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

The Jewish Chronicle - - Features - BY DANIEL BEN-TAL

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.”

PHO­TOS: DAVID KATZ

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”

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