The kibbutz goes capitalist

The collective where I once laboured is privatising its houses

6 April 2013

9:00 AM

6 April 2013

9:00 AM

Galilee: The last time I was here, the kibbutz was filled with sunburnt, muscular, sweaty Israelis covered in dark curly hair, driving Jeeps, so handsome I’d spill my Jaffa orange juice down my white cheesecloth culottes when they spoke to me.

Then, Kfar Hanassi, in northern Galilee, a grenade’s throw from the Golan Heights, had 600 or so members, and cleaved to the lofty-lefty ideals of the collective: everyone gave what they could, in the words of the kibbutz movement, and got what they needed.

No one owned a house, everyone ate the same thing together in the dining room (yoghurt, hummus, eggs, more yoghurt, more hummus). After dinner, everyone attended plenary meetings to discuss the security fence, or dance to an Irish-Israeli fiddle band. Everyone earned the same wage, except, that is, for the day workers from Lebanon, who earned less; and the volunteers, who earned nothing.

I was a volunteer. And even I, in my concrete hut with its corrugated iron roof, could sense as an ignorant 18-year-old that this dreamy-sharey commune thang wasn’t going to pan out. The signs were already there. The Jewish socialist dream was going to rub up against competing human drivers, like the wish to make money, buy your own home, and have something to pass on to your children.

For a start, nowhere is more Animal Farm than a commune. When I arrived with my brother Boris in 1984, we found out that, for sound hierarchical reasons, we’d both been assigned the worst jobs of all. We volunteers were low down the food chain, and male Aryan ones at the bottom — lower even than the Lebanese gastarbeiten who came in to do the grunt work, as the financier Damian Fraser (who was on a kibbutz in Haifa in 1984) summarises. ‘The main problem was the kibbutz was divided between the volunteers and permanent residents,’ he recalls. ‘The female volunteers only wanted to sleep with the permanent residents, the Israeli men, who were handsome and in the army. All the female permanent residents were also only interested in the Israeli men. So if you were a male volunteer you watched everyone sleep with everyone else except you.’


Boris was detailed washing up, and I’d been landed with ‘male sanitation’. I therefore had to play the only Get Out of Jail Free card I had. I had to trade my limited sexual capital as a Shiksa — a non-Jewish blonde in a country of dark Sabras — for freedom, just as the Israelis traded land for peace with the Palestinians. I flounced into the office of the work co-ordinator, tossed my mane, and whined that I hadn’t come to the Holy Land to scour urinals.

And then there were the other little problems. Kfar Hanassi had a chicken business and a valve shop and sheep and apple orchards. And panoramic views over the Jordan valley. Lovely. But no one was going to get rich there. And all the work was manual. So not only were all the jobs tough, but everyone had to do them, especially, as I’ve mentioned, the unpaid volunteers.

In my middle age, I found myself wondering how my old kibbutz was getting on, and how its ideals had survived the collapse of communism, Thatcherism, Reaganism, and all the other isms. This March, I went back.

I found my concrete hut, and saw the large swimming pool where I’d lain prone after rising at 3.30 a.m. every day to pick fruit or herd sheep in return for my keep. But it seemed lifeless. The kibbutz was a third of the size it used to be, and there was no communal dining hall. Instead, everyone stayed home at night, watching TV. And the average age of the members was 80. I found Alec Collins, who, together with his wife Edna, had been our ‘mother’ and ‘father’ and fed us brownies. ‘It started with the volunteers,’ he said. ‘When they came, we were no longer a closed society. Then we had the 1960s, sex drugs and rock’n’roll.’ He scratched his leg, in his khaki shorts. ‘The world changed, and the kibbutz changed with it.’

Sociologists date the beginning of the end of the kibbutz movement to as long ago as the war of 1967. The annexation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem meant the end of socialism and the start of messianic, Zionist capitalism. Now signs of the change are everywhere. For example — in one of those tiny changes that symbolises a big shift — sandals, the emblematic item of socialist footwear, almost compulsory on the kibbutz, were banned from the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in 2007.

