Commentary Magazine


The “Affluent” Kibbutzim:
Ideology and Complacency

Revisiting the Jordan Valley, we thought how prosperous, and how ugly, it had become. Not only the immigrant suburbia clinging to the yellow hills over Tiberias, but the kibbutzim also, their collective rectangularity grown as commonplace and neutral as the porridge doled out in their dining halls each day. “Until our heroic settlers came in 1908, the whole area was swamp,” boomed a tourist guide annotating our way along Lake Kinneret; a saucer of blue jelly, quivering with heat, its brim reflected date palms as a row of exclamation marks. “The finest dates in the Middle East,” we heard, “are grown by Kvutzat Kinneret.” Unable to challenge this, everyone gazed through the violet bus roof, speechless with warmth. An odor of stale milk stifled the pungency of eucalyptus. “Degania, Mother of Communes”—we almost ran over a cow bolting from its historic haven—“owns the finest dairy in the Middle East.” Avoiding the lawn where a tangle of Degania children were fighting, we filed along the path into Bet Gordon, “dedicated to the man who taught the Religion of Self-Labor.” The face of A. D. Gordon, a mournful sepia, regarded the museum put up in his honor with faint surprise. He brought to mind a rabbi beloved of Rembrandt, not an apostle of toil. On the way out, we saw a matron nearing seventy, in laced boots and patched overalls. Her chin was a chunk of fumed oak. “Miriam Baratz,” whispered the guide, “has got up at midnight to milk the herd for forty-four years. A real heroine.”

Past banana groves atremble like paper windmills, we sped down the Jordan rift. Blocks of boiled pink concrete rose above the plantations. An immigrant town? “Afikim,” declaimed the guide proudly, “the second largest kibbutz in Israel. Population 2,000.” We could hear them to a man, noisily dining in a mammoth hangar with flies black on the mosquito netting. Another din racketed from Afikim’s plywood factory, where trees vanished in a typhoon of sawdust. Kibbutz technicians ran the mill, whose workmen came mainly from town. “They earn good wages,” the manager assured us on a slightly apologetic note, “though of course we prefer to do without hired labor.” A. D. Gordon, hanging faded in his shrine, would have given a dusty smile. “You understand,” the manager eased a handkerchief underneath his damp collar, “this factory brings in half our total revenue. Mixed farming is such a drain on manpower, we really keep it up for ideological reasons.”

Dodging children on bikes, we went through a maze of laundry to the pink tenements. Cars stood behind them, and bicycles in front. “They were imported through our personal Reparations,” explained a kibbutz founder on that same note of defensive apology, hastening to add: “the remainder of our Reparations go to a cultural fund.” Stricter kibbutzim would not let their members keep any cash from Germany. “I’ve heard some chaverim left in protest. You can’t deny human nature, can you?” he queried doubtfully. He and his wife Rachel had an apartment in the Veterans’ Quarter, furnished with a blameless, off-beige neutrality. A shower and toilet led off the bed-sitting room, whose neatness was in pointed contrast to the communal buildings. “It’s a relief not to walk half an hour for a wash,” said Rachel, pouring tea into the china allocated to each couple, “but I remember the old days . . . how happy we were, singing and arguing in that tin shed; and hot water only on Fridays.” Afikim now provided constant hot water in conduits which gave an industrial look to their home. Rachel, her silvery bun raked from a red weather-beaten neck, wore shorts and a permanent air of disapproval. “Won’t you have a bite with us?” fetching curd cheese from their tiny kitchenette. “We don’t always eat in the kibbutz dining hall.”

“There’s such a queue,” her husband smiled rather guiltily, “and nowadays, you mightn’t even know the fellow sitting opposite. Of course, we have all kinds of luxuries: oil on the salad, and paper napkins—imagine!” He spooned up a lump of the jam ration distributed for private use. “How different it was years ago . . . we had poor food then, but it tasted wonderful.”

