Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Tale of Two Deganias

Privatization takes many forms on the kibbutz. I realized this fact last summer, when I visited both Degania A and Degania B—neighbouring communities since 1920, when Degania A "franchised" a decade after its own founding. Degania A is now a relatively wealthy community (thanks to a factory that makes diamond-cutters), and yet voted (controversially) to privatize in 2007. Degania B, I was told, is struggling economically—and yet has remained a traditional, communal kibbutz.

This contrast goes against the general trend that several experts had explained to me—that the remaining traditional kibbutzim are ones that can afford to stay communal, while the privatized (or "renewed") kibbutzim have been forced into these changes out of economic necessity. That theory, of course, is a reversal of the long-held assumption of critics of the kibbutz that these rural communities could afford to share everything because they had nothing much to share in the first place.

I stayed in the guest house on Degania B and had a chance to tour the kibbutz. The dining room, like most kibbutzim, charges for meals, and seemed a quiet, rather lifeless room when I had my breakfast. The members may not be millionaires, but the residents of Degania B still have one of the most beautiful swimming pools I've had the good fortune to do a few laps in—crystalline waters overlooking the Jordan River Valley. (I've sometimes daydreamed about doing a tour of Israel that would involve hop-scotching the length of the country, like the narrator in John Cheever's "The Swimmer", from one kibbutz pool to the next, and reading the mood of each community from the poolside conversations.) 

In the news today, I learned that because of the recent recession, the members of Degania B voted to sell a controlling interest in the kibbutz's medical products company in exchange for 100 million shekels (roughly $27 million Canadian). In economic terms, while they maintain a communal mode of consumption (in which everyone remains equal), they have been forced to privatize their means of production—a radical departure from the socialist vision of the founders. 

I hope to visit both communities again this summer, on the centenary of Degania A's founding, and observe more carefully the different paths taken by two of the earliest kibbutzim. And maybe do a few more laps in that wonderful pool.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Look Back to... Mishmar Haemek

This link includes some classic archival photos from the Shomria Institution, the first kibbutz education centre founded by the Hashomer Hatzair movement. It was located on Kibbutz Mishmar Haemek, overlooking the Yizreel Valley, which I had the good fortune to visit and tour last summer. It is a large, successful and still resolutely communal kibbutz with a storied history (several members have been members of Parliament), including as the site of a major battle during the War of 1948.

Chomsky and the Kibbutz

Here is an interesting audio interview from 1976 with Noam Chomsky, the famous American linguist and left-wing political critic, about anarchism—or what he calls "left-wing libtertarianism". "I myself think that the most dramatic example was the Israeli kibbutzim," he says, when asked for examples of communities successfully based on anarchist principles. (His discussion of the kibbutz's history begins at about 4:15 mark in the interview.)

In another interview, Chomsky talked about his early interest in the binational vision of the kibbutz movement:
This was 1947, and I had just turned eighteen. I was deeply interested, as I had been for some years, in radical politics with an anarchist or left-wing (anti-Leninist) Marxist flavor, and even more deeply involved in Zionist affairs and activities—or what was then called "Zionist," though the same ideas and concerns are now called "anti-Zionist." I was interested in socialist, binationalist options for Palestine, and in the kibbutzim and the whole cooperative labor system that had developed in the Jewish settlement there (the Yishuv), but had never been able to become close to Zionist youth groups that shared these interests because they were either Stalinist or Trotskyite and I always been strongly anti-Bolshevik.
He eventually stayed on a kibbutz for a few months in 1953 and had a positive experience of this spartan, egalitarian community:
The kibbutz where we lived, which was about twenty years old, was then very poor. There was very little food, and work was hard. But I liked it very much in many ways. Abstracting it from context, this was a functioning and very successful libertarian community, so I felt. And I felt it would be possible to find some mixture of intellectual and physical work. I came close to returning there to live, as my wife very much wanted to do at the time.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Divisions in the Movement