The story of Kfar Hanassi is that of the nation in microcosm. Israel’s economy is booming — there’s an area north of Tel Aviv known as Silicon Wadi — and this year, the housing stock on the Kfar Hanassi, built by the founder members with their bare hands, is being privatised in the hope of tempting younger blood back in.

Alec Collins agreed that for the old-timers, the way the kibbutz movement has marched to the right, in step with the state, is a disappointment. ‘It is a blow,’ he said, ‘a broken dream for them. But if we didn’t change, we’d become an old people’s home.’

As I left Galilee, I realised that it would be simplistic to say that the changes in the kibbutz movement mirror the changes in politics, the economy, and the population. In Israel, things are always more complicated. But a country that was once socialist, secular, and led by men who’d all been on kibbutzim, like David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, and Ehud Barak, has turned religious, nationalist and capitalist. There is only one kibbutznik left in the Knesset, but two settler MPs are already ministers.

My hairy Israeli boyfriends have grown up and gone. Only the yoghurt and hummus and concrete huts are as I remember, and the scent of lemon blossom, heavy on the air of the Jewish spring.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • Robert Hansen

    I worked at Kfar Hanassi as a volunteer for two months in 1971 at the age of 18, probably living in the same concrete huts. I was short, Canadian, male, blond, and too cute for words, but you’re right, I never got laid. I worked in the kitchen, the laundry, the orchards, the chicken barns, the fish ponds, and for the plumber. I loved it. Clean air, mostly outdoor work, farm living. I had no great thoughts then, or now, about kibbutz philosophy. It was simply a wonderful experience for a young person travelling Europe with a backpack and no money. I just finished writing a memoir of those early days. Anyone who wants to read the chapter on Israel and Kfar Hanassi is welcome to e-mail me and I will send it to you as a PDF. rdnhansen@gmail.com

  • avi15

    Complete non-article

    • http://www.facebook.com/tony.shakespeare.9 Tony Shakespeare

      I thought it was interesting. But that’s probably because I considered volunteering for a kibbutz in the 1980’s

    • beatonthedonis

      Complete non-comment.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Barbara-Steward/632852965 Barbara Steward

    I enjoyed a peek into something I had no real knowledge of, apart from the odd ancient fluffy love story that took place in this setting and was no doubt 100%fiction. My reading tastes have since matured with age.

  • beatonthedonis

    Built by socialists, stolen by capitalists.

    The story of modern Europe.

    • shayknbake

      Completely backwards.

      Built by Capitalists, manipulated by Socialists.

    • http://profiles.google.com/digbydolben Bruce Lewis

      The Europe that was built by capitalists who turned imperialist committed suicide from 1914 to 1945. Thereafter, social democrats attempted, in most European countries, to build a new Europe, and that “new Europe” has, indeed, been stolen by “capitalists”–but the “capitalists” are not liberty-loving entrepreneurs, but “crony capitalists” who seduced the hypocritical “social democrat” politicians.

    • Chris Svenstrom

      Wrong Mr. Beat. Kibbutz was manned by hard workers. No question. In large part it was funded by capitalists — just like everything else.

  • shayknbake

    The biases in this article are ridiculous. Firstly, Israel has not annexed the West Bank or Gaza (it disengaged from the latter completely).

    The majority of the Israeli public is overwhelmingly secular.

    You make it seem as though just because your kibbutz failed that the entire enterprise has also. There are many kibbutzes that have adapted successfully over time… and many where the average age is ~25 or so.

    And good job on misusing the word Zionist just to provoke a negative connotation to the word and to the state of Israel. Israel has always been a Zionist country (that’s how it was founded, otherwise there would be no Jewish state on this planet). So yes, it is a Zionist Capitalist society now, but it was a Zionist Socialist country in its past (some would argue even more zionist than now).

