End of the kibbutz dream

Only one camp remains from a total of 250
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The Independent Online
Baram, northern Israel - "We changed because we were the last one left," says Yacob Zohar, 67, as he laments the abandonment last month by his kibbutz at Baram after 50 years of one of the more radical social experiments of the twentieth century.

He adds: "We did not fail. It was a wonderful way of educating children."

Since 1949 the children of the kibbutz, the Israeli communal village, at Baram in northern Galilee have been reared together in special children's houses and not by their parents.

Tsvi Benayoun, the kibbutz's economic manager, says: "Children lived together and performed all activities together from the age of eight months until they entered the army.

"It was a long, sustained - and by no means unsuccessful - attempt to bypass the nuclear family as the centre of a child's life. Instead, children were expected to give their first loyalty, not to their parents, brothers and sisters, but to each other and to the members of the kibbutz as a group.

After prolonged and angry debate, Baram, a prosperous community of 566 adults and children just south of the border with Lebanon, last month became the last kibbutz out of some 250 in Israel - many of whom once brought up their children together - to abandon the system. For the first time this month the children sleep at home and the neat four-bed rooms in the children's houses are empty at night.

Many kibbutzniks argued against the decision, seeing it as a final surrender of the original ideal of the kibbutz, whereby property, work and living arrangements - including the rearing of children - were all organised collectively.

Mr Benayoun, 45, who voted for the change, says: "In future, the main factor in the kibbutz will be the family."

Mr Benayoun said the main reason for returning children to their parents was "pressure from the mothers. The children themselves said they wanted to be in the children's house". Mr Zohar, one of the founders of Baram 48 years ago, opposed the decision. Admitting that many parents wanted their children to sleep at home, he says: "Kids are not pets. You have to imagine what is best for the kids, not what is best for the parents.

"The prestige of the kibbutz movement has fallen a long way since its height in Israel and abroad in the 1950s and 1960s. Started in 1909 by socialist Zionists it was once seen as producing the prototype Israeli - part pioneer farmer, part soldier - who lived in an egalitarian community and was ready for any sacrifice in pursuit of the common good. It was a Utopian vision with deep roots in the European intelligentsia which inspired generations of foreign teenagers to labour in kibbutz apple orchards for minimal return.

The reality was always different. Many of the kibbutzim were built on land Palestinian farmers had worked before. In 1949 Mr Zohar says he was brought to northern Galilee "although I had never seen a cow before." When he asked Israeli government officials how much land he could have they told him: "As much as you can see."

But there had been a Palestinian Baram, now a field full of ruins, with only its Maronite church surviving. Abu Yusuf, 85, recalls how as a young teacher he saw "the Israeli army come here and put a white flag on the church. Then they gave us 48 hours to leave the village for two weeks. We slept under the trees." The Palestinians were never allowed to return. In 1953 they watched from a neighbouring hilltop as Israeli planes bombed their houses into rubble.

The problem for the kibbutz is that the system does not really work without the idealistic glue. Baram is more successful than many other kibbutzim - half its activities are agricultural, but it also owns a successful plastics factory - in part because it has not tried so hard to adapt to the world outside. Other kibbutzim have introduced differential wages. At Baram everybody receives equal recompense.

Nevertheless, the decision at Baram to end communal care of children marks a critical moment. It shows the kibbutzniks no longer believe their way of life and ideals should be a model for others.

"We have to follow the changes in the outside world," said one kibbutznik born at Baram. "We have lost our strength."