Capitalists fail to stop rot down on the kibbutz

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The Independent Online
WITH the new free-market system at least people on the kibbutz eat better. 'Not with lots of oil, cooked in a way nobody wanted it,' says Moshe Segal, sitting in front of a sideboard piled with dishes, in his cramped, dingy kitchen, newly installed since the kibbutz's communal dining-room was forced to close down.

His prefab home in Ein Zivan kibbutz on the Golan Heights sits directly under Spy Hill - an Israeli monitoring station - a kilometre from the Syrian border.

On the other hand, he continues, people now have to waste a lot of their free time - shopping and cooking, and so on. 'When the children come home nowadays they expect something to be on the table. Someone has to think of something to give them: a stew or goulash or something that you can reheat. And someone has to take time out to go to the shop. If my wife can't do it I have to.

'Say I work an eight-hour day in the orchards or with the turkeys. How am I supposed to fit in the shopping?'

True, people don't leave the lights on like they used to, he says, now that they have to pay for their own electricity. And it's nice having your own car. 'But if there is a kibbutz meeting everyone goes separately - some want to go a bit later or some a bit earlier. We used to all go in a bus.'

Mr Segal, an American-born kibbutznik who arrived in the Golan more than 20 years ago 'with empty pockets looking for a job', is one of the opponents of the kibbutz's capitalist coup which may, this week, lead to Ein Zivan's expulsion from Israel's largest kibbutz movement.

In a desparate attempt to revive its fortunes, Ein Zivan, a tiny kibbutz with only 60 members, has abandoned the collectivist ideology that has driven the kibbutz movement for 80 years - bravely introducing free-market reform, or betraying the principles of the founding fathers, depending on how you see it. Ein Zivan is the clearest evidence yet of the rot that has been eating at the movement for several years.

The first kibbutz was founded at Deganya in 1910 on the southern shores of the Sea of Galilee. The early kibbutzim were set up by highly motivated socialist Zionists, newly arrived in Palestine, and driven by the principles of self-reliance - through working the land - and of self-defence. The paradigm of Zionist national and social accomplishment, the collective farms are nowadays famous only for bankruptcy. Even the country's new Labour government, whose support was once rooted in the kibbutzim, is fast abandoning its socialist principles.

The spartan life of the kibbutz used to be an attraction. But Ein Zivan is not only spartan, it is soulless and sad: its grubby jumble of concrete a blot on the grassland of the Golan plateau.

That the Golan kibbutzim should be first in the race to abandon the ideology is perhaps not surprising. Few of those who came here were the old-style frontiersmen typical of pioneering kibbutzim in their heyday.

When Israel seized the Golan Heights in the Six Day War, young people riding the wave of Israel's new-found confidence set up camp on the Golan. Ruti Barouk, one of the leading reformers, says she came to Ein Zivan fresh out of the army in 1968. 'It was a beautiful place. And we wanted to do something for our country after the war. Everybody in Israel was proud we had succeeded.'

As the years passed Ein Zivan ran into worse financial problems than other kibbutzim. After building a shoe factory to supplement its income from cherries, apples and grapes, it ran into deep debt. The first free-market changes were introduced in 1989. People were told they could work outside and spend their money on private possessions. A tax was levied to pay for those in real need. But for the most part people took responsibility for themselves for the first time.

The change divided the kibbutz. The reformers urged members to look to Eastern Europe. But opponents - one third voted against - said this was irrelevant. 'Eastern Europe was socialism by the whip. This was entirely voluntary,' says Mr Segal. Ms Barouk recalls: 'To begin with we gave people bigger individual budgets - but said they had to pay for everything. The problem was they liked getting the extra money but they didn't want to spend it. They did not understand the system. They complained that the food in the communual canteen was too expensive so they stopped going - and it closed down. Then they complained they had to make their own.'

This month the biggest taboo was broken, which led to the calls for expulsion from the movement. 'We decided that if the kibbutz was going to earn money everybody had to work and that he or she could keep what he earned as an incentive. This would mean for the first time some would have more than others. We might have six people working in the laundry with four doing nothing before. It made no sense. People were getting lazy,' said Ms Barouk.

Ein Zivan is resisting ejection from the kibbutz movement saying it is still a kibbutz because it does not get money from the state. On the long-term future, Ms Barouk speaks with brave resignation. With new talks of a peace treaty with Syria, the Golan kibbutzim are almost certain to be sacrificed. She does not intend to stay and fight - any more than any other kibbutznik on the Golan. Indeed, she believes in exchanging territory for peace.