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Why kibbutzniks lost their clout

It isn't only the nature of their unpopular left-wing politics that has left kibbutz members out of the next Knesset

For most of Israel’s history, kibbutz members strongly influenced the country’s political and military leadership. David Ben-Gurion was a member of Kibbutz Sde Boker. Moshe Dayan was born on Kibbutz Degania Alef. Ehud Barak was born on Kibbutz Mishmar HaSharon.

“Throughout Israel’s history, kibbutzniks have played a very important part in shaping Israeli society, but they have always been a very small proportion of the population,” Ofer Kenig, of the Israel Democracy Institute, was quoted in The Guardian as saying.

Kibbutz members, secular and with moderate political views, were identified with Israel’s Labor Party for decades, and with the Meretz party on the left. These parties were champions of the peace process, an issue that played a very minor role in Israel’s recent elections.

Many political pundits stated that no kibbutzniks would serve in the 19th Knesset, calling it an end of the “kibbutz era.” In fact, one kibbutz member did get elected; Zvulun Kalfa, number seven on the list of the right-wing Jewish Home party, was one of the settlers evacuated from Gush Katif in 2005. He later served as community director of secular Kibbutz Dvir in the Negev.

It’s strange that the sole kibbutz member in the Knesset will represent a right-wing party, but perhaps that’s a sign of the changing political winds. Instead of left-wing kibbutzniks, the Knesset seats will be filled by right-wing settlers.

“We’re seeing a decline in the importance of the kibbutz movement and the rise of another group… that’s more nationalistic and more religious,” Efraim Inbar, director of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, was quoted in Newsweek as saying. “They are the new aristocracy.”

The changing kibbutz

Was it only their unpopular left-wing politics that caused kibbutzniks to lose their clout? No, this loss of influence was also due to the changing society of the kibbutz.

As former justice minister Yossi Beilin wrote, “The privatization of kibbutzim in recent years has changed the picture drastically.

In a column that appeared before the elections in Yisrael Hayom, Beilin said that “phased privatization within the kibbutz movement has blurred the sector’s ideals, reduced the kibbutz presence at political events, lowered funding for parties and allowed kibbutz members to vote for different parties.”

As Dan Ephron wrote in Newsweek, “Most of the kibbutzim [have] jettisoned the main tenets of collectivism, opting for a more capitalist framework.”

The kibbutz has changed and is a far cry from its idealistic utopian origins. As kibbutzim lose their collective identities and allow the development of neighborhoods of villas on former agricultural lands, it is possible that future Knesset politicians will take their seats as kibbutz residents, and not as kibbutz members.

About the Author
Ellis Shuman made aliya to Jerusalem as a teenager, served in the IDF, was a founding member of a kibbutz, and now lives on Moshav Neve Ilan. Ellis is the author of ‘The Burgas Affair’ – a crime thriller set in Israel and Bulgaria; ‘Valley of Thracians’ - a suspense novel set in Bulgaria; and 'The Virtual Kibbutz' - a collection of short stories. His writing has appeared in The Times of Israel, The Huffington Post, The Jerusalem Post, Israel Insider, and on a wide range of Internet websites. Ellis lived with his wife for two years in Bulgaria, and blogs regularly about Israel, Bulgaria, books, and writing.