ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 194

  • Nadav Tzabari of Kibbutz Nahal Oz walks past the Tama training center at Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek on December 6, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
    Nadav Tzabari of Kibbutz Nahal Oz walks past the Tama training center at Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek on December 6, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
  • A view of the Jezreel Valley as seen from Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek on December 6, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
    A view of the Jezreel Valley as seen from Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek on December 6, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
  • The so-called Big Building of Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek pictured here in 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)
    The so-called Big Building of Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek pictured here in 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)
  • A child plays on the lawned clearing near the cafe of Mishmar Ha'emek on March 23, 2008. (Wikimedia Commons)
    A child plays on the lawned clearing near the cafe of Mishmar Ha'emek on March 23, 2008. (Wikimedia Commons)
  • A sign expressing solidarity with the residents of the Gaza border area and Israeli soldiers stands at the entrance to Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek on December 6, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
    A sign expressing solidarity with the residents of the Gaza border area and Israeli soldiers stands at the entrance to Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek on December 6, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Inside story'This is as close to home as it gets'

Kibbutz within a kibbutz: Nahal Oz evacuees find long-term haven at Mishmar Ha’emek

With shared values and a similar lifestyle, the traumatized Gaza border community is creating a new temporary normal at a northern paragon of Zionist socialism

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek, December 6, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Evacuated from the Gaza border following the October 7 Hamas incursion, the 400-odd members of Kibbutz Nahal Oz have moved temporarily to Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek near Afula in Israel’s north. There, the Gaza-border community continues to exist as a distinct, independent community within the larger, hosting one.

This arrangement is the first and so far only one of its kind for the evacuees of more than a dozen kibbutzim and moshavim in Israel’s recently renamed Tekuma Region — the area near the border with Gaza.

This collaboration is a testament to the enduring solidarity uniting Israelis in wartime, and a pilot program for other evacuated rural communities who, almost three months into the war, are still languishing in hotels, cities, and other situations that are very different from their unique kibbutz lifestyle.

Like many of the 100,000 evacuees from Israel’s border areas, Nadav Tzabari, a 34-year-old teacher from Kibbutz Nahal Oz, is unable to work at his job nor safely stay in his home, situated about 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) from Gaza.

Before the evacuation, Tzabari taught sixth-graders at a private school near his kibbutz.

“We’re very fortunate to be living in this framework, after losing ours. Amid all the challenges, this privilege is something I remind myself of all the time. This is as close to home as it gets,” said Tzabari, who spoke with The Times of Israel earlier this month.

A sign expressing solidarity with the residents of the Gaza border area and Israeli soldiers stands at the entrance to Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek on December 6, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Inside Mishmar Ha’emek, Nahal Oz members have their own dining hall, though they dine with the locals on Friday night in the main dining hall for the Shabbat evening meal, which has become the main point for interaction between the two communities.

The children of Nahal Oz go to school with Mishmar Ha’emek children but study separately in classrooms whose makeup has hardly changed.

“It was clear to us that the children needed their own frameworks,” said Tzabari, whose job in the kibbutz was youth educator. “They share a complex and traumatic reality that someone from the outside might not understand immediately. This dictates the rate and intensity of progress at school, and the whole mood.”

Many graduates of the Nahal Oz pre-military leadership academy, an institution that prepares recruits for army life, volunteered to help teach Nahal Oz’s children as the availability of faculty — many of whom are themselves evacuees — became limited, noted Nahal Oz member Daniel Rahamim.

The children of both kibbutzim put on a joint Hanukkah show earlier this month. Families also mingle, both at Shabbat dinners and at the local café overlooking a large lawn where children from both communities play together.

A child plays on the lawned clearing near the cafe of Mishmar Ha’emek on March 23, 2008. (Wikimedia Commons)

Hamas terrorists murdered 14 of Nahal Oz’s residents and abducted seven during their October 7 onslaught, in which more than 1,200 Israelis perished. Two of the abductees are still presumed to be held hostage by Hamas while five were released during a temporary ceasefire agreement brokered by Qatar and the United States in November.

The incursion by some 3,000 terrorists triggered a war, in which thousands of rockets have been launched into Israel, dozens of them hitting Nahal Oz.

History repeats itself

The two kibbutzim have a connection cemented in previous rounds of fighting when Nahal Oz’s residents had also taken temporary refuge in Mishmar Ha’emek. So “it was clear to us that they were coming over as soon as the hostilities broke out, and we started preparing to absorb them,” said Michal Shamai, Mishmar He’emek’s secretary general.

“They simply embraced us and it feels like a warm blanket,” Tzabari said of the hosts at Mishmar Ha’emek, a sprawling locale near Afula in Israel’s north whose lush landscape is dominated by the so-called “Big Building,” a 1920s-style structure atop a hill that houses the administration crew of Mishmar – and now also that of Nahal Oz.

They simply embraced us and it feels like a warm blanket

Earlier this month, a majority of residents voted to stay in Mishmar Ha’emek until their devastated homes are repaired and safe enough for them to return.

