Kibbutz: What, Why, When, Where
by Jon Fidler, journalist, member of Kibbutz Beit Ha'emek
It is almost a century since a small group of young Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, inspired by Zionist and socialist ideals, set up the first kvutza ("group" in Hebrew, renamed kibbutz, "community" when membership grew) on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
They viewed the kvutza as a closely-knit, egalitarian community, based on common ownership of the means of production and consumption, where all, conferring together, made decisions by majority vote and bore responsibility for all.
Despite economic setbacks and a waning ideology, the kibbutz movement has since become the world's largest communitarian movement.
Some 120,500 people live in 269 kibbutzim across Israel, from the Golan Heights in the north to the Red Sea in the south. Membership ranges from less than 100, in a few cases, to more than 1000 in a number of kibbutzim, most having several hundred members.
Although each kibbutz is socially and economically an autonomous unit, a number of national federations provide coordination of activities as well as some services. The largest of the national federations is the United Kibbutz Movement, usually referred to by its Hebrew acronym TAKAM, with which about 60 percent of the kibbutzim are affiliated. Some 32 percent of the kibbutzim belong to the Kibbutz Artzi movement. The third federation is the Kibbutz Dati (religious kibbutz) with which six percent of Kibbutzim are affiliated. Finally, there are two national-ultra-orthodox kibbutzim which belong to Poalei Agudat Yisrael.
Most kibbutzim are similarly laid out, with communal facilities such as dining hall, auditorium, offices and library at the center, ringed by members' homes and gardens, with sports and educational facilities beyond these, and industrial buildings and agricultural land on the perimeter.
By definition... a kibbutz
(or kvutza) is:
"... a voluntary collective community, mainly agricultural, in which there is no private wealth and which is responsible for all the needs of its members and their families." (Encyclopedia Judaica, 1969)
"...an organization for settlement which maintains a collective society of members organized on the basis of general ownership of possessions. Its aims are self-labor, equality and cooperation in all areas of production, consumption and education."
(Legal definition in the Cooperative Societies Register)
In 1909 a group of young pioneers, who drained swamps near Hadera and lived as a collective community, decided to establish an independent farm owned by its worker-members at Degania, forming the first ‘kvutza'. Other groups followed suit and by World War II there were over 30 such communities in Palestine.
These "founding fathers" had immigrated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries mainly from Russia and were imbued with the ideals of socialism and the spirit of the period which led to the Russian Revolution. They also believed in a Zionism based on the return to the Land of Israel and the tilling of its earth. They believed that this would lead to the creation of a new Jewish identity; it also expressed their political goal of establishing Jewish settlements in Palestine.
These first settlements regarded themselves as enlarged families and kept membership small. In 1913/14, for example, Degania had only 28 members. They were poor, life was harsh and work centered on agriculture, which required draining swamps, removing rocks from hills and transforming parts of the desert into fertile farmland. They also had to cope with extreme heat, malaria and food-related illnesses.
Social life revolved around the dining room, where people would meet, eat and talk. Decisions were made by direct democracy. In discussions, which often continued late into the night, members would decide how to allocate the following day's work, guard duties, kitchen chores and other tasks, as well as debate problems and make decisions.
During the 20s and 30s, the settlements' society of singles changed to one in which families were formed, leading to the establishment of schools and children's houses. Small industries began to appear, mainly as extensions of agriculture, and these soon became profitable enterprises. The kibbutzim emerged, aiming to become large, self-sufficient communities, combining agriculture with industry.
The 30s also witnessed the beginnings of a religious kibbutz movement, which – in contrast to its secular predecessors – saw the ideals of the movement, including equality, mutual help and building the Land, as a realization of the Jewish way of life.
By 1948, with the establishment of the State of Israel, the kibbutzim had not only succeeded in creating a unique society; they had also been instrumental in many aspects of the struggle towards the creation of the State and in its early development: they had assumed key functions in settlement of outlying areas and along the country's future borders, immigrant absorption, defense and agricultural development. Once these functions were taken over by the government, the interaction between the kibbutzim and society at large diminished; it has never stopped completely, but is marginal today.
The first decades after the establishment of the State, despite some ups and downs, showed accelerated growth of the kibbutzim, both demographic and economic. Third and fourth generation kibbutzniks were born, creating large family groupings. Living standards increased – in fact, in the 1960s they rose more rapidly than in the country as a whole. Over a period of some 75 years the kibbutz population grew continuously; since 1990 it has been slowly declining.
The Crisis of the Eighties and Nineties
In the 1980s, triple-digit inflation and exorbitant interest rates caused near economic ruin for many kibbutz factories (along with their non-kibbutz counterparts) and for the communities they supported. Kibbutz debts with banks rose dramatically as inflation rocketed, peaking (at 450%) in 1984. This macro-instability caused great problems for the kibbutzim as they had borrowed heavily to develop industry and to change their internal structure. By 1985, one-third of the kibbutzim were in financial difficulties.
