A look at the Kibbutzim in Israel


The Kibbutz (plural Kibbutzim meaning clustering) movement is a social movement with a long history and one that has numerous connections with Anarchism. It is comprised of many different ideologies and philosophies many with contradictory intentions, sometimes present in the same Kibbutz.

Quick History

Historically the Kibbutz movement is divided into Aliyot (sing. Aliyah meaning ascent) or immigrations which took place into Palestine.

The first Aliyah (1882-1903) was largely a religious movement [1]. The movement comprised of approximately 35,000 Jews moving largely from Eastern Europe. It was largely a response to over-crowding and religious persecution such as pogroms. At some periods the movement had the direct support of Czarist officials. Emigration from Eastern Europe to Palestine during this period was actually quite small compared to the number going to America (which was approx. 2 million.)

The second Aliyah (1903-1914) took with it a lot of the revolutionary climate of Russia and Eastern Europe that was present at the time. It was a complicated mixture of socialism, non-traditional Marxism and Zionism, but almost entirely secular. This is one of the more interesting periods of Kibbutz formation and set the tone for generations.

Degania forms the most noted and successful established commune of this period. Degania is actually a Kvutza (plural Kvutzot) and not a Kibbutz because of it's small size. Degania exists to the present day, however it survived only nominally since it is now highly modified from it's original ideals and now (since 2007) exists in a privatised form.

Third Aliyah (1919-1923), Fourth Aliyah (1924-1929) and Fifth Aliyah (1929-1939) carried many more individuals into Palestine and swelled the number of Kibbutz members.

Interestingly, in parallel with this collectivist movement, members of the third Aliyah were broadly interested in emulating the Bolshevik revolution. This climate resulted in the formation of the Histadrut, which was initially structured similarly to a council of soviets. By 1927 the Histadrut had as members 75% of the Jewish labour force in Palestine. This probably represents one of the highest proportions of a workforce in a single syndicate. Ben-Gurion is largely responsible for taking this movement, centralising it, introducing a powerful hierarchy and recasting it as nationalist, Zionist organisation.

Sketch of the Kibbutz

The classic notion of the Kibbutz is basically formed during the second Aliya. The Kibbutzim of the second Aliya were usually communist, taking the maxim "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." They attempted to remove all exploitation of labour within the commune. They often attempted to be as self-sufficient as possible, and therefore tended to be involved heavily in agriculture.

During this period idealism was strong and people really had revolutionary notions. Cultural heritage was re-examined and traditions were revisited from a perspective of secularism. In addition egalitarian notions were at least given lip-service, although the division of labour in practice was quite sexist. Men would do hard labour and women would do child-minding etc. This was a debate that came up often enough even during the early part of the second Aliyah period.

The kibbutzim formed during this time were extremely and often oppressively collectivist. Many of the kibbutzim attempted to increase community ties by moving away from the nuclear family. Kids were reared communally, and slept in common halls. Dining was communal, and many kibbutzim would not even attempt to purchase things from outside such as teapots for fear that this would cause people to isolate themselves in their rooms and break into cliques.

Capitalism and the Kibbutz

The Kibbutzim have not all retained their communist or collectivist ideals. The ability of kibbutzim to be self-sufficient seemed possible up to the point when expansion was required. When populations grew either from new members coming or being born, the kibbutz was faced with land difficulties. In order to acquire new land, it would have to raise capital. This often meant that the kibbutz would have to take out a loan.

During the 1970s and 1980s, when Israel's currency was undergoing hyper-inflation, sometimes as high as 400%, the Kibbutzim took out massive loans in the expectation that they would have to pay back very little. When the currency stabilised, this left the Kibbutzim with massive debt. In this period many Kibbutzim decided to privatise or partially privatise in order to cope with the debt without becoming insolvent.

Another recurrent problem was the hiring of seasonal wage labour. This was strongly resisted up into the 70s by most Kibbutzim but eventually became the norm. Foreign, especially Thai labourers have become permanent wage labourers in some Kibbutzim, doing everything from janitorial work to picking fruit.

Despite this many collectivist and communist kibbutzim survive. While none can claim the same continuity as Degania many of the newly formed kibbutzim are communist and contain members who themselves came from a kibbutz.

Interestingly, a lot of the negative sentiment of the kibbutz movement in Israel comes from the increasing nationalism and religiosity of the main stream. As a case in point, during the Ethopian Aliyah of the 1970s the government banned absorption of these immigrants into the kibbutzim because they feared that the secularism would infect these devoted Jews.

The History of Anarchism and The Kibbutzim

From the earliest days of kibbutz formation there has been talk about Anarchist-Communism. The ideas of Kropotkin were quoted by many prominent individuals in the Kibbutz and more broadly in the workers' movement in Palestine. The Hebrew language, which had been dead for hundreds of years, was newly being revived. This was especially true in the Kibbutzim. One of the first books to be translated into Hebrew was Kropotkin's "Mutual Aid" [2].

Although the notion of "Mutual Aid" was given token gestures, no serious attempt at increasing economic ties between various Kibbutzim ever took place. This left the Kibbutz movement extremely susceptible to market fluctuations.

In 1997-1998 three workshops on anarchism and the kibbutz were held at the Yad Tabenkin. Yad Tabenkin is described as the "Research and Documentation Center of the United Kibbutz Movement". In his opening remarks, Haim Seeligman said:

"We, in the kibbutz movement, are currently in a situation in which we must find new solutions to a long line of internal and external problems... There are, in the vast treasury of philosophers such as Gustav Landauer, Bernard Lazarre, Kropotkin and Paul Goodman, philosophical elements that can assist us in advancing our thinking. When the movement is in a process of change... we must enable the vacuum to be filled with new, constructive contents. In anarchism, as in Utopian thought, we can find such constructive contents."

