The kibbutz reborn
Many of Israel’s kibbutzim have abandoned the traditional collective ideal in favour of a more capitalist approach. The result: growing memberships and economic security
MIRI IWLER hardly looks like a stereotypical kibbutznik. “It’s been many years since I carried a pitchfork,” confides the elegantly dressed director of the Yad Harif Arts Centre, adjacent to her kibbutz, Tzor’a, a few miles outside Jerusalem. Iwler, who is 54, and her husband Arieh joined Tzor’a in 1971 as part of a youth-movement settlement group, or garin. “We were full of ideology in those days — there were no televisions in members’ rooms,” she recalls. “All that has changed since privatisation.”
Some 180 of Israel’s 278 kibbutzim have undergone the often painful process of privatisation in the past decade.
Economic necessity and dwindling memberships has forced them to abandon the founding ideal of pooling members’ wealth and redistributing it according to need. Now, on privatised kibbutzim, members are allowed to keep most of what they earn, and the result is that the kibbutzim are emerging as stronger, with new members attracted by the economic freedoms.
“It’s certainly true that the situation of most kibbutzim has improved in recent years,” Kibbutz Movement spokesman Aviv Leshem says. Most privatised kibbutzim, he adds, are now flourishing both economically and demographically. As the communities learn to balance their books, the younger generation — which left in droves during the “bad” years — is gradually returning to bring up their children in pastoral surroundings, with a good education and close to relatives.
About 130 new housing projects have already been completed or are under construction in kibbutzim. “This affects the communities in many ways, by lowering average ages and bringing income to the kibbutz dining-room, laundry, supermarket, etc,” Leshem points out.
Hugging a picturesque foothill of the Jerusalem Hills, Tzor’a is a tight-knit community that has consistently attracted members away from other kibbutzim. “There has always been an ideology of sharing here,” says Miri Iwler. However, the kibbutz never made ends meet. “It’s been tough economically. We’re still in debt to the banks, but the situation has improved in recent years since privatisation,” she says.
The members of Tzor’a have opted for the “safety net” privatisation model that preserves some communal structures. “We decided as a community to help each other — for example, the kibbutz still subsidises 30 per cent of dental treatments,” Iwler says.
“If a member earns over NIS 3,500 (about £450) a month, they have to pay kibbutz taxes, which cover services such as the garden maintenance, cultural events and festival celebrations.”
Some 160 of the 180 privatised kibbutzim operate the “safety net” system, intended to ensure a reasonable quality of life for the economically weaker section of the kibbutz population. Another 25 non-privatised kibbutzim have adopted some facets of privatisation, such as financial incentives at work, while 73 still function according to the classic collective model.
Privatisation is an incremental process. “Tzor’a is in the second year of full privatisation,” says Iwler, whose husband works off the kibbutz as an estate agent in Jerusalem. “Now all my income goes into the kibbutz account, the kibbutz takes out all the bills and transfers the rest to my bank account. This is the model of the new kibbutz. I don’t want to talk about ideology. Many of the conservative objectors came to see that this is the right way.”
Kibbutz Nachshon, in the nearby Ayalon Valley, was for many years a struggling socialist bastion. Now it operates according to business lines. “Some aspects have improved, but others have deteriorated,” says 54-year-old Anat Shalgi, who was born and raised on the kibbutz, and who also works at the Yad Harif centre. “Today there’s less culture, sharing or interaction between members. We no longer manage to celebrate festivals together. Fewer people turn up to communal events — only those who have no better option. This is very sad. On the other hand, I can now concentrate my energies on my art, rather than having to spend time doing my turn in the kibbutz babies’ house.”
Herparents,ideology-drivenIsraeli-born members of the Hashomer Hatzair socialist youth movement, helped set up the kibbutz in 1950, and she was one of the first children born there. “Nachshon had a humanistic approach that put people at the centre. It didn’t always work,” Shalgi admits. “We relied on agriculture and struggled economically. We were supported by the Jewish Agency — the feeling then was that this was legitimate.”
Her parents are now in their late 70s. “They still work — that’s important for them, but it’s difficult for them to accept the changes. At least they’re expanding the house that they have lived in for years. At last they can allow themselves to do it.”
Nachshon was completely privatised two years ago, after years of discussions. “It was a long process. The kibbutz is now looking forward, but the gaps between people have grown. Nachshon is absorbing new members, although our new neighbourhood is still under construction — it’s taking time because we don’t have enough money.”
It would be over-simplistic to attribute the economic changes solely to a dwindling of the kibbutz movement’s collective ideal, says Aviv Leshem, the Kibbutz Movement spokesman. “The ideology has not died — but we have narrowed the gap between our ideals and reality.”
One kibbutz member, who asked to remain anonymous, offered a deadpan version of the rationale: “Once people started to get the money in their own pockets, they began to work as they should. There were kibbutzim that ended up with too many people not contributing enough — every kibbutz has its pet parasite. Some members voted for privatisation in order to get those people to move their asses. Now it’s like joining a top-class country club — either you marry in or join the waiting list.”
Much has changed since the first kibbutz, Degania Alef, was established in 1910 southwest of Lake Kinneret. In February this year, 85 per cent of that kibbutz’s 320 members passed a privatisation motion, in a move seen as a watershed. “Degania Alef represented and still represents the model and the epitome of the social values of the kibbutz movement in Israel,” Shai Shoshani, chairman of the kibbutz management committee, said at the time.
According to Kibbutz Movement data, some 35 per cent of kibbutzniks now work outside their communities. Over 2,000 small businesses have opened on kibbutzim in recent years, 40 per cent of them managed by women. Industry provides some 70 per cent of kibbutz income in 350 factories, while income from agriculture has remained relatively steady.
The average per-household income has risen steeply, and since 2004 is greater than the Israeli national average. One in three kibbutz households owns a private car.
Aviv Leshem, who is 35, was born on his kibbutz, Sha’ar Hagolan. Of 18 children in his age group, seven are still on the kibbutz and two are considering returning, he says. “The change is bringing more children home,” agrees Miri Iwler. “In Tzor’a, 150 more housing units will be constructed for returning children and newcomers — on condition that they become members of the community. In the past three years, several dozen people born on the kibbutz have returned, and there’s a long list of people wanting to join or return.”
Kibbutz Mishmar Haemek is one of the few kibbutzim that have bucked the trend. “Privatisation has never been an issue for us,” kibbutz secretary Chen Tzur says. “There have been attempts to privatise some aspects in recent years, but they failed.”
Tzur admitted that this was largely because the Jezre’el Valley kibbutz, with its successful plastics factory and strong agricultural branches, is in a sound financial state. With 550 adult members and almost as many children, Mishmar Haemek still operates as an old-type kibbutz where members meet daily in the communal dining-room. “This is a conservative kibbutz that never liked changes, even during our own financial crisis during the ’80s,” she says.
There have been some changes, however. “About 70 members work outside the kibbutz. Some have a car from work,” Tzur says.
Neighbouring Kibbutz Megiddo is undergoing an economic turnaround since it became privatised and sold plots of land to building contractors. A new housing estate is almost complete, and the community has been revitalized by an influx of young families of mostly second- or third-generation kibbutzniks from other kibbutzim.
“Megiddo in my eyes is no longer a kibbutz, but a communal settlement,” says Chen Tzur. “One thing that characterises the kibbutz movement nowadays is the variety of orientations.”
Children at Kibbutz Tzor’a. Young families are returning to the settlement, attracted by the new economic freedoms allowed under privatisation
Kibbutznik Miri Iwler: “It is the right way to go”