The Kibbutz: A human adventure
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The Kibbutz: A human adventure

 

On the centennial of its founding, Israel's Kibbutz Movement is celebrating extraordinary achievements and regrouping for the future.

By Avigayil Kadesh

 

Photos courtesy of Givat Haviva Institute

 

Pic cap 1: A typical dining room in the early days of the kibbutz. Photo courtesy of Givat Haviva Institute.

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Pic cap 2: Men and women on the kibbutz worked side by side in the fields. Photo courtesy of Givat Haviva Institute.

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Pic cap 3: Parents and children gather for an event on a modern kibbutz. Photos courtesy of Givat Haviva Institute.

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Pic cap 4: Today's kibbutz homes have come a long way from the small living spaces traditionally built. Photo courtesy of Givat Haviva Institute.

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In 1910, a dozen young pioneers established a communal cooperative farm – the first kibbutz -- along the banks of the Sea of Galilee. Kibbutz Degania, still thriving today, became the model for a bold new social experiment that would in many ways define Israeli culture and produce many of the reborn nation’s statesmen, scholars and artist

 

As the Kibbutz Movement (http://www.kibbutz.org.il/eng) celebrates a century of achievement, it is overseeing 273 active kibbutzim, half of them established prior to 1948. Now coming through a period of reorganization and revitalization following a decline in membership and shift in focus, kibbutzim continue to be a vital part of the Israeli fabric, particularly along the geographic periphery.

 

One big laboratory

 

 “Generally, the kibbutz was a creation of Jewish youth whose goal was to take responsibility for the creation of the state,” says Muki Tsur, former secretary of the Kibbutz Movement and a teacher of the Jewish culture of the kibbutz at Bina Beit Midrash (http://www.bina.org.il/english) in Ramat Efal. “It was a human adventure.”

 

Tsur explains that collective villages provided an effective, underground organizational means for young Zionists from different European countries to plan the revival of an independent Jewish homeland while living under the domination of the Turkish and British empires.

 

Each early kibbutz was an independent community whose members had to start from scratch in finding approaches to culture, politics, economy, immigration and language. “Each was a laboratory where all these questions had to be asked,” says Tsur. “Not necessarily to be resolved, but to be asked. The kibbutz had to be a laboratory on one hand and a place to live on the other.”

 

The transformation of ancient Hebrew from a written to a spoken language was a monumental task largely accomplished by kibbutz youth. Members were required to speak in Hebrew only, and that often led to inventing and popularizing words for modern needs, including a whole lexicon of agricultural Hebrew.

 

“It was a free society, and people could leave whenever they wanted - and the majority did leave,” says Tsur. “But other people with dreams and aspirations were coming to the kibbutz and contributing a new volume of the encyclopedia of problems.”

 

Against all odds, and with some exceptions, the experiment proved quite successful. Kibbutzim became exemplars for youth instruction and guidance, agricultural advances, immigrant absorption and military service. From the time of the British Mandate, kibbutz members (“kibbutzniks”) took a leading military role in defending the Jewish residents of Palestine.

 

During the War of Independence, when many kibbutzim doubled as army bases, the most prestigious army units of the emerging Israel Defense Forces boasted a high percentage of kibbutzniks, including the most famous of Israel’s soldier heroes, Gen. Moshe Dayan.

 

“The influence of the kibbutz in the beginning of the state was not normal or democratic,” says Tsur, pointing out that of the 120 members in Israel’s Parliament (the Knesset) during the first decade of statehood, about 25 were kibbutz members even though kibbutzniks comprised just 5 percent of the general population.

 

Children’s houses: cruel or compassionate

 

The hallmark of kibbutz life is its democratic style of management. “I describe it as a very developed welfare state that takes care of all your needs,” says Shlomo Getz, director of the Institute for Research of the Kibbutz and the Cooperative Idea at the University of Haifa (http://kibbutz.haifa.ac.il). “When you pay your taxes, you know where they go and you help decide how the tax money is spent.”