The government, banks and kibbutz federations hammered out two major agreements for canceling and restructuring kibbutz debts. The price was heavy: some kibbutzim had to sell agricultural land to pay off debts; others had to slash operating costs, find new sources of income and raise productivity. Often this required cutbacks in spending on basics like food, non-essential medical care, education and travel, as well as abandoning certain long-held ideological beliefs, particularly in the realm of equality.
Global and national factors also influenced kibbutz thinking: ideologically, the collapse of the USSR played a part; members spent more time traveling abroad and were exposed to new technologies of global communication; cable or satellite TV found its way into many kibbutz homes; and the use of computers and the internet, at work and at home, spread rapidly.
The result of all these factors was an unparalleled wave of soul searching, re-examination of basic principles and values, and change. All these developments continue today.
Sources of Income
Kibbutz agriculture is still significant in a national context, but its relative internal importance has shrunk.
Today, only about 15 percent of members work in agriculture. Industry's contribution has stabilized.
In recent years, the number of members working off the kibbutz in white-collar professions has grown.
Also, increasing numbers of kibbutzim run commercial services, such as laundries, restaurants, kindergarten facilities and swimming pools.
They have become centers for commercial tourism, weekend shopping and recreation.
Wages and Income
Self-management, epitomized by the members' general meeting, which decided major issues, and directly elected committees and office bearers.
Many kibbutzim still hold general meetings. But direct participation democracy has been replaced by representative bodies and ballot voting.
Social and Cultural Life
The Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company
The Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company was established in 1970 and developed into one of Israel's most prominent dance companies. Its founder, Yehudit Arnon, established a dance center at Kibbutz Ga'aton and then founded KCDC, drawing talent from the various kibbutz movements. The ensemble appears abroad regularly and has achieved worldwide acclaim. It has developed close connections with international choreographers, but is widely identified with the works of its artistic director, Rami Be'er, born and raised in Kibbutz Ga'aton. KCDC was also a pioneer in introducing children to the world of dance, with special programs for schools.
The Kibbutz Orchestra
Also established in 1970, the Kibbutz Orchestra consists of 40 musicians. It performs over one hundred concerts a year, including a concert series for subscribers, youth concerts, the bi-annual Musica Sacra Festival in Nazareth and regular appearances with the kibbutz choirs and well-known choirs from abroad. The Kibbutz Orchestra also performs fully staged operas with singers from Israel and abroad and hosts famous foreign conductors and soloists. The orchestra gives regular overseas performances and has recorded works by Haydn, Vivaldi and Israeli composers.
Kibbutz Industries: A Snapshot
Kibbutz industry's share in Israel's industry amounts to 8% in sales, 8% in exports, 4% in investments and 8% in industrial employment.
Some 377 kibbutz-sited factories and 11 kibbutz-owned cooperatives produce metal products, electronics, plastic and rubber, processed food, optics and glassware, textile and leather goods, medicines and chemicals, office supplies, building materials, toys, jewelry and musical instruments.
Sales in 1997 totaled $3 billion, including $1.1 billion in exports. The leading branches are plastic and rubber (37% of total sales), metal (17% of total sales) and food (16% of total sales). The kibbutz industries export 36% of their products, compared to a national average of about 25%. The leading exports of the kibbutz industries are plastic and rubber (66% of national export) and food (25% of national export).
As the year 2000 approaches, the kibbutz landscape is undergoing massive and rapid change. From the outset, kibbutzim were never homogeneous clones and differed widely depending, inter alia, on the ethnic background of their founders, their political beliefs and their economic success. In the 1990s, though, many kibbutzim changed beyond recognition. Now, there is a growing division between ‘rich' and ‘poor' kibbutzim, and ‘rich' and ‘poor' members within certain kibbutzim. There is also a growing gap between kibbutzim that still try to adhere to the old principles – often the wealthier, economically-independent ones – and those that don't.
With the implementation of the last, vast debt cancellation agreements signed with the government and the banks, some still-unprofitable kibbutzim will have to make major adjustments to survive. Others, surrounded by and intermingling with the residents of adjacent new housing estates built on former kibbutz land, may also face an identity crisis. In many cases the new neighbors are sons and daughters of the kibbutz members, who wish to live nearby without the constraints of kibbutz society, and who will enjoy a much higher standard of living.
In general, though, it seems that most kibbutzim will survive the storms, continuing to represent a unique lifestyle based on a blend of ideology and pragmatism as well as a reminder of a dream that underwent a metamorphosis.
Source: Israeli Foreign Ministry