Rachel Johnson

The kibbutz goes capitalist

The collective where I once laboured is privatising its houses

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

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.

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