Kibbutz: Prospects of a Utopian Community Project
University of Haifa, Israel
The kibbutz has caught a lot of attention in Israel and all over the world because it was the first attempt at building democratic, egalitarian communities. At present there are 271 kibbutz communities with a total population of about 160,000 people. The kibbutzim constitute 2.1% of the Jewish population in Israel, yet their contribution to the national economy amounts to 47% in agriculture, 8% in industrial output and 10% in tourism. During its 105 years of existence, the kibbutz faced many challenges in its struggle for survival. The question whether the kibbutz is still a kibbutz has risen in the last decade when many kibbutzim have changed their original way of life.
In the classic kibbutz, all people who reside permanently in it have to be full kibbutz members with equal rights and obligations. In return the kibbutz has to provide for all their needs. Equality (very little private property, receipt of an equal monthly budget, same standard of living), direct democracy and mutual help are its base line. But, the kibbutz has never been static and has always been in a state of change. Instead of an agriculture-based economy, kibbutzim are now relying mostly on industry. The communal sleeping arrangement of children was abolished and children stay at their parents’ houses. But the most fundamental changes took places at the end of the 1980s, when an economic crisis followed by demographic and ideologist crises placed the survival of the kibbutzim into doubt.
In 1985, a sudden shift in governmental economic policy from expansion to price stabilization left many kibbutzim with too much debt, leading to the collective bankruptcy of the entire kibbutz movement. The kibbutzim were forced to negotiate new terms for their debt with a government that insisted on market-oriented reforms. As a result, kibbutz members less committed to the collective ideology, usually from the second generation and newcomers, increasingly felt that a utopian community like the kibbutz needed to change. Some of them left their kibbutzim to make new lives for themselves on their own, while others began to call for reforms from within.
The changes in the kibbutzim that resulted from the economic crisis have unfolded in two stages. The first stage of modest reforms within the kibbutz system lasted from the late 1980s until 2000. First, the communal household has been partially privatized, with the old system of direct supply of commodities and services being replaced by the allocation of monetary budgets to members, who can buy inside or outside the kibbutz, e.g. members receive money to pay for meals in the communal dining room or for paying for electricity. Second, a quasi-market system of work allocation has been introduced, with members free to choose work inside or outside the kibbutz, and managers of kibbutz branches free to choose which members and which nonmembers to employ. Third, the kibbutz economy has been separated from the kibbutz community, with kibbutz ventures now being subordinated to managers and boards of directors rather than the general assembly of the kibbutz.
In the 1990s, small numbers of kibbutzim began to experiment with more far-reaching changes. The most controversial of these have been proposals to replace the traditional kibbutz system of “from each according to ability, to each according to need,” with a pay system that provides unequal pay for unequal work. Since the beginning of the 21th century, more and more kibbutzim were paying their members’ salaries according the market value of their work; a practice that spread to about 78% of kibbutzim by early 2016. These changes inconsistent with the legal definition of a kibbutz. The government of Israel decided in 2002 to form a Public Committee to consider whether this new type is still a kibbutz. The Committee concluded that kibbutzim with differential payment for work and partial member’s ownership of property constitute a new type of “renewed kibbutz” with limited mutual responsibility and democratic decision-making, especially with regard to reforms of kibbutz lifestyle.
Among the renewed kibbutzim, two main changes have occurred. First, net salaries are being paid out after deduction of a flat-rate municipal tax from all residents and a progressive tax for a mutual aid fund from members only. This means that concessions are made to the application of the equality principles, reflecting people’s different standards of living. Yet, those with small income or economic hardship are assisted through the mutual aid fund.
An additional step taken by the renewed kibbutzim in order to rejuvenate the community was to open their gates to a large number of young newcomers, who were not obliged to become members of the kibbutz as was done until then. The result of this new policy was that by the second decade of the twenty-first century many kibbutzim experienced no longer dwindling but rather growing populations.
This change, opening the kibbutz gates, is a three phase stage: (1) In the mid-1990s a decision was made by some kibbutzim to develop residential neighborhoods for non-members adjacent to their built-up area. This meant that these people, who had to be approved by a kibbutz committee, did not have to abide to the basic kibbutz principles and can reside in it with almost no obligations to the kibbutz. They do not have to pay the progressive tax but have no right over the mutual aid fund or the kibbutz assets. (2) When kibbutz members realized that their own grown children do not want to live in the classic kibbutz because they wanted more individualistic life styles they relaxed the membership acceptance rules and enabled them to become “partial members”. This status was called economically independent members. The economically independent members have usually to pay a reduced progressive tax for the mutual aid fund and have a right to it when needed but they have no rights or limited rights over kibbutz assets. (3) The multiplicity of associational statuses brought about many misunderstandings, conflicts and renewed attempts to create a unified community. Most of the conflicts and misunderstanding were over power division, over property rights and over way of life. Today there are numerous attempts to unify those statuses and to transform the kibbutz and the new neighborhoods into a unified community. The question is how? One way of doing it is by accepting newcomers only as members, partial or full, into the kibbutz. Some kibbutzim have already decided to do so. They can do so because with the new relaxation of the stiff collective way of life the kibbutz has become very attractive for young families. But this question of whether to enable different residential types is a strongly contested issue in today’s kibbutz movement.
Charney, I., and M. Palgi (2013) “Interpreting the Repopulation of Rural Communities: The Case of Private Neighborhoods in Kibbutzim,” Population, Space and Place. Wiley Online Library, DOI: 10.1002/psp.1840.
Palgi, M., and S. Getz (2014) “Varieties in Developing Sustainability: The Case of the Israeli Kibbutz,” International Review of Sociology—Revue Internationale de Sociologie, Vol. 24, No. 1, 39–48.
Palgi, Michal, and Shulamit Reinharz, eds. (2011) One Hundred Years of Kibbutz Life: A Century of Crises and Reinvention. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers
Russell, Raymond, Robert Hanneman and Shlomo Getz. (2013) The Renewal of the Kibbutz: From Reforms to Transformation. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
Michal Palgi, PhD, is an organizational sociologist and Head of the Institute for Research of the Kibbutz and the Cooperative Idea at the University of Haifa, Israel (https://kibbutz.haifa.ac.il). She is a former president of the ISA Research Committee on Participation, Organizational Democracy and Self-Management (RC10) and the founder of the Department of MA Studies in Organizational Development and Consulting at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College.
Banner Image: Photo by Mati Chalily, kibbutz Mishmar Haemek.
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