International Communal Studies Association
Eighth International Conference
Session 5, Wednesday, June 30.
June 28-30, 2004
The kibbutz movement is perceived as the "flagship" of the intentional communal movement worldwide. Today this 95-year-old phenomenon appears to be foundering.
The relative success of the kibbutz was due to its being an integral part of the Zionist movement. The Zionist movement was both a national political movement for establishing a state for the Jews (political Zionism) as well as a movement for Jewish cultural renewal (cultural Zionism). The kibbutz was a result of a “marriage of convenience” between a certain vision of Jewish cultural renewal (cultural Zionism) and the practical needs of political Zionism. During the period preceding the Second World War and until immediately after the establishment of Israel in 1948 the “marriage of convenience” evolved into a full partnership of vision and purpose. This was the period when Martin Buber described the kibbutz as “an experiment that did not fail”.
After the establishment of Israel, the kibbutzim increasingly diversified into industry and strengthened their economic base. However, with the passing of the founding generation, their ideological elan began to decline. The functional importance of the kibbutzim for the State of Israel became marginal.
The founding generation of the kibbutzim was motivated by an ideology based on faith. The following generation of sons and daughters related to practical challenges and eschewed ideology. The kibbutz began to stagnate ideologically. A major negative contributing factor was the Holocaust, which destroyed the European reservoir of recruitment for new ideologically oriented kibbutz members.
The mass immigration to Israel after the establishment of Israel, particularly from the Arab countries, was unsuitable for kibbutz life and largely became aligned with the right wing nationalist movements that toppled Israel’s Labor government in the 1977 elections. These elections also spelt the end of the special relationship between kibbutzim and government. The kibbutz proved incapable of building bridges to the new Israeli society. It was associated with the “patronizing” elites that had absorbed the mass immigration. The kibbutz’s rigidly secular stance negated the traditional bent of many of the new immigrants especially those from the Arab countries. After 1977 new neo-liberal economic policies undercut Israel’s agricultural sector including the kibbutzim. Ideological stagnation and economic over-extension went hand in hand and caused the economic crisis of the mid-eighties.
Economically, much of the kibbutz movement is undergoing partial privatization. However, the essential change is that the kibbutz, whatever its economic framework, is no longer a focus for social-cultural Zionist vision. “Where there is no vision, the People become unruly” (Proverbs 29:18).
Currently there appear to be three possible foci of kibbutz regeneration.
1) The collective stream within the general organization of the kibbutz.
2) The orthodox religious kibbutz movement.
3) Urban kibbutzim founded mainly by Israeli youth movement graduates and the sons and daughters of veteran kibbutzim.
The verdict is not yet in with regards to their ability to revivify the most prominent communal movement of the Twentieth century.