Zionist Dream of Kibbutz Fades in 1990s Lifestyle

Reforms in The Jewish State

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Yaakov Gabriel turned heads and caused a few grumbles last year when he was the first one on his block to own a car.

That's because this neighborhood has never been a place to care about keeping up with the Joneses.

Kibbutz Afik, one of about 270 such communal agricultural settlements in Israel, was founded on the idea that each member gave according to his or her ability, took according to his or her need, and owned next to nothing.

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At least, not individually. At such farming communities, first founded in 1910 by European Jews who blended popular communist ideas about group ownership with the Zionist goal of building a homeland in Palestine, virtually all assets were controlled and distributed by the kibbutz as a whole. Later, if a kibbutz was wealthy enough to buy a car or two, it was shared by all.

Mr. Gabriel joined this newer kibbutz, built on land that Israel captured from Syria in the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967, because he wanted to carry on the progressive tradition of communal living and patriotic settlement.

But life at Afik has become a disappointment, and not primarily because of its uncertain political status - Gabriel says he is willing to leave this land someday in exchange for peace with Syria.

Rather, it is the decline of the kibbutz ideology and its revolutionary notions of undoing the inequalities of capitalism that has left him feeling disillusioned.

"I can't say I'm happy with the changes on [the] kibbutz," he sighs. "It's not what I came here for. I came as a pioneer."

To save themselves from debt and bankruptcy, many kibbutzim have turned to market forces. Running everything from tourist hotels to high-tech companies - in addition to the customary agricultural concerns - several have handed control of their industries to professional managers.

Going public

Ten kibbutz industries have gone public with share offerings on the Israeli stock exchange, and another 20 to 30 are considering it, according to the Tel Aviv-based Kibbutz Industries Association.

In the workplace, kibbutz enterprises are no longer staffed only by members, nor are all members required to work on the kibbutz. Though that was a decision made to attract new residents and allow more freedom of occupation, critics say it is turning kibbutzim into little more than bedroom communities.

On many kibbutzim, seasonal workers from abroad are brought in to pick produce while members are off working in more intellectually fulfilling jobs.

But it is perhaps on the social level that life at the kibbutz has changed most radically.

To overcome gender stereotypes, all cooking was once done at a central dining hall and children were raised collectively in a separate children's home, freeing women to join the work force. But a shift to a more traditional family lifestyle began when kibbutzim started letting members install kitchens, detracting from the emphasis on communal dining.

And recently, the last kibbutz that still had children's homes closed them down and started letting all children sleep at home.

Even though Gabriel was one of those who had lobbied the kibbutz's central committee for permission to buy his own car - the policy of turning over all financial assets to the community was ditched long ago - he still mourns the demise of a way of life.

"There's a social breakdown on the kibbutz. People are working toward more economic goals," he says. "If it continues like this, it will cease to be a kibbutz."

Marla Van Meter, a fellow member, says that's why she prefers to manage trips for her family of four the old way: signing up for the use of a kibbutz car and hoping the last person brings it back on time. "Otherwise, you have this discrepancy between the haves and have-nots," says Mrs. Van Meter, who does the community's gardening.

Though kibbutzniks only represent about 3 percent of Israeli society, the concept of such a bold social experiment has attracted attention the world over. But the end of the cold war and breakup of the Soviet Union took much of the steam out of socialist and communist parties worldwide.

The kibbutz was not immune to that, nor to Israel's general trend toward a free-market economy. But for some, that does not make the changes any easier.

'A different country'

David Rosenthal, who immigrated to Israel 15 years ago from California, says he moved here just to live on a new kibbutz.

"I liked the idea of building the kibbutz yourself - not getting something ready-made," says Mr. Rosenthal, the father of two young children. "But Israel is such a different country from the one I found here 15 years ago. It was a primitive country then, and now it's a very modern country. It seemed more wholesome then," he says.

"Now, there are drugs and violence, kids without a strong identity, patriotism has declined. Instead of having a meaningful life, kids are hanging around shopping malls like in the States."

Rosenthal still sees his kibbutz as wholesome for kids and, in many ways, still communal. When he decided recently to return to school, the kibbutz paid for him to go to Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His family doesn't have to worry about lost income. When he finishes his degree, the kibbutz expects him to use his new expertise.

But even if Rosenthal goes on to earn a doctorate, he will earn the same as someone who works in the kibbutz's kitchen.

Some kibbutzim want to change that, too.

"A lot of people look at that as the last straw," he says. "They're also talking about people owning their own house and the kibbutz acting only as a safety net."

Rosenthal hopes that his kibbutz will not give up all its ideals, but thinks some changes were for the better, like the end of raising children in children's houses.

"They tried to work against the natural tendency of people to look out for themselves," he muses. "Look, socialism is on the wane. Communism is dead. In a global village, you can't escape what's going on in the outside world."

* Second of two parts on Israel's shift to a market economy. The first part ran yesterday.

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