A collective conundrum

As kibbutzim tend toward privatization, the economic crisis forces them to rethink the capitalist dream.

early kibbutz workers 88 248 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
early kibbutz workers 88 248
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
Over the last few months, director Itzhak Rubin has become something of a kibbutz celebrity. A documentary filmmaker since the early 1980s, he has touched on many sensitive subjects in Israeli society. In his most recent film, Degania - The world's first kibbutz fights its last battle, he exhibits the process of privatization that has taken place in the world's first kibbutz, founded 100 years ago. Interestingly enough, even though Degania was founded in a time of crisis for the Jewish people, it disbanded last year during a prosperous period. Degania opens with a scene showing New York firefighters who survived 9/11 being baptized at the same place as Jesus. In 1908, Degania was established on the same location, where the Jordan River joins the Kinneret. Rubin, originally an economist, chose to open his film with the christening scene, while displaying photos of the World Trade Center attack, to demonstrate that the crisis created in the kibbutz movement is not only individual, but part of a global phenomenon. "The crisis did not start now," he says. "The events of 9/11 symbolize the decline of capitalism. It is a blow to the arrogant world. After a man suffers a heart attack, he begins to see that there are more important matters in life than money. That's what the people of Degania thought a hundred years ago. They grew up in bourgeois homes in Eastern Europe, but the pogroms woke them up." "In 1905, following the riots in Kishinev (in what is today Moldova), the kibbutz founders realized they needed to change their way of life. They made aliya and adopted the "religion of work," Rubin explains. "[This] is a mystical place. There's a reason why two such important movements - Christianity, which started as a Jewish social movement, and the kibbutz movement - started their paths here. This gives the sense that Jews are about tikkun olam and caring for each other." Today, he argues, there's a regression toward privatization. At first, Degania fought for its existence. It took some time for even the Zionist movement to embrace the idea of a group of people living as a complete collective, and there were some who called for its disbandment. Degania was the home of personalities such as A. D. Gordon, who was a mentor to the poet Rachel. Yosef Bosel, originator of the kibbutz concept and leader of the Degania group, who died at 28, and Shmuel Dayan, father of Moshe. The Dayans left for Degania Bet, an adjacent kibbutz that was established not due to separatism, as local legend would have it, but simply because the initial plan was to name all the kibbutzim "Degania," a name that stems from "dagan" (grain.) A third Degania, Degania Gimel, was disbanded shortly after its establishment and its members founded kibbutz Ginegar. Since then, roughly 264 additional kibbutzim have been established. To this day, some 70 percent of kibbutzim have been privatized, and another 5% have adopted various models of privatization. Rubin's film accompanies the privatization process that Degania underwent over the course of two years. The film, which has been shown at a number of kibbutzim, has stimulated profound discussion. "The kibbutz completely affected my intellectual space," says former MK and Meretz head Ran Cohen, also a former Secretary of Kibbutz Gan Shmuel. Cohen, who arrived as a 10-year-old immigrant from Iraq, says, "The film represents both [the] dream and [the] disillusionment. The kibbutz is not a self-made model, but a magnificent masterpiece created by the State of Israel… We lived this dream with tremendous enthusiasm." Then, Cohen explains, the kibbutz movement experienced a crisis. "Swinish capitalism," as President Shimon Peres once termed it, rose, and the lust after individualism degraded both moral values and the state. This wasn't confined to the kibbutzim, he notes. "In the case of Degania, it was the money surplus; in other instances, where the [kibbutz] economy failed, the common saying was to get the people out to work, so they wouldn't live as parasites." Cohen says he doesn't think "there ever was a human society more exciting, more charming or superior, than the kibbutz collective." It's good he no longer lives on a kibbutz, he continues, so he doesn't have to go through the process of privatization. "There are kibbutzim where the greedy don't want to share their money, and there are kibbutzim that decide 'whatever happens, we won't be disbanded,'" says Rubin, who - contrary to his expectations - found the privatization process to be negative. "In most cases, the initiators of the privatization are powerful, wealthy, avaricious people who say, 'If we don't privatize, we'll collapse.' It's a very impulsive system. On one hand, there are the utilitarian [members], on the other hand there are those who seek collectivity." Dr. Shosh Hadar of Degania, a veterinarian and young mother who moved to the kibbutz from a city, was among those seeking to keep the kibbutz a collective. "Even though she could be one of the greatest beneficiaries of privatization," says Rubin, "she preferred the concept of "arevut hadadit" [mutual concern] over money." A year has passed since the privatization process at Degania began. Technically, it has disbanded, but its social services are still run collectively. In the first vote, supporters of privatization won by nine ballots. Each family was