This paper describes the cooperative system called kibbutz in Israel, in order to answer questions about its origin and foundation, resources, social structure, and also highlight the goals, challenges, criticisms and the lessons that can be learned, including how to use economic and water resources.
Keywords: Kibbutz, Zionism, Cooperatives.
The cooperative system called kibbutz, plural kibbutzim, which in Hebrew means to gather is a cooperative model which first began forming in Palestine in 1904, following an expulsion wave—motivated by Russian Czarism—of Jews from various parts of mostly Southern Russia, Europe and the surrounding areas. Although the cooperative system exists around the world, in no other country has intentional collective communities played such an important role as with the kibbutzim in Israel; in fact, the very foundation of the Jewish state in 1948 completely depended on this social phenomenon.
The population of most kibbutzim is between 200 and 600 members, with some as few as 100 or as many as 1000. They also hire workers and accept volunteers. In 2010 the cooperative factories and farms of 270 kibbutzim accounted for 9 percent of the total production of Israel, around 8 billion dollars of which 40 percent derived from agriculture worth over $1.7 billion. In this article we consider how the members live and work together and its significance for others cooperatives. Most of this information was obtained from former residents, some of whom spent much of their lives in the kibbutzim and have relatives who are still part of this system.
The kibbutzim were founded in the early twentieth century with Zionist ideology (the Jewish nationalist movement supporting the reestablishment of a Jewish homeland), though this has decreased over the years. Kibbutzim which are based on agricultural cooperatives, did not allow their members any private property or social hierarchy. They took this so seriously that the clothes, gifts or any gain received from the outside would be immediately converted into the common good. Even if one member received, for example, a ticket to go abroad from a relative, whether or not to accept was discussed collectively in order to find out ways to benefit the group.
The first was the Kibbutz Degania formed in 1909, near the Sea of Galilee. Its founders were Jews, most of them from Romania. At first they did not use any currency; everyone did the work that they could and received what they needed. The first markets were collective and did not need cash for purchases. All the children slept together in a separate house and there were community housing for youth and adults. Friday nights to Saturdays were Sabbath (the holy day for Jews), and they also celebrated all of the Jewish holidays.
Although they started with agriculture, today many of the kibbutzim have modern factories, food production plants and develop cutting-edge technology including electronics, software and bioengineering. Since their creation, the kibbutzim have assumed a leading role in the amount of exported goods throughout the country.
Basic education is provided in each kibbutz and has been nationally recognized because of its efficiency. The internal education is comprehensive and covers subjects ranging from agriculture and social relations, to history, physics, mathematics and other disciplines. In the kibbutzim, collective childrearing as well in the sense of all older or experienced members may educate and correct all children as if they were their own children.
The surplus income from the sale of products and services are distributed according to need: for example if someone needs medical treatment or to study at a university, they apply for the money from the Community Fund, which is available for every member’s use, without personal debt or further commitment.
All decisions are made in meetings in which all members of the kibbutz can participate. They can also elect a representative, although this person does not enjoy any privileges from his or her post. In the earlier years of the kibbutzim, all volunteers were provided with tools and vehicles for collective use, and whoever needed to use some community belongings just needed to look at the availability ads or in special cases make a formal request. Over the years, however, this has changed a lot and some kibbutzim now allow individual private property, so it is possible to get a private car, tools and even make structural improvements to the houses in which they live. Private possessions are allowed provided there is no shortage in the communities. In several kibbutzim today there are cafeterias, leisure places and postal centers.
In a country with over half of its territory an arid desert, water is a major challenge. Most potable water in Israel today comes from desalination. The kibbutzim created brilliant ways to overcome this challenge by purifying and extracting water from marshlands, by inventing the drip irrigation system and by treating sewage water for irrigation. Members discovered that recycled sewage water is richer in nutrients than water from reverse osmosis, benefiting the plants and contributing to sustainable agriculture. These forms of water utilization maximize the use of scarce resources and contribute to renewable agriculture.
When it was first established in 1948, Israel was recognized by both the USA and Russia, which soon generated ideological conflicts. Although Israel had adopted a neutral policy in the 50’s under the first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, it gradually leaned in favor of the West. The decision to support one side in the midst of the Cold War caused a crisis in the nation as a whole and especially in the kibbutzim, since many of their members, the founders of kibbutzim, were socialists. The conflict of ideals between complete equality and capitalist individuality was even symbolized by the tension in the communities between whether to continue with only a collective dining room or to allow members to eat alone in their homes.
The traditional system of work rotation in the kibbutzim had each member spending time in every work sector; one week you could be planting, and the next week you could be in the laundry. Let us consider the pros and cons of this. First, this made the community more self-reliant, because all skills and knowledge were shared, and even in time of war, no one was indispensable. Second, when everyone does everything, it lowers dissatisfaction at work because no one is stuck doing a job they find distasteful or boring. Third, as no one has a title or a specific job, there is no professional hierarchy, extinguishing feelings of inferiority. On the other hand, the kibbutzim face difficulty getting experts. Some kibbutzim resolved this problem by appointing individuals to supervise research and development or to train abroad and return with needed skills. Others have hired or received experts from the government to train the members.
