As we have noted in previous articles, understanding developments within the kibbutz movement perforce necessitates insight into internal dynamics and their interface with Israeli Society as a whole. The last two articles sought to impart an overview of developments during the last generation. As the kibbutz movement moves into the second decade of the 21st Century we see new dynamics emerging – both within the kibbutz movement and within Israeli society. Apparently the interplay between them will have a major role in shaping events within the kibbutzim during the coming years.

The 100th anniversary celebration of the founding of Degania, the “mother of the kvutzot” was a national event which generated many perspectives.1 The celebration also constituted the first session of a Kibbutz Movement convention.

A central question emerged. Is this a farewell – will the kibbutz now “fade away” and become part of the Israel’s historical heritage? Significantly, in tandem with the event, the government announced funding for a number of historical sites on the kibbutzim. Alternatively, does the kibbutz have a relevant role in the future of the Zionist project – a Jewish and democratic state? The second session of the convention, held in January 2012 was to deal with this latter question. The intervening fifteen months between the sessions were fraught with unexpected developments which are still in the process of playing themselves out.

Social Protest 2011 – A Summer of Discontent

Unquestionably, the social protest of Israel’s middle class which erupted in the summer of 2011 had a major impact on the kibbutz as well. This protest was a reaction to the neo-liberal capitalist policies of the government – high prices, high indirect taxes, lack of affordable housing, economic windfalls for the top 0.1% (the “oligarchs”). The protest was also influenced by the “Arab spring” and similar economic protest movements in Europe – this factor is beyond the scope of the current discussion.

The Collective Council of the movement identified with the protest immediately. Similarly, the “Special Tasks” Department (Agaf Hamesimot) of the Kibbutz Movement under the leadership of Joel Marshak, was unequivocally supportive. The movement establishment followed only somewhat later. However, within the context of this article there were two aspects of the protest which had a bearing on all the kibbutzim.

First and foremost, the Kibbutz Movement was caught by surprise at the magnitude of the protest no less than the government. “Where were we? “ After all, most of the kibbutzim today are part of that very middle class which instigated the demonstrations. The question of kibbutz involvement in the surrounding society became a central question. The result was that the discussion on kibbutz involvement in surrounding society became a major focus of the second session of the Kibbutz Movement convention held in January 2012.

However, there was a second, indirect influence on the Kibbutz Movement. A central organizing force of the protest, behind the scenes, was the Dror-Israel movement of youth movement graduates as well as the youth movements themselves. That involvement highlighted the growing gap between the youth movements and the kibbutzim. The Dror-Israel movement was instrumental in melding variant chords of protest into a general demand for social justice and a return to some welfare state policies. The activism of Dror-Israel contrasted sharply with the tepid response in the kibbutzim. For Dror-Israel and the youth movements, this dissonance confirmed the image of the kibbutzim as being irrelevant in confronting current issues in Israeli society.

Within the Kibbutzim

It is possible to identify a number of processes within the kibbutz movement itself – processes which will impact in the coming years in ways which are not yet clear.

  1. On taking office in September 2011, as the new coordinator of the Collective Council (Mate Shitufi), Maia Shafir (Yotvata), announced that her aim was to have the Council morph into a movement within the overall federation of the Kibbutz Movement. In parallel, Uri Margolit (Ramat Hakovesh) is leading a Forum of New Kibbutzim (Hakibbutz Hamitchadesh) which seeks to define their role within the overall kibbutz organization and in Israeli society.
  2. A strong lobby has emerged demanding social justice within the kibbutz movement. The roots of this are in the disparities created in the “New Kibbutzim”, especially between retired members and the new managerial elite. There is a demand “First of all, adequate pensions for the veteran members.” The question has even been raised in the Knesset – Israel’s parliament. There are kibbutzim whose financial resources were adequate to guarantee adequate pensions. In other “new kibbutzim” there is competition for limited resources between veteran and younger members. The total economic situation of the kibbutzim is improving but some kibbutzim have been left behind. The amount of money deposited in pension funds is also an issue on some collective kibbutzim.
  3. The impact of non-kibbutz members living on kibbutz, in particular those in the newly built residential areas, constitutes an on-going dynamic especially on the “new” kibbutzim. This dynamic takes place within a legal framework within which two entities exist and overlap. On the one hand there is the original cooperative society, now redefined as “New Kibbutz.” On the other hand, there is the municipality which includes all residents. The latter can outnumber the kibbutz members. Significantly, returning kibbutz children – now adults – are often residents but not necessarily members of the cooperative society. Disputes arising between the cooperative society and the municipality have already reached the courts.
  4. The return of kibbutz children in increasing numbers – sometimes after many years of absence – is an unexpected phenomenon of the last decade. In a large part this is a return to home – not to ideology. If the very survival of the kibbutz as a demographic entity was uncertain fifteen years ago, It is now becoming clear that the kibbutz will survive demographically and it will survive in terms of the continuity of generations.
  5. A fascinating dynamic seems to be emerging among the younger generation of the kibbutz children returning to the kibbutz. In many cases, their older brothers and sisters led the move to far-reaching privatization. However, in some cases, the younger generation of kibbutz children on the new kibbutzim wants a partial return to some aspects of community abrogated in the initial privatization. There is a desire for more social security – the kibbutz not as a socialist society but rather as a mini-welfare state. Another focus is the concern for quality of the environment as a component in quality of life. A rejection of urban life and a return to the landscape of one’s birth is another factor in the return to kibbutz. It reflects an emotional commitment which translates into environmental concern.
  6. Statistics are important for perspective – even if their ultimate significance remains in doubt. Between 1983 and 2006 the total kibbutz population remained static between 115,000 and 120,000. The average kibbutz has 500 inhabitants. From 2006 to the end of 2010 the kibbutz population grew to 141,000 – mainly because of the non-kibbutz member neighborhoods. Currently, 50% of the population are members or candidates, 20% are kibbutz children and soldiers. Residents, the fastest growing element, number 20% The final 10% includes volunteers and others. (These figures are taken from the Kibbutz Movement Statistical Annual which summarizes the year 2010 and was published in April 2012. The figures do not include the 19 kibbutzim of Hakibbutz Hadati).

Against the backdrop of all the foregoing, the major open questions remain: Can the federation of kibbutzim, formally organized as The Kibbutz Movement, reinvent itself as a real movement? What will be the relationship of youth movement graduates and their movement (Dror-Israel) to the Kibbutz Movement? Will it be able to project itself as an alternative way of life in Israel as a socially just, Jewish and democratic state?

Such an alternative vision probably involves social democracy as an alternative to neo-liberalism as well as a Jewish-Zionist identity and way of life free of Orthodox rabbinical constraints. Will the Kibbutz Movement be able to formulate and implement an action program to further its vision of an alternative Israel? Can it develop an operative partnership with other sectors in Israeli society?

Stay tuned. The jury is still out!

            Michael Livni
            May 6, 2012 – 14 Ayar 5772


1 For a very short summary see by this author: “100 Years of Kibbutz – Now What and fFor What?”, CALL, International Communes Desk, No. 33, Winter 2010/2011. (English Articles.) For further discussion of subjects raised in these articles see: Michal Palgi and Shulamit Reinharz, ed., ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF KIBBUTZ LIFE, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick (U.S.A.) and London (UK), 2011.
Note: The word “kvutza” denotes a small intimate group numbering tens. The term’ “Kibbutz” denotes a larger group of hundreds and eventually replaced the term “kvutza”.