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What has become of the kibbutzim? Have they found the good life, only to lose their own soul? Critics on the sterner left (Hashomer Hatzair, for example) have been predicting this degeneration ever since tea kettles were issued to comrades. On the laxer center bloc (Mapai affiliated), the change is variously attributed to “socialist dynamic,” or plain growing out of the adolescent stage. Looking back, one can see why reactions differ. The proto-groups which banded to form the kibbutz movement grew out of circumstances: or rather, their particular vision of mankind reborn, fitted conveniently into the colonization needs of Zion. Arthur Ruppin, then head of the Palestine Office, and an acute sociologist, used to argue: “It’s not a question of preferring group settlement to the individual kind. It’s either groups or nothing.” The ten unillusioned young men and two women who Hebraized “Um Jumi” into Degania, went there after a lonely apprenticeship: stone-breaking under an Arab overseer, or picking grapes for Jewish farmers who owed their full stomach to Baron de Rothschild. Even there at Um Jumi, they earned wages from the Palestine Office, which took half their profit in return for providing stock. The dozen friends at Degania called themselves simply a kvutza, a group, without any ideological twist. They all came from the Ukraine, sharing memories of endless lemon tea with illegal pamphlets, of pickled herring and anguish, and dancing all night before the golden Torah crown. Ploughing the steamy mud of Jordan, they wore Tolstoyan smocks, for they’d left Russia before the Bolshevik revolution could sour their ideals. Their grown-up children look like a photo of Zionist youth in 1906, even to the firm, outflung mustaches and broad Slav brow. Today, their comrades dominate the Histadrut, which is tantamount to dominating the State of Israel. Their kibbutzim show a flexibility of principle which adherents term “realism” and opponents further left castigate with relish as “betrayal.”

In the main, those opponents migrated to Palestine after World War I, from Galicia. Born in a shtetl environment more rancid with poverty and oppression than the Pale of the Ukraine, they rebelled against it the more violently. Their hatred for Judaism grew in recollection of Talmudical squalor, the sharp reek of burning feathers, and blood spattering the Polish boor in his patriotic slaughter. Youth movements put doctrinaire steel into their thanking. They revolted not only against the shtetl, but against all bourgeois ghettos. Unlike the pre-war generation, they formulated a creed: Abolish private property (not merely share for friendship’s sake). Abolish patriarchal society by making the child dependent on the community (whereas Kinneret had established a nursery to free the mothers). Abolish exploitation, by limiting their own enterprise. (Degania, by comparison, added orchards to their field crops: comrades from other branches could then help with the harvesting of the crops, replacing the hired farmhands.)

As might be expected, they held a more extreme view of the Marxist mission than did the earlier pioneers. They divided the world into black and white: the top-hatted, black-hearted Capitalist, and the Prole in his modest white Sunday shirt. America was black, Russia white. This attitude hardly obtruded during World War II, nor when the War of Liberation cemented all kibbutzim to defeat the enemy without. But no sooner had peace flown back, than catastrophe tore the collective movement in two. Today, after eight years, events are still dated “before the Split” or “after the Split.” Both sides had factions in the Knesset and in the national organization wryly named the United Kibbutz. The latter had become a stronghold of the extreme left, according to the Mapai comrades Who broke away to form their own Union of Kibbutzim with other collectives of the same party. A factual précis cannot convey the bitter hysteria of the split. Nothing short of civil war raged in places where the factions held equal sway: barbed wire cleft Ein Harod, while police used tear gas in Yiftah.1

Why such passion over a nuance of ideology? Anyone Who has seen a kibbutz elder—his whole life a paean of brotherhood—go literally purple over some minor political argument, will begin to comprehend. It’s as if aggression pushed below by the discipline of collective living jumps up through any outlet. The split made a mockery of kibbutz pretensions to beatitude, and shattered the movement’s strength in parliament. On the credit side, many collectives which had grown somewhat drear and stagnant felt their blood race again: they took in “refugees” from the enemy camp, and sent out new groups Which qualified for better housing than the parent settlement. Although a mere shadow differentiates the two blocs today, they remain divided by acid memory and conflict at the top. While the Labor parties quarrel, there’s no hope of a kibbutz merger. Small absurdities wrought by the split have been righted: the United Kibbutz orchestra, which lost half its wood winds and a kettledrum, found harmony again with musicians from the other camp. An inter-bloc committee coordinates wholesale purchasing for all the kibbutzim.

About 60,000 comrades, therefore, owe allegiance either to the United Kibbutz or the Union of Kibbutzim—each claiming to be larger and truer to its pristine belief than the rival organization. In actual fact, the sectarian unions of Hashomer Hatzair and Religious Labor have each in their own way kept truer faith. For a hidden destroyer of the commune is precisely that urge to wax powerful and multiply.