Almost since the birth of the kibbutz a hundred years ago, different communities have hived off into a handful of different federations that would represent their collective interests and various visions of communal life: religious vs. Marxist, staying small vs. growing bigger, etc. The past 20 years of demographic change and economic privatization, however, have weakened the power and influence of these federations. In fact, after several amalgamations, there is for all intents and purposes only one remaining federation, the Kibbutz Movement, that speaks for all secular kibbutzim.
Recently, two kibbutzim decided to break ties (for now at least) with the main federation over a dispute with the Labour Party (long the movement’s “voice” in the Israeli Parliament) about completing foundations for buildings that would house the children of kibbutz members. The source of the dispute: the two communities are located in the Jordan Valley, near the Dead Sea, on land captured after the Six Day War, in the much-contested region known alternatively (depending on where one perches on the political spectrum) as Judea and Samaria, the West Bank, or The Occupied Territories. To make historical matters more convoluted, one kibbutz—Beit HaAravah—had been founded in 1939, evacuated during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and re-established as a military kibbutz outpost in 1980.
What seems like a small dispute—the kibbutzim only wanted to finish the foundations, not the actual buildings, but were ordered to destroy them—escalated into an ideological split. It’s a reminder of how recent changes to the kibbutz movement have made individual communities both more isolated from and independent of the larger kibbutz community—much like the members themselves in their own private lives.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Kibbutz is Dead. Long Live the Kibbutz

Catching up on my Net-surfing, I read this analysis of the rise and fall and rise of the kibbutz movement in MarketWatch. It's part of the Wall Street Journal's digital network, so you can anticipate the bias. It's definitely typical of the kibbutz-as-failed-socialists-embrace-capitalism slant that J.J. Goldberg critiques

Still, it's filled with some interesting facts and financial stats and mentions Kibbutz Shamir (whose stock has doubled since I visited—I should have invested!). And the wide-ranging debate amongst commenters shows how passionate people can get about what the fate of the kibbutz means to the rest of society. 

And the article's conclusion actually lays off the throttle of its otherwise free-market cheerleader tone:
Now numbering 123,000, the new kibbutzniks are financially cautious and ideologically disillusioned, but even so, in an era of global economic perplexity, theirs may yet prove a model for a kinder, gentler, communitarian capitalism.

Happy 80th to Kibbutz HaDati!

I'll be the first to admit I know little about religious kibbutzim in Israel. I've never visited one and have only read about them tangentially. I didn't even know that 2010—the centenary of the movement as a whole—is also the 80th anniversary of Ha-kibbutz Ha-Dati, the federation devoted to the small group of 16 religious-oriented communities. There is a good short posting on Jewish Daily Ideas that gives a mini-overview.

Most people know the kibbutz as an intensely secular, even anti-religious movement. Yes, there was a sense of spirituality amongst its founders, but it was based on a vague "religion of labour" inspired by the Tolstoy-tinged writings and actions of philosopher-pioneer A.D. Gordon.  (More on him later.) The early pioneers were fleeing the claustrophobic orthodoxy of their homes in Eastern Europe.

But the Ha-Dati communities prove just how tricky it can be to generalize about a social movement as varied as the kibbutz—let alone a multicultural nation as complex as contemporary Israel. (Of course, those shades of grey often don't appear in the black-and-white depictions of the country in the North American media.) The Jewish Daily News item emphasizes just how slippery it can be to pin a political tail on the religious kibbutzim: "Although many members sympathize deeply with the settlers in Judea and Samaria, the movement is also one of the few sectors of Israeli society in which one hears left-wing voices speaking in religious cadences." 

In fact, these religious communities have taken a leading role in the coalition of traditional kibbutzim (often called "The Communal Trend") that has tried to preserve the movement's communal ideals and even lobbied against allowing "privatized" communities to retain the legal status of "kibbutz". It may take the efforts of religious kibbutzniks to save the founding philosophy of the secular commune.

Religion, it seems, helps preserve the co-operative spirit in the face of change—or at least that's one theory I plan to test-drive when I visit Israel again this summer... and finally set foot on a couple of religious kibbutzim. (Until then, happy 80th birthday!)

To confuse things further, you just have to consider the moshav — a semi-co-operative rather than fully communal rural community that has always gotten far less attention than its more famous sibling, the kibbutz. (And subsequently resented the kibbutz because of this.) The moshavim tend to be more religious and more attractive to Mizrahi Jews (from Middle-Eastern and North African countries) rather than the Ashkenazi Jews (from northern and Eastern Europe) who founded the first kibbutzim.

Apparently, religion has suffered a decline in many of the moshavs for a variety  of reasons. If it's hard to make general statements about the kibbutz movement without stumbling across a glaring exception, forget about  trying to sum up the state of the moshav — maybe that's why they get ignored by the pundits, despite their key role in the agricultural economy in Israel.

