President Shimon Peres, Kibbutz Degania
President Shimon Peres visiting a reconstruction of Kibbutz Degania’s first wooden building. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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"This is the hundredth anniversary of the kibbutzim - aren't you celebrating today?" Suleiman Taha asked his farmer friends from the Jordan Valley kibbutzim, who had gathered at his tire workshop on Kibbutz Afikim yesterday afternoon.

Suleiman, from Nazareth, has worked at Afikim for 30 years and is a fixture of the kibbutz.

"Who's got time?" responded one. "We have to get back to work."

Still, thousands of people gathered yesterday at Kibbutz Kinneret and at Degania, the first kibbutz, for day-long festivities marking the centennial of the kibbutz movement.

The celebration seem to have come right on time. Fifteen years ago, it would have found a movement mired in economic and social crisis. But yesterday, the 4,000 or so kibbutzniks who gathered on Degania's soccer field to watch an impressive fireworks display exuded self-confidence. The implied message was "this is just the beginning."

An excited President Shimon Peres, speaking against the backdrop of a recently-finished reconstruction of Degania's first wooden building, said the building was "a victory arch, a victory for one of the great hopes of humanity and the Jewish people." Then he looked out toward the landscape of his youth - Kibbutz Alumot, on the plain west of Lake Kinneret.

To many people, attorney Keren Michaeli-Yakobobich exemplified this victory. Looking at the photos of Degania's pioneering founders on the steps of the wooden building, she said the kibbutzim were "the promised land" when she was growing up in a rough neighborhood of Netanya. But she never dreamed that some day she would be a member of Kibbutz Lahavot Haviva, which has been her home for the past three years.

"The change in the kibbutzim began at about the same time as my desire to live in a small community where the individual has freedom, but that preserves the core of mutual responsibility and working relationships that make for a more just society," she said.

"People were in a hurry to eulogize the kibbutz," commented Ze'ev Shor, secretary of the Kibbutz Movement. "But 3,000 new members are the proof that the kibbutz is coming back and even growing."

Yesterday, people seemed to prefer not to talk about the dramatic change that most kibbutzim have undergone - the move toward privatization. The once-heated issue did not come up during the movement's convention at Kibbutz Kinneret, and the voices of those kibbutzniks who were devotees of the collective lifestyle were not heard. The ideological fervor that typified the Kibbutz Movement conferences of yesteryear has long since cooled.