and the KIBBUTZ
One Hundred Years
of Kibbutz Life
A Century of Crises and Reinvention
New Brunswick (U.S.A.) and London (U.K .)
Dr. Michael Livni
D.N. Chevel Eilot
Ecology, Eco-Zionism and the Kibbutz
During the last forty years, people worldwide have become aware
of environmentalism and understand that a sustainable way of life is
arguably the major global challenge facing humankind in the twenty
first century.1 The rationale for environmentalism currently is mainly
utilitarian, that is, it is in our self-interest to be concerned with the
environment. The argument goes that both our children and we, as we
grow older, will eventually pay the price for our reckless exploitation
and depletion of the resources and biodiversity of our planet. Moreover,
future generations will inherit the results of our polluting the physical
surroundings and the atmosphere with our waste.
The Potential of Intentional Community
Potentially, intentional communities, whether urban or rural, are an
almost ideal framework for realizing the basic principles of sustainability
in consumption as well as production (including services). It should
come as no surprise that members’ environmental awareness led many
intentional communities to establish the Global Ecovillage Network
(GEN) in 1996.2 GEN enables eco-villages to learn from each other and
represents the eco-village alternative to the public. GEN sees itself as
promoting sustainability by means of educational programs where the
eco-village framework itself serves as a model.
Examples of proactive community initiatives for furthering sustainability
in consumption are meals cooked in a communal kitchen and
served in a communal dining hall, community owned cars, and communal
space for recreation. Community organization can facilitate
the management and disposal of both organic and nonorganic wastes.
A community may also be in a better position than an individual to
initiate infrastructure development for alternative energy use such as solar
energy. In its production of goods and services (by individuals or by the
community as a whole), the community can favor initiatives compatible
with the principles of sustainability. Perhaps most important, the community
can set norms for and educate to sustainable consumer behavior
and can serve as a pilot and model for others in its surroundings.
Initiating and maintaining a sustainable way of life assumes a world
outlook in which quality of life is defi ned by criteria other than material
consumption. If that outlook seeks to transcend a personal philosophy
of life and to have an impact on society, then that outlook must express
itself in an action-oriented ideology, where ideology is defi ned
as “. . . a systematic body of concepts about human life or culture; the
integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical
Intentional communities affi rm freewill and reason based on the assumption
that humans have the capability of cooperating with others in
order to shape their physical and sociocultural environment—whether
on the basis of a religious or a humanist rationale. In so doing, intentional
communities promote cooperation and reject the determinism
inherent in traditional society and in the social Darwinism of neoliberal
It has been the fate of proactive action for sustainability to emerge at a
time when the very idea of a comprehensive ideology has been discredited.
Postmodernism in general, and the leading economic expression of
postmodernism, neoliberalism, in particular, has rejected the legitimacy
of ideology in formulating socioeconomic policy. 4
Zionism and Eco-Zionism
Zionism was and is the modern movement for physical and cultural
regeneration and redemption of the Jewish people in their ancient homeland.
The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was a partial fulfi
llment of the Zionist vision and mission. An understanding of the still
nascent term “eco-Zionism” requires a brief review of the Zionist idea as
such. Two different but complementary processes led to the emergence
of the Zionist movement. Both were the result of the impact, direct and
indirect, of modernity on Judaism and each has particular implications
for the idea of eco-Zionism.
Political Zionism, formally inaugurated in 1897 by the Viennese journalist
Theodor Herzl (1860–1904), arose in response to the rising tide
of anti-Semitism, particularly in some of the emerging European nation
states. Herzl proposed the establishment of a state for the Jews so that
they could be physically and economically secure, “like all the nations.”
Within this context, it is clear that Israel, “like all the nations,” has its
particular environmental problems as well as sharing responsibility for
the well-being of spaceship earth as part of the family of nations.
Environmental activists in Israel, who see their activity as part of their
identity as responsible citizens of the State of Israel, are comparable to
the Green parties of Europe and/or the many related nongovernmental
organizations (NGOs). They are part of the growing concern with the
impact on the quality and viability of human life of an exploding human
population, with its associated consumption, technology, and waste
products. As mentioned above, their rationale emphasizes utilitarian
A second form of Zionism, labeled cultural Zionism, is associated
with Achad Ha-am, the pen name of Asher Ginsburg, 1856–1927. He
held that modernity posed a cultural threat to the continued relevance
and existence of Judaism. In order to ensure the creative continuity of
Judaism, a Jewish state in its ancient homeland would be necessary.
