Exploring the transformation of Israel's kibbutz movement

David Leach returns to Israel almost 30 years after his stint on a kibbutz to see if the utopian lifestyle still exists.

The library at Kibbutz Shamir, long before author David Leach arrived to volunteer there (photo credit: COURTESY KIBBUTZ SHAMIR LIBRARY)
The library at Kibbutz Shamir, long before author David Leach arrived to volunteer there
In 1988, David Leach, a 20-year old Canadian, dropped out of school after breaking up with his high school sweetheart and traveled to Israel to live on a kibbutz.
A Christian raised on Sunday school stories featuring ancient Biblical place names like Gethsemane, Golgotha and Galilee, Leach was attracted to “an exotic land, filled with history, adventure, and camaraderie.” Most of all, like many kibbutz volunteers who flocked to Israel in the 1980s, he wanted “to live like a utopian.”
Leach worked in the kitchen, the orchards and the optical factory at Kibbutz Shamir, not far from Kiryat Shmona, falling into the rhythms of volunteer life and “ignoring the dangers beyond the fences.” After eight months, he returned home, becoming a journalist and the chair of the Department of Writing at the University of Victoria, with a wife and two kids.
Twenty years later, Leach learned that Shamir Optical Industry Ltd. was listed on the NASDAQ. Kibbutzniks received an annual dividend, often in five figures. If he had stayed, Leach might have become a millionaire. He decided to return to Israel to find out what kibbutzim now meant to the nation – and to him.
In Chasing Utopia: The Future of the Kibbutz in a Divided Israel, Leach chronicles his journey across Israel, documenting the transformation of the kibbutz movement.
Beautifully written, his book is in part, a lament for those, including Leach (an “overscheduled suburban dad” more likely to read spreadsheets than short stories) “who prefer our pocket utopia of idealized memories to stay unchanged,” but are forced to contend with the seemingly intractable challenges of “creating an intentional community of equals” in “a broken world” and, in part, a search for evidence, born of Leach’s will to believe, that “a collective vision of utopia was rising again, despite the odds.”
Leach enumerates the compromises kibbutzim have made with their founding communal principles. In the 1970s and 1980s, he indicates, parents demanded that their children sleep at home; the last kibbutz ended communal daycare in 1991. Equally important, differential wages replaced “the one-for-all-and-all-for one” economy.
By 2012, as privatization and criticism of the “Metapelet Complex” (the learned helplessness engendered by the nanny state of kibbutzim) spread, only a fifth of the remaining communities paid members the same monthly wage. There was a radical decline in the number of “third places” in kibbutzim, sites that leveled status and encouraged social mixing among “extended families.” Once filled to overflowing three times a day, the dining room, Leach writes, now served lunches, Shabbat dinner, and holiday meals, with members charged a fee each time they broke bread with their comrades. And as the average age of kibbutzniks rose, some communities stopped funding health care and closed their schools.
Because of these changes, one Israeli told Leach that the kibbutz was not simply in crisis, but dead: “a ragged husk emptied of soul.”
As he bears witness to the “faded dreams of the kibbutz,” with “hundreds of socialist communes turned into country suburbs or bankrupt retirement homes,” Leach searches for evidence in 21st century Israel of a renaissance of the egalitarian vision of “the original dreamers.”
He finds it, albeit in small, fledgling, controversial forms. Among the experiments Leach cites, with evident approval, is Rawabi, a planned city with affordable housing built by and for Palestinians; Achzivland, Eli Avivi’s “independent republic of love”; Nes Amim, a Christian kibbutz; and a dozen or more kibbutzim in the Galilee, including communities devoted to dance, creative writing and music, vegetarianism, ecology, peace, home life for Arabs and Jews with special needs.
The biggest lesson he learned during his visit, Leach writes, is that “no real estate is neutral in Israel.” The kibbutznik dream of a socialist utopia in Palestine, where Jews and Arabs live and work together “collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions: one land, two peoples, too much history.”
Can the new experiments “in radical sharing, co-existence and political dissent” take root and “grow broad and strong, as kibbutzim once did?” Can they “make the desert bloom and the cities thrive, this time for all the people of the Promised Land?” Leach stretches and strains, it seems to me, to get to “yes.” Utopias, he acknowledges, exist only in our imagination.
Utopia may well be “only a paperweight, a Pandora’s take away box,” containing “nothing more substantial than that most helium-light and elusive and alltoo- human of elements: hope.”
“Maybe that’s enough,” Leach concludes, but his elegant and eloquent book seems testimony to that fact that hope may be necessary, but it is rarely sufficient.
And, alas, all the more difficult to make “real” when, as Nomika Zion, a founder of Kibbutz Migvan, declared: embattled people, all of whom have legitimate aspirations and legitimate grievances, lose “the human ability to see the other side.”
■ Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.