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Between 1908 and 1948, far more collective villages came into being than cooperative small-holdings like Nahalal. But mass immigration brought a reverse: the collectives took in barely 3 per cent of the influx, Which has flowed mainly to town or small-holdings created by the Jewish Agency. This couldn’t be otherwise, considering (that an illiterate Kurdish peasant—or for that matter, a kolkhoz-hating Polish clerk—won’t take kindly to a wageless nine-hour day crowned by a committee meeting. On the other hand, the kibbutz needed labor and the immigrant needed a job. All kibbutzim suffer from chronic shortage of manpower, maybe because they bite off more than they can comfortably chew. The wretched sadran avoda, allocating work after supper each night, vainly juggles the conflicting demands of farm, kitchen, guard duty, party quota for political tasks in town, and at his elbow—some haggard comrade who should have gone to a seminar on imperialism. If the manpower gap should widen to an abyss (say, the potato crop must be lifted), then everyone submits to deprivation of Shabbat, the only day of rest. Discreetly, the Religion of Self-Labor crumbled before the advantages of hired help. Granite authoritarians compromised by allowing help for “non-productive work.” In our particular kibbutz, we underpaid Arabs to hew building stone, yet debarred them from hoeing melon. Collectives with a factory to maintain—Givat Brenner, Ashdot Ya’acov, and Huliot being among the first—soon succumbed to pressure from within and without. The high-principled ones relied on “volunteer” add from city youth bully-ragged into donating their vacations.

Aliens in the commune mean a decline of fraternity. “We never locked a door until the immigrant workmen came,” is a frequent cry. The Persian teen-agers training at our kibbutz were unpopular, allegedly because they didn’t work hard enough to justify their afternoon Hebrew study. When laundry vanished from the communal tub, and the kitchen reported an even graver dearth of cutlery than usual, the Persians began to decamp en masse. Their luggage was searched with fruitful result. Although everyone berated this “failure of educational method,” and insisted on getting another batch, the old trust had died. Giant kibbutzim, numbering upward of 1,000 plus junior groups, trainees, and so forth, aver that they can utilize men and material better than small kvutzot. Economically, they may be right. Socially, they have lost warmth and kinship. (The Hutterites in the United States, who have survived longer than any other Utopian clan, limited each village to a couple of hundred brethren, obliging their young folk to colonize afresh.) Unless rigidly curbed, kibbutzim expand with age. And this development exacerbates what movement conferences entitle “the Problem of Woman.” Unhappily, she continues to vex the agenda despite innumerable resolutions.

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In theory, female comrades have long been emancipated from domestic serfdom: they don’t depend on men for their bread and status. The very word “husband”—in Hebrew, “owner”—has been replaced by “comrade.” A couple will go on referring to each other as “my boy” or “my girl” until they’re white-haired. In theory, motherhood no longer entails abandoning a vocation, for the commune takes over all responsibility from the moment of birth. In actuality, women have been freed from their individual children and husbands only to shoulder the collective child and husband. Some wives, it’s true, enjoy marshaling a regiment of steam caldrons or beguiling eight infants to go on the pot simultaneously. Other wives pine for bourgeois enslavement. At least they’d be able to plan their own timetable and menu: an occasional omelet instead of boiled egg every day every year. “Meals are an agony,” confessed the English-born wife of a kibbutz leader. “Worse than eating in Victoria Station.” She hated her job: cleaning the toddlers’ house where her flaxen-haired daughter grew up with eighteen others of the same age. “I’d be happy caring for Nurit all day,” she knitted while her husband attended the inevitable committee, “but we’ll never leave here. It’s his whole life.” For the matriarchs of collective trail-blazing, it was their whole life too. Miriam Baratz objected to keeping house for ploughmen who’d never heard of Emancipation. So she secretly learned milking from a local sheikh’s wife, and confounded them all. After the Great War had shortened skirts and opened minds, the colonies became imbued with feminist zeal. Men even stayed in the kitchen—often a Gehenna of flies and fumes—to liberate their partners for work in the open air.

But pregnancy obliged some to iron the laundry instead of lug chicken-feed, while others found their outdoor jobs taken when they returned from confinement. In addition, as the commune wanted their progeny to be enlightened torchbearers, not simple peasantry, a great deal of personnel were required for education. Today, 67 per Cent of the women are occupied by “services”—a label conveying subtle inferiority, due to lack of creative glamor. An even higher percentage would be necessary, but for a duty rota covering unpleasant chores over the weekend. Only septuagenarians are exempt from waiting at table.

Our kibbutz boasted the only fisher-girl in Israel, a calm Amazon who had to wage the feminist fight anew before the crew would accept her. Similar opposition met an American girl bursting with gumption and ideology, who determined to drive a tractor. She got her way, at the cost of general unpopularity.

