A few months ago, Kibbutz Ga'ash members and guests gathered on one of the lawns to watch the traditional Shavuot holiday ceremony - one of the highlights on the annual calendar there, as at most kibbutzim around the country. As is customary, the ceremony began with greetings by the kibbutz manager, who opened his remarks with well-worn, stock phrases: "On this, well-rooted agricultural holiday, the people of Israel expresses its link with the landscape, and with the fruit, of its country ..."
Then, after this standard opening, the speaker broke with custom, turning his address into a polemic whose strident tone jarred many of the listeners. The brunt of his remarks was directed at a topic that has dominated the agenda of many kibbutz discussions in recent months: future ownership of kibbutz lands. Controversy over this issue, which has been debated for years, has heated up in past months.
The impetus for the renewed debate is a High Court petition submitted 18 months ago by the Hakeshet Hamizrahit [Sephardi Democratic Rainbow] social action movement (which was established to promote the needs and concerns of Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern origin). Hakeshet demands that the court repeal a government decision which recognizes kibbutz ownership of the lands; should the decision go into effect, members of kibbutzim around the country will be able to make a fortune by redesignating lands that are used - or are slated - for agriculture as property which can be sold for commercial development or residential construction.
The ideological-political gulf which yawns between kibbutz members and Hakeshet is so vast that the two sides are unable to agree upon a characterization of the issue at hand. While kibbutz leaders talk about "the struggle to solidify our rights to our land," Hakeshet members refer to "a struggle opposing kibbutz efforts to wrest control of state-owned lands."
Private collective deals
"We are celebrating the Shavuot holiday," Ga'ash manager Yoav Drori declared, launching into the political part of his speech, "at a time when a bitter fight is being waged with our neighbors, the Palestinians, about rights to the lands of Israel."
Immediately after this reference, Drori argued that not only Palestinians are trying to appropriate lands from the kibbutzim. "Simultaneously," he said, "an incitement campaign is being waged against members of the pioneering kibbutz movement; this campaign seeks to negate our right, as individuals and as a community, to the land upon which we've established our communities and built our homes ...
"Government officials and banks, politicians and journalists greedily fix their eyes and reach with their hands, aiming to expropriate our property, the lands of our fathers. Agriculture and working the land has become a black sheep - and a punching bag - in the eyes of some members of Israel's Jewish society."
This week, Ma'ariv reported that Kibbutz Ga'ash signed a deal with a private company, selling 500 dunams [125 acres] of its land for $28 million. All revenue from the sale, the report claimed, is to be used to cover debts owed by Ga'ash.
Drori's speech at Ga'ash - a kibbutz located north of Herzliya, which sprawls over some of the most expensive real estate in the country - reflects the assertive, uncompromising mood which currently grips the kibbutz movement as a whole. The kibbutzim have taken the offensive, aggressively arguing that the land is theirs to do with as they please. Meanwhile, a noticeable gap between real estate money-making, and pioneering-agricultural rhetoric, has started to divide the deeds and words of kibbutz leaders.
In past years, kibbutz spokesmen struck an apologetic chord whenever they spoke about the planned disposition of their lands. Now, feeling mistreated and emboldened, leaders claim that their communities are besieged by an all-out attack, whose purpose is to undermine the right to land which their members rightfully earned by the sweat of their brows, after working it for dozens of years.
The Hakeshet Hamizrahit High Court petition, the kibbutz spokesmen suggest, is merely the tip of the iceberg. The media, which has traditionally been hostile to kibbutz movements, is not the only Hakeshet ally in this crusade. High-ranking public officials, the kibbutz spokesmen contend, have also joined the assault against kibbutz lands: There is, they claim, an alliance between public servants such as the heads of the Israel Lands Administration (ILA), and top officials at the Finance Ministry, who are usually not thought of as ideological or political cohorts of radical-left organizations such as Hakeshet Hamizrahit.
Though a strong agricultural lobby operates in the Knesset, kibbutzim leaders feel that they are under-represented in Israel's parliament. As they see it, Knesset members from Meretz and Labor, the two parties which receive the bulk of kibbutz member votes, are wary of championing kibbutz land rights. Kibbutz leaders suspect that the Meretz and Labor politicians bow under to various populist-demagogic pressures.
