Israel's utopian communes give in to modern stresses

The leaders of this agricultural commune – once young communists with visions of an agrarian Jewish state – say they are now prepared to take a once-unthinkable step: embracing the free market.

Kibbutz Gaash, a collective that has already replaced chicken coops with a strip mall, may be on the verge of rejecting its collectivist roots and privatizing. If it does, as an upcoming vote is expected to decide, it will provide further evidence that the era of the iconic kibbutz is over.

Mostly secular and leftist, kibbutzim were hailed as the building block of the Zionist enterprise, the crucible in which to remold the old-world Jew as the new Israeli.

But modern pressures mean communes must cope with bank debt, attrition, and the waning collectivist spirit.

What this U-turn means for the shrinking number of kibbutzniks is that they'll be living like most other Israelis: collecting a paycheck, competing on the open market, and balancing their own budget.

Stacked on the desk of Kibbutz Gaash Chairman Hanan Rogalin is the soon-to-be-voted-on plan to scrap the commune's egalitarian dream and allow members to live according to their own earning power.

"The contemporary kibbutz doesn't provide answers for life needs, and most important in my eyes, people's aspirations," says Mr. Rogalin. "The kibbutz creates too much friction. The secretariat dictates too many things to members. And people want more freedom to take responsibility for their lives."

The process of privatization among kibbutzim has been quietly proceeding for years, though two weeks ago, Israelis took notice when Kibbutz Degania, the first kibbutz established on the Sea of Galilee in 1909, took the step.

With two-thirds of the 273 kibbutzim across Israel already privatized, the demise of Degania was a ringing reminder of the seemingly inevitable extinction of the kibbutz as Israelis know it.

"Does the kibbutz have a chance?" asked an opinion article that mourned Degania on the movement's website. "As long as man feels in his soul the need to be in a society built on the bedrock of justice, of equality, of camaraderie, of mutual commitment and solidarity – there's a chance."

Frontiers of the new state

The communal agricultural estates laid down the fresh roots of Jewish settlement in the biblical land of Israel, assuring a degree of economic independence for the fledgling state. The communities were given the task of settling what would become the frontiers of the new state.

"The kibbutz was an attempt to create a miracle and transcend human nature. By trying to create a miracle, the kibbutz was instinctively seen by Jews as a worthy symbol of the miraculous return to Zion," says Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at Jerusalem's Shalem Institute.

"We're so past the point of being shocked by the decline of the collectivist dream that this isn't a moment that took anyone by surprise. Nevertheless there's poignancy.... We've lost something precious and essential in what defines Israeliness," he says.

Kibbutz members once dominated parliament and key spots in Israel's lionized military. Though secular and leftist, the movement, with its pioneering activism, inspired religious Jews who settled in the West Bank and Gaza Strip after 1967.

With large tracts of public land to cultivate, the kibbutz followed directives from the Israeli Agricultural Ministry on what to grow. "We didn't think if we were earning or losing money, we thought about what was good for the country," says Yossi Katz, founder of Kibbutz Gaash. "We were sure the entire country would become socialist."

Walking past the old boarded-up dining hall and the seedy building that housed Gaash's first chicken coop, he acknowledges that the kibbutz lifestyle could be oppressive and suffocating.

The kibbutz compelled members to turn over possessions for public use. Children were raised in communal dorms rather than in parents' homes. Social life revolved around the dining hall. A kibbutz committee approved plans for higher education and careers. Whoever left was considered a traitor.

With the ascension of the right-wing Likud party to power in the 1980s, the government cut off generous subsidies that exposed waste and unprofitable kibbutz operations, as well as billions of dollars in debt. A $17 billion bailout made the kibbutzim seem spoiled rather than selfless.

Meanwhile, observing Israel's growing prosperity, kibbutzniks lost sight of the ideals behind their Spartan existence and began seeking the same creature comforts. The collapse of the Soviet Union and communism also had an impact. In the past 20 years, the kibbutzim have lost one-fourth of their population and members today number 120,000, a small fraction of Israel's 7 million people.

"I know that if I work hard, that I'll earn the same as the person living next to me who works less," explains Sharon Tirosh, director of human resources at Gaash, who also supports the change. "There is something in the education, that begins at the bottom, that there's no point in being terribly successful."

Postprivatization kibbutzim cut down on waste, and experience a jump in member's earning power of almost 40 percent, says Rogalin, Kibbutz Gaash's secretary. Members keep their pay, and pay fees for services. They also contribute to a social safety-net fund. In addition to ideological stress, it has worried people afraid of providing for themselves for the first time.

"If someone gets used to something for years, and suddenly it's taken away, they lose focus," says Rogalin, who isn't willing to bet whether the proposal will get the 75-percent support necessary to pass.

Kibbutz ethic, high-tech times

At stake is the survival of economic enterprises – agriculture is now only a small part of kibbutz businesses that range from wineries to commercial real estate – employing some 30,000 workers, with combined output of $7.4 billion, in a $114.3 billion economy.

What remains of the kibbutz ethic of self-sacrifice, activism, and egalitarianism is unclear. In Israel's high-tech economy, do the old kibbutzim have a role to play?

Rogalin says that their role will be to cultivate a quality education system that will teach children values of social justice. And with a safety net for members, the kibbutz hopes to remain a model of social welfare in a society with a large gap between rich and poor.

Whatever the decision, founder Mr. Katz knows that the ideals upon which Gaash was founded are no longer attainable. "At my age, I've reached the conclusion that humans are egotists, and like to keep things for themselves rather than the general public," he says. "The idea that everyone will eat from the same plate doesn't exist anymore. I've done my part. It's over. We aren't an example for anyone."

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