Members` Views on Changes in the Kibbutz
Eli Avrahami
The crisis of the 1980s was both structural and related to values, its consequences discernible in all structures and spheres. Briefly and in general, the changes, still in progress, are essentially a transition from a collectivist, cohesive society with a high level of social and ideological commitment to an individualistic one in which the bond between members and their mutual responsibility is growing steadily weaker. Communal principles are being abandoned, and replaced by norms once considered deviant but now are legitimized. Social agreements and balances, so very important for solidarity according to Habermas, were damaged, and the mode of action changed from communicative to strategic, as Habermas defines it.

As interpersonal relationships became formalized and social engagement lessened, the community as a whole, and each of its members, lost their social capital, as defined by Bourdieu, Coleman and Putnam. In the new situation members are unsure about their social identity, a situation typical of eras of change and uncertainty (Giddens).

What the changes implied for kibbutz members, particularly for the member as an individual, was examined by means of in-depth interviews with 50 members of 10 different kibbutzim, selected by criteria of size, social and economic status and the extent of changes undergone. Interviewees were chosen randomly from the rank and file of the membership, with one central office holder in each kibbutz included in the group. The semi-structured interview was carried out by means of free conversation, the interviewer posing questions only to bring up a subject that the interviewee on his own initiative had not raised. Members knew the purpose of the interview, they spoke freely and openly, and only three persons refused to participate. All interviews were recorded and transcribed for the purpose of qualitative text analysis.

Topel discerned three categories of changes - privatization, different management style and intertwining, the last term known as “lowering the walls” in the kibbutz vernacular. Perhaps the most significant change is the primary and central role of money in the consideration of every kibbutz community, institution and individual. The rational economic-pragmatic approach has taken hold in the evolving kibbutz. It changes the kibbutz from an intentional community, carrying out tasks for the common good with economic considerations in last place, to one that as a rule takes on tasks to the extent that they are economically profitable. In the interviews this emerged in statements expressing unwillingness for the kibbutz to be a freier (Hebrew vernacular for a sucker), as it was in the past when it took on assignments for the common good. Some point out that precisely because it has lost this orientation to national needs, the kibbutz has lost its relevance for Israeli society. Many interviewees noted the fact, but few regretted it. The change however adversely affected the pioneer quality that was one of the elements characterizing kibbutz.

The new order of priorities affects not only relations with the society outside the kibbutz, but among its own members. Following Habermas’s terminology, society functioned in the past through “communicative action”, which today has given way to “strategic action”. Communicative actions are performed for mutual benefit, free of money and power constraints, without egocentric considerations of personal success. By contrast, strategic activities are executed out of rational and efficiency considerations, to obtain material results (Habermas).


The employment structure changed as members went to work outside the kibbutz and many outsiders were hired to work inside it. The kibbutz education system was opened to outside children. Apartments were rented to non-members, and tourism and other services were offered to the general public. Kibbutz members, on their part, purchase services such as entertainment in communities in their region; their considerations are economic, as a rule. To this one must add the establishment of regional schools attended by kibbutz children as well as children of the region. All this led to broader social contacts with non-kibbutz members on a greater scale than in the past, whether at work, in recreation, in parents’ groups or elsewhere. To this, add family ties that always crossed community/kibbutz boundaries.

The new social networks help blur the boundaries between the kibbutz and the outside community. The ultimate is the construction of neighborhoods within the municipal jurisdiction of the kibbutz for outsiders who are neither kibbutz members nor part of the cooperative community. Thus congruence between the community and the settlement, a key component of the kibbutz identity, gradually disappears.

In the interviews, some kibbutz members expressed a sense of estrangement within their own kibbutz because of all the new faces. They were concerned about negative elements entering the kibbutz grounds, which many still consider as part of their home. Others, by contrast, noted the positive aspects of increased income from services sold to outsiders, of increasing the local population, particularly younger individuals, after so many young people left during the crisis. They also noted the benefits to the educational institutions, which had shrunk due to an exodus from the kibbutz and the falling birth rate (the demographic crisis).

The increasing number of kibbutz members working outside the autonomous kibbutz economy means that for a growing number of members the local community has become less important, while their work place, with its different values, has become more so. The process, familiar in modern social systems (Kanter & Pittinsky) has now reached the kibbutz.

There is also a changing perception of “home,” once thought of as the entire kibbutz, and which now tends to relate only to one’s private apartment. Some members stated explicitly that they regarded only that as home, not the kibbutz as a whole. Indeed, lowering the walls between the kibbutz and its environs has merged with raising walls within the kibbutz: each family for itself.

Management changes
Boards of directors, “profit centers” and hierarchy within groups of workers has led to a sense of estrangement. Some interviewees said they felt the kibbutz was no longer theirs, that they were like hired hands in the kibbutz they had built, and that the new managers did not listen to ordinary workers. Even more sharply, it was said that these same ordinary workers were “the vassals of the managers”. Others, mainly among the central office holders, stressed the positive aspects of a system that held the kibbutz member responsible for earning his own living, the efficiency of the new administrative methods and the reduction of the “free rider” phenomenon.

Within the management category lie all the changes that have replaced direct participatory democracy with democracy in a representative form, establishing boards or councils in place of the General Assembly. In many kibbutzim the weekly assembly has long ceased to meet, and while it remains the supreme authority, its scope is limited by procedures that make it very difficult for the individual member to initiate discussions. Although privatization has largely freed the individual as a consumer from dependence on institutional functionaries, the new type of management often leaves him helpless in the face of social and economic-industrial managers, as s/he is no longer able to appeal to the community as a whole. Some interviewees expressed a sense of incapacity and helplessness in the new situation.


