A kibbutz (Hebrew: קיבוץ, קִבּוּץ, lit. "gathering, clustering"; plural kibbutzim) is a collective community in Israel that was traditionally based on agriculture. The kibbutz is a form of communal living that combines socialism and Zionism. Kibbutzim began as utopian communities, but have gradually embraced a more "scientific" Socialist approach. Today, farming has been partly supplanted by other economic branches, including industrial plants and high-tech enterprises. Although less than five percent of Israelis live on kibbutzim, they are disproportionately represented in key positions and high-status fields.
In addition to redeeming the Jewish nation through work, there was also an element of redeeming Eretz Yisrael - Palestine - in the kibbutz ideology. In the contemporary Yiddish anti-Zionist literature that was circulating around Eastern Europe, Palestine was mocked as dos gepeigerte land, "the country that had died." Kibbutz members found immense gratification in bringing the land back to life by planting trees, draining swamps, and countless other hard-graft activities to make the land (invariably wetlands) productive. In soliciting donations, kibbutzim and other Zionist settlement activities presented themselves as "making the desert bloom."
Most kibbutzim were founded upon disputed land. Like most other Jewish agricultural communities, kibbutzim were founded in three relatively small, flat, low-lying regions of the country, the upper Jordan Valley, the Jezreel Valley and the Sharon coastal plain. The land was marshy and highly fertile, but available for purchase because it was infested with malaria and thus unproductive. Most early kibbutzniks, including David ben Gurion himself, suffered from malaria. In areas of higher elevation without standing water, where mosquitos could not breed—such as the area now called the West Bank—there were few if any kibbutzim.
Members of a kibbutz, or kibbutzniks, like other participants in the Zionist movement, had not considered the possibility of conflict between Jews and Arabs over Palestine. Mainstream Zionists predicted the Arab population would be grateful for the economic benefits that the Jews would bring. The left wing of the kibbutz movement believed that the enemies of the Arab peasants were Arab landowners (called effendis), not fellow Jewish farmers. By the late 1930s as the struggle against world fascism and for a political refuge for persecuted Jews began, kibbutzniks began to assume a military role in the New Yishuv.
The first kibbutzniks hoped to be more than plain farmers in Palestine. They even hoped for more than a Jewish homeland there: they wanted to create a new type of society where all would be equal and free from exploitation. The early kibbutzniks wanted to be both free from working for others and from the guilt of exploiting hired work. Thus was born the idea that Jews would band together, holding their property in common, "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."
Kibbutz members were not classic Marxists. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels both shared a disdain for conventional formulations of the nation-state. Although Leninists were hostile to Zionism, even in its communist manifestation, the Soviet Union quickly recognized Israel. Later Soviet hostility largely served Soviet diplomatic and military interests in the Arab world. Following the 1953 Doctors' Plot and Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 denouncement of Stalinism in the "secret speech," many remaining hard-line Kibbutzim communists rejected communism. However, to this day many kibbutzim remain strongholds of left-wing Israeli politics.
Although kibbutzniks practiced a form of communism themselves, they did not believe that it could work for everyone; for example, the Kibbutz political parties never called for the abolition of private property. Kibbutzniks saw their kibbutzim as collective enterprises within a free market system. Kibbutzim also practise active democracy in organisation: periodic elections are held for Kibbutz functions as well as an active participation in national elections. Kibbutzim today could even been seen as modeled upon a localized form of anarcho-syndicalist or libertarian socialist and compatible with anarcho-capitalist philosophy.
Kibbutzim were not the only contemporary communal enterprises: pre-war Palestine also saw the development of communal villages called moshavim (singular moshav). In a moshav, marketing and major farm purchases would be done collectively, but personal lives were entirely private. Although much less famous than kibbutzim, moshavim have always been more numerous and popular than kibbutzim.
The arrival of children at a new kibbutz inevitably posed an ethical dilemma. If everything was held in common, then who was in charge of the children? This question was answered by regarding the children as belonging to all, even to the point of kibbutz mothers breastfeeding babies which were not their own. For most kibbutzim, the arrival of children was a sobering experience: "When we saw our first children in the playpen, hitting one another, or grabbing toys just for themselves, we were overcome with anxiety. What did it mean that even an education in communal life couldn't uproot these egotistical tendencies? The utopia of our initial social conception was slowly, slowly destroyed." In the 1920s kibbutzim began a practice of raising children communally away from their parents in special communities called "Children's Societies" (Mossad Hinuchi). The theory was that trained nurses and teachers would be better care-providers than amateur (and busy) parents. Children and parents would have better relationships due to the Children's Societies, since parents would not have to be disciplinarians. Also, it was hoped that raising children away from parents would liberate mothers from their "biological tragedy." Instead of spending hours a day raising children, women could thus be free to work or enjoy leisure.
There is much to be said about the role of women on kibbutzim. In the early days there were always more men than women on kibbutzim, so naturally kibbutzim tended to be male-dominated places. Memoirs of early kibbutz life tend to show female kibbutzniks as desperate to perform the same kinds of roles as kibbutz men, from digging up rocks to planting trees. At Degania at least, it seems that the men wanted the women to continue to perform traditional female roles, such as cooking, sewing, and cleaning.