The Economic Crisis

I've been distracted by end of term deadlines and meetings, plus a short business trip to San Francisco, but have been meaning to link and reflect on an interesting story in The Jewish Daily Forward. It's a look back at the economic crisis. No, not the recent international meltdown of the financial system, but rather the spiralling hyperinflation that struck Israel in the mid-1980s.

Most experts point to the financial shock of this period as the beginning of the end of true communalism in the kibbutz movement. Many critics use the deep indebtedness of the kibbutzim at the time and their subsequent embrace of what might be described as "free-market reforms" as evidence of capitalism trumping socialism. But as author J.J. Goldberg points out, that analysis doesn't stand up to scrutiny. In fact — and I heard this from several experts myself — the kibbutz movement got a raw deal from the banks and government, especially when compared to the debt restructuring agreements hammered out for other players in the then-struggling Israeli economy. 

The result? A sense of economic desperation and disillusionment amongst kibbutz members.
Whatever the reason, kibbutzim didn’t receive even partial debt restructuring until 1989. By that time, the combined kibbutz movement debt was near $6 billion, or about $50,000 per kibbutznik. Draconian debt repayments were emptying kibbutz treasuries and driving down living standards, except on the wealthiest kibbutzim. Members with marketable talents began leaving, and kibbutzim began searching for ways to entice them to stay. Exit socialist idealism, enter private incentive.
That might seem like ancient history in light of Israel's booming new high-tech economy. But the changes currently transforming the kibbutz movement have their roots, not  in a failure of ideology (or not entirely), but also in a political unwillingness to extend a helping hand to communities that had played a vital role in the settlement and development of the State of Israel. (One minor correction to the original article: The Likud hadn't been "feuding with the kibbutzim since the 1930s," as that right-wing party didn't come into existence until 1973. Its founder, Menachem Begin, did have little sympathy for kibbutzniks, who he infamously derided as "millionaires with swimming pools".)

J.J. Goldberg, a former member of Kibbutz Gezer, sums up the "lessons" of the last economic crisis nicely:
The old kibbutz ideal is mostly history, and nothing is likely to bring it back. But the truth still matters, because the crisis of the mid-1980s has lessons for us today. The same cynical arguments brought against the kibbutz at a time of crisis — it never worked anyway, idealism is naïve, greed rules, dog must eat dog — are being hurled these days against every effort at a kinder society, from health care reform to minimum wages to pensions to consumer credit protection. It was bunk back then, and it’s bunk today.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Journal: "Swan Lake" at Purim

The Jewish holiday of Purim was more than a month ago. But I've been transcribing my old journal from my time as a volunteer and came across a brief description of the festivities on Shamir. It reminded me that, as I research the history and economics and sociology of the movement, not to forget about the life of the kibbutz. 

So many of volunteers' best memories, like my own, centre around the shared cultural events that the kibbutzniks organize to reinforce their sense of community. And no event is more booze-laden and bizarre than Purim. I'm glad I remembered to jot down a few notes afterwards. And while the photos are embarrassing, they do bring back memories, too. 

Here is an excerpt from my journal of March 25, 1989:
Yesterday was Purim, a Jewish religious festival celebrating the story (possibly apocryphal) of Mordechai’s saving the Jewish people from the persecution of the king’s advisor Haman. It is the one holiday that the Jews are not only allowed but expected to get drunk on. As part of the evening’s festivities, the volunteers performed a pair of acts. The first, starring Tim [from Chicago] on guitar and Emma, Mandy [British volunteers], & co. singing backup, was a song about life as a volunteer, sung to the tune of “My Generation”, entitled “Ghetto Creation”. The grand finale to the live entertainment segment of the Purim party was presented by Jim, Mattias, Wolf, Bruce and myself. We danced a unique version of “Swan Lake” to a medley of music that included Mendehlson, Little Richard, and the theme from “The Magnificent Seven,” as well as various rude bodily noises. Our costumes were complete with swan heads, flowing feathers, downy feet, pink tutus, dark shades and cigarettes. Mattias [from Sweden] had the choice role as the dying baby swan whom we discovered, pranced about, and eventually tore to shreds. Renowned drama critic Yoav [a kibbutznik friend] applauded us as “the best act”. Wolf [an older German volunteer] had gotten himself completely pissed as we were waiting for our stage call, sitting awkwardly in full costume, and was blurting out bizarre comments such as “Johnny hates goldfish” and “Get warm Swede!”