Conflict of interest?
In view of these perceptions and suspicions, it is small wonder that Drori's outspoken polemic about government officials, politicians and journalists conspiring to appropriate property rightfully owned by the agricultural communities themselves was welcomed on many kibbutzim. His speech was circulated widely in various kibbutz publications, and was disseminated via e-mail and in the section of the kibbutz movement's Internet site devoted to the land rights controversy.
Drori's defiant remarks were just one expression of the sense of discrimination and persecution that hounds kibbutz members today. Another example: A kibbutz movement legal counsel, Attorney Victor Hertzberg, published a lengthy, harsh attack against Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein in a recent edition of Hadaf Hayarok, the kibbutz movement's weekly journal.
In a recent speech, Rubinstein gave a nod to Hakeshet Hamizrahit's position, saying that agricultural lands were given to kibbutz settlements as a "deposit," for farming use only. "What bothers me about this," Hertzberg wrote in response, "is not the claim raised by the Hakeshet Hamizrahit members, who are ostensibly concerned about `Mizrahi' Jews, while actually playing into the hands of those who greedily paw lands held by members of the Labor Zionist movement. What troubles me is that the much-respected attorney general blindly adopted this unfounded claim."
In his article, Hertzberg didn't furnish an explanation as to why Rubinstein was, in his view, duped by Hakeshet's "unfounded" contention. But the kibbutz movement counsel insists that by embracing Hakeshet's argument, the attorney general has abandoned the "Zionist ethos."
Attorney Mika Drori, formerly legal adviser to the Hakibbutz Ha'artzi movement, and today the director of the newly amalgamated kibbutz movement legal department, directs his barbs at an even more august legal target: Supreme Court President Aharon Barak.
In an article written in response to Justice Barak's ruling - that a conflict of interest arises when a kibbutz movement member serves on ILA committees which deal with problems involving kibbutz land - Drori concluded: "This court verdict, and similar rulings which preceded it, result from a decade of fallacious incitement and defamation against the kibbutz movement on the land issue."
He added: "High Court justices rely on documents written by the State Prosecutor's office; and the State Prosecutor submits facts that are, in the best case, not corroborated or which, in the worst case, are influenced by deliberate distortions."
"We, members of the kibbutzim, are today the worst victims of discrimination in the state, next to the Arab sector," Shaul Slomnitzki declared this week, speaking in a self-assured tone, without a trace of cynicism. Slomnitzki belongs to Kibbutz Beit Alfa, an Hashomer Hatzair-affiliated kibbutz located on the eastern ridge of the Jezreel Valley, abutting a huge, 10,000-dunam [2,500-acre] stretch of land between Afula and Beit She'an.
In the small print
Beit Alfa's built-up areas stretch over one-tenth of its land. In addition to residential structures, this property includes the premises of the kibbutz's furniture factory (which mainly manufactures kitchens and hotel furnishings); a factory specializing in producing special protective equipment for automobiles (whose business with settlements in the territories has flourished of late); a factory which makes crowd-dispersal equipment (whose products were, in the past, sold to oppressive regimes, such as Pinochet's government in Chile); an older factory which produces thermostats; a gas station and some stores; and a few bed-and-breakfast facilities.
The remaining 9,000 dunams around Beit Alfa are used for agriculture. Some two-thirds of this land was purchased by the Jewish National Fund in the 1920s and 1930s, and leased to the kibbutz for agricultural work. Before 1948, the remaining one-third belonged mostly to Palestinian villages. After the 1948 War of Independence, this land was seized by the state and also leased to Beit Alfa. Revenue accrued by agricultural work on this huge expanse of land amounts to no more than 10 percent of the total revenue earned by Kibbutz Beit Alfa.
Slomnitzki says that he simply can't fathom the moral and legal basis of the demand that he and his fellow kibbutz members should agree to return this land, or at least its uncultivated portions, to the state.
"The claim that we received the lands as a deposit is a fabrication concocted by the attorney general," the Beit Alfa member claims. "It is a fabrication invented by someone who really wants to turn the lands into a `deposit.' The land was given to us in perpetuity, even though formally it wasn't transferred in perpetuity since the Jewish National Fund's regulations ban permanent transfers."
