100 years of Kibbutzim

Twelve young Romanian Jews, ten men and two women, marooned on a barren plot overlooking the Sea of Galilee. The year was 1910 and the place, named Degania A, neighboured the remote Arab village Umm Juni in a Palestine still under Ottoman rule. As the dawn of a new way of life that many later regarded as epitomising Israel, the state-to-be, it was an inauspicious beginning yet also the stuff of legend. The founders of Degania A could almost be seen as twelve latter-day children of Jacob, progenitors of future tribes. Determined to ‘redeem the land’, smash the class system and radically transform the Jewish condition through the dignity of manual labour, they went where others feared to tread. Degania in Hebrew and Umm Juni in Arabic both mean ‘cornflower’ but conditions were harsh, the soil was stubborn and malaria was rife. Their experiment was virtually snuffed out later that year, only to be refreshed by a new garin (seed or unit) of Russian pioneers in 1911.
Viewed from the vantage point of one hundred years, things look considerably different. Some 250 kibbutzim were founded in the intervening century, yet the affectionate if stereotypical image of the kibbutznik with his kova tembel (literally fool’s hat) seems quaintly dated.Today only a third of kibbutzim adhere to the old collectivist ideals, where no-one earned a salary, or whatever was earned outside the kibbutz (itself an innovation at one stage) went into the common pot and was redistributed, Marxist-style, to ‘each according to his needs’. The one exception granted was for Holocaust survivors keeping their reparations.
In 2007 Degania A again led the way, this time by becoming the first kibbutz to be privatised. What would its founders have thought? Once allegedly the most productive socialist system on earth, and one that outlasted the Communist regimes of the eastern bloc, the kibbutz fell on hard times. Economic miscalculation, the decline of the pioneer drive of the pre-state years, an aging population profile, the encroachment of consumerism and globalisation, the withdrawal of state largesse after Labour’s 1977 fall from power — all these elements became part of the kibbutz story too.
Long pilloried by the religious for their ‘non-Jewish’ proclivities (recall Rabbi Menachem Shach’s attack on ‘rabbit-eating kibbutzniks’ in 1990), the leftist flagships have recently faced criticism from others on the left too. Anti-Zionists accuse them of playing a crucial role in the incremental pre-1948 dispossession of Palestinian peasantry, and of avarice and aggression in war. Furthermore, on a cultural plane, kibbutzim stand charged with nurturing the solipsism, even narcissism, of a new ‘Hebrew nation’ that could never truly accommodate the land’s indigenes nor truly integrate into the Middle East as a whole.
Returning to Degania, however, reminds us of the potency of the kibbutz movement and the talent which came out of it. Five years after its foundation, in May 1915, the community celebrated the birth of the world’s first native-born kibbutznik, one Moshe Dayan.Thousands of other sons and daughters of the movement followed, including Ehud Barak, Amos Oz, Shimon Peres (who later founded Kibbutz Alumot), Arthur Koestler, the painter Avigdor Arikha, and the outstanding Hebrew poet Rachel, who lived and is buried at Degania. Five Labour Party Israeli prime ministers — Barak and Peres, David Ben Gurion, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir. — spent time living on kibbutzim and six ministers (a quarter) of Yitzhak Rabin’s first government, 1974-77, were kibbutz or moshav members (the moshav being semi-collectivised agricultural settlements). ‘The higher one ascends the power pyramid, the greater their share of power’, wrote Yossi Beilin in 1992. Though nearly two decades on, that is certainly less true of today.
