Snap Judgment: A collective collapse

The kibbutz as a 'movement' is certainly in its dying days.

calevbendavid88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
In the summer of 1984 I had the pleasure of spending a month working as a volunteer on Kibbutz Deganya Alef, the "mother of collective settlements." Founded in 1909 on the southern shore of the Kinneret, Deganya is rich in historical lore, from the Syrian tank wreck that pays testament to the kibbutz's heroic role in the War of Independence, to the grave of founding father Aharon David Gordon, the "prophet of Hebrew labor" who exhorted Diaspora Jews to renew themselves through manual work on the good earth in the Land of Israel. The mid-1980s may have been a traumatic time for the kibbutz movement as a whole, which suffered dramatic financial losses after making ill-advised investments in an era of hyper-inflation, an economic blow from which it never fully recovered. But Deganya certainly seemed to be doing well at the time; perhaps too well. Deganya's grounds included a spacious swimming pool, well-maintained tennis courts and comfortable volunteer quarters, all suitable for a little relaxation after a hard day's work in the banana groves or cotton fields. I was puzzled though, that the community had decided to include among its recreational facilities a well-appointed workout room complete with the latest Nautilus weight-lifting machines. Kibbutzniks putting in a hard day of manual labor are not the most likely candidates to start pumping iron in their off-hours, so the gym remained largely empty that summer except for me and a few other volunteers. It struck me as the kind of indulgence that suggested Deganya was perhaps losing its way. What, I wondered, would A.D. Gordon have made of such narcissistic non-productive effort in the very cradle of socialist Zionism where he had declared that "the ideal of Labor must become a pivot of all our aspirations. It is the foundation on which our national structure is to be erected." Just two years after my stint on Deganya, it decided to stop accepting foreign volunteers. This was a growing trend among several kibbutzim, which felt that the young Americans and Europeans working by day and partying by night in their presence had become a disruptive presence in their communities, rather than a chance to make new converts to the socialist labor ideology on which they were founded. For me though, the decision bespoke a growing lack of confidence among the kibbutzniks themselves in their old values, especially as they turned increasingly to the use of cheap hired labor, first from Palestinians and than workers imported from Asia. DEGANYA continued its slide away from its original collective ethos, just last month becoming the latest kibbutz to shift toward a more capitalist model. It has abandoned its traditional equitable socialist pay-scale for one in which individual members will be paid differing salaries based on the positions they hold in the kibbutz, or simply be allowed to keep and live on the money they earn on jobs outside the community. The news wasn't greeted with much surprise or regret. After all, well over half of all the 270 kibbutzim have now gone that route in recent years, and some one-fifth also now allow their members to buy their own homes. (Several have also, more controversially, sold off land - that was initially leased to them from the state for agricultural purposes - to private developers at great profit.) Today only some 120,000 Israelis live on kibbutzim, and with rare exceptions no new ones have been founded in decades. It's likely there will always be a few kibbutzim left of the purer collective sort in future years, just like one can still find communes of various kinds still carrying on across the globe. But the kibbutz as a "movement," except as a bureaucratic administrative entity, is surely - if not dead - certainly in its dying days. As the kibbutz fades out as an historical phenomenon, its passing is accompanied by various works - personal memoirs, historical studies, films such as the recently acclaimed Sweet Mud - offering a decidedly revisionist view of its role in Israeli society. Despite all this, though, there's no denying the crucial role such settlements as Deganya played in the creation of the Jewish state. One can also argue that the ideology on which they were founded was a logical choice, given the historical and material circumstances at the time of their creation. That time, though, has clearly passed. No doubt die-hard critics of capitalism will argue this only proves the old Marxist dictum that "islands of socialism cannot survive in a sea of capitalism." As for myself, whatever youthful socialist beliefs I once had were pretty much shed that summer in Deganya. Individuality, competitiveness, laziness, ambition, vanity and acquisitiveness are inbred human traits that seem far more suited to capitalism, with all its faults, than the unnatural collective ethos that ultimately could not be sustained on the kibbutzim. In truth, I never knew socialism to have a more human face than what I encountered on Deganya. But even there, human nature eventually won out on the admirable, if ultimately unsustainable, dreams of its worthy founders. The writer is director of the Jerusalem office of The Israel Project.