 

On a traditional kibbutz, everyone shares ownership of production and consumption mechanisms and also shares responsibility for the welfare of each adult member and child. Until two decades ago, kibbutz kids usually lived not in their parents’ tiny abodes but in collective houses that are sometimes characterized today as rather draconian.

 

But that image might not be fair, according to Prof. Michal Palgi of the Institute for Research of the Kibbutz and co-author with Shulamit Reinharz of One Hundred Years of Kibbutz Life: A Century of Crises and Reinvention, due out in July.

 

“Babies’ and children’s houses were not invented out of ideology but out of necessity,” she says. “In the beginning of the 20th century, kibbutz members lived in tents in remote places, and there were frequent attacks on the kibbutz communities [from neighboring Arabs]. They had to find the safest place for their children, so they made them real houses situated at the center, with the parents around them in tents, in order to keep them protected.”

 

It was only later that this arrangement dovetailed with a new kibbutz ideology of equality between the sexes. If the mothers were to work as many hours as the fathers, they’d need an alternative place for their little ones to be nurtured and educated. Kibbutzim rose to this task, says Palgi, and revolutionized the idea of formal theoretical and practical education for childcare workers.

 

“Today, there is a lot of criticism and judgment about the separation of kibbutz children and parents without an understanding of the situation at the time,” she says. “Maybe in some ways it was a mistake. But since the 1960s, kibbutz parents were with their children each morning from 10:00 to 11:00 and then again from 4:00 to 8:00 or later. They put the children to bed and checked on them before they turned in for the night. The younger children had an intercom to communicate with their parents as needed. I don’t think that modern parents have nearly as much quality time with their kids.”

 

Palgi, who like Tsur joined a kibbutz as an adult, cites studies showing that the positives of the system likely outweighed the negatives. Kids grew up extraordinarily independent, buoyed by the security of a social support network that taught them to easily integrate with newcomers. Above all, they were imbued with a strong work ethic.

 

“Kibbutz-raised people who went on to high positions had learned from an early age to work for half an hour on the children’s farm with the chickens and then one day a week during high school, so the importance of work was instilled,” she says.

 

Palgi related that a kibbutznik who later became a computer engineer told her that while he was in Italy on a business trip, his host company’s computer needed welding and he stepped right up to the task. He told his astonished colleagues that he had learned to solder when working at his kibbutz’s fishpond as a teenager. “They gained practical skills and the ability to learn independently,” Palgi says.

 

The right people at the right time

 

In the meantime, the adults on early kibbutzim weren’t just sitting around talking about how to build a nation. Living under subhuman conditions in previously unsettled regions, they worked superhuman hours to till the soil, drain the swamplands, clear the rocky mountainsides and construct housing and industry.

 

Tsur refers to them as revolutionaries, but their ideas wouldn’t have taken hold had they not been “the right people with the right agenda,” adds Getz.

 

Largely made up of European intelligentsia, the first kibbutzniks were proposing an entirely new Jewish framework, one in which holidays such as Passover and Sukkot were no longer purely – or even mostly -- religious in nature but took on national and agricultural significance, says Getz. This approach gave rise to an original Israeli culture expressed in song, dance, literature and theater.

 

The Kibbutz Movement has its own publishing house, maintains archives and research institutes, and sponsors educator seminars, a theater group, a dance company, a choir (http://www.kac.org.il/engmak/ewelcome.htm) and a chamber orchestra. Early kibbutzim actively encouraged this emerging culture, says Palgi, and not only through the sing-a-longs and folk dancing that they became famous for. “For many years, a kibbutz member who was an acknowledged writer, musician or artist would get two days a week off from his kibbutz duties to do only his writing or music or art or choreography, and would be provided with all the materials he needed,” she relates. Such an indulgence was pretty extraordinary in a society where “everyone gives as much as they can and takes as much as they need, with everyone pitching in at every task -- not just the ‘good’ jobs,” says Palgi.

