Holding the second-largest regional Burn for more than 6,500 participants in Israel’s Negev Desert is no small achievement. We Burners are used to the hot desert climate, but our community in Israel also has another kind of heat to deal with. As you can imagine, in a country with no separation between church and state, a staunchly conservative government and a contentiously divided sociopolitical environment, there’s little room for new movements promoting radical self-expression. However, this year’s Midburn proved that when Burners stick to the Ten Principles and explain them clearly and persuasively, even to reluctant listeners, anything is possible.
In the final week of preparation leading up to the event, Midburn organizers were suddenly presented with a court order to immediately stop building the city. It appeared the police, who believed that Midburn was nothing more than a party, had no intention of permitting the event. To add a layer of complexity to what was already a difficult situation, Israel’s mainstream media covered the police opposition and the court order on television, radio, newspapers and social media. Up until this moment, few in Israel knew about Midburn’s existence, and the majority of those who did lived in Tel Aviv, or, as some refer to it, Tel Aviv Nation (more on this later). When this spark of conflict ignited, however, Israelis across the country became aware of the situation and “Midburn” became a household word. Which, as you can imagine, added to the already immense pressure event organizers were under.
At this point, Midburn’s organizers and participants-to-be were faced with two options. One was to assume the role of indignant Israelis deprived of their basic right of self-expression, which would have meant head-on confrontation with the authorities and increased resistance and opposition. The second was to identify as Burners, for whom the Ten Principles are the highest priority, and to use Civic Responsibility to keep the channels of communication with authorities open and work with them and the media in a civil manner.
We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.
When it seemed as though the event would not go on, Nir Adan, the CEO of Midburn and a Burning Man Regional Contact, urged the Midburn community to show restraint, despite their great disappointment, hold fast to the Ten Principles and keep the channels of communication open. Watch:
Over the next few days, the Burner community mobilized. Letters of endorsement were gathered, Midburn’s representatives were interviewed on radio, television and social media, volunteers posted updates and calls for support on Facebook (in both Hebrew and English), and volunteer lawyers worked their way up the court system to appeal the initial court order to cease building the city. Thanks to these collaborative efforts, the court order was reversed, construction was resumed, and the police withdrew its opposition, rescinded its initial demands and allowed the event to take place without surveillance or intervention of any kind.
Midburn was granted autonomy and given the responsibility to organize and regulate itself. The Burner community in Israel was warned that if we failed, we would not be given permission to hold the event in 2016. The permit was finally signed at nearly the same time the gates were scheduled to open, and as a result the opening was delayed four hours. Although cars were backed up for six hours on the rocky trail to the city, no horns honked, no one protested, Burners got out of their cars to spray boiling drivers and passengers with cool mist, while others played instruments or distributed Turkish coffee, fruits and sweets to feed, distract and entertain them. The rite of passage ended, all Burners arrived at the city, their eagerness undimmed, and the event was a tremendous success.
Because Civic Responsibility is not just about working respectfully with authorities and municipalities, but also about supporting and integrating with communities, in the weeks leading up to the event, Midburn’s organizers urged participants to purchase supplies in the towns and kibbutzim in the area to help boost their economies and connect with their residents. In a country small enough to traverse on one tank of gas, purchasing supplies from merchants in peripheral, less prosperous areas is not a necessity, but a choice. It was an option many chose with pride and pleasure. As Burners drove toward and away from the site of the event, near the desert kibbutz of Sde Boker, long lines were visible at groceries, restaurants, coffee shops, and gas stations in the surrounding area.
Midburn was a victory for Civic Responsibility on two levels. First by working with the municipalities, police and the court system in a civil and respectful manner, the community won the right not only to conduct the event, but to regulate itself with no external oversight or intervention. Second, in a country divided in large measure politically, economically and culturally into two principal entities: Tel Aviv, a heavily populated, profoundly western, liberal and prosperous urban enclave in the center of the country (virtually a separate nation, to many) and the markedly less affluent, more traditional periphery, it became a matter of pride among the Burners from the Tel Aviv region to help support the businesses and communities in the Negev region by making their purchases there.
The theme of this year’s Midburn was transcendence, and much was transcended: The gap between Burners and an initially hostile police force and court that nearly extinguished the fire before it was lit, and that between Tel Aviv Nation and Israel’s periphery. If only for several days, though we like to think more, Midburn provided a transformational experience to thousands of participants and showed that Israel’s Burner community is part of a global movement dedicated to the core principles of cooperation, communal effort, creativity and giving.
Lastly, you may have heard in the news about Midburn’s Temple burn possibly harming ancient archeological artifacts. The Midburn organizers have been investigating together with the Israel Antiquities Authority, and have issued this statement:
“The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) approached Midburn after the event had already begun, with all proper permits and supervisions already in place, to present some concerns about the impact of our Temple burn. On June 9, we met with the IAA and reached the following conclusions:
Midburn’s production team had gone through all necessary authorities and received all required permits pre-event in order to execute its event. According to the IAA, Midburn had proceeded in good faith throughout the pre-event process and the event itself and co-operated with IAA demands. We addressed every concern to the IAA’s satisfaction.
After investigating the site with the IAA once again after the event, ancient flints were discovered on the hill where the Temple stood and burned. There was no archaeological site pointed out, only a cache of human-made flint objects the size of a matchbox. There was no way anybody but a professional archaeologist could see a potential problem.
IAA knew about and approved of the Temple burn and asked our crew to follow certain instructions, all of which Midburn crews followed accurately. An IAA representative claims there could still be minor damage, which will be revealed only after first rains. We agreed to wait until first rains and then inspect the hill to collaboratively identify any consequences.
Since the IAA is not one of the official permit-granting authorities, we decided that from now on we will open a direct line of communication. Midburn will inform the IAA and coordinate all activities from now on.
Midburn community and production crews will continue to uphold the Ten Principles, one of which is Civic Responsibility. In order to strengthen the connection with the IAA, we are planning a workshop that will teach our community to spot signs of potential ancient human activity, such as these flints.
We are deeply disappointed that Ha’aretz newspaper published incorrect facts about this situation, and we are working with them to clear those errors in the press.
Midburn will continue to follow its vision of spreading Burning Man principles while respecting all cultural and natural value which surrounds us all.”
Lead photo by Sharon Avraham