Meaningful lives: identity dynamics in a school run by an urban kibbutz in Israel
This thesis in social anthropology, which I started at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (Paris-Marseille) in 2018, focuses on the identity dynamics at work in an Israeli public primary school, mainly run by members of an urban kibbutz. It is important to point out that right now I’m in a very particular moment in my journey as a researcher: having very recently concluded a long ethnographic study in Israel, this research project is in constant evolution. Therefore, this text is not an exhaustive report of my thesis, but rather an excerpt from an ongoing research.
In the first part of this report, I provide context concerning the urban kibbutz Drachim and the Fabra public school, located in the Galilean city of Nof HaGalil, where I conducted my ethnographic research; finally, in the second part of this account, I focus more precisely on the identity dynamics at work in the school, exploring the problematic concept of “identity” and analyzing an excerpt from an ethnographic description whose heuristic value seems relevant to me.
Key words: urban kibbutz, anthropology of education, identity, language.
- Fabra public primary school: the flagship socio-educational project of urban kibbutz
First, some background on Fabra school, on kibbutz Drachim and on the city of Nof HaGalil seems necessary to me: the urban kibbutz Drachim (“Paths” in Hebrew) was born in 2002. Its members, many of whom came from the traditional rural kibbutz, lived in several cities in the Galilee before settling permanently in Nof HaGalil in 2005. In 2013, the kibbutzniks moved to the 8-story apartment building they still occupy today, owned by the Jewish Agency. In my opinion, this building is very representative of the social and historical reality of this city of 41,000 inhabitants, born in 1957: the building is commonly called merkaz klitah (“absorption center”) by kibbutzniks and other inhabitants of the city, and Nof HaGalil is part of the network of “development towns” established in Israel in the 1950s and 1960s aimed at hosting the endless waves of immigration arriving to the new country. Thus, the merkaz klitah was, for decades, an absorption center for Jewish migrants who had recently arrived in Israel, and Nof HaGalil, a city that was called “Nazareth Illit” up until 2019, now has a very heterogeneous population resulting from both these migrations and internal population movements on a regional scale.
With about 70 adult members and 70 children, the kibbutzniks of Drachim are part of a larger nationwide network of urban communities born in the 1990s, with active members in the cities of Migdal HaEmek, Bat Yam, Rishon LeTzion and Eilat, among others. Socially and politically activists, they present themselves as intellectuals positioned to the left of the Israeli political spectrum. Very critical of the ideological evolution of the rural kibbutz at the end of the twentieth century, they nevertheless claim to be their heirs. The missionary character that was specific to the first kibbutzniks is also present among the members of the urban kibbutz of today: the building of the country goes hand in hand with a more intimate “building” on the individual level, based on introspection and group study within the kibbutz. However, for the members of the new urban kibbutz, the construction of the country is no longer done through agriculture or industry on Israel’s borders: it is done in classrooms, in socially depressed cities and on the economic periphery of the country.
The absorption center where members of the kibbutz Drachim have lived since 2013.
Source : C. Quintilla Pinol, July 2019.
Founded in the 1950s, Fabra public primary school is one of the oldest schools in Nof HaGalil. It now has 120 students, and the teaching staff consists of a dozen teachers, from which more than a half are kibbutzniks of Drachim. Settled in the neighborhood called Tsfonit (“Northern” in Hebrew), most of its students also come from this neighborhood, including the children of the kibbutz. Having one of the highest crime rates in the city, the families who reside there, so those who bring their children to Fabra, usually have a very precarious socio-economic status. The school has a bad reputation in Nof HaGalil because of the violence rate between students and poor academic performance; it has also resisted the continual threats of closure issued by the town hall these last few years. It is due to its neglected and uncertain status that the kibbutzniks applied for vacant teaching positions at Fabra school.
