Reading David Leach’s thoroughly researched and expertly envisioned new book, one cannot help but be reminded of the twin etymology of the word “utopia.” The term comes from both the Greek eu topos, meaning a “good place,” and ou topos, meaning “no place.” This double life of utopias – societies that are idealized into perfection, yet do not (and cannot) ever actually exist – is no better typified than in the kibbutzim of Israel, a topic with which Leach has been intimately acquainted for more than 25 years. In this self-described “investigative travel memoir,” Leach details his own experience volunteering on a kibbutz and the larger role that these communes have played in the formation of Israel and its relentless and deadly conflict with the Palestinian people.
In 1988, at the age of 20, Leach dropped out of university after getting his heart broken and went to work on a kibbutz called Shamir. Twenty years later, he returned to the country to explore the broader impact of these communes; the transformation they have undergone in the interim forms the heart of Chasing Utopia.
Leach covers the kibbutz phenomenon from every imaginable angle. He sketches some communes’ problematic abandonment of the hard socialism that constituted their original founding in favour of the soft capitalism that drives them today. He touches on gender issues. He discusses communes with specific mandates, such as Nes Ammim, a Christian kibbutz that attempted (unsuccessfully) to heal the rift between Jews and Christians in the wake of the Holocaust. He describes the kibbutz as an agent of environmentalism – so-called “eco-Zionism.” And, most significant of all, he examines how the role of kibbutzim in Israeli society has exacerbated the conflict with the Palestinians.
Despite his obvious love of these communes, Leach maintains a neutral stance when discussing the conflict that is tearing Israel apart, and writes with great empathy for all sides involved. He is at times funny and self-effacing, but he is also keen-eyed and generous in his observations. Written with tremendous passion, Chasing Utopia is a stellar achievement.