“Collective education is fine for our kids, but cruel for parents,” exclaimed a mother at Yagur, daring a rebuke from the dragon head nurse by visiting her son at lunch. After they’re weaned, children only see their parents for a couple of hours each evening. This is the magical time in every kibbutz, when families, new-scrubbed and smelling of clean linen, tumble on the little scrubby lawns with their children. “It’s not enough,” pleaded the girl from Yagur; “I’d give anything to cuddle Uri when he wakes up in the morning.” It’s significant that kvutzot like Degania, pragmatic rather than dogmatic, have never insisted on the generations maintaining separate quarters at night, whereas stricter kibbutzim didn’t even allow parents to tuck their offspring into bed. Relaxation on this point, as on kindred matters of personal clothing and pocket money, show the encroachment of “normality.” At one time, mothers unable to breast-feed were expected to work without fussing over their babies, because a nurse could hold the bottle just as well. They rebelled at this denial, and now complain that an hour off work for each feeding is inadequate.

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In the good old pioneer era, marriage meant simply sharing a room. No one dreamed of enacting an empty ritual steeped in clerical falsehood and female subjugation. Kibbutz partnership, welded by affection, had no truck with the civil contract. When rationing hit our kibbutz hard, several couples with children volunteered to “marry” at the Rabbinate just to qualify for extra coupons. Imagine the chagrin of die-hard veterans when their own daughters, reared sanely and atheistically, demand a conventional wedding. Not merely some cake for the kibbutz, but a rabbi (hustled through ibis “mumbo-jumbo” with the minimum delay), a canopy held aloft on rifles, and a decadent white gown. What kind of comrade, then, has emerged from the collective educational system? Is he a torchbearer or a rural clod? Neither, despite awful prophecy all round. First and foremost, he wants to remain in the kibbutz, quietly, not struggling to evangelize the capitalist world. Half Israel’s Cabinet rose from the movement, but their sons eschew politics. Taught from the cradle to live with and love their own intimate age group, they have no careerist ambition. Nor do they want to assume power in the caucus running each kibbutz by virtue of its superior initiative—a grave question looming, there, of transmitting responsibility. They look on individualism as anti-social. In their age groups, every child had to eat, excrete, and wash in unison. It prepared them so well for the adult community, they feel lost without regimentation. For that reason, perhaps, they command high praise in their military service. Kibbutz boys make excellent non-commissioned officers, as the casualty list proved after every reprisal raid.

To counterbalance the strict routine of their childhood, schooling brought an opposite degree of freedom. Formal education as evolved by the kibbutzim vetoes any kind of “artificial incentive.” Officially, neither exams nor marks torment the pupils, each moving up a grade with the same playmates he has known since birth. Unofficially, the pundits of collective pedagogy are casting about for ways of curbing the insolence, laziness, and ignorance which mar their high school students. Pandemonium, or at best a hail of commentary on the teacher, enlivens the average class. The introduction of city teachers gave rise to more violent outbursts of rudeness, deplored at length in movement literature. More and more teaching staff must be imported, however, because the very tenor of kibbutz education estranges youth from an academic profession. Physical labor, preferably on wheels, is the end inculcated by every good-night tale, every poem lisped at a birthday tea. Although their high school curriculum is far more liberal than an agricultural future would warrant, no textbook talent can confer standing among the hevra : if a boy can plough a straight furrow, that wins recognition. Their farm work, increasing yearly until it occupies each afternoon, really began before kindergarten. Digging up a sand pit—“play” in the urban nursery vocabulary—was called “work.” Later the toddlers graduated to miniature hoes in [their own plot, and thence to the school garden. Unfortunately, praise from nanny for undertaking chores about the Childrens’ House doesn’t appear to inure the youth to domestic duties later.

Generalization will naturally seize on the triumphant average, glancing myopically at the misfit, the rebel, and the failure. All three exist, their titles interchangeable according to your viewpoint. The major unions run special schools for their maladjusted children, claiming that psychiatric troubles derive from a disturbed parental relationship, not from a defect in the collective system. “Look at our most difficult case, a boy who tried to commit suicide,” argued a teacher in the Jordan Valley school. “His father ‘changed rooms’ when his mother was pregnant with a baby who stole all the attention once lavished on him. What d’you expect? Everyone agrees that our kids adore their parents because they don’t have to share them—as they do their toys and nurses.” True, even a lay observer can’t help remarking that kibbutz infants resort to bed-wetting, thumb-sucking, and screaming much more than home-bred babies, and to a later age. They simply can’t attract the nurse’s attention otherwise, for she has too much on her hands.