Only then could Jewish civilization and its values express themselves
in fruitful confrontation with all the challenges of the modern age. The
Jewish heritage and its values would be revitalized in the process.
From a religious-cultural Zionist point of view, eco-Zionism refl ects
the Divine triple Covenant between God, the people of Israel, and the
land of Israel. Ensuring the well-being of the land as part of a religious
commitment to Divine Creation as a whole constitutes an ideological/
theological basis for eco-Zionism. Eco-Zionism stemming from cultural
Zionism implies a commitment to the totality of Creation with special
responsibility for the Holy Land (Israel). The Midrash (Talmudic interpretations
of the Bible) sees Creation as divine:
When the Holy One, Blessed be He, created the fi rst man, He took him to all the treesof Paradise, and told him: See my works, how handsome and fi ne they are, everythingI have created was created for you. Make sure not to spoil and destroy my worldbecause what you spoil, no one can repair. (Koheleth Rabbah 7:13)
This clearly is a message for all peoples, each of which is responsible
for finding a way to express this universal idea and ideal through the
unique prism of its particular culture.
From a cultural Zionist point of view, the State of Israel as a Jewish
state must accept the obligation “to till the earth and to preserve it”
(Genesis 2:15) as well as the injunction “do not destroy.”5 Viewed from
this perspective, the rationale for eco-Zionism is distinct from, but not
at odds with, the utilitarian rationale for eco-Zionism. Cultural Zionist
intentional communities have the potential to express engagement with
Creation not only by integrating sustainable practices in their daily life,
but also by developing rituals and the general cultural life of the community
that highlight this absolute value.
Intentional communities can integrate ecological thinking in the
weekly and annual cycles of religio-cultural observance as well as in
individual members’ rites of passage celebrated in community. Such
cultural integration is essential for maintaining community motivation
necessary for implementing practical measures that can further sustainability.
Ecology. Israel and Palestine
Taken as an ecological geographic unit, Israel and the Palestinian
Authority have become one of the most densely populated areas in the
world. Approximately ten million people inhabit the twenty-fi ve thousand
square kilometers area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean
Sea. Over a period of sixty years, the population of Israel has increased
from one to seven million—mainly (but not only) as a result of immigration.
The accompanying development has led to a signifi cant degradation
of Israel’s environment (Tal, 2002).
Exploitation of natural resources, water in particular, has reached an
absolute limit. There is also a possibility that, in addition to population
increase, global climate change may be exacerbating a process of desertifi
cation in Israel, typical of some of the world’s semidesert areas.
Since the 1950s, the Israeli public has expressed concern for preserving
natural habitats as embodiments of the national heritage. However,
comprehensive environmental awareness came late to Israel. In 1953,
kibbutz members and others established the Society for the Protection
of Nature in Israel. Not until 1989, however, did the government see fit
to establish the Ministry for the Protection of the Environment, which
is still perceived as a “minor” ministry with a paltry budget. Nevertheless,
in the past few years, environmental concerns are receiving greater
attention. Signifi cantly, at the Copenhagen climate summit in December
2009, President Shimon Peres committed Israel to a 20% reduction in
carbon emissions by 2020. In fact, the government is committed to
Kibbutzim and Ecology
Kibbutzim often fi nd themselves on the front line of ecological controversy.
Real estate developers prize their land, particularly the land
of kibbutzim in the center of the country. The kibbutzim are de facto
guardians of green areas but agricultural utilization of land is not always
compatible with sustainability. As for industry, kibbutz industries have
on occasion been faulted for industrial pollution. An awareness of the
interface between the social and the ecological has begun to express
itself only recently on the Israeli political scene.6 For the fi rst time, the
national elections of 2009 featured a cultural Zionist green party. It failed
to recruit the minimum number of votes required for representation in
the Israeli parliament.
