“I’m a part of a revolution…”: A discussion with an Israeli revolutionary on the past, present and future of Socialist-Zionism and the Kibbutz
This is the full version of the written discussion in which Avigail Shaham details her community, movement, and vision. The shortened version appears at Jewschool.com. This article has been translated into Spanish here and has been reprinted in Chile and Argentina.
What do you do? Why do you find yourself identifying as a “Shomeret” (member of the movement)? What is the appeal for you?
My name is Avigail, I was born and raised in Jerusalem, surrounded by good and inspiring people. Among many other activities in my childhood and adolescence, I was a member of Hashomer Hatzair youth movement - a 100 year old Socialist and Zionist movement which created some of the most inspiring foundations, structures and culture of cooperative society in Israel. When I graduated high school, I volunteered for a service year in the movement, in which my friends and I worked as educators in centers of the youth movement around the country, and created for other young people the unique experience of the movement - the experience of an autonomous, creative and liberating youth community in which one shapes their character in light of great ideas and through social discussions and mutual contemplation. As we were doing this, we realized we were Shomrim and Shomrot [truly identifying with the movement’s ideals] in character. We realized that the movement's ideology and culture was a central compass for us in evaluating our actions and behavior and in choosing our role and path in the world. We wanted to continue being Shomrim and Shomrot, and create a path of life which expresses the essence of the movement.
Today, almost 12 years later, I live in a communal group [known as a "Kvutza", which means "group" in Hebrew] in Givat Haviva, with many of the people who I started this path with back then. We are educators and social activists, working in various arenas of Israeli society to encourage social justice, cooperation, peace and humanism, and to offer alternatives to the existing social structures and paradigms.
I work as a lawyer, specializing in labor law and working towards workers collective rights as well as equality for women in the workplace. I participate in different initiatives in the movement, such as political action and development of grass-roots unionizing projects, and in the internal processes of shaping the adult “Shomeric” [reflecting the values of the Hashomer Hatzair movement] society.
What is a Kvutza? What's the goal?
The Intimate Kvutza is a communal way of life that strives to liberate the individual and empower them to act creatively in the world towards positive change. The underlying belief of Kvutza life is that the presence of others is a key to the freedom of the human being; that what holds us back from expressing ourselves in the world is loneliness, alienation and competition; that we need close partners who love us and see the goodness in us in order to believe in ourselves and dare to create the things we dream of; that our encounter with others allows us to reflect on our personal processes and draw inspiration from them to make progress in those processes; that collective action is forever more effective, meaningful and enjoyable than individual action, and that the world is changed by movements, not by personas. Therefore, Kvutza is the nuclear unit of our alternative social structure, and the initial affiliation of members in the movement.
What are the defining characteristic of the Classic Kibbutz? What happened to the classic Kibbutz movement? Did it fail? What are the attributes you find important to carry forward from that model?
The Classic Kibbutz is a holistic socialist way of life, which historically is possibly the most radical model of communal living created in western culture. It is an attempt to realize the ideas of Utopic Socialism and Spiritual Zionism. Hashomer Hatzair established 85 Kibbutzim [plural of Kibbutz] of about 270 which have been established in Israel since the 1920s. The Kibbutz is characterized as a working community (traditionally agricultural work in a rural setting), which leads a rich and vibrant internal life of ideological discourse, cultural creation, political involvement and internal educational processes. It is a collective economic unit which implements equality based on the principal of "give as much as you can and take as much as you need".
The Kibbutz movement contributed to the construction of Israeli society beyond measure, in the fields of settlement, education, politics, unionizing, security, culture, production, and more. This movement went through a deep crisis, distinctively starting in the 1980s as Israeli politics took a turn from Social-Democratic and welfare oriented leadership to Neo-liberal Capitalist leadership. Within this crisis many Kibbutzim chose to lead privatizing processes and depart from many of the founding ideas and essences that characterized Kibbutz life and beliefs. The reasons for the Kibbutz crisis are various, both external and internal.
Our belief is that the Kibbutz did not fail - its essence is just as relevant today as before, if not more, and what failed (or partially failed) was the way in which this essence was practiced and realized. For this reason, we feel committed to draw inspiration from the magnificent enterprise of the Kibbutz movement and learn from its mistakes and shortcomings, in order to find new ways and forms to realize our essential ideals.
What are the characteristics that define your Kibbutz and your movement? How is it different and how is it similar to the old model? Are there things you are doing now that you think will last ten, twenty, or fifty years into the future?
There are a few central differences between our model and the original Kibbutz model, which are related to our analysis regarding the problems and challenges of the old model. First, as opposed to the original Kibbutzim, which were agricultural settlements in which most members practiced physical labor in different agricultural and industrial branches or took on internal roles within the community (such as educators for the children of the Kibbutz or workers in the Kibbutz dining room or laundry facility), the work done by members of our movement is directed outwards, towards changing the larger society and educating wide sectors within it. The large majority of communes are located in cities, often in inner-city working-class neighborhoods, and aspire to create connections with local communities, address their needs, educate within them and act in cooperation with them. Rather than classic pioneers on the agricultural or territorial front, movement members today are pioneers on the social, educational and political front.
