Philosopher and theologian Martin Buber characterized the kibbutz as “an experiment that did not fail.” It’s important to see the kibbutz as an experiment that is still in progress, and this, I believe, is what the new documentary movie by Toby Perl Freilich on the history and evolution of the kibbutz movement (“Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment”) does.

Rabbi Lerner’s reaction to the original version of my review of this film was a multifaceted challenge:

… the failure of the kibbutz movement [is] not because it was too ideological, but because it was not principled enough:
a) to reject the militarism that came with the 1967 war
b) to honestly evaluate their own role as taking Palestinian land
c) failing to reach out with “caring values” to Sephardim/Mizrachim who came to Israel and were treated poorly, but instead looked only inside their own communities and embraced a wrong Stalinist ideology of “socialism in one kibbutz,” rather than seriously challenging the growth of capitalism within Israeli society, and finally
d) expanding their operations by tying themselves with loans from the large banks in the 1970s and 80s which led to a financial crisis when those banks raised interest rates in ways that the kibbutzim could not pay, during the upsurge of capitalist consciousness after the electoral victory of Likud in ’77. Thus, unlike the dominant ideological explanation of the failure of kibbutzim, it was precisely their unwillingness to take seriously their own socialist roots that was at the heart of the problem. …

My response begins as follows: I do not agree with the notion that the kibbutz was too “ideological.” The kibbutz has engaged in a conscientious effort to marry a utopian vision with practical realities; this project is still ongoing, as it must be. It can be critiqued at times for failing to live up to its principles, but it has succeeded far better in this regard than Marxist-Leninist regimes, and far more humanely. For example, there was never a one-to-one correspondence between being a kibbutznik and being a peacenik, but the kibbutz movement has had a disproportionate presence and influence in the peace camp, as it has in most Israeli institutions, including in the army and in the economy. Still, since it was never more than five percent of the country’s population, and usually much less, it was never capable of being the decisive factor in Israel’s economy, foreign policy or culture.

There was a scene in the film when a member of Kibbutz Sasa, founded by North American activists in the socialist Hashomer Hatzair youth movement just after the 1948 war, admitted that its land was taken from an abandoned Arab village, and that sometimes he thought about that. One may regard that pang of conscience as empty, or accept it as an empathic awareness of a complicated history; regardless, one should ponder what might have happened if Arab forces had triumphed.

Regarding points b and c, there’s this from my full review of Meron Benvenisti’s book, Sacred Landscapes:

The conquered rural properties also became a source of tension between kibbutzniks, who were generally allotted the best land for agriculture, and the moshavim (cooperatives as distinct from the communes/kibbutzim) and towns populated mostly by new immigrants from Middle Eastern countries. The economic prospects for the new “development towns” were particularly dubious given their location far from the commercial center of the country. These prospects were further restricted by kibbutz “ownership” of nearby property which inhibited the natural expansion of such towns.

Benvenisti makes an ironic observation that with the contraction of the kibbutz movement over the past 20 years, kibbutz possession of these originally Arab properties have made some kibbutzniks wealthy by their sale to real estate developers. …

The film made the point that most Jews of Middle Eastern origin, who came to outnumber the original Ashkenazi (European) Jews as immigrants in the 1950s and ’60s, found such kibbutz norms and values as socialism and secularism to be alien. Unlike the secular and even atheistic majority of kibbutzniks–there were and remain only a handful of religious kibbutzim–most of these new Israelis were traditional observant Jews. This cultural disconnect gave rise to a paradoxical political situation of the new Israeli working and lower middle classes embracing the right-wing and religious political parties (a paradox paralleled in the United States with blue collar support for today’s Republican Party).