Eventually the men of the kibbutz gave in and permitted - and even expected - women to perform the same roles as men, including armed guard duty. The desire to liberate women from traditional maternal duties was another ideological underpinning of the Children's Society system. Interestingly, women born on kibbutzim were much less reluctant to perform traditional female roles. It was the generation of women born on kibbutzim that eventually ended the Societies of Children. Also, although there was a "masculinization of women", there was no corresponding "feminization" of men. Women may have worked the fields, but men did not work childcare.
Social lives were held in common as well, not only property. As an example, most kibbutz dining halls exclusively utilized benches, not as an issue of cost or convenience, but because benches were construed as another way of expressing communal values. At some kibbutzim husbands and wives were discouraged from sitting together, as marriage was an expressed form of exclusivity. In The Kibbutz Community and Nation Building, Paula Rayman reports that Kibbutz Har refused to buy teakettles for its members in the 1950s; the issue being not the cost but that couples owning teakettles would mean more time spent together in their apartments, rather than with the community in the dining hall.
Unsurprisingly, the exclusively communal life proved hard for some. Every kibbutz saw new members quit after a few years. Since kibbutzniks had no individual bank accounts, any purchase not made at the kibbutz canteen had to be approved by a committee, a potentially humiliating and time-wasting experience. Kibbutzim also had their share of members who were not hard workers, or who abused common property; there would always be resentment against these "parasites." Finally, kibbutzim, as small, isolated communities, tended to be places of gossip, exacerbated by lack of privacy and the regimented work and leisure schedules.
Although major decisions about the future of the kibbutz were made by consensus or by voting, day-to-day decisions about where people would work were made by elected leaders. Typically, kibbutzniks would learn their assignments by consulting the duty sheet at the dining hall.
Kibbutz memoirs from the Pioneer era report that kibbutz meetings varied from heated arguments to free-flowing philosophical discussions, whereas memoirs and accounts from kibbutz observers from the 1950s and 1960s report that kibbutz meetings were businesslike but poorly attended.
Kibbutzim attempted to rotate people into different jobs. One week a person might work in planting, the next with livestock, the week after in the kibbutz factory and the following week in the laundry. Even managers would have to work in menial jobs. Through rotation, people took part in every kind of work, but it interfered with any process of specialization.
Children's Societies were one of the features of kibbutz life that most interested outsiders. In the heyday of Children's Societies, parents would only spend two hours a day, typically in the afternoon, with their children. In Kibbutz Artzi parents were explicitly forbidden to put their children to bed at night. As children got older, parents could go for days on end without seeing their offspring, other than through chance encounters somewhere in the grounds.
Some children who went through Children's Societies said they loved the experience, others remain ambivalent. One vocal group maintains that growing up without one's parents was very difficult. Years later, a kibbutz member described her childhood in a Children's Society:
"Allowed to suckle every four hours, left to cry and develop our lungs, we grew up without the basic security needed for survival. Sitting on the potty at regular intervals next to other children doing the same, we were educated to be the same; but we were, for all that, different… At night the grownups leave and turn off all the lights. You know you will wet the bed because it is too frightening to go to the lavatory."
Aversion to sex was not part of the kibbutz ideology; to this end, teenagers were not segregated at night in Children's Societies, yet many visitors to kibbutzim were astonished at how conservative the communities tended to be. In Children of the Dream, Bruno Bettelheim quoted a kibbutz friend, "at a time when the American girls preen themselves, and try to show off as much as possible sexually, our girls cover themselves up and refuse to wear clothing that might show their breasts or in any other fashion be revealing." Kibbutz divorce rates were and are extremely low. Unfortunately, from the point of view of the adults in the community, marriage rates among communally raised children were equally low. This conservatism on the part of kibbutz children has been attributed to the Westermarck effect—a form of reverse sexual imprinting that causes children raised together from an early age to reject each other as potential partners, even where they are not blood relatives.
From the beginning, Kibbutzim had a reputation as culture-friendly and nurturing of the arts. Many kibbutzniks were and are writers, actors, or artists. Kibbutzim typically offer theater companies, choirs, orchestras, athletic leagues, and special-interest classes. In 1953 Givat Brenner staged the play My Glorious Brothers, about the Maccabee revolt, building a real village on a hilltop as a set, planting real trees, and performing for 40,000 people. Like all kibbutz work products at the time, all the actors were members of the kibbutz, and all were ordered to perform as part of their work assignments.
Two researchers who wrote about psychological life on kibbutzim were Melford E. Spiro (1958) and Bruno Bettelheim (1969). Both concluded that a kibbutz upbringing led to individuals' having greater difficulty in making strong emotional commitments thereafter, such as falling in love or forming a lasting friendship. On the other hand, they appear to find it easier to have a large number of less-involved friendships, and a more active social life.
