Abigail Klein Leichman
April 7, 2011, Updated September 12, 2012

They’re the stuff of legend: the young pioneers who banded together on collective farms called “kibbutzim” in early 20th century Palestine. Set on the task of nation building amid extreme deprivation and danger, they forged a brave new culture that came to define the State of Israel as a place where hard-working youth danced horas in miraculously fertile green fields.

Israel’s kibbutzim later experienced an identity crisis in a changing country. But rather than throw in the towel, they’ve been adapting a next-generation structure to better match 21st century Israel. In many of today’s 273 kibbutzim, backbreaking farm work has been replaced with sophisticated industry and cutting-edge agricultural technologies sought after by many other countries.

Now 100 years from the founding of the first of these socialist communities, Kibbutz Degania Alef near the shores of Lake Kinneret, Israel is celebrating the achievements of the Kibbutz Movement that spawned some of the state’s most famous soldiers, politicians, authors, musicians and artists — and now, some of its most successful industries.

A human adventure

Muki Tsur, former secretary of the Kibbutz Movement and its unofficial historian, describes the kibbutz as “a human adventure” of mostly European Jewish young adults. They shouldered the monumental responsibility of secretly re-creating a sovereign Jewish homeland right under the noses of the Turks and then the Brits who ruled over Palestine.

Every pre-state kibbutz was an independent community that had to find its own approach to culture, politics, economy, immigration and language. “Each was a laboratory where all these questions had to be asked,” Tsur tells ISRAEL21c. “Not necessarily to be resolved, but to be asked. The kibbutz had to be a laboratory on one hand and a place to live on the other.”

Kibbutz dining hall

Photo courtesy of Yad Yaari Archives, Givat Haviva
Kibbutz members ate together in a communal dining room.

The overriding goal was to assure each member equitable ownership of the joint venture, with equal income, benefits, expectations and voting power.

“I describe it as a very developed welfare state,” says Shlomo Getz, director of the Institute for Research of the Kibbutz and the Cooperative Idea at the University of Haifa. “When you pay your taxes [on a kibbutz], you know where they go and you help decide how the tax money is spent.”

Lacking much in the way of resources aside from their bare hands, pioneer kibbutzniks managed to maximize the work potential of each member and provide for everyone’s needs.

Usually, that meant the women worked alongside the men. But contrary to popular belief, this was not the main reason kibbutzim innovated the controversial practice of housing and raising children apart from their parents.

“Babies’ and children’s houses were not invented out of ideology but out of necessity,” says Prof. Michal Palgi of the Institute for Research of the Kibbutz and co-author with Shulamit Reinharz of One Hundred Years of Kibbutz Life: A Century of Crises and Reinvention, due out in July.

“In the beginning of the 20th century, kibbutz members lived in tents in remote places, and there were frequent attacks on the kibbutz communities,” Palgi tells ISRAEL21c. “They had to find the safest place for their children, so they made them real houses situated at the center, with the parents around them in tents, in order to keep them protected.”

In order to make sure kibbutz children would be cared for by certified professionals, in 1939 the movement founded the Kibbutzim College of Education to train preschool and school teachers. This once avant-garde institution, which emphasized nature studies as part of a holistic education, is still educating Israeli educators — not just from kibbutzim — today.

Palgi points out that kibbutz parents actually spent much “quality time” with their children, for an hour each morning and four hours in the afternoon. Parents put their little ones to bed in the children’s house and checked on them before they turned in for the night. Many had an intercom to reach Mom and Dad if necessary.

Even so, the idea fell out of favor and by the late 1980s, kibbutzim were closing the children’s houses and transitioning to standard family-style living arrangements. However, many kibbutzim still provide separate housing for member children over 18 years old.

War heroes, statesmen and musicians

Whatever its drawbacks, independent living fostered a uniquely spirited and hard-working breed of Israeli youth.

“Kibbutz-raised people who went on to high positions had learned from an early age to work for half an hour on the children’s farm with the chickens and then one day a week during high school, so the importance of work was instilled,” Palgi observes.

Israel’s most famous general, Moshe Dayan, was born on Kibbutz Degania Alef in 1915 and symbolized a generation of kibbutz-bred military heroes. Defense was always part and parcel of life on kibbutzim, which often doubled as army bases during the War of Independence since the vast majority are strategically located around Israel’s periphery.

“If you look at the border areas, they are marked by kibbutzim,” Palgi says. “They really were a tool in many ways in the creation of the country. And they are still essential to maintaining the country’s borders.”

Kibbutz members historically volunteered for elite military units, especially the Air Force, at disproportionate rates. The same held true in Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset. During the first decade of statehood, about 25 of the 120 Knesset members were kibbutzniks even though they comprised just five percent of the general population.

Getz notes that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, joined a kibbutz when he was already in his late 60s, well aware of the strong symbolic correlation between leadership and kibbutz membership.

The collective farms also bred extraordinary creativity. One of Israel’s most well known songwriters, David Zehavi, was born on Kibbutz Na’an in 1910. The Israel Prize-winning Gevatron Chorus was founded in Kibbutz Geva around 1948 and is still going strong today. Kibbutz culture is a strong influence in the literature of prominent Israeli authors such as Meir Shalev, Amos Oz and Uri Orlev.

