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Israelis try a new kind of kibbutz

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New housing units line a path at a Kibbutz close to Hadera. (Brian Hendler)

New housing units line a path at a Kibbutz close to Hadera. (Brian Hendler)

KIBBUTZ SHOVAL, Israel, Sept. 4 (JTA) — If a host of new collectivist projects are any indication, the death of the Israeli kibbutz has been greatly exaggerated. Young Israelis fresh out of the army now are engaged in a revival of that unique Israeli invention — the collective farm — almost in the same way as were the first Jewish settlers in Palestine more than a century ago. Almost. Unlike the members of the first kibbutzim, who focused on cultivating the land as the ultimate expression of Zionism, the new kibbutzniks emphasize education. “They are going out every morning, not to the chicken coop or the cow shed as they used to in the past, but rather to the schools to teach a new generation of Israelis,” says Yoel Marshak, head of a special task force in the Kibbutz Movement. “They are the new pioneers.” Kibbutz Eshbal in the lower Galilee is a case in point. The kibbutz was founded six years ago by a group of activists from the Hanoar Ha’oved youth movement who had just completed their military service. Since then, education has become their primary means of livelihood. Members of Eshbal operate a boarding school for young immigrants from Ethiopia who have dropped out of the regular school system. They go out to neighboring Jewish communities to offer children after-school activities. They organize regular meetings between Jewish and Arab children, using Arabic and Hebrew interchangeably. They even have adopted the children of the nearby Bedouin village of Arab a-Na’im, giving the younger generation the sort of education their parents never had. “This is certainly a feeling of a national mission,” says Karmit Matievitz, who is in charge of the Bedouin project. “At a time when neither agriculture nor industry bear solid economic fruits, educating the younger generation is certainly the best investment.” Matievitz is one of 60 young people, all in their mid-20s, who are members of the new kibbutz. Kibbutz Eshbal is situated on a scenic hill, surrounded by picturesque Arab villages and with the mountains of the upper Galilee in the background. The kibbutz still looks very much like the old-style kibbutzim: There are modest houses, dispersed among lawns and narrow paths, and a water tower in the middle. One relatively large building houses two groups whose members have been together since their youth-movement and high-school days. Each group functions as an independent economic entity; several such groups form the kibbutz community. Every kibbutz member has his own room, but the kitchen, showers and toilets are shared collectively — as in the early days of the settlement movement. So far there are no children, so the question of whether the children will spend nights with their parents or in the youth houses that young kibbutzniks used to use remains up in the air. The crux of the matter is that this new kibbutz model makes economic sense. Despite its relatively young age, Eshbal is one of the few kibbutzim in the country that is not in the red. “We make ends meet,” says Inbal Ron, who works with Ethiopian youths. “We control our expenditure tightly — and it works.” There are six other like-minded kibbutzim scattered around the country, in addition to 40 belonging to various communal organizations. Among them are four urban kibbutzim — communal groups that live and work in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Sderot and Tiberias. “We believe in the power of education,” Matievitz says. “Despite the general mood of despair, we believe that through education we can change things in this country.” “It is really something new,” Marshak says. “These people ask themselves Kennedy-style: Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” The paradox is that places like Eshbal have not yet been recognized as legitimate settlements by the Israeli government, despite “establishment” support from both the Kibbutz Movement and the Jewish Agency. Small membership is the Achilles heel of these kinds of kibbutzim: Small communes of just a few families do not attract significant investment. At Kibbutz Pelekh in the upper Galilee, some 21 members recently joined a veteran kibbutz to try and form a new, larger community. For the past 10 years, a small group of 10 families — all couples in their 40´s and 50´s and immigrants from the former USSR — had manned the settlement. They barely scraped by living off the chicken coop, the cow shed and a kiwi plantation. The Russian-speaking kibbutzniks liked their cultural isolation — but when young, Israeli-born kibbutzniks showed up, the immigrants were infected by the youths’ gusto. “We welcome their enthusiasm,” says Misha Bleiniss, a former electrical engineer in his late 50s who now is in charge of the chickens. “But I cannot deny that we are concerned about the cultural gap. I am not sure there is enough work for everyone.” The young kibbutzniks are comprised of two groups, one from veteran kibbutzim and the other from cities. They try to be respectful of kibbutz tradition but want to bring the kibbutz into the twenty-first century. They also want to focus on education, environmental projects and an arts center. “We want to learn from the mistakes of the old kibbutzim,” Lilla Not says. “We do not concentrate on the communal values. We will try to allow for individual expression within the community.” The principle is similar to that at Eshbal — small groups function as independent social and economic entities within the context of a larger community. Ya’acov Oved, a professor at the Yad Tabenkin Research Center and a member of Kibbutz Palmahim in Israel’s southern coastal plain, has studied the phenomenon of communal life for many years. The phenomenon of a return to communal life is not necessarily Israeli, Oved says: He counts more than 3,000 communal settlements throughout the western world. Is this the comeback of socialism? “That’s taking it a little too far,” Oved says. “But it is certainly an indication of the determination of certain groups within human society who have not given up on the hope of creating a more just society through joint endeavors.”

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