This article also appears at Jewschool.com
Coverage in the media of mounting economic inequality around the world has become commonplace over the past few months. In many ways this coverage is late to the game as growing movements for equity and justice have left a wake in their paths. Perhaps there are lessons to be found in the ideas, crises, and visions of the Kibbutz movement.
The century old Socialist experiment known as the Kibbutz elicits images of Jewish pioneers pitching tents, farmers tilling fields, and folks living in rural utopia. The reality today is, as with most things, much more complicated than collective memory can often allow.
In the late 1970s the utopian dream began to deteriorate. Israel’s first non-labour government came into power and the status of the Kibbutz shifted as the country began to look towards the privatization of once national institutions.
Former Secretary-General of Kibbutz Ein Hashofet and current Director of Givat Haviva Educational Institution, Yaniv Sagee sees the story of the Kibbutz as intertwined with that of the country. “The Kibbutz was seen as a public investment for building the state of Israel… Until 1977, and it served as a base for confidence for the Kibbutz members because they knew they can give to the Kibbutz everything that they have and they get from the Kibbutz everything they need. And they were sure it was going to happen because they didn’t only have to rely on the kibbutz. If it wasn’t successful the movement would help and if the movement needed support then there was the government,” he said.
For many Kibbutz communities, it was the beginning of the end.
As of the beginning of this decade, about 190 of the more than 270 Kibbutz communities were privatized, while 65 remained communal with 9 looking to integrated approaches, according to the Kibbutz Movement. Today, there are several that have survived the crisis through innovation and reinvention.
An hour and a half North of Tel Aviv, Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek, an historic flagship of the Kibbutz movement, has managed to maintain its socialist roots. They eat in the collective dining hall, enjoy Shabbat together, and promote a collective cultural life
Dafna Govrin, the Cultural Director of the Kibbutz clarified that both the culture and the economy are collectivized in many ways. “All the work on the kibbutz is important and there is both value and an inherent usefulness in it. Everyone on the Kibbutz is supposed to be able to do work they want to do. Beyond that, we also have a collective industry and everyone gets an equal amount of money from it,” she said.
The Kibbutz still maintains many agricultural initiatives, but they have also kept an eye on the future. Their success stems in part from a homegrown database system company called, “Idea” and “Tama”, the plastic factory that they established in 1950, in part as a work solution for people who were beyond the years when it made sense to work the fields.
Itzik Govrin, Dafna’s husband and a worker in Tama gave some background. “In the 80’s Tama found, in Europe, new pallet net and hay net products,” he explained. Govrin continued, “Tama jumped into development head first and wound up with a very strong and successful product. We are now the biggest in the world in this product. The agricultural nature of our community helped us to develop this agricultural product.”
Tama’s success in the market place coupled with vibrant community life has allowed Mishmar Ha’emek to remain financially stable and independent, and maintain a collective life true to its Socialist ideals.
Meanwhile, not far away, Kibbutz Ramot Menashe represents a different path. The Kibbutz is no longer a collective, but rather has undergone a process of privatization over the last decade. Members of the community still own equal shares in certain industrial and agricultural projects and communal investments are decided on democratically, but each member is, at this point, economically independent.
Doron Erez, an educator and resident of the privatized Kibbutz described the situation, “Our salaries go to the shared Kibbutz Kupa [Collective Fund], but from there every member gets her or his own share or salary after taxes stay in the kibbutz.”
Still, Erez explained even though the new model means dealing with finding work on one’s own and that outside of the occasional Friday night “Shabbat” dinner, the communal dining hall (called a Chader Ochel) is closed it’s not all bad. The opportunity for Erez is in developing a new kind of community life, “I don’t see it [the Kibbutz] only in the salaries. We have a community that know each other and feel more responsible for one another.”
Another development over the last decade and a half in the Kibbutz movement is in the urban and rural Kibbutzim of young ideologically minded Israelis (and others from around the world) from movements such as “Hashomer Hatzair”, which have been rejuvenating the idea of the kibbutz for the 21st century.
They live in small communes, sharing time, space and money. These communes are sponsored by larger Kibbutz structures that support their intentional focus as communes and as individuals on education and social justice work.
“All of our money arrives into one bank account and from there it is divided up between the groups. Each group gets an amount of money depending on the people and the needs and so on, explained Advah Meir Weil, a member of the Hashomer Hatzair Movement. “It’s a choice of values… It’s a choice to be a Socialist and to be a Socialist is not only a big declaration. It’s also a way of life and its sharing in cooperation with other people. So if you preach equality and don’t live in an equal way of life it’s a bit of a problem to educate for equality,” she continued, explaining the connection between the way they live and their goals as educators. She went on, “Living in a neoliberal capitalist society in a very Socialist way is a big difference from the old kibbutz, because the old Kibbutz was part of much more of a welfare state, a social democratic state, than we live in today. It creates many contradictions.”
Though, to some onlookers, it may seem that the idea of the Kibbutz is a 20th century relic, it is clear that the Kibbutz is an experiment that did not fail, rather it is in the midst of myriad and fascinating changes.
*Full Disclosure: The author is a member of Hashomer Hatzair and knows the interviewees outside of the context of this article.