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The Kibbutz Movement

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Kibbutz is an intentional community. The pioneers of kibbutz came to pre-state Israel from eastern Europe at the height of the socialist ideal, to create communities where each would give according to his or her ability and take according to his or her need. The small groups of settlers to the malaria- and famine-stricken Palestine of the early- to mid-20th century were idealistic, educated, bourgeois Jewish youth searching for answers.

These young adults lived together, slept together, ate together, and used any income to provide for the group, equally and totally. Women and men alike worked the fields or built roads, cooked, and cleaned. Stories abound about these socialist settlers in Palestine. How group meetings of the early days lasted through the night, ceasing only with the rising sun and the need to work the fields. How a young couple wanted a tent of their own, and how another young couple did not like the name that the general meeting chose for their baby. There were those who talked of members having teakettles in their rooms: ‘É why would you come to the dining room if you could make tea in the room?’ This obviously would bring about the fall of kibbutz!

And there is the story that I grew up with, of a childhood friend of my mother, who left the United States for Israel in the early ’50s. When his mother received a photograph of him in the winter without a coat, she wrote and asked him where was his coat. His reply: ‘I hang it on the hook in the dining room and if someone needs a coat they take a coat. Some days I get that coat, some days another, and on some days, no coat.’ This for me was the epitome of kibbutz. ‘To each according to need, from each according to ability.’

Three kibbutz movements exist in Israel. The largest and most loosely connected is the United Kibbutz Move-ment (UKM), for many years connected with the political Labor party. The Kibbutz HaArtzi Movement, politically farther left and more socialist, was the last to give up collective child rearing. They are traditionally antireligious, whereas the UKM is a-religious. The smallest of the three is the Religious Kibbutz Movement, which combines the ideals of kibbutz with an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle.

Approximately 270 kibbutzim house fewer than two percent of the population of Israel. In the heyday of kibbutz, we never had more than three percent of the population, but the effect on society was far greater than our numbers: from the 1950s through the early 1980s, kibbutzim produced the bulk of Israel’s agricultural produce, and turned out the elite in the army units, universities, and government.

Since the late 1980s, the level of ‘collectiveness’ on kibbutz has dropped. Most of these changes came about as a result of economic realities. Some came about because the ‘chaver’ (member/friend) wanted more freedom and choice. In ‘the olden days,’ the kibbutznik used to have only a small amount of pocket money. Everyone used the same type of toothbrush, one brand of shampoo, the same clothes. Little by little, things changed. More and more money was set aside for the individual member.

In recent years, a number of kibbutzim no longer have collective dining rooms, and some even pay salaries according to members’ actual incomes: a teacher or nurse receives less than the computer programmer, once unheard of. Many kibbutzim have sold off property that was once agricultural for development into housing or shopping malls. Even more are renting houses to nonmember families looking for comfortable settings with manicured lawns, swimming pools, and daycare. These changes have produced a new generation of kibbutzim and kibbutznikim.

But there are still kibbutzim striving to maintain the good things, as they see it. ‘Kibbutz Tamid’ (Kibbutz Forever), a quasi-movement within a movement, came out of the desire of some kibbutzim to remain connected to the democratic socialism ideology of kibbutz. These kibbutzim work at keeping members coming to the dining room, and they find ways to give members what they need while looking out for the community as a whole. Some of these kibbutzim have stable incomes and factories that have become national or international concerns.

Kibbutz Lotan, our kibbutz, is one of those who see the future with direct connection to the past. Lotan is representative of struggling young kibbutzim. We were established in 1983, just as major economic and political upheavals were taking place in Israel, so we grew up with the understanding that not necessarily everyone believes in the idea of kibbutz. We attract newcomers who are interested in emotional commitment to others in the community and living within the community’s means. Although we never have enough hands to do all that has to be done, people here find ways to do the things that are important to them. We are slowly becoming more ‘green,’ through construction of a bird reserve, organic gardens, an educational seminar center, and a complementary medical center. Kibbutz Lotan is in the minority in Israel with respect to our Judaism: we are Reform, liberal, progressive, egalitarian, and committed.

Kibbutz, ‘the experiment that didn’t fail,’ has changed greatly since its inception, and will continue to do so.

Resources

  • The Green Kibbutz movement, contact Jan Martin Bang, email: ecowork@gezernet.co.il
  • Yad Tabenkin Institute, email: YadTab@actcom.co.il

Books

  • Kerem, Moshe. Life in a Kibbutz. 1955.
  • Spiro, M.E. Kibbutz, Venture in Utopia. 1955.
  • Leon, Dan. The Kibbutz. 1964.

Author Biography
Wendy Weiss Simon is a member of Kibbutz Lotan, a 16-year-old settlement in the southernmost area of Israel. A native New Yorker, 15 years in Israel, she has a degree in Human Resources from SUNY, with a background in business. Wendy has worked in many branches of the kibbutz ranging from coordinating building construction to teaching high school English. She lives on Lotan with her husband and two daughters.

We happily link to the following organizations, all of whom share our strong commitment to promoting community and a more cooperative world:
Cohousing The Federation of Egalitarian Communities - Communes Coop Community Cooperative Sustainable Intentional North American Students of Cooperation Global Ecovillage Network