In the first seventy-five years of the twentieth century, kibbutzim
emerged as a network of intentional communities, the largest
communal movement in the world. The kibbutz movement must be
understood within the context of Zionism, with the kibbutzim seeing
themselves as a synthesis of political and cultural Zionism. As a
settlement movement, they served political and settlement purposes
by pioneering agriculture and settling remote areas. They did so within
the framework of intentional communities attempting to realize the
value of social justice as expressed in the principle of equal worth of
all members—an expression of their particular cultural Zionism. They
saw themselves as having a mission and were perceived as such in the
Henry Near describes the kibbutzim as “. . . an intentional society
created in the light of an ideal . . . and embodying that ideal.”7 In so
doing, the kibbutzim played a signifi cant role in shaping the dominant
Israeli ethos before 1948 and in the generation after the establishment of
the state. In the 1970s, however, a combination of factors led to the loss
of ideology and “intention” in the kibbutzim. The ousting of the Labor
government in the Israeli elections of 1977 was a formative event in the
history of Israel as well as the kibbutz movement. The wave of “end
of ideology” postmodernism in the West and the attendant apotheosis
of the individual swept Israel—including a majority of the kibbutzim.
It was precisely during this period that “green” movements and causes
emerged as a political force in the Western world. The ideological disarray
and focus on ideological and economic survival were not conducive
to kibbutzim adopting new perspectives and redefi ning their mission.
The marginal attention of the kibbutzim to ecological questions refl ects
The kibbutz decline and the emerging worldwide ecological consciousness
were out of synch. Perhaps that is why only one kibbutz,
Kibbutz Lotan (see below), is affiliated with GEN. The defi ning feature
of the ideological crisis is the loss of vision together with the loss of
belief in shlichut (mission). Martin Buber has described the decisive
role of the belief in infi nite ideals, “an eternal center,” as a focus for
Buber wrote: “. . . the real essence of community is to be found in the
fact—manifest or otherwise—that it has a center. The real beginning of
a community is when its members have a common relation to the center
overriding all other relations . . .”8
At present, a minority of kibbutzim are collective, the majority are
not. However, GEN has demonstrated that the economic paradigm is
secondary to the intentional aspect of the community to which members
commit themselves. Most of the eco-villages affi liated with GEN are not
collective. However, they do have a Buberian “center.”
Currently, even those kibbutzim that maintain a collective framework
are no longer intentional communities. They no longer have a vision with
an action program to create an impact on the surrounding society. As a
group, only the urban kibbutzim are currently intentional communities
(see below) that have set themselves tasks for assisting the surrounding
The Case of Kibbutz Lotan
In 1983 Israeli and American graduates of the Reform Movement
in Judaism founded Kibbutz Lotan in Israel’s Southern Arava desert.
Among Israel’s 275 kibbutzim, it is unique in its formal eco-Zionist
commitment. Lotan has remained a small (fi fty-fi ve adult members)
collective and intentional community. From its founding, Lotan has
seen its intentional communal commitment linked to cultural Zionist
pioneering. In the mid-1990s, a handful of determined members succeeded
in integrating the challenge of ecological sustainability as a part
of Lotan’s social and Zionist vision. This commitment became part of a
comprehensive mission statement. 9 That statement, formulated in 1997
as a response to an internal crisis, includes a religio-cultural approach
to integrating ecology within a Jewish-Zionist rationale. The collective
and liberal religious identities of Lotan were instrumental factors in
responding to the crisis and integrating ecology into the Lotan vision.
Two additional factors heightening ecological awareness were Lotan’s
geographic location within a highly fragile desert ecosystem and its
position on the global fl ight path of birds migrating between Africa and
Europe.10 These form the background for the ecology “plank” in Lotan’s
Ecology: We strive to fulfill the Biblical ideal, ‘to till the earth and
preserve it’ (Genesis 2:15) in our home, our region, our country and
the world. We are working to create ways to live in harmony with our
In following the path of eco-Zionism, Kibbutz Lotan has begun to
demonstrate the potential of an intentional community committed to
sustainability, as well as its challenges in the contemporary real world
of Israel. Lotan has emphasized waste management. It composts organic
wastes, as well as reusing and recycling many solid wastes. A subsurface
constructed wetland for Lotan’s sewage, funded by the Jewish National
Fund, has become partially operational, and a Center for Creative Ecology
has been established. The Center has pioneered alternative building
and maintains an organic garden demonstration center. An eco-campus
neighborhood of 650 sq. m. has been built using techniques of natural
building (straw bales and earth plaster on a galvanized pipe geodesic
dome framework). A salient achievement has been that Kibbutz
Lotan succeeded in getting the eco-campus licensed for residential
The eco-campus houses ecological volunteers and training programs
such as the Green Apprenticeship. These programs incorporate both
practical ecological techniques as well as principles of eco-village
design formulated by GEN. So far, fi nancial constraints have limited
the utilization of solar energy (e.g., solar panels) to replace electricity
generated by fossil fuels. The kibbutz is dependent on private donations
to its registered nonprofi t society, Amutat Tzell Hatamar, for developing
its ecological projects.