The Kibbutz on Paths Apart

Dr. Eliezer Ben-Rafael is perhaps the most influential academic of kibbutz studies. Not only has he written extensively and edited several important books on the topic, he also chaired the national committee (which ended up taking his name as shorthand) charged with redefining the legal status of the kibbutz in Israel. I met him last June at Yad Tabenkin, the archives of the Kibbutz Movement, and had a wide-ranging discussion about the recent evolution of the kibbutz. Here is a transcript of that interview:
I read your book [Crisis and Transformation: The Kibbutz at Century’s End] and the introduction to your new book [The Kibbutz on Paths Apart]. Are there changes still to come, as part of the Ben-Rafael Committee?

Once the kibbutzim started [making] all kinds of changes in the area of rewarding people with money and differential salaries, allocating flats as private property, issuing shares, giving right of property on the collective property of the kibbutz, developing “community expansion—all these kinds of things—it became quite uneasy for the kibbutz to deal with the state agencies and also with itself, among the various units in the frame of the kibbutz movement, because all the definitions of what a kibbutz is were outdated. 
The kibbutz regulations, since the ‘50s, stipulated that the kibbutz settlement that is done within collective property, collective consumption, collective education etc.—that no money should reward members. Everything should be shared by members. And according to the taxpaying collective, the kibbutz paid collective income tax, [lending] was allocated to the kibbutz as a unit with no expectation of parcelization to private plots. Kibbutz education was considered special and as a special status in the ministry of education. The Minister of Education recognizes the kibbutz as a special educational program because it educates people to live collective lives. In many, many fields of life, the regulations were quite clear that the kibbutz is something very special and therefore special norms apply to it. 

And there are benefits to that.


What is the Communal Registrar?

There is a registrar of corporation of associations that is in charge of making sure of controlling not only the kibbutzim, but each sector around it in some kind of particular definition in order to have the appropriate norms applied to it. In the early 2000s, the first year or so of the millennium, we [saw] the explosion of all kinds of innovations in the kibbutz … a reality, where the concept of kibbutz meant many different things in different places, and all the norms that were applied to the kibbutz for taxpaying, for educational budgets, you name it, were not appropriate. So there should be a new definition of what is a kibbutz and the same for the movement organizations because they were the leaders of the sector. But what was the sector? What was it made of? Who were the components of the sector? What is a kibbutz if you have two, three, four kibbutzim, each representing another [model]?
One of the main things that characterizes these changes is that these changes were not endorsed in the same manner, to the same degree, with the same intensity, in the same areas, in each place. In each place, the kibbutz itself decided what to endorse, what not to endorse, and to what degree, etc. and some kibbutzim decided to remain outside of this stream of change.
The context itself of the change, you know what it was?

The economic crisis of mid-’80s?

There was first, in ‘77, the political change [with the victory of the Likud] which disconnected the kibbutz from the political arena. It was very [stuck] in the Labour Party, the left parties, and suddenly it was disconnected from this scene and had no say anymore and lost a lot of power, public power and political power.
Second, in the mid-’80s, we had the huge economical crisis which de-legitimized, to a [large] extent, the kibbutz in the eyes of its own members. So after three or four generations of hard work, suddenly they were in debt and powerless without influence. 
There was this political crisis and this economical crisis, [which] together created this kind of cowardice—intellectual cowardice, ideological cowardice—in the late ‘80s, and then came all series of changes in the early ‘90s. That, in fact, when you look at retrospectively, prepared the big changes that I have just spoken [about] now. The salaries, etc. 
This being said, there was a problem for the kibbutz movement and for the government, and for the public authorities to decide what the kibbutz is, to redefine what kind of norms should apply.

Was there actual pressure from within government?

From within government agencies, and from with the kibbutz movement itself. It is a conjunction. It’s not just that the government impose on the kibbutz or the country, but the kibbutz lobbied to set this up. It was a joint pressure that brought the government in 2000 and 2002, I think, to decide to create a committee, a public committee, that would redefine the kibbutz and would outline the norms that apply to it in different areas of life which has a direct impact on what governmental agencies may or may not require from kibbutzim. That was a very hard job. I was president and [was] asked to preside [over] this committee that was made up of the leadership of the kibbutz movements, public figures, academics, and high-level officials, especially in the Ministry of Justice. We had a committee of about 25 people, 27 people, I think, and we had meetings for about 16 months. Every three weeks we met and progressively we cleared the grounds, started setting down new definitions. We started it all with two to three months of information collection, what was really going on with the kibbutz movement. We heard experts from the kibbutz movement, economists, sociologists, all kinds of people, informed people, bringing us updated information. From this step we moved to substantial work, discussing the different points and the basic definition of what the kibbutz is, and this became the scene, the arena, of huge fights between different tendencies.