promised NIS 180,000 from the joint kibbutz funds. The latter decision was made almost unanimously. "They are still in the middle of the process and cannot realize the full meaning of it," says Rubin, a former city resident who now lives in Moshav Zerufa. "With NIS 180,000 I can buy a new car, get a few dental treatments, buy some clothes and that's it. They fail to acknowledge the significance of the services given to them as kibbutz members for free, like a nursing home for the elderly or a swimming pool. The kibbutz has a quality of life that is coveted by urbanites. "Privatization is an earthquake. I travel between kibbutzim with my film, and after the screening there are discussions that last for two, three hours - discussions that instigate harsh arguments by supporters and objectors alike. I don't see any ideological debate in Israel that is as serious as the one arising in the kibbutzim," Rubin surmises. Like the kibbutzim, the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, which hosted the film's first screening, was awash in controversy, especially when Israel Oz, chief of the Kibbutzim Coordination Staff, who has helped facilitate the privatization of about 10 kibbutzim, spoke his mind. Oz argued that "many terrible processes are under way in the kibbutz; there are many evils and various difficulties." A man in his 60s stood up and shouted: "The kibbutz is an exemplary society! I wish all of Israel were like this!" and stormed out of the screening hall. Oz claimed that privatization enables kibbutz members to enjoy a freedom that they had not previously had. "In the past, a small group [the people who work] dictated the lives of many. No more members that live lavishly without working. Privatization allows people to become masters of their own lives. "Arevut hadadit" has become irresponsibility. Eighty percent of the families I've seen in the kibbutzim that we privatized did nothing to earn their bread, while the remaining 20% provided for everybody else." However, Oz said, he doesn't think that there is a "rupture" in kibbutz society. The kibbutz dream was a success, he insists. As long as Israeli society saw the kibbutz as a way of making the dream of a Jewish state a reality, it was used. "But later, when the state said 'That's enough, we used you and now we'll dispose of you,' it was over," Oz declared, adding that the kibbutz movement had failed to sustain itself. Elisha Shapira, a member of the Collective Movement, and Nechemiya Rafell, general secretary of the religious kibbutz movement, disagree. "The true parasites are those who receive enormous paychecks, not those 10% who don't work," Shapira says infuriated, as if this were a vote on the fate of his home kibbutz of Ein Hashofet. "Zionism is nothing but a grand financing program with the sole purpose of settling people in Israel so that they could lead their lives normally," continues Shapira. "The '77 changeover [in which the Likud under Menachem Begin won the Knesset elections] abolished subsidized funding and damaged the economy as a whole. In the '70s, Israel was among the world's most developed and egalitarian societies. Twenty years later, it is the leader in social inequality, and the Kibbutz Movement obediently follows." Rafell, who ran for a place on Habayit Hayehudi's Knesset list, says: "Collectivity is one of Judaism's basic values." Indeed, according to Dr. Shlomo Getz, head of the Kibbutz Research Institute at the University of Haifa, the religious kibbutzim, where the lifestyle tends to be more modest, suffer less economical crises and have less desire for privatization. Getz argues that: "Kibbutzim chose the capitalistic solution, in view of a strengthening neo-liberalism. Had the crisis occurred today, the kibbutzim might have chosen other paths." Getz states, however, that "Most [kibbutz] members are satisfied with privatization, but there is no proof that the change has improved or even affected the economic state of the kibbutzim." He pointed out that the aspect of kibbutz members' satisfaction with privatization has been studied by American researchers who were entirely unconnected to the kibbutz movement. Rubin say he's taken his films to kibbutzim that have not been privatized, to places like Bar-Am, Ein Shemer, Sde Boker and Ein Hashofet, whose members have been stunned by the recent global financial meltdown. "Up until now, the people's eyes were green with envy, fixed on the stock market and the high-tech world. [They] wondered, 'why aren't we a part of the capitalist party that's going on in the city?" he says. "They don't realize that in the city you might not make ends meet. Suddenly… everybody realizes this isn't really a big party. The present economic crisis carries tremendous fear, and people fall back on collaboration. They feel that even if there's an economical drawback [to collectivism], they'll always have each other in the kibbutz. It's just that they'll have to work harder." Overshadowed by the global economical crisis, but not yet at the point of no return, many kibbutzim are busy with self-scrutiny. "When I first showed my film to the members of Degania, there were tumultuous debates and they asked for a second screening," Rubin concludes. "We had a serious talk that lasted five hours. Toward the end of the night, a 24-year-old guy stood up and asked, 'Why didn't we have this debate during the privatization process? Why did we need to watch a film for that?' "Kibbutzniks don't realize that the money they've gotten [from privatization] will be gone in two years… I believe that kibbutzim can still make a change, they have the right foundation for it."