Return of the kibbutzim

While most people have written it off, the movement has rejuvenated itself.

kibbutz beeri 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
kibbutz beeri 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The kibbutzim are dying off and their members are leaving in droves. That's the prevailing wisdom. Actually, the opposite is the case. After years of crisis, reduced productivity and departing members, kibbutzim have experienced a noticeable turnaround. If in 1997 the overall kibbutz product was at a level of NIS 20 billion, in 2006 the figure stands at about NIS 27 billion. In this same nine-year period, the kibbutzim have gone from a collective debt of NIS 700 million to a NIS 1.2 billion profit, accounting for 12% of all Israeli exports. This comes at a time when the kibbutz population represents just 1.8% of the total population. During the 12-year period between 1988 and 2005, 52,000 members left the kibbutzim; in the past two years thousands have joined the kibbutzim, and children of members are returning. Among the kibbutz youth are a disproportionately high number of IDF combat troops obviously not heeding the ultra-leftist call to avoid army service. So what happened? Nothing less than a social revolution has occurred in the kibbutzim, and it has conquered the kibbutz leadership headed by Secretary-General Gavri Bargil of the United Kibbutz Movement. ECONOMICS has been the main driving factor in this revolution. The kibbutz's downturn was caused by its inability to cope with globalization and free-market forces. The kibbutzim stubbornly adhered to their ideology of total uncompromised equality, as well as waste-inducing supply of free goods and services to members. This egalitarian regime prevented the kibbutzim from maximizing the potential of their talented work force. They were driven by ideology and not by proven economic and business principles. Today's revolution does not discard this traditional ideology. Instead, it differentiates between economics and management on the one hand, and the community on the other. Differential pay was introduced into the kibbutz structure; management has become increasingly professionalized; and the community and business structures have been separated. The community has retained its ideology of equality as much as possible, whereas the business enterprise has operated according to market-driven parameters. Today's kibbutzim still manage their funds in such a way that the weak, elderly and those members unable to earn high wages are cared for. Culture, education and health care are also still provided for by the kibbutz. The business model does not interfere in this. HOW DID this revolution come about? Members are obligated to pay their kibbutzim a progressive rate of their income, thus doing away with the extreme wage discrepancies prevalent elsewhere in Israel and other modern societies. A new type of equality structure has emerged - a "Scandinavian" equality model based on minimum pay and maximum wage caps, forestalling sharp differences between wage earners. This renewal has changed the kibbutzim, and the young generation identifies with this dual trend: social equality and personal remuneration based on one's skills and dedication. This duality has brought about a revolutionary reversal in kibbutz trends: There has been a marked gain in population and noticeable financial growth. Why has this revolution gone unnoticed? Because the dominant tone in Israeli society today does not permit us to take note of positive trends. It's become impolitic to say a good word about Israel. In this phony world, where there is no meaning to facts, the rejuvenated kibbutz is held to be a dying horse even though it gallops ahead. But the new stature of the kibbutz allows it to once again stake its claim to national leadership - with two conditions. First, it must open its educational system to non-kibbutz members, as some kibbutzim have already done. This will serve to strengthen the education system in the periphery and foster the idea of democratic schools - whose success is another well-kept Israeli secret. Kibbutz education rests on democratic values, and the opening of its system can shape future generations. THE SECOND condition is that the kibbutz leadership must dissociate itself from anti-Zionist academics. Only a psychologist could explain why every meeting between kibbutz representatives and these idle chatterers ends with the kibbutz representatives getting their noses bloodied. And only a psychiatrist could elucidate why the kibbutz publishing house would publish anti-Zionist writings which label the settlement movement itself the embodiment of fascist colonization. And how could Givat Haviva, named after a Zionist heroine who parachuted into Nazi-occupied Europe, adopt the likes of Ilan Pappe? If instead of playing out their role on the national sidelines the kibbutzim can live with these conditions and reoccupy center stage, they will be able to retake their position as our guides to a better and more just society. The writer, a former MK, is a law professor.