By the 1920s the kibbutz movement assumed a position within the Zionist movement and, later, in the State of Israel, that was both pivotal and out of all proportion to its actual size. The movement also spawned some audacious notions, to the point of outright chutzpah; determined to abolish the family as a bourgeois concept it insisted that children be raised away from their parents in a children’s home or dormitory. In scenes redolent of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, children belonged to the kibbutz first, and only as an afterthought to their biological progenitors. For decades more ‘purist’ kibbutzim banned public marriage ceremonies as reactionary. Likewise early kibbutzniks were mainly atheists, many of them militantly anti-religious. Their definition of Jewishness was national-historical rather than theological,however they still found ways to celebrate Jewish Festivals albeit stripped of divine implications. Shavuot, Sukkot and Pesach became seasonal celebrations and even the obscure Lag B’Omer was reinvented as a faux hunting festival for children. Soon enough new ideologies appended themselves to the kibbutz trend — adherents of AD Gordon, for instance, imbibed Tolstoyan pastoralism with Hassidic spiritual passion and a belief that tilling the soil could eradicate Jewish parasitism and ‘re-establish our path among the living nations of the earth’. Others, such as Hashomer HaTzair, aspired to a rustic Marxism combined with a sense of Jewish self-fulfilment. Another wing of the future Mapam (now Meretz) party was Ahdut Ha-Avodah,  rigorously devoted to both socialism and the championing of Jewish settlement beyond the borders of the British Mandate.
Perhaps the mythical aspect was also overplayed, even from the beginning. During the halcyon days of the Third Aliyah some ideologues dreamt of turning all of then-Palestine into one giant kibbutz; Labour Zionist ideologue Berl Katznelson said ‘Everywhere the Jewish labourer goes, the divine presence (shekhina) goes with him’. Yet kibbutzniks never numbered more than 7.5% of the total Jewish population. Now that figure is less than 3.5%. Others suggest that Degania was just  a small-scale settlement, a kvutsa, and the first true kibbutz only arrived with Ein Harod in 1921, which  soon blossomed into the flagship of the Kibbutz Me’uhad, beloved of the mainstream Mapai/ Labour Party. ‘In reality the kibbutz failed to change man’s nature’, opined a recent Ha’aretz editorial. In his magisterial book One Palestine Complete Tom Segev quotes an early kibbutz member lamenting the failure of a dream nearly a century earlier, when he sees children hitting each other in a Degania playpen. ‘Even an education in communal life couldn’t uproot those egotistical tendencies. The utopia of our initial social conception was slowly, slowly destroyed’.
Yet perhaps the more telling moral quandary concerns kibbutzniks and indigenous Palestinians. Under Turkish and then Ottoman rule kibbutz leaders purchased all their land; but often from absentee landlords, as with Degania (whose land belonged to Persian owners living in Beirut). In effect ordinary fellahin (tenant farmers) were displaced from land allotted to kibbutzim. Seeing such events, kibbutz ideologue Berl Katznelson wrote: ‘I do not wish to see the realisation of Zionism in the form of the new Polish state with Arabs in the position of the Jews and the Jews in the position of the Poles, the ruling people. For me this would be the complete perversion of the Zionist ideal’.
Did kibbutzniks have a clear idea of where Arabs fitted in to their utopian vision? Probably not; it could be said they were obsessed with their role in the greater Zionist project, a self-liberation based on ‘negating the Diaspora’. In one sense kibbutzniks were no different from America’s pioneering homesteaders. Many kibbutzim maintained affable relations with neighbouring Arab villages, and spread medical and technical knowledge, buying produce in return. Yet while some dabbled with adopting Arab dress in the early days, enmity simmered under the surface. Until July 2008 — with the case of Amal Karmiya from Qalansawe village and the Sharon Valley’s Kibbutz Nir Eliyahu — no Muslim Arab had ever been accepted as a fully fledged kibbutz member; which arguably negates traditional kibbutz claims of brotherhood with fellow Arab toilers. Another paradox is located in the comparison between kibbutz and urban life, in particular, Tel Aviv. For Arthur Ruppin, head of the Zionist movement’s Palestine Office, the same man who helped create ‘the first Jewish city’ in 1909, the next year effectively launched the kibbutz movement by sending that intrepid dozen to Degania. Did he give birth to twins, Romulus and Remus, rival models for development out of which the future modern state arose? If so, with greater urban Tel Aviv’s population standing at 1.24 million and the kibbutz movement numbering a tenth of that, just 125,000 souls, one might conclude that town has triumphed over country. Certainly early kibbutzniks lamented the recreation on Palestinian soil of some of the worst aspects, as they saw it, of stunted Jewish urban life in Europe.The writer Moshe Smilansky called Tel Aviv a giant hotel full of ‘shopkeeper’s commercialism’ leading to ‘gypsiness, assimilation and loss of identity, not to national revival’.