 

The notion of near-perfect equality has proved attractive to young volunteers from across the globe. About half a million citizens of five continents – many of them Christian -- have spent memorable summers doing manual labor such as washing dishes, cleaning coops, picking crops and milking cows on Israel’s kibbutzim. Hundreds of them ended up staying on and becoming members. Several kibbutzim began offering intensive Hebrew instruction (http://www.kibbutzulpan.org) and even conversion classes as a way of helping these newcomers integrate.

 

A shift in focus

 

“From the beginning, kibbutzim viewed themselves as endowed with a sense of duty, serving as a pillar of strength for Zionism as well as for the National Labor Movement,” says Getz. “After the establishment of the state, the kibbutz lost most of its external mission and turned to the internal issues of immigrant absorption, military action, production and agriculture.” Palgi identifies the 1960s as the era when industrialization started taking hold and outside values began making inroads in the kibbutz structure, softening its staunchly socialist way of life. “If at the start, those who had PhDs worked in fields and fishponds, later on people more likely worked in their chosen professions. If at the beginning, the manager of each industry used to rotate every three years, now you don’t have to rotate at all unless there is some reason to do so,” says Palgi.

 

Industrialization has turned out to be a winning strategy, accounting for 70 percent of the total income of the county’s kibbutzim. According to the Kibbutz Industry Association (http://www.kia.co.il/eng), up to 80 percent of Israel’s kibbutzim are manufacturing and marketing everything from furniture to popcorn. The major kibbutz-made products are plastic and rubber goods, food, electronics, metals and machinery. About 41,000 people are employed in these factories, of which 9,500 are kibbutz members. Agriculture and dairy farming are still part and parcel of kibbutz life. About a third of the produce grown in Israel comes from kibbutz fields, hothouses and orchards. Dairy cows, turkeys, beef cattle, fish and sheep farms are also common kibbutz sources of income. The shift from agriculture to industry came along with a shift in how labor was compensated. Those working longer hours now usually earn more, says Palgi, “but the kibbutz does try to keep the gaps in earning not too big. Simple workers live in more or less the same size houses as more professional workers.” And everyone receives economic assistance to supplement what the government provides in education and healthcare, including extraordinary benefits for services such as special education and mental health services, says Palgi. People all pitch in to accomplish communal tasks and responsibilities, she adds, but the modern kibbutz movement now has started welcoming new members who may not be as interested in sharing all their personal income with the collective.

 

Challenges of immigrants and aging

 

Kibbutzim were of major importance in absorbing, housing and educating many World War II refugees and Holocaust survivors, particularly orphaned children. There were even kibbutzim founded entirely by survivors, such as the Ghetto Fighters' Kibbutz, established in April 1949 by a group including the last remaining survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Getz says kibbutzim were not as successful at providing for Jewish refugees arriving from Islamic countries in the 1950s. The mostly European-descended kibbutzniks, mostly intellectual and non-religious, tended to be suspicious of these generally more pious and less formally schooled newcomers. And although Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion encouraged kibbutzim to hire the new immigrants from the Mideast and North Africa as farm hands, this notion went against the ideology of equally shared labor. “Even if the new immigrants did get hired by kibbutzim occasionally, they were unskilled and did not advance and never became members,” Getz says. “Their culture was totally different, and they couldn’t even eat in the [non-kosher] kibbutz dining rooms.” The picture today is much improved. The Kibbutz Movement, sensitive to the fact that bringing in young singles and families is key to preserving the kibbutz lifestyle into the future, works to absorb new immigrants – particularly Jews from Ethiopia – and runs cultural and educational activities for youth movements in Israel and abroad. Kibbutzim also have adapted to accommodate aging members, Tsur points out. “The kibbutz was originally a society of young people who could do outdoor, manual labor, and they didn’t have to deal with sick and old people.” Over time, kibbutzim found constructive ways to meet the needs of older members, from providing them with golf carts to get around the grounds, to building on-site nursing facilities and training younger members to run and staff them.