Another central difference is that our model is based on the intimate Kvutza, rather than the large community. This is because we believe that voluntary communalism and sharing require direct relationships and ongoing discourse between partners, and a space for leadership and influence for all members of the community. Whereas in the classic Kibbutz communal living was designed in a set format, managed by written rules and representative committees, our groups believe that every person must take part in decisions and dilemmas relating to the communal lifestyle and that we must constantly reshape the forms and content of our communalism so that they match people's desires, needs and beliefs. For this reason, we chose a model of intertwined communalism, in which, as opposed to sharing on the large community level, our intense sharing is based on a smaller intimate unit, able to converse and maintain close and personal relationships. The intimate unit exists within wider circles of communalism, which share aspects of movement life, such as missions [educational and activist initiatives], culture, geographic location, or economy in varying extents.
Is there something Jewish about THE Kibbutz or YOUR Kibbutz? Is this model workable in other countries? For other peoples?
We feel that the Kibbutz movement, both the original model and ours, is a distinctively Socialist, Zionist and Jewish phenomenon. Obviously we believe it is a desirable and applicable model for any human being, regardless of religion or nationality. And still, the culture, the language, and the historical consciousness of our movement is Jewish, among other characteristics.
We understand Judaism as an ancient social movement led by a strong notion of solidarity and community. The Jewish ancient texts contain some of the oldest welfare principals and norms in human history; the Jewish rights of passage are centralized around the receiving of social responsibility and obligations towards the community; the culture and heritage of Jewish communities in the Diaspora is that of an inseparable connection between the individual and the community and deep codes of personal contribution and empathy; Jewish mysticism emphasized the inherent connection between personal redemption and collective redemption [known in the movement in Hebrew as Tikkun Adam - Tikkun Olam].
The original Kibbutz has been compared to the Hassidic way of life; and historically speaking, the movement established Kibbutzim out of the belief that they are the best manifestation of liberated Jewish existence, as part of the Zionist revolution and the aspiration to actualize Jewish values and essences lost in the conditions of the Diaspora. As well, today our communes practice Jewish culture, learn Jewish texts and create original customs around Jewish festivals and holidays, which we take from the long Jewish heritage and add our original contribution. The formative terminology and educational contents are based, among other things, on sources and concepts from Jewish history and Zionist philosophy.
Having said that, communalism is a humanist and socialist idea, and in that sense is universal, and should be practiced by anyone, anywhere.
Critics have said that Kibbutzim began as Anarcho-Socialist experiments to liberate Jews from capitalist oppression, but that they quickly became exclusionary "ethnic" communities and tools of a state looking to take land. Is that true? If so, what is the value of this model? If not, what is the "right" way to view the Kibbutz in history?
Oy this is far too academic for me to presume to answer. Obviously the answer is super complex and the Kibbutzim are a wide phenomenon with many variations and differences.
"…Anarcho-Socialist experiments to liberate Jews from capitalist oppression"? Yes, and also to liberate Jews from spiritual decadence, historical victimhood complexes and collective homelessness.
“Exclusionary ‘ethnic’ communities"? – Exclusionary? Yes to an extent. The classic Kibbutz is a pretty closed off community, with limited interaction with wider society. Even though we must take into consideration that when a group of people have a very deep shared language, set of values and culture, it's hard to fully understand it and participate in it, and you wouldn't necessarily expect intentional communities to preserve a low common denominator in order to be more "communicational". And let's not forget - the Kibbutz movement absorbed more newcomers than any other community in Israel, and went to great lengths to offer itself as a home for various populations new to the country.
“Ethnic”? That would be unfair to say. The Kibbutzim were, in my opinion, tolerant, liberal and anti-racist communities, striving for peace and justice. The fact that members were mostly Jewish doesn't make it an ethnic community, if you meant that in the excluding sense. Just as it makes sense for a family to aspire to be a part of the same culture, heritage and language, it also makes sense for an intentional community, which in many ways is an extended version of a family.
"… tools of a state looking to take land"? Kibbutzim settled along the forming borders of the Israeli state, also as a mechanism to enforce those borders and make them a reality. I don't think they were a tool, I think they did what they did because they identified with the agenda, whether one agrees with it or not. They were partners in the Zionist enterprise to protect the delicate borders of the new state and defend its population. They willingly fought on the national front and not only on the social front, and did it through contemplation, moral discourse and delicate balances.
To be clear, Hashomer Hatzair never settled in the territories occupied by the IDF during the wars, including the Golan Heights. Up until today there is no Kibbutz of Hashomer Hatzair beyond the “green line”.
Other Kibbutzim established by other movements? I'll leave it to them to respond.
What revolution are you a part of? What is the world you envision? Is it really possible?
It's a pretty wide question! I'm a part of a revolution against post modern alienation, cynicism and loneliness. I'm a part of a revolution against neo-liberal capitalism and the culture of economic imperialism and exploitation.
I'm a part of a revolution against the distorted perception of what it is to be Jewish and Zionist which is so common in Israeli society today. I’m a part of a revolution against the fragmentation of society and deconstruction of collective structures and notions.
I'm a part of a revolution of the human spirit, which rebels against the desperation and helplessness of the atomic individual. I'm a part of a revolution of solidarity, intimacy and oneness, which believes that togetherness empowers the individual to fulfill their humanity and realize themselves.
The world that I envision is a world in which the codes of all these revolutions are the formative codes in the basis of public policy, general education and formal norms. It's a far off vision, but what allows us to keep striving for it without losing hope is that our revolution, in many ways, is already a manifestation of this future.
As we say in the movement:
"!החברותא שלנו אינה רוצה במהפכה, היא הינה המהפכה"
(Our community doesn't aspire for a revolution; it is the revolution in itself!)