Who gets to enjoy the Asi, an exquisite squiggle of water? The question has come to symbolize the identity politics that divide Israeli society.
KIBBUTZ NIR DAVID, Israel — A whimsical chain of inflatable rafts tethered together by a flimsy rope floated along the Asi, a gentle stream that runs for a mile through a sunbaked plain in northern Israel.
The boats were packed with residents of the area, their children and day trippers from farther afield, but this was no picnic, even though it was a holiday. The goal of this unarmed armada was nothing less than reclaiming the small river.
“This is a strategic takeover!” the leader of the ragtag crew, Nati Vaknin, shouted through a bullhorn as he waded ahead of the group.
The flotilla’s destination was a forbidden paradise: an exquisite, aquamarine stretch of the stream that runs through, and that has effectively been monopolized by, Kibbutz Nir David, a communal farm founded by early Zionist pioneers, Ashkenazi Jews from Europe who historically formed the core of the Israeli elite.
The “new pioneers,” as Mr. Vaknin called his cadre, were young activists, mostly from the hardscrabble neighboring town of Beit Shean. Many of the town’s older residents, Mizrahi Jews who immigrated from North Africa and other Middle Eastern countries, have worked as laborers in Nir David.
On the surface, the squabble over the Asi is highly local.
On one side is the Free the Asi campaign, a group fighting for public access to a cherished beauty spot and against perceived privilege. On the other is a kibbutz eager to maintain its hard-earned assets and tranquil lifestyle. The dispute has landed in court, awaiting resolution; in late May, the state of Israel weighed in, backing the public’s right to access the stream through the kibbutz.
But underlying the battle are much greater tensions that extend across Israel.
The Asi dispute pits advantaged scions of the country’s socialist founders against a younger generation from a traditionally marginalized group. And it has resonated across Israel as a distillation of the identity politics and divisions that deepened under the long prime ministership of Benjamin Netanyahu.
The clash over who can use the Asi is a “quintessential” reflection of contemporary Israel, said Avi Shilon, a historian of Zionism.
“The kibbutzniks, once perceived as the elite in the service of the state and the warriors protecting society, have become ‘exploiters,’” in the eyes of their critics, Mr. Shilon said. “The kibbutznik, who used to stand proud, now has to apologize because Israeli society has changed.”
The hardy farmers who founded Nir David, then named Tel Amal, in 1936 were joined by a group of Holocaust survivors in the 1940s. Together, they worked the land, drained the surrounding malarial swamps and fought off local Arab resistance. Soon the kibbutz expanded from one bank of the Asi to the other.
The stream begins just west of the kibbutz, in a national park famed for its natural springs. It peters out on the east side into a concrete irrigation channel supplying water for local agriculture and fish ponds.
In the mid-1990s Nir David rehabilitated the half-mile section flowing through its residential areas, reinforcing the banks with concrete, planting lawns and gardens and developing a lucrative tourism industry by renting out waterside holiday chalets at the prized spot.
By Israeli law, rivers and streams are meant for public use. But in the Asi dispute, the two sides differ over the meaning of “public use”and whether the path through the kibbutz is a public road.
Nir David locked the steel gate at its entrance about a decade ago and fenced off the community as protesters began picketing the kibbutz. The protests grew stormier after Mr. Vaknin and other activists began their “Free the Asi” campaign in 2019. The kibbutz then hired a private security firm.
Kibbutz representatives say they cannot simply fling open their gates and turn their home into a public park.
Chaya Mozer, 71, a kibbutz veteran, said she understood the protesters’ desires. “Look at the beauty!” she exclaimed, as butterflies flitted among the brilliant flowers. “But it’s impossible. We live here. This place was nurtured by us.”
For those backing the young activists, the denial of access is a potent symbol of what critics have long denounced as the unequal allocation of the country’s resources and the institutional discrimination suffered by Mizrahis who arrived in the years after Israel’s founding in 1948.
Each side in the Asi dispute accuses the other of using hateful online rhetoric and stirring up ethnic demonization to further its cause.
Beit Shean has long epitomized the less privileged “other” Israel. The modern town grew out of a transit camp for Mizrahi immigrants, and its relations with the surrounding kibbutzim were charged with resentment from the start.
In the March election, Israel’s fourth in two years, 93.5 percent of the vote in Beit Shean, with a population of about 18,000, went to right-wing or religious parties mostly aligned with Mr. Netanyahu, then the prime minister. Three miles away in Nir David, a community of about 650 people, over 90 percent of the votes went to centrist or left-wing parties that belong to the new governing coalition that ousted him.
The Free the Asi campaign has attracted a variety of supporters, including left-wing social justice advocates and environmentalists. But left-wing political parties have mostly stayed mum to avoid alienating the kibbutz movement, their traditional base of support.
Some on the right have enthusiastically taken up the cause, like Yair Netanyahu, the former prime minister’s elder son, who has called to liberate the Asi on Twitter. It was a lawmaker from Shas, the ultra-Orthodox, Mizrahi party, who brought the court case against the kibbutz.
“It’s worth it for them to fan the ethnic narrative,” said Lavi Meiri, the kibbutz’s chief administrator. “It gets them votes.”
Nir David denies any discrimination, asserting that 40 percent of its population is now Mizrahi.
To end the standoff, Nir David has backed developing a new leisure area outside the kibbutz or extending the Asi’s flow toward Beit Shean. But the Free the Asi leaders said that could set a precedent for the privatization of natural resources.
Perah Hadad, 36, a campaign leader from Beit Shean, said the relationship with Nir David had always been one of “us on the outside and them inside.”
Ms. Hadad, a political science student, argues that part of the kibbutz could be opened to the public with fixed hours and prohibitions on barbecues and loud music.
“After all,” she said, “there are not that many streams like this in Israel.”
The flotilla led by Mr. Vaknin took place on Mimouna, a North African Jewish holiday marking the end of Passover.
Mr. Vaknin, 30, an information systems analyst, had organized a noisy and festive demonstration that began outside the kibbutz gate, complete with a D.J. and piles of mufletot, Mimouna pancakes dripping with honey.
“Open your gates and open your hearts!” Mr. Vaknin shouted, inviting kibbutz residents to join the party.
An eclectic mix of about two dozen people turned up to protest.
While the kibbutz offers the most practical entry into the Asi, it is possible to reach the water where the stream meets the irrigation channel. But that way involves several hazards, including clambering down a steep incline off a busy road and the possibility that sharp rocks in this untamed part of the stream would tear a raft.
Despite those obstacles, the protesters moved from the kibbutz down the road to launch their flotilla from that unblocked spot and later disembarked near the kibbutz cemetery. Children swam and chased ducks as grim-faced security guards looked on, filming on their cellphones.
The wet interlopers then sauntered off into the heart of the kibbutz. Nobody stopped them, and they posed for victory photos on the manicured bank of the Asi.