Group nurture, instead of ironing out the differences between children, often accentuates them. In each group, you note the bully, the leader, the one Who gets pushed around. And it looks as though the exceptionally weak or parent-unhappy compensate in manhood by deserting the prescribed pattern:they achieve academic laurels, or write a novel about disillusion and manure. This is betrayal indeed, for the movement still plays patron of culture on a Marxist handbook level. For May Day and Passover, the kibbutz artist will be expected to produce a fresco in the dining hall, while the kibbutz musician must turn out a cantata glorifying earth and sweat. Anyone completely dedicated to his art—thus violating the credo of toil—must feel guilty if he remains in the collective. Very few have managed to escape the lure of Dizengoff Boulevard, where ex-kibbutz culture drowns its remorse in espresso coffee. Not that individual collectives won’t vote their writers and sculptors an hour off work, should they be considered worthy the honor; but it takes a large measure of selfish talent to rob the commune of precious manpower.

Rebels in another direction, toward family life, may compromise with idealism in a moshav shitufi: property is held in common, and work allocated centrally, but the women get a chance to run their own homes. The richer the village, the less time mothers have to spend on communal duty, and the bigger their quota of housekeeping money. “Anglo-Saxon” couples in particular have adopted this middle way, skating ever nearer the frontier of private enterprise. Indeed, some cooperatives have disintegrated because members skimped their communal job to run backyard poultry farms and hawk avocados grown on public fertilizer. Without a generous chunk of capital for initial investment, the moshav shitufi cannot find its feet; Mitzpe Ramon, for example, which began with a pile of blueprints and the most spectacular tract of wilderness in Israel, soon collapsed into a work colony maintained by the army. Although leaders of the moshav shitufi union (a restricted elite) predict that the collective empires will shrink in their favor, the kibbutz leaders deny any need to overhaul the system. Evolution, they contend in rather flatulent pamphlets, does not involve dissolution. That may be so, but every feminine plea for cash instead of austere garments issued by the wardrobe mistress betrays the Hegelian antithesis to be far under way.

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Kibbutz education has succeeded too well in one way: by subduing ambition to the common weal, it has drugged initiative and made a generation most reluctant to leave their native compound for anything beyond the grand tour of European cathedrals and supermarkets, which every born Israeli must do before entering society. Thus each kibbutz union has constantly to exhort its members to found a new outpost of the Movement. Much to the annoyance of kibbutzim struggling with manpower shortage, it is their most conscientious comrades who answer the call.

Ein Gedi typifies such a hevra, all rooted in their homeland to the point of jingoism, and all under twenty-five. They cultivate an oasis by the simmering glazed Dead Sea. Diapers flutter impertinently beneath the crags, for a dozen babies have arrived in three years of settlement. No avant-garde experiment here—everyone is comfortably monogamous. The Women have a kippered look and a long braid. Their conversation—telegraphic and always Shouted—reminds one that the caterwauling in a kibbutz childrens’ enclave usually prevented softer speech. At breakfast, Haydn roared full blast over the communal radio, vainly competing with the clang of aluminum jugs and brassy throats. The men, monosyllabic and grandly mustachioed (the craze for chin beards has gone), prove their education thorough, by toiling at 107.6° F., fifty-four hours a week. They take pride in nothing except a tomato crop out of season, or the fussy-leaved eggplant which makes a green frill on the immense rock rampart. No one bothers about keeping the compound tidy, although their “family” rooms are impeccable. In the dusty Culture Hut lie year-old Soviet journals. Occasionally, you may find the kibbutz intellectual playing chess there, alone. At night, the uncertain quavering of a cello meanders on the salt-caked shore; but both the musician and the intellectual avoid any stigma by hard work and the same boisterous muscularity as their comrades. No one has been taught to revere the God of Abraham; they are anti-clerical and, in the Israeli fashion, anta-Jewish.

Yet on Friday evening, red roses adorned the table from their own garden, and a girl demure as any shtetl matriarch, her braids tucked in a white kerchief, lit the Sabbath candles. She did not, of course, thank the Lord who had commanded us to kindle them. But someone recited a suitably pagan excerpt from the Song of Solomon, hymning the roses of Fin Gedi, and we all sat down with a fine religious appetite.

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Footnotes

1 See “Kibbutz Ain Harod Faces Up to Prague.” By A. V. Sherman (March 1953).

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