As the bus marked “Group Birtherong” rumbled from Seville to Cordoba, I flagrantly violated a tour leader’s unilateral directive to avoid intense discussions about Israel-Palestine. A group of Israelis had joined us on BirthWrong, and I wanted to talk about the coalition negotiations, which were still underway. As soon as I mentioned them to Oded, a soft-spoken Israeli guy in his late 20’s, we fell into a conversation. Oded told me how his friends and family back in Tel Aviv were still recovering from the despair of Netanyahu’s victory, and now they had to cope with the likelihood that his government might be the most right-wing in Israel’s history. I argued that from the standpoint of mobilizing BDS-style pressure on Israel, Netanyahu’s triumph was an optimal outcome. Oded saw the rise of his country’s racist, hyper-militarist government as the result of poor political choices and not the logical outcome of Israel’s fundamental ideological underpinnings. He was convinced Herzog and Livni would have steered the ship back in the right direction, and still believed that change from within Israeli society was possible.
As a small crowd gathered from the front of the bus to listen to our discussion, another Israeli with a radical left orientation named Hilla challenged me on BDS, dismissing it as a symbolic ploy that could never undercut the influence of AIPAC or the Israeli weapons industry. Hilla told me she was burned out after a decade of direct activism against the occupation and had become convinced that nothing could stop Goliath. She said she was writing her dissertation on the power of passive non-compliance in the face of oppression. Her treatise sounded like a remix of Bertrand Russell’s essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” but with a nihilistic tinge. Despite all his lingering faith in his country’s pathetic liberal camp, Oded had also tapped out on the Israeli experience. He had left the country of his birth, joining Hilla and some 15,000 Israeli citizens in permanent exile in Berlin. Denounced as yordim who disrespected the Holocaust by members of their government, and welcomed as equal citizens in the city where the Final Solution was devised, these luxury refugees were living symbols of the failure of a 67-year-long experiment in Jewish nationalism. And now they were on the BirthWrong bus and part of a dramatically different experiment.
BirthWrong was centered heavily on the Jewish past, on moments in diaspora life that provided guidance for a future beyond Israel, or which at least offered a few inspiring tales of resistance against overwhelming odds. Annie Cohen, a member of the London-based Jewdas and BirthWrong organizer, led a series of talks during the trip on the Jewish contribution to the fight against fascism in 1930’s Europe. She described the famous street battle on East London’s Cable Street that pitted Jews, Irish, and assorted leftists against followers of the Nazi sympathizer Oswald Mosley, and she recounted the stories of the Jews in Civil War-era Spain, where they comprised a disproportionate number of foreign fighters. At the close of Cohen’s last talk, we said Kaddish for the all-Jewish, Polish-based Naftali Botwin Company that lost most of its members in a rout by Francoist forces. The brigade’s history has been badly under-acknowledged in the vast annals of Jewish history in 20th century Europe, and has scarcely registered on the radar of the Hollywood studios that churn out a new Holocaust epic every few years. (Here is one of the few online sources on the Botwin Company.)
In Cordoba, we explored the legacy of Maimonides, the 11th century polymath whose writings made Jewish practice applicable to modern life, and who kept close contact with the leading Islamic thinkers of the Spanish Golden Era. Our local guide’s repeated emphasis on the Arab heritage of Maimonides reminded us how the culture he represented was first destroyed by the Inquisition, then erased by the Eurocentric ideology that positioned Jews and Arabs (and by extension, Muslims) as implacable enemies requiring of separation. Today, the idea of an Arab Jew is seen as ridiculous except within the circles of radical Mizrahim trying to recover their identity from the ravages of Zionism.
On our way from Seville to Cordoba, where the tour alternated between museums, carefully preserved former Jewish quarters and semi-dormant synagogues, we took a slight detour to a living experiment in radical politics.
At midday, the BirthWrong bus unloaded in an empty parking lot in an Andalusian village called Marinaleda. Without any clear agenda, we wandered down the town’s main street, past blocks of walls painted with anti-capitalist and anti-war graffiti, and spread out through a neatly tended public park. It was there that a group of us stumbled into Chris Burke, a gregarious, middle-aged Englishman who had permanently relocated to Marinaleda. Burke told us he was drawn to this rural Spanish hamlet by the vision of the town’s communist mayor, Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, who led a series of land occupations and supermarket expropriations that won thousands of acres of farmland, housing plots, and a steady supply of food, lifting the local farmers from generations of destitution.
Once lorded over by Franco’s police, subjected to regular evictions and kept in abject poverty by aristocratic landlords, Marinaleda’s residents are now guaranteed two weeks of work every month in the surrounding fields and a community-owned canning factory. They pay no more than 15 Euros a month for housing plots and own houses on 80 year mortgages built at a discount. And the town was completely free of police. According to Burke, Marinaleda’s local assembly organizes group outings for its residents and a free annual fair for four nights in July. A membership to the town’s swimming pool costs a total of 5 Euros a year.
“It’s enjoyable living here,” Burke told us. “No one’s worried about making money. They’re mostly worried about how they’re going to enjoy themselves.”
As we chatted with Burke, we were joined by a Senegalese migrant who identified himself as Hussein. He told us how he had spent eight days on a treacherous voyage across the Mediterranean before arriving in Seville, where he was kept on the run by local authorities. When a Spanish friend told him about Marinaleda, Hussein decided to pay the village a visit. “The mayor welcomed me here and protected me from the police,” he said. Now he is a permanent resident protected from the police and guaranteed work and housing.
Described as “Spain’s model communist village” by Dan Hancox, the author of a book about Marinaleda, the town was not without its flaws. According to Burke, many locals depended on unemployment when they were not able to work the fields and factory, meaning they were partially subsidized by the Spanish state. Thus any future cuts in social benefits threaten to undermine viability of the town’s socialist model. “There is not quite enough land or crops here but it’s just enough to keep us going,” Burke added. “We really need to add another industry.”
Even as a crisis looms, Marinaleda stands as a model of resistance against the tide of austerity consuming the rest of Europe. “This town is about Andalusians saying, ‘This is where we are, and we are not leaving here,’” Annie Cohen declared to our group. “And that’s the spirit we want to represent with BirthWrong.”