The Sylvia Plath of the Kibbutz Movement

The Sylvia Plath of the Kibbutz Movement

It’s hard to do any reading about the kibbutz movement without coming across mentions of Rachel Bluwstein Sela. Rachel (known now simply as Rachel the Poetess or just Ra’hel) was the tragic-romantic heroine of socialist Zionism, a sort of Sylvia Plath of pre-State Israel, what one biographer called the “femme fatale” of the early kibbutz movement. 
Like many of the socialist pioneers, she was born in Russia—the 11th daughter of well-to-do parents—and only visited Palestine, in 1909, on what was meant to be a tourist stopover with her sister on their way to study art and philosophy in Italy. The spirit of Zionism swept both young women up, however, and they stayed to work the orchards in Rehovot, south of the newly founded settlement of Tel Aviv. She was likewise enchanted by the old Arab town of Jaffa, and travelled to the various Jewish settlements carved out by the recent wave of young socialists, such as Chana Meisel, a new friend who encouraged Rachel to join one of these nascent communities.

Rachel headed north, to the Sea of Galilee, to live and study at the small women’s agriculture school at Kvutsat Kinneret. There, she fell under the influence of A.D. Gordon, the middle-aged philosopher-savant who captivated young protegés with sermons about the “religion of labour” and by the example of his own tireless work ethic. Rachel, who had penned verse since the age of 15, began writing in Hebrew, with a dictionary at her side, and dedicated her first Hebrew poem to her mentor. She tried to sublimate her artistic temperament and upper-middle-class upbringing through the arduous chores of her new community and becoming one of the kibbutz’s hardest workers. She would forgo art and music to instead “paint with the soil and play with the hoe”. These long days would become ever-more tinted in nostalgia when she looked back to Galilee toward the end of her too-short life.

With A.D. Gordon’s blessing, she left Israel in 1913 to study agriculture in Toulouse, France. However, the outbreak of the Great War separated her from her one true love—the land of Palestine—and instead she returned to Russia, where she tutored Jewish refugees and likely caught the tuberculosis that would shorten her life. In 1919, after the armistice, she joined other Jewish immigrants aboard the Ruslan and arrived back in Palestine. She settled in Degania Aleph, the first kibbutz, not far from the Kinneret agricultural school. But she never recaptured the joys of her first years of pioneering. Her disease soon manifested itself. Her TB-ravaged body was no longer suited for outdoor toil. And she couldn’t safely oversee the community’s children. She was compelled to leave—like Eve cast out of Eden, alone, unwanted.
Rachel the Poetess (second from right)
She despised cities but lived, for the rest of her days, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, pouring her dwindling energies into her writing—deeply-felt poetry layered with a longing for the past, for a lost connection with the land of the Galilee, and at times at an Emily Dickinson-like vision and acceptance of her last days. She had relationships with different men, including one future president of Israel, but never married. She died in a sanatorium, alone, at the age of 40, in 1931. Ever since her body was buried at Kvutzat Kinneret, her reputation has only grown as a tragic icon and as a poet, whose simple Hebrew lyrics have been put endlessly to music. (Next year, she will be further immortalized, ironically perhaps, on the 50-shekel bank note.) Her short poem “My Land” best exemplifies her romantic spirit—one that defined the early pioneer movement, and a lens of nostalgia that’s hard not gaze through when one looks back upon the early history of the kibbutz movement.

Land of mine,
I have never sung to you
Nor glorified your name
with heroic deeds
or the spoils of battle.
All I have done
Is plant a tree
On the silent shores
Of Jordan,
And my feet
have trodden a path
Across the fields.