Bettelheim suggested that the lack of private property was the cause of the lack of emotions in kibbutzniks. He wrote, "nowhere more than in the kibbutz did I realize the degree to which private property, in the deep layers of the mind, relates to private emotions. If one is absent, the other tends to be absent as well". (See primitivism and primitive communism for a general discussion of these concepts).
Other researchers came to a conclusion that children growing up in these tightly knit communities tended to see the other children around them as ersatz siblings and preferred to seek mates outside the community when they reached maturity. Some theorize that living amongst one another on a daily basis virtually from birth on produced an extreme version of the Westermarck effect, which subconsciously diminished teenage kibbutzniks' sexual attraction to one another. Partly as a result of not finding a mate from within the kibbutz, youth often abandon kibbutz life as adults.
It is a subject of debate within the kibbutz movement as to how successful kibbutz education was in developing the talents of gifted children. Several kibbutz-raised children look back and say that the communal system stifled ambition; others say that bright children were nonetheless encouraged. Bruno Bettelheim had predicted that kibbutz education would yield mediocrity: "[kibbutz children] will not be leaders or philosophers, will not achieve anything in science or art." However, it has been noted that although kibbutzim comprise only 5% of the Israeli population, surprisingly large numbers of kibbutzniks become teachers, lawyers, doctors, and political leaders. For example 75% of Israeli air force pilots came from the kibbutz movement, as of 2006 study.
Bettelheim's prediction was certainly wrong about the specific children he met at "Kibbutz Atid." In the 1990s a journalist tracked down the children Bettelheim had interviewed back in the 1960s at what was actually Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan. The journalist found that the children were highly accomplished in academia, business, music, and the military. "Bettelheim got it totally wrong."
"The kibbutz is a magnifying glass for Israeli society," says Amia Lieblich, a professor of psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In a 1977 study, Fox compared the separation effects experienced by kibbutz children when removed from their mother, compared with removal from their caregiver (called a metapelet in Hebrew). He found that the child showed separation distress in both situations, but when reunited children were significantly more attached to their mothers than to the metapelet. The children protested subsequent separation from their mothers when the metapelet was reintroduced to them. However, kibbutzim children shared high bonding with their parents as compared to those who were sent to boarding schools, because in a kibbutz a child spends three hours every day with his or her parents.
In another study by Scharf, the group brought up in communal environment within a kibbutz showed less ability in coping with imagined situations of separation than those who were brought up with their families. This has far reaching implications for child attachment adaptability and therefore institutions like kibbutzim. These interesting kibbutz techniques are controversial with or without these studies.
Kibbutzniks were also not self-sufficient when it came to capital investment. At the founding of a kibbutz, when it would be opened on land owned by the Jewish National Fund; for expansion, most kibbutzim were dependent on subsidies from charity or the State of Israel. Most of the subsidies took the form of low-interest loans or discounted water. In Israel, when interest rates were routinely over 30% until the 1990s and where water is expensive, these gifts came to a very great amount indeed.
Even prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, kibbutzim had begun to branch out from agriculture into manufacturing. Kibbutz Degania, for instance, set up a factory to fabricate diamond cutting tools; it now grosses several million dollars a year. Kibbutz Hatzerim has a factory for drip irrigation equipment. Hatzerim's business, called Netafim, is a multinational corporation that grosses over $300 million a year. Maagan Michael branched out from making bullets to making plastics and medical tools. Maagan Michael's enterprises earn over $100 million a year. A great wave of kibbutz industrialization came in the 1960s, and today only 15% of kibbutz members work in agriculture.
Kibbutzim industrialized at a time when agricultural jobs were not enough to absorb everyone on the kibbutz. Kibbutzim also industrialized due to pressure from the State of Israel. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Israel had one of the world's highest trade deficits, the state was desperate to increase exports and kibbutzim were asked to play a role.
The hiring of seasonal workers was always a point of controversy in the kibbutz movement. During harvest time, when hands were needed, the permissibility of hiring external workers was considered. Most kibbutzim compromised with practical exigencies and began the practice of hiring non-kibbutzniks when work was at its peak.
Hiring non-Jews was especially contentious. The founders of the kibbutz movement wanted to redeem the Jewish nation through work, and hiring non-Jews to do hard tasks would not be consistent with that idea. In the 1910s Kibbutz Degania vainly searched for Jewish masons to build their homes. Only when they could not find Jewish masons willing to endure the malaria of their location did they hire Arabs.
Today, kibbutzim have changed dramatically. Only 38% of kibbutz employees are kibbutz members. By the 1970s, kibbutzim were frequently hiring Palestinians. Currently, Thais have replaced Palestinians as the non-Jewish physical work element at kibbutzim. They are omnipresent in various service areas and in factories.
As kibbutzim branched out into manufacturing in the 1960s, they are branching out into tourism and services today. Kibbutz Hatzerim even has a law firm. Virtually every kibbutz has guest rooms for rent. Some of these rooms are intended for traveling students, but Kiryat Anavim has a luxury hotel. Several kibbutzim, such as Kibbutz Lotan and Kfar Ruppin, operate bird-watching vacations. They say that a European visitor can see more birds in one week in Israel than he or she would in a year at home. It is not lost on the modern kibbutz movement that kibbutzniks today are working in occupations which the first kibbutz generation condemned.