More references to the complicated history of anarchist thought in the kibbutz movement can be found in [2].

The Urban Kibbutz

"That is why, I have long since thought, that if I were one of those who start colonies, I should never go into the wilderness. A Communist Colony? Well, the best spot for it is near London or near Paris!" [5]
- Kropotkin

One of the biggest trends in the modern Kibbutz movement is the formation of Kvutzot in urban environments, and especially the notion of the Kibbutz of Kvutzot which is really a reference to the notion of mutual aid and federation of communes. As the old Kibbutzim have become more privatised the new kibbutzim have tended to move further left in response [4].

One reason for this trend is the increasing sense of responsibility to the community. The Kibbutz movement was largely isolated. Even though it includes 5% of the population of Israel it has never been in strong engagement except through the election of ex-kibbutz members to political positions. The new movement often seeks to improve the community environment in the cities and engage those communities with ideas about socialism. For families the collective nature of the urban commune can enable social activism which would otherwise be impossible, since parents would otherwise be forced to care for their children at all times, rather than engage in the community.

The Tamuz Kibbutz [3] is an urban kibbutz in which members give 100% of their income to the communal coffers. It is then used to pay for communal goods such as housing and maintenance and a stipend is distributed to each member for food and other goods. There is a greater focus on individualism then existed in traditional Kibbutzim. Decisions are made in a council of members. Decisions do not require unanimity but instead require a sense of the "feeling of the meeting". Subsidiarity as a concept is strongly built into this notion. Members who will be responsible for the work required to carry out some idea or who are disproportionately effected by some decision should be given more weight in making the eventual decision. Social activism is a major aim of many members. Many of the members of the Tamuz Kibbutz grew up on Kibbutzim themselves and wanted a more urban lifestyle and more community involvement.

One persistent problem that the urban Kibbutzim have been faced with is that they tend to disintegrate more easily. This probably has to do with the fact that social connections are not completely internal and members are more likely to drift out into other social circles. Eventually deciding to move out of the kibbutz. It may also be an effect of advanced capitalism, which requires workers to move quite often.

An Anarchist Kibbutz?

The Samar Kibbutz is possibly the closest thing to an anarchist kibbutz that exists today [3]. It has been in existence since the 1976. One of the main reasons for it's foundation was a belief in a much more individualist approach. It sought to correct the stifling and oppressive collectivism that existed in the traditional Kibbutz, while at the same time retaining the egalitarian and communist character. It is a rural kibbutz, relying on agriculture and the "ventures" of various workers collectives. They are less averse to traditional direct democratic structures then the Tamuz kibbutz, and decisions are usually made by majority. Communal goods and services are arranged by the treasurer in conjunction with the community in order to provide necessities. For purchases made outside of the Kibbutz, such as travel and items of interest to individuals or groups historically collected money from a "money box". In fact, it was not required that individuals record how much money was taken or for what reason. Now, instead of a money box, members have a collective debit card which is used with the same intent. When one member, Mussa, was asked how this worked he replied:

"I wake up every morning surprised that it is still working!"

Mussa was sent by Kibbutz Artzi in 1978 to talk sense into the "anarchists" who formed the Samar kibbutz. He had been told that it was a place full of drugs and orgies. Instead he found a very successfully functioning kibbutz, but with radically different structure. No work-lists existed as they did in other kibbutzim to distribute labour effectively, and yet everyone seemed to be working hard, and things were getting done. Mussa subsequently joined the kibbutz.

Despite the intention of the Samar kibbutz to be egalitarian, female members complain of sexism in the distribution of labour. Women are still functionally (although not explicitly) responsible for much of the household chores and child minding.

In addition the Samar Kibbutz is isolated, having little effect on the wider community. Since it is basically alone in its ideals, mutual aid with other kibbutzim is unlikely.

While anarchism is mentioned explicitly by many members, the notion of radical egalitarian anarchist communism as an international movement is hardly on the table.

Anarchism and the Kibbutz Movement

Anarchism has clearly had effects on the Kibbutz movement and yet the movement itself is a very peculiar syncretic political movement drawing from many contradictory sources. The movement was formed initially out of the crucible of extreme racism and genocide and carries a legacy of separatism and nationalism from that while folding in aspects of socialism, marxism, cutural judiasm and egalitarianism. A strange cocktail to be sure. In addition the conditions in Palestine are currently very complex politically, which limits the effect that libertarian ideals can have even in the best of possible outcomes.

The main reason that the movement should interest anarchist-communists is as a proof of concept of communism and direct democracy. In light of the Kibbutz movement it is very difficult to claim that small scale anarchist-communism doesn't function. In fact it can be seen to function under incredibly hostile conditions.

In addition the Kibbutzim are proof of the utility of having a proof of concept. The movement grew by example to include 5% or the population. Even if we remove the now 75% of kibbutz members which exist in partially or fully privatised kibbutzim we are still talking about 1.25% of the population of Israel. This is a not insignificant number of people. If 15,000 people (about 1.25%) were in quasi-communist modes of production in Dublin, I'd expect our job would be easier.

At this point the only "missing link" in the argument for anarchist communism in terms of extant or historical structures is how to coordinate large scale industrialism for a significant period of time. It seems that the Kibbutzim may have missed out on a chance to prove this. It may turn out that we will have to wait for a more serious and wide scale movement before we can demonstrate this concept.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aliya
[2] http://raforum.info/imprimerart.php3?id_article=2379
[3] The Kibbutz: Awakening from Utopia by Daniel Gavron
[4] http://www.zeek.net/710kibbutz/
[5] http://flag.blackened.net/daver/anarchism/kropotkin/emm....html