Changes in the Kibbutz System in the Past 40 Years

            January 2013    
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The author at Ashdot Yaakov, with farm implements, 1969


One Kibbutz, Two Summers:
Notes on Changes in the Kibbutz System After 40 Years

By Jim Hill

Paradise doesn’t last. Not when something better comes along. One might have concluded as much from Yonatan’s talk on changes at Ashdot in the past 20 years. “We’re totally capitalistic now,” he said. “No more socialist paradise.”

We were sitting at a table in the dining hall of kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov Ichud on a bright morning in July, and the breakfast dishes were being put away. Outside, under a clear Israeli sky, the rising tropical heat of the Jordan River valley began to gather itself for the full blaze of the afternoon. Inside, the air conditioner hummed. We were comfortable. Yonatan Alter, an Ashdot marketing administrator, was telling me about the changes. A lean, trim, smartly dressed man of about 60, Yonatan, spoke in a friendly, teacherly manner as if he were giving a lesson.  

“ Now everything is on salary,” he explained. “You’re working for yourself. You’re responsible for everything: food, education, hospital. Some people have two jobs.”

What Yonatan was saying about Ashdot was equally true of many kibbutzim in Israel that survived the upheavals of the 1980s and 1990s. They’ve changed, many reinvented past recognition. Farms have given ground to factories. What was once collectivized is now privatized. What was once socialism is now capitalism.

It was true also that many American students of an earlier generation who had spent their summers on kibbutzim would be dismayed by such changes. Many college-bred idealists of the 1960s and 1970s, drawn by the powerful appeal of communal living on an agricultural collective had come by the hundreds from overseas to work as volunteers in the fields alongside kibbutzniks. I was among them. And for us, a summer of morning labor in the banana fields, communal dining in the afternoon, and song and circle dancing in the evening was a blissful routine for the time that it lasted. It was a slice of paradise. 

Looking back, I see my volunteer experience at Ashdot as more a summer romp than the genuine article, at one remove from the lot of the average kibbutznik and further still from the hardscrabble lives of those early pioneers in Palestine who had carved a community out of the desert. At the very least, I imagine, our volunteer work paid tribute to such pioneers. Perhaps it even gave a respectful nod to the socialist principles that sustained them in a hostile land. To my Woodstock generation they were the real deal.

Just five miles up the road from Ashdot is Degania, the very first of Israel’s kibbutzim. In 1910, its founders--brave souls in a harsh land--began to drain malarial swamps and break rocks to build a life for themselves, organizing their settlement on the principles of a collective--socialism--to survive. Here they began to work the land, instituting central planning, equality among members, and communal living. Energized by Zionism, utopian idealism, and self-sacrifice for the collective, such pioneers led the way. After them came refugees from Europe, Russia, and the Americas, at first a trickle and then a torrent, as eager talk of a Jewish state took hold. When that state seemed within reach in the 1930s, new kibbutzim were placed in a defensive perimeter around what in 1948 became Israel. 

In the years leading up to to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the kibbutzim continued to be viewed in Israel as a bulwark against an enemy intent on its destruction, and after the 6-day war they were honored for their pivotal role in the outcome to that contest. For kibbutzniks it was the best of times. It brought an interval of pride, prosperity, and optimism. It was the Israel I experienced in 1969, when I was a volunteer working alongside the blue-capped “niks” in the endless banana fields.

In the 1973, the Log plastic bottle factory came to Ashdot, improving its economic outlook while altering its agricultural landscape. Shortly after that the volunteer program was halted because, as Yonatan noted, “the volunteers were costing us too much money.” But greater changes lay ahead. What occurred at Ashdot over the next three decades was felt at most kibbutzim, as national economic crises worked their way through the fabric of the collectives, forcing many to abandon original socialist principles and take up something entirely different.

*  *  *

In the 1980s hyperinflation, a devaluation of Israeli currency, and dried-up credit came to the kibbutz. For years many collectives had been living beyond their means, running up debt and coasting under the paternal watch of a friendly left-leaning Labor party government, confident they’d be taken care of, come what may. When that paternalism came to an end under a right-leaning Likud government, many kibbutzim were left with debts they could not repay.

  In the 1990s, stories of economic crisis and bankrupt kibbutzim reached us in America. We heard reports of kibbutz land being sold off, of the young leaving the kibbutz for a better life in the city, of elderly kibbutzniks--pioneers--being left in destitution, of kibbutzim in full collapse. There was talk of an end to the kibbutzim entirely.

Amid such stories, much was said about “privatization.” So much was said, it became the catchword for the great shift to the right that began to occur on many kibbutzim. As Israeli journalist Daniel Gavron describes it in his book The Kibbutz: Awakening from Utopia, privatization meant “the transfer of a number of items from communal to private responsibility. Instead of the community allocating clothing, furniture, home equipment, cultural activities, and vacation and travel expenses, all these things were lumped together in a personal cash allowance, which members could spend in any way they wanted.”

Under the pressure of desperate times and a young generation demanding more freedom and more life choices, the old socialism began to crack and give way. Its command economy and hide-bound egalitarian requirements began to give ground to the market economy, its freedoms and opportunities and the material comforts it held out to the new generation. Even Degania, the socialist model and standard-setter among kibbutzim, began to emerge as a model of privatization and capitalism.

