A brief history of the “classic” kibbutz

Kibbutz is a term that comes from the Hebrew קיבוץ, plural: קיבוצים: kibbutzim.

In this site, we will adopt a simple transcription for the Hebrew terms, so that they can be read as easily and as close to their pronunciation as possible. Thus, kibbutz in the plural will be proposed as “kibbutz”.

The kibbutz (translation: “assembly” or “together”) is a type of Jewish collectivist village created in the early twentieth century by Russian Jews adhering to the Zionist movement of socialist influence.

The first villages of this kind were born in Palestine from 1910; they remained and then spread in the State of Israel. These villages took a liberal turn from the 1990s.

Historically, kibbutz members were seen as an elite, particularly militant and committed. Thus, in the 1980s, kibbutz officers accounted for nearly 25% of the officer corps, barely 3% of the population.

In the beginning, it was rural communities, but industrial activities began to develop in the 1940s and 1950s.

The ideological and demographic weight of the kibbutz has clearly decreased since the 1970s, and they are only 1.8% of the Israeli population in 2005. Their population is not really reduced (except between 1990 and 1998, 7 %), but mostly it is no longer progressing in an Israeli society in rapid demographic development. Despite this decline in the demographic weight, they still represent 10% of Israeli industrial production, 40% of its agricultural production and 6% of its GDP in 2010.

A person living in a kibbutz is called a kibbutznik (plural kibbutznikim). A person living in a kibbutz is called a kibbutznik (plural, kibbutznikim), and here again we will adopt the following simple transcript: “kibbutznick”.

The kibbutz is, by definition:

a community deliberately formed by its members, essentially agricultural until the 1950s, where there is no private property and which is supposed to provide for all the needs of its members and their families. The predominantly agricultural character is today largely outdated.

a settlement unit whose members are organized in community on the basis of common ownership of the possessions, advocating individual work, equality among them and cooperation of all members in all areas of production, consumption and education.

Historically, a Zionist organization intended to help the settlement of Jewish populations in the land of Israel.

The main strength of the kibbutz comes from the individual commitment of all its members. Collective entrepreneurship is important and contributes to the creation and growth of these economically successful communities in the free market. Today high standards of living achieved thanks to economic success also favour the continuation of these communities.In practice, most kibbutz are designed on the same model: in the centre are common buildings such as the collective dining room, the laundry room, the “moadon” (daily meeting place for coffee, tea, cakes…), the auditorium, the offices, the library, the festival hall, the “makolette” (grocery store) etc. Those are surrounded by gardens, a zoo (maintained bythe children and teenagers) and the members’ homes.Buildings and sports equipment are slightly off-centre. Fields, orchards and industrial buildings are on the outskirts.

Usually there is no elected power structure: the general assembly makes the decisions. With time, elected bodies haveappeared, but the kibbutz ideal imposes that they remain almost powerless.Secularism and gender equality have been advocated since the beginning of the kibbutz (except in religious kibbutz).With some exceptions, kibbutz members usually are Jewish. Non-Jewish people can live there permanently or occasionally. External (non-voting) Jewish or non-Jewish workers are not rare: foreign volunteers (for temporary periods), Arab Israeli workers or migrant workers (East European, South-East Asian etc.). There have been attempts to organise Muslim kibbutz. The urban kibbutz of Saint Jean d’Acre is composed of Israeli Jews and Arabs.

Generally, there are no salaries for members (excluding external employees): the community provides collective goods for free and on a strictly egalitarian basis (pools, schools, music lessons, laundry etc.) as well as individual consumer goods (for instance housing, televisions and computers). There is no difference based on status, qualification or position of the members. Kibbutz members, volunteers, students, etc. all benefit from the infrastructure in the same way.The economic activity of the kibbutz is collectivist: the means of production and exchange belong to all of the members, and there are no private entrepreneurs in a kibbutz.Members also receive a moderate and equal allowance allowing them to go shopping outside of the kibbutz.The model that finally prevailed only appeared after a dozen experimental attempts, all of which went into decline. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were non-egalitarian (as well as semi-egalitarian) capitalist attempts at collectivist villages with classes of workers, engineers, managers, etc., not having the same rights or the same salary as each other.“Ownership” through a salary, and the privileges granted to the most educated, brought only tensions and inconsistencies, incompatible with the socialist ideals of the new immigrants.

