Michael Livni

and the KIBBUTZ

Reprinted from

One Hundred Years
of Kibbutz Life

A Century of Crises and Reinvention

Michal Palgi
Shulamit Reinharz

Transaction Publishers
New Brunswick (U.S.A.) and London (U.K .)
Dr. Michael Livni
Kibbutz Lotan
D.N. Chevel Eilot
ISRAEL 88855
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Ecology, Eco-Zionism and the Kibbutz

During the last forty years, people worldwide have become aware of environmentalism and understand that a sustainable way of life is arguably the major global challenge facing humankind in the twenty first century.1 The rationale for environmentalism currently is mainly utilitarian, that is, it is in our self-interest to be concerned with the environment. The argument goes that both our children and we, as we grow older, will eventually pay the price for our reckless exploitation and depletion of the resources and biodiversity of our planet. Moreover, future generations will inherit the results of our polluting the physical surroundings and the atmosphere with our waste.

The Potential of Intentional Community

Potentially, intentional communities, whether urban or rural, are an almost ideal framework for realizing the basic principles of sustainability in consumption as well as production (including services). It should come as no surprise that members’ environmental awareness led many intentional communities to establish the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) in 1996.2 GEN enables eco-villages to learn from each other and represents the eco-village alternative to the public. GEN sees itself as promoting sustainability by means of educational programs where the eco-village framework itself serves as a model. Examples of proactive community initiatives for furthering sustainability in consumption are meals cooked in a communal kitchen and served in a communal dining hall, community owned cars, and communal space for recreation. Community organization can facilitate the management and disposal of both organic and nonorganic wastes. A community may also be in a better position than an individual to initiate infrastructure development for alternative energy use such as solar energy. In its production of goods and services (by individuals or by the community as a whole), the community can favor initiatives compatible with the principles of sustainability. Perhaps most important, the community can set norms for and educate to sustainable consumer behavior and can serve as a pilot and model for others in its surroundings. Initiating and maintaining a sustainable way of life assumes a world outlook in which quality of life is defi ned by criteria other than material consumption. If that outlook seeks to transcend a personal philosophy of life and to have an impact on society, then that outlook must express itself in an action-oriented ideology, where ideology is defi ned as “. . . a systematic body of concepts about human life or culture; the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program.” 3 Intentional communities affi rm freewill and reason based on the assumption that humans have the capability of cooperating with others in order to shape their physical and sociocultural environment—whether on the basis of a religious or a humanist rationale. In so doing, intentional communities promote cooperation and reject the determinism inherent in traditional society and in the social Darwinism of neoliberal economic thinking. It has been the fate of proactive action for sustainability to emerge at a time when the very idea of a comprehensive ideology has been discredited. Postmodernism in general, and the leading economic expression of postmodernism, neoliberalism, in particular, has rejected the legitimacy of ideology in formulating socioeconomic policy. 4