The kibbutz soon came to symbolise the Zionist state-to-be — ha-medinat she-haba — and David Ben-Gurion hailed its halutzim (pioneers) as the ‘army of Zionist fulfilment’, a tellingly militaristic metaphor.Yet it was also increasingly autonomous from the rest of the Jewish population and its institutions, a trend matched by Marxist kibbutznik’s eschewing of central institutions, and a growing enthusiasm for anarchist viewpoints, as promoted by the key kibbutz philosopher, Mordechai Tabenkin. At the same time kibbutzim put themselves at the service of the state-to-be. Still today they are concentrated near borders, in the north and south and not in the centre, where most Israelis live. Which reveals another paradox: for while kibbutzim are generally seen as pro-peace — and indeed underpinned the early Peace Now movement since 1978 — they also evinced a martial aspect throughout Zionist history. Many were allied to the Shomrim (guardians) movement, founded virtually simultaneously with Degania, and designed to replace the armed Arab protectors of settlements with Jews. After 1967 kibbutzim railed against militant Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza; yet they pioneered the quick military-style ‘tower and stockade’ structures (homa u-migdal) in the 1930s, in response to Arab-Jewish violence, which settlers have partly imitated. Some 56 new kibbutzim emerged almost as a response to the Arab Revolt of 1936-9. The building effort was celebrated in propaganda films like Avoda (Work) of 1935; and in 2009 subverted in films by Yael Bartana, one called Nightmares, another Homa u-Migdal, based on the conceit of Polish Jews returning to build a kibbutz in the heart of Warsaw. Moreover the Kibbutz Artzi trend nurtured the Palmach, so strong in the 1948 war, which trained since 1941 at Kibbutzim Ginosar and Beit Oren. And they deliberately settled in border areas. The courageous defenders of the southern Yad Mordechai in 1948, for instance, is credited with saving Tel Aviv from the invading Egyptian army. Since then kibbutzniks have been prominent in the officer ranks of the Israel Defence Forces, at least until recently. And the army’s Nahal department (Nahal being an acronym for ‘Fighting Pioneer Youth’) established outposts in outlying and border areas, which later turned into civilian kibbutzim and moshavim. In many cases the result was a different type of kibbutznik, new Russians and Iraqi and Moroccan immigrants alongside the more established Ashkenazi Sabras.
The Mapam/Kibbutz Ha’artzi philosophy favoured binationalism and anti-racism; yet its advocacy of ‘Hebrew labour’ encouraged economic segregation and arguably aggravated Palestinian anti-Zionism. During the 1948 war Palmach commanders from kibbutzim often exceeded orders and stoked expulsions. Individual Mapam kibbutzim were accused of greedily gobbling up land. As Benny Morris notes in his book, 1948 and After, ‘the reality of conflict sorely tried the principles of Mapam party members.’ Even the behaviour of its supposedly peaceful Hashomer Hatzair wing ran ‘contrary to its ideology’ as ‘national aspirations overcame socialist premise and vision’. Mapai kibbutzim accused Hashomer kibbutzim of acquiring Arab property and harvesting vacant Arab fields; a Mapai circular named Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’Emek as the first to demand destruction of neighbouring Arab villages. Morris quotes a despairing Hashomer director, Aharon Cohen, reflecting on Arab flight from Haifa in early May, 1948: ‘As a socialist I am ashamed and afraid; to win the war and lose the peace, the state, when it arises, will live on the sword’. But Yitzhak Ben-Aharon of Ahdut kibbutzim countered: increasing the number of Arab refugees ‘also increases our security’. While Mapam political secretary Leib Levite said ‘War has a logic which must be carried through’ and he ‘justified and endorsed every conquest and every eviction of every Arab settlement necessitated by the war’.
At least Mapam and kibbutzniks debated the issue in mid-war; no other party did that. By October, when Israel had survived and was gaining territory, Cohen admitted: ‘It depended on us whether the Arabs stayed or fled’. Galician-born founder of Kibbutz Merhavia, Meir Ya’ari, lamented: ‘The youth we nurtured in the Palmach, including kibbutz members’ were at once ‘brave and courageous’ yet on the moral plane ‘they shoot defenceless Arab men and women, not in battle. I hoped some would rebel and disobey orders. What does it mean to empty villages? What did we labour for?’ Ben-Gurion soon stifled pleas by certain Kibbutz Artzi devotees to allow for the return of Palestinian refugees, often their former friendly Arab neighbours. Now that historians have brought out those skeletons from wartime closets, the kibbutz’s reputation seems less than entirely benign.
