The Fallen Kibbutz: A Microcosm of Israeli Society
By Lily Hoffman Simon
This year marked the centennial birthday of the Kibbutz. However, the structure of these unique societal experiments has changed so dramatically that, today, their original founders would barely recognize them. The values of a Jewish and Zionist social revolution, which birthed the kibbutz movement, don’t exist in the modern kibbutz. With all of these shifts, are the kibbutzim still a relevant force for Israeli and Jewish life?
A kibbutz is a collective settlement in Israel, traditionally based on communal life, agriculture, and an emphasis on physical labour. This ideology emerged in Eastern Europe in the 1900s, when Jewish youth began to question the value in a self-victimized, oppressed, and religiously observant Jewish lifestyle, a lifestyle which dominated the Jewish narrative and experience throughout Europe. These idealists, frustrated by the lack of Jewish autonomy, latched on to the growing Zionist momentum to develop their own ideology—that of labour Zionism, which fused the ideas of a Zionist revolution with socialist principles.
Alongside the development of this unique Zionist perspective through the works of A. D. Gordon and Nachman Syrkin, to name a few, masses of Jews began to immigrate to Palestine to form collective, agricultural kvutsot, the precursor to kibbutzim. These communities dominated the Jewish attraction to Israel up until the end of World War II, and helped build Israel’s physical and social infrastructure. The underlying goal was to create a Jewish state based on the principles of Jewish liberation and autonomy, as well as egalitarianism, a return a nature, and the importance of interpersonal relationships. Traditional kibbutzim forwent paying wages, instead giving everyone a specific job to maintain the collective kibbutz lifestyle. All money and property was shared.
So where are these utopian communities today? Facing a booming Israeli population, structural changes in the Israeli economy and growing religious influence in national politics, many kibbutzim started to dramatically shift their focus in the 1980s. They underwent a process of privatization, introducing private wages and private property and contracting manual labour from outside the community. The kibbutzim’s initial economic success and vast influence on Israeli politics–the kibbutz-affiliated Labour party was in power until 1977–also contributed to these structural changes. Increased living standards undermined the simple, naturalistic lifestyle they originally promoted, and technological development encouraged them to hire outside labour to work the fields instead of the members themselves. All of these changes represented not only a changing Israel, but a dramatic ideological shift in the kibbutzim. Today about 70% of kibbutzim run on a privatized model, and the kibbutz movement is little more than another lobby group, with loose affiliation to the dwindling Labour Party.
While acknowledging the legacy of the kibbutzim during their prime, it is important to ask whether these societies accomplished their utopian Zionist goals. Was the new Jew created? Were the Jewish people liberated? Open up any newspaper about Israel, or the Jewish people, and it becomes clear the answer is no. Israel today is rampant with problems like racism, environmental issues, and religious political dominance. All of these are in direct contradiction to the original kibbutz values. The same can be found in the greater Jewish community, which still tends to focus on its past persecutions as a dominant defining feature of Jewish identity, especially the Holocaust (check out Netanyahu’s speech at Yad Vashem). Despite years of influence on Jewish life towards egalitarian and emancipated ideals, the fall of the kibbutz today seems instead to reflect the stagnation of Israeli and Jewish life.