Jerusalem Report

Adult Children of the Dream

The kibbutz at 100 is not the egalitarian collective it used to be, but it has found new ways to thrive.

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Photo by: Yocheved Miriam Russo
Twenty or 30 years ago, if you stood along a road in a kibbutz, you could lose count of all the tractors, harvesters and pickups before you saw a single automobile. And when you did, it was probably a small, proletarian sedan from the community’s tiny fleet of collectively owned cars, which, if not being used on official business, had been reserved long in advance for, say, a family vacation or the rare evening movie and milkshake in town.

Go back today, though, and chances are you’ll see cars all over the place, especially outside residents’ homes, where they’re sometimes parked two-deep. Most are privately owned, and if you know what to look for, you’ll see some of the latest models, quite spiffy and on occasion even luxurious. Of course, not all of them are owned by members – which is another part of the story.

Welcome to the kibbutz at 100, where capitalism more often than not reigns alongside the traditional, albeit watered-down, socialism that long ago made Israel’s collective farms one of the most visible icons of the Jewish state.

There are currently some 270 kibbutzim, a number that has remained fairly stable since the 1970s. But just what makes a kibbutz?

“It’s a legal definition,” Dr. Shlomo Getz, who heads the University of Haifa’s Institute for the Research of the Kibbutz and the Cooperative Idea, tells The Jerusalem Report. “Prior to 2005, to be recognized as such by the government, it had to be an entity based on collective and equal ownership, as well as on common production, consumption and education.”

The first kibbutz to be established was Degania. It appeared in 1909 on the banks of the Jordan River just south of the Sea of Galilee. The founders had arrived in Ottoman Palestine as part of the so-called Second Aliya, which consisted for the most part of young people fleeing violent anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe who nevertheless looked favorably upon the social changes brewing in pre-revolution Russia.

By the next year Degania had coalesced into an officially-recognized commune. More important, though, it became the inspiration for similar communities, some founded by Degania veterans who either had been sent to provide guidance or had left seeking a community that better reflected their socialist thinking.

In fact, as kibbutzim began sprouting throughout the pre-state Yishuv, they were characterized by markedly different approaches to socialism that ranged from the most severe – for example, where children, at least as far as the members were concerned, belonged to the kibbutz and not to their biological parents – to the relatively benign, where, for example, as at Degania, the children not only “belonged” to their parents but actually lived with them, and not in the children’s houses that typified most collective farms until the 1980s and 90s.

The operative slogan at your typical kibbutz was always “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” And the kibbutz system, based on one of the purest forms of socialism known to mankind, generally worked. That’s because the people living it wanted it. Unlike the situation in other countries, no guns were held to anyone’s head; if the town or city on the horizon beckoned, you were free to go – although if the farm lacked the resources to let you “cash out” with a small sum to help you get established, you literally had to start from scratch.

This model continued to work well until the early 1980s, when blatant economic electioneering after decades of government-mandated austerity spawned rampant consumerism nationwide. The kibbutzim were not immune. They never had been, although “consumerism” on a collective farm, with its inborn sense of austerity and drive for the collective good, was usually far from what it was in the city.

“A hundred years ago, a kibbutznik somewhere wanted to bring a kettle home,” Ze’ev Shor, head of the Kibbutz Movement, which is partly a roof organization and partly a lobbying group, explains to The Report. “He was told he had to drink his tea in the dining room like everyone else. Pretty soon, though, enough people wanted to drink tea at home and the kibbutz handed out kettles.”

To make matters worse, your average kibbutz in the early 80s was in the midst of moving into industry as a way of augmenting what so far had been a mostly agrarian-based, labor-intensive income. What’s more, many of its hitherto tiny residences were being enlarged as part of a movement-wide trend to begin raising children at home.

All of this was costly, so the kibbutzim turned to the banks, which, having been deregulated after the Likud swept the long-entrenched socialist Labor Party from power in 1977, began waving money with virtually no conditions – save for linkage to the cost of living.

By this time, inflation was already well into double digits, but a government-instituted regime of linkage had so far cushioned the effect. Yet many say that the consumerism, which was quickly draining currency reserves at a time when the country was still deeply mired in Yom Kippur War debt, conspired with uneven deregulation – which in some quarters, such as the banks, had been too hasty, while in others, such as employment policies, not hasty enough – to send inflation galloping toward quadruple digits.