Review: Degania: The First Kibbutz Fights its Last Battle

Review: Degania: The First Kibbutz Fights its Last Battle

 Degania: The First Kibbutz Fights its Last Battle is a documentary with a definite point of view—the film’s bittersweet subtitle should make that clear—like a Michael Moore film without the presence of the lumbering U.S. agent provocateur. It is also a fascinating account of a watershed moment in the 100-year history of the kibbutz movement: the decision by members of Kibbtuz Degania A, the original communal settlement in Israel, to privatize their community in 2007. This news broke internationally, as the world finally took notice of the changes that had been transforming kibbutzim over the previous 20 years. It also became used — by free-market bloggers around the Internet — as the final nail in the rhetorical coffin of socialism.

Yitzhak Rubin’s 56-minute account of the last days of Degania as a fully communal kibbutz begins, curiously, with scenes of American Christians getting baptized along the banks of the Jordan River, not far from where Kibbutz Degania Aleph was founded. The movie then outlines the founding myth and storied history of this influential community (including its vital and valiant role in the War of 1948) through interviews and archival footage. But it soon makes clear that changes are afoot. Despite nearly a hundred years of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (and relative wealth compared to other kibbutzim), some members and leaders at Degania have been lobbying to alter the fundamental egalitarian structure of their community.
Here, the movie excels at letting viewers play fly-on-the-wall to the heated debates and civil strife caused by the public (and private) debate that precedes the vote to privatize—how it sets brother against brother, friend against friend, neighbour against neighbour. As one anti-privatization member asks, Why do members who want to privatize need to irrevocably change what is unique about Degania, when anyone who wants to live in a private neighbourhood can simply walk out the gates and find a “normal” community like that anywhere in Israel or the world.
Despite the radical origins of Degania, in 2007 its more bourgeois trappings are what make people want to stay: its slowed-down rural life, its sense of family, safety and security, where kids can run free and parents know that someone will bring their children home, amidst a world (and a country) of potential danger and uncertainty. It’s pretty clear that the filmmaker sides with the traditionalists of Degania, but we still get to see the arguments of the other side, led by kibbutz director Shai Shoshany (who I interviewed last year). Even for longtime residents, like Yoya and Alan Shapiro (a daughter of a Degania founder and her American-born husband), the choice is tough: they know that many of the younger members want change or they might leave.
Finally, the filmmaker takes us right into the final pre-vote general assembly before balloting on the proposed initiatives. Shoshany asks Rubin, the director, to wait outside and not film the proceedings, but the canny filmmaker keeps his camera rolling and captures memorable footage of the turbulent back and forth of this all-important historic debate. This is how a dream ends: democratically and divided. (That said, in Degania and other kibbutzim, a vote to change the economic structure of the community requires a super-majority, usually 75 to 80%, rather than 50% plus one.)
In the end, the anti-privatization members lose the vote and must accept the will of their peers. In 2007, Degania introduced differential salaries and other free-market initiatives to their once communal economic structure. When I visited last year, I only had a chance to interview Shai Shoshany, the kibbutz director, so I got little personal sense of how the privatization plans have panned out for the other kibbutzniks. That said, I did come across this interesting news video, shot a year after the vote, which suggests that the Shapiros, originally resistant to the changes, have seen benefits to their community—or at least accepted the inevitability of change.

In any case, this film is a vital document both as a historical record of the first and best-known kibbutz and as an incisive sociological unpacking of how privatization occurs in such democratic communities. It’s well worth watching as Degania marks 100 years since its founding with a year of celebrations and a huge three-day ceremony in early October, when Israeli president Shimon Peres and members of cabinet will visit Degania and help to honour the occasion.
Degania can be purchased or watched as pay-per-view online here. As I was looking for links, I also came across this fascinating footage from 1937 of Degania from the Spielberg Jewish Film Archive. The narration is perhaps typical of its time—a bit over the top—but it makes for fascinating viewing on the centenary of the first kibbutz. Whether it has fought its last battle, I leave up to others to debate…

A Note on the Title

Last June, when I was visiting the Institute for the Study of the Kibbutz and the Cooperative Idea, at the University of Haifa, I was asked by one of the researchers there if I had a name for the book I was working on about the kibbutz movement.

Look Back to Galilee,” I said.

“That sounds very Christian,” he replied.

