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Struggling to Survive, Kibbutzim Lose Identity : Israel: The much-lauded kibbutz movement is relinquishing its past in an effort to surmount severe economic troubles.

January 06, 1991|Yossi Melman | Yossi Melman is a journalist and author who is writing a book about Israel

LOWER GALILEE, ISRAEL — Shmuel Hadash has no more illusions. "The kibbutz as an idea has failed," he says, sitting on the volcanic stones in the cemetery of Kinneret, his kibbutz. On his right are the tranquil waters of the Sea of Galilee and, facing him, the graves of the founding fathers of the kibbutz movement, the jewel in the Zionist-Socialist crown. "They tried to change human nature and to create a new man," Hadash says, pointing to the headstones of Berl Katzenelson, Ber Borochov and others. "To my regret, the kibbutz did not succeed in this task, because man's nature is stronger than his ideas. In the kibbutz, as in any other human society, people like to sow the minimum and reap the maximum."

Recounting his personal history, Hadash, in blue overalls and high boots, could be a model for the average kibbutznik. He is 65 years old and was born in Kibbutz Kinneret. His father was among the founders of the first kibbutz in Israel.

In 1909, a group of pioneers who lived on Kinneret farm and worked as hired laborers decided to establish a commune. They moved two miles down the lake and set up Degania, the first kibbutz in the land of Israel--then under Turkish rule. The idea, inspired by communist philosophy, was summed up in one sentence: Contribute according to your ability and receive according to your needs.

The kibbutz movement strived to alter the image of the Eastern European Jew--from a trader, merchant and middleman to a pioneer farmer working his land. These rural outposts strengthened the security of the Jewish community in pre-statehood days and continued in that role after independence in 1948.

Now, as the kibbutz movement in Israel celebrates its 82nd anniversary, heretical voices like that of Hadash, who have lost faith in the kibbutz, are heard throughout its ranks. But because of the brutal Arab-Israeli conflict's persistent capturing of headlines, the wind of change shaking Israel's 270 kibbutzim goes relatively unnoticed. The source of this upheaval can be found in a strong desire for economic survival. Due to bad management, lack of motivation and stock speculation as a desperate way of surviving hyperinflation, the total debt of the kibbutz movement is now $10 billion.

The movement is thus prepared to clutch anything that might alleviate its economic burden--even if this means stripping itself of the symbols and traditional values that have come to be identified with its way of life.

Although the 100,000 members of the movement make up no more than 3% of the country's Jewish population, their contribution to the State of Israel has long been held in high regard. In the air force, the most important link in Israel's defence, kibbutz members represented about 10% of the pilots. A significant portion of the country's leadership during 30 years of Labor Party dominance originated in the kibbutz movement. It provided for 50% of Israel's agricultural needs and produced 25% of its industrial exports.

Now, all this has dramatically changed. Since the Labor Party lost power to the right-wing Likud, kibbutz input into the political sphere has dwindled. Substantial numbers of the young generation no longer volunteer for elite units in the army and often do not to return to their kibbutz homes after concluding their three-year national service.

Seeking to save itself from ideological decay, social decline and a steady fall in population, the kibbutz movement has gone a long way. In an effort to retain younger members, they are now able to acquire higher education in universities and to take a year's leave within Israel's urban centers or even abroad. To increase the appeal of kibbutz life, luxury goods have been permitted, and a greater degree of individual freedom allowed. The dining hall, once the symbolic focus of community life, has lost its centrality.

Despite the anger of true believers in the kibbutz's ideological purity, changes have also been introduced in the communal education of children. Kibbutz children lived with their peer group from birth--not at home with their parents, but in separate children's houses, raised by specially assigned members of the community. This method, according to the late psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, in his study of kibbutz education, was "remarkable and the most unique contribution of the kibbutz." Today, children live with their parents.

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