Equally ambiguous was the post-war record: while kibbutzim epitomised socialism, the new poor, working class and mainly Mizrachi immigrants, saw them as wealthy elitists pampered by the Labour-dominated state. Again, kibbutzim abutted ma’abarot, in effect refugee camps whose residents, 80% of whom came from Middle Eastern countries, often worked as  day labourers on the kibbutzim. The situation was not entirely of their choice, but even when kibbutzniks thought they were doing good, they were resented.  ‘We wanted to assimilate new immigrants from Iraq and North Africa’, recalled Meron Benvenisti, later deputy mayor of Jerusalem; ‘We brought them to our kibbutz and believed that in teaching them how to behave like us we were doing the right thing. It was a sincere, if misguided, attempt… that injured their self-respect and bred pure hatred’. Even among kibbutzniks, rival movements sapped each other’s strength, on points of minute ideological difference that recall the schisms lampooned in  Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Perhaps the craziest example, perhaps, was the literal division of one kibbutz, Ein Harod, into two, bifurcated by a fence and a road. More kibbitz than kibbutz, one might say. The major rival movements eventually united in 1999; but by then the damage had been done.
Since Israel’s independence, the kibbutz movement has thrived in some aspects but suffered in others. Moshav numbers overtook the kibbutz, and while before kibbutzniks cherished the ‘dignity of labour’, more began using day labourers and then, even cheaper, younger Western volunteers. This latter trend, though, probably introduced more foreigners to Israel than any state initiative. And sometimes strife came from close to home.  Ben-Gurion’s short-lived Rafi party broke socialist Zionist ranks by touting ‘statism’; it saw the Histadrut (Organisation of Trade Unions) kibbutzim, kupat Holim (health care system) as anachronistic pre-state bodies. Rafi disappeared soon after its origin in 1964, but its members re-entered and influenced Labour. And after Israel’s near defeat in the Yom Kippur War, 1973, increasing numbers of kibbutz recruits eschewed the traditional commando officers’ and air force pilots’ courses for non-combat support duties. Some even left the army altogether, an act once considered taboo. Now settlers and  the ‘national religious’ assumed the mantle of the new halutzim, or Zionist pioneers; or took over the kibbutzniks’ former role as ‘the Israeli gentry’ as the essayist Amos Elon put it.The trend accelerated after 1982 Lebanon War. Kibbutz ideology seemed to have ossified; the younger generation did not feel so strongly motivated by collectivist, radical ideas.
The shock 1977 Likud victory meant that subsidies were withdrawn from kibbutzim, the quintessential Labour Zionist institution and symbol of the hated ancien regime. There was a sense of revenge; money was diverted to the settlers on the right, at the expense of kibbutzniks on the left. Withdrawal of government aid was arguably long overdue but when it came it exposed kibbutzim to the full blast of market forces. From the 1960s to 1990s agriculture became economically unsustainable. So many kibbutzim diluted their pastoral ideology and adopted industrial production — extremely successfully in the case of Kibbutz Be’eri, home to Israel’s largest high-tech printmaker, generating $100m a year; less so elsewhere. The subsidy withdrawal coincided with the worst deficits and hyperinflation in Israeli history in 1981-84. Kibbutzim had unwisely invested in major banks that went under. Many needed bailing out, and this attracted accusations of favouritism from development towns, who felt their long-ignored needs were more pressing. The old kibbutz model felt at odds with the new age socially and psychologically. Younger generations grew frustrated after exposure to wider Israeli society and, in the absence of the pioneering, collective spirit, many felt suppressed by the kibbutz environment. Ironically the free-thinking, radical kibbutz seemed jaded: there was too much group decision-making over what job to take, whether to go to university, what to study. The dissonance between purported socialist verities and draconian peer pressure, alongside a blithe disregard for less fortunate souls — whether neighbouring Arab villages, Palestinian refugee camps or poor Jewish development towns — proved too much for one former British-born kibbutz volunteer at Machanayim in the Upper Galilee. Now a determined American critic of Israel and Zionism, Tony Judt marked the centenary with a harsh op-ed in The New York Review of Books this year. Readers can decide whether his observations reflect the personal disappointment of an idealistic adolescent, or a valid and systemic critique of the entire kibbutz ethos. Meanwhile in his apocalyptic fantasy, The Road to Ein Harod, the late Israeli author Amos Kenan envisages a fascist Israel in ruins fighting a war of survival, with the eponymous kibbutz as the symbol of broken dreams of a socialist Jewish-Arab nirvana.