What were the main sources of conflict?

The main conflict was among kibbutzim themselves because we had a strong minority that called [itself] the “Collectivist Stream” that wanted to de-legitimize it all, all these kibbutzim that bring in innovations. And on the other hand the [other] kibbutzim, the innovative kibbutzim, wanted definitions that would bring the conservative kibbutzim within the same definition as theirs. 

They wanted the definition to shift.

Exactly. And so it was really a war. There were representatives of both trends in the committee.

Is that ultimately why it had to be like Solomon–a split in two?

We had to find the grounds to have the two trends agree on something. The big question was one definition for the kibbutz that would be sufficiently flexible to include all the varieties, and the other attitude was two definitions of the kibbutz. One, the kibbutz A, the kibbutz was communal, and second the innovative kibbutz. … So that was the dilemma, to keep them together, or to have two definitions that might lead to a vicious split in the kibbutz movement.

The paths apart.

Exactly. So that was the challenge. Finally we agreed on two definitions, slightly different definitions, but with the same number in the book of regulations. That means in the general law of cooperative associations, kibbutz figured as item number 5. So we had item number 5A and item number 5B.

So it remained there?
Very close to the same, and we retained the classic definitions of the kibbutz for the 5A, and we defined a more flexible definition for the kibbutz mitkhadesh, the innovative kibbutz.

What are the boundaries of that definition?

What is the kibbutz in the new definition? The classic definition is that the kibbutz is a settlement where people are grounded in equality and sharing. There is a collective responsibility etc,. and the difference with the innovative kibbutz was that the kibbutz response tends to be grounded in equality and sharing etc. but may include innovations such as—and then we gave the possibility of privatization of housing, differential salaries and cooperative shares over the means of production. 

Was a minimum salary level set?

Yes. In the innovative kibbutz, what still retains a kibbutz within the limits of what a kibbutz is, several things, but the two major most important conditions are: first, the principle of a reciprocal or mutual guarantee or responsibility. (I’m not sure of English translation but there’s a traditional Hebrew phrase: Aravut adidit.) Aravut—to warrant someone. Adidit—reciprocal. You are in charge of me, I am in charge of you. This kind of meaning. This principle means that any member of the kibbutz, independent of his salary, is entitled to lodging, to health care, to education for his children, to work. It means, a set of rights that are in total much beyond what a welfare state grants its citizens. 
The second thing is the special majority, the overwhelming majority, of two-thirds to three-quarters of the participants of the votes is required for any change in the structure of the kibbutz that is of principle significance.

Like those previous three?

All the things that are things of principle. If someone proposes, for instance, to suppress kibbutz education at all, he needs three-quarters of the votes to have this endorsed. But this means that any major change in the mode of life and style of life can be decided only through a process of collective dynamics. … So any decision, any big, major, important decision, is to be based on the collective.

It can’t be a simple majority?

Not just 50 or 51%. So these two principles, Aravut adidit and overwhelming majority, that guarantees that the kibbutz remains a community and not just an association. A collective. And I see here the important thing, the important aspect of the continuation of the kibbutz idea. It’s different from the past, it’s certainly a strong shift that changed from the past, but it is still a transformation of something that continues to exist through its transformation.

Have there been kibbutzim that have breached that definition?


Have they been de-legitimized?

Yes, they have left the kibbutz movement. Beit A’Meq has left the kibbutz movement.

It just becomes a community?

No, it becomes a moshav. Two or three of the kibbutzim have become community settlements, communal settlements.

That’s a different definition?

They divided their land. So you still have a red line. There is a red line. To go farther from this red line, to get through this red line and you are out of the kibbutz, according to the new [law]. My committee has defined the implications of this in different areas and this I brought to the government and had the privilege to present it to the government itself. Not to the Knesset, to the government. I was invited to a governmental meeting and I presented the case and I answered questions by ministers and in my presence they accepted and endorsed all the conclusions of the committee. Then I left … then they translated these conclusions into regulations that again necessitated several months of negotiations, but it was achieved. The translation of the general conclusions of the committee into specific and precise legal regulations.

Were there pressures outside the government—such as the Eastern Rainbow—and criticism of kibbutzim outside the movement?