Two turning points have occurred since then: first, Osnat, kibbutznik of Drachim, became the school principal in 2017; then, the construction and opening of a greenhouse in the school took place in 2019, and was funded by the kibbutz NGO, called Tikkun (“Reparation” in Hebrew). Finally, and according to my interlocutors on the ground, Fabra has become, especially since 2017, the flagship socio-educational project of the kibbutzniks of Drachim: having exchanged the scythe and the tractor for the classroom, the kibbutzniks defend, on the discursive level, a more united and egalitarian Israel in the socioeconomic field, less racist and chauvinistic, and more competent in the management of national minorities.
Inside the school’s greenhouse.
Source : C. Quintilla Pinol, March 2022.
In the following pages, I explore the dynamics of identity building at work in the school, where the students and their teachers are the main actors.
- Fabra school: an analysis of “identification” and “identity belonging”
Sitting on one of the benches of the playground, Osnat, member of urban kibbutz Drachim and school principal of Fabra since 2017, said to me in an informal conversation: “Do you want to make an identity classification of the children in the school? I see… Look at Isabel’s case, you know her well, don’t you? She is in the aleph level. Her mother is Jewish, she came from Argentina and settled in Israel a few years ago; her father is a Christian Arab, and he now lives in Jaffa, her parents are separated. Isabel is Argentinian, Israeli, Jewish, Christian and Arab at the same time. Try to classify that.”
In addition to the distress I felt after this meeting with Osnat, I understood that identity issues are part of the concerns, conversations and activities that take place in this school of 120 students in Nof HaGalil, in the socioeconomic and political periphery of the country. The schoolteachers, who are holders of very different identities themselves, try to federate students affiliated to a myriad of different identities which, far from being ignored, are often claimed by the school children. Just like my initial need to “classify” the children of the school or, in other words, to endow a complex reality with a reassuring artificial order, Fabra teachers often try to present the school with a clear identity, both discursively and in terms of the activities carried out at Fabra.
However, before going any further, it seems to me necessary to provide some clarifications related to the school and to the concept, always very problematic in social sciences, of identity. First of all, and as anthropologist Véronique Bénéï shows in Schooling Passions, the school is a space of mediation, a point of confluence where different institutions and actors meet (Bénéï, 2008): the State is present, in particular through the Ministry of Education and the city hall; the families of the pupils as well, just like the children themselves; finally, the teachers are present too and, in this specific study-case, the members of an urban kibbutz. Each of these actors and institutions are active architects of identity.
Besides, there is a rich and extensive literature in the social sciences concerning the concept of identity. Essentially, the concept covers two different processes when I use it: on the one hand, and following the classification proposed by the anthropologist Martina Avanza and the sociologist Gilles Laferté in Dépasser la « construction des identités », it refers to a process of identification, to an act of “external identity attribution”, even a bureaucratic one. On the other hand, it is a logic of “self-identification” on the part of individuals or, put otherwise, an intimate construction of feelings of identity belonging (Avanza and Laferté, 2005). Therefore, my goal in this project is not to deconstruct essentialized identities, perceived as innate and natural, but to understand how they are (re)composed, negotiated, accepted or invalidated between different actors and institutions, in the particular context of a primary public school in Israel.
Fabra teachers, whether they are kibbutzniks or not, must deal with a fragmented identification of their school, made by the State of Israel: on the discursive level, the school is “secular” (mamlachti according to the classification by the Israeli Ministry of Education), but in everyday practice, it is a Jewish school. At the same time, all the Fabra teachers with whom I have spoken describe the school in the same way: Fabra is a “Jewish” school. Not an “Israeli” school, or a “kibbutz” school, to name just a few examples. The school is therefore not defined according to the nation (Israel) or to the kibbutz movement to which some of its teachers belong to. Nor is it defined by a certain educational pedagogy often employed at Fabra (anthroposophy or the Montessori approach, among others), but by the attachment to Jewishness.
