Field of dreams

Israel's bold experiment in communal farming plows with confidence into second century.

kibbutz workers 521 (photo credit: Haim Azulay/ Flash 90)
kibbutz workers 521
(photo credit: Haim Azulay/ Flash 90)
When Gil Timor returned to Kibbutz Carmia in southern Israel from the centrally-located town of Shoham with his wife and five children eight years ago, the kibbutz was stumped about what to do with them. Back then, it was not every day that a large, young family decided to pack up their bags and relocate to the kibbutz.
The Timors, who met while Moran Timor was stationed at Carmia as part of her army service, had left as newlyweds almost a decade earlier to start their adult life together in the world outside. Gradually, they came to the realization that though they had all the material trappings of success, they missed the social ideals which they wanted to pass on to their children.
“For me, it was returning home,” recalls Timor, 47, as he prepares tea in the family’s expansive and sunny kitchen in their kibbutz home. His parents were among the first Israeli group to join Carmia, a kibbutz affiliated with the left-wing, secular Hashomer Hatzair movement, founded by orphaned French Holocaust survivors and Tunisian immigrants in 1950. The kibbutz is little more than a mile from the Gaza Strip and has been the target of frequent rocket attacks.
“When we moved back most of the people here were over the age of 40 and they didn’t know how to absorb us. They didn’t know what to do with a family with five children. Today we know what to offer returning families,” says Timor.
In the end, the kibbutz created an arrangement with the Timor family whereby they were able to purchase two neighboring houses to combine and renovate to suit their needs using their own funds. According to the agreement, the Timors will also be able to leave the house to their children as an inheritance, and they are now working to have the agreement recognized by the Israel Lands Authority.
Family reunion
Today, Moran Timor, 45, a Bat Yam native, is the director of cultural activities at the 128-member kibbutz while Gil is the kibbutz business manager and is running as a candidate for the regional council. Moran’s parents have also since joined them at the kibbutz as non-member residents.
Since their return, another seven people who grew up on the kibbutz have come back with their families, says Timor. In addition, the kibbutz is now working out what terms they can offer 30 other such families, including house payment terms, which will take into account the number of years the member worked previously on the kibbutz.
A large fish aquarium lines the wall separating the Timor’s kitchen from the five back bedrooms. The wood-paneled, high, angled ceiling in the kitchen and living room add a spacious, rustic feel to their kibbutz house.
A wooden deck in the back yard is in view through large sliding glass doors.
Clearly, the days of the tiny, identical, cramped quarters and the functional kibbutz kitchenette are gone; gone too are the days when members all wore standard blue work garb and had to receive permission to use a kibbutz car or study at the university. But most strikingly gone are the gloomy predictions of the ultimate demise of that Israeli of all social experiments, the kibbutz.
The first kibbutz, Degania, was founded on the shore of the Sea of Galilee by 12 pioneers in 1910. Following the Marxist ideal, members were meant to work according to their ability and receive according to their needs. Dozens more followed, utopian communal agricultural settlements based on the socialist principle of joint ownership of property, equality of members and cooperation of production.
Today there are 274 kibbutzim in Israel with a range of political and religious complexion, including 17 from the Religious Kibbutz Movement. Only 60 still follow the traditional socialist model, while the others have adapted themselves to the changing times after undergoing a financial crisis in 1985.
Many kibbutzim have adopted various models of privatization, and some have sold traditional farm land for housing projects, industrial zones and even shopping malls.
But after a long period of decline, when it seemed the kibbutz might disappear altogether, its stock is now on the rise, notes Ze’ev Shor, secretary of the National Kibbutz Movement.
“The kibbutz is reinventing itself while preserving the basic values of mutual support among its members and maintaining joint ownership of assets and revenues,” says Shor. “The kibbutz is more liberal and young families with children find it an attractive lifestyle compared to urban alienation.”
More than a century after the dozen pioneers of Degania planted their first crops, the kibbutz population has reached an all-time high of 140,900 – up from 115,000 in 2004, according to the latest annual report of the Kibbutz Movement. Even though 70 percent of kibbutzim are located on Israel’s periphery, they have become an attractive alternative for Israelis – especially those who grew up on a kibbutz – in search of a refuge from the urban rat race.