Many kibbutzim aggressively put money into building new enterprises, even playing the stock market. This borrowing spree caught up to the kibbutz movement in the 1980s, forcing kibbutzim to retreat from collective ideas. Today, most kibbutzim are at the economic break-even point, a dozen or so are very wealthy, and several score lose money. Many people who live on kibbutzim have to work outside the kibbutz. They are expected to return a percentage of their earnings to the collective.
Conditions were hard for all subjects of the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but they were especially difficult for Jews. It was the underlying policy of the Russian government in its May Laws to "cause one-third of the Jews to emigrate, one-third to accept baptism, and one-third to starve." Except for a wealthy few, Jews could not leave the Pale of Settlement; within it, Jews could neither live in large cities, such as Kiev, nor any village with fewer than 500 residents, even if a person needed rural medical recuperation.
The Tsarist government disproportionately conscripted Jews into the Russian army. Jewish soldiers suffered severe discrimination; they had to leave the Pale of Settlement to serve with their units, but when their units were given furlough, Jews had to return to the Pale of Settlement, even if their service was in the Russian Far East. There were other laws in effect which allowed the expulsion of Jewish families that had no breadwinner. During the Russo-Japanese War, many magistrates in Ukraine took advantage of the fact that Jewish men were away at the front to expel their families.
Most ominously, beginning in the aftermath of the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, the Russian autocracy allowed and encouraged its discontented peasants to take out their frustrations on their Jewish neighbors. In May 1882, Tsar Alexander III issued the so-called "May Laws." The May Laws forbade Jews to live in towns with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants and systematized the anti-Jewish quotas that kept thousands of Jews out of the professions and out of university. The consequence of the residency laws was that hundreds of thousands of Jews were expelled from towns and villages that their families had resided in for generations. The turn of the century marked a high point for Jewish oppression in Russia.
Jews responded to the pressures on them in different ways. Some saw their future in a reformed Russia and joined Socialist political parties. Other Jews saw the future of Jews in Russia as being out of Russia, and thus emigrated to the West. Other Jews took little notice of the changing world and continued in orthodoxy. Still other Jews took the opposite course and became assimilationists. Last but not least among the ideological choices that presented themselves to Jews in late 19th century Russia was Zionism, the movement for the creation of a Jewish homeland in the cradle of Judaism, Palestine, or, as Jews called it, Eretz Yisrael.
Prior to this time of increased persecution, Jews had gone to Palestine either late in life to die or as young people to attend the various yeshivas clustered in Jerusalem and Hebron. These individuals were religious and had no political ambitions. In fact, instead of having livelihoods, they relied on charitable contributions of Jews from abroad.
Although Zionism's antecedents can be traced back into distant Jewish history, the ideology emerged as a significant force in Jewish life only in the 1880s. In that decade approximately 15,000 Jews, mostly from southern Russia, moved to Palestine with the two intentions of living there, as opposed to dying and being buried there, and of farming there, as opposed to studying. This movement of Jews to Palestine in the 1880s is called the "First Aliyah".
Zionism is usually understood to mean a kind of nationalism, but Zionism also had economic and cultural aspects. Zionism's chief economic program was for Jews to abandon inn-keeping, pawn-brokering, and petty selling in favor of a return to the land and its cultivation.
The Jews of the First Aliya generation believed that Diaspora Jews had sunk low due to their typical disdain for physical labor. Their ideology was that the Jewish people could be "redeemed"—physically as well as spiritually—by toiling in the fields of Palestine. It was believed that the soil of Palestine had magical properties to metamorphosize feeble Jewish merchants into strong, noble farmers. In 1883 the London (UK) newspaper The Jewish Chronicle wrote of the new Jewish agriculturalist in Palestine that he had been transformed from "the pallid, stooping Jewish pedlar and tradesman of a few months back … into the bronzed, horny-handed, manly tiller of the soil."
In harmony with the "religion of labor," the Biluim manifesto proudly called for the "encouragement and strengthening of immigration and colonization in Eretz Yisrael through the establishment of an agricultural colony, built on cooperative social foundations." In harmony with the yet unnamed ideology of Zionism the Biluim called for the "polico-economic and national spiritual revival of the Jewish people in Palestine."
The Biluim came to Eretz Yisrael with high hopes of success as a peasant class, but their enthusiasm was perhaps greater than their agricultural ability. Within a year of living in Palestine the Biluim had become dependent on charity, just as their scholarly brethren in Jerusalem were. The difference between the charity that sustained the Biluim and the charity that sustained the scholars was that the Biluim used donations for land and agricultural equipment purchases.
Thanks to donations of regular Jews who read the above quotation from the Jewish Chronicle and extremely wealthy Jews such as Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, the Biluim were able to eventually prosper. Their towns, Rishon LeZion, Rehovot and Gedera developed into dynamic communities while their culture of labor evolved: instead of cultivating the soil on their own land, the Biluim hired Arabs to work the land in their place. The much-heralded economic revolution had yet to occur.