I don’t think he meant anything negative by it—it was a simple observation, and an accurate one at that. What Israelis call Lake Kinneret, Christians know as the Sea of Galilee. And the “Man from Galilee” is pop-hymn shorthand for J.C. Himself.

I have my reasons for clinging to this title, even though I have an alternative name squirreled away in my back pocket. One is to acknowledge that the book (or whatever this project becomes) is hardly a 100% objective historical account of the kibbutz movement, but rather the perspective of one non-Jewish outsider who has a fascination with the subject of communal life in Israel.

The title seems fitting, too, for the memoir aspects of the writing—I do plan to “look back to Galilee” and recall my experiences and the people I met during my tenure at Kibbutz Shamir, in the HaGalil, or Upper Galilee.

Finally, the phrase itself come from one of the founders of Degania, the first kibbutz.

A little history, courtesy of Henry Near: Four young men from the Ukraine, who had participated in a Zionist group in the town of Romni, formed a commune and promised to share wages and accommodations once they boarded a ship for Palestine in 1907. The next year, now five, The “Romni Group” started work at a “training farm” at Kinneret, along the Sea of Galilee. Their relationship with the farm’s manager deteriorated, however, because of the manager’s over-optimistic profit estimates and, later, his use of Arab labour, which the Romni Group saw as “a violation of Zionist principles”. They held a strike and were asked to leave, although as a concession, they were offered a chance to cultivate a farm near the abandoned village of Um Juni.

They declined and, maintaining their communal arrangements, worked for different farmers near Hadera in 1909. Another group of six accepted the offer to work at Um Juni, which they did with some success, making a small profit, and then dispersed. The Romni Group were again offered the chance to move their communal arrangement to Um Juni, where the Jordan River flows out of the Sea of Galilee. This time, the Romni Group (now a dozen men and women) felt ready to grasp the opportunity and, in the autumn of 1910, returned to Galilee to found a community that, in August 1911, would be renamed Degania. (Hence, the problem of dating the centenary: Did Degania “begin” in 1909, 1910 or 1911?)

As Joseph Baratz, one of the founders, later recalled of their time in Hadera and their dreams of communal life:

Thanks to our communal life, a feeling of intimacy between the members grew up. We talked a great deal about the ‘commune’; for a certain time, this was the main idea … communal life not just for a chosen few, but as a permanent social system, at any rate for the bulk of the pioneers who were immigrating to Palestine.

Our chief aspiration was to be independent—to create for and by ourselves. We came to realize that it was a Sisyphean task to achieve this if we were working for somebody else, and we began to look back to Galilee.

What is a Kibbutz?

It’s a question I often get asked when I talk about this research project and my experiences on Shamir. Most people have heard of kibbutzim (the plural form of kibbutz) and have a vague, general idea about them, perhaps from someone they met who lived on one, as communal farms in Israel.

Wikipedia offers a decent basic definition and a detailed overview of the history of the kibbutz movement and recent changes. (Appropriately enough, it is collectively written—Wikipedia is to encyclopedias as kibbutzim are to private communities and farms, although Wikipedia is in ascendence where kibbutzim are on the decline.)

Henry Near, a kibbutznik and author of the definitive two-volume history of The Kibbutz Movement, offers several useful definitions in his book’s Glossary:

kibbutz (community): (a) federation of communal groups (plugot, havurot, etc.) and/or settlements (e.g. the Kibbutz Me’uhad). (b) Large communal settlement, combining agriculture with industry, as opposed to the small entirely agricultural kvutza. (c) Comprehensive name for communal settlement.

kvutza (group): (a) Communal working group, whose members contracted to work for a defined time or objective. (b) Small, permanently settled, purely agricultural communal group.

The founders of Degania (later renamed “Degania Alef” to distinguish it from neighbouring Degania Bet) called their community a kvutza. In the early years of the movement, there was great debate about whether these communities were better suited — philosophically, economically, socially — to remain small units (ie, kvutza) or grow to be a full-blown kibbutz (some of which count more than 1,000 members).

