By adapting, kibbutz movement finds success

Kibbutz member in a wheat field at Kibbutz Lahav, in the Negev. (Amnon Gutman)

Kibbutz member in a wheat field at Kibbutz Lahav, in the Negev. (Amnon Gutman)

KIBBUTZ MA’ABAROT, Israel (JTA) — Shaul Daniel, 66, has spent most of his life on this kibbutz, working the land: fields of avocado, corn, wheat, chickpeas and cotton.

But now, like most kibbutzim and moshavim, a team of foreign workers — in this case, Thais — do the agricultural labor at Kibbutz Ma’abarot.

“When I die, I don’t think anyone will even know the way to our fields,” says Daniel, a lifelong member of Ma’abarot whose parents were among the kibbutz’s founders. Established in 1934, Ma’abarot is among Israel’s most prosperous kibbutzim.

“It’s hard for me that we no longer work in agriculture ourselves anymore. I think it builds a person up and helps make a group into a cohesive, united whole,” he says. “Today there is not the same motivation to do hard, physical labor.”

A century after the first kibbutz was founded along the shores of the Kinneret, the kibbutz movement is finding success in the 21st century by shifting from its more ideological, socialist and agricultural roots to industry and, in a growing number of cases, varying degrees of privatization.

Some kibbutzim are struggling for their survival. But more are undergoing a renaissance as they liberalize policies of communalism. With their reputation for high quality of life, kibbutzim are finding more and more younger people are choosing to stay on the kibbutz, and newcomers from the city are eager to move in.

Kibbutz Ma’abarot is a few miles east of Netanya. With its lush green lawns, close-knit social network, sought-after schools and brand-new neighborhood of two-story, pastel-colored houses, it’s flooded with second-generation members who want to return to live here with their spouses and young families.

The wave of returnees to Ma’abarot began about a decade ago, when the kibbutz came into money thanks to flourishing manufacturing. Materna, one of Israel’s leading baby milk formulas, is made on the kibbutz, as is a pharmaceutical factory and two companies that make popular brands of dog and cat food.

“Now suddenly everyone wants to join the kibbutz,” Daniel says.

Of his three adult children, two have moved back to the kibbutz and are raising their children there.

Nearby, Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’Sharon has a waiting list of people wanting to move in. The kibbutz, where Defense Minister Ehud Barak grew up and his mother and a brother still live, is financially stable but had been facing difficult times until 2004, when its members voted to privatize.

In opting to privatize, Mishmar Ha’Sharon joined 179 of Israel’s 270 kibbutzim that made the same choice. Privatization relieves kibbutzim of the significant financial burden of fully covering all members’ needs — including food, health, education and even water and electricity bills. Members at privatized kibbutzim receive differential salaries if they work on the kibbutz; those who have jobs outside can keep their income.

To keep the kibbutz running as a community, members pay social service fees. The kibbutz’s earnings from industry also are funneled back into the communal pot.

“Five years later I can say the decision to privatize was the right one,” says Ronen Simcha, the general secretary of Mishmar Ha’Sharon. “The members’ standard of living has improved and the kibbutz is run better.

“We saw that staying in place was going to lead to a social rupture and a financial crisis.” 

Established in 1924, Mishmar Ha’Sharon has 199 members. The kibbutz expects 30 percent growth in the next two years.

Like most kibbutzim, Mishmar Ha’Sharon needed time to recover from the economic trauma of the 1980s, which threatened to doom the movement into extinction. With the Likud Party in power, the days when the kibbutzim were a pet project of successive socialist-oriented Labor governments were gone. At the time, Israel was struggling with hyper-inflation, and kibbutzim found themselves millions of dollars in debt.

A government-adopted plan to help kibbutzim repay their debts over an extended amount of time helped lead the recovery. But in the 20 years it took for that recovery to be felt, some 20,000 members left kibbutzim. Today, Israel’s 270 kibbutzim have an overall member population of 120,000, plus about 20,000 children, soldiers and others whose official membership is pending.

The recovery for the kibbutzim has been striking. Less than 10 years ago, about half of Israel’s kibbutzim were considered financially unstable. Today that number is down to about 15.

Kibbutz Lotan, a small kibbutz deep in the Arava Desert about a 40-minute drive north of Eilat, was among the kibbutzim that pulled themselves back to a stable position. Formed in 1983 by a mix of American immigrants and native Israelis affiliated with Israel’s arm of the Reform movement, Lotan stabilized with the help of a local agricultural association that let it repay its debts slowly.

Its income is derived mostly from its date groves — also tended by Thai workers — and program for eco-tourism, which include workshops in organic gardening and renewable energy. Other tourist draws are a bird-watching center, a guest house and an ecological park.

Lotan has considered privatizing but has remained a cooperative kibbutz.

“The traditional model of kibbutz still suits us,” says kibbutz member Daphna Abel. “We find lots of positive things from being a cooperative community. It is something that helps us invest in our social relations. It’s the glue that safeguards our community.”

She says the decision to hire Thai workers to help with the date groves was a difficult one, but ultimately “we had to deal with the marketplace’s realities” in order to compete globally.

“The goal today is economic survival,” says Aviv Leshem, spokesman for the Kibbutz Movement, an umbrella group of the kibbutzim. “Cooperative living is still all right for some, but not all. Ultimately, every kibbutz has to think of itself as a business.”

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