Lotan is the exception that demonstrates the unrealized potential of
the kibbutzim. It demonstrates that the rationale for eco-Zionism lies
both in political and cultural Zionism. There is a particular awareness
among Lotan eco-activists that the ecological challenge is regional. Lotan
has been actively involved in ecological outreach to minority groups in
Israel because sustainability should be a common concern to all citizens
of the state—Jewish and Arab. When politically feasible, this outreach
has also included Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.12
In 2001, the Ministry for the Environment bestowed an award on
Kibbutz Lotan for outstanding volunteer work for the ecology of Israel.
In 2006 Lotan received the annual award for eco-village excellence
from the European region of the GEN. Kibbutz Lotan is the lone Israeli
presence in GEN—a factor of signifi cance for the image of Israel and
Zionism in the entire network.
Current Status: Ecology and the Kibbutz
It is doubtful that the kibbutz movement can initiate eco-Zionist activity
on a national level similar to Kibbutz Lotan’s initiatives. In particular,
it is doubtful if the kibbutz movement can project eco-Zionism as an
expression of a cultural Zionist vision. An attempt in the mid-1990s to
establish a Green Kibbutz Organization to set ecological standards for the
kibbutzim foundered. After the implosion of the kibbutz as a movement,
there was no way to fund activists for such a national program.
Indeed, the term “kibbutz movement” has become a misnomer. What
exists is an umbrella organization numbering some 275 kibbutz communities
divided into three different types of kibbutzim as defi ned by
Cooperative Societies Ordinance (CSO), revised in 2005.
- The collective kibbutzim—currently some 25% of the total.
- “New” kibbutzim—essentially privatized or in the process of becoming privatized.
- Urban kibbutzim—a development of the last two decades. Ironically, only
the urban kibbutzim are defined as intentional communities in the CSO. In
my opinion, the educational orientation and local activism of most urban
kibbutzim will lead many of them to become involved in ecological endeavor.
Whether they will view this in a cultural Zionist context is an open question.
The Role of Kibbutzim in Regional Initiatives
In general, a degree of partial kibbutz involvement in promoting
sustainability has recently evolved—not necessarily with a formally
stated eco-Zionist rationale.
In the Chevel Eilot regional council area (Southern Arava), two of Kibbutz
Lotan’s neighbors—Kibbutz Ketura and Kibbutz Neot Smadar—
have a defi ned ecological commitment. Kibbutz Ketura has established
the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES). AIES is academic
and geared to recruiting students from all over the world—including
Arab countries where possible. This precludes it from making the institute
a formal venue for eco-Zionist ideology although its founders were
personally motivated by a cultural Zionist eco-Zionism. Ketura is also
a founding partner in the Arava Power Company which aims to supply
green (solar) power to the region on a commercial basis.
Kibbutz Neot Smadar practices organic agriculture, recycles, has an
operational constructed wetland, and is committed to living in harmony
with its surrounding desert ecosystem. However its core concerns,
inspired by the ideas of Jiddu Krishnamurti, focus on community
togetherness for the purpose of examining one’s personal existence in
the light of interpersonal relations and relationships to the environment.
Neot Smadar’s approach to ecology is based on absolute values, but their
source lies outside the cultural Zionist enterprise.
Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, an Orthodox religious-Zionist kibbutz, in the
Beit-Shan valley bases a major economic branch, organic agriculture,
on a cultural Zionist rationale similar to that of Kibbutz Lotan. Indeed,
it is possible that Sde Eliyahu will evolve a comprehensive eco-Zionist
commitment based on an Orthodox religious rationale.
Perhaps the two most promising venues for grassroots eco-Zionist
initiatives involving kibbutzim within the current Israeli reality are via
the regional councils and the regional schools. The regional councils
have jurisdiction over land use and waste disposal in their regions. Many
regional councils now have ecological units. With the support of its member
communities, the councils can further ecologically proactive policy.
