Struggling to Survive, Kibbutzim Lose Identity : Israel: The much-lauded kibbutz movement is relinquishing its past in an effort to surmount severe economic troubles.

<i> Yossi Melman is a journalist and author who is writing a book about Israel</i>

Shmuel Hadash has no more illusions. “The kibbutz as an idea has failed,” he says, sitting on the volcanic stones in the cemetery of Kinneret, his kibbutz. On his right are the tranquil waters of the Sea of Galilee and, facing him, the graves of the founding fathers of the kibbutz movement, the jewel in the Zionist-Socialist crown. “They tried to change human nature and to create a new man,” Hadash says, pointing to the headstones of Berl Katzenelson, Ber Borochov and others. “To my regret, the kibbutz did not succeed in this task, because man’s nature is stronger than his ideas. In the kibbutz, as in any other human society, people like to sow the minimum and reap the maximum.”

Recounting his personal history, Hadash, in blue overalls and high boots, could be a model for the average kibbutznik. He is 65 years old and was born in Kibbutz Kinneret. His father was among the founders of the first kibbutz in Israel.

In 1909, a group of pioneers who lived on Kinneret farm and worked as hired laborers decided to establish a commune. They moved two miles down the lake and set up Degania, the first kibbutz in the land of Israel--then under Turkish rule. The idea, inspired by communist philosophy, was summed up in one sentence: Contribute according to your ability and receive according to your needs.


The kibbutz movement strived to alter the image of the Eastern European Jew--from a trader, merchant and middleman to a pioneer farmer working his land. These rural outposts strengthened the security of the Jewish community in pre-statehood days and continued in that role after independence in 1948.

Now, as the kibbutz movement in Israel celebrates its 82nd anniversary, heretical voices like that of Hadash, who have lost faith in the kibbutz, are heard throughout its ranks. But because of the brutal Arab-Israeli conflict’s persistent capturing of headlines, the wind of change shaking Israel’s 270 kibbutzim goes relatively unnoticed. The source of this upheaval can be found in a strong desire for economic survival. Due to bad management, lack of motivation and stock speculation as a desperate way of surviving hyperinflation, the total debt of the kibbutz movement is now $10 billion.

The movement is thus prepared to clutch anything that might alleviate its economic burden--even if this means stripping itself of the symbols and traditional values that have come to be identified with its way of life.

Although the 100,000 members of the movement make up no more than 3% of the country’s Jewish population, their contribution to the State of Israel has long been held in high regard. In the air force, the most important link in Israel’s defence, kibbutz members represented about 10% of the pilots. A significant portion of the country’s leadership during 30 years of Labor Party dominance originated in the kibbutz movement. It provided for 50% of Israel’s agricultural needs and produced 25% of its industrial exports.

Now, all this has dramatically changed. Since the Labor Party lost power to the right-wing Likud, kibbutz input into the political sphere has dwindled. Substantial numbers of the young generation no longer volunteer for elite units in the army and often do not to return to their kibbutz homes after concluding their three-year national service.

Seeking to save itself from ideological decay, social decline and a steady fall in population, the kibbutz movement has gone a long way. In an effort to retain younger members, they are now able to acquire higher education in universities and to take a year’s leave within Israel’s urban centers or even abroad. To increase the appeal of kibbutz life, luxury goods have been permitted, and a greater degree of individual freedom allowed. The dining hall, once the symbolic focus of community life, has lost its centrality.


Despite the anger of true believers in the kibbutz’s ideological purity, changes have also been introduced in the communal education of children. Kibbutz children lived with their peer group from birth--not at home with their parents, but in separate children’s houses, raised by specially assigned members of the community. This method, according to the late psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, in his study of kibbutz education, was “remarkable and the most unique contribution of the kibbutz.” Today, children live with their parents.

Other major changes introduced by many kibbutzim would undoubtedly have caused the founding fathers to turn in their graves. The prevailing mood is to move from agriculture and industry to services. In Upper Galilee, many kibbutzim operate tourist cottages and fast-food restaurants. In central Israel, not far from Tel Aviv, a kibbutz opened a beauty parlor; while in Nachshon nearby, an architectural firm offers its services. Another kibbutz is running a discotheque and bar, as well as professional catering to its surrounding urban population. Still others have posh supermarkets. In their drive to make money, kibbutzim are even ready to open their once segregated schools to non-member children and to offer picturesque lots in their graveyards. A wealthy French industrialist, whose brother lived in the kibbutz, bought his plot of holy land in Kinneret’s cemetery by donating $250,000 for maintenance of the site, now a conservation area.

But the most far-reaching departure from the past was introduced in Neot Mordechai, 40 miles to the north. Two months ago, the general assembly of the kibbutz reached a decision aiming to separate economic activity from social and cultural life--until then perceived as a holy unity. Every kibbutz traditionally supplies its members with clothing, food and furnished housing, as well as social and cultural events. There is also a small personal allowance.

Once, neither quantity nor quality of labor was supervised. Now every member of Neot Mordechai must work at least 275 days a year, and whoever does not is financially penalized by cuts in his or her personal allowance. Similar to the Soviet Union’s perestroika, Neot Mordechai has begun to decentralize its economic activities. Each economic branch, in agriculture, industry or services, is now considered an independent entity. It is no longer budgeted by the community as a whole, but has to prove its economic viability.

No less dramatic has been Neot Mordechai’s decision to pay overtime. “We had no choice,” says David Yaniv, secretary of the kibbutz. “Our members refused to work overtime and, since our plastics factory had many orders, we had to offer incentives to meet our commitment.”

But Yaniv’s pragmatic explanation affects the very justification of the kibbutz’s existence. Although a small amount of money--no more than $300 a year per working member--is spent on overtime by the kibbutz, this results in the emergence of two classes. Those who work and are paid overtime, and those who are not.

Neot Mordechai’s revolutionary policy has a strong appeal to other kibbutzim--already contemplating the introduction of similar methods. But it also breaks the crucial notion, at the heart of the kibbutz, concerning the relations between needs and abilities, and thus generates fierce opposition from the old guard. They know it would shatter the idea--fragile as it is--of the kibbutz as a unique community. “If wages are introduced,” says Shimon Elman, spokesman for those opposing Neot Mordechai-style change, “what would be the difference between us, with our historically unique experience, and any other Israeli way of life?”

To prevent what is perceived as the decay of the kibbutz movement, the traditionalists point to the experience of North American communes. “There is a striking similarity between certain trends among us and these communes,” says Ya’akov Oved, professor of history at Tel Aviv University and a kibbutz member.

Oved sees great similarity with the experience of the Amana Church Society, a religious commune in Iowa. During the Great Depression of the ‘30s, the Amana Church reorganized. They moved from agriculture to industry, introduced wages and eventually redefined themselves as a share-holding company. “The act that most symbolized the change was the abolishment of the communal kitchens and dining rooms,” says Oved. “Amana now means refrigeration, air-conditioning and ovens.”

Unless the course the kibbutz is currently set on is reversed, many fear its fate will ultimately resemble Amana’s: From an idealistic, pioneering community it will transform into a materialistic, commercial venture.