August 31, 2004


Israel's kibbutzim swap socialist ideals for personal profit in struggle to survive (Chris McGreal, August 31, 2004, The Guardian)

For the older residents of this kibbutz, the break with the ideal came the day that some pay packets were fatter than others. And being asked to pay for lunch.

But they realised the tide had turned irrevocably with the hiring of Koby Lamm. Not only was he paid the market rate for running the sprawling agricultural and manufacturing kibbutz near the Sea of Galilee, but he was an outsider. A manager. Not a socialist.

"This is a big, big revolutionary change," said Aryeh Wolfin, who moved to Kibbutz Kfar Hanasi from London in 1958. "The kibbutz as it was is dead. The egalitarian socialist society belongs to the past. Forget about it. This is the future of the kibbutz.

"Some people still yearn for the days of the old kibbutz. Some people who haven't adapted have a bitter taste. But I think we've saved the kibbutz."

The kibbutz has iconic status in Israel, and shaped the world's view of the Jewish state over the decades when it was popularly seen as struggling for social justice as well as its survival.

But the weight of an ageing population, young people more interested in personal enrichment than equality, and modern economic realities, have largely killed the guiding philosophy of "from each according to their ability to each according to their needs".

In the past 20 years the population of Israel's 270 kibbutzim has fallen by about a quarter to 116,000. Three times as many people are leaving as joining.

Most of those who go are young, leaving behind a population with an average age approaching 55 years. As a result, most of the communities can no longer afford the cradle-to-grave support for their members, with potentially tragic results for many older people who put in a lifetime of work in the belief that they would spend a secure retirement in the bosom of the kibbutz.

Few own property, and if their kibbutz collapses - as several have - they face destitution.

Europe's future writ small.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 31, 2004 11:05 AM

The socialist idealism of the Kibbutz was preached to us in Hebrew School when I was a kid. I remember, at the age of 8 or 9, raising my hand and asking "You mean if one guy works harder than another, they both get paid the same and live in the same kind of house?" The teacher assured me that everyone was committed to the group's well-being, so everyone worked hard. At that age, of course, I couldn't see the fallacy of a social order constructed in direct contravention to human nature (although I was pretty sure that I personally would goof off since the pay was the same either way).

The other thing that creeped me out was the kids lived and were raised in separate quarters from their parents.

Posted by: Foos at August 31, 2004 11:42 AM

The problems of such socialist experiments are real and obvious to us libertarian types, but I'll admit I admire people who actually go live in a commune. At least they are 1) taking positive action based on their beliefs, and 2) not imposing their beliefs on others. It's a refreshing contrast to the standard leftist practices of forcing everyone into a socialized medicine or education or retirement system, or Gulfstream lefties flying to events to preach energy conservation, etc., etc.

Posted by: PapayaSF at August 31, 2004 2:09 PM


Libertarians are no more realistic and, you're right, they never try out their theory.

Posted by: oj at August 31, 2004 2:32 PM


But almost all collectivist experiments, whether communes(secular) or socialist states eventually founder when the first generation of true believers pass the torch. They require a kind of pseudo-religious, self-denying zeal to keep them going and with that they can do some impressive things for a while. When the mystique passes and the reality of human nature sets in, people see their sacrifices as increasingly unjust and banal and need more and more coercion and less freedom to keep them going. The only advantage communes have is that people can walk away anytime. Religious communes often fare better because their sacrifices are not made in the name of humanity, which has a way of transforming itself over time from a gloriously inspiring abstract into just a boring bunch of sweaty, whiny people.

Conservatives often become so antipathetical to the left that we forget the noble, naive impulses that many leftists started with. Socialized medicine and cradle-to-grave social security are wrong-headed ideas, but not uncharitable or ignoble ones. Lots of leftists start with charitable impulses. So did the original kibbutzniks, especially measured against the lives most of them led in Europe.

Posted by: Peter B at August 31, 2004 2:53 PM


With all due respect, who CARES if their goals were noble? All anyone will remember in any such experiment is: were the RESULTS noble?

Posted by: John Barrett Jr. at August 31, 2004 3:17 PM


Agreed, and I meant the impulses were noble, not the goals. But this is one reason why conservatives tend to be older then leftists. Most of the young can't distinguish the two because they can't see how human nature will corrupt them.

Posted by: Peter B at August 31, 2004 3:31 PM

John Barrett, maybe you missed the comment from Papaya SF? People who voluntarily form an agricultural commune do not deserve to be lumped in the same category as stalinist totalitarians.

All communes fail, eventually; but fifty years is still a better lifespan than many capitalist enterprises. Most people's working lives are shorter, too.

I don't know if the Guardian's contention that few kibbutzim own property is correct; I had always thought that many of them are cash-poor but land rich. (I believe this inequality is one of the major bones of contention in Israel, though not reported much here.)

In any event, the moshavim seem to be having fewer problems than the kibbutzim, from what I read. (A moshav is a co-operative.)

Posted by: Eugene S. at August 31, 2004 3:32 PM