The old system found itself embattled because the rationale for preserving it was weakened. “The values of equality and cooperation are eternal,” noted Gavron, “but they have always needed an extra ingredient, a “glue” to hold them together. In the case of the kibbutzim, it was pioneering and Zionism; today both these ingredients are increasingly rare.”

By the 1990s, socialism as an economic model had collapsed in country after country in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and its fall had consequences for any system based on its principles. As journalists Jo-Ann Mort and Gary Brennan conclude in their book Our Hearts Invented a Place: Can Kibbutzim Survive in Today’s Israel? in the 1980s and 1990s “essentially, the entire Israeli political map moved away from socialism or social democracy to a free market mentality.”

*  *  *

Over the years such stories of collapse had held my interest and troubled me: How, I wondered, had kibbutz Ashdot weathered that transition to a “free market mentality” in those difficult times. Finally, in the summer of 2012, I had a chance to see for myself. I went back to Israel, to Ashdot, to the kibbutz where I had been a volunteer some 40 years before.

It was in the late afternoon when I made my way up the long tree-lined drive of Ashdot, past an empty guard hut, past landmarks I recognized and some I didn’t. Walking the grounds, I saw the well-kept stuccoed homes and tended gardens, the bomb shelters still visible in the weeds, long past their usefulness, where we used to scramble when Katyusha rockets fell, and a rusty watchtower overgrown with trees, and skinny cats lying about in shady nooks, now joined by free-range peacocks (peacocks!). All quiet in the fierce afternoon heat.

I saw the banana fields of my long-ago summer still there in the far distance spread out under their evaporation nets, set against the date palms and poultry barns in the background. In the near distance was something new, the Log Plastics plant and its loading docks, ringed by silver cyclone fencing. (The bottle plant, I learned, is now the major source of revenue at Ashdot.)

Something else was new at the kibbutz: Nehara Country Lodging, guest rooms fashioned from former living quarters, a bed-and-breakfast in a farm-like setting, a stone’s throw from my old volunteer digs. The hospitality business had come to Ashdot.

After a restful night at Nehara, I met Yonatan in the large cheerful dining room. Now an administrator for Nehara, Yonatan is a lifelong Ashdot kibbutznik. He must have seen the great changes sweeping through kibbutzim in the 1980s and 1990s, and no doubt had helped to shepherd Ashdot through that tumult. 

As Yonatan sees it, the big change for Ashdot came in 1999, after the Likud party returned to power. That party took away the government subsidy that had been provided by the Labor government and said, “You’re on your own.”

“ So we had to privatize,” he said. “Before, we lived in a ‘socialist paradise’ where everything was taken care of. In 1999 that changed. For many people, especially the old people, that was frightening. They said we were abandoning our principles of equality.”

“We had to privatize because young people were leaving the kibbutz. They wanted to work hard, make money, and have a better life. They could not do that on a kibbutz because they received the same money regardless of how hard they worked. They said, ‘This doesn’t make sense.’ In the city, they can work hard and make money to buy a house and a car. So they left.”

“ Now that we’ve privatized completely, they’re coming back. Now everyone is on salary. Now we have cars, air conditioning, private homes. Before the big change, you could not build onto your home, even if you had money, because you could not be different.” Summing up the transition, Yonatan said, “We call the changes ‘evolution,’ not ‘revolution,’ and we are happier now under this new system.”


What can a volunteer from 40 years ago say about this loss of founding principles? Perhaps that pure socialism was a model that served well for a time, holding the community together through great hardship, and then ran its course. After a while it was no longer needed and was no longer wanted by young people drawn to the prospect of greater personal freedom, to opportunity for getting ahead and owning material comforts, a home and a car, who believed that effort ought to be the measure of reward rather than any leveling rule of equality. It had to be replaced by a different model if the kibbutz was to survive.

If original principles have been compromised or abandoned, the good news from kibbutzim today is that they are not just surviving, many are thriving. Young people are coming back and raising families. While kibbutzniks still comprise a small part of the Israeli population, just under 2% of its 7.8 million people, about 120,000, the numbers are increasing. “We want to grow,”  Yonatan said. “Currently, the kibbutz has 200 members, and we want 100 more.”

Of the 270 kibbutzim in Israel today, at least 200 have privatized to greater or lesser degrees. At kibbutz Givat Haim Ichud, 40 miles to the west of Ashdot, near the coast, the system is a mix of capitalism and socialism. As Givat member Marjorie Dorr tells it, “We have the best of both worlds here:  freedom of choice in our professions and management of financial affairs along with the original socialist ideals, which help to create a strong and vibrant community.”

And what of those kibbutzim that resisted every concession to capitalism, clinging stubbornly to original socialist principles? Yonatan smiled as he told a story about the diehards. “There is a rich kibbutz [with a highly profitable business] that is still socialist. Its members say, ‘We are rich because we are socialist.’ But we say, ‘You are socialist because you are rich. You can afford the luxury of being socialist.

“ Under socialism, we were living in a fool’s paradise.”


from the January 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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