After 100 Years, the Kibbutz Movement Has Completely Changed

Only a quarter of kibbutzim still function as equalized cooperatives, while the rest have begun paying salaries to their members.

Eli Ashkenazi
Eli Ashkenazi
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Eli Ashkenazi
Eli Ashkenazi

As the kibbutz movement marks it centenary, it seems little resemblance to the ideals which once motivated it remain. Only a quarter of kibbutzim still function as equalized cooperatives, while the rest have begun paying salaries to their members, a study by Haifa University's Institute for the Research on the Kibbutz and the Cooperative Idea has shown. Even Deganya Aleph, Israel's first kibbutz, is now operating on the privatized model.

Another survey conducted this year found that 70 percent of all kibbutz members receive monthly salaries of less than NIS 7,000, while