Mitt Romney is catching some flak today for a statement made yesterday and first reported on BuzzFeed in which he contrasted American society and its economy as being very different from a socialist model. He told the crowd at a Chicago fundraiser:
“It’s individuals and their entrepreneurship which have driven America,” Romney said. “What America is not a collective where we all work in a kibbutz or we all in some little entity, instead it’s individuals pursuing their dreams and building successful enterprises which employ others and they become inspired as they see what has happened in the place they work and go off and start their own enterprises.”
This is being represented in some quarters as a knock on Israel or at least showing that, as BuzzFeed put it, his friendship for the Jewish state, “only extends so far.” But anyone who tries to represent this as somehow qualifying Romney’s backing for Israel or showing disrespect for it doesn’t know much about the real life Israel as opposed to myths from Leon Uris novels. While the kibbutz is an iconic symbol of the state’s beginnings, the collective farm movement is a dinosaur in modern Israel with only a minuscule role in its economy. Many of have gone bankrupt while others have become hotels or factories more than farms. Indeed, Israel’s current economic success is based on its transformation in the last generation into a first world economy rather than one handicapped by the socialist ideology of its founders.
It is true that the kibbutz is, as Buzzfeed put it, “integral to the story of the founding of the state of Israel.” In pre-state Palestine, collective farms were useful in putting down claims on parts of the country at a time when the Jews were returning to their ancient homeland. They were more defensible than individual farmsteads and survived as much on the Zionist and socialist fervor of their members as their economic value. Though always small in number, their members formed part of the Jewish community’s elite and both before and after 1948, they often were disproportionately represented in the leadership of the Israel Defense Force and its precursor the Haganah.
But while Romney is obviously right that the collective idea has no place in America, it is a falsehood to assert that it still has much, if any, importance in Israel.
While collective farms played an outsized role in the formation of the state and its defense, in the long run they were not part of a viable economic model. For generations they have been subsidized by agricultural policies and direct aid from the state, something those who criticize funding for West Bank settlements often forget. But eventually even that wasn’t enough to keep many of them alive. If anything, they are now more of a symbol of the failed socialist economic policies the Labor Party imposed on the country for decades and which have now been replaced by a free market model that turned Israel into an economic powerhouse. The decline of the kibbutz is something of a cliché in Israeli society, and those farms are as out of place in its economy now as the old socialist and labor union monopolies that hamstrung development and a political leadership that refused to allow television until the 1970s. Though there is some nostalgia in Israel for the past, the idea that the country would return to the old East German model is absurd.
What Romney said was no gaffe. America isn’t a kibbutz. It never was and never will be. And Israel isn’t going back to them either.