There are still simmering disputes between ideologically pure collectivist kibbutzim versus the two thirds who now opt for ‘renewal’ (a euphemism, according to some, for introducing capitalist elements). Recently in London, head of the United Kibbutz Movement, 2001-2009, Yossi Bargil said: ‘The kibbutz had to change in order to survive’. Hence the dropping of strictly equal pay for all work and mandatory collective dining. And yet, defying the sceptics, the kibbutz has found new ways to survive and even thrive. The New York Times, for instance, described kibbutz guesthouses as ‘among Israel’s best-kept secrets’. Some kibbutzim have cleverly combined touristic appeal with a genuine and timely commitment to saving the environment. One example is Kibbutz Lotan, north of Eilat, in the Arava Valley of Israel’s unspoilt eastern Negev desert. Founded by the US Reform youth movement in 1983, Lotan boasts a Centre for Creative Ecology, which runs a six-week Green Apprenticeship programme. It also runs nature tours and birding, and even an underwater shiatsu facility. Ihud, the 1952 breakaway from Ein Harod, became Israel’s first ‘green kibbutz’; when the parent institution is famed as an artists’ colony. Meanwhile, having overcome their former prejudice against university educations, kibbutzim now exploit the skills of educated members better. Furthermore kibbutzim — even the ‘renewed’ ones with marketing boards — still maintain a social security net, an attractive proprosition in the 21st century, where the gap between rich and poor, especially in Israel, has grown alarmingly. In an era of rampant materalism, the innocent kibbutz lifestyle, with its emphasis on equality, fraternity and the welfare of all its members suddenly seems appealing.
As Bargil explains ideological issues still cause rifts, often along the tangent of principle versus self-preservation. For instance, during the 2008-9 Gaza War most of the 83 Kibbutz Artzi kibbutzim opposed aggressive militarism. Yet those 12 or so on the Gaza border had borne the brunt of Qassem attacks and demanded retaliation. Similarly while kibbutzim generally want to ‘end the occupation’, their movement still calls in 2010 for a stronger presence on the Jordan River Valley, along the lines of the (kibbutznik) Allon Plan. Some say that northern kibbutzim deliberately provoked Syrians in the mid-60s with probing tractors to spark a war and gain new upland in the process — which Israel did with the conquest of the Golan in June 1967. Shlomo Ben-Ami reports that Yitzhak Rabin’s confrontation with Golan kibbutzniks refusing to leave if a land swap with Syria was needed for peace was one of his most tense meetings. Evidently Rabin prevailed, but then was assassinated.
To sceptics on the left, the kibbutzim still play their old role of staking out Jewish claims to all of historic Israel; in that regard the movement’s drive to populate the Galilee, Golan and the Negev might seem like an attempt to redress a ‘demographic imbalance’, that is, to reinsert a Jewish majority in more Arab areas of pre-1967 Israel. Finally, the old kibbutz bond with Labour can no longer be taken for granted: in 2009 more kibbutzniks voted Kadima than for any other party.
One hundred years after its birth, the kibbutz movement is wrestling with its own identity in Israel. With socialism diminished, the state of Israel built, and normative Judaism still mostly rejected, all that is left is an afterglow of Zionism; and yet many leftist kibbutz supporters are drawn to a post-Zionist conceptualisation. Two examples inspire: the Givat Haviva Institute, founded in 1949 and still teaching Arabs and Jews side by side; and more recently Eshbal, the newest kibbutz of all which, since 2007, has housed the much-praised Galil Jewish-Arab School, a haven of peace and mutual enrichment for 200 children of all faiths. Could this be a model for the future? Let’s see in another hundred years.

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