Forget Utopia, here comes the city

Athletics Israel's kibbutzim carried the hopes of idealists everywhere, but now the free market may end the dream of communal living.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Gilad Shafran, the leader of a kibbutz at Snir on the Jordan river, was nervous about giving his speech. He was about to tell other leaders of the kibbutz movement that the 100 kibbutzniks at Snir planned to abandon the communal values on which their lives have been built. No longer would they be guided by such principles as equal pay and common property, ideals that have inspired the movement for 90 years.

The people of Snir have already moved a long way from the old system. In the traditional kibbutz, the children used to live in a separate house; since 1980, children at Snir have slept in the same houses as their parents. Other common activities have dropped away. Until last year, people ate together in a dining room; now, says Shafran, people are eating in their homes in the evening, except on Friday night and holidays.

But it is not really the abandonment of collective rearing of children or dining as a community that worries the leaders of the 126,000 other Israeli kibbutzniks. At the heart of their communities is the idea of common effort for equal reward: everybody gets paid the same and the kibbutz supplies most of their needs. It was this utopian image of a sort of secular monastery, in which men and women laboured together, that made the kibbutzim a model for communal living and attracted foreign volunteers to spend austere summers in Israel picking apples or working in small factories.

Shafran's ideas are very different. Two years ago eight families from Snir came to him to complain about the system. "They said: 'If you are not going to change, we are going to leave. We love the area and you are good friends, but the system has collapsed'." Their main complaint was that there was no incentive to work hard because everybody was paid the same. Responding to their demands, the other kibbutzniks decided to introduce different wage scales and to charge for food, electricity, education and even health.

This was too much for the rest of the kibbutz movement. "The people at Snir are very extreme. We could do this, but why go on calling ourselves kibbutzim?" says Professor Rivka Bar-Josef, a specialist on the kibbutz movement who spent part of her life at Ma'agan kibutz on the southern shores of the Sea of Galilee. At his conference with other kibbutz leaders Shafran was condemned. "It went badly for us," he said afterwards. "They said we had crossed the line of what is permitted - though I believe they will end up doing the same."

It is by no means clear that they will. Snir is set in the meadows on the floor of the valley below the Golan Heights, where its members grow avocados, raise cattle and run a paper factory. Fifteen miles away, Kibbutz Yiron is perched on steep hills of northern Galilee just below the Lebanese border. This kibbutz was founded in 1949 by soldiers from the Palmach, the elite of the Jewish forces. Its 200 members and their 160 children depend on their apple orchards, chickens and two small factories making furniture and zippers. Naomi Bat-Ami, an administrator at Yiron, says with some pride that they are a "conservative" kibbutz that is changing very slowly.

Everybody eats in the common dining room and children live with their parents. Everybody has a colour television, which after a lengthy debate replaced black and white. Members sign up to use one of the 20 cars belonging to the kibbutz. The only real commandment, says Bat-Ami, is "don't touch my bicycle". All services are paid for communally and a family of four gets 16,000 sheckels (pounds 3,400) a year as pocket money.

Ada Sereni-Feinberg, a founder member of Yiron and a former Israeli MP, says that to live in a kibbutz, "you must have a certain belief. You cannot live in a kibbutz without wanting to live in a kibbutz". Shlomo Harari, a former Palmach commander who has worked in Yiron's apple orchards for over 40 years, makes the same point, saying that equality has to be absolute if it is to survive; otherwise, small disparities produce envy and competition. In the first year of the kibbutz, Harari remembers, "we took a vote about whether or not members could accept presents - like a pen - from their families. There were 36 who voted in favour and four against, of which I was one".

On a hill overlooking the winding road to Yiron, which runs along the Lebanese border, there is a concrete fortress for which the Palmach members who founded Yiron fought a savage battle in 1948. Harari says it was easier to feel a common sense of purpose when there was an external threat. The original aim of the kibbutz was, in part, to provide security and to establish territory on the map. Professor Bar-Josef says that whatever the real military role of the kibbutzim, "their members incorporated it into their self-image as part of their service to society as a whole".