To make matters worse, the Likud’s squarely-capitalist Liberal Party wing, which was no friend of the kibbutzim, had been placed in charge of the economy, and it abrogated a series of loan guarantees that had been engineered under Labor. Most collective farms were now staggering under heavy debt, and many were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

With all of the changes going on at kibbutzim, a lot of their best people, primarily twenty- and thirty-somethings, saw better opportunities elsewhere and began departing in large numbers. The flow became a torrent when the government, having finally instituted a series of draconian measures to bring inflation under control, left the kibbutzim for last when it began negotiating the tricky issue of loan repayments.

If there was going to be a solution, the collective farms would have to grow it themselves.

One of Degania’s early members was A.D. Gordon. To his way of thinking, socialism, while important, had relatively little to do with the idea of Jewish redemption. Instead, Gordon emphasized the values of agriculture and physical labor as a way of deepening one’s attachment to the land. Admirers created a youth movement based on his philosophy, calling it Gordonia.

In 1930, the first group of Gordonia members founded Kibbutz Hulda, about half-way between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They established the original kibbutz on the site of a Jewish farm that had been destroyed the year before during Arab riots that convulsed much of the Yishuv, especially in Hebron, where close to 70 Jews were massacred by frenzied mobs fired up by rumors of the takeover of Jerusalem’s Muslim holy sites. In 1938 the kibbutz moved to a more suitable site a few hundred yards down the road.

Being the last pre-state Jewish outpost before the road up to Jerusalem, Hulda became the staging ground for the famous convoys that set out to break the Arab siege on the city that started in late 1947 and ended in the summer of 1948. In its cemetery there is a long row of military graves of young men, some just off the boat from post-Holocaust Europe, who died opening the road. In addition, the kibbutz appeared in several scenes of the Hollywood film “Cast a Giant Shadow” because some of the story, about US Army colonel David (Mickey) Marcus and the expertise he provided to the fledgling Israel Defense Forces during the War of Independence, took place there.

Hulda produced several IDF generals and other senior officers, among them Ron Huldai, today mayor of Tel Aviv. Fifties-era defense minister Pinhas Lavon was a founder and, with his wife, is buried there.

Eventually, Hulda came to cover well over 1,500 acres and, at its peak in the early 80s, had well over 200 adult members. It did reasonably well, growing cotton, wheat, sunflowers, grapes, apples and pears. It also had an industrial branch with one of the first kibbutz factories, Hulda Transformers, which provided work for many elderly members who were well past their prime but still wished to be of use to the community. In addition, it had a profitable branch in the person of author Amos Oz, who had come to the kibbutz from Jerusalem as a teenager, married and raised a family, and was churning out critically-acclaimed bestsellers that were translated into dozens of languages (although the kibbutz elders, with a stern eye to tradition, made him work two days a week as a high-school literature teacher until the day he left in 1986).

By this time, Hulda had gone into business with another kibbutz and established Spancrete, a factory for pre-cast concrete used in infrastructure and buildings.

“At the beginning of the 1980s, when we had 220 members and hardly anyone worked outside [the kibbutz], we needed to provide more work,” Amotz Peleg, for decades a central figure at Hulda, tells The Report. “So we set up Spancrete and even expanded it.”

Hulda took out a $1 million loan to cover the expansion. But this was exactly when the government moved in to stem runaway inflation, solidifying its linkage program but leaving kibbutzim like Hulda for last when it came to restructuring sectorial debts.

“Almost overnight we ended up owing the bank twice the amount of the loan,” says Peleg, 66, and the son of Hulda founders Zalman Plakhin and Anna Seinfeld (she, Peleg is quick to point out, of Stanislawow, then in Poland, the same town from whence came Simon Seinfeld, grandfather of Jerry).

“There were reductions in kibbutz allowances, reductions in quality of life,” he adds. “Many of our youth left – the generation that would now be leading the kibbutz, people today in their forties and fifties. Some of the best and the brightest. No one new came to replace them. And the founding generation was dying out.”

The same was true at collective farms throughout the country. From 1985 to 2004, kibbutz membership dropped by more than 11 percent, from 130,000 to 115,000. However at Hulda, membership dropped by half.

“There was no chance to get ahead in terms of living conditions,” Peleg explains.

