KFAR KAMA, ISRAEL — This is not the Israel of your TV or your Facebook newsfeeds, not an Israel that’s all stabbings and political pronouncements.
Actually, that may not be anybody’s Israel, but it’s certainly not the Israel of the mid-to-lower Sea of Galilee, which has close ties with Milwaukee and Madison. The Sovev Kinneret partnership region has traded hundreds of visits with Milwaukee, Madison and two other Midwestern communities.
There’s a lovely, well-kept Circassian community in the region, with sculpted landscaping around homes. Partnership volunteer Dan Bokish, taking the Chronicle on a ride through it, remarked wryly, “it’s better than Israel.”
The Circassians are Muslims. They are not Palestinians. By all accounts, there’s no Jewish conflict with them at all, as they send their kids to the same schools as Jews. It’s emblematic of the larger picture here. This region of Israel, one that’s so connected to Wisconsin, is a sleepy, picturesque collection of small communities, at the edge of the Jewish state in a quiet corner of the world.
It is, however, not far from trouble.
When 18-year-old shin shins visit Milwaukee for a year or when mission trips travel to or from Wisconsin, it’s generally through the partnership connection that the Badger state has with communities here. The program is operated in Milwaukee by the Partnership2Gether program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Israel Center and in Israel by the Jewish Agency.
Much of the region is a beautiful, empty landscape of brush, agriculture and mountains. The partnership region is anchored to the Sea of Galilee by Tiberias, a city that feels about the size and economic power of something akin to Green Bay or Racine. Otherwise, it’s largely small communities here, what we in America might call pockets of developments, in addition to kibbutzim.
Many of the kibbutzim in Israel have been transformed into a “new kibbutz” model, where socialism is replaced with a more capitalistic regime that can have people keeping their own income but still contributing to the greater good. The kibbutzim of the Sovev Kinneret region are part of the trend, and that includes Degania Alef, the world’s first kibbutz. It was founded here in 1909.
Devorah Arkind, head of the region’s Kibbutz Kinneret Jordan Valley, said the “new kibbutz” model has attracted 60 new members to her community since she took the helm four years ago. Residents give to a common fund that helps individuals, but those who do well are not required to share their earnings. “It has made the kibbutz very attractive for young people,” she said.
Tourism and agriculture dominate in the region. If you want to live here and go into high-tech, you might commute to Haifa or Tel Aviv, according to local residents. Tel Aviv is nearly two hours away to the southwest. Haifa is a 45 minute drive from the partnership region to the Mediterranean coast.
The Palestinian population is somewhere between small and nonexistent in the Sovev Kinneret region, according to residents, though there is that Circassian Muslim population. The knife attacks of recent years seem distant, a few hours away in Jerusalem. Yet trouble brews nearby. Aleppo, the city decimated by Syrian civil war, is about 250 miles away on the far side of Syria. But the capital of Syria, Damascus, is just a meager 65 miles away.
During the 1973 Yom Kippur war, with Milwaukee’s Golda Meir as prime minister, Avraham Barhon remembers from his childhood that he saw a Syrian fighter plane over the Sea of Galilee. Kibbutz members watched it together.
The Golan Heights, much of it taken by Israel from Syria during the Six Day War, lies just outside the partnership region on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. The mountains are visible in the distance.
But wars and bad blood are nowhere near Kfar Kama, where Circassian Muslims Huda Hadish and Yahya Susha are employed at the Al-Mothar Bakery, serving both Jewish and Circassian customers.
Yahya Susha said he’s served in the Israel Defense Forces in two wars and when asked why Jews and Palestinians have been unable to resolve their conflict, he blamed leadership, saying “the bad one always wins.”
Susha used to own a bakery but is happy to have given it and the accompanying stress up. He came back here, to the Sovev Kinneret region, after living in South Africa for 28 years.
“Here is the safest place on Earth,” he said. “People leave their keys, their house unlocked.”