A true kibbutznik

An innovative minister of education, Aharon Yadlin became one of the leading figures in Israeli public life.

Aharon Yadlin at Kibbutz Hatzerim. (photo credit: BEN GURION UNIVERSITY OF THE NEGEV)
Aharon Yadlin at Kibbutz Hatzerim.
THE NIGHT the Yom Kippur fast ended in 1946, a few hundred young Jews were secretly trucked to the Negev desert from the center of the country.
At the time, the United Nations was drawing up a plan for what would happen to Palestine after the British Mandate ended. Dropped off at various locations throughout the desert, carrying fencing, building materials and a few small arms, the young people made their way, some on foot, to 11 predetermined sites. The settlers, graduates of various youth movements, set up camps overnight as part of the celebrated campaign that would become known as the “11 points of the Negev.”
The operation was devised in order to assure a Jewish presence in the area prior to the anticipated UN proposal to partition Palestine, a plan in which the Negev might have been excluded from the Jewish state and settlement there prohibited.
Among the settlers “establishing facts on the ground” that October was former MK, education minister and Israel Prize laureate Aharon Yadlin. He was one of the founders of Be’eri, one of the kibbutzim created from those 1946 Negev settlements.
“It was all done in total secrecy so the British authorities wouldn’t stop us,” recalls Yadlin, who, since 1950 has been a member of Hatzerim located five miles northwest of Beersheba, another of the famous 11. “At the time, the Ottoman law was still upheld, which stated that if you put up a building with a roof you couldn’t tear it down. The British discovered the structures in the morning and couldn’t do anything,” he tells The Jerusalem Report.
The “11 points” operation was similar to the “tower and stockade” model of 10 years earlier in Palestine, but this time barbed wire replaced the stockade, and a wooden structure topped by a water tank was erected instead of a tower.
Yadlin, who would become one of the leading figures in Israeli public life, was then head of a Scouts platoon in the Palmach (the elite force of the Hagana underground army). A few months later, he found himself laboriously helping to lay pipes to connect water to the new settlements – an operation that would later prove crucial. He recalls the visit to their construction team of members of the UN special committee on Palestine, the committee charged with making recommendations for post-Mandate arrangements.
“They were really impressed,” Yadlin says. “The Swede who was head of the delegation commented to another member that ‘this pipeline will give the Negev to the Jews.’” In the end, the map proposed by the committee did indeed include most of the Negev.
Like everyone living in Palestine at the time, Yadlin remembers exactly where he was on May 14, 1948 – in Kibbutz Be’eri in charge of integrating Scouts into the Palmach.
“We knew Ben-Gurion was about to make a speech declaring independence and we all gathered around the radio to hear his address. We were very excited,” he relates, “but we all knew what was going to happen next. As Ben-Gurion said at the time, ‘Everyone is dancing but the coming war will be very difficult.’” The next day, the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq invaded in a move to destroy the nascent Jewish state.
Yadlin was born in Moshav Ben Shemen (near what is now Ben-Gurion Airport), where his father was a teacher. His parents had immigrated to Palestine shortly after World War I from Bessarabia, originally part of the Czarist Empire and later combined with Romania after the war. In Palestine, his father studied education, while his mother worked first on road construction and then in a photography shop. His father insisted on speaking only Hebrew at home.
“His favorite slogan was ‘Hebrews speak Hebrew,’” recalls Yadlin. “He never let my mother speak Yiddish, so later I complained that I’d lost three languages: Romanian, Russian and Yiddish, and that’s a shame.”
His father was eventually sent to teach in Rehovot and then to Haifa, where Yadlin went to secondary school. Like many of his generation, Yadlin joined the Hagana as a teenager, and so had undergone some military training.
When the 1948 war broke out and the Egyptians invaded from the south, “Ben-Gurion was depending on the Palmach units to defend the southern settlements, at least for the first two weeks,” says Yadlin. “We knew we’d have to defend the kibbutzim, but the only arms we had were rifles and submachine guns. No heavy weapons. We built up positions, but in the end the Egyptian army passed by Be’eri as it raced toward Tel Aviv.”
Two years after the war Yadlin left Be’eri and moved to Kibbutz Hatzerim, a reflection of the bitter split in the kibbutz movement along political lines. That historic breakup in 1951 was mainly caused by different attitudes towards the Soviet Union, including whether to promote relations with the Communist bloc or the US (which would mean funding).
Yadlin and his fellow members were already quarreling about Marxist ideology, and, finding themselves in the minority, moved instead to Hatzerim, which was part of a different kibbutz movement. “These were such difficult arguments, but it’s hard to fathom that mindset today,” he notes.
(Today there is only one kibbutz federation, all the separate movements having united.) YADLIN WOULD go on to be in and out of national public life for decades. He served for many years in the Knesset, including as minister of education, secretary general of the Labor Party and, after leaving the Knesset, secretary general of the United Kibbutz Movement. In 2011, he was awarded the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement and special contribution to society and the State of Israel.
Yadlin first entered the Knesset in 1960 on the Labor Party slate (then called Mapai). Though in today’s terms it seems astounding, in the 1959 elections the party won 47 seats. Yadlin was deputy minister of education from 1965 to 1972. From 1972 to 1974, he was secretary general of the Labor party, working with prime minister Golda Meir.