And until the 1980s and early ’90s, the kibbutzim still raised their children apart from their parents, a concept that seemed especially bizarre and abhorrent to Jews from Arab lands, who valued their extended families almost above all else. One of the first and most dramatic changes on kibbutz was the elimination of the children’s houses. The film discusses the pluses and minuses of housing children away from their parents, and mostly comes out with a negative verdict; this practice was dictated largely by the radical notion of raising youngsters from birth to value their community and society above the “narrow” interests of their families. Perhaps it’s understandable that this aspect of kibbutz life was one of its least popular.

There was also much discussion on the transformation in most kibbutzim to differential salaries, allowing members to be rewarded with more income than others with less capability, skill or responsibility. Is the kibbutz abandoning its egalitarian principles in doing so, or simply adapting to the inevitable? Isn’t it only fair for people who work harder or better or in more important jobs to earn more than others, as long as the most vulnerable are protected? Nearly four years ago, Kibbutz Movement co-head Gavri Bargil spoke positively on these changes. He indicated, for example, that the income distribution is still relatively flat (with the ratio from highest to lowest only about two to one) and with internal tax revenue supplementing state programs to insure a safety net for poorer members.

In occasional visits to my cousin’s kibbutz in the Galilee (Cabri or Kabri, near Nahariya), I’ve been impressed by the kibbutz’s enterprising spirit, including the success of two well-established manufacturing companies. Yet kibbutzniks do not seem to be as materially motivated as many other people are. Although no longer existing in a money-free bubble as they once did, they live in a pleasant environment, with a relatively high standard of living. And the film indicates what Gavri Bargil mentioned four years ago, that most kibbutzim are no longer losing population.

The film only touched upon the urban kibbutz phenomenon. Some young kibbutzniks and families are settling in communes in towns and cities. They attempt to integrate themselves in their neighborhoods with educational and social welfare projects of value to the larger community. A further response to Rabbi Lerner’s points c and d is that it was through the largely kibbutz-based socialist and Labor Zionist political parties, that kibbutzim attempted to reach out to society. Over the last 20 years, these parties (essentially Labor and Meretz today) have mostly lost their appeal to the country at large; the urban kibbutz phenomenon is a new way for the younger generation of kibbutzniks to reach out in a caring way to the rest of society.

Filmmaker Toby Perl Freilich was very informative at the Q & A conducted at the screening I attended, but she didn’t know what to say when asked what might have happened if the “Labor Party” had remained in power (the questioner really should have specified the “Labor Alignment,” the electoral alliance of Mapam with Labor from 1968 until its dissolution in the early ’80s). It is my understanding that a supportive government in power would have been very helpful, when the kibbutzim went into debt in the 1970s and ’80s in order to industrialize. It also might have meant averting the debt crisis of the 1980s in the first place, as politically-driven Likud governmental policies under Menachem Begin triggered the ruinous inflation of those years. The kibbutzim had to renegotiate their debts during an inflationary spiral that went as high as 400 percent annually.

What resonates with me in an overall evaluation of the kibbutz, as discussed in this film, is that people in the early pioneering generations were willing to sacrifice in ways that they don’t today because they felt motivated by the historic goal of creating a new society. Material incentives pale when individuals find deeper meaning in their lives, an idea that Michael Lerner explored more than two decades ago as the “politics of meaning.” The kibbutz was instrumental in Israel’s establishment, both in the outsized contribution of kibbutzniks to Israel’s defense and in its economic development. Although the kibbutzim were never home to more than five percent of Israel’s population, their contributions (in economic output and otherwise) even today is disproportionately larger than their current contingent of about 1.5 percent of Israelis.

The bottom-line answer I have to Rabbi Lerner’s passionately-framed challenge is that it’s for each new generation to find their path to an expression of their highest ideals. And if one believes in the value of individual liberty, as I do, it’s still up to each of us individually to decide if this idealism should matter. I hope that many or most people will make this choice, but I don’t want anyone to live in a society where people are either compelled or brainwashed into doing so. Progressive social concerns and a dedication to principle have not disappeared from the kibbutz movement, but they have changed in form and intensity with the times.

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