Like other kibbutzim, Hulda began to fight back in the late ‘80s by giving members an additional allowance to be spent for services such as meals, laundry services and home utilities, which previously had been provided for free. The new allowance was not enough to cover every service and it made members think twice about what they really needed, going a long way toward reducing waste, which had always been a kibbutz problem.

But this move had a profound effect on community life.

With members now being charged for meals, many preferred to prepare their own food and eat at home. Soon, the kibbutz dining room, long a central gathering place, was used only at lunchtime, with the kitchen being turned over to a caterer (whose output was mostly for outside customers). Eventually, the dining room was closed altogether.

In addition, Beit Herzl, the kibbutz auditorium that had long been the venue for cultural events, graduations, weddings and a weekly movie, was boarded up (save for a small lounge on the ground floor that members and residents could rent for small gatherings). The large and once-proud upstairs hall eventually began to crumble and became prey to vandals and graffiti artists, and flocks of pigeons built nests in the ceiling fixtures and in other comfortable nooks, with predictable results below.

“The scaling back really began a long time ago, when kibbutzim began providing a television set for each household,” Aviv Leshem, a member of Sha’ar Hagolan, a kibbutz in the far north, and spokesman for the Kibbutz Movement, tells The Report. “There was no longer a need for a common TV room, where people once congregated, say, to watch the evening news. And when kibbutzim began providing members with proper ovens and stoves, and with real refrigerators, there was no longer a need to go somewhere else to take your meals. So there went another kibbutz landmark – the dining room.”

If the process had begun long before, it certainly was hurried along and even completed by the economic downturn.

With areas of the kibbutz that had once flowed with movement and echoed with laughter and greetings now hollow and empty, Hulda, like other collective farms, began opening itself up to non-members. This got under way with empty homes being rented out to people looking for a quiet, rural lifestyle, and spread when the same people began seeking daycare or schooling for their children, as well as other community services now available for a fee. Entire kibbutz neighborhoods were quickly filled with these people, who worked in outside jobs and brought with them many of the accouterments of outside life, starting with cars.

What’s more, kibbutz swimming pools and other communal facilities were opened to the general public – for a fee, of course – and many communities began renting space to outside businesses, ranging from banquet halls to modern factories. Soon, with all the outsiders walking around, it became hard to tell who was who.

“Prior to 2000, we absorbed just a few new members – although we took in plenty of residents,” says Peleg. “There had been a decision, already back at the beginning of the 1990s, not to absorb anyone else [as members] until we decided who we are and where we are going.”

But there was another issue: freeloading among the “natives.” For years, the inside joke on many a kibbutz was that everyone was equal, but some more so, and it was not a problem that could easily be addressed.

“There were always parasites at Hulda and every other kibbutz,” says Peleg. “But they were members. There was nothing we could do under the old rules.”

In the early 90s, well before most kibbutzim began toying with serious makeovers, Hulda’s leaders started thinking about salaries that were partly differential, which is to say a basic allowance with an additional component based on work actually performed, whether locally (for example, in the fields or transformer factory) or outside.

But in the kibbutz movement, as in individual kibbutzim, word travels fast, and movement leaders came to speak with members when the issue came up for discussion at Hulda’s weekly meeting, where, like at all other collective farms, people debate new policies on every type of issue imaginable, and then vote.

“Muki Tzur himself came,” says Peleg, mentioning the then-head of the Kibbutz Movement. “He and other movement leaders didn’t much like the idea, so they pressured us not to do it.”

Then, in October, 2000, when Peleg was secretary, a position perhaps best described as a kind of town manager (although on kibbutz, it’s a role people have been expected to fill on a rotating basis out of a sense of duty), Hulda stopped providing members with services (aside from pensions for the elderly). Instead, it started paying fully-differential salaries, with allocations for special needs and a “security net” for households bringing in less than a minimum income, which Peleg describes as “well above” the national poverty line. But there was a catch: To be eligible for the security net, one had to work at something – even if it was guarding the kibbutz daycare center for a few hours a day.

There could be no more slackers at Hulda. “Members,” Peleg adds, “now had to take care of their basic needs.”

