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among the various units in the frame of the kibbutz movement, because all the definitions of what a kibbutz is were outdated.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.