Kibbutzim Fall, Settlements Rise -- and Israel Loses

Jo-Ann Mort is co-author (with Gary Brenner) of "Our Hearts Invented a Place: Can Kibbutzim Survive in Today's Israel?"

Here's a disturbing fact: There are now in Israel twice as many settlers as there are people living on kibbutzim. And that says a lot about the country's trajectory in recent years.

The Jewish settlers who live outside the pre-1967 Israeli borders like to compare their mission to that of the earlier generation of Jews who founded and fostered the kibbutz movement. But although it's true that both groups represent strains of Zionism and that each has had influence beyond its numbers on the direction of Israel, the missions of the settlers and those who established the collective settlements known as kibbutzim couldn't be further apart.

From the founding of the first kibbutz, Degania, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in 1910, the kibbutzim formed the nucleus of a socialist-Jewish state. Kibbutzniks were committed to a Zionism that would alter the social and economic pyramid of the Jewish people, elevating farmers and laborers to positions as esteemed by society as medicine, law and business. The kibbutzim became a refuge for Jews fleeing pogroms and later the Holocaust.

The kibbutz movement's vision of a just Israel was considered much more important than a specific plot of land. Kibbutz members never saw land as a divine right. One of the early missions of the movement was to settle the area, but once the 1948 boundary was agreed on as part of the U.N. partition plan, several kibbutzim that found themselves outside the international lines disbanded and reformed inside the recognized borders.

The kibbutz movement, widely embraced by the Israeli public, was a vehicle for transformation. The settlement movement, on the other hand, began outside the law, has never been embraced by the society as a whole and has often built settlements by illegal means. At their best, the settlements are low-cost bedroom communities for Israeli citizens; at their worst, they are impediments to peace. And even though the movement is endorsed by the present Israeli government, a majority of Israelis have consistently said they would trade land for peace and disband settlements.

So why has the number of kibbutzniks declined from 4% to 2% of the population while the settler population has swelled to 4%?

Government policies have in part driven the shift. As the country has turned away from the socialist vision of its founders, kibbutzim have been increasingly seen as irrelevant. Farming subsidies for them dried up decades ago. The government now spends its money on expansion instead, with billions of shekels that might have gone into supporting kibbutzim being spent on the settlements, supporting education, building infrastructure and providing tax subsidies to drive Jewish settlement into the occupied territories.

With the shift has come a great loss. As Israel prospered in its early decades, the kibbutzim were integral to its economy, national spirit and national identity. Although they were always a minority population, until the early 1980s the kibbutzim and their members were perceived to be the vanguard of Israeli society in agriculture, politics and the military. The kibbutzim were, in a sense, the public face of Israel, drawing thousands of volunteers from around the world, particularly Europe and North America. A significant portion of the country's labor-oriented leadership was drawn from the kibbutzim, as was the military elite. Even as late as July 2000, 42% of the air force, considered the elite of Israel's defense forces, came from kibbutzim and other Israeli collectives.

Back when there was a consensus among social elites and the banks regarding the importance of the kibbutz movement, there was a national will to sustain them economically. When the kibbutzim got into financial trouble, the government or the banks bailed them out. These bailouts allowed the collectives to continue to fulfill their mission. But the compact between the kibbutzim and the state began to rupture as national priorities and demographics changed. Without as much assistance, debt piled up. By the late 1980s, the kibbutzim debt was a staggering $6 billion, enough to seriously threaten the stability of the Israeli banking system. In 1992, a committee of bankers, government officials and kibbutzniks crafted a debt-settlement arrangement to avoid catastrophe.

Even under these dire constraints, though, the kibbutzim have continued to serve the broader Israeli society, and their legacy can continue to influence Israel's future. The kibbutzim used to be focused on agriculture. But as agriculture has become less important to the country, many kibbutzim have shifted to industry as a way to support themselves. By 2001, kibbutzim had formed 11 regional corporations, comprising some 50 industrial facilities and accounting for 8.5% of Israel's total industrial income. Many kibbutzim are privatizing and modernizing, experimenting with ways to hold on to their original mission of a more caring community while accepting global realities.

Today, the kibbutz movement is officially opposed to Israeli settlement outside the pre-1967 borders, and its members constitute a crucial component of the peace movement in Israel. Residents of the handful of kibbutzim that do exist beyond the pre-1967 borders (most are in the Golan Heights) have said that they would be willing to move inside a renegotiated border.

The hard-core among the settlers seek to return Israel to the shtetl. Their Jewishness is a deliberate parochialism, informed more by their belief in God than in government. The effect of the settlement drive has been to turn Israel into a kind of ghetto with an inward, defensive stance. The settlers' stance now imperils the original Zionist project.

With the Labor Zionist movement in crisis and the settlers holding significantly more sway than their numbers represent, the notion of Israel as a liberating force for the Jewish people is threatened. Martin Buber, a secular prophet to the early kibbutz movement, predicted that the new state of Israel could be "involved in the development of humanity." But in 1942, six years before the founding of the state, Buber warned: "If it decides in favor of national egoism, it too will suffer the fate which will soon befall all shallow nationalism, i.e., nationalism which does not set the nation a true supernational task. If it decides in favor of Hebrew humanism, it will be strong and effective long after shallow nationalism has lost all meaning and justification."

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