Like the members of the First Aliya who came before them, most members of the Second Aliya wanted to be farmers in the Trans-Jordan. Those who would go on to found the kibbutzim first went to a village of the Biluim, Rishon LeZion, to find work there. The founders of the kibbutz were morally appalled by what they saw in the Jewish settlers there "with their Jewish overseers, Arab peasant laborers, and Bedouin guards." They saw the new villages and were reminded of the places they had left in Eastern Europe. Instead of the beginning of a pure Jewish commonwealth, they felt that what they saw recreated the Jewish socioeconomic structure of the Pale of Settlement, where Jews functioned in clean jobs, while other groups did the dirty work.
Yossef Baratz, who went on to found the first kibbutz, wrote of his time working at Zikhron Yaakov:
Though Baratz and other laborers wanted to farm the land themselves, becoming independent farmers was not a realistic option in 1909. As Arthur Ruppin, a proponent of Jewish agricultural colonization of the Trans-Jordan would later say, "The question was not whether group settlement was preferable to individual settlement; it was rather one of either group settlement or no settlement at all."
Ottoman Palestine was a harsh environment, quite unlike the Russian plains the Jewish immigrants were familiar with. The Galilee was swampy, the Judean Hills rocky, and the South of the country, the Negev, was a desert. To make things more challenging, most of the settlers had no prior farming experience. The sanitary conditions were also poor. Malaria was more than a risk, it was nearly a guarantee. Along with malaria, there were typhus and cholera.
In addition to having a difficult climate and relatively infertile soils, Ottoman Palestine was in some ways a lawless place. Nomadic Bedouins would frequently raid farms and settled areas. Sabotage of irrigation canals and burning of crops were also common. Living collectively was simply the most logical way to be secure in an unwelcoming land.
On top of considerations of safety, there were also those of economic survival. Establishing a new farm in the area was a capital-intensive project; collectively the founders of the kibbutzim had the resources to establish something lasting, while independently they did not.
Finally, the land that was going to be settled by Yossef Baratz and his comrades had been purchased by the greater Jewish community. From around the world, Jews dropped coins into JNF "Blue Boxes" for land purchases in Palestine. Since these efforts were on behalf of all Jews in the area, it would not have made sense for their land purchases to be conveyed to individuals.
In 1909, Baratz, nine other men, and two women established themselves at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee near an Arab village called "Umm Juni." These teenagers had hitherto worked as day laborers draining swamps, as masons, or as hands at the older Jewish settlements. Their dream was now to work for themselves, building up the land. They called their community "Kvutzat Degania", after the cereals which they grew there. Their community would grow into the first kibbutz.
The founders of Degania worked backbreaking labor attempting to rebuild what they saw as their ancestral land and to spread the social revolution. One pioneer later said "the body is crushed, the legs fail, the head hurts, the sun burns and weakens." At times half of the kibbutz members could not report for work. Many young men and women left the kibbutz for easier lives in Jewish Trans-Jordan cities or in the Diaspora.
Despite the difficulties, by 1914, Degania had fifty members. Other kibbutzim were founded around the Sea of Galilee and the nearby Jezreel Valley. The founders of Degania themselves soon left Degania to become apostles of agriculture and socialism for newer kibbutzim.
After the Bolshevik consolidation of power, Jews of Russia and Ukraine could not emigrate. In the rest of the 1920s Jewish immigrants to Palestine would come from the rest of Eastern and Central Europe, the "Fourth Aliya." These Third and Fourth Aliya immigrants would actually do more for the growth of the kibbutz movement than the immigrants of previous immigration groups.
Partly based on German youth movements and the Boy Scouts, Zionist Jewish youth movements flourished in the 1920s in virtually every European nation. Youth movements came in every shade of the political spectrum. There were rightist movements like Betar and religious movements like Chabad, but most of these Zionist youth movements were socialist such as Dror, Brit Haolim, Kadima, Habonim (now Habonim Dror), and Wekleute. Of the leftist youth movements the most significant in kibbutz history was to be the Marxist Hashomer Hatzair. In the 1920s the left-oriented youth movements would become feeders for the kibbutzim.
In contrast to those who came as part of the Second Aliya, these youth group members had some agricultural training before embarking. Members of the Second Aliya and Third Aliyas were also less likely to be Russian, since emigration from Russia was closed off after the Russian Revolution of 1917. European Jews who settled on kibbutzim between the World Wars were from other countries in Eastern Europe, including Germany. Finally, the members of the Third Aliya were to the left of the founders of Degania, and believed that voluntary socialism could work for everyone. They considered themselves to be a vanguard movement that would inspire the rest of the world.
Degania in the 1910s seems to have confined its discussions to practical matters, but the conversations of the next generation in the 1920s and 1930s were free-flowing discussions of the cosmos. Instead of having a meeting in a dining room, meetings were held around campfires. Instead of beginning a meeting with a reading of minutes, a meeting would begin with a group dance. Remembering her youth on a kibbutz by the Sea of Galilee, a woman remembered "Oh, how beautiful it was when we all took part in the discussions, [they were] nights of searching for one another—that is what I call those hallowed nights. During the moments of silence, it seemed to me that from each heart a spark would burst forth, and the sparks would unite in one great flame penetrating the heavens…. At the center of our camp a fire burns, and under the weight of the hora the earth groans a rhythmic groan, accompanied by wild songs."