They were very hostile, the Eastern Rainbow, which is a very, very small group, but of noisy intellectuals, left-wing intellectuals, of Middle Eastern [Mizrahi] origin, but intellectuals who are academics. They were opposed to anything that they thought gave some privilege to the kibbutz movement.

Because the movement is seen as Ashkenazi [European] in origin??

Seen as kind of aristocratic. … These kinds of stereotypes.

Millionaires beside the swimming pool.

Yes. But in fact, because of the crisis, when we started our work, many kibbutzim were very close to breakdown. Many kibbutzim—about 35 to 40% of kibbutzim—were close to breakdown because they were buried in debt.
And also people of the moshavim said, “Why the special attention to the kibbutzim? Why not extend this kind of committee to the moshavim movement?” All kinds of things like that.
But finally, when the committee was created, it worked. It gave its conclusions. Nobody really opposed these conclusions. They were smoothly endorsed and implemented.

There is a third category: educational-urban kibbutzim.

Yes, we spoke of a third kind of kibbutzim. These are the urban kibbutzim. We’ve spoken of four real [urban] kibbutzim existing now, and about another 20 to 30 groups that are quite unstable. Some might become stable, and become real kibbutzim, urban kibbutzim. These kibbutzim have no lands. They have some houses, generally in impoverished neighbourhoods. They see their calling as helping the community, giving services to the community, and besides this, making their living from working professional jobs. Some of the members of these are in professional jobs related to social welfare services and so on. They make up a very tiny population, but they are there. They are related to the kibbutz movement.

Do they still call themselves kibbutzim?

Yes, and we wanted to give them some kind of a commission. 

Were they included in original committee or did they come after?

The original committee, our committee, decided to recognize them and thus we gave three definitions of kibbutzim: the classic, the innovative, and the urban. 

Have these definitions influenced the kibbutzim? Has there been more movement, a cause and effect, because of the actions of the committee?

Yes, it has set free all the dynamism of many kibbutzim that wanted to implement changes but which has been [banned] from it because they were not sure of their legitimacy. Now that it was recognized, many kibbutzim decided to move, to get into, let’s say, a “thinking period” to think over what they need and to consider the possibility to plan and despite the huge civil war between the kibbutzim of these two major types, the Shitufi and Mitkhadesh, in fact there was no split in the kibbutz movement. On the contrary, the two major kibbutz movements, Kibbutz Artzi and Takam, they united. After tens of years, they suddenly found a way to unite.

Was it partly because of an increasing loss of power?

Different things. They were losing their power and therefore they found that if they unite they will be stronger and the kibbutz sector in general will be stronger. The second thing is that these two movements were related to political parties. The Takam was related to the Labour Party and the Kibbutz Artzi was related to Mapam and then to the left-wing party. But the membership is less and less involved in party politics and many, many members in both movements do not vote for the parties they are supposed to support. …And so they are much more free to get together. 
The third thing is that in fact to keep some impact, to keep some power in front of the government, in front of official agencies, in front of the society, it’s as important to try and unify the forces. But at the same time the kibbutz sector becomes more heterogeneous because of the changes. In this respect is when the movements’ structures lose much of the power because they are not leaders anymore of a well-disciplined army standing behind them. Each [kibbutz] is its own model, each one understands kibbutz a bit differently, etc. So how can you make a kibbutz policy when each one represents different [things] or different requests, different interests? The kibbutz movement becomes more of a framework than as a real movement as it was in the past. 

One sociologist described the new kibbutz definition as a “zombie category” that has been emptied of any real meaning. What is your response?

Nonsense. It may well be that in the future that is what will happen. But for the time being, what is important to undeerstant is that the changes that have been implemented have given the kibbutz much more vitality. The kibbutzim have reacted very positively to the changes that have been implemented in the sense that now you may have your own house and you can get work wherever you want, provided you give some to the kibbutz, and you pay for the tax of the community, etc. You can also get private resources in the open, not like in the past. 
Many sons and daughter of the kibbutz are ready to remain in the kibbutz today. For years the youngsters left the kibbutz in mass. You had kibbutzim [where] the average age was 50 to 55. Nowadays you have [many] more sons and daughters remaining in the kibbutz because there are less collective restraints, but still you have advantages that you do not find elsewhere. For instance, you still have the community. You do not live in isolation–the feasts, all these events take place in the community with a cultural endeavour. You live in a rural environment, not in the middle of the city–a green environment. You [have] now more or less and certainly when you get your salary–within or outside kibbutz–a feeling of economic security. The aravut adadit gives you also security for old age or if something happens to you. The quality of life, feelings of security, the community dimension, represent for many people outside the kibbutz and especially for sons or daughters who have to decided to remain in the kibbutz or go out, it [enhances] very much the attractiveness of the kibbutz. This is why to say that the kibbutz is a zombie category is not right. 
I think what comes out–I have a formula, not everyone likes it—[is that]when the kibbutz becomes more like other [communities], less different, it becomes more attractive than others. Paradoxical. At least for some people—sons, daughters, and for some people in the city—you have now community expansion in many kibbutzim: new neighbourhoods growing out, growing up inside the kibbutz. More residents than kibbutz members. Then the kibbutz has a new population, younger people with children, a younger dynamic, that pay for services in the kibbutz, that pay for cultural activities within the kibbutz, that send their children to kibbutz schools, that participate in the clubs, kibbutz clubs, swimming pools. 
In many places you have problems and conflicts, but in some you feel a new rhythm of life, a new vitality.

