By Vic Rosenthal
I spent nine years (1979-1988) as a kibbutz member. During that period, the kibbutz movements went through great changes, spurred by external economic pressures and internal social ones. They faced very difficult conditions, a period of massive inflation and increased competition from the European Economic community for their agricultural products. It became necessary for the kibbutz to industrialize or die. Such things as when to borrow money and when to pay it back, as well as the Boursa (stock market), went from irrelevant to critical. Mistakes were made, some of them not entirely honest ones. The political revolution in which, for the first time in Israel’s history, the Labor Party, patron of the kibbutz movement, lost office and was replaced by the Likud pulled a rug of subsidies out from under their feet.
The economic issues were important, but the social changes (partly related to economics, partly not) were earthshaking to kibbutzniks. The first kibbutzim, most of them founded in the British Mandate period, were highly communal. In most of them, children lived apart from their parents (although contrary to common belief, they spent significant time with them and bonded with them). Kibbutz economies, even in 1979, were at least ostensibly communistic, with the kibbutz supplying the needs of the members as equally as possible, and the members supplying their labor. The manager of a large enterprise theoretically received no more from the kibbutz than the person sweeping the floor.
For example, once a week there was a distribution of food items that members could keep in their homes (called ‘rooms’) for snacks (regular meals were eaten in the communal dining hall). A family received a large piece of cheese, jam, bread, etc. Shortly after I had become a member of my first kibbutz, my parents planned to visit us, and my wife wanted to make them something special to eat in the little electric oven that we had in our room. So when I went to food distribution, I asked if, in view of the visit, I could have two pieces of cheese this week and no cheese the next. The fellow giving out the food, one of the founders of the kibbutz, looked at me like I was insane. “Ain davar cazeh (there’s no such thing)”, he said.
The kibbutz enforced equality. Members were not supposed to have ‘private money’. Even if someone had money and did not tell the kibbutz, he was not allowed to buy things that the kibbutz could not afford to provide for everyone. If my parents had given me a television set, for example, I would have had to put it in a common area so all the members could use it.
Many things changed during my nine years. In the beginning my wife worked in a sewing shop, turning out clothes for the kibbutz children and work clothes for the adults. I worked in the kibbutz garage, where we did major repairs on our tractors. Self-sufficiency was a goal. Toward the end, they bought cheap clothing made in Asian sweatshops and we sent tractors out for repair.
One of the greatest changes, of course, was the end of the communal child-rearing system. The founders were ideologically committed to it as part of a process of creating a new, agrarian, open, healthy Jew, attached to the land, in place of the weak stereotype of the Diaspora Jew. The second generation, who had grown up under that regime were divided about it, and most of those who joined the kibbutz from the cities or as new immigrants found it repugnant. My children grew up in children’s houses, but by the time they were in the middle grades all children lived with their parents. By the time we left there were few if any kibbutzim still raising children communally.
For many years, the kibbutzim provided a number of leaders in the military and politics far out of proportion to their numbers (at their peak, less than 4% of the population). The kibbutznik was respected as a jack-of-all trades (a result of getting moved around from job to job) and someone who could be counted on to get the job done despite difficulty. When I was in basic training it once happened that a tractor was parked in the middle of the firing range preventing us from using it. The officer pointed at me and said “you, kibbutznik, move the tractor!” Of course every kibbutznik can drive every tractor (luckily it was a type I was familiar with).
Kibbutzniks were hard as nails. Once there was an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease in the country. When anyone entered or left a kibbutz that had a dairy they were required to dip their shoes in disinfectant at the gate. A neighboring kibbutz was having a concert, given by a visiting symphony orchestra. People came in buses from various kibbutzim and towns, and the guard at the gate, an old Palmach type, asked the buses to stop and made the people get off and disinfect their (dress) shoes. One bus driver refused, telling the guard that nobody was wearing work boots and he wasn’t going to waste time. The guard unslung his Uzi and told the driver that they could disinfect their shoes, or they could turn around and go home, or the driver could use the phone at the gate to order ten new tires, because he was going to need them.
This has changed. Kibbutzim have become less agricultural and more industrial, and have even become service providers. One of my kibbutzim turned its swimming pool and food preparation facilities into a venue for weddings and bar mitzvahs, and began providing laundry services to a nearby town. Fewer army officers and politicians are kibbutzniks, and their (in many cases) higher standard of living than the average Israeli now evokes resentment.
And the internal communal economy of the kibbutzim has become privatized (perhaps this had to wait for the death of the founding generations). Members are now paid more in cash and less in kind. Food is no longer free, or laundry service, or electricity. And most unsettling of all, different wages are paid for different work.
Kibbutz life wasn’t for everyone. In the end, it wasn’t for me. It’s still somewhat different from the outside world, but something totally unique and valuable has been lost.