More recently, with the turn of the millennium, many kibbutzim have voted to reduce the communal obligations of members—paying for food in the dining hall, letting members own their own houses and apartments, and permitting “differential salaries” (ie, market value wages rather than the original socialist concept of “From each according to their ability to each according to their need”).

These changes strained the legal definition of what constitutes a kibbutz. In 2002, a national Committee for the Classification of Kibbutzim (known as the Ben-Rafael Committee for its chairperson) met and eventually (after often contentious debates) mapped out a new three-part definition for which communities can call themselves a kibbutz (a designation that has legal and tax advantages in Israel).

There can now be 1) Kibbutz Shitufi — aka “traditional” or “collective” kibbutzim — which maintain much of the original cooperative system of collective ownership and redistribution of resources; 2) Kibbutz Mitkhadesh — aka “renewing” or “innovative” or (often pejoratively) “privatized” kibbutzim — which have instituted privatization of apartments, differential salaries, and/or distribution of shares of the means of production; and 3) Urban Kibbutzim — a relatively new phenomenon, of the last 30 years, in which small groups of usually young people live cooperatively in urban settings and tend to be employed in fields of social work and education with a shared vision of social justice.

Some observers say this new flexible definition of “kibbutz” will allow the communities to evolve and thrive, on their own terms, in the 21st century. Other critics told me that these changes have emptied the original concept of meaning and turned it into a “zombie category”. Part of the goal in my travels, research and writing is to explore what value and values the concept of the kibbutz maintains in 2010.

Happy Anniversaries

Just over twenty years ago, I took my tuition money for second-year university and bought a plane ticket to Israel instead. I’d heard about a kind of communal farm called a “kibbutz” that welcomed international volunteers—often wander-lost souls like myself—on working vacations. Once in Israel, I was assigned to Kibbutz Shamir, in northern Galilee, on the slopes of the Golan Heights. I only intended to stay for a month or two and then continue travelling. I ended up working there for nearly seven months—and was sorely tempted by an offer of a longer term job.

I returned to Canada profoundly changed by my experiences on Kibbutz Shamir. I tried to write about my time there in poetry, fiction and drama, but never felt satisfied with these creative expressions. My life and studies and work in Canada took over, and I never returned to Israel as I had intended.

A year or so ago, I decided to google “Kibbutz Shamir” out of curiosity—I had lost touch with friends from my time there—and was startled to see that many of the documents that came up were about how, in 2005, the lens-making factory (where I had often worked) had made its debut on the NASDAQ stock exchange.

A kibbutz founded by Romanian socialists, part of a communal movement often described as “the purest form of socialism in the western world”, was getting wealthy in the free market. Shamir had obviously changed since I’d left. So, too, I was soon to discover, had much of the movement.

Last June, I had the opportunity for a two-week return visit to Shamir and Israel and a chance to talk to members of Kibbutz Shamir and many experts in the field of kibbutz studies. I hope to return again some time soon for a longer visit.

This new year—2010—marks the centenary (okay, some people mark it as 2009, others as 2011, but more on that later) of Israel’s kibbutz system, with the founding of Degania, the original kibbutz, along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where the River Jordan flows south, by a dozen young Jewish pioneers. There will be many celebrations to mark this anniversary and much soul-searching amongst critics and kibbutz members who fear that the movement has lost its ideals and its positive influence on the state of Israel.

This blog is just one small, highly subjective attempt to chart some of these debates about the most influential communal movement in the world, as well as an opportunity (kindly supported by a fellowship at the Centre for Co-operative and Community-Based Economy here at the University of Victoria) for me to share research, conversations and memories as I reflect on what I experienced on Kibbutz Shamir and what I’m continuing to learn about the kibbutz movement. In a more general way, it will also be about our shared search for utopia—for a better place—in an often divided world.

Please join me on this journey of discovery and share your own thoughts and comments at the different stops along the way.

—David Leach