The kibbutz (Hebrew word for “communal settlement”) is a unique rural community; a society dedicated to mutual aid and social justice; a socioeconomic system based on the principle of joint ownership of property, equality and cooperation of production, consumption and education; the fulfillment of the idea “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”; a home for those who have chosen it.
The first kibbutzim (plural of “kibbutz”) were founded some 40 years before the establishment of the State of Israel (1948). Degania (from the Hebrew “dagan,” meaning grain), located south of Lake Kinneret, was established in 1909 by a group of pioneers on land acquired by the Jewish National Fund. Their founders were young Jewish pioneers, mainly from Eastern Europe, who came not only to reclaim the soil of their ancient homeland, but also to forge a new way of life. Their path was not easy: a hostile environment, inexperience with physical labor, a lack of agricultural know-how, desolate land neglected for centuries, scarcity of water and a shortage of funds were among the difficulties confronting them. Overcoming many hardships, they succeeded in developing thriving communities which have played a dominant role in the establishment and building of the state.
Today some 270 kibbutzim, with memberships ranging from 40 to more than 1,000, are scattered throughout the country. Most of them have between 300 and 400 adult members, and a population of 500-600. The number of people living in kibbutzim totals approximately 130,000, about 2.5 percent of the country's population. Most kibbutzim belong to one of three national kibbutz movements, each identified with a particular ideology.
Most kibbutzim are laid out according to a similar plan. The residential area encompasses carefully-tended members' homes and gardens, children's houses and playgrounds for every age group, and communal facilities such as a dining hall, auditorium, library, swimming pool, tennis court, medical clinic, laundry, grocery and the like. Adjacent to the living quarters are sheds for dairy cattle and modern chicken coops, as well as one or more industrial plants. Agricultural fields, orchards and fish ponds are located around the perimeter, a short tractor ride from the center. To get from place to place within the kibbutz, people either walk or ride bicycles, while electric carts are provided for the disabled and elderly.
The kibbutz functions as a direct democracy. The general assembly of all its members formulates policy, elects officers, authorizes the kibbutz budget and approves new members. It serves not only as a decision-making body but also as a forum where members may express their opinions and views.
Day-to-day affairs are handled by elected committees, which deal with areas such as housing, finance, production planning, health, and culture. The chairpersons of some of these committees, together with the secretary (who holds the top position in the kibbutz) form the kibbutz executive. The positions of secretary, treasurer and work coordinator are, as a rule, full-time, while other members serve on committees in addition to their regular jobs.
Making the Desert Bloom
For the founders, tilling the soil of their ancient homeland and transforming city dwellers into farmers was an ideology, not just a way to earn a livelihood. Over the years, kibbutz farmers made barren lands bloom, with field crops, orchards, poultry, dairy and fish farming, and-more recently-organic agriculture becoming the mainstays of their economy.
Through a combination of hard work and advanced farming methods, they achieved remarkable results, accounting for a large percentage of Israel's agricultural output to this day.
Production activities of the kibbutzim are organized in several autonomous branches. While most of them are still in agriculture, today virtually all kibbutzim have also expanded into various kinds of industry.
Although manufacturing a wide range of products, from fashion clothing to irrigation systems, the majority of kibbutz industry is concentrated in three main branches: metal work, plastics and processed foods. Most industrial facilities are rather small, with less than a hundred workers.
In many areas, kibbutzim have pooled their resources, establishing regional enterprises such as cotton gins and poultry-packing plants, as well as providing a gamut of services ranging from computer data compilation to joint purchasing and marketing. The contribution of the kibbutzim to the country's production, both in agriculture (33 percent of farm produce) and in industry (6.3 percent of manufactured goods) is far greater than their share of the population (2.5 percent). In recent years, increasing numbers of kibbutzim have become centers for tourism, with recreational facilities such as guest houses, swimming pools, horseback riding, tennis courts, museums, exotic animal farms and water parks for Israelis and foreign visitors alike.
As Israel's population grew and urban centers expanded, some kibbutzim found themselves virtually suburbs of cities. Due to this proximity, many of them now offer services to the public such as commercial laundries, catering, factory outlet stores and child care, including summer camps.
The Work Ethic
Work is a value in and of itself, the concept of the dignity of labor elevating the most menial job, with no special status, material or otherwise, attached to any task.
Where Kibbutz Members Work
Members are assigned to positions for varying lengths of time, while routine functions such as kitchen and dining hall duty are performed on a rotation basis. Each economic branch is headed by an elected administrator who is replaced every 2-3 years. An economic coordinator is responsible for organizing the work of the different branches and for implementing production and investment plans.
Although management positions are increasingly professionalized, the kibbutzim have adopted various methods of administration and organization to adapt their economic structure to the needs of the times without losing a sense of mutual responsibility and equality of work.
Women are equal participants in the labor force, with jobs in all parts of the kibbutz open to them. However, in contrast to kibbutz women two generations ago who sought to prove their worth by doing “men's work,“ the majority today are reluctant to become involved in agriculture and industry, preferring jobs in education, health and other services. Older members receive suitable work assignments according to their health and stamina.
Most members work in the kibbutz itself. However, some are employed in regional kibbutz enterprises, a few are sent by the kibbutz to perform educational and political functions under the aegis of its national movement, and others pursue their own special talent or profession outside the kibbutz framework. The income of these outside workers is turned over to the kibbutz.
The occasional lack of personnel for factories, agricultural tasks, tourism services and other jobs necessitates hiring paid workers, although this practice is contrary to the kibbutz principle of self-reliance in labor. Many kibbutzim host young volunteers from Israel and abroad for periods of one month or longer in exchange for work, thus partially solving the dilemma of obtaining outside labor.