A first question arises: what are my interlocutors referring to when they speak of “Jewishness”? Is it both its religious dimension, Judaism, but also a linguistic identity, Hebrew, as well as a “Jewish culture”? Is it also a particular relationship to the memory and history of the country they inhabit? Is this Jewish identity exclusive, preventing the expression or negotiation with other identities? A second question that arises is how this Jewish identity of the school is received, negotiated and reconfigured by the students, holders of very different identity affiliations themselves. What seems certain to me at this stage, after several months spent at Fabra, is that if students and teachers are defined by the identity of the school, they also negotiate its boundaries and content, following a permanent dialogical movement. It is in this respect, following the idea presented by Martina Avanza and Gilles Laferté, that it seems to me fundamental to articulate the “external” identification processes with the intimate dynamics of self-identification or belonging (Avanza and Laferté, 2005) of students and school teachers at Fabra.
In order to explore these identity issues, I will now focus on certain linguistic dynamics that I observed at Fabra school during my ethnographic fieldwork in the Galilee.
- “Irina’s dream”: between linguistic cooperation and avoidance
Irina became famous at the national level. Her story was published by the Israeli press and a podcast was even created to give it even more visibility. The photo of the 12-year-old girl, guitar in hand, circulated in all the WhatsApp groups of the school and the kibbutz. Irina arrived from Ukraine in May and completed her last 5 weeks of primary school in Fabra. However, she joined her school level, called “vaf”, at a very particular moment of the schoolyear, namely during the preparation phase of the end-of-year party. Thus, a celebration including a play, a dance festival, and an exhibition of photography, as well as of artistic and technological projects by the students, was held on June 27th 2022.
One day, during one of the festival’s preparatory activities, which sometimes took place at the kibbutz, Irina found an old guitar out of tune. After a few minutes of manipulation, she managed to tune it, and she started playing a song. Amnon, a kibbutznik and a teacher at Fabra’s greenhouse, noticed the girl. Realizing that Irina had learned to play the guitar on her own but that her instrument, belonging to her grandfather, had remained in Kiev during the war, he decided to help her. Amnon being a musician himself, showed up at school one morning in June, his guitar in hand, in order to lend it to Irina until the end of the school year. Osnat, the school principal, spotted him and, after Amnon told her about Irina’s story, she decided to use funds from the school in order to offer the girl a new guitar, which she received at the end of June. The local press got wind of the story, and an interview conducted with Irina, Amnon and Osnat appeared in the national press.
The photograph of Amnon, Irina and Osnat published in the press article.
Source: Israel Moskovitz, online newspaper Ynet, June 2022.
On the afternoon of June 27th, most of the parents of the students in level vaf came to attend the celebration, and the gym, where the party took place, was at its maximum capacity. Most of the schoolteachers were present, as were the school principal and myself. Members of the staff who have a peripheral role in the teaching tasks but who perform equally fundamental roles in the school such as the cleaning team, the caretaker and the technician, also participated in the celebration.
The main artistic performance in the festival was theatrical: the children, helped by their teachers and the school’s dance teacher, imagined a series of “scenes” focusing on their daily lives in Fabra. These scenes, of dreamlike inspiration, were systematically presented as the “dream” of one of the students in the class. Therefore, in the dream of one of the children, a small group of students remains stuck in class until morning, having to spend the night at school; in another dream, the students go back in time and find themselves at the second level of their studies. Towards the end of the celebration, Irina’s dream is presented and, considering the reaction of the audience, this scene turned out to be one of the highlights of the festival.
At the beginning of the scene, Irina appears lying on a long table representing her bed, a sheet covering part of her body. Then, one of her classmates walks past the stage with a cardboard sign in hand, bearing the words “Irina’s dream” in Hebrew. At that moment, Irina uncovers herself, gets up and sits behind the long table. She is quickly joined by 5 other classmates, who sit by her side. Amos, a kibbutznik teacher working mainly in the school’s greenhouse, approaches them and asks them questions in Hebrew: he would like them to cooperate in an ecological project that he is leading, but the students remain passive and indifferent to his enthusiasm. Confused, the teacher then speaks directly to Said, one of the Arab Muslim students in the class. Suddenly, the boy looks at him with his blue eyes, and says something to him in Arabic. Instantly, the Arabic-speaking part of the audience bursts out laughing. Amos, visibly discouraged, then addresses Natalia, who answers him in Russian. This time, Russian-speaking parents and teachers laugh out loud.
