The Role of the Kibbutz in Modern Israel
In the era of what Tom Friedman would no doubt call global hyper-connectivity, it is impossible for any kibbutz to remain an island entire of itself, to borrow Donne’s words. It is true that although several kibbutzim have been forced into privatisation, many more have been able to maintain collectivised systems of living even as the Israeli economy has become ever more capitalistic and hostage to market forces. This includes Ein Ha’Shofet, from where I have just returned following a three month stint as a volunteer.
Yet in myriad other ways, the kibbutzim are becoming a part of the main, a reflection of modern Israel. For instance, although these communities remain bastions of social democracy and electoral support for leftist parties, they have not been untouched by either the corrosive effect of the occupation or the coarsening impact of war and intifada. No kibbutznik understood my desire to visit the Palestinian Territories in order to view how the other half live behind the concrete slab, with one even going so far as to spew anti-Palestinian invective and predict certain death by hail of gunfire upon entering Ramallah or Nablus.
What the kibbutzim are no longer too is autonomous – the idea of the self-sufficient kibbutz is a myth. The numbers working in agriculture has declined over the past twenty years or so and many now import foodstuffs, in particular branded products produced by multinational conglomerates. Increasingly, those who reside on the kibbutz take white-collar jobs in nearly towns and cities, giving their income back to the secretariat who then grants funds to the individuals and families according to need. And, kibbutzim have had to diversify their economic interests in order to subside the loss-making ventures and services which benefit the collective, with villages like Ein Gev and Ein Gedi opening up their homes and communities to the beasts of tourism and recreation.
As the forces of capitalism and modernisation place additional pressures on the communistic mode of living and operation, in order to sustain itself the kibbutz movement has also become far too dependent on two types of imported labour to be described as self-reliant. The first is the volunteer corps, who journey from as far as Colombia, South Africa, and the Republic of Korea to offer their services to the Jewish state for a salary equivalent to $10 a day, minus the cost of food. The second, particularly in the north, is Arab day labourers who reside in the nearby villages, commute in every day and are paid a regular living wage as if they were working for any other private company or institution.
What then occurs is a clear division of labour between the good – a euphemism for easy or less taxing, in this instance – jobs, which have been allocated to and are closely guarded by the kibbutzniks who do not wish to relinquish them, and the more stressful or boring tasks which are given to the labourers, simply because kibbutzniks have no desire to do them. Whilst there may be some degree of rotation within the different work environments – be that the factory, dining hall, or refet – the notion of kibbutzniks moving between settings regularly is all but extinct.
The volunteers, meanwhile, are granted the jobs anyone can do, regardless of nationality or language, for which no training is required, and can be abandoned and taken up by another body without difficulty. The reasons for this are obvious: the volunteers with very few exceptions have no grasp of Hebrew and only stay for a short period of between three and nine months. My task in the factory, for example, consisted of hanging already-manufactured ballasts and transformers (used in light fixtures, if you’re interested) on racks of hooks, in preparation for their painting, seven-and-a-half hours a day, five or six days a week. Survival was largely dependent on the company of the other volunteers, some of the more amiable kibbutzniks, as well as Amos Oz, Ian McEwan, and Kazuo Ishiguro.
But the need for additional workers has its boons, primary amongst them is the interaction and the friendships which are formed between Jewish and Arab Israelis, and in this, the kibbutz has something it can teach modern Israel. Spend only a small amount of time in Jerusalem and the segregation, self-imposed or otherwise, which exists between Jews and Arabs becomes obvious – the only crossing of boundaries which seems to occur is when Jews purchase products from Arab-run stores in the Old City, but even then, the relationship is purely transactional. The affectionate, comradely bonds forged between kibbutzniks and residents of the nearby villages warm the heart by contrast.
Then there are the little things about communal life and camaraderie, best expressed perhaps by the want of kibbutzniks to say boker tov or Shabbat Shalom to everyone they encounter, and their tendency to always stop and collect the stray hitchhiker in the heat of the day or dead of night. As modern Israeli society becomes more individualised, such social habits are no longer the norm. The past twenty years have undoubtedly altered radically the very nature of the kibbutz – it would be unfortunate if the age of capital eradicated all of its most admirable qualities all together. Israel will not realise what it had until it is no more.