In the early years of the kibbutz movement, self-sacrifice and hard work were synonymous with group loyalty and camaraderie. Life was incredibly difficult. My parents sometimes lived apart because of the real fear of attack by Arab terrorists. The women were intermittently exiled to the nearest fortified town. The reason the community was so harmonious was simple. Like any well-disciplined group of people those who were different from the group were rejected by the group and departed. Ideology was important, but isolation was the glue that bound the group. With just a radio to share between them, individuals within the group could choose to be alone but rarely were.
In 1967 when my sister was going to make aliyah to the city. She was advised by Israel’s representative in Sydney, Australia to bring with her, a ‘kumkum’ (a kettle). If she had been going to live on a kibbutz that would have been heresy. Luxury goods were scarce, and the kettle was a luxury good. It encouraged individualism and broke with group cohesion. TV had not yet come to Israel (Television in Israel was only introduced in March 1966). The country at nineteen years of age was impoverished. Kibbutzim (plural of kibbutz) debated; when TV was finally introduced it was after a long drawn out ideological battle that centred on the potential damage to the group. Once TV had arrived the group would eagerly await the screening of the latest movie in the communal dining room.
In 1974, a movie about gay love created nervous reactions from all us guys at the kibbutz screening. And yet, within a few years, a gay couple had been accepted as members of the community. For two successive years their membership came up and was refused but on the third vote – having lived within the community all that time, they were accepted as full members. This happened because people talked to each other; ignorance was dispelled by rational discussion.
Ideology confronted reality, was examined, debated and the community survived the encounter, and grew stronger because of it.
A couple of weeks ago, three single-parent refugee families who had been living within a socialist kibbutz were rejected by that community. So, what is the process that has effectively demolished most of what remains of the founding communities ideological cohesion?
About a third of Israel’s 270 kibbutzim are still primarily collectives. But while there has been a revival of many communities based on urban families joining them, this revival is not principally ideological. Instead, young families are seeking to escape the high cost of living and the alienation they find in city life.
What happened to the kibbutz? We could start with TV. Initially only permitted as a communal resource, later, everyone could own their own individual sets. At that point communal cohesion was damaged. The loner, the ‘oddbod’ and the individualist no longer required either the approval of the community or had any need to interact with the community on anything but the most basic level. That was the first challenge which the wealthier kibbutzim could overcome by spending money to mask the problem – there is no difference here with any urban society or family unit! The second challenge arose when import restrictions were relaxed and as the state of physical warfare receded, the presence of luxury items in the economy grew. And the isolation and austerity that binds all small communities became a burden for which there was a solution. The young of the community could leave and had no need to return. Community life began to crumble. By the mid 1990’s this process accelerated as communal items, for example cars, became ‘must have’ items that individuals had to possess. Until then, members would put their name down on a list and when their name came up they could ‘book’ one of the limited number of cars possessed by the community for whatever purpose they intended.
Community life crumbled with the greater awareness of what life was like in the city and what opportunities greater freedom provided. If city life remained difficult, it was nevertheless, considerably easier than the claustrophobic life of the rural community. The kibbutz may have been a ‘country club’ compared with the crumbling housing estates that many urban Israelis experienced, but kibbutz life was still restrictive and opportunities, limited.
And then a new era of Consumerism arrived. Today’s consumer society is different from earlier periods of mass acquisitive social behaviour. It is marked by conspicuous consumption; and instant gratification results in a debasement of value in everything we possess. With the commodification of everything, everything has a price, and nothing has a value that extends beyond its worth in coin. Crucially, this applies to relationships and not only products with a physical dimension. Through the ubiquity of enhanced visual communications media, we are all living a partially vicarious reality augmented by Reality TV and further programming meant to encourage an escape into fantasy.
Israel may have been a late-comer to this experience, but the discipline of an isolated community can only be maintained through the imposition of isolation. That was never going to be possible once that internal discipline collapsed.
The community no longer retained its homogenous character; the seduction of the outside world meant austerity was no longer a logical life-style choice; it became a sucker’s mentality that more savvy kibbutzniks would exploit to further their own selfish agenda.
A community begins as a group of individuals; it grows until the personality of the community is fixed. It attracts like-minded individuals, or it stagnates, fractures and dies.
Many collective communities have survived because they were sufficiently wealthy to be able to do what all aging communities do – they pay to make those issues disappear; they continue to grow until they become small towns. This is a natural healthy process that moves beyond simple survival and fosters prosperity. That the wealthy communities are all successful industrial enterprises means that they inevitably exploit the workers which, moves beyond survival into an area of political ideology and ethics that is fundamentally oppositional to the founding ideas of all the kibbutz movements.
That previously mentioned kibbutz, in rejecting the refugees living amongst them, represents the worst part of the process of decay. Fifty percent of that community’s voters consistently vote for a socialist party in elections. They mouth sentiments that are consistent with socialism, while stripping them of all meaning. Living amongst them – the refugees have become symbolic of failed ideology, debased by time and wealth. It means the collective movement is truly anachronistic. Privatisation may be in the best interest of the nation, but the shared and public resources controlled by the various collective movements must be transferred into national ownership to ensure the nations heritage is not sold off by kibbutzim for whom ideology is now a distant memory superseded by the profit margin.