An arms-selling kibbutz echoes a shift in Israeli values

Riot-control equipment was shipped by an Israeli kibbutz to Zimbabwe last month.

With its haystacks, rusting plows, and the scent of livestock, Kibbutz Beit Alfa at first seems to resemble its founders' vision of a model community based on agriculture.

For generations, members of this kibbutz prided themselves on their idealism, defined themselves as a vanguard of Zionist socialism, and believed that their effort to create a utopian community was part of a revolution that would improve the lot of mankind.

On a stretch of land near the Jordan River Valley, they sought to create a new species: the Hebrew farmer organically tied to the land of his forefathers, historians say.

But 81 years later, Kibbutz Beit Alfa has an economy centered on industry rather than agriculture, based largely on the manufacture and export of para-military equipment, most recently a controversial deal to supply riot-control hardware to President Robert Mugabe's pariah regime in Zimbabwe.

Beit Alfa's journey from a model of socialist agriculture to a profit-driven exporter parallels Israel's change in values from collectivism to capitalism and its development of a market economy stressing a huge defense industry, analysts say.

"Like many utopias, when Beit Alfa was implemented in practice it became part of an economic and political framework," says Yisrael Bartal, a Hebrew University historian. "It adjusted itself to concrete reality."

The Zimbabwe deal was reported by the Ha'aretz daily newspaper to include 30 riot-control vehicles to be supplied in exchange for $14 million. The Zimbabwe Standard reported that five vehicles arrived last month and were part of a package that also included gas masks. Two of its journalists were arrested for reporting on the arrival of the Beit Alfa equipment.

The sale follows supplies by Kibbutz Beit Alfa to countries including Angola, Uganda, and Sri Lanka. In the Israel Defense Directory, published by the defense ministry, Beit Alfa advertises its "armored personnel carriers" and other vehicles that have been "proven in combat."

Vehicles can be equipped with a "front bulldozer" it says. The company's website advertises a chemical additive that can be injected into water streams to "demobilize" inmates in prison disturbances.

It was not always this way. According to the ideology of HaShomer HaZa'ir, the "young guard" movement to which Beit Alfa's founders belonged, the kibbutz was meant to be an archetype of a utopian socialist society.

"The principle was to work the land, that a [Jewish] nation of merchants and luftmenschen [impractical and contemplative people without a trade] would return to the soil," says Ely Avrahamy, a historian of kibbutzim.

But the principle was dented during World War II when kibbutzim served as suppliers to British troops.

Beginning in the 1960s, Beit Alfa, like kibbutzim throughout the country, began turning in earnest to industry, in line with the needs of the national economy and for their own economic well-being, according to Mr. Avrahamy.

"It was realized that if you wanted a high level of life, education and culture you could not live just off of agriculture," he said. "Every kibbutz developed a niche in industry," he adds.

At first, debates wracked kibbutzim about whether to hire outside labor for their plants. Then the debates subsided. Beit Alfa employs about 40 residents of nearby Beit Shean and Nazareth in the factory that makes the riot-control vehicles.

The plant, built in 1969, first produced only fire-fighting equipment, recalled David Nahum, a veteran member of the kibbutz. "That was where the idea of riot-dispersal equipment came from, since it also uses water spraying," he says. Then came diversification. Much of the factory's current work is bullet-proofing vehicles.

While the manufacturing of weapon systems is unusual for kibbutzim, the shift from farming to more profitable ventures is not.

Avrahamy says that the emphasis of kibbutzim on making money became much more pronounced after they fell into heavy debts in the 1980s and needed to find ways to repay them. He says that the popularity of Milton Friedman's economic theories at Israeli universities reverberated back onto the kibbutzim as young members came back from studies and sought to apply their lessons.

Mr. Nahum says that it is better that Beit Alfa's gear be used by Zimbabwe than protesters there be faced with live fire by police, as happened during October 2000 demonstrations by Arab citizens of Israel. "Lives could have been saved with our equipment," he says. "We are not making anything military," he says.

Not everyone is happy with Beit Alfa's trade with third-world regimes.

"I am absolutely against any sale of military or paramilitary equipment to countries that abuse human rights," says Celso Garbarz, the international secretary of HaShomer HaZa'ir. "It goes against the values of humanism."

Mr. Avrahamy, the kibbutz historian, says: "Instead of the kibbutz influencing the society, we on the kibbutz have become ruled by a wave of brutal capitalism and Americanization. It certainly is no cause for happiness. I hope there will be a reverse process, with an emphasis on humanism, not just capitalism."

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