By Henry Srebrnik, [Calgary] Jewish Free Press
I have spent extended periods of time on two Israeli Kibbutzim, the Hebrew word for collective settlements.
The first was Kibbutz Ma’agan, on the southern shore of Sea of Galilee, in 1967, right after the Six-Day War. The second time was a decade later, on Bror Chayil, a settlement near the town of Sderot, and not far from Gaza (then still under Israeli occupation).
Ma’agan was founded in 1949 by immigrants from Hungary and Romania, while Bror Chayil was formed a year earlier and was populated mainly by Brazilian Jews.
The kibbutz movement is one of the most fascinating phenomena of modern history and one of Zionism’s greatest stories. And for decades, the kibbutz took pride of place among Israel’s most innovative accomplishments.
Several hundred communities attempted to live the ideas of equality, freedom, and social justice by giving up private property, individualism, and the “bourgeois” family unit to create a utopia attempting to live in total equality.
Many kibbutzim had collective child rearing practices. Infants were taken away from their parents at an early age to a communal nursery in which they spent their first few years.
The first kibbutzim were founded some 40 years before the establishment of the state of Israel. Degania, on the banks of the Jordan River in Galilee, was established in 1909.
Their founders were young Jewish pioneers, mainly from Eastern Europe, who came to forge a new way of life.
It became the inspiration for similar socialist communities, which would succeed in developing thriving collectives; they played a dominant role in the building of the country.
Today some 275 kibbutzim, with memberships ranging from 40 to more than 1,000, are scattered throughout Israel. The number of people living in kibbutzim totals approximately 130,000, about 2.5 per cent of the country's population.
The kibbutzim were initially entirely agricultural, but a great wave of industrialization came in the 1960s, and today only a small minority of kibbutz members work in agriculture.
Though they still provide 40 per cent of the country’s agricultural output, many specialize in high-tech manufacturing. Their factories account for 11 per cent of the country’s industrial output.
The kibbutz movement went through a considerable period of turmoil in the 1980s and 1990s. Until 1977 Israel was governed by the Labour Party. In matters such as agricultural development, its policies were very favorable to the kibbutzim.
The election of 1977 which brought the Likud to power changed everything. The government’s policies of economic deregulation led to a financial crisis that hit Israel in the early 1980s and proved detrimental. Many kibbutzim took part in financial speculation caused by inflation.
The banks had lent billions to the kibbutzim for industrial expansion in non-indexed loans. Kibbutzim also utilized such loans for infrastructure such as enlarging members’ houses.
Many of them continued to act the same as they did in the era of Labour rule, being confident that the government would provide them with a safety net if necessary, as it did in the past. This time, it didn’t happen.
Complex debt arrangements were accompanied by monitoring and supervising of the conduct of the kibbutzim by the banks,
Most kibbutzim were eventually forced to implement reforms to become commercially viable and stem decline. Now, only 74 of Israel’s kibbutzim still operate on a completely collective model, in which all members are paid the same regardless of their allotted job.
The rest have “privatized” and pay salaries to their members, allowing for differential incomes and home ownership.
Also, by the 1970s and 1980s, parents demanded that their children sleep at home; the last kibbutz ended communal daycare in 1991.
Other measures have included charging for meals and services, and recruiting agricultural labourers. Since the 1990s foreign workers were brought in, many from Thailand and China. These changes, necessary for survival, have sometimes been painful.
Some kibbutzim also began opening up to non-members. Empty homes, of members who had departed, were rented out to people looking for a quiet, rural lifestyle. Entire kibbutz neighborhoods were filled with people who worked in outside jobs and brought with them many of the accouterments of outside life, starting with cars.
When I was in Israel a few months ago, I saw one of them, Sdot Yam, near Caesarea. As a colleague noted wryly, it looked more like a gated community in California!