Were you kibbutz born?

No, I went to the kibbutz at the age of 18 after high school—I came from Belgium originally—and lived in kibbutz for 20 years: Hanita, in western Galilee.

Has it been privatized?

Yes, it’s been renewed. I lived there for 20 years. In meantime, I had the opportunity to study, so I went out to university etc. But the kibbutz remains an area of academic interest, that’s why I’m involved all the time in research on the kibbutzim.

In your book, what do you mean by the kibbutz being a “risk society”?

Because the fact that the kibbutz, now more than ever, what it does depends on [is] what its members decide and the temptation may always be for kibbutz members to decide not to be a kibbutz. It’s a matter of daily choice. To say if you want to remain a kibbutz, it’s in your hands. Nowadays, it’s very easy to stop being a kibbutz. You can decide you’re finished with the time and money for elder people, finished with the welfare services. You want this money for yourself, for the youngsters. You can always break away. Let’s say in our situation we have to finish with collective decision-making. We have to give the power to some technocrats, they will take the decisions. You can always do that. So it’s a matter of daily and continuous choice, and this is why it’s a risk society, because you can also make the other choice not to be a kibbutz.

Does the Ben-Rafael Committee still exist?

No, but we have started a series of research to follow up what happens in the kibbutz after the [committee’s] decisions.

Monday, April 5, 2010

A Complaint

The director of the Centre where I'm a fellow fielded an email complaint about the content of my talk last month about my research into the kibbutz movement and the lessons that could be applied to Canada's co-operative economies. Or rather the complaint focused on the lack of context I provided about the situation of the Palestinian people. While preserving the author's anonymity, I've pasted the letter below:
As I mentioned when we spoke after the "Return to Galilee" talk, I ... have lived and worked in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. The Palestinian community in Lebanon numbers approximately 400,000, and are the descendants of the almost 100 000 refugees who fled what we now consider Northern Israel in 1948 into Lebanon. One of the dominant founding myths of Israel is that Israel was a "land with no people for a people with no land". Israeli historians Ilan Pappe and Benny Morris address the causes of the refugee "problem" in their work, and debunk these ridiculous assertions. In Jonathan Cook's new book Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair , he chronicles the intentional and systematic dispossession and destruction of Palestinian villages following Israeli statehood. You can read up on the whole scale theft of Palestinian land and moveable goods in the following excerpt from Cook's book
While many of the early kibbutz were founded on land that was purchased legally in British mandate Palestine (as stated by an audience member at the talk), this does nor render kibbutz in modern day Israel politically neutral. Kibbutz Shamir is a complicit and contributing community within the state of Israel. A state that continues to flagrantly break international law by continuing the illegal occupation and settlement of Palestinian land, and the construction of a wall that the International Court of Justice deemed illegal and ordered torn down in 2004. A state that uses policies of collective punishment against Palestinians, deploys white phosphorous weaponry and one of the world's most powerful militaries against civilians (leading to Judge Richard Goldstone's UN report, accusing Israel of crimes against humanity), and maintains a system that President Jimmy Carter (among reputable others) acknowledges as apartheid. There is nothing sustainable or cooperative about this broader context. Removing a small and economically viable element from the Israeli state (i.e. Kibbutz Shamir) and holding it up as an example of cooperative development in 2010 is morally and intellectually questionable. It is dangerous and irresponsible to decontextualize information in this way.
This is not an attack on yourself, Prof. Leach, kibbutz, kibbutzim or Israeli society. This is a criticism of the state of Israel, which has created a context and a situation deeply rooted in injustice and the violation of human rights - which no university should herald as sustainable. 

