A Fine and Public Place

The battle over preserving the architectural heritage of Kibbutz Kfar Giladi reflects a broader conflict between private and public ownership.

Spacious balconies, decorative fences and other additions now grace many houses in Kibbutz Kfar Giladi: After years in which facades had to conform to stringent rules, the privatization the kibbutz has undergone has enabled residents to adjust their houses to their own taste.

But another building project is also underway in Kfar Giladi, an initiative by the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites to rescue eight 90-year-old stone houses built during the kibbutz's early years. Sixty percent of the kibbutz's members approved the decision to preserve the buildings, but only after a fight that underscored the dilemmas faced by kibbutzim undergoing privatization.

Kfar Giladi - Yaron Kaminsky - February 2012
Yaron Kaminsky

Privatization has made the kibbutz general assembly much less important than it once was; often, few members even bother to attend the meetings. But dozens showed up to debate the key question that had to be resolved if the stone houses were to be preserved: Should they, too, become someone's personal property, or should they remain communal property?

The houses were built in 1922, six years after the kibbutz was founded. They are thought to be the only such group of early kibbutz houses that has remained intact.

Kfar Giladi is located in the Galilee panhandle not far from Tel Hai, the scene of a famous battle in 1920 between Arab fighters from nearby Lebanon and the Jewish pioneers. It was the battle of Tel Hai that convinced the kibbutz of the need to build permanent housing, along with other public buildings.

The homes, made from Galilee stone and materials imported from Lebanon, were set far apart: Even then residents foresaw that they might one day want to give each person their own plot of land. They ended up housing members of five families (Shohat, Giladi, Zaid, Kroll and Hurvitz ), and also hosted various famous visitors, including author Haim Nahman Bialik and Polish-Jewish educator Janusz Korczak.

"These eight stone buildings are an inseparable part of the interesting and important history of settlement in the Upper Galilee in general and Kfar Giladi in particular," said Tora Shraiber, a lawyer who is charge of preservation at the kibbutz.

But other residents argued that the kibbutz has already preserved enough buildings, and the community's growth in all directions around the original houses has left those eight "stuck like a bone in its throat," as one said. They therefore wanted the houses to be privatized and assigned as personal property, just as other kibbutz houses have been.

And of course, the issue was inevitably caught up in the broader debate over privatization, between those who see it as vital to the economic well-being of the kibbutzim and their members and those who view it as a shameful abandonment of a glorious heritage.

Amnon Levin, who is in charge of preservation for the Upper Galilee Regional Council, said privatization was "the greatest threat to preservation on the kibbutzim," and has resulted in a significant decline in the number of buildings worth preserving between 1992 and 2007, the two years in which the council conducted a comprehensive preservation survey.

But in Kfar Giladi preservation won the day, and work on refurbishing the buildings has begun. Ultimately, they are slated to house a museum of local photography, a workshop for handicrafts and a recreation center for toddlers, as well as serving various other public functions.

"There are things that can't be privatized," said one kibbutz member, Ilana Ashuach. "This is the infrastructure of our history. If we divvy them up, we will no longer be Kfar Giladi: We'll be just like any other place."