Rachel Johnson

The kibbutz goes capitalist

The collective where I once laboured is privatising its houses

The kibbutz goes capitalist
High school-aged kibbutz workers recline in a banana grove (Photo by B. Anthony Stewart/National Geographic/Getty Images)
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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.

‘In hindsight, I regret curing him of his sex addiction.’
Written byRachel Johnson

Rachel Johnson presents her LBC show on Sundays at 7 p.m.

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