 

Today’s kibbutzim

 

The kibbutz system plunged in popularity starting with the economic crisis of the 1980s, when the Israeli government had to step in and save many kibbutzim from bankruptcy. Suddenly, the kibbutz was no longer seen as the pinnacle of Israeli society but as a drain on its resources. However, the situation began looking up when changes were made to retain and attract members, says Getz. “In recent years, there are signs of people coming back, and you see second- and third-generation kibbutzniks returning as the founders are dying out,” he says. More than 2,500 new members have joined kibbutzim in recent years, the majority of whom are returnees. More than 123,000 people – more than 20,000 of them under the age of 18 – now populate 273 kibbutzim, including 16 religious ones. Only about one-quarter of Israel’s kibbutzim still operate in the traditional communal style, where division of income is strictly equal. A handful of others have opted for the “integrated method” where an individual’s income is comprised of an equal sum given to each member, an additional sum based on the member’s seniority and a third sum based on a given percentage of the member’s salary/contribution to the kibbutz. Most kibbutzim have adopted the “renewed” model, where higher earners receive more income, and a percentage of each member’s gross salary goes toward community expenses and to supplement the income of members earning less than the minimum amount set by the kibbutz. Renewed kibbutzim practice various forms of privatization, with a greater emphasis on individuals and families. “The manager no longer earns the same amount of money as the manual laborer and a large number of kibbutz members work off the kibbutz,” according to the Kibbutz Movement. In the old days, the board of the kibbutz decided on every aspect of life together. Now, each area of business has its own bank account and a separate board of directors. “The dairy farm does not have access to the turkey farm funds and the funding for cultural events does not come from the factory’s bank account,” as the Movement’s literature puts it.

 

Kibbutzim outside Israel

 

Tsur relates that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev once visited a kibbutz with his wife, Raisa. “They had 15 minutes on their schedule, but they stayed three hours,” he says. “Raisa Gorbachev was a historian and at the end of the tour, she said, ‘This is what we meant to do in the Soviet Union but we failed completely.’” It’s not just Russians who have tried their hand at the Israeli model. “Many societies have attempted to establish types of kibbutzim, especially in South America, but as far as I know it’s not a big success because the national aspect of the movement is missing,” says Getz. “They’re doing it primarily to ease problems of unemployment by establishing a cooperative venture for unskilled laborers.” However, Palgi thinks some form of kibbutzim outside of Israel could indeed succeed. “Communities from countries such as Japan, the United States and Germany have come and studied the issues involved,” says Palgi, who is the immediate past president of the Communal Studies Association (http://www.communalstudies.info). This organization holds an international conference every three years. The most recent one was in Israel, and groups from South America were particularly interested in learning from Israeli experience. Palgi says other countries might have to alter the Israeli model to make it work for their culture, and acknowledges that modern advances work against the kibbutz way of life. “It is more difficult to exist [as a closed cooperative] when global communication is so easy and when capitalism is so predominant,” she observes. “But I feel that people will go back to more communal living and more [economic] equality. I believe the pendulum will swing back in that direction.”

 

Shoring up the borders

 

 If she were to pinpoint the main contribution of the kibbutz to Israeli nationhood, Palgi would say its strength lies in geography. Kibbutzim occupy about 10% of the country’s land mass, strategically located around its periphery. “If you look at the border areas, north and south, east and west near Gaza, they are marked by kibbutzim, and I think that is the main contribution they have made,” she says. “They really were a tool in many ways in the creation of the country. And they are still there, essential to maintaining the country’s borders.” Tsur envisions revitalized kibbutzim as taking an even bigger role in building up Israel’s underpopulated peripheral regions – but not necessarily in their present form. “If it’s a free society, then every generation has to reinvent the kibbutz; we don’t have a central authority to mandate what is best. Maybe there will be kibbutzim of educators, for example? Certainly it won’t be only about raising chickens.” Either way, there is one ingredient essential to any kibbutz, he adds. “As [the philosopher Martin] Buber said, the French Revolution was based on three ideas: freedom, equality and fraternity. Freedom went west and forgot equality; equality went east and forgot freedom. I believe that through the fraternity of the kibbutz, we can arrive at freedom and equality. Without fraternity, we cannot do it.”