Kibbutzim founded in the 1920s tended to be larger than the kibbutzim like Degania which were founded prior to World War I. Degania had had twelve members at its founding. Ein Harod, founded only a decade later, began with 215 members.
Altogether kibbutzim grew and flourished in the 1920s. In 1922 there were scarcely 700 individuals living on kibbutzim in Palestine. By 1927 the kibbutz population was approaching 4,000. By the eve of World War II the kibbutz population was 25,000, 5% of the total population of the yishuv.
The growth of kibbutzim allowed the movement to diversify into different factions, although the differences between kibbutzim were always smaller than their similarities. In 1927, some new kibbutzim that had been founded by HaShomer Hatzair banded together to form a countrywide association, Kibbutz Artzi. For decades, Kibbutz Artzi would be the kibbutz left wing. In 1936, the Kibbutz Artzi Federation founded its own political party called the Socialist League of Palestine but generally known as Hashomer Hatzair. It merged with another left-wing party to become Mapam once the state of Israel was established.
Artzi kibbutzim were also more devoted to equality of the sexes than other kibbutzim. A 1920s, 1930s era kibbutz woman would call her husband ishi—"My man"—rather than the usual Hebrew word, ba'ali, which literally means "My owner."
In 1928 Kibbutz Degania and other small kibbutzim formed together a group called "Chever Hakvutzot", the "Association of Kvutzot." Kvutzot kibbutzim deliberately stayed under 200 in population. They believed that for collective life to work, groups had to be small and intimate, or else the trust between members would be lost. Kvutzot kibbutzim also lacked youth-group affiliations in Europe.
The mainstream of the kibbutz movement became known simply as "United Kibbutz", or "'Kibbutz Hameuhad." Kibbutz Hameuhad accused Artzi and the kvutzot of elitism. Hameuhad criticized Artzi for thinking of itself as a socialist elite, and they criticized the kvutzot for staying small. Hameuhad kibbutzim took in as many members as they could. Givat Brenner eventually came to have more than 1,500 members.
There were also differences in religion. Kibbutz Artzi kibbutzim were secular, even staunchly atheistic, proudly trying to be "monasteries without God." Most mainstream kibbutzim also disdained the Orthodox Judaism of their parents, but they wanted their new communities to have Jewish characteristics nonetheless. Friday nights were still "Shabbat" with a white tablecloth and fine food, and work was not done on Saturday if it could be avoided. Later, some kibbutzim adopted Yom Kippur as the day to discuss fears for the future of the kibbutz. Kibbutzim also had collective bar mitzvahs for their children.
If kibbutzniks did not pray several times a day, kibbutzniks marked holidays like Shavuot, Sukkot, and Passover with dances, meals, and celebrations. One Jewish holiday, Tu B'shvat, the "birthday of the trees" was substantially revived by kibbutzim. All in all, holidays with some kind of natural component, like Passover and Sukkoth, were the most significant for kibbutzim.
The kibbutz movement developed an overtly religious faction late in its history, a group now called the Religious Kibbutz Movement. The first religious kibbutz was Ein Tzurim, founded in 1946. Ein Tzurim was first located by Safad, then by Hebron in what is now the West Bank, then finally in the Negev. Religious kibbutzim are obviously religious, but they were and are no less collectivist than secular kibbutzim. Some religious kibbutzim now identify with the "hippie Hasidism" of rabbis like Shlomo Carlebach.
In Ottoman times kibbutzim worried about criminal violence, not political violence. The lack of Arab hostility was due to the small number of Jews in the country at the time. Arab opposition increased as the Balfour Declaration and the wave of Jewish aliyas to Palestine began to tilt the demographic balance of the area. There were bloody anti-Jewish riots in Jerusalem in 1921 and in Hebron in 1929. In the late 1930s Arab-Jewish violence became virtually constant, a time called the "Great Uprising" in Palestinian historiography.
During the Great Uprising kibbutzim began to assume a more prominent military role than they had previously. Rifles were purchased or manufactured and kibbutz members drilled and practiced shooting. Yigal Allon, an Israeli soldier and statesman, explained the role of kibbutzim in the military activities of the yishuv.
Kibbutzim also played a role in defining the borders of the Jewish state-to-be. By the late 1930s when it appeared that Palestine would be partitioned between Arabs and Jews, kibbutzim were planted in remote parts of the Mandate to make it more likely that the land would be incorporated into the Jewish state (which was called eventually Israel), not a Palestinian Arab state. Many of these kibbutzim were founded, literally, in the middle of the night. In 1946, on the day after Yom Kippur, eleven new "Tower and Stockade" kibbutzim were hurriedly established in the northern part of the Negev to give Israel a better claim to this arid, but strategically important, region.
