Kibbutzim: Socialist communities in the age of social distancing

The consequences for agriculture and tourism impact all of Israel.

THE GAN is in the heart of the kibbutz, surrounded by trees and landscaped greenery. (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE GAN is in the heart of the kibbutz, surrounded by trees and landscaped greenery.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For the 270 or so Israeli kibbutzim, social cooperatives where people live together and share work among their members, halting group activities flies in the face of core principles. During the present coronavirus pandemic, residents have been forced to separate to reduce the spread of the disease. This has prompted “kibbutzniks,” as they’re affectionally called, and their leaders to find alternative ways to keep up their togetherness while being apart.
“This current situation turned everything on its head. How do we bring about social distancing in communities whose essence is about bringing people together and having us work in cooperation? The first step was to really evaluate how to protect ourselves from ourselves,” Richard Summers, responsible for resource development and external affairs for the Eilot Regional Council, told The Media Line. 
Hevel Eilot, the southernmost regional district in Israel situated just north of the Red Sea city of Eilat, has 12 communities in its jurisdiction: 10 kibbutzim and two community settlements.
“The first thing we’ve done is to close our communal dining rooms,” Summers said, referring to a common characteristic of traditional, i.e., nonprivatized, kibbutzim. “Rather than turning around and saying each person has to fend for themself, we make deliveries [of meals to homes].”
Many kibbutzim went through financial struggles in the 1980s, leading a majority to privatize services and often property, The Hevel Eilot region is unusual in the sense that many of the kibbutzim remain fully communal.
How people interact on the kibbutzim has been transformed during this time, and Summers argues that there have been unintended benefits. 
“The hardest thing for communities used to interacting all the time is what happens when we start to lose communication with one another. Now, all the communal meetings we have on the kibbutz we’re doing through Zoom [video conferencing]…, but what we’ve realized is that actually we are creating greater participation,” he said. “People who in the past would have been busy can now actually participate in the communal discussion on how we are going to deal with this situation,” Summers said.
Shari Nitzan, the director of social services for Hevel Eilot and a member of Kibbutz Lotan, has also seen an increase in community activities being carried out online.
“Kibbutz Lotan just celebrated 37 years since its founding this past weekend; a lot of things were done on Zoom. Brunch was distributed and left in front of people’s houses,” she told The Media Line. “Although it’s hard to see it now, in the end, we’ll see it’s an opportunity for creativity and trying to think together in a different way.”
Another plus is the growth of telemedicine as flights at the nearby airport have almost stopped. This resulted in fewer medical specialists coming to the area and prevented people who normally get treatment elsewhere from going to their providers. 
“What we’ve done in this region is to take the idea of telemedicine to the next level. Our doctors now rarely take people into their clinics. They turn around and say we’re going to do everything online,” Summers said. “If you look at the upside of the coronavirus, some of the things that we’ve been talking about doing, we’re now doing. It was a huge deal to get these services in the past; today you can do it in your living room.”
When it comes to everyday life, children feel the greatest impact. 
“The kids are used to walking around; their front yard is the whole of the kibbutz. How do we make sure the kids are keeping distances from the adults … when some of the founding members are elderly…, a high-risk group?” Summers asked. “We have to take responsibility as parents, which is kind of an unusual thing on kibbutz, because we’re all everybody’s parents most of the time. What we’ve done is to go back to the family unit.”
Another major issue in his area is what to do with adult children who have left the kibbutz and now want to return, which poses a safety hazard to the rest of the community.
“One of the discussions that are going on at the moment is that, on the one hand, we live in a region that has the geographical advantage that we are so cut off from the rest of the country that at the moment, we have almost no cases of corona. … On the other hand, it’s a natural thing for parents to want to have their kids close to them in times of emergency,” Summers said.
“Whereas for you and I, who live in Jerusalem or New York,” he continued, “we can make the decision on our own and it’s our own responsibility. In a community the size of a kibbutz of 100 families living together, it’s no longer the responsibility of the individual family: the responsibility is the whole community’s.”
As a result, only very close family members like children and parents are allowed onto the kibbutzim. They must stay in isolation for 14 days once they enter the kibbutz so as to not spread coronavirus, potentially sickening the entire group.
According to Nitzan, in the event that such a calamity occurs, the regional council will step in.
“It’s possible for a kibbutz to be completely closed with everyone staying in their houses in order to prevent it from spreading, and then we’re going to have to provide food, essential services to the community from outside,” she said. 
So far, only one person in the area’s kibbutzim has tested positive for the virus. She is isolated at her home in good condition.
Kibbutzim in the area cannot shut out the outside world completely. Summers said that the kibbutzim and moshavim (communities with more individual ownership) from the far south up to the Dead Sea account for 60% for Israel’s agriculture.
“Above and beyond contemplating how we protect ourselves, we also have to continue with the responsibility that we have for ensuring there’s food for everybody in Israel,” he said. “It’s a huge source of pride here. We talk about those people who are working in the hospitals and teachers and delivery[men], but people forget it has to start somewhere, and it starts in the earth.”
Farming on kibbutzim in his area has suddenly become more expensive due to a shortage of recycled water from Eilat, the majority of which normally stems from the currently shuddered tourist industry in the nearby city. According to Summers, they must now use fresh water instead of the unusual 10-15% recycled water for crops, which has resulted in a 30-40% increase in expenses.
“It may not seem like a big deal, but when you’re a farmer working on minimal profit margins, it’s very significant, especially when all of the other income that’s coming into the kibbutzim is also becoming less and less,” Summers said, referring to the fact that many people have lost their work as a result of the novel virus. Their salaries provide revenue for the kibbutzim, at a percentage dependent on whether and to what degree the kibbutz has privatized.
The economic consequences are of great concern to kibbutzim in the area and throughout Israel.
Dr. Hanan Ginat, the mayor of the Hevel Eilot region’s 5,000 residents and a founding member of Kibbutz Samar, told The Media Line: “I’m a geologist and in geology you have the aftershock of earthquakes. The coronavirus [aftershock here] will be very strong. 
Tourism is really hurting now, and people have been fired or have to find new jobs and so this is the main thing I’m concerned about now,” he said. “The aftershock will come after we go back to the [normal] routine, which won’t be routine. And we have a lot of discussions about this; still no one knows when this event will end.
“Of course, we need to take care of the health issue and we are doing it very well,” Ginat continued. “We are looking at the near and far future and are really worried about it. … We are the far periphery, far away from the center, and we will need a lot of help from the government to build again the tourism [and other infrastructure]; everything is stuck now.”
Yael Shazit, spokeswoman for Kibbutz Ein Gev, located in northern Israel on the Sea of Galilee, said her kibbutz is taking a big financial hit from shuttering its hotel. 
“Especially now, in this month, there should have been a lot of Christian people coming, and now we don’t have it, and Pesach was full already; people book a year or two years in advance,” she told The Media Line. “Of course, it will be a great loss economically, but the kibbutz is strong and the people are strong. 
“I hope it will be gone in the summer, like the flu, and we can all return to the beaches together. The Kinneret [the Sea of Galilee] is beautiful and there is no there. It’s sad,” Shazit said.
Her kibbutz has had no coronavirus cases.
Israel’s kibbutzim are fighting the coronavirus in a way that they’ve never fought before.
Hevel Eilot’s Summers said, “This is a very different type of war, where our strength is being able to stay a community while keeping our distance. It’s different from anything you’ve ever experienced here, where normally when you start looking at emergency situations, the idea is we’ll all come together in a bomb shelter and we have to figure out how to live with one another” in close proximity.
“Now, we have to learn how to live separated from one another, and it’s something that’s not in our DNA in this region,” he said