The kibbutzim may have been born out of socialist ideals but for years their appeal has been fading. Now, to survive, they’ve formed into profit-making cooperatives

Barn in kibbutz Maabarot (photo: Jason Larkin)

Paradise Regained

PUBLISHED IN |  May 20, 09

After 29 years as a city dweller, Boaz Alon came back last September to his native land in kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon, between Tel Aviv and Haifa. It’s not that he didn’t make it in the city, or that he had nowhere else to go. On the contrary, he says, “Now, for the first time, I live in the kibbutz out of choice. In 1979, after serving in the army, I was offered to work in the banana fields and that was my only option. Now I can continue my work as a computer engineer in Tel Aviv, and still enjoy this wonderful piece of land.”

Alon, 51, now lives in the kibbutz and commutes to his job in Tel Aviv every day. He is one of 42 early kibbutzniks (members) who recently rejoined Mishmar Hasharon, which has a population of 222. “That’s 25 per cent up since 2004,” says Ronen Simcha, manager for the new members,“ and there are constantly a few dozen more knocking on our doors.”

Ofir Shtemerman, CEO of Tkuma, a private company that helps people relocate to kibbutzim from all over Israel, says that there’s an influx of young people wanting to return: “There’s a good vibe going on.”

The social and economic model of the kibbutz (the word means “gathering”) was celebrated as one of the boldest social experiments of the 20th century. And it was a central part of Israel’s identity. A disproportionate number of kibbutz-born individuals emerged as Israeli political and intellectual leaders and being a kibbutz member was perceived as the highest form of self-fulfilment.

The central idea was that everyone would contribute to the society according to his capabilities, and would draw from it according to his needs. All assets were jointly owned by the members, and there was no private ownership. Accommodation and three daily meals were provided and the size of living quarters was decided by the kibbutz according to each individual’s needs, not their status.

But this model has since changed almost beyond recognition. Inefficiency, mismanagement and above all, the fall from grace of socialist and communal living ideas from the 1980s onwards, meant that the kibbutz movement ended up crippled by debts. The young, in particular, jumped ship and moved to the towns. It became clear that in order to survive, the kibbutz would have to reinvent itself.

Renewed Kibbutz

Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, 1940's (photo: Gan Shmuel archive)

Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, 1940's (photo: Gan Shmuel archive)

The result has been a switch to what is called the “renewed” kibbutz, where members receive a salary for their work and can buy apartments or villas and own cars. Many, like Alon, live on the kibbutz but work in a nearby town. They pay a community tax to the kibbutz, which in return provides them with subsidised healthcare, education and services. Since the first of these was created in 1996, three quarters of the 262 kibbutz in Israel have converted to the model. Kibbutzniks who want a more authentic community experience choose the more classic kibbutzim such as Maabarot or Ma’agan Michael, the largest with 1,500 residents.

The renewed kibbutzim think of themselves now as centres that will only survive if they make money. Many kibbutzim are run by private management companies, and words such as “entrepreneurship” and “board of directors” have found their way into the vocabulary of the movement. The annual net profit in all 262 kibbutzim rose from 700m shekels (€124m) in 2002 to 2.8bn shekels (€498m) in 2006. The number of kibbutzim making a loss has halved.

“The kibbutz has changed,” says Sigal Forman, 44, standing outside her temporary house in the renewed kibbutz of Mishmar Hasharon. Waiting for her new villa to be built, she feels not only less obliged by ideology, but also much more independent. “I left the kibbutz in 1992, because it was a difficult and a suffocating place to live in, but now I’m here because the quality of life offered to me is higher than in any other place.”

Changes in the kibbutz movement affect the whole of Israel. Some 66 per cent of the kibbutz annual revenues now comes from the 280 factories that the kibbutz movement runs, most of them in the plastic, metal and food industries. And the kibbutz still own 43 per cent of the arable land in Israel, accounting for a third of Israel’s agricultural output.

Itamar Shweike, head of the Agriculture department in the kibbutz movement, says that the attitude towards agriculture was always two-fold: it was about economics but it was also about the importance of living off the land.

“We are now facing the challenge of fitting together the old and new kibbutz,” says architect Roni Palmoni from kibbutz Degania, who is involved in many redesigning projects.

Some might say the kibbutz has sold out and become little more than an Israeli version of a gated community. But, Palmoni explains, it still allows people to connect with the land and think like a community. These days, it seems, that’s what more and more Israelis want.