After 1985, when a financial crisis shook the movement, some 50,000 people left to start new lives elsewhere. But over the past decade, the trend has been reversed and some 1,500 kibbutz offspring have returned, including people in their late middle-age, says Omri Cnaan, the director of the coordination department of the National Kibbutz Movement Secretariat.
“Since 2004, the number of returning sons to the kibbutzim has been greater than those leaving the kibbutz and we have seen an increase in the population,” says Cnaan.
A settlement eventually worked out in 2007 between 180 kibbutzim in serious financial trouble, the banks and the government, allowed the kibbutzim to repay whatever part of their financial debt each could afford, while the banks erased their NIS 20 billion bank debt, 40 percent of which was covered by the government.
Separate entity
More than 80 successful kibbutzim also stepped in to help their bankrupt counterparts, each one contributing 2 million shekels towards the movement-wide debt. The banks then treated each kibbutz as a separate entity and tailored their rescue plans to suit the needs of each one.
“This left the kibbutzim able to continue,” says Nir Meir, chairman of the Kibbutz Economic Organization, and a third-generation member of Kvutzat Shiller near Rehovot.
Less than a handful were actually on the brink of total collapse, and all eventually were able to restructure themselves and are now back on their feet, says Meir. Only Beit Hashita still finds itself in dire straits as Meir struggles to find an arrangement with Bank Hapoalim.
Everyone realized there was no going back to the old model and something new had to be formulated.
Mishmar David and Ha’on began the process of transforming themselves into communal villages, while Beit Ha’emek became a moshav, another form of communal agricultural settlement where property is owned individually. Ayelet Hashahar is following the same path.
“When the kibbutzim started, it was a whole other world,” notes Meir. “In today’s capitalist world we can’t even imagine how that ever worked.”
With the aid of non-kibbutznik Israel Oz, a former adviser to Labor minister of finance Avraham Shochat and director of the Headquarters for Kibbutzim Agreement, and after numerous false starts, the kibbutzim were able to develop a new formula for the modernday kibbutz, which allows each family to keep their earnings after paying into an internal tax system that subsidizes social services, including child care, education, health care and elderly care for all kibbutz members. A family with higher income will be able to keep more for their own personal use, but those who earn less enjoy an economic security net that supports a certain quality of life and social services.
“The movement is only in one direction,” Meir says, noting that now that most of the kibbutzim are back on their feet, they have begun to pay taxes just like everybody else in Israel.
Thanks to the economic and ideological reformation most kibbutzim have undertaken, nowadays there are waiting lists for kibbutz membership, and, jokes Cnaan, almost the only way to be accepted as a kibbutz member is to marry into the clan – that is, by nabbing a native-born kibbutznik as a life partner.
Definitely returning
 “They return less to the kibbutzim on the periphery but they still are definitely returning,” Cnaan says, noting wryly that though one of his daughters remained in Gan Shmuel to work after her army service, he believes it will be difficult for his older daughter to return to the kibbutz once she completes her studies at the Technion in Haifa, unless the situation changes.
Kibbutzim, which were devastated by the economic crisis, like Degania neighbor Afikim, whose population halved to 400, have found a second wind thanks to the new system they adopted. In 2011 alone, Afikim absorbed 100 returning children, Cnaan says. Likewise, Lehavot Haviva near Hadera – nearly disbanded a decade ago when its population dwindled to just 100 – has also undergone a resounding turnaround in the past four years.
Kibbutz offspring who left Lehavot Haviva years ago have begun to return, tripling the number of residents.
“Because of the change they underwent, they were able to offer good terms as an incentive for their children to return,” notes Cnaan.
There were external factors as well. A highway interchange constructed right next to the kibbutz on the north-south trans-Israel highway Route 6 transformed Lehavot Haviva into an attractive option for members with outside jobs looking to return. The only thing stopping the growth of the kibbutzim nowadays, says Cnaan, is a government national master plan worked out in 1992, which limits the size of every small community – yishuv in Hebrew – to just 400 families.