Within a week of Nahal Oz’s arrival in Mishmar in October, the hosts enabled their guests to use the local convenience store, which normally doesn’t serve non-members. It was but one gesture out of countless acts of giving by Mishmar Ha’emek residents, who have provided their guests with toys, books, clothes, home cooking, treats and emotional support.

“All of us are grateful to Mishmar Ha’emek, but some would have preferred to live nearer to Nahal Oz, even if it’s not on a kibbutz,” said Yael Raz-Lahiani, a mother of three from Nahal Oz.

Yael Raz-Lahiani speaks to journalists in Mishmar Ha’emek, Israel on November 26, 2023, about retrieving hostages abducted from Kibbutz Nahal Oz. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

The members had the choice of staying at the Maccabiah Village, a sports compound adjacent to Tel Aviv. “There are practical considerations in favor of that solution,” said Raz-Lahiani.

Ultimately, however, “we decided that staying in Mishmar Ha’emek is the healthiest option for our community. It doesn’t mean it’s the most convenient one,” Tzabari said.

During the conversation with The Times of Israel, it emerges that Lahiani doesn’t yet have a winter coat. “Don’t write that I have nothing to wear here,” she tells this reporter. “There are plenty of coats on hand; I just didn’t get around to picking one out. I’m fine,” she said.

The so-called Big Building of Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek in 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

Other kibbutzim have made a similar calculation. Be’eri is slated to move from a Dead Sea hotel to Kibbutz Hatzerim near Beersheba. Kfar Aza is waiting to move into Ruhama to its east. And Holit is mulling a move to Revivim near Dimona. Kibbutz Re’im went in another direction and settled into two apartment towers in Tel Aviv last week.

Old school ethos meets new school

Nahal Oz and Mishmar Ha’emek represent different streams in the Kibbutz Movement, the umbrella structure that represents some 230 kibbutzim nationwide. Nahal Oz is small and derives its income from farming, though many of its residents work outside the kibbutz. In the 1990s it was privatized, meaning that members no longer pooled and shared their incomes.

Shortly thereafter, in 2001, came the shuttering of Nahal Oz’s dining hall, a facility that is emblematic of kibbutz life and viewed by many as central to maintaining social cohesion. This further blurred the difference between Nahal Oz, which was founded in 1951 by ardent Zionist farmers with the army’s help, and the many moshavim and villages that dot the Tekuma Region, the new name that the government has given what is known as Israel’s Gaza Envelope area.

A view of the Jezreel Valley as seen from Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek on December 6, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Mishmar Ha’emek, which has more than 1,200 members, is, by contrast, an outlier of socialist adherence. Most members work on the kibbutz, which has a lucrative agricultural products factory, Tama, and whose dividends are shared. The kibbutz has a communal car fleet, and private ownership is discouraged. (Mishmar Ha’emek is currently negotiating a member’s polarizing request to downgrade her status to resident, so she doesn’t need to share the sizable salary she earns in high-tech.)

Mishmar’s management is aware of how the socialist restrictions are complicating the effort to retain quality members, one member said, speaking with The Times of Israel anonymously. “So we get quality-of-life incentives, including upgrades to spacious housing for families,” she noted. But with Nahal Oz’s arrival, “the upgrades have stopped.”

Two elderly members of Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek share an afternoon outing on December 6, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

This raises questions as Mishmar Ha’emek prepares to host Nahal Oz for at least a year, the member said.

Now there’s an outpouring of goodwill. But will it last till next year?

“Now there’s an outpouring of goodwill. But will it last till next year? Will it have long-term effects? Our kibbutz is already struggling with policy issues. Now we have a 25% increase in population — many of them, shall we say, yuppified. How will this affect us? In truth, we don’t know. It’s an experiment. Our very own reality TV show,” she said, chuckling.

In the first few days after their arrival, Nahal Oz’s members lived in the dorms of Mishmar Ha’emek’s Shomeria educational complex. They were later dispersed in available spaces around the kibbutz, requiring some of its younger members to share accommodations.

Nadav Tzabari sits on the bed of his temporary housing unit at Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek on December 6, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Tzabari is aware of the sacrifice this requires, he said. He is living in a single-room apartment, which he shares with his life partner, Rotem Katz, and their dog. “It’s not huge but it’s just a great place to have,” Tzabari said while sitting on the bed, which dominates the space.

At Mishmar Ha’emek, “They tell us their home is our home. But I distance myself from that idea because I need to preserve the feeling that my home, Nahal Oz, is my home,” said Tzabari, whose two-bedroom house in Nahal Oz is partially destroyed. A rocket from Gaza blew up the living room after he and Katz had left.

Rotem Katz exits the situation room of Kibbutz Nahal Oz in Mishmar Ha’emek on November 26, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Tzabari is so homesick that on a recent trip back to his Gaza border home, he made himself a sandwich and ate it among the wreckage, in an eerie silence broken only by the thuds of artillery in Gaza.

“It was a strange feeling, sitting there at what used to be — what still is — our place,” Tzabari recalled, “But I just had to take those 10 minutes to be in my own space again.”

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