Following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Labor government was beset by internal fighting over questions of strategic misjudgments and lack of leadership that resulted in the war. And although Meir was officially cleared of responsibility and the party won reelection in December 1973, she resigned four months later, saying that she could not ignore the public anger.
Yadlin was Labor secretary general when she declared her resignation to the party leadership. “I tried to dissuade her from resigning,” he recalls. “When she left the room I ran after her and asked her to reconsider.
‘Come back, come back,’ I said, but she didn’t return. I was sometimes laughed at for this,” he says ruefully today.
From 1974 to 1977 he returned to the Education Ministry, this time as minister, under Yitzhak Rabin’s first term, during which he started the program for investing more in the long school day in development towns and poverty stricken areas. He was also responsible for a fundamental revision of the school curriculum, which hadn’t been changed for years, promoting Jewish and humanistic studies, updating the sciences and insisting on higher academic levels for teachers.
“We got additional funds for the more disadvantaged students, and raised the salaries of teachers in the periphery, despite the need to increase the defense budget after the difficult war,” he relates. “By the end of my term we had a long school day and school lunches with proper meals, in which the kids helped out.
But all this was canceled, when Menachem Begin’s government began to fund the settlement enterprise in the West Bank, beyond the 1967 lines,” Yadlin sighs.
In 1980 he resigned from the Knesset.
Today, at 88, Yadlin is still fit and active on the kibbutz. He lives the refreshingly modest life of a true kibbutznik. Walking around the kibbutz, he points out the first tiny huts put up at the beginning, and the later “Swedish” cabins that once were considered luxury accommodations, in which each family had one room. Another later group of concrete homes is called the “Vatican” neighborhood, a play on words for the Hebrew word for seniors– vatikim.
To his own book-lined unpretentious home has just been added a new reinforced security room, following last summer’s 50-day war in Gaza, during which Hamas launched thousands of rockets and mortars toward Israel. His monthly pension from his years as a lawmaker goes directly to the kibbutz, which allocates modest budgets on an equitable basis to the members.
The kibbutz movement, based on the utopian ideal that everyone works according to their ability and receives income based on their needs, has undergone many changes during its 104-year history. Most of the country’s 274 kibbutzim have been forced to scrap their egalitarian lifestyle, but Hatzerim is one of the few that have survived into the 21st century without privatizing ̶ there is a connection between maintaining the communal ethos and financial success.
HATZERIM IS one of the richest kibbutzim in the country, thanks mainly to the multinational drip irrigation company Netafim, which began there 50 years ago. The manufacturer and marketer of one of Israel’s greatest innovations operates in 150 countries through 37 subsidiaries with 13 factories around the world. The kibbutz’s other main sources of revenue are Jojoba Israel, which produces a liquid wax ingredient made of beans grown on the Jojoba tree, used in the cosmetic industry, and a flourishing dairy.
Along with the decline in socialist fervor, the kibbutzim have lost their admired status and political clout. “The kibbutzim were very respected because they represented Jewish settlement and even, in the early years, a role in defense,” Yadlin says.
The process of change, he explains, began in the 1970s when Israel went from emphasizing social equality to having one of the largest gaps between rich and poor in the Western world. The defeat of the Labor party in 1977, the decline of the once economically powerful Histadrut labor federation, which backed up the kibbutzim and provided a major base in the political leadership, as well as the right-wing victory in the 1977 election drastically altered the fate and influence of the kibbutz movement.
When an economic crisis in the 1980s threatened many of the kibbutzim with bankruptcy, their own members began doubting the viability of their collective system. Yadlin was, at the time, secretary general of the United Kibbutz Movement, presiding over the huge government and banking bail-out deal to rescue many of the kibbutzim.
That 1989 bail-out deal didn’t involve Hatzerim, notes Yadlin with considerable pride. “Hatzerim was always very financially responsible. Other kibbutzim took out all sorts of loans and invested their funds irresponsibly in non-productive ventures.
And once there was this insane inflation and murderous interest rates, and at that point there was a danger of actual bankruptcy.
But we’d been responsible and even had savings. Call it a certain nuttiness in being over-cautious financially,” he smiles.
Yadlin has always been intimately involved in the development of Ben- Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, founded in 1973. “I was among those who truly believed that this must be a unique university. There were some who opposed the idea, but in the Education Ministry we never had any doubts.” Yadlin lobbied for improved services for students, setting up a wide-ranging scholarship network.
HIS WIFE Edah passed away 17 years ago.
He has three sons and 11 grandchildren.
One of his sons is Amos Yadlin. A former deputy head of the Israel Air Force and head of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate, Amos was the Zionist Union party’s choice for defense minister in the recent elections.
He is currently director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
Yadlin takes me for a delicious lunch in the (still communal) kibbutz dining hall, which just then is filled with school children from the public elementary school on the kibbutz, which draws children from the surrounding area.
The kibbutz, he maintains, has still remained faithful to its three basic concepts: values, economic stability and giving to the community. “We do what we can do to benefit society. We have many volunteers who donate their time and the kibbutz budgets money for various missions – a shelter for battered women and a boarding school for children in distress.”