Zionism and Eco-Zionism

Zionism was and is the modern movement for physical and cultural regeneration and redemption of the Jewish people in their ancient homeland. The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was a partial fulfi llment of the Zionist vision and mission. An understanding of the still nascent term “eco-Zionism” requires a brief review of the Zionist idea as such. Two different but complementary processes led to the emergence of the Zionist movement. Both were the result of the impact, direct and indirect, of modernity on Judaism and each has particular implications for the idea of eco-Zionism. Political Zionism, formally inaugurated in 1897 by the Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl (1860–1904), arose in response to the rising tide of anti-Semitism, particularly in some of the emerging European nation states. Herzl proposed the establishment of a state for the Jews so that they could be physically and economically secure, “like all the nations.” Within this context, it is clear that Israel, “like all the nations,” has its particular environmental problems as well as sharing responsibility for the well-being of spaceship earth as part of the family of nations. Environmental activists in Israel, who see their activity as part of their identity as responsible citizens of the State of Israel, are comparable to the Green parties of Europe and/or the many related nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). They are part of the growing concern with the impact on the quality and viability of human life of an exploding human population, with its associated consumption, technology, and waste products. As mentioned above, their rationale emphasizes utilitarian considerations. A second form of Zionism, labeled cultural Zionism, is associated with Achad Ha-am, the pen name of Asher Ginsburg, 1856–1927. He held that modernity posed a cultural threat to the continued relevance and existence of Judaism. In order to ensure the creative continuity of Judaism, a Jewish state in its ancient homeland would be necessary. Only then could Jewish civilization and its values express themselves in fruitful confrontation with all the challenges of the modern age. The Jewish heritage and its values would be revitalized in the process. From a religious-cultural Zionist point of view, eco-Zionism refl ects the Divine triple Covenant between God, the people of Israel, and the land of Israel. Ensuring the well-being of the land as part of a religious commitment to Divine Creation as a whole constitutes an ideological/ theological basis for eco-Zionism. Eco-Zionism stemming from cultural Zionism implies a commitment to the totality of Creation with special responsibility for the Holy Land (Israel). The Midrash (Talmudic interpretations of the Bible) sees Creation as divine:
When the Holy One, Blessed be He, created the fi rst man, He took him to all the trees of Paradise, and told him: See my works, how handsome and fi ne they are, everything I have created was created for you. Make sure not to spoil and destroy my world because what you spoil, no one can repair. (Koheleth Rabbah 7:13)
This clearly is a message for all peoples, each of which is responsible for finding a way to express this universal idea and ideal through the unique prism of its particular culture. From a cultural Zionist point of view, the State of Israel as a Jewish state must accept the obligation “to till the earth and to preserve it” (Genesis 2:15) as well as the injunction “do not destroy.”5 Viewed from this perspective, the rationale for eco-Zionism is distinct from, but not at odds with, the utilitarian rationale for eco-Zionism. Cultural Zionist intentional communities have the potential to express engagement with Creation not only by integrating sustainable practices in their daily life, but also by developing rituals and the general cultural life of the community that highlight this absolute value. Intentional communities can integrate ecological thinking in the weekly and annual cycles of religio-cultural observance as well as in individual members’ rites of passage celebrated in community. Such cultural integration is essential for maintaining community motivation necessary for implementing practical measures that can further sustainability.

Ecology. Israel and Palestine

Taken as an ecological geographic unit, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have become one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Approximately ten million people inhabit the twenty-fi ve thousand square kilometers area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Over a period of sixty years, the population of Israel has increased from one to seven million—mainly (but not only) as a result of immigration. The accompanying development has led to a signifi cant degradation of Israel’s environment (Tal, 2002). Exploitation of natural resources, water in particular, has reached an absolute limit. There is also a possibility that, in addition to population increase, global climate change may be exacerbating a process of desertifi cation in Israel, typical of some of the world’s semidesert areas. Since the 1950s, the Israeli public has expressed concern for preserving natural habitats as embodiments of the national heritage. However, comprehensive environmental awareness came late to Israel. In 1953, kibbutz members and others established the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. Not until 1989, however, did the government see fit to establish the Ministry for the Protection of the Environment, which is still perceived as a “minor” ministry with a paltry budget. Nevertheless, in the past few years, environmental concerns are receiving greater attention. Signifi cantly, at the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009, President Shimon Peres committed Israel to a 20% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020. In fact, the government is committed to only 10%.