Slomnitzki denies that the state furnished the lands to the kibbutzim exclusively for agricultural purposes. Nobody is better versed with the small print in deeds and agreements which his kibbutz signed with the JNF in 1942, and with the ILA some 30 years later. Slomnitzki insists that the small print substantiates his kibbutz's claims. Yet instead of formal allusion to such legal documents, the Beit Alfa member relies on Zionist ideology and rhetoric to support his arguments - no matter that detractors might object that such rhetoric has gone stale.
"The people of Israel, via the JNF, gave the land to the kibbutzim and moshavim," he declares, "and the kibbutzim and the moshavim are what gave the state to the people of Israel."
Slomnitzki was born on Beit Alfa 70 years ago, the son of pioneering immigrants from Poland who founded the kibbutz in 1926. During the 1960s, he studied agricultural engineering at the Technion in Haifa. Subsequently, he held high-ranking positions at Hakibbutz Ha'artzi's technical department; for the past 20 years, he has been responsible for promoting Beit Alfa's interests on land questions.
Throughout the past decade, Slomnitzki has been a member of the Gilboa regional council plenum, which is comprised of delegates from kibbutzim, moshavim and Arab villages east of Afula. Some 40 percent of the residents under the council's jurisdiction live in Arab villages; yet almost all of the land, no less than 90 percent, belongs to the kibbutz and moshav communities.
Slomnitzki doesn't believe that land distribution ratios in the Gilboa region are unjust or flawed; in fact, he believes that some portion of the council's lands should be slated for new construction projects that would be affiliated with the kibbutzim, and which would "preserve a Jewish majority in the region." (Beit Alfa has some 400 members today, about half the number it had 20 years ago.)
He speaks with audible resentment about Hakeshet Hamizrahit, declaring that "while they have a few professors, this is, all told, an ethnic organization which loathes kibbutzim." Nonetheless, Slomnitzki admits that some of Hakeshet's claims have "some logic."
He explains: "Attacks against us started when a few dozen moshavim in the center of the country began building on every hilltop, without obstruction, without any input from the authorities. Then the moshav members made real-estate deals with entrepreneurs, and raked in huge amounts of money. Later, when some kibbutzim in the center of the country tried to climb aboard this gravy train, the attempt provoked an uproar.
"I can understand claims made by Hakeshet Hamizrahit against ILA policy which condoned [real-estate moves made by the moshavim and kibbutzim in the center of the country]; but, as kibbutzim on the periphery, we don't have any part of this business."
As Slomnitzki sees it, Hakeshet allegations about kibbutz land profiteering "reek with the same bad odor" which wafted in vituperative accusations some 20 years ago about kibbutz "free-loaders" lounging around their swimming pools. And Slomnitzki rejects Hakeshet's claim that kibbutz-controlled land chokes nearby low-income "development towns," preventing them from growing.
"If Beit Alfa didn't exist," he concludes, "this land wouldn't be worth a nickel today, just as in the day when the JNF purchased it. Nor would Afula nor Beit She'an be worth anything, were it not for Beit Alfa. Had the kibbutzim not been here during the Independence War, I'm not sure whether Beit She'an would have been conquered [by Jewish troops]. Beit She'an was an Arab town which was conquered only because kibbutz settlements were around it."
Back in Sharon's hands
The High Court was scheduled to begin discussion of the Hakeshet Hamizrahit petition last Sunday. The hearing on the 18-month-old petition, however, was deferred because the State Prosecutor's office asked for two months to finalize its position. This was the fifth time the court delayed taking action on the petition.
The questions to be debated by the court are deceptively clear-cut: Do lands which the state, and previously the JNF, leased to the kibbutzim for agricultural cultivation belong to the kibbutz settlements, or to the state? Are the kibbutzim entitled to alter their agricultural designation, and use the land for construction and tourist projects likely to add millions of dollars to their coffers; or, alternatively, does the reclassification of the lands require that they be returned to the state, so that they can be redistributed between kibbutzim, moshavim and low-income towns? If the lands are to be returned to the state once they are redesignated, should the kibbutzim be compensated? If so, how much state money should the kibbutzim receive in compensations?
