• Mike Leibsohn

Why the Kibbutz is Dying

I choose to live on a kibbutz, and it's difficult for me to imagine how I was ever able to live anywhere else. It's kind of like being part of a permanent summer camp, where the whole family, and often large extended families, work, play, study, grow, celebrate, mourn; in short, live. Obviously a great part of my affection for the kibbutz is based on a personal desire for a more quiet, rural lifestyle than that I once led in the city. However, the magic of the kibbutz goes beyond its pastoral setting and insulated atmosphere; there are remnants here of a sense of community rarely found in modern, Westernized societies. Although somewhat faint and waning, there burns here a beacon of ideology, strength, independence, and self-determination. Sadly, I fear that the kibbutz of yesteryear is no more; despite its critical role in the establishment of the state of Israel, those extreme conditions which warranted its inception and necessitated its success no longer exist. Now that the first act in the grand drama has come to a close, the role of the kibbutz is to be gradually and gracefully written out of the script.

Mt Carmel

The word kibbutz comes from the Hebrew root word for "group", and that is indeed what the first kibbutzim were, groups of people with a shared goal. In their case, the common objective was to escape the rising tide of anti-Semitic violence in Russia and Eastern Europe. The first kibbutz, Degania, was founded on the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee in 1909 by a group of ten men and two women whose ideology was to establish a sustainable socialist agrarian secular Jewish community in Palestine. The lands for many of the early kibbutzim were purchased by the Jewish National Fund, so in a sense they belonged to Jews all around the world. In many ways these pioneers, or chalutzim, were indeed the avant garde of the global Jewish community; thirty years before the outbreak of World War II they had planted the seeds of a new and independent Jewish society in their ancestral homeland. As opposed to the earlier settlements of the first Aliyah (1882-1903), which were essentially small towns structured in a more traditional European, semi-agrarian fashion, the fierce independent spirit and tightly-knit communal bonds of the strictly socialist kibbutzim provided a much stronger underpinning for the development of a viable Jewish community in Palestine. These "new Jews" would not stand idly by as history led them like sheep to the slaughter; they would prematurely pave the way to national salvation.

As later waves of Jews immigrated to Palestine, the kibbutzim continued to grow in number, prosperity, and proportional contribution to the greater Zionist endeavor. The kibbutz provided the perfect escape for those fleeing a haunted past and seeking to start anew; the adamantly egalitarian social structure of the kibbutz provided the perfect framework for reinventing oneself as an individual and as a member of a new society. Agriculture and various craft trades provided a new occupation, socialism offered a new form of self-government, and secular Zionism sowed the seeds for what would soon become the modern State of Israel. In the later part of the British Mandate period, in the years before independence, the kibbutzim were used extensively by the various Jewish paramilitary groups, such as the Hagana and the Palmach, as both recruitment and training centers. Some kibbutzim even famously developed secret, underground munitions factories to circumvent the British policy that forbade Jews in Palestine to purchase or possess firearms and other weapons. After the 1948 war of independence, the kibbutzim continued to thrive and multiply; they were responsible for contributions to agriculture, industry, academia, government, and almost every other facet of Israeli society that far outweighed their relatively small overall numbers. Many kibbutzim opened their doors to the continuous waves of new immigrants pouring in from North Africa, the Middle East, and all over the world, offering countless Jewish orphans and families the opportunity to get a fresh start in a safe and economically prosperous micro-community.

outside Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the kibbutz retained its idyllic and moralistic nature while at the same time enjoying an upper-middle class lifestyle much sought-after by less affluent sectors of Israeli society. The swimming pool, prevalent on most kibbutzim, became something of a symbol of this socioeconomic dissonance between the Israeli majority and the kibbutz, which had now attained a somewhat stigmatized reputation as elitist and exclusive. However, as the 1980s brought cable television to both the kibbutz and to the city, the bubble suddenly burst. With Israel's major wars behind her, and industry thriving, Israelis, including kibbutznikim, now allowed themselves to see beyond the ideology of their grandparents' generation. Capitalism took hold and Israel slowly started becoming a nation consumed by consumerism, just like her big sister, the United States. The kibbutzim were no exception, especially since Israel as a nation was largely shifting toward increasing urbanization, and many of them began privatizing various elements of what had always been a communal lifestyle.

The growing trends of globalism, urbanization, and consumerism all contributed to the weakening of the kibbutz system throughout the 1990s and early 2000s; many young people whose families had reclaimed then worked the land for three or four generations were now seeking their fortunes in various high-tech or business pursuits in Tel Aviv and other large cities. The arrival and proliferation of the internet only strengthened the already magnetic forces that were now drawing young people away from the kibbutz and toward the city. Why dance a traditional agrarian folk dance at the annual harvest festival when you can dance the night away in Tel Aviv with world class DJs and designer drugs? Why volunteer to decorate the dining hall for a community holiday celebration when you can go to an escape room at the local mall or attend a craft beer expo in Haifa? Why fork over your big executive salary to the kibbutz coffers when you can just as easily stash half of it away in a secret account? Many kibbutzim have already chosen to partially or entirely privatize their economic structure, and remain in place as large gated communities, with little more common bond than people living in any other suburban neighborhood anywhere in the world. While on the surface the kibbutz still appears to be the tranquil and principled community it once was, behind the curtains are corruption, politicking, and the exploitation of a naive system that only ever wanted to provide a safe home for a bunch of Jewish orphans from Europe.


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