While I disagree with many of her points, I appreciate that the email writer didn't resort to the fiery rhetoric or personal attacks that too often mar discussions about Israel and Palestine, especially on campuses across North America. (Concordia U. even banned talks on the subject because they were so often sources of conflict.) I tried to be equally respectful in my response:

[The director] forwarded your message and concerns about my recent talk at UVic that discussed the kibbutz movement. As I mentioned in the talk, I appreciate all feedback and debate.
In defence of my approach, I would emphasize that the mandate of my fellowship and talk was to draw lessons from the history of the kibbutz movement (whose principles were established well before 1948) that might inform the current thought and future actions of the co-operative movement and university system in Canada. Based on the range of questions I fielded after the talk and at our Friday tea, I think I accomplished that goal.
Tackling the divisive issues of contemporary Middle East politics was well beyond the scope of a 40-minute presentation. Even if I had 40 hours to “contextualize” that topic, I would be unlikely to change anyone’s opinions, which tend to be set in stone. Anyone who wanted to hear the context you suggest had plenty of opportunities; there were at least four talks on the topic as part of “Israel Apartheid Week” activities around the city.
 That said, I agree with your claim that the kibbutz movement is not “politically neutral”— and disagree that the kibbutz can be dismissed as a “complicit and contributing community within the state of Israel”.
 In fact, throughout its 100-year history, the kibbutz movement has been one of the strongest and most consistent voices, on either side of the debate, for peaceful co-existence in Israel/Palestine. For that context, you must start with the kibbutz’s anarchist roots and vision of a binational commonwealth (mentioned in my talk and documented in James Horrox’s recent book A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement). You can then look at the views of the Mapam Party (founded by Kibbutz Artzi members) that objected to the destruction of Arab villages in 1948 and argued that all refugees should be allowed home.
You can track the involvement of kibbutzniks and federation leaders in various peace initiatives since that time. These would include the Four Mothers Movement (of kibbutz activists) that precipitated the military withdrawal from Lebanon right up to the current efforts of the Kibbutz Movement spokesman to pressure both the Israeli government and Hamas to broker an exchange of Palestinian detainees for captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit—one of the major obstacles to peace negotiations.
 In this debate, every context can be further “recontextualized”. Firstly, I’d suggest that any mention of the Goldstone Report is incomplete if it doesn’t acknowledge how the judge also cited Hamas for war crimes for targeting rockets at civilian populations in Israel—often kibbutzim. (In fact, the most immediate context to my talk was the death of a kibbutz worker that morning from a Qassam rocket launched from Gaza.) Secondly, while you cite both Ilan Pappé and Benny Morris for their revisionist histories of 1948, I’d point out that Morris has more come to very different conclusions about the root causes and consequences of that war—views that likely no longer align with your own perspective.  
Finally, Ilan Pappé himself was the founder and director of the Institute for Peace Studies at Givat Haviva, an educational centre (which I’ve visited) devoted to Arab-Israeli co-existence and funded by the kibbutzim in the Artzi Federation, of which Shamir is one of the most prominent members. So, some of the evidence you cite has been bought and paid for in a real and direct way by kibbutzniks on Shamir. To turn around, then, and claim that “Kibbutz Shamir is a complicit and contributing community within … [a] state that continues to flagrantly break international law by continuing the illegal occupation and settlement of Palestinian land” is both morally and factually indefensible.
It’s like saying that you or I — or the entire co-op movement in Canada for that matter — is complicit with and contributes to the actions and policies of the current Harper government, because we are citizens and communities under its democratically elected, albeit minority, mandate. What sliver of truth might lie in that claim is buried under the sheer weight of an over-generalization that denies the possibility of individual conscience and dissent. Perhaps I’m naïve, but I continue to believe in the possibility for change from within a society. In fact, that belief forms the basis for my research into utopian thought throughout Israel/Palestine.
I don’t consider the kibbutz beyond criticism. In fact, part of my talk focused on how the movement has evolved away from some of its founding ideals. In the end, the tragedy of the kibbutz movement is how its original vision of equality and justice has been shunted to the margins, since 1977, by the rise of right-wing and religious parties in Israel—and violence on both sides. So I find it strange and self-defeating that anyone genuinely committed to peace in the region would similarly seek to diminish and deny this collective voice of compromise and cooperation.
Thanks for attending my talk and engaging in a dialogue on these important issues.