However clearly defined, resolving these questions is proving to be no easy feat. In fact, they are among the most vexing, complicated issues to wend their way to the High Court in recent years, primarily because any solutions which are reached will have tremendous impact upon Israel's socioeconomic landscape for decades to come.
The Hakeshet petition raises one cardinal question: Should the vast wealth inherent in the tens of thousands of dunams of land that are, for historical reasons, controlled by the kibbutzim, be used to enrich only kibbutz members; or, should the wealth be distributed in the future on a revised, more egalitarian and shared basis?
Hakeshet Hamizrahit's position paper on the land issue divides Jewish communities in the country along ethnic, Ashkenazi (mainly kibbutzim and enclaves defined as "community settlements"), and Mizrahi (development towns) lines. The paper declares that "in the Galilee, 62.3 percent of the land is under the jurisdiction of primarily Ashkenazi regional councils, whose residents constitute 6 percent of the population of the region. In contrast, just 21.5 percent of the land [in the Galilee] is under the jurisdiction of primarily Mizrahi regional frameworks, whose population counts for 24 percent of the total population in the area.
Lands under the jurisdiction of Arab regional councils encompass just 16.1 percent of the total area, whereas Arab residents constitute 72 percent of the total population of the Galilee. Similarly unequal distribution of the land prevails all around the country.
Hakeshet's High Court petition seeks to transform current patterns of land distribution.
The kibbutz land issue was first debated in the early 1990s. The mass immigration from the former Soviet Union caused a housing crunch: Land had to be set aside for building. The ILA, then controlled by Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Sharon, authorized a decision whereby kibbutzim and moshavim which erased the "agriculture-only" designation of their lands would be compensated by the state for 50 percent of the value of the lands after their redesignation. This decision - No. 533, from 1992 - paves the way for billions of dollars to reach the kibbutzim and moshavim.
The decision stirred public protest. Before it spawned a significant number of real-estate deals, it was replaced by a different government resolution (No. 727), which lowered the compensation level to 27 percent.
In response to Hakeshet Hamizrahit's High Court petition protesting the implementation of government decision No. 727, an inter-ministerial committee was established to review the kibbutz lands dispute. In November 2000, the committee submitted its recommendations, calling for the compensation figure to be reduced to just 10 percent. Hakeshet, which by the end of 2000 was entangled in a number of internal ideological controversies, seemed willing to accept the inter-ministerial committee's recommendations. But kibbutz leaders vehemently rejected them.
The agricultural lobby fought for the kibbutz leaders' position in the Knesset, and managed to persuade some MKs to sponsor a bill which would basically provide the kibbutzim with 100 percent ownership of their lands. This proposed bill, whose main backer is today's Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon, has passed preliminary and first readings in the Knesset, and is currently being reviewed by the Knesset Finance Committee.
High Court judges seem to be dragging their feet on the Hakeshet petition due to a hope that the Knesset will resolve the issue. Abiding by a new judicial philosophy of dodging highly contentious, political controversies, the judges seem to prefer to leave the ball in the politicians' court on the thorny kibbutz land issue.
But the politicians can't make up their minds about the kibbutz turf war. On one side of the battle, Agriculture Minister Simhon is joined by a bipartisan group of Knesset allies, MK Avshalom Vilan (Meretz), Yisrael Katz (Likud), and Zvi Hendel (National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu); opposing this alliance are Labor ministers, who want to avoid injuring the JNF's status, and also Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit, who seems favorably disposed to Hakeshet Hamizrahit's position.
In the end, the issue is likely to be decided by the same politician who formulated the ILA's original position on the kibbutz land issue: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Shaul Slomnitzki, the Beit Alfa member and left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement veteran, is hardly frightened by such a scenario.
"There's no minister in this government who did more on behalf of the kibbutz settlement movement than Arik Sharon," Slomnitzki opines. "In his various government posts, from the agriculture portfolio, to the industry and trade post, and as national infrastructure minister, he consistently upheld kibbutz community interests. I have my disagreements with him about peace process issues - but on this land topic, Sharon is an incomparable asset for the Labor Zionist settlement movement."