part of a small group of young conceptual artists — including Micha Ullman and Moshe Gershuni, who later became leading figures in Israeli art — whose works emphasized social critique, rather than aesthetics. Avital and his friends staged artistic happenings — like a “land swap,” moving piles of earth between a kibbutz and a nearby Arab village. Protesting against the rot of Israeli politics, Avital filled a pool with dead fish and fedoras; celebrating the labor Zionist ethos, he laid irrigation pipes around the Israel Museum, through which played classical music. He turned his kibbutz into his private work space, painting the trees purple, to reawaken in his fellow kibbutzniks a sense of awe for the beauty of the land.

Drawn To Education

But being an artist provocateur wasn’t satisfying his soul. Increasingly, he found himself drawn to education — transmitting the essence of the kibbutz’s vision and vitality to a confused new generation. Young people, sensing in his restless creativity a kindred spirit, followed him in his lunatic antics. He tied high school students to rusting ploughs and had them race each other across a rocky field — imparting a sense of what it was like for the Zionist pioneers to work the land of Israel, but also imbuing them with group spirit. He led two dozen kibbutz kids on an all-night hike to Haifa, where he booked two rooms in the Dan Hotel and packed the hikers in, treating a five-star hotel like a youth hostel. The purpose was to subvert propriety — but also to give the kibbutz kids, who’d never been in a hotel, the experience of being chevreh.

Finally, with the founding of the Greenhouse, Avital quit the art world entirely to devote himself to his experiential form of education. His artist friends urged him to reconsider. Forget about me, he said; I’m growing tomatoes with my kids.

But the Israeli art world refused to forget about its beloved prankster. In 1993, the Greenhouse was chosen to represent the state of Israel at the prestigious international art festival, the Venice Biennale. Some Israeli art critics balked: What does a greenhouse have to do with art? For his part, Avital couldn’t have cared less whether the greenhouse was or was not a work of art. In Venice, he and his young people built a fully operating greenhouse, incongruously resplendent among the more self-consciously artistic exhibits.

Avital is right about this: To experience the grandeur of the Greenhouse, you really have to come to Kibbutz Ein Shemer, near the town of Hadera, just off the coastal road on the way to Haifa.

Meanwhile, during the week of Sukkot, you can meet Avital and his colleagues (including his three sons, who work with him in the Greenhouse) in the lobby of the JCC in Manhattan, on Amsterdam Avenue and West 76 Street They will be there each day, explaining the work of the Greenhouse and its vision for Israel’s future. On the afternoon of Oct. 13, a series of workshops will focus on ecology and art and on the Greenhouse’s unique approach to Arab-Jewish coexistence.

I urge New Yorkers to take this opportunity to meet Avital. After all, who knows if we’ll manage to convince him to return? n

Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. His book, “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation,” won the 2013 Everett Book of the Year award of the Jewish Book Council. His 1995 autobiography, “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist,” has just been reissued in paperback by HarperCollins.