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Saturday, May 9, 1998

In 50 years, kibbutz movement has undergone many changes

By Judy Peres / Chicago Tribune

KIBBUTZ RAVID, Israel -- On a rocky, wind-swept hilltop overlooking the Sea of Galilee, 35 young pioneers at Kibbutz Ravid are trying to breathe new life into the old Marxist slogan, "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs."

Ravid, one of Israel's newest kibbutzim, occupies the site of an abandoned one, most of its homes and farm structures now empty. Its economy is based mainly on education, with its members running training seminars. But it also has orchards, a poultry run and a cinder-block factory.

The Ravidians pool their income and take what they need from the communal treasury. They believe they must reinvent the almost century-old enterprise known as kibbutz, the communal farm invented by Israel's socialist pioneers to settle the countryside. In their mind, the established kibbutzim have strayed from the underlying ideology.

What had been a gradual erosion of the collective lifestyle -- children living in their parents' homes, families eating their meals outside the communal dining hall, members keeping private cars and savings accounts -- has become a landslide with the advent of differential wages, a staple of the outside world that many feel threatens the very concept of kibbutz.

When you start paying the factory manager more than the person who washes the dishes, critics contend, you lose the whole point: the equality of labor. "The changes don't fit with our world view and our reasons for going to kibbutz," says Yossi Gilad, 28, a founder of Ravid.

In many ways, the process of privatization taking place in the kibbutzim mirrors economic and social trends affecting Israel as a whole. "The kibbutz is a magnifying glass for Israeli society," says Amia Lieblich, a professor of psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a longtime researcher of kibbutz life.

The kibbutzim, which helped defend the country's borders, train soldiers and absorb immigrants, played a major role in building the Zionist state. They also symbolized the country's pioneering spirit and its inhabitants' all-for-one enthusiasm for the collective endeavor. In the 1950s and '60s, kibbutzniks were the elite of Israeli society. The top army officer corps came from kibbutzim, as did leaders of government and industry.

Many of the changes have their roots in the transition from the austere, centralized economy of Israel's founders to a high-tech, free-market consumer economy. Others reflect what Lieblich calls "a general desire for individual actualization and a process of growing away from the idealism of the collective."

Muki Tsur, a writer and former secretary general of the United Kibbutz Movement, agrees the kibbutz has undergone fundamental changes. "Things that once were taboo," he says, "now are accepted: hired labor, unemployment, getting rich, selling land." The kibbutz economy, once based almost entirely on agriculture, now is 70 percent industry, 20 percent agriculture, 5 percent tourism and 5 percent outside work.

Tsur says the kibbutz is moving in the direction of creating "more individual responsibility and individual rights within a communal structure." But he believes the institution will survive with its core values more or less intact.

In the beginning, kibbutz members shared everything equally, which was easy when "everything" consisted of very little. They lived in tents or rudimentary huts. They ate brown bread, cucumbers and lebeniya, a sour-milk product fresh from the cowshed. They wore interchangeable blue work pants and shirts that came out of the communal laundry. For entertainment, they shed their sandals and folk-danced to the accompaniment of an accordionist -- or their own lusty voices.

Kibbutzniks were not only draining the swamps and defending the country's borders but also building what they saw as a just society. They believed there was particular virtue in their austerity. But, then, city dwellers weren't doing much better.

"Once, everyone was poor," says Phil Michaelson, a member of Kibbutz Mevo Hamma, which occupies a breathtaking perch on the southern edge of the Golan Heights. "The kibbutz just dealt with hardship better."

But when the country's overall standard of living improved, things changed. As the communal pie got bigger, individuals started demanding not just bigger slices, but more flavors.

Kibbutzim built larger apartments for their members, who were no longer content to furnish them with general-issue steel cots and wooden stools. The ubiquitous blue work clothes gave way to jeans and tennis shoes imported from Tel Aviv or even Paris.

"Consuming has become a sophisticated activity," Tsur says. "When I came to the kibbutz in 1956, we got 60 grams (about 2 ounces) of coffee per person per week, 100 grams of biscuits, a packet of sugar and cigarettes according to need. Now there's a supermarket on the kibbutz with gourmet foods, toiletries, cosmetics -- anything you can imagine."

Some argue there has always been a measure of private property on the kibbutz, where everything was supposed to be owned collectively. It started the first time someone picked up a work shirt from the laundry that fit pretty well and stitched his initials on it in red thread. It continued with members keeping private gifts from relatives outside the kibbutz -- often substantial gifts, such as real estate or cars. Then it was the kibbutz turning a blind eye as new members held on to apartments or bank accounts in the city, instead of ceding them to the collective treasury.

Three years ago, a member of Mevo Hamma won $6 million in the national lottery. "No one dreamed for a second that he would hand it over," said Michaelson -- although the Lotto winner did buy the kibbutz a satellite TV system.

In the early days, the kibbutz provided for all basic needs -- food, clothing, health, housing, education -- and gave each member a small allowance for discretionary spending.

Over the years, the allowance got bigger. But, partly to reduce waste, members were required to spend more of it on things the kibbutz treasury had covered before, including food and household electricity.

The transition to more discretionary spending led to incessant ideological and philosophical debates. For instance, eyeglasses were covered as an essential item of health care. But what if someone wanted gold frames or contact lenses? Should the collective still have to pay? "One approach might be to give each member 100 shekels and let him decide how to spend it," Tsur explained. "But why should someone with good eyesight get a budget for glasses at all?"