Source: Kibbutz Industry Association
Unlike former times when they lived in communal children's houses, children in the majority of kibbutzim today sleep at their parents' home until they reach high school age. However, most of their waking hours are still spent with their peers in facilities adapted specifically for each age group. At the same time, parents are becoming increasingly involved in their children's activities, and the family unit is gaining more importance in the structure of the kibbutz community. Thus the granddaughters of women who 75 years ago insisted on being released from domestic chores are now the leading force within the kibbutz for more parental involvement in the upbringing of young children and for allocating women more time at home with their families.
Children grow up knowing the value and importance of work and that everyone must do their share. From kindergarten, the educational system emphasizes cooperation in daily life and, from the early school grades, youngsters are assigned duties and take decisions with regard to their peer group. Young children perform regular age-appropriate tasks, older children assume certain jobs in the kibbutz and, at high school level, they devote one full day each week to work in a branch of the kibbutz economy.
Elementary schools are usually on the kibbutz premises, while older children attend a regional kibbutz high school serving several area kibbutzim, in order to experience a broader range of academic subjects and social contacts. At all age levels, accommodations are available for youngsters with special talents or needs.
Some 40 percent of all kibbutz children return to settle on their kibbutz after army service. The majority of kibbutz members today grew up in the kibbutz and decided to build their life there.
Meeting Individual Needs
Based on the voluntary participation of its members, the kibbutz is a communal society which assumes responsibility for its members' needs throughout their lives. It is a society that strives to allow individuals to develop to their fullest potential, while demanding responsibility and commitment from each person to contribute to the welfare of the community. For some, the feelings of security and satisfaction engendered by belonging to a small, closed community are among the advantages of kibbutz living, while others might find communal life very confining.
At first kibbutz society as a whole took precedence over the family unit. In time, this priority shifted, as the community became increasingly family-centered. Today, in the context of a normal society of grandparents, mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, sons and daughters, the kibbutz still offers a level of cooperation which provides a social framework and personal economic security.
Compared to the past, kibbutzim today offer their members a much wider range of individual choices. Members have more latitude in all aspects of their lives, from the selection of clothing and home furnishings to where and how to spend their vacations. More opportunities are available to participate in higher education, and the special needs of artists and writers are recognized, with time given them to pursue their own projects. Although no money actually changes hands, members allot themselves a predetermined amount of credit each year to spend as they wish.
Contributing to the State
The kibbutz is not only a form of settlement and a lifestyle, it is also an integral part of Israeli society. Before the establishment of the State of Israel and in the first years of statehood, the kibbutz assumed central functions in settlement, immigration, defense and agricultural development. When these functions were transferred to the government, the interaction between the kibbutz and the society at large decreased, though it never stopped completely. Besides active involvement in the country's political life, the kibbutz has also carried out various national tasks over the years.
A considerable number of kibbutzim run five-month study courses for new immigrants, which combine intensive Hebrew language instruction, in-depth tours of the country and lectures on various aspects of Israeli life with periods of work on the kibbutz. Participants who decide to stay in the kibbutz may apply for membership. Some kibbutzim take part in a project in which they accept youth from disadvantaged families for their high school years. Some of these young people choose to continue living on the kibbutz and become members.
Over the years, the kibbutzim have evolved unique ways of celebrating traditional Jewish festivals and national holidays, as well as personal milestones such as weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs and anniversaries. Seasonal and agricultural events, which were commemorated in biblical times, have been revitalized through song, dance and the arts.
Cultural activity abounds, with films and professional performances presented frequently in kibbutz auditoriums, in addition to closed-circuit television several hours daily, offering programs geared to the interests and tastes of the members. Pooling the talents of kibbutz members all over the country, the kibbutz movements sponsor a number of professional groups, including a symphony orchestra, chamber ensembles, modern and folk dance troupes, choirs and a theater company, which perform regularly in Israel and abroad.
Museums which specialize in subjects such as archaeology, nature, art, Jewish history and the development of the land of Israel have been established by some kibbutzim, attracting members and visitors in large numbers.
After years of declining productivity and membership, Amnon Rubinstein has noted the kibbutzim have been making a comeback. In 1997, kibbutz production was valued at NIS 20 billion. In 2006, the figure grew to NIS 27 billion. During the same period, the kibbutzim erased a collective debt of NIS 700 million and turned a NIS 1.2 billion profit. “Differential pay was introduced into the kibbutz structure; management has become increasingly professionalized; and the community and business structures have been separated,” Rubinstein observed. “The community has retained its ideology of equality as much as possible, whereas the business enterprise has operated according to market-driven parameters. Today's kibbutzim still manage their funds in such a way that the weak, elderly and those members unable to earn high wages are cared for.”
Looking to the Future
The kibbutz is a social and economic achievement that grew out of a pioneering society, prospered along with a rapidly expanding economy and distinguished itself with its contribution to the establishment and development of the state.
Today's kibbutz is the accomplishment of three generations. The founders, motivated by strong convictions and a distinct ideology, forged a society with a unique communal way of life. Their children, born into the kibbutz framework, worked hard to consolidate its economic, social and administrative structures. The present generation, which grew up in an established and prosperous society, is applying its energies and talents to meet the challenges of modern life in the technological age.
Some fear that by adjusting to changing circumstances, the kibbutz is abandoning many of its original principles; others believe that this ability to adapt and compromise is the key to its survival. Whatever lies ahead, as long as the kibbutz maintains its democratic nature, and the spirit of voluntarism, commitment and idealism continues to motivate its members, it will have creative and compelling resources with which to meet the demands of the future.
Source: Amnon Rubinstein, “Return of the kibbutzim,” Jerusalem Post, (July 10, 2007); Israeli Foreign Ministry