The Myth of The Kib­butz

Forward Magazine - - Reviews - By Ma­rina N. Bolot­nikova


By Ran Abramitzky

Prince­ton, $29.95, 360 pages

It’s unny to think o kib­butzim as an ex­per­i­ment in rad­i­cal so­cial equal­ity, since they ex­cluded non­skilled and nonAshke­nazi Is­raeli Jews. That para­dox is not to­tally lost on Stan­ford Univer­sity econ­o­mist Ran Abramitzky, who writes, in the mid­dle of “The Mys­tery of the Kib­butz,” “It is le­git­i­mate to ask whether be­ing se­lec­tive and not ad­mit­ting weak mem­bers of so­ci­ety is con­sis­tent with the ideals of equal­ity and mu­tual aid.” But that isn’t re­ally the con­cern of Abramitzky’s book, a neat, epis­te­mo­log­i­cally mod­est pré­cis of his re­search on the eco­nom­ics of kib­butzim, the Is­raeli so­cial­ist com­munes that split work and re­sources equally among their mem­bers for nearly a cen­tury. Abramitzky

is not in­ter­ested in whether kib­butzim achieved true equal­ity per se so much as how they main­tained equal shar­ing among their mem­bers, de­spite mas­sive in­cen­tive prob­lems.

Ev­ery so­ci­ety is forced to make tradeo s be­tween pro­duc­tiv­ity and equal­ity; peo­ple have no in­cen­tive to work hard if their e orts aren’t re­warded with higher pay (the free-rider prob­lem, in the par­lance of econ­o­mists), and, on the flip side, the tal­ented and hard­work­ing will leave for a so­ci­ety where they can earn more. How did kib­butzim ad­dress these prob­lems while re­tain­ing their mem­bers? To an­swer this and other ques­tions, Abramitzky re­lies on clever econo­met­ric anal­y­sis of cen­sus data of kib­butzniks and non-kib­butz Jewish Is­raelis. A large part of the an­swer, though Abramitzky doesn’t frame it in such damn­ing terms, is that kib­butzim weren’t egal­i­tar­ian at all but relied on screen­ing mech­a­nisms to keep peo­ple out based on ed­u­ca­tion and skill level and on ide­o­log­i­cal com­mit­ment. These strate­gies were prob­a­bly nec­es­sary for the kib­butz ex­per­i­ment to be fea­si­ble at all, Abramitzky ar­gues. How else could they keep out peo­ple who wanted the ben­e­fits of liv­ing in a com­mune with­out do­ing any work?

Fair enough; tak­ing the kib­butzim’s claim to equal­ity at face value doesn’t de­tract from Abramitzky’s anal­y­sis, limited in scope to the in­cen­tive prob­lems with kib­butzim. Be­fore the kib­butz fi­nan­cial cri­sis of the ‡ˆ‰Šs, when kib­butzim had to pay back large sums of debt, all kib­butzim dis­trib­uted in­come to their res­i­dents equally. There was no pri­vate prop­erty — res­i­dents some­times didn’t even own their own cloth­ing, but would reach for clothes in the com­mu­nal bin. Kib­butzniks fought over whether to let mem­bers keep their Holo­caust repa­ra­tion pay­ments from Ger­many or to re­dis­tribute them col­lec­tively. “When some­one re­ceived a gift from the out­side — for ex­am­ple, if a fam­ily mem­ber from Tel Aviv gave a ra­dio to his cousin in a kib­butz — the kib­butz mem­ber was re­quired to give the ra­dio to the kib­butz so that all mem­bers could en­joy it,” Abramitzky writes. “In some cases, such a gift trig­gered the kib­butz to buy ra­dios for all mem­bers.”

Mean­while, as Is­rael grew richer and as the first gen­er­a­tion of kib­butzniks re­placed it­self with their less wideeyed chil­dren, kib­butzniks’ out­side op­tion — aban­don­ing kib­butz life to make it in Is­raeli so­ci­ety — be­came more at­trac­tive. Kib­butzim de­vel­oped lock-in mech­a­nisms that made it dif­fi­cult for mem­bers to leave. They didn’t let mem­bers hold cash, even though it wouldn’t, in prin­ci­ple, have vi­o­lated so­cial­ist norms to dis­trib­ute in­comes equally in cash.

