Kibbutz Ga’ash, Israel — Its paint peeling and windows boarded up, the original cafeteria on this kibbutz looks like an abandoned shack. Nearby, the first chicken coop has been converted into seedy artist studios.
But the reminders of the first days of this seaside agricultural commune between Herzliya and Netanya stir little nostalgia in founding member Yossi Katz. And when the kibbutz members this month vote on a plan to privatize salary compensation, Katz, 83, will cast a “yes” ballot with the unsentimental recognition that the egalitarian dreams of his youth have proven unrealistic.
“At my age, I’ve reached the conclusion that humans are egoists, and like to keep things for themselves rather than the general public,” he said. “The idea that everyone will eat from the same plate doesn’t exist anymore. The reality is that the kibbutz is disintegrating and emptying of ideology.”
The bronzed and brawny kibbutz field worker wearing the bucket hat was once Israel’s trademark, but in recent decades kibbutzniks have been beset with huge debts, membership attrition, and the waning of Israel’s collectivist ethic.
Though their members once dominated parliament and the army, two-thirds of the 273 kibbutzes across Israel over the past 15 years have quietly privatized individual income and given up on the old-time socialist utopia.
So when the “mother of kibbutzes,” Degania Aleph, voted two weeks ago to eliminate its egalitarian salary scheme and permit members to take home as much money as they could earn, it was a ringing reminder of the seemingly inevitable extinction of the kibbutz as Israelis know it.
“It is no longer viewed as the leader of the pack,” said Sam Lehman Wilzig, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University. “You once found the best and the brightest coming out of the kibbutz. Today that is not the case. Now it is a backwater of Israeli society.”
In a country that has moved from socialist to capitalist, asceticism to materialism, and ideology-driven to yuppie-driven, the kibbutz has become an increasingly dysfunctional vestige of a bygone period. The cut-off of government subsidies in the 1980s exposed unprofitable businesses and wasteful micro-economies unable to stand on their own. Noting Israel’s growing prosperity, kibbutz members quickly forgot the ideals behind their Spartan existence and began craving the same creature comforts.
Eventually, the youthful idealism that fired the imagination of the kibbutz founders gave way to a generation that resented the lack of privacy and freedom to take responsibility for their own lives. And so, the kibbutz population has declined by one-fourth over the last two decades to 120,000.
Faced with a choice between collapse or privatization, kibbutzes that opt for the latter are paring back their visions, and struggling to redefine who they are and what they have left to offer Israeli society.
“We know there is a need for change. The kibbutz isn’t working anymore. Fifty years ago, the kibbutz looked totally different from the way it is today,” said Sharon Tirosh, the human resources manager at Kibbutz Ga’ash who explained why kibbutzes have lost the young generation.
“There have been changes in Israeli society, there have been changes in the world. Humans think differently,” she said. “People are more individualistic and think more about getting ahead. These are processes that have an impact. At some point, the kibbutz holds you back. You can only achieve a certain maximum on the kibbutz, and beyond that you have to look somewhere else.”
And so, after eight years of discussions, Ga’ash is on the verge of a vote on privatizing salaries. Instead of members handing over salaries to fund services and individual living allowances, members will keep their salaries after paying a fee for a slimmed-down service offering and contribute to a fund to bail out members in distress.
Abandoning the old-time egalitarian compensation scheme marks the formal burial of the kibbutz’s communist value of “work to one’s ability and receive according to one’s needs.” If the kibbutzes can no longer live their utopian dreams, say members, they can at least serve as social democratic islands in a country with one of the largest gaps between rich and poor.
Kibbutz movement spokesperson Aviv Leshem said that the move to privatization has helped lift the average salaries of kibbutz members above Israeli’s median income. At stake is the survival of economic enterprises employing some 30,000 workers with combined income of 31 billion shekels ($7.5 billion), the vast majority of it in exports.
A decision to go private four years ago may have saved Ga’ash’s sibling, Kibbutz Yaqum, from implosion. Although Ze’ev Zeitoun, the food services manager, said he opposed the change, the new salary rubric has prompted more work and less waste of services and goods that members got free of charge.
“The new economic system works because everyone needs to eat,” he said. “No one is waiting at home to do someone a favor and go to work.”
The old economic system reflected a social ethic of mutual dependency needed to sew together a society of disparate Jewish immigrants at war with its neighbors. An ideologue eulogizing Degania refused to concede the demise of the kibbutz.
“Is there a chance for the kibbutz?” asked Ori Heitner in an article published by the kibbutz movement. “As long as man feels in his soul the need to be in a society build on the bedrock of justice, of equality, of camaraderie, of mutual commitment and solidarity — there’s a chance. And I believe that yearning exists in the soul of humans.”
In the decades immediately before and after Israel’s founding — a period coinciding with the boom of socialism — Zionist youth in communist movements believed that they would lead the country by the example of settlement
“We were Marxists and Leninists,” explained the octogenarian Yossi Katz. “We thought that everyone would learn from us how to live.”
The kibbutzes sought to become the building block of the Zionist enterprise and the crucible to mold the new Jew. The communal agricultural estates laid down the roots of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel (often on lands previously owned by Arabs) and assured the economic independence of the fledgling state. The communities were given the task of settling what would become Israel’s frontiers.
For all the idealism, the kibbutzes proved to be a suffocating existence. Major life decisions — like study or vacation, or professions — were subject to the approval of a communal committee. Those who dared to leave the kibbutz were considered traitors.
“What people paid for the collective was high. It was everyone in other people’s business. There was no privacy, no freedom,” said Hana Shosha, 68, a kibbutznik from birth. “Israel has become a country like all others. What does that mean? People worry about themselves first, and only afterward, the general public.”
Ga’ash Secretary General Hanan Rogali sits opposite a framed picture of the kibbutz’s original mission statement, adorned by a drawing of the Israeli flag and the red communist flag side by side.
The communist ideology never caught on among the wave of Jewish immigration from Arab countries in the 1950s, and the former Soviet immigrants who despised that way of life. Rogali acknowledged that in 2007, such an ideology is inappropriate.
So what is left of the kibbutz? Quality of life, education and civics, and social welfare, said Rogali.
“The kibbutz is still a special society,” said Rogali. “It aspires to be on a higher level than the outside.”