Similar disputes involving freedom of choice arose in the area of production. "Who should decide where someone else works?" Tsur asked rhetorically. "What if young members don't want to work in agriculture? You could say, OK, we'll get out of farming and let each one work wherever he wants after contributing X shifts to the community. But then some branches would die, or people would go outside and bring back different salaries.

"Do you set a minimum that each one must contribute? The problem is that a teacher's salary is determined not by her effort but by the status of her profession in the general society.

"The equality of labor inside the kibbutz is destroyed outside. Men get more than women, lawyers make more than teachers. And that raises a very delicate question. People start asking, ÔWhy should I get the same as someone who brings in one-fifth of my salary?' "

Some would argue the transition from large discretionary allowances to differential wages is a matter of degree. But most kibbutz stalwarts believe there is a qualitative difference. Allowances, no matter how big, were always based on need, never on the kind or quality of the work one did.

Only a few kibbutzim have gone so far as to pay each member a salary based on what the member's labor would fetch in a free-market economy. But many more are considering shifting to some form of differential wages.

Michaelson says the vast majority of Mevo Hamma's members want more control over their own lives and "some connection between effort and reward." Mevo Hamma has just begun the arduous process of discussing what kibbutzim describe simply as "The Change." The first step was to hold a series of focus groups to find out what people want; the next is to come up with a comprehensive cost-accounting system.

"If we knew exactly what it cost to keep a child in an after-school program, parents might decide they'd rather spend that money differently," Michaelson said. "Basically, we want more choice and we're willing to pay for it. We're reinventing capitalism."

Up the road a piece, in the northern Golan, is Ein Zivan, the first kibbutz to switch to differential salaries and among the most radical.

"We weren't happy the way things were," said Gadi Dagan, 42, a member of the kibbutz secretariat. "Now every member gets a salary based on his skills, not his needs. All salaries -- whether for work inside the kibbutz or outside -- go to the kibbutz treasury. The kibbutz takes out taxes for municipal services, social security, pensions, and gives the rest back to the member."

The kibbutz is not responsible for finding work or paying unemployment compensation, "but we help each other. You don't have to be a socialist to be a good person," Dagan says.

At Ein Zivan, a prosperous-looking community with spacious, modern rowhouses, the members still have joint ownership of the means of production. But Ruti Baruch, the kibbutz accountant, says it has nothing to do with ideology.

"This is an economic unit that has to sustain itself," she says. "It's better to maintain the means of production collectively."

Most kibbutzim experimenting with "The Change" have not gone as far as Ein Zivan. Many are choosing modified market systems, in which the gap between the highest and lowest salaries is arbitrarily capped.

Lieblich points out that the economic changes taking place in the kibbutz are leading to fairly radical social changes as well, especially in the role of women.

Kibbutzniks have become less enmeshed in the life of the community and more focused on their family units: Children's houses are gone. Hired labor does much of the work. The general assembly has been abandoned in favor of elected councils, communal laundries have been closed, and dining halls are used only on special occasions.

"The result is that the kibbutz has restored the traditional role of the housewife," says Lieblich. "Kibbutz women now shop, cook, wash clothes and take care of children."

And the move to differential wages makes things worse, she says. Fewer kibbutz women than men go to college, and those who do often study education -- which makes their labor less valuable than that of their husbands.

Critics fear the changes will spell the demise of the kibbutz, which German-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once called the only utopia that didn't fail.

By the 1970s, many kibbutzniks had a higher standard of living than their fellow Israelis. They had swimming pools and tennis courts, color television and private phones when most Israelis had no access to such luxuries.

Many voters who helped Likud wrest control of the government from the Labor Party in 1977 considered the kibbutzim parasites who had gotten a free ride under three decades of Labor rule.

The combination of a hostile political leadership and a recession precipitated by fiscal policies meant to rein in galloping inflation in the mid-1980s devastated the kibbutzim. Some folded, and many kibbutzniks left. But most came through the crisis.

Things are better now. The kibbutzim worked out a debt-repayment deal with the government and the banks. They're negotiating arrangements to get certain agricultural lands rezoned for more lucrative development. And the tide of decreasing membership has been stemmed.

There are still about 270 kibbutzim in Israel, comprising 2.5 percent of the country's population, down from 7 percent of the Jewish population in 1947, a year before statehood. Today's kibbutzim produce about 40 percent of the nation's agricultural products and 8 percent of its industrial output.

While others prophesy darkly about the end of the kibbutz, Tsur sees hope in the fact that small groups of young people are expressing interest in starting new cooperative societies, albeit not always along the lines of the traditional kibbutz. "There are new beginnings," he says.

A few kibbutzim -- urban cooperatives -- have given up collective ownership of the means of production but retain communal consumption. At Ravid, established by leaders of a left-wing Zionist youth movement, they retain collective ownership but decide more or less independently what each member can spend.

"We don't have a general assembly to decide whether I can take a trip to the States or get a degree in sociology," says Yossi Gilad, his eyes ablaze with zealous enthusiasm. "We work through consensus, not politics. Everyone can read the balance sheet, and everyone can sign checks."

Lieblich believes the future of the kibbutz lies in its adherents finding a goal beyond mere self-maintenance. "In the early days, the kibbutzim had national goals to give meaning to their lives," she says. "In the future, perhaps they could be the vanguard of the environmental movement, or commit to elevating underprivileged populations.

"Maybe the kibbutz will eventually become like military service -- you do it at a certain age and then you move on to your real life."


(c) 1998, Chicago Tribune.


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