Kibbutzim on rise again but ideology declines


It would be premature to mourn the kibbutz concept in this changed country, writes MARK WEISSin Jerusalem

HUNDREDS OF people gathered this week at kibbutz Degania, on the southern shore of the sea of Galilee, to mark 100 years since the founding of Israel’s first agricultural commune.

The speakers, including President Shimon Peres, himself a former kibbutznik, praised the contribution that the kibbutz movement has made, and continues to make, to Israeli society.

Mr Peres said that Israel “wouldn’t be what it is today without all of the security and social achievements of the kibbutz movement”.

Ze’ev Shor, the chairman of the kibbutz movement, told the crowd that kibbutz members, who make up one in 30 of Israel’s population, can hold their heads up high after 100 years of impressive achievements.

“We must remind ourselves and others that building the land, defining and defending its borders, are not empty words or clichés,” he said.

But the participants celebrating the kibbutz centenary were all too aware that the kibbutz of today is radically different from the socialist agricultural communities that inspired close to half a million idealistic youth from all over the world who spent time volunteering on kibbutzim in their heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.

Over the last two decades the kibbutzim have undergone a radical transformation, introducing various degrees of what was termed “privatisation”.

Today many kibbutz members own cars, and an increasing number have also purchased their homes.

The meagre standard monthly allowance has been replaced by differential salaries.

Collective child-rearing, where children slept together in children’s homes, is a distant memory, as are communal meals in a kibbutz dining room.

Industry, high-tech factories and tourist facilities have replaced agriculture as the economic lifeline for many communities, as the profit motive has gradually replaced the sparse egalitarian ideology of the kibbutz movement that characterised the early years of Israeli statehood.

These trends have been accompanied by a decline in the prominence of kibbutzniks in Israel’s political and military echelons.

Five Israeli prime ministers – David Ben Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak – lived on a kibbutz at some point, and a fifth of Israel’s first Knesset parliament were kibbutz members.

Today, only a handful of members of the 120-seat parliament have a kibbutz background. Highly motivated, modern-orthodox youth wearing knitted skullcaps are today more likely to be found in passing-out ceremonies in elite Israel Defence Force units than among youth who come from the kibbutz.

Many believe that these changes represent the failure of the kibbutz movement, arguing that the fact that so many kibbutz members left for the city means the utopian ideology that fused Zionism and socialism had no relevance in an increasingly materialistic, modern-day Israel.

But the changes have succeeded in reversing the demographic decline, and over the past few years the kibbutz population has started to grow again after years of falling back.

The Ha’aretz newspaper, in an editorial this week marking the kibbutz centenary, noted that although little remains of the kibbutz enterprise in its original ambitious format, it would be premature to mourn the concept of the kibbutz. “In reality, the kibbutz failed to change man’s nature. One hundred years after its birth, this may not be the kibbutz’s finest hour – but without the kibbutz, Israel would look very different today.”

Danny Gavron, author of Awakening from Utopia, which chronicles the changes in the kibbutz movement, told The Irish Times that in national terms the kibbutz movement was a huge success, helping to determine the borders of the state of Israel in 1948.

“However, the traditional kibbutz as we know it is coming to an end.

“Only about 70 of the 268 communities can still be accurately defined as a kibbutz, based on the principle of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’,” Mr Gavron said.

“Until the early 1980s, if you said ‘Israel’, the first word popping into people’s heads would have been ‘kibbutz’. Today , it is more likely to be ‘army’, ‘terror’ or ‘conflict’,” he added.

He noted two recent phenomenon: many kibbutz members who left have recently returned, attracted by the changes and the less communal lifestyle, while the more ideological members are very active in the more than 100 urban kibbutzim – communes based in Israeli towns.