Another controversy that arose involved Holocaust reparations from West Germany: should kibbutz members follow the principle of complete equality and surrender income received if it was a result of such a personal trauma? Each kibbutz chose how to solve this problem, some allowing survivors to keep all or some of the compensation, while other kibbutzim asked total amount as a donation; in general the money colected was always invested in expansion.
These conflicts were minimized by the success of the communities. In the 60s and 70s the kibbutzim were far more developed and members enjoyed a much higher standard of living than most of the other inhabitants of Israel. They had recreational facilities including swimming pools, sports centers, leisure rooms and gardens. In the testimonies about life during this time, most residents considered the kibbutzim as a true paradise.
Decay, weakening of ideology: privatization
Over the years, many members of the kibbutzim became dedicated to careers outside of the communities. They started accumulating power, privilege and prestige, and consequently increased the disparity in lifestyle among residents which allowed for the growth of capitalist practices. Collective values weakened and the motivation for group work declined. Kibbutzim began to compensate members in different ways to stimulate stagnating production, which generated an ideological crisis. The capitalist model with a penchant for the privatization of collective goods began to influence younger generations. In some kibbutzim now members pay for their own electricity, laundry, food, meals in the dining room and postage. All these things were once given for free.
The initial goal of the kibbutzim was to found a permanent institution with conduct that would enable the implementation of cooperative values and resource sharing at all levels. This endeavor required a lot of creativity to develop model practices for all their members. However some of the kibbutzim pioneers later became resistant to change and some even suppressed innovation and critical ideas. This ideological crisis finally caused the communities to incorporate capitalist solutions that were at odds with the basic principles of the kibbutzim and caused discord and segregation within the society. The once extraordinary spirit of self-sacrifice for the community weakened, and with it collective collaboration. Individual sacrifice seemed pointless; personal incentives and meritocracy seemed necessary in order to keep the high level of agricultural and industrial production.
By 1990, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist bloc of Eastern Europe, belief in socialism declined and many left the kibbutzim in search of a way of life where they could buy whatever they wanted and earn more for the work they did. So various sectors of the kibbutzim were privatized and different wages were paid.
Today there are three forms of compensation within the kibbutzim: first, traditional collectives where each member receives the same regardless of the work they perform, second, the mixed model where one gets commodities equally along with a salary according to the amount and type of work done, and third, which is most common today, the renewing kibbutz model, in which each member is paid a salary according to work done and sometimes also a share of income from other kibbutz enterprises. Although members receive a salary, they pay a hefty tax in order to support the community and the elderly who may no longer be able to work.
Lessons for Proutists
Kibbutzim have developed a sense of community and cooperative system very similar to that of Prout, working together with egalitarian principles, maximally utilizing all resources in a progressive and sustainable way with reusing and recycling. United by a strong cooperative and fraternal ideology and motivated by the spirit of resistance and survival, their innovative agricultural and industrial production allowed them to achieve a higher quality of life than the rest of the country.
According to Prout, ideal spiritual leaders need to humbly develop the qualities of all classes, sacrificing spirit and compassion. Job rotation helps to develop these qualities and expand our awareness. At the same time, because most people have not become totally selfless, an incentive system that rewards experience and training is important for strong cooperatives and to avoid privatization.
The Marxist axiom “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” sounds good in theory, but in Prout’s view incentives are essential. We should value and reward workers who set a good example by their service, motivating everyone to do their best. However the disparity between the maximum and the minimum wage must never be excessive and should be agreed upon by the general assembly of the cooperative.
As the Zionist and socialist fervor gradually diminished among the kibbutzim members, the cooperative spirit and collective identity also weakened. Economic success brought rising living standards, while the capitalist consumer society encouraged individualism. Many no longer felt motivated to sacrifice; gradually discouraged, they began to produce less or left the kibbutzim to join mainstream society.
Prout recognizes the need for a cohesive ideology that unites people, but suggests a more universal and spiritual one that honors our connection with everyone in our human family, and even all life and the planet itself. The laws of society must also effectively prohibit the accumulation of wealth without the collective approval of society.
In spite of the problems and major changes in their purpose and practice, kibbutzim are still a significant part of the Israeli economy. They feed the country and employ state of the art technology. In general people who live in kibbutzim acquire a strong cooperative spirit and sense of belonging to a team. We can learn much from the cooperative kibbutzim of Israel.
I would like to thanks very much everybody who helped to build this article and made it possible, spending their time with comments which certainly made a big difference. Thanks to Dror Marko, Abir Hod, Oswaldo Hernandes and others.
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