In the two most prominent examples, the Chevel Eilot and Megiddo
Regional Councils, local kibbutz support and leadership are decisive.
In the case of regional kibbutz schools, the initiative of local educators
is signifi cant and is often linked to regional council initiatives.
Together with the city of Eilat, the Chevel Eilot Council has set a goal
of at least 50% renewable energy by the year 2020. In 2008 its outstanding
ecological unit was instrumental in initiating annual international
conferences on alternative energy in Eilat. The Council also recruited the
Jewish National Fund and the European Union to further the constructed
wetlands of Lotan and Neot Smadar.
The Megiddo Regional Council has initiated a biosphere for the Ramat
Menashe region Southeast of Haifa. Biospheres are UNESCO monitored
plans to create balanced relationships between humans and the environment
in a given region. Biospheres will impact on the environmental
behavior of all the settlements and will connect the area’s ecological
endeavor to an international framework.
For eco-Zionism to become a signifi cant factor in the kibbutzim, it will
have to be adopted as an ideology and a political program with national
and international ramifi cations. On a national level eco-Zionism would
parallel the former function of the kibbutz as an expression of socialist
Zionism. International links with bodies such as the GEN and UNESCO
would echo the past signifi cance of the kibbutz in the socialist and communal
movement worldwide. Eco-Zionism on the kibbutz would also
refl ect the ecological mandate—think globally, act locally. Eco-Zionism
could become a unifying focus of meaning for those kibbutzim viewing
themselves as intentional communities with a particular vision expressing
one aspect of what a Jewish state should be.
1 A detailed review and discussion of the development of ecological awareness is
beyond the scope of this essay. Suffi ce it to say that three thinkers have catalyzed
this process: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962), John Lovelock, Gaia: A New
Look at Life on Earth (1979), and Paul Harrison, The Third Revolution: Population,
Environment and a Sustainable World (1992).
2 See gen.ecovillage.org (Google: Global Ecovillage Network).
3 “Ideology,” Merriam–Webster College Dictionary. 10th ed., 2002, p. 574.
4 A discussion on the roots of the postmodern rejection of ideology is beyond the
scope of this chapter. At this time (2009), it remains to be seen whether the current
economic crisis engendered by unbridled neoliberalism will impact on postmodernity.
See Michael Livni, “Intentional Community, Modernity, Post-Modernity and
Globalization: Challenges and Prospects,” 2007 (online at www.michael-livni.org)
for a more detailed discussion of the implications of postmodernity for movements
of intentional community including eco-villages.
5 The injunction “do not destroy” is derived from the Biblical verse prohibiting the
destruction of fruit trees while besieging a city (Deuteronomy 20:19–20). See Eilon
Schwartz, “Do Not Destroy—Variant Readings of the Famous Verse,” jhom.com/
topics/trees/bal_tashkhit.htm. Google: “Eilon Schwartz–Do Not Destroy.”
6 Murray Bookchin (2007) has dealt with the interface between the ecological and
7 Henry Near, The Kibbutz Movement—A History , 1997, p. 325.
8 Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia , 1945 , p. 135.
9 The full mission statement as well as additional information on Kibbutz Lotan can
be found on its Web site. www.kibbutzlotan.com.
10 Michael Livni, “In Our Community—Ecology Is for the Birds,” 2009, pp. 40–41.
11 Michael Livni, “Battling the Bureaucracy in Israel,” 2008, pp. 54–58.
12 Michael Livni, et al., “Building Bridges of Clay, Mud and Straw—Jews and Arabs
Learn Natural Building in the Desert,” 2006, pp. 42–45.
Bookchin, M. Social Ecology and Communalism , edited by E. Eikland. Oakland: AK
Buber, M. Paths in Utopia . New York: Macmillan-Beacon Paperbacks, 1945 .
Carson, R. The Silent Spring . Boston: Houghton-Miffl in, 1962.
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———. “Battling the Bureaucracy in Israel.” Communities—Journal of Cooperative
Living , Summer, no. 139 (2008): 54–58.
———. “In Our Community—Ecology Is for the Birds.” Communities Journal of
Cooperative Living , Summer, no. 143 (2009): 40–41.
Livni, M., A. Cicelsky, and M. Naveh. “Building Bridges of Clay, Mud and Straw—
Jews and Arabs Learn Natural Building in the Desert.” Communities—Journal of
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