Taken aback at first, I then begin to understand what is going on around me and I try to pay as much attention as possible to the scene and to the reactions of the audience. Students are giving both absurd and amusing answers to the teacher, bypassing his requests for collaboration, rendering him powerless. Amos, displaying an expression of tearful frustration, bending his body until he kneels in front of the students, asks Irina one last time if she will help him in his project. She answers in Ukrainian, and another part of the audience, more discreet this time, starts laughing. Amos lowers his head in defeat, and at that moment, Natalia stands up, takes the microphone, and says to him in Hebrew, “Amos, we are good at many languages. But do you know what we are even better at? At driving teachers crazy!”. Amos’ feigned tears are muffled by the enthusiastic applause of the audience.
Irina, lying on a table at the beginning of the scene, is about to “dream”.
Source: Facebook page of Fabra school, June 2022.
Natalia addressing Amos at the end of the scene.
Source: Facebook page of Fabra school, June 2022.
One day, during an informal conversation at the end of our working day in the greenhouse of the school, Amos told me: “Children sometimes speak in Arabic or Russian, because that’s the language that the teacher doesn’t know.” During the festival, and despite the many challenges existing daily in a multilinguistic school like Fabra, the choice was made to represent these difficulties from a humorous angle. Amos, representing the teachers at the school, is overwhelmed by the linguistic abilities of the students who, despite knowing Hebrew well (except for Irina), decide to circumvent his requests brilliantly by using other languages.
Considering not only the dialogues, but also the bodily expression of the actors during the scene, it seems to me clear that Amos, squatting in front of the students, is finally defeated by the latter, with Natalia’s raised body as a symbol of their triumph. Nevertheless, a glimmer of hope is introduced at the end of the scene: despite the language conflict, students can choose to use Hebrew and thus restore communication with the teachers. In my opinion, “Irina’s dream” is a rehabilitation of the students’ mother tongues, as well as a recognition of their agency at school, and a celebration of the co-presence of different languages and cultures in Fabra. Once again, if Fabra is a “Jewish” school in the domain of speech, its vehicular language is negotiated by its users, and coexists daily with other forms of linguistic expression.
The everyday linguistic life at Fabra is made of blending, of collaboration, of avoidance strategies and, sometimes, of lack of communication. The magnitude of the identity challenges that students and teachers face daily is just as great as the richness of their encounters. Fabra, therefore, seems to be a Jewish school, but only on a discursive and administrative level. The children attending the school, as well as the teaching staff, are the artisans of the languages that they speak, constantly redrawing their frontiers through their use. These languages defining them at the same time, the identity re-configurations of the speakers are intertwined, superimposed and constantly interchanged.
Finally, in my opinion, an anthropological study of the urban kibbutz movement and its socio-educational projects is, on the one hand, a gateway to understanding the evolution undergone since the traditional rural kibbutz movement; on the other hand, it allows us to come to grips with the existence of other forms of Zionism(s), of Jewish identity(ies) and of alternative forms of national minority management in Israel.
 The so-called “aleph” level, whose name corresponds to the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, is equivalent to the CP level (preparatory course) from elementary schools in France. Children of this level are between 6 and 7 years old.
 BENEI, V. (2008). Schooling Passions. Nation, History, and Language in Contemporary Western India, Stanford, Stanford University Press.
 AVANZA, M., LAFERTE, G. (2005). Dépasser la « construction des identités » ? Identification, image sociale, appartenance. Genèses, 61, 134-152