But many did leave, es­pe­cially af­ter Is­rael’s fi­nan­cial melt­down of the ‡ˆ–Šs and ’‰Šs. Kib­butzim were blamed for fi­nan­cial mis­man­age­ment by the newly em­pow­ered Likud­niks. Their co ers were emp­tied by debt re­pay­ments be­fore they, and other seg­ments of so­ci­ety, con­verted to a mar­ket econ­omy. As stan­dards of liv­ing dropped, kib­butzniks who were bet­ter ed­u­cated were more likely to leave. In a bid to re­tain their most pro­duc­tive mem­bers, al­most all kib­butzim aban­doned full equal shar­ing for a hy­brid sys­tem that blended a base­line safety net with mar­ket wages and pri­vate prop­erty. Re­spond­ing di­rectly to those changes, young kib­butzniks be­came more likely to pur­sue higher ed­u­ca­tion. The wealth­i­est kib­butzim were the best able to sus­tain an equal shar­ing struc­ture (Kib­butz Hatzerim, for ex­am­ple, which made its for­tune run­ning the global ir­ri­ga­tion man­u­fac­turer Netafim), and a mi­nor­ity of them main­tain full shar­ing to this day.

Of course, kib­butzniks were mo­ti­vated by more than fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives. There was what Abramitzky vaguely calls ide­ol­ogy or ide­al­ism, some in­de­ter­mi­nate mea­sure of how de­voted mem­bers were to the kib­butz’s so­cial vi­sion, re­gard­less of any fi­nan­cial gain or loss to them­selves (tech­ni­cally, in the eco­nom­ics frame­work, plea­sure from the ful­fill­ment of an ide­ol­ogy is its own in­cen­tive). Abramitzky’s anal­y­sis doesn’t se­ri­ously take stock of what it means to be com­mit­ted to kib­butz ide­ol­ogy, of what nar­ra­tives kib­butzes told about them­selves as they gave up on full equal­ity, or of the dia­lec­tic be­tween kib­butz ide­ol­ogy and broader Is­raeli so­ci­ety. This is not the book’s fault so much as it is a per­sis­tent blind spot for eco­nom­ics, which seems pos­i­tively al­ler­gic to think­ing about cul­ture. Abramitzky doesn’t thread the nee­dle be­tween the kib­butzes’ poli­cies of ex­clu­sion and the de­cline of the La­bor Party. Once Is­raeli Mizrahis be­came po­lit­i­cally or­ga­nized, and the pro-mar­ket right-wing learned to speak to them, kib­butzes’ fail­ure to in­te­grate Is­rael’s di­verse pop­u­la­tion be­came the kib­butzniks’ un­do­ing.

To a non­spe­cial­ist reader, the ar­gu­ment’s nar­row­ness may feel al­most cal­low, but there is some­thing com­fort­ing in Abramitzky’s tidy lines and graphs, paint­ing a tight pic­ture of causal­ity from kib­butzes’ in­cen­tive struc­tures to the choices of the peo­ple within them. The text is book­ended by the story of his own fam­ily, whose tra­jec­tory re­flects the rise and fall of kib­butzim dur­ing the œŠth cen­tury: His grand­par­ents were among the founders of Kib­butz Negba, and their daugh­ter, Abramitzky’s mother, chose to leave. As a young eco­nom­ics stu­dent, Abramitzky ar­gued with his un­cle (by his own ac­count, ob­nox­iously) about the fea­si­bil­ity of kib­butzim, with an as­sured­ness that he now ap­pears to re­gret. Now, there is not a whi of cyn­i­cism or ten­den­tious­ness in his anal­y­sis. The bold­est claim he’s will­ing to make about kib­butz ide­ol­ogy is that “[e]qual­ity is nat­u­ral and de­sir­able for many peo­ple, but it is di¢cult to man­age in light of the forces that un­der­mine it.”

Abramitzky ar­gues that kib­butzim o er in­sights into how to make an egal­i­tar­ian so­ci­ety pros­per­ous and vi­able. This may be true in a limited sense (if you can’t sanc­tion peo­ple fi­nan­cially for shirk­ing, sanc­tion them so­cially), but the broader les­son of kib­butzim seems the op­po­site: A welfare pro­gram that isn’t in­clu­sive of ev­ery­one is not le­git­i­mate or vi­able. For many of the rea­sons Abramitzky lays out (pop­u­la­tion size, het­ero­gene­ity, di er­ent lev­els of mo­ti­va­tion), a fully in­clu­sive safety net calls for at least some move away from full in­come equal­ity. The early kib­butzniks couldn’t have fore­seen the chal­lenges of Is­rael’s di­ver­sity, but the fail­ures of kib­butz utopi­anism need not be lost on to­day’s mul­ti­eth­nic so­ci­eties — not least the United States.

Ma­rina Bolot­nikova is the as­so­ciate edi­tor of Har­vard Mag­a­zine.

Kib­butzim were never egal­i­tar­ian. They al­ways relied on screen­ing mech­a­nisms to keep peo­ple out.


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