Check out your telly nostalgia and romanticism at the door. The kibbutz, that symbol of pioneering, communal spirit is no more. These are its last days. As a report recently noted, within the next two years only 20 of 250 kibbutzim will remain, “clinging to the vestiges of their past”.
Nearly 100 years after Degania, when the first kibbutz was founded, a large number of these communal farms are being undone by commercialisation.
Indeed, the socialist dream seems to be nearing an end. In a significant move, the Israeli government has ceased its provision of free land and subsidised water to kibbutzim.
I have a warm spot for the kibbutz. As a kid, it represented a kind of Garden of Eden in pastoral settings, an idyllic experiment of Zionism-Socialism that, in the words of philosopher Martin Buber, did not fail. I used to spend summers at Kibbutz Givat Brenner, savouring the glorified principles of egalitarianism and redemption of the land.
I loved the collective Friday night meals, the openly welcoming atmosphere, the haystacks, chugging tractors, scent of livestock and ploughs and milking cows in the dairy. I knew exactly what author Amos Oz meant when he remarked of the kibbutz that, “It is the least bad place I have ever seen. And the most daring effort.”
The egalitarian way of life that shone as a symbol of Israel attracted young idealistic travellers and volunteers from Europe, the US and Australia.
As one Israeli commentator observed, in the 1960s and '70s:
The kibbutz way of life dovetailed perfectly with the tie-dyed peace and love philosophy many young westerners were living, or pretending to live. Jew or not, there was something groovy about being equal to everybody else, being judged only by your willingness to work, being fed well and getting free cigarettes at the end of the week. It didn't even matter that the work week was six days long. There were no bills to pay, no food to buy and the weather was wonderful. You paid for everything with the sweat from your brow.
And so my heart sank when my aunt Sarah wrote to me to break the sad news that Givat Brenner had come to an end.
Depressing, but the precedent was set a few years ago when Kibbutz Mishmar David decided, without much convincing, to vote itself out of existence in order to become an ordinary Israeli community.
Contentiously, the once farming enterprise will be transformed into the site of 350 new villas that will be sold on the open market. Debts of more than 70 million shekels have taken the blame for the demise, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a further, deeper reason: in a consumerist society that idolises individualistic impulses and materialistic yearnings, sooner or later all kibbutzim were headed down the same road.
In today’s shrinking kibbutzim what is emphasised is the private. One of the few to vote against the disbanding of the Kibbutz Mishmar David was Mike Skyte, 47, deputy manager of the printing press, who left Leeds 24 years ago. He remarked that “the early Zionist intellectuals had advocated that the Jews try to become like other nations rather than be different. But the kibbutzniks dared to be different.”
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