    • abulinix

      Israel has not officially annexed the West Bank, but large portions of it have de-facto been annexed–and the factual error does nothing to detract from the case, albeit made in shorthand here, that the territorial gains of 1967 and the occupation that followed altered Zionism and the character of the Jewish state.

      The kibbutzim have, indeed, by and large, ceased being kibbutzim. Many failed. Others have adapted–as Kfar Hanassi is attempting to do–but they’ve done so at the cost of much of their character. Many have become bedroom communities. Are they still kibbutzim?

      Zionism in Israel today has lost much of its idealism and acquired a blandly nationalistic flavor. You might argue it has intensified. It has also emptied. The “Israeli dream” is no longer to actualize some vision of a Jewish state, together, but rather to make it through the army, make money, have a family, and put thoughts of the world and Israel’s troubled neighborhood out of mind… Maybe this was inevitable–though I’d argue that much of the hardening was brought about by the occupation–but for those who experienced that former idealism, it’s a real and poignant loss.

      • NicoleS

        Oh grow up. Why should Israelis break their backs to preserve socialist ideals for people like you? The kibbutz was necessary as a way of building a small, barren country up from scratch and it succeeded. Now israelis can enjoy the same way of life as everyone else in advanced countries.

        • abulinix

          My misgivings (grounded in experience and investment of which you haven’t the faintest knowledge) have less to do with the loss of a particular economic model than with the loss of idealism. Growing up does often, but not always, involve the loss of idealism and a sense of special purpose. Israel has experienced an acute loss of both, and not all of it was inevitable. You can look at the kibbutz as an instrument, and at that early idealism as a tool, to get to a certain destination. I would argue that enjoying “the same way of life as everyone else in advanced countries” was not quite that destination. I would also argue that it’s far from clear that Israel’s success is sustainable.

          • NicoleS

            The only acute loss Israel has experienced is the vanishing prospect of peace, due to Arab intransigence. Why do people, including many Israelis, expect Israel to be more idealistic than anyone else? Israel aspires to be a normal country and does not need to be a paragon of virtue to justify its existence.

          • abulinix

            To state the obvious, many of us believe Israel is not remotely faultless in the vanishing of the prospects for peace. More pragmatically, Israel has quite a lot to lose, beyond its idealism, by continuing to bury its head in the sand (a term some may find infuriating but which is nonetheless quite apropos to the prevailing Israeli attitude to the occupation). It’s true that Zionism was not always about lofty ideals; Herzl considered Uganda, after all, as the setting for a Jewish state. But the Zionists of the early Yeshuv and State, the ones who founded the Kibbutzim and paid in blood were, indeed, fighting for a country that is NOT just another state, or even a simple refuge from persecution abroad. “A Light Unto Nations,” and so on…

          • Chris Svenstrom

            So what. So what — they were idealistic socialists. They wanted Nirvana. So it is not the same as it was. Socialism always fails, economically. The kibbutz last longer than most socialist enterprises. And the kibbutz enterprise was a success, by most parameters. It did not last forever (althought it still exists) as it was in 1908, so this warrants abulinix’s ramblings?

            What is all this rambling nonsense? Mr. abulinix, you are talking nonsense, nonstop. There is no point to your discussion except disjointed points with no connectivity, except you get a chance to use words like ‘occupation’ and the writer of the article who states many false statements can write about her hairy boyfriend and that she is a shiksa. Who cares? Between the writer of the article with incorrect facts all we have it more useless bashing.

          • Atreyu

            Well said, Nicole.

        • Philip Kirschner

          The ideal of KIBUTZium is just that an idea. Many people, are considering where we stand on the JEWISH ideals. What I do know is ISRAEL must survive as a JEWISH state. I see in right now developing in America a rise in antisemtism as AMERICA declines in power. Happens all the time. The problem is, ISRAEL is becoming a me me me society, And who will take care of the founders of ISRAEL as they die off? Or the hero’s of the 1960’s and 70’s wars of miracles that gave so much to secure a future for the JEWISH nation? Who will take care of them with their disabilities. I see the orthodox attempting a huge powergrab, is that a problem? It depends on perspective. Aspects of socialism have applications, but ultimately for ISRAEL to survive as a MODERN JEWISH state will need to adapt along with religious aspects of ISRAELI life.

