Is the Kibbutz Kaput?

Nearly a century after its settlements helped define the Zionist dream, Israel’s kibbutz movement is struggling against economic and cultural forces that seem determined to render it irrelevant.

‘The world’s most successful commune movement is in disarray, with less than half of its 120,000 members believing that the kibbutz has a future,’ writes Daniel Gavron in The Kibbutz: Awakening from Utopia (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000). The young, in particular, are pursuing their dreams elsewhere. No longer granted the glorified stature that kibbutz members commanded back when the fields they farmed and defended were literally staking out a new nation, young people now prefer to play out their ambitions on the more glamorous world stage–thanks to television, air travel, and the Internet.

Hard times hit the collectives in the 1980s when inflation skyrocketed after the war in Lebanon. The kibbutz movement was caught in a spending spree, partially driven by the decision to close down the children’s houses that had served as an alternative to the so-called ‘bourgeois’ arrangement of a mother and father living with their children under one roof. But for children to stay with their parents meant enlarging the small two-room homes originally designed for couples. The resulting expenses coincided with the erosion of the government subsidies the kibbutzim had long enjoyed.

So even as the overall Israeli economy was prospering, the kibbutzim had to tighten their belts, creating a sense of limited opportunities. Some of the benefits of collectivist life, such as heaping piles of kasha, potatoes, schnitzel, and salad from the dining hall’s food bar, had to be reexamined in the face of financial reality. A computerized pay-for-food system reduced waste by 30 percent at one kibbutz.

But in order to prosper, some argue, the modern kibbutz will have to augment its traditional agricultural base. ‘The future of the kibbutz is in industry, the more high-tech the better, and in providing services to the surrounding communities (health, education, entertainment),’ contend Jo-Ann Mort and Gary Brenner, writing in Dissent (Summer 2000).

And indeed, industrialization has come in earnest to the kibbutz, as have changes in governance. The general meeting of the entire membership once dictated all aspects of communal life, but that’s no longer typically the case these days, thanks to the growing role of hired top managers and the boards of directors that oversee kibbutz industries.

‘People think kibbutzim are carcasses, with the vultures already hovering overhead,’ kibbutz member Karen Orkin tells Moment (Feb. 1999). ‘But we’re not dying yet. We’re going through the natural growing process we’ve always gone through.’

But at what point do these changes lead to something that is no longer strictly a kibbutz? For some, differential salaries are the critical issue. The egalitarian ideal of equal pay for all workers is increasingly being challenged, and the taboo question–Shouldn’t there be some relationship between effort and reward?–is more commonly voiced. At Mort and Brenner’s kibbutz, guidelines now tie pay to market values–a historical point of no return, they admit.

The role the kibbutz had to play in history may well have passed. ‘Perhaps in 20 years visitors will pay to see how we used to live,’ as they do in a Kenyan tourist village, says kibbutz-born Amira Pedan in Moment. ‘ ‘Oh, look at the cute children sleeping together,’ or ‘Isn’t that quaint! Everyone eating in the big dining room.’ Kibbutz as a living museum.

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