Not all kibbutzniks worked to expand the amount of territory that would be given to the Jewish state. The leftwing, Marxist faction of the kibbutz movement, Kibbutz Artzi, was the last major element in the yishuv to favor a binational state, rather than partition. Kibbutz Artzi, however, still wanted free Jewish immigration, which the Arabs opposed.
Kibbutzniks were considered to have fought very bravely in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, emerging from the conflict with enhanced prestige in the nascent State of Israel. Members of Kibbutz Degania were instrumental in stopping the Syrian tank advance into the Galilee with homemade gasoline bombs. Another kibbutz, Maagan Michael, manufactured the bullets for the Sten guns that won the war. Maagan Michael's clandestine ammunition factory was later separated from the kibbutz and grew into TAAS (Israel Military Industries).
The first challenge that kibbutzim faced was the question of how to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern Jews, or mizrahi. Until the 1950s, nearly all kibbutzniks were from Eastern Europe, culturally different from their cousins from places like Morocco, Tunisia, and Iraq. Many kibbutzim found themselves hiring Mizrahim to work their fields and expand infrastructure, but not actually admitting very many as members. Since few mizrahi would ever join kibbutzim, the percentage of Israelis living on kibbutzim peaked around the time of statehood.
Another dispute occurred solely over ideology. Israel had been initially recognized by both the USA and the Soviet Union. For the first three years of its existence, Israel was in the Non-Aligned Movement, but David Ben-Gurion gradually began to take sides with the West. The question of which side of the Cold War Israel should choose created fissures in the kibbutz movement. Dining halls segregated according to politics and a few kibbutzim even saw Marxist members leave. This controversy cooled once Stalin's cruelty became better known and once it became clear that the Soviet Union was systematically anti-Semitic. The disillusionment particularly set in after the Prague Trials in which an envoy of Hashomer Hatzair in Prague was tried in an anti-Semitic show trial.
Yet another controversy in the kibbutz movement was the question over Holocaust reparations from West Germany. Should kibbutz members turn over income that was the product of a very personal loss? If Holocaust survivors were allowed to keep their reparation money, what would that mean for the principle of equality? Eventually, many kibbutzim made this one concession to inequality by letting Holocaust survivors keep all or a percentage of their reparations. Reparations that were turned over to the collective were used for building expansion and even recreational activities.
Kibbutzniks enjoyed a steady and gradual improvement in their standard of living in the first few decades after independence. In the 1960s, kibbutzim actually saw their standard of living improve faster than Israel's general population. Most kibbutz swimming pools date from the good decade of the 1960s.
Kibbutzim also continued to play an outsize role in Israel's defense apparatus. In the 1950s and 1960s many kibbutzim were in fact founded by an Israel Defense Forces group called Nahal. Many of these 1950s and 1960s Nahal kibbutzim were founded on the precarious and porous borders of the state. In the Six-Day War, when Israel lost 800 soldiers, 200 of them were from kibbutzim. The prestige that kibbutzniks enjoyed in Israel in the 1960s was reflected in the Knesset. When only 4% of Israelis were kibbutzniks, kibbutzniks made up 15% of Israel's parliament.
As late as the 1970s, kibbutzim seemed to be thriving in every way. Kibbutzniks performed working class, or even peasant class, occupations, yet enjoyed a middle class lifestyle.
Starting in the 1970s, the kibbutzim gradually abandoned Children's Societies in favor of the traditional nuclear family. In some kibbutzim, it was believed that communal life for children led to psychological problems; some said that giving up one's children was too great a sacrifice for parents. Some Israelis raised on kibbutzim have stated that they remembered being fearful at night in the dark, away from their parents. Although the kibbutzim have abandoned the Children's Societies for younger children, some do retain some type of communal living for adolescents.
Kibbutzniks do live in more tight-knit communities than most Israelis, but their lives are more private and family-oriented than those of their predecessors. Kibbutz families live in larger homes than in the past, own electrical appliances and use the internet like most Israelis. Group activities are much less well attended than they were in the past, including kibbutz general meetings which are now infrequently scheduled in most kibbutzim.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of how some kibbutzim have abandoned the principle of equality is the adoption of differential salaries. While in the past, all kibbutz members received the same stipend, today many kibbutzim choose to better compensate those in high-skill positions or those with considerable responsibilities in comparison to their peers. Other kibbutzim, meanwhile, view this as a negative development and retain more characteristics traditionally associated with kibbutzim. There are considerable differences between kibbutzim in size, financial success, values and level of collectivism.
Since the late 1970s the kibbutzim have lost prestige in the eyes of many non-kibbutz Israelis. The image of the kibbutznik has gone from self-sacrificing pioneer and guardian of the state's borders to that of a non-mainstream, idealistic, subsidized consumer. There are several causes of the loss of prestige. One reason is Israel’s Mizrahi, Sephardi, and religious populations have become larger and more assertive. For various reasons, kibbutzim never attracted large numbers of non-Ashkenazi Jews. By the 1980s, when virtually every other institution in Israel was fully integrated between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, kibbutzim stood out as Ashkenazi bastions. Kibbutzim, nearly all of which are secular, also have become less respected as Israel has become more religious. In the 1980s, kibbutzim were not allowed to participate in the absorption of Ethiopian Jews, as there were fears that the secularism of the kibbutzim would influence the religiosity of the Ethiopian immigrants.