Kibbutzim and Ecology

Kibbutzim often fi nd themselves on the front line of ecological controversy. Real estate developers prize their land, particularly the land of kibbutzim in the center of the country. The kibbutzim are de facto guardians of green areas but agricultural utilization of land is not always compatible with sustainability. As for industry, kibbutz industries have on occasion been faulted for industrial pollution. An awareness of the interface between the social and the ecological has begun to express itself only recently on the Israeli political scene.6 For the fi rst time, the national elections of 2009 featured a cultural Zionist green party. It failed to recruit the minimum number of votes required for representation in the Israeli parliament. In the first seventy-five years of the twentieth century, kibbutzim emerged as a network of intentional communities, the largest communal movement in the world. The kibbutz movement must be understood within the context of Zionism, with the kibbutzim seeing themselves as a synthesis of political and cultural Zionism. As a settlement movement, they served political and settlement purposes by pioneering agriculture and settling remote areas. They did so within the framework of intentional communities attempting to realize the value of social justice as expressed in the principle of equal worth of all members—an expression of their particular cultural Zionism. They saw themselves as having a mission and were perceived as such in the surrounding society. Henry Near describes the kibbutzim as “. . . an intentional society created in the light of an ideal . . . and embodying that ideal.”7 In so doing, the kibbutzim played a signifi cant role in shaping the dominant Israeli ethos before 1948 and in the generation after the establishment of the state. In the 1970s, however, a combination of factors led to the loss of ideology and “intention” in the kibbutzim. The ousting of the Labor government in the Israeli elections of 1977 was a formative event in the history of Israel as well as the kibbutz movement. The wave of “end of ideology” postmodernism in the West and the attendant apotheosis of the individual swept Israel—including a majority of the kibbutzim. It was precisely during this period that “green” movements and causes emerged as a political force in the Western world. The ideological disarray and focus on ideological and economic survival were not conducive to kibbutzim adopting new perspectives and redefi ning their mission. The marginal attention of the kibbutzim to ecological questions refl ects this situation. The kibbutz decline and the emerging worldwide ecological consciousness were out of synch. Perhaps that is why only one kibbutz, Kibbutz Lotan (see below), is affiliated with GEN. The defi ning feature of the ideological crisis is the loss of vision together with the loss of belief in shlichut (mission). Martin Buber has described the decisive role of the belief in infi nite ideals, “an eternal center,” as a focus for intentional community. Buber wrote: “. . . the real essence of community is to be found in the fact—manifest or otherwise—that it has a center. The real beginning of a community is when its members have a common relation to the center overriding all other relations . . .”8 At present, a minority of kibbutzim are collective, the majority are not. However, GEN has demonstrated that the economic paradigm is secondary to the intentional aspect of the community to which members commit themselves. Most of the eco-villages affi liated with GEN are not collective. However, they do have a Buberian “center.” Currently, even those kibbutzim that maintain a collective framework are no longer intentional communities. They no longer have a vision with an action program to create an impact on the surrounding society. As a group, only the urban kibbutzim are currently intentional communities (see below) that have set themselves tasks for assisting the surrounding society.