At this point, the kibbutz began to turn itself around. While many of the field crops were retained (albeit on reduced acreage), other agricultural branches that were deemed unprofitable or too difficult to maintain were closed. All livestock is now gone. The sheep pens are empty, and the cow shed, home to hundreds of milk-producing bovines during the dairy’s heyday, is silent, the animals and equipment having been pooled with those from other kibbutzim into a single, more streamlined dairy at a moshav not far away. The four chicken coops, used for growing poultry – never a popular job and a source for great discomfort at weekly meetings when members had to decide who’d work where – have been rented to outsiders for use as carpentry shops and storage sheds.

An avocado grove, planted in the late 70s, was found to be unsuited to local conditions and too labor intensive, and was uprooted, while 50 acres of olive trees and a similar area of pomegranate trees – both of these crops commanding high prices due to the current health craze – were planted.

Hulda Transformers remains, although with outside management. Other factories and small businesses have moved into rented space, turning a large part of the kibbutz into a small-scale industrial zone.

Perhaps most notably, the Barkan Winery, previously based at an industrial park in the West Bank, moved some of its facilities to Hulda, where, in partnership with the kibbutz, it grows almost 350 acres of grapes – according to Peleg, the largest single vineyard in the country. On the premises are a state-of-the-art processing plant and a shiny visitor’s center, the latter due to open soon.

Out of a current population of slightly over 300, Hulda now has 108 members, 35 of them 65 or older. There are also 37 pre-army-age children. It plans to build an additional 50 housing units for new members, including the next generation; they will go up on a swath of land next to the last residential neighborhood built in the kibbutz, constructed some 30 years ago. Members are also in the process of becoming the legal owners of their homes, the only stipulation being that if they sell, they sell to another kibbutz member.

Beyond this, there’s a new neighborhood going up on kibbutz land, close to one of the older residential sections, with impressive cottages and villas now on offer. Most have already been sold. While these residents will not be kibbutz members, it’s hoped they’ll take part in Hulda’s community life and renew the lively atmosphere that once prevailed.

“In 2002, a couple of years after the shift to differential salaries, we started accepting new members,” Peleg says. “It was the first time in a long time that Hulda became a worthy alternative to city life and an attractive place for its sons and daughters. We have the potential for a great future. Our location is great. There’s no reason people shouldn’t live here. With more people, we could renovate Beit Herzl.”

Hulda was one of 45 kibbutzimthroughout Israel in 2000 that paid members differential salaries or some variation thereof. By the end of 2009, the number stood at 188, fully two-thirds of the country’s kibbutzim. Another 65 now remain full collectives, with another nine employing a mixture of the two systems.

The change required a 2005 alteration to the law defining a kibbutz.

“To be recognized as a kibbutz,” says the Institute for the Research of the Kibbutz and the Cooperative Idea’s Getz, “it now has to be either a full collective, like before, or what has come to be called the ‘renewal’ model, which is a collective whose members receive differential salaries and perhaps own their homes and even shares of common assets.”

According to Kibbutz Movement leaders, the more successful kibbutzim are those that embraced industry.

“A kibbutz that lives solely off agriculture can no longer make ends meet,” says movement head Shor, a member of Kibbutz Ein Gev, on the eastern edge of the Sea of Galilee. “We still provide 40 percent of the country’s agricultural output. But look at the facts. Manufacturing and high-tech are much more profitable. Today, our factories account for 11 percent of the country’s industrial output, and those kibbutzim with more industry are doing better.”

But this doesn’t mean that the only collective farms embracing capitalism are those facing financial difficulties.

“Even kibbutzim in good financial condition have privatized,” says Shor. “Some wanted more independence. Some members wanted to work outside the kibbutz. They saw that this didn’t affect the core idea of group collectivity. Our ideology is absolutely clear. Our members want collective living, but those who wanted Lenin and Marx are gone.”

A few weeks ago, the movement released figures it said showed that the kibbutz population is making a comeback. After having reached a modern-day low of 115,000 in 2004, there are now 126,000 kibbutz residents, just 4,000 shy of the all-time peak of 130,000 registered in 1985, just before things soured.

The latest figures include non-members who have either rented empty kibbutz homes or built on kibbutz land, indicating that the dream of the founders a century ago may not necessarily be shared by everyone. Yet Shor remains bullish.

“They’ve been eulogizing us for 100 years,” he says. “We have a long future ahead.”

The writer of this article spent four years on Kibbutz Hulda in the late 1970s.


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