“In the near future almost all the kibbutzim will need to expand,” Cnaan predicts optimistically. “The demand is high, especially among the returning children. Since there is a limit to the number of families a kibbutz can accept, preference is given to the returning children.”
For these prodigals, the kibbutz they fled in their youth now represents the best of two worlds: strong community values and universal, high-quality social services and education in a rural setting, combined with economic sovereignty for each individual family.
“It’s really amazing. Ten or 15 years ago nobody was returning except for maybe 10 percent of those who had left. Today the statistics have flipped and it is only 10 percent who are not returning,” says Meir. “It is a dramatic change. When you grew up on a kibbutz, you love the kibbutz where you were raised.”
Add to that affection the ability to build your own home without having to buy land, and you have a winning combination. Though some kibbutzim, like Maale Hahamisha near Jerusalem which has seen almost all of its children return, do require some sort of payment for the property, the terms are much easier than in the city, with payment deferred for numerous years. Even then, only a specific percentage of the property value must be paid.
No going back
Meir forecasts that eventually all the kibbutzim – including some 60 diehard socialist communities currently holding out – will succumb to the new system. He says there is no going back.
Because of the transformed economic structure, Meir is confident that when his own two older children complete their university studies in Beersheba, they will also return to Kvutzat Shiller.
While there may not be the same commitment to the socialist economic values of 100 years ago, returning kibbutz members still identify with the concept of mutual responsibility and want to raise their own children with those same ideals.
“Without those changes, we grandparents would have remained alone here,” says Carmia member Lili Sucharczuk, 61, whose daughter lives in Carmia with her three children, while her son lives in Nes Tziona.
Though the communal kibbutz dining room still exists – mainly for after-school lunches for children and retirees – most residents prefer to have their meals at home. The communal laundry room, however, remains an attractive option for busy families.
Timor has fond memories of early years spent in the communal children’s house but his own children all sleep at home in their own bedrooms.
Returning to the kibbutz wasn’t an obvious choice at first, says Moran Timor, sitting on one of the two leather-like sofas in their open-spaced living room. But, like Dorothy in Oz, the more they looked, the more they realized that what they were looking for was waiting for them at home.
Even the continued Qassam rocket attacks from Gaza have not dissuaded them from their decision.
“It was important for us to educate our children in a framework of mutual responsibility,” says Moran. “When we were young we went out and demonstrated for social justice – like they did last summer. But in reality you can’t really change things, you don’t have that influence. On the kibbutz you can.
The thing I really love about the kibbutz and which is very central is the ideal that we have a responsibility towards all the families who live here, to help the elderly in a respectful way. This is mutual responsibility, the concern for all the families with whom we have decided to live together in this community.
This is a message we are passing on to our children about what we see as the important things in our life. This is very significant. We are not a society where everyone is living separated from one another.”
The biggest challenge, however, says Ori Margalit, secretary of Ramat Hakovesh and coordinator of the New Kibbutz Forum, will be to maintain that sense of mutual responsibility in the future, in order to prevent the kibbutzim from turning into just another communal bedroom settlement filled with lovely private homes.
“The external society is changing,” observes Margalit. “People on the kibbutz pay regular national taxes as well as internal taxes, which allow us to finance the security net. The question is how long people will be willing to pay taxes to support this mutual responsibility towards others. If they want community life, there needs to be communal work and support. If not, it will be just another communal village, not bad, but something else other than a kibbutz.”
For Carmia old-timers Sara, 83, and Shlomo Barad, 85, who arrived as young idealists from Tunisia and are two of the few living founders of the kibbutz, the economic recovery has given them a sense of hope for the future of the institution to which they dedicated their lives. Two of their children are married and live on other kibbutzim, while one son lives in Rehovot with his family.
“The kibbutz is a way of life and we have contributed what we could,” says Sarah, in the living room of the small one-bedroom apartment she has shared with her husband for the greater part of their life together. They accept the new social developments as the wave of the new generation. “We have stayed on the kibbutz for more than 63 years, so, of course, we are optimistic about the future.”