They’re still around.
There are fewer of them now, and many of those left have been forced to privatize. Still, some kibbutzim have been able to maintain their collectivized systems of living. In this way, the most archetypal conceptions of what a kibbutz ought to be have been kept alive, even as the Israeli economy has become ever more capitalistic and hostage to market forces.
Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, where I was fortunate enough to have put in a three-month stint as a volunteer, is one such holdout.
Yet the beacons the early pioneers lit, from Dan to Eilat, are diminishing. 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 — they are becoming ever more 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 my certain death in a hail of gunfire upon my entering Ramallah or Nablus.
What the kibbutzim are no longer, too, is autonomous — the idea of the self-sufficient kibbutz is dead. The numbers working in agriculture have declined over the past twenty years or so and many now import foodstuffs, in particular branded goods produced by multinational behemoths. Increasingly, those who reside on the kibbutz take white-collar jobs in nearby towns and cities, giving their income to the secretariat who then grants funds back 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 unwieldy beasts of tourism and recreation.
As the forces of capitalism and modernization 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 labor 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 laborers 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 labor between the good jobs–– a euphemism for easy or less taxing, in this instance — which have been allocated to and are closely guarded by the kibbutzniks who do not wish to relinquish them, and the more arduous or boring tasks which are given to the laborers, simply because kibbutzniks have no desire to do them. While there may be some degree of rotation within the different work environments – be that the factory, dining hall, or barn — 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. My survival was largely dependent on the company of the other volunteers and some of the more amiable kibbutzniks, as well as Amos Oz, Ian McEwan, and Kazuo Ishiguro.
But the end of isolation and need for additional workers has its boons, primary amongst them the interaction and the friendships which are forged between Jewish and Arab Israelis. 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 wont 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 individualized, such social habits are no longer the norm. The past 20 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 has a duty to keep these beacons lit — the country will not realize what it had until it is no more.