“For many years, a kibbutz member who was an acknowledged writer, musician or artist would get two days a week off from his kibbutz duties to do his writing or music or art or choreography, and would be provided with all the materials he needed,” Palgi relates.

The Kibbutz Movement today sponsors a theater group, a dance company, a choir and a chamber orchestra.

Welcoming immigrants

As an invention of immigrants, kibbutzim continued attracting newcomers – most notably, World War II refugees and Holocaust survivors, many of them orphaned children from the same European countries the founders had come from. Jewish refugees from Arab lands, whose culture was radically different, were not as warmly welcomed. But kibbutzim did provide a fresh start to thousands of young people.

Kibbutz children

Photo courtesy of Yad Yaari Archives, Givat Haviva
Children were initially brought to live together in the center of the kibbutz for safety, not ideology.

The author Orlev vividly remembers coming to Kibbutz Ginegar in the Jezreel Valley at the age of 14 at the end of 1945, having survived the Warsaw Ghetto and Bergen-Belsen. “After the war and the ghetto, I was so disappointed in adults who couldn’t save themselves or their children,” he said in a 2009 interview. “Suddenly I was seeing strong and healthy Jewish people who were farmers, who had weapons to guard the kibbutz. It was a new system of life.”

Today, the Kibbutz Movement offers many programs for new Ethiopian and other immigrants, and runs cultural and educational activities for youth movements in Israel and abroad. Twenty kibbutzim, including some of the 16 religious ones, offer long-term visitors half-day intensive Hebrew instruction combined with work in the orchards, barns or factories.

Hundreds of the immigrants populating kibbutzim are former volunteers. About half a million young citizens of five continents and different faiths have sampled this way of life during summers of manual labor such as washing dishes, cleaning coops, picking crops and milking cows on Israel’s kibbutzim.

Kibbutz in transition

“From the beginning, kibbutzim viewed themselves as endowed with a sense of duty, serving as a pillar of strength for Zionism as well as for the National Labor Movement,” says Getz. “After the establishment of the state, the kibbutz lost most of its external mission and turned to the internal issues of immigrant absorption, military action, production and agriculture.”

In the 1960s, many kibbutzim started mixing industry with agriculture and giving greater choices in work and compensation. But by the 1980s, the movement was floundering both ideologically and financially. This once hallowed institution was losing its luster and kibbutz kids weren’t returning after the army.

“Kibbutzim now are finding their way,” says Getz. “Members want to influence their surroundings and be open to society in both directions — not like the closed Hutterite or Amish societies.”

Thanks to changes implemented by the Kibbutz Movement, more than 2,500 new members have joined or rejoined kibbutzim in recent years, bringing the total population to about 123,000 people on 273 kibbutzim.

Only about one-quarter of Israel’s kibbutzim still operate in the traditional communal style, where division of income is strictly equal. A handful of others opted for the “integrated method” where each member gets a standard base amount, in addition to payments based on seniority and on the percentage of the member’s salary or contribution to the kibbutz.

Kibbutz farming

Photo courtesy of Yad Yaari Archives, Givat Haviva
When the kibbutzim were first founded, men and women worked side by side in the fields.

Most kibbutzim adopted the “renewed” model, where higher earners receive more income, and a percentage of each member’s gross salary goes toward community expenses and to supplement the income of low-earning members. Renewed kibbutzim practice various forms of privatization, with a greater emphasis on individuals and families.

Despite these changes, core principles remain. “Two characteristics make the kibbutz movement stand out,” says Getz. “Democracy — all members participate in discussions and votes — and mutual responsibility.”

Advanced farming and industry

Many advances in agriculture and dairy farming came out of Israel’s kibbutzim. Drip irrigation technology, which Israel has shared with many other parched countries, was innovated by Netafim, a multinational, multimillion-dollar company founded at Kibbutz Hatzerim in 1965. S.A.E. Afikim, based in Kibbutz Afikim since 1977, is the global leader in developing, manufacturing and marketing computerized systems for modern dairy farm and herd management.

According to the Kibbutz Industry Association, up to 80 percent of Israel’s kibbutzim are manufacturing and marketing everything from furniture to popcorn. The most common kibbutz-made products are plastic and rubber goods, edibles, electronics, metals and machinery. Each modern kibbutz-owned endeavor has a separate bank account and board of directors.

A model to emulate

The kibbutz way of life is intriguing to people from around the world, says Palgi, who is immediate past president of the Communal Studies Association. “Communities from countries such as Japan, the United States and Germany have come and studied the issues involved,” she says, stressing that the concept must be adapted to suit the host country’s culture.

Tsur believes that even within Israel, the kibbutz will continue evolving. “If it’s a free society, then every generation has to reinvent the kibbutz; we don’t have a central authority to mandate what is best. Maybe there will be kibbutzim of educators, for example? Certainly it won’t be only about raising chickens.”

He adds that kibbutzniks continue raising critical questions concerning work, democracy and education. “These are the big questions young people all over the world are asking,” Tsur says. “The kibbutz was an invention of young people, and even if today there are old people walking around on them, it is still a society that is a human adventure, that asks the questions.”

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