Kibbutz industrialization in the 1960s led to an increase in the kibbutz standard of living, but that increase in the standard of living meant an end to the self-sacrifice which regular Israelis had so admired. In his 1977 campaign for prime minister, Menachem Begin attacked kibbutzniks as “millionaires with swimming pools” and was rewarded with the right's first ever electoral victory.
Finally, the need for government bailouts harmed the kibbutz image. In the 1970s and early 1980s Israel experienced hyperinflation—up to 400% per year. During that period kibbutzim borrowed excessively with the expectation that inflation would virtually eliminate their debts. When the Israeli government implemented an austerity program that brought inflation down to 20% per year kibbutzim were left with billions in debt that they could not repay. The ensuing bail-out by the government, banks, and profitable kibbutzim cost the kibbutz movement considerable respect. Kibbutzniks defend subsidies by pointing out that every developed nation subsidizes its agriculture.
While some kibbutzim lose money, kibbutzim are an integral part of Israel's defense apparatus, particularly those kibbutzim which lie in border areas. It is likely that the Israeli government will continue to support them for military as well as political and historical reasons. Kibbutzniks are prominent in Israel's environmental movement and some kibbutzim are trying to cover all their energy needs via solar energy.
Some kibbutzim have been involved in legal actions related to their status as kibbutzim. Kibbutz Glil Yam, near Herzliya, petitioned the court regarding privatization. In 1999, 8 members of kibbutz Beit Oren, applied to the High Court of Justice, to order the registrar of cooperative societies, to declassify Beit Oren as a kibbutz and reclassify it as a different kind of cooperative society. The petitioners argued that the Kibbutz had dramatically changed its life style, having implemented differential salaries, closing the communal dining room, and privatizing the educational system and other services. These changes did not fit the legal definition of a kibbutz, and in particular, the principle of equality in consumption. Consequently, the registrar of cooperative societies, who has the authority to register and classify cooperative societies, should change the classification of kibbutz Beit Oren. The kibbutz responded that it still maintained the basic principles of a kibbutz, but the changes made were vital to prevent a financial collapse and to improve the economic situation.
This case resulted in the Government establishing a committee to recommend a new legal definitions that will suit the development of the kibbutz, and to submit an opinion on the ifallocation of apartments to kibbutz members. The committee submitted a detailed report with two new legal classifications to the settlements known today as kibbutzim. The first classification was named 'communal kibbutz' which was identical to the traditional definition of a kibbutz. The second classification, was called the 'renewing kibbutz', which included developments and changes in lifestyle, provided that the basic principles ofmutual guarantee and equality are preserved. In light of the above, the committee recommended that instead of the current legal definition of kibbutz, two different determinations will be created, as follows, a) communal kibbutz: a society for settlement, being a separate settlement, organized on the basis of collective ownership of possession, of self employment, and of equality and cooperation in production, consumption and education, b) renewing kibbutz: a society for settlement, being a separate settlement, organized on the basis of collective partnership in possession, of self employment, and of equality and cooperation in production, consumption and education, that maintains mutual guarantee among its members, and its articles of association includes, some or all of the following:
Kibbutzim have been criticized for falling short of living up to their own ideals. Most kibbutzim are not self-sufficient and have to employ non-kibbutz members as farm workers (or later factory workers). What was particularly controversial was the employment of Arab labourers while excluding them from the possibility of joining the Kibbutz as full members.
In more recent decades, some kibbutzim have been criticized for "abandoning" socialist principles and turning to capitalist projects in order to make the kibbutz more self-sufficient economically. Kibbutz Shamir owns an optical products company that is listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange. Numerous kibbutzim have moved away from farming and developed parts of their property for commercial and industrial purposes, building shopping malls and factories on kibbutz land that serve and employ non kibbutz members while the kibbutz retains a profit from land rentals or sales. Conversely, kibbutzim which have not engaged in this sort of development have also been criticized for becoming dependent on state subsidies to survive.
Nonetheless, kibbutzniks played a role in yishuv society and then Israeli society, far out of proportion to their population. From Moshe Dayan to Ehud Barak, kibbutzniks have served Israel in positions of leadership. David Ben Gurion lived most of his life in Tel Aviv, but Kibbutz Sde Boker, in the Negev, was his spiritual home.
Kibbutzim also contributed greatly to the growing Hebrew culture movement. The poet Rachel rhapsodized on the landscape from viewpoints from various Galilee kibbutzim in the 1920s and 1930s. The kibbutz dream of "making the desert bloom" became part of the Israeli dream as well.
Books and movies about Israel, from James Michener's The Source to Leon Uris' Exodus, feature kibbutzniks prominently. The stereotypical image of the kibbutznik—tanned and wearing a sunhat with a fold-down brim became the stereotypical image of all Israelis.