Kibbutzniks, who today make up less than 3 per cent of Israel's five million population, wonder if their country needs such services any longer. As the economy booms, the living standard of Israelis moves closer to that of Western Europe. The frugal lifestyle of the kibbutz is in increasing contrast to that of the urban sprawl of Tel Aviv and Haifa. In 1960 there were only 24,000 Israelis who owned cars but by 1993 the figure had jumped to 980,000. Impelled by the migration of Russian Jews, GDP has risen annually by an average 5.8 per cent in the last five years. Yiron is partly protected from urban temptations by its isolation but, even so, in half an hour a kibbutznik can be in the town of Kiryat Shmona and then take a plane to Tel Aviv. There are two other threats facing the 269 kibbutzim. Not only is Israel becoming wealthier, it is becoming more industrial. Professor Aryeh Shachar, head of urban studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says that in a few years there will be no agriculture in central Israel as the fields are swallowed up by the expanding cities. Already Ramat Rachel on the southern edge of Jerusalem - though inhabited by staunch socialists - has sold most of its orange groves for housing and used the money to start building leisure facilities for tourists.

But the greatest danger to the kibbutz is the undermining of the egalitarian spirit which gave it birth. Its origins are in the pastoral and socialist dreams of the Russian intelligentsia at the end of the last century. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy sends his hero, Levin, into the meadows of central Russia to find fufilment in scything grass with the peasantry. Something of this ethos of self-denial survived into the 1970s. Cabinet ministers returned to their kibbutzim on their day off to wash dishes. At Ma'agan Professor Bar-Josef recalls "friends who went straight from working in the banana groves to being ambassadors".

It could not last. In the first years of the state of Israel the kibbutz was better organised than most parts of the government. It was a middle- class institution whose members were trusted and educated. It provided a cadre for the Israeli army officer corps, politics and the bureaucracy; today, however, Israel has more army officers than it knows what to do with. The kibbutzim benefited from their allegiance to left-wing parties but after the 1977 election Labour's long grip on government was broken. Coming from a kibbutz no longer offers the access to the Israeli establishment it once did.

With the election of Ronald Reagan as president in the US and the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, free market ideology and rhetoric began to predominate in Israel, as in the rest of the world. In trying to adapt to the free market the kibbutzim inflicted economic wounds on themselves in the mid-1980s from which they are only slowly beginning to recover. "They went into the capitalist world without quite understanding it," says an economic specialist. "They began to bring in outsiders to advise them and - because the whole idea of the kibbutz is based on trust - there was no overview of what they were doing." Many kibbutzim were left carrying large bank loans with crippling rates of interest. The government baled them out, damaging their public image.

The kibbutz is still in business and will survive but its relevance as a model for Israeli society is diminishing. Gilad Shafran's solution is to turn Snir into a mutually owned commercial enterprise. Yet there are many kibbutz members who still believe their way of life is superior. "Are people really any freer in the outside world? " asks Shlomo Harari. "Are they really any happier than here?"

Been there, done that: what it was like

Mary Tamm, actress: "I went to a kibbutz in the early Seventies, during my summer holidays from Rada, primarily because it was a cheap way of seeing the country. A lot of my Jewish friends had talked about it and I liked the idea of working with the land and earning your keep by exchanging your own produce for other things. The moment I stepped off the plane I felt I'd come home. It was such a basic, earthy natural existence; getting up early, picking grapes and olives; and we got to see all the famous places in Israel."

Arnold Wesker, playwright: "In 1960 I was invited to spend Passover in one of the most beautiful kibbutzim, En Hahofet. The setting was idyllic, the kibbutz buzzed with hospitality. On Passover evening tables of white cloths were bedecked with candles and flowers. There was a heart-warming mixture of the casual and the gracious ... why then, after 48 hours did I want to get out? Here was being enacted almost every socialist principle I ever believed in ... It was the intellectual claustrophobia. More, I discovered to my mortification that I did not want to share my belongings with anyone ... I wanted my house, my record player, my very own inviolable space."

Vanessa Feltz, chat show hostess and columnist: "I went to a kibbutz in 1976 with my parents, which was incredibly embarrassing because you are meant to go as a kind of initiation into adulthood, you are supposed to lose your virginity on a haystack, that kind of thing. Well there was no chance of me doing that since my father, who'd been busily saying on the plane on the way out that this would be a new life for us and that we'd become far too softened by life in north London, was so appalled when on arrival we were offered a piece of cake without a serviette and fork that he immediately booked us all into the nearest five-star hotel."

Annie Leibovitz, photographer: "I started out thinking I was going to be a painter and was attending the San Francisco Art Institute, but I was a very bad hippie and it was that time in the late Sixties, during Vietnam, when it was pretty confusing to have a father in the military, so I spent a year in Israel on a kibbutz with the idea that I might not come back. I learnt Hebrew for five or six months; I learnt discipline and the work ethic. It straightened me out. I went back to school and the next semester I submitted my portfolio to Rolling Stone."

Comments