The feeling of estrangement and even of alienation so often expressed relates to privatization also, which has meant giving members responsibility for most funds for their own maintenance, culture and amenities. Interviewees stress that in doing so the kibbutz divested itself of commitment to individual well-being, and indeed had reduced mutual obligation to a minimum. Others, however, point to positive aspects of broadening individual responsibility for budgets and activities, freeing members from being dependant on kibbutz institutions. The individual member is the master of his fate or at least controls most areas of his consumption and expense budget due to privatization. Differential rewards too, at different levels, for extra work or demanding tasks contributes to the sense of controlling one’s life. Individuals thus determine not only their expenses but also their income, to the extent of their willingness to work more, or harder.

The system of differential rewards, in effect doing away with mutual responsibility, harms weaker populations for the most part, including senior members. Hence many kibbutzim have developed a system of mutual help for those who lack the strength to cope with the new reality. In effect it is not mutual but one-sided, similar to charity that assures a minimum living standard. The kibbutz vernacular terms it a “safety net”.

Such systems exist in society as a whole, financed by the state or by charitable organizations, and have blurred the once distinctive collective trait in the kibbutz member’s identity and in that of the kibbutz as a whole. Thus both come to resemble the non-collective society, the kibbutz itself approaches the model of the “community settlement”, without precisely defining its characteristics. The view that research subjects expressed about the “safety net” ranged from an expression of social solidarity, through a moral duty to founders and seniors, to a feeling of discomfort in some of those in need of it. The statement that “The safety net is like welfare arrangements made for the needy by the state and by charities”, elicited interesting responses. Some interviewees were insulted by the comparison, asserting that “In the kibbutz it’s different,” since the kibbutz member contributes part of his income of his own free will to the safety net fund.

Expressions of helplessness and a sense of meaninglessness that give voice to alienation in a society which was to have done away with alienation, necessarily raise questions. The answer, emerging from interview responses, enables us to divide the alienated, or those at least the discontented, into three groups as to the source of their discontent:

a. Involved, active members who care about their community though not necessarily about the kibbutz, and actively work for changes. However, when these are opposed and not accepted by the kibbutz, the same members express discontent and even alienation;

b. Members who oppose changes, whether out of considerations of personal advantage or because of a conservative kibbutz attitude, express discontent and alienation when far-reaching changes are introduced;

c. Adherents to the kibbutz idea who hope that changes and adaptations will assure the future of their community as a kibbutz, even a different, “up-dated” one. They despair when changes have led to dismantling basic kibbutz principles, or when initiatives for change and adaptation are thwarted by opposition that freezes the current situation. The fate if the kibbutz is then sealed, according to this group, who become indifferent and uninvolved.

Members of the frustrated groups are the source of “internal departures”, people who shut themselves up in their own space and give up on community involvement. A community in which a significant number of individuals act this way, in their indifference and even alienation, acquires the characteristics of modern communities in the era of globalization (Kanter & Pittinsky) and thus lose its original unique qualities, in our case those of the kibbutz.

Kibbutz members now evidence two new kinds of anxiety, one concerning property rights and the other referring to employment security. The first relates to the trend to allocate the communal properties to each member. The difficult economic situation and fear lest creditors (the banks) might seek to attach the property of debtor kibbutzim, led these members to seek legal means so as to register members’ apartments in their own names. Moreover, some are considering the possibility of replacing the system of common ownership (including that of economically productive property) by dividing it among individual members. Those against dissolution of common ownership fear they will lose their share in their life’s work. By contrast, those in favor have no fears that they will be left destitute, and are concerned only that the property will not be privatized because of technical and legal obstacles. It is hardly necessary to state that the change in the nature of property ownership would remove a basic characteristic of the kibbutz identity.

The second fear, insecurity as to employment, accompanies globalization everywhere in the world, according to Kanter and Pittinsky. In the kibbutz, such fear arises from privatization, which makes the member responsible for earning his/her own living. In the past there was certainty that work would always be found in the kibbutz, and that providing work was a kibbutz responsibility. Those days are gone, hence the fear.

Another type of employment anxiety arises from what the two researchers define as employability security. It is most sharply expressed by all interviewees when they speak of their first and foremost desire for their children: to make sure that their children have a profession. These anxieties are additional elements in the sense of uncertainty and fear of the future so common in the kibbutz.

Localism and regionalism

The interviews disclosed strong expressions of localism, an affinity for the geographical location, though not to the kibbutz that is more than a domicile. There were powerful expressions of belonging to a place and a locale, with commitments to continue to live there, despite any changes in social, organizational or other frameworks. Expressions of local attachment sometimes went beyond the specific settlement to include a broad geographical region. Contrary to expectations, however, the interviews presented no proofs of regionalism, that is a conscious, significant regional identity, or at least none that would replace the now blurred identity of the kibbutz. Possibly this stems from the past, when the kibbutz member’s relevant “region” was sectorial and not geographical: the entire movement and not the physical region. Thus one may anticipate that as the status and importance of the movement for the kibbutz member diminishes, the region will become more relevant, both for individual members and for their kibbutz institutions, as attested by some office holders, though not by the ordinary kibbutz members.

Strong expressions of attachment to place contrast sharply with distancing from commitment to the kibbutz as a way of life and an ideology, to the point of negation and alienation. Attachment to place, along with the desire to shake off what is perceived as “bonds the kibbutz uses to tie up its members” may possibly be explained by the statement made by Tuan Yi-fu: “Place is security, space is freedom.” Attachment to place of residence brings security, and cutting the link to the kibbutz idea with its restrictive way of life means moving out into the open, which is freedom.

Eli Avrahami, a member of Kibbutz Palmachim, is a researcher at Yad Tabenkin.