There was an informative news item in Ha-Aretz, one of Israel’s leading newspapers, about the state of the kibbutz movement as it celebrates its 100th anniversary. The article offers a clear summary plus supporting statistics of how many kibbutzim have voted to “privatize” and what that really means. (“Privatize” has a connotation in English that doesn’t capture exactly what’s happening in these communities, once run as anarcho-socialist communes—it makes it sound like they’re being sold off to McDonald’s or Procter-Gamble, which simply isn’t true.)
Most interesting, while the trend of the past 10 years has been toward increasing privatization, so that it once seemed that the death of communalism was inevitable in the movement, last year only five more kibbutzim voted to differentiate their salaries and loosen their communal arrangements. That still leaves 65 “traditional” communities and nine half-and-half “integrated” kibbutzim.
One commentator suggests that 2009 may mark the “peak” of privatization and a realization that moving from a cooperative economic model to a more market-driven one often only benefits a fraction of any community in the end. Dr. Shlomo Getz, the head of the Institute for the Study of the Kibbutz and the Communal Idea in Haifa, cautioned not to make too much of these numbers and assume that privatization has “stalled” — several more communities are considering, and will likely vote on, altering their economic structure.
Along with two American colleagues at the University of California (an idealistic institution suffering through its own financial crisis), Dr. Getz has been surveying kibbutzim for 20 years and documenting 50 types of changes that have been implemented. Dr. Getz is a member of Kibbutz Gadot — which privatized not long ago — and a hospitable exemplar of the kibbutz ideal. On my visit to Israel last summer, he took me under his wing, tutored me on the essential context of his research, introduced me to his colleagues at the institute, and even had me over for dinner with his wife when I stayed at Gadot.
As Dr. Getz reminded me during our interview, the kibbutz has never been a static phenomenon. It has always been an open, evolving society, unlike insular religious communes, which tend to coalesce around a hard kernel of unchanging faith or dogma. In the 1970s, industry and higher education became part of the agricultural kibbutz movement. In the 1980s, the sleeping arrangements in the children’s houses gave way to traditional parenting.
“But now, from the beginning of the 1990s,” Dr. Getz explained, “the change is total change—multi-system change. There are three or four crises at the same time. You have to make changes in different aspects at the same time.”
An anniversary, like 2010, makes a good opportunity to look back and reflect on where a community (or an individual) has come from, and what has been lost and found on the journey. So it will be interesting to see, if it’s true that the sense of crisis has largely passed and that many kibbutzim—both privatized and traditional—have found economic stability, whether the urge to privatize will continue or whether a nostalgia for the communal life of the near and distant past will once again come to the fore.
“This stage of the kibbutz, it’s not the final stage,” Dr. Getz told me. “It’s the new kibbutz now. In 20 years, it will be another one.”