The Case of Kibbutz Lotan

In 1983 Israeli and American graduates of the Reform Movement in Judaism founded Kibbutz Lotan in Israel’s Southern Arava desert. Among Israel’s 275 kibbutzim, it is unique in its formal eco-Zionist commitment. Lotan has remained a small (fi fty-fi ve adult members) collective and intentional community. From its founding, Lotan has seen its intentional communal commitment linked to cultural Zionist pioneering. In the mid-1990s, a handful of determined members succeeded in integrating the challenge of ecological sustainability as a part of Lotan’s social and Zionist vision. This commitment became part of a comprehensive mission statement. 9 That statement, formulated in 1997 as a response to an internal crisis, includes a religio-cultural approach to integrating ecology within a Jewish-Zionist rationale. The collective and liberal religious identities of Lotan were instrumental factors in responding to the crisis and integrating ecology into the Lotan vision. Two additional factors heightening ecological awareness were Lotan’s geographic location within a highly fragile desert ecosystem and its position on the global fl ight path of birds migrating between Africa and Europe.10 These form the background for the ecology “plank” in Lotan’s mission statement: Ecology: We strive to fulfill the Biblical ideal, ‘to till the earth and preserve it’ (Genesis 2:15) in our home, our region, our country and the world. We are working to create ways to live in harmony with our desert environment. In following the path of eco-Zionism, Kibbutz Lotan has begun to demonstrate the potential of an intentional community committed to sustainability, as well as its challenges in the contemporary real world of Israel. Lotan has emphasized waste management. It composts organic wastes, as well as reusing and recycling many solid wastes. A subsurface constructed wetland for Lotan’s sewage, funded by the Jewish National Fund, has become partially operational, and a Center for Creative Ecology has been established. The Center has pioneered alternative building and maintains an organic garden demonstration center. An eco-campus neighborhood of 650 sq. m. has been built using techniques of natural building (straw bales and earth plaster on a galvanized pipe geodesic dome framework). A salient achievement has been that Kibbutz Lotan succeeded in getting the eco-campus licensed for residential purposes.11 The eco-campus houses ecological volunteers and training programs such as the Green Apprenticeship. These programs incorporate both practical ecological techniques as well as principles of eco-village design formulated by GEN. So far, fi nancial constraints have limited the utilization of solar energy (e.g., solar panels) to replace electricity generated by fossil fuels. The kibbutz is dependent on private donations to its registered nonprofi t society, Amutat Tzell Hatamar, for developing its ecological projects. Lotan is the exception that demonstrates the unrealized potential of the kibbutzim. It demonstrates that the rationale for eco-Zionism lies both in political and cultural Zionism. There is a particular awareness among Lotan eco-activists that the ecological challenge is regional. Lotan has been actively involved in ecological outreach to minority groups in Israel because sustainability should be a common concern to all citizens of the state—Jewish and Arab. When politically feasible, this outreach has also included Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.12 In 2001, the Ministry for the Environment bestowed an award on Kibbutz Lotan for outstanding volunteer work for the ecology of Israel. In 2006 Lotan received the annual award for eco-village excellence from the European region of the GEN. Kibbutz Lotan is the lone Israeli presence in GEN—a factor of signifi cance for the image of Israel and Zionism in the entire network.

Current Status: Ecology and the Kibbutz

It is doubtful that the kibbutz movement can initiate eco-Zionist activity on a national level similar to Kibbutz Lotan’s initiatives. In particular, it is doubtful if the kibbutz movement can project eco-Zionism as an expression of a cultural Zionist vision. An attempt in the mid-1990s to establish a Green Kibbutz Organization to set ecological standards for the kibbutzim foundered. After the implosion of the kibbutz as a movement, there was no way to fund activists for such a national program. Indeed, the term “kibbutz movement” has become a misnomer. What exists is an umbrella organization numbering some 275 kibbutz communities divided into three different types of kibbutzim as defi ned by Cooperative Societies Ordinance (CSO), revised in 2005.
  1. The collective kibbutzim—currently some 25% of the total.
  2. “New” kibbutzim—essentially privatized or in the process of becoming privatized.
  3. Urban kibbutzim—a development of the last two decades. Ironically, only
    the urban kibbutzim are defined as intentional communities in the CSO. In
    my opinion, the educational orientation and local activism of most urban
    kibbutzim will lead many of them to become involved in ecological endeavor.
    Whether they will view this in a cultural Zionist context is an open question.


