The idea of a kibbutz is in no way new. Literally meaning a “gathering”, these communities are set up as socialist enclaves, an ideal utopian society based on equality, community, and Zionism. The kibbutz of Israel is similar to what many Americans and Europeans know to be a commune. Because of the proliferation of the socialist philosophy, micro-societies like the kibbutz were founded all over the world. However, regarding the significance to their society, Israel’s Kibbutzim (plural of Kibbutz) stand alone. They serve as an integral part of Israel’s history, exports, and are the source of many of the country’s greatest leaders and minds. It is often said that Israel’s original borders were carved by the members of these visionary communities. Nevertheless, today the integrity and ideals of the kibbutz are scrutinized. And their role is a skeleton of what it once was.
The establishment of the kibbutz was directly in line with the creation of the Jewish state. Much like the pioneers of the American West, these communities helped draw and maintain the borders of the nascent Israel. Setting up makeshift societies in order to expand their domain immediately prior to the famous United Nations Partition of 1948 that created the nation of Israel, they also acted as the first line of defense in the war following it.
Spearheaded mainly by European immigrants, the kibbutzim were founded under socialist principles and a hope for a freer life in a Jewish Homeland. These communities burgeoned throughout the country, reaching an aggregate population of 116,000. Primarily producing agricultural products, some Kibbutzim more recently focus on industry and technology development.
Aside from the controversial nature of socialism, there have been many contentions about these communities. One, in particular, seems the most jarring. In certain kibbutzim, the traditional family structure was completely dismembered in the name of equality. After a child was born in the community, the parents largely relinquished their parental responsibilities. Instead, their child grew up in a children’s home and was raised by the community. One of the reasons for this system was to assure a woman was not tasked with the full childbearing responsibilities as they so often are in many societies. Instead, they can work the same as a man. Naturally, after the first generation of this system grew up, many issues arose. As a result, a fair deal of members left.
Recently, our group went to the first Kibbutz ever established in Israel, Degania. Sitting on the green grass of this blooming island in the desert, we discussed the unique institution. Our guide, a critic of the kibbutz, sparred with another member of our group who defended many of its institutions. Both had lived on a Kibbutz at some point in their life, as many Israelis have.
The duo debated the faults and strengths of these establishments. Their importance to Israeli society and history is undeniable. But their economic structure has proven to be a failure, with almost all of the two hundred and seventy kibbutzim in Israel becoming privatized. Instead of equal pay for all, the system has shifted to differential wages based on occupation. However, the fact that many of the elite in Israel come from kibbutzim educational systems is an uncountable asset. Further, the social influence these havens of equality have provided is also unquantifiable, and this cannot be ignored.
On this subject, the students provided insights of their own. One observed, “The kibbutz was necessary in the situation at the time”, recognizing its importance in the creation of Israel. Another student praised the kibbutz for “how it provided people with a community.”
However, despite the acknowledgment of the kibbutzim’s benefits and its interesting idea, several had their criticisms as well. Instead of a focus on communism and zionism, a student stressed the importance of environmental issues, claiming “kibbutzim should be focused on sustainability” while also recognizing the importance of its role of establishing communities for people. They went on to reflect on the bizarre family structure in some of the communities, claiming it was too radically removed from the paradigm that humans are used to. Concluding that the former rigidity of the Kibbutz was adverse to longterm success, believing in the necessity of adaptability and a continued role in Israeli society for a new and different Kibbutz.
As we sat and listened to this dispute, I thought about the peculiarity of this country. How it is always a hotspot for activity, good and bad, and new and old. Though I am not a fan of the system, I could not help to be interested in this radically brave way of life. On the same ground I sat on, over a hundred years ago a small group of Jews planted a shovel in the grimy dirt of Israel and got to work. At my age and often with no agricultural or labor experience, these idealists endeavored on a precarious enterprise. With few skills and a lot of hope, the people of Degania and so many others created a thriving community and an enduring legacy. And though it has changed, it still lives on today.
Jon Stormer Pezzi is a Global Politics major with an Arabic and Poverty and Human Capability Studies Minor at Washington and Lee University. He studied abroad with IFSA at the Diversity and Coexistence program in Jerusalem, Israel in the fall of 2018. He served as an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-to-Study Program.