20 years have passed since my kibbutz work experience and it is time to ask the question whether there is still some kibbutz left in me. When you are nineteen and breaking out from behind the Iron Curtain to see the bigger world, a travel to a desert kibbutz is like a travel to the moon. Even the landscape is similar. Israel was the first visa in my otherwise virgin passport, a very non-obvious destination from Poland at the time when cheap flights were non-existent and diplomatic relations had just been reestablished.
Equipped with a good Biblical picture of Holy Land, inculcated in me over years and spiced with a vast but blessed ignorance, I began my 3 month exploration. I expected a donkey, but our host came with a pickup truck and carried us through highways down to the Negev. A shabby little hut with precious leftovers from earlier volunteers gradually became home. We found a sun hat, a mosquito net and a map. Essential survival kit. The first and all the later wake up calls in the morning came via a muezzin from El-Naggar mosque in the nearby Khuza. You could see it in the distance as it was just behind the kibbutz pool and a thick screen of trees. Over time, the kibbutz started to feel more and more like an oriental merger of a Polish village with a camping site, though the grass was thicker, the rain came from sprinklers only and life was communal. The free pub on Friday became a reason to live.
Inside life was benign and rich, but over time, the awareness of a bigger geopolitical picture surrounding us became palpable. The awareness of Nachal Oz, Nirim, Gaza, Intifada and wars came fast and became important because this time it was about my own security.
It was ironic that coming from a country of major XX century wars and genocides, Israel was the first place I have ever seen a live weapon. It was tucked everyday behind the belt of a big kibbutznik preparing the meals in the communal kitchen. Rural life within the kibbutz seemed simple, over time even dull within stories and gossips heard again and again. It did give the sense of belonging, sense of community and communal aims. It felt comfortable and had all elements of shared economy.
For those willing to participate by choice, it was a certain safe haven. For those born in kibbutz it was more and more often a structure to rebel against. Already at that time the kibbutz council was voting about certain levels of privatization but the old socialist guard held strong. It was more emotional voting not to give up the ideals of the young age in the light of need for more rational capitalistic needs. As the older generation clung to time-worn but still defining ideals resisting the need for change, it grew into a fascinating ideological, economic and generational conflict. All in all, in many kibbutzim, the success or failure of this transformation depended on the quality of current leadership, location and luck.
Finally, as the twentieth century taught us, sometimes dramatically, all of the big social ideas are bound to degenerate and fail. The bigger the idea, the more severe the fall. Especially those which don’t encompass change in their constructs and are instead created on religious templates promising a better human being in a better world in the far future. The creating and devastating power of our basic emotional makeup, which happens to be one of the most universal human features, is always going to take over. Words of ideology fade away while the emotions last. Interestingly, the very same emotions which at first can be politically and socially used to create, in changed circumstances of life can become devastating.
The socio-political circumstances in which we live our lives are not given for granted as most of us think. They are always prone to change. The less we realize their value and care for them to last, the faster they are taken away. At the same time there is never a vacuum in social life, the old-values-based social agreements are always replaced with new creations. These creations are dependent on the quality and needs of the prevailing leadership and economy. Thus, we have cycles of building and demolishing democratic systems and the rule of law, replacing them gradually with narcissistic leadership prone to fraud. The real problems in this nice planet don’t start when the politicians are starting to generate false interpretations or just use lies. This has become an accepted tool. The problems start when politicians themselves, under the pressure of self generated populism, are starting to believe in those creations. At this point the leader, the state, the ideology disconnects itself from rationality and becomes more a system of worship deprived of any anchoring in truth or critical thinking and floats dangerously towards totalitarianism. In the end, as Plato would say: “ The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men”.
Have the kibbutzim became the empty shells of an ideology that just died notwithstanding the test of time and changing emotional constructs? Partly yes. At the same time they were the cornerstone of Israel as a state, a vital component of its defensive and agricultural system. Is there something they can teach the contemporary world in its daily pursuit of self-endangering individualism and value deprived capitalism? I believe they can. The idea of communal and collective life / work and communal thinking has to be explored and thought through. Communal often means secure, it means creative, it means diverse, it means open to debate, it means hard to be politically manipulated. There is a whole array of local and global problems which depend solely on collective thinking and communal resolution. The elected leaders have proved to be hopeless. Instead of resolutions, they offer more chaos. At the end of the day, we all live in a large globalized digital kibbutz and our security and survival depends on our communal skills, not the trust in leaders.