Commentary Magazine


Kibbutzniks

To the Editor:

I read Joshua Muravchik’s article on the fall of Israel’s kibbutz movement with great interest [“Socialism's Last Stand,” March]. Although he precisely articulates the causes of this trend, he leaves out the story’s epilogue: the movement’s complete capitulation to capitalism. In recent years kibbutzniks have successfully lobbied the Israel Lands Authority to reclassify kibbutz land as private property (“we worked the land, therefore it is rightfully ours”). They have then sold the property to real-estate developers, often for a share of future profits.

As a result, the “millionaire kibbutznik” is no longer a rarity. The privatization of land that rightfully belongs to the state has become so prevalent that Israel’s Knesset and high court have intervened to reverse it. The public outcry against former socialists getting rich in this way might just end their headlong dash into the ranks of the well-off.

Michael D. Hirsch
Kochav Yair, Israel

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To the Editor:

Whatever the reasons for the decline of the kibbutz as an institution, I would not, like Joshua Muravchik, blame “human nature.” Mr. Muravchik might well consider the Hutterites (or Hutterian Brethren) of Canada and the U.S. These strict “kibbutzniks” have lived, since the 1870′s, in colonies in which property is communally owned. Today there are about 36,000 members residing in more than 430 settlements. They, and similar communal groups throughout the world, are far from a “last stand.”

Werner Cohn
Brooklyn, New York

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Joshua Muravchik writes:

Thanks to Michael D. Hirsch for his letter. I do not, however, share his dismay at the prospect of millionaire kibbutzniks. The kibbutzim did make immense contributions to the state of Israel for very modest rewards. Their socialist dream was a mirage, but should we want to see them suffer for it? In contrast to what happened in so many other socialist arrangements around the world, no one but they paid the price for their illusions. I believe in private property, and the kibbutzniks’ claim to ownership of the land based on the work they put into it is as good a principle as any I can think of for putting it in private hands.

I thought my article answered the question Werner Cohn asks, but let me try again. Many religious communes—the Hutterites, a strain of Anabaptists, are far from the only example—have flourished while practicing collective ownership as an aspect of their religious devotion. In contrast, communes established for the express purpose of practicing socialism have always collapsed, usually very soon after their founding. I infer that collectivism is not a comfortable way to live but is something people can put up with for a higher motivation, much like vows of poverty and celibacy taken by members of religious orders or like the extraordinary rules of self-denial practiced by the Amish (who are not, however, collectivists). In the case of the kibbutzim, I argued that the power of the Zionist dream served as the functional equivalent of a religious faith; once the heroic era of national rebirth was over, collective living was no longer bearable.

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