This has led some writers to argue that the kibbutz is a necessity and not the realisation of a vision. We recommend reading James Horrox’s book “The Kibbutz Movement and Anarchy. A living revolution” for a more in-depth analysis on this particular subject.Nonetheless, from all these experiences emerged principles that remain the main guidelines today.

The Moshav model, which is less communal, also dates back to this period of research and trial and error.

The origin of the Kibbutz is within the Ha’poel Hatzair party, a non-Marxist political party, influenced by Russian populist socialism and the work of Tolstoy, whose main source of inspiration is Aharon David Gordon. The ideal is that of rural socialism, anti-industrial and anti-authoritarian, heavily influenced by anarchism with the refusal of elected bodies.

 In 1909, a small group of young Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe driven by Zionist and socialist ideals, founded on the shores of Lake Tiberias the first kvutza (group in Hebrew) grouping, a community based on the commitment to the same rural and collectivist way of life. It was later given the kibbutz name.

They called this kibbutz “Degania”. Degania has since been referred to as the “mother of kibbutz”. Kinneret was the second kibbutz, founded in 1912.The principle of the kibbutz is peasant self-sufficiency: “the pioneers will live on the produce of their fields” to get rid ofthe market in as much as possible.From the 1920s and 1930s onwards, the Zionists of Achdut Ha’avoda also founded some kibbutz. It is partly under their influence that the first industrial activities developed.Ha’poel Hatzair and Achdut Ha’avoda merged in Mapai in 1930, partially unifying the political movements underlining the kibbutz, and in doing so contributing to the acceptance of industrial development within the kibbutz movement.

Starting in the 1960s and 1970s, kibbutz added tourism and services to their activities, as well as industry and agriculture, expanding their process of privatisation process.

Since the 1980s, kibbutz experienced enormous economic difficulties, reinforced by the virtual disappearance of subsidies under the Likud governments (the right wing political party in Israel).The kibbutz were forced to fundamentally reorganise their economic activities. The most profitable sectors, industry, tourism and services, were further developed from that point on. Agriculture, the original economic activity, was confined to second place (only 15% of the members were still assigned to that sector).There were also some bankruptcies. However, by the early 1990s, the kibbutzim had overcome the crisis, probably the worst in their history.

Today, with some exceptions, kibbutz are viewed to be economically and financially healthy. The standard of living oftheir members is amongst the highest in Israel, which can cause the resentment of the surrounding communities.The contribution of the kibbutz to the creation of the State of Israel and to its development has always been unanimously recognised. The crisis that affected them resulted in the privatisation of three-quarters of the kibbutz as well as creating a fear that the values they embodied – including the sense of the collective as opposed to an every man for himself mentality – would disappear. However, it should be noted that kibbutz whose members receive a salary, whether from the kibbutz, from an external company or even an income as part of a liberal profession or a start-up venture, still offer a collective lifestyle, within the private space of the Kibbutz, that remains innovative.

An example of this would be the education of teenagers in the kibbutz: a unique model worldwide, it implements what Françoise Dolto argued in favour of for developed countries: places of communal life, in all cities, close to the parents’ housing, where young adults have a material autonomy as well as the rights and duties of minor citizens.

Some kibbutz bounced creatively and in an innovative fashion (Video example: Kibbutz Lotan). Others developed on a slightly different model. Indeed, a new kibbutz movement was born: that of the urban kibbutz, rooted in the city and more than ever upholding the values of the classical kibbutz, whilst correcting its flaws.

Shimon Peres: “The kibbutz is the fairest and most honest way of life in the world. Since the nineteenth century, there has been no nobler, no more dedicated and more brilliant attempt to find a model of life that really satisfies the individual desire to be free, honest and helpful. (From an interview with Shimon Peres in the following video: Kibbutz life seduces israelis again)

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