It was close to midnight one day this past May when Nir Adan stood beneath a moonlit desert sky and watched a soldier and a ballerina burn to the ground. They were made of wood and towered 46 feet over Adan and the 12,000 other people watching nearby. The 12,000 were all living in the sand that week for an annual event whose culmination is the ceremonial burning of a monumental sculpture built by dozens of people over several months. Or perhaps this isn't an event so much as it is a temporary city, and, as Adan would tell you, those gathered here aren't just attendees of a festival, but participants in "the world's largest human experiment." It took six hours for the wooden effigies to turn to ash, and, after watching their hypnotic fall, the crowd gradually trickled out to an eclectic array of parties, art installations, workshops, and gatherings. Less than two weeks later, there would be no trace of anything that had occurred here.
If this sounds strikingly like Burning Man, that's because it is. Midburn is Israel's version of Burning Man, named for the Hebrew word for desert, midbar. Since its humble beginnings on a beach in San Francisco with a small group of friends in 1986, Burning Man has spawned an international community of "burners," the sobriquet for people who've participated in the event that now draws 70,000 people to the Nevada desert. That community, in turn, has led to a global phenomenon, one that Adan and others believe has the power to change the world.
Midburn is one of 85 official regional Burning Man events across the globe, all based on Burning Man's 10 principles: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Participation, Immediacy, and Leaving No Trace. Until this year, the largest of these spin-offs was Afrikaburn, held in South Africa since 2007, attracting 11,000 people in 2018. Israel, a country the size of New Jersey, home to the world's most intractable political conflict, is now also home to the largest and fastest-growing regional Burning Man of all.
Adan's own life offers a persuasive illustration of the Midburn ideal. When he attended Burning Man in the United States for the first time, in 2001, he was living a life he describes as "the most opposite direction from Burning Man." Born into a military family, Adan, now 42, grew up on army bases. At the time of his first Burning Man—where he found himself almost by accident during a trip to America—he'd been working as a bodyguard in the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service. Essentially serving in a Secret Service-type role, Adan protected right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and late prime minister and war hero Ariel Sharon.
"Suddenly I understood that I was on the wrong path," says Adan of his turn from hard Israeli nationalism. "I'd never known anything else, and now I realized I had a choice. I don't have to take this path they paved for me. Burning Man woke me up."
Adan hasn't missed a Burning Man since. He left the Shin Bet in 2003 and eventually joined a community of Israeli burners that met regularly and organized Burning Man-like parties, culminating in the first official Midburn in 2014. Since then, Midburn has grown from 2,800 participants to 12,000 in 2018, including 1,500 foreigners who flew in from the U.S., Germany, Australia, and elsewhere. The vast majority of Midburners volunteer or contribute in some way to the temporary city: as greeters at the gate or doctors at the medic tent, or by supplying art and music and leading workshops at over 140 theme camps. As at the American Burning Man, money does not exist at Midburn, and all content, from food and drinks to entertainment, is provided by its citizens.
If 12,000 participants sounds trivial compared to Burning Man's 70,000, consider that Israel's population is 8.8 million. Taken proportionally, Midburn is considerably larger than the original Burning Man. (For Burning Man to match Midburn per capita, it would have to attract more than 400,000 people.) Nevertheless, Midburn is relatively small compared to the demand, as organizers have sought to keep things intimate. "Last year we sold all our tickets in 1.4 seconds," Adan says. If tickets reflected the true demand, he adds, there would have been 30,000 participants this year.
A celebration of peace and love in a nation permanently at war might sound absurd, but cities like Tel Aviv can be some of the most hedonistic, party-loving places on Earth. Indeed, some Midburners say, it is precisely because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not despite it, that burner culture has flourished so profoundly here.
"The situation is so shitty that we seek escapism," Adan says. As for the communal element, Adan says it comes naturally to Israelis. "We're born into the concept of community. It's in our history with the country's founding and the kibbutzim," he says, referring to Israel's early socialist agricultural communities.
While Midburn is apolitical, it is a highly progressive, tolerant community, welcoming anyone regardless of race, religion, politics, nationality, or sexuality. It is also (if unofficially) quite welcoming to drugs—lots of them—with weed, LSD, and MDMA often serving as spiritual companions to participants' journeys through the playa, the festival's central public space. Still, the proceedings are relatively family friendly. The biggest misconception about Midburn, Adan says, is that it's just a big party in the desert, where hippies run around high and naked. Nudity is actually permitted only inside the camps, and not on the playa itself. Adan has been bringing his two sons to Midburn since they were little boys, and plenty of other parents do the same.
Jews represent 75 percent of Israel's population, and most participants here are Jewish. Midburn doesn't ask participants their religion or nationality, so there are no official figures, but there are some Arab participants and organizers, and their numbers are growing.
Muad Abd El Hay, a 28-year-old Muslim citizen of Israel, grew up in the predominantly Arab town of Tira. Yet he never really felt at home there. He moved to Germany in 2008 for university and participated in the first Midburn in 2014 while visiting his family back home. No one there made him feel unwelcome for being Arab, he says. He's since returned to Israel for Midburn four times.
Before Midburn, he'd never had any Jewish friends. Now, Abd El Hay says, most of his Israeli friends are Jewish. And while he still doesn't feel at home in Tira, he says he's discovered a new home: "Home is where I feel the most free, and the place where I feel most free in my life is Midburn," he says. "There are things I can't do in Tira or in Tel Aviv. I can't put on a bikini and run 10 kilometers in Tira. But I can do that at Midburn very well, without any issues."
Midburn has given Abd El Hay hope for what lasting peace in his home country might look like.
"In this one place, I get a taste of what Israel, my home, could be. The main problem is that we stick too much to national and cultural pride. That's what separates us so much. People don't realize that we are a salad, and a salad tastes much better than each ingredient alone. And this is what happens at Midburn."
Like Abd El Hay with Jews, Adan never had Arab friends before Midburn. Today, he's not only close with the Arab members of Midburn's inner circle, but also with Arab burners abroad.
"If I hadn't gone to Burning Man, I never would have had the opportunity to see that they are exactly like me," Adan says. "It helps you test your preconceptions."
Many Arab countries forbid their citizens from traveling to Israel—and Israelis, in turn, are forbidden from vis iting several Arab countries. At Burning Man 2010, Adan was meditating and watching the sunrise when he started talking to a guy who was sitting next to him, doing the same. He noticed that the guy, Firas, had an Arabic accent. Turns out he was born in Kuwait, and of Palestinian descent. "Next thing I know, we're having this amazing three-hour conversation. It ended with 'Come to my camp, I'll come to yours,' and we never saw each other again."
A few years later, Adan was at Mama Burn, the precursor to Midburn, held on a beach in Israel in 2012. "Suddenly I see this guy who looks really familiar, but I can't remember how. We make eye contact, start talking, and, in 15 seconds, we each realize, 'You're the guy from the sunrise at Burning Man!'" Firas has participated in almost every Midburn since.
Adan's lofty dream is that one day Midburn will be a true regional burn, drawing people from throughout the Middle East.
"We're not here to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. We're here to solve the human conflict," Adan says. "But it can definitely help."