The Role of Kibbutzim in Regional Initiatives

In general, a degree of partial kibbutz involvement in promoting sustainability has recently evolved—not necessarily with a formally stated eco-Zionist rationale. In the Chevel Eilot regional council area (Southern Arava), two of Kibbutz Lotan’s neighbors—Kibbutz Ketura and Kibbutz Neot Smadar— have a defi ned ecological commitment. Kibbutz Ketura has established the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES). AIES is academic and geared to recruiting students from all over the world—including Arab countries where possible. This precludes it from making the institute a formal venue for eco-Zionist ideology although its founders were personally motivated by a cultural Zionist eco-Zionism. Ketura is also a founding partner in the Arava Power Company which aims to supply green (solar) power to the region on a commercial basis. Kibbutz Neot Smadar practices organic agriculture, recycles, has an operational constructed wetland, and is committed to living in harmony with its surrounding desert ecosystem. However its core concerns, inspired by the ideas of Jiddu Krishnamurti, focus on community togetherness for the purpose of examining one’s personal existence in the light of interpersonal relations and relationships to the environment. Neot Smadar’s approach to ecology is based on absolute values, but their source lies outside the cultural Zionist enterprise. Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, an Orthodox religious-Zionist kibbutz, in the Beit-Shan valley bases a major economic branch, organic agriculture, on a cultural Zionist rationale similar to that of Kibbutz Lotan. Indeed, it is possible that Sde Eliyahu will evolve a comprehensive eco-Zionist commitment based on an Orthodox religious rationale. Perhaps the two most promising venues for grassroots eco-Zionist initiatives involving kibbutzim within the current Israeli reality are via the regional councils and the regional schools. The regional councils have jurisdiction over land use and waste disposal in their regions. Many regional councils now have ecological units. With the support of its member communities, the councils can further ecologically proactive policy. In the two most prominent examples, the Chevel Eilot and Megiddo Regional Councils, local kibbutz support and leadership are decisive. In the case of regional kibbutz schools, the initiative of local educators is signifi cant and is often linked to regional council initiatives. Together with the city of Eilat, the Chevel Eilot Council has set a goal of at least 50% renewable energy by the year 2020. In 2008 its outstanding ecological unit was instrumental in initiating annual international conferences on alternative energy in Eilat. The Council also recruited the Jewish National Fund and the European Union to further the constructed wetlands of Lotan and Neot Smadar. The Megiddo Regional Council has initiated a biosphere for the Ramat Menashe region Southeast of Haifa. Biospheres are UNESCO monitored plans to create balanced relationships between humans and the environment in a given region. Biospheres will impact on the environmental behavior of all the settlements and will connect the area’s ecological endeavor to an international framework. For eco-Zionism to become a signifi cant factor in the kibbutzim, it will have to be adopted as an ideology and a political program with national and international ramifi cations. On a national level eco-Zionism would parallel the former function of the kibbutz as an expression of socialist Zionism. International links with bodies such as the GEN and UNESCO would echo the past signifi cance of the kibbutz in the socialist and communal movement worldwide. Eco-Zionism on the kibbutz would also refl ect the ecological mandate—think globally, act locally. Eco-Zionism could become a unifying focus of meaning for those kibbutzim viewing themselves as intentional communities with a particular vision expressing one aspect of what a Jewish state should be.



1 A detailed review and discussion of the development of ecological awareness is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that three thinkers have catalyzed this process: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962), John Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979), and Paul Harrison, The Third Revolution: Population, Environment and a Sustainable World (1992).
2 See gen.ecovillage.org (Google: Global Ecovillage Network).
3 “Ideology,” Merriam–Webster College Dictionary. 10th ed., 2002, p. 574.
4 A discussion on the roots of the postmodern rejection of ideology is beyond the scope of this chapter. At this time (2009), it remains to be seen whether the current economic crisis engendered by unbridled neoliberalism will impact on postmodernity. See Michael Livni, “Intentional Community, Modernity, Post-Modernity and Globalization: Challenges and Prospects,” 2007 (online at www.michael-livni.org) for a more detailed discussion of the implications of postmodernity for movements of intentional community including eco-villages.
5 The injunction “do not destroy” is derived from the Biblical verse prohibiting the destruction of fruit trees while besieging a city (Deuteronomy 20:19–20). See Eilon Schwartz, “Do Not Destroy—Variant Readings of the Famous Verse,” jhom.com/ topics/trees/bal_tashkhit.htm. Google: “Eilon Schwartz–Do Not Destroy.”
6 Murray Bookchin (2007) has dealt with the interface between the ecological and the social.
7 Henry Near, The Kibbutz Movement—A History , 1997, p. 325.
8 Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia , 1945 [1958], p. 135.
9 The full mission statement as well as additional information on Kibbutz Lotan can be found on its Web site. www.kibbutzlotan.com.
10 Michael Livni, “In Our Community—Ecology Is for the Birds,” 2009, pp. 40–41.
11 Michael Livni, “Battling the Bureaucracy in Israel,” 2008, pp. 54–58.
12 Michael Livni, et al., “Building Bridges of Clay, Mud and Straw—Jews and Arabs Learn Natural Building in the Desert,” 2006, pp. 42–45.




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