Among the Last of the Socialists

The Plasson factory is the chief economic asset of Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael. A public company that was floated on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange in 1997, Plasson is worth $133 million and exports 90 percent of the plastic products it manufactures.

The Plasson factory is the chief economic asset of Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael. A public company that was floated on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange in 1997, Plasson is worth $133 million and exports 90 percent of the plastic products it manufactures. Nevertheless, there are two things that will never change for its CEO, Ilan Tessler: He will go to work on his bicycle, and his salary will never be any higher than that of his secretary, or of Boris Gal, who screws together pipes on the factory's production line.

Gal, aged 80, comes from the generation of Ma'agan Michael's founders. Sometimes Tessler tries to persuade him to take advantage of his right to retire, to go to the beach or to join one of the seniors' activities groups. But Gal comes to work each day. On the day he retires, he will no doubt be replaced by a large yellow robot of the type already found on the plant's new production floor. Tessler is also a psychiatrist: At the age of 40, he decided to study psychiatry, he went to medical school for seven years, specialized in the field, and then returned to head the plastics firm. In either capacity, Tessler could have afforded a large private home in neighboring Zichron Yaakov, but he enjoys his life as it is, with an office looking out on the sea and a bike parked outside.

Of Israel's 265 kibbutzim, 130 have become privatized and adopted differential wage schemes with a "safety net" for those who find themselves at the bottom of the economic ladder. Another 30 kibbutzim are halfway between the classic kibbutz and the privatized one. Only about 100 have remained cooperative in one form or another, and Ma'agan Michael is one of the most ardent of them. This is true when it comes to equal salaries for Plasson's CEO and workers in the cow shed and when its comes to committee decisions over allowing member to put a satellite dish on their roof or paving the path outside their homes.

A real revolution at the kibbutz is expected next month - the dining room will become privatized. Kibbutz members will get extra money for food, and will decide whether to buy a meal there or shop in the local grocery and cook at home. This is the only non-cooperative enterprise being allowed on Ma'agan Michael.

The kibbutzniks have a common trait: Speak to them about money or economic prosperity, and they look around and knock on wood (even if the table is plastic). For years, Ma'agan Michael has been considered Israel's richest kibbutz, and some say, also "the most snobbish." At the kibbutz, members politely avoid speaking directly about revenues - and knock on wood.

Only a kibbutznik can really tell which kibbutz is really wealthy. The nuances of standard of living are not obvious to the uninitiated. Many kibbutzim offer children's activities, a swimming pool, vast lawns and ficus trees, including some that have collapsed financially. The budget for a family of four on Ma'agan Michael appears modest: NIS 40,000 per year, which includes furniture, electronic equipment, trips and clothing. This is where the nuances count - the laundry services, health insurance, academic studies for all, fast Internet service and relatively high pensions.

But if one studies the NIS 7.3 million budget for joint municipal affairs for 2004 presented by the kibbutz to the Hof Carmel Regional Council, it becomes clear that Ma'agan Michael is bigger than all seven other kibbutzim in the area combined.

Ma'agan Michael has a positive problem - 50 percent of the children come back to live on the kibbutz after army service, many with partners, and there is a housing shortage. A family with two children gets a 100-square-meter home. Three fish ponds will have to be dried up now to provide for new quarters.

"Ma'agan Michael has a little more than 1,400 residents, of whom 640 are members," says Larry Schwartz - a former American immigrant who stayed on the kibbutz after studying at its ulpan - and who is in charge of the kibbutz's master plan. "In 2020, we expect to have 2,000 residents," he says. The average age on the kibbutz is unusually low, 34, compared to 54 on other kibbutzim. Almost 20 percent of the population is under 10.

Plasson was set up in the early 1960s, and the founders laid down a principle that has been observed ever since - never take out loans that are beyond its means to return. As a result, the kibbutz survived the great collapse of the 1980s.

Another unusual aspect at Ma'agan Michael is its decentralized authority: It has more than 40 committees. Big decisions are discussed at general meetings open to all members, as is the case at other kibbutzim, but they are not taken until two days later - by ballot in a polling booth.

The vote on differential wages was 238 against and 70 in favor.