  • serguei_p

    One can’t expect too much of Socialist idealism in a country that
    since you visited it in 80s received large number of immigrants from the
    former USSR. They had enough of Socialist ideas pushed down their
    throat to know better then actually believing in them.

    • abulinix

      At the risk of overgeneralizing, are these the same immigrants who vote for ultranationalist antidemocratic figures of the Avigdor Lieberman mold, avowed admirers of Vladimir Putin with an overwhelming stench of corruption about them?

      The more things change.

      • serguei_p

        Why you calling him “anti-democratic”? Because he has different views different from left-wing?
        And no, judging by people I know who started their lives in the USSR, then emigrated to Israel (some of them spending time in the Army) and then moved to the UK, they are NOT admirers of Mr Putin. And they are definitely not left-wing.

        • abulinix

          That Lieberman is corrupt is widely known, and you can look up the details of past and ongoing investigations yourself. I refer to him anti-democratic because he’s proposed wholesale and involuntary “separation” of blocks Israeli Arabs (full-fledged citizens of Israel) from the state: placing them into Palestinian control so as to avoid “demographic problems,” WITHOUT their consent. He’s also proposed a “loyalty oath” whereby all citizens, whatever their religion or affiliation, be required to pledge allegiance to the State of Israel AS a Jewish State–or be forced to lose their citizenship. NO democratic nation on Earth has ever required such an oath. Imagine the UK requiring its Jewish citizens to pledge allegiance to it as a Christian nation. Lieberman has visited Putin personally and defended him in public. He’s known to be an admirer. If you’re suggesting that Putin is any kind of left-winger, I think most observers would strongly disagree.

          • serguei_p

            I always thought that Arabs wanted to live in “Palestinian state”. Are you saying that Israeli Arabs actually don’t want to live in such a state a prefer to live in a Jewish state? 🙂
            As for loyalty oath, what is so undemocratic about it? American children, I believe, supposed to do it every day at school?
            And if Arabs don’t want to say such an oath, they would probably prefer to be part of an Arab state (see your first complaint)? Why don’t you decide what Arabs really prefer – to live in Jewish state (and as citizens to give an oath) or to live in Arab state without the need to live their houses and emigrate.
            As for Lieberman – I am not an Israeli so I don’t know what he personally think about Putin, but I know several Israelis with USSR background and they really dislike Putin.
            And no, Putin is not a left-winger in economic terms, but he is a supporter of the high state involvement in people’s lives, so he shares at least this trait with left-wingers.

      • Chris Svenstrom

        Abulinix. You are making false statements. False. Why are you making things up? I think I know why.

        Israel is the only democratic country in the Middle East with liberal values and liberty. Putin?

        What are you talking about. No one admires Putin in Israel, except perhaps the perhaps the communists, that is very few. And I believe most of these are Arabs.

        Perhaps you should go to Gaza or Syria. Your head would be cut off in a minute, killed, just like the young lady Ms. Mueller who hated Israel. She went to Syria. What happened? Well, well, the Arabs raped her over and over and over again. Then they killed her.

        Abulinix. Another one.

  • Wiless

    “Boris was detailed washing up, and I’d been landed with ‘male sanitation’. I therefore had to play the only Get Out of Jail Free card I had. I had to trade my limited sexual capital as a Shiksa — a non-Jewish blonde in a country of dark Sabras — for freedom, just as the Israelis traded land for peace with the Palestinians. I flounced into the office of the work co-ordinator, tossed my mane, and whined that I hadn’t come to the Holy Land to scour urinals.”

  • Wiless

    “‘The main problem was the kibbutz was divided between the volunteers and permanent residents,’ he recalls. ‘The female volunteers only wanted to sleep with the permanent residents, the Israeli men, who were handsome and in the army. All the female permanent residents were also only interested in the Israeli men. So if you were a male volunteer you watched everyone sleep with everyone else except you.’”
    Let that be a lesson, fellow men: when women slut it up, they do so selectively; no-one puts out to everybody, just top dogs.

  • David Ellman

    It is very interesting to hear what volunteers say about the kibbutz. I’ve been living on the kibbutz all my conscious life, through living in communal houses, hardly seeing our parents. Working everywhere including the “black jobs seemingly given only to volunteers. I went through all those jobs too you know :-).
    Kibbutz, as it was then was something fit for a certain time frame in history, no more. There was no way it could last. Like I sometimes quote: “Kibbutz is a wonderful way of life, pity there are human beings involved”.
    Yes we have seen many changes that can and do effect people in different ways. I feel better off now days. It is not normal for people to get exactly the same as everyone else. It is NOT normal to get wages regardless of how many hours you work. It is abnormal for kids to be away from their parents except for a maximum of 4 hours a day.
    So kibbutz just turned normal and I don’t see that as a problem.
    We still have festivals and all kinds of get-togethers. We still have a pretty good social life and I can only feel sorry for those who sit and cry about the “old kibbutz”. Kibbutz changes. Life is change. If we don’t adapt, we stay at the station while the train carries on. We miss the boat. I really don’t feel like missing any boats in my life.

    So, as life is not black and white, maybe we should look at the bright side….Don’t you think?

  • brian

    I volunteered in 1990 and feel privileged to have had an inside view of the ‘end ‘ of idealism. I loved the ideas of equality and fraternity, but it was clear then that it was not working to well. I have also wondered what it would be like to visit there again sometime.
    It must be very painful for the founders and older socialists to see how things have turned out. I remember reading about how at the time of major change ( think 2005) the idea of throwing the oldies out on the street was considered. imagine you give your life to this ideal and it kicks you in the knackers…ouch.
    The care free life and healthy food and the socializing was awesome.
    My ‘parents’ were the Taalbergs. don’t know if they are still there. I am still in touch with Ora Namali (she is in England) me in South Africa

  • http://www.davidgoldmanphoto.com David Goldman

    For me it was 1989, I was 19 and just your standard brown haired Canadian Jew (whatever that means) traveling Europe with the hope of staying longer to travel when my money began to run out. I had applied to photography schools back home but my mother had done some investigating around and found that Kfar Hanassi was offering some kind of Haifa University credit with a photography program they were running at the time. I’m sure the goal was to get young jews to move to Israel from wherever they lived. For me it was an opportunity to stay abroad for more time and maybe get some great photos as well. I think the guys name who ran the photo program was Dov (don’t quote me) they had a dark room that was pretty well setup for the time. I honestly don’t remember too much of the photography other than Dov saying you could use nose oil to clean negatives, I’m still not convinced of this. Well I never heard of the credits for the university again nor did I get laid or even pick up much hebrew even though Ulpan was mandatory for volunteers. I did make one life long friend and had a great time. I made out with some woman in the bathroom of a local bar while her Uzi wielding army boyfriend was drinking just feat from us (that was fun) I was called an “American pussy” because I had the lucky job of being a lifeguard at the pool and I guess that rubbed the local guys a bit the wrong way. For me the what stood out the most was my first job. I was told to take all the little triangle valve pieces from one giant container and count them as I transfer them to another giant container. Not a big deal at the time but about a week later I saw a new volunteer counting those same pieces and transferring them back to the original container. We were lucky, it was a peaceful time in Israel then. After five months I woke up one day and decided I had have enough and that eight months away was good. Now I live in New York and I am a professional photographer, I photograph for the UN as well as documentary and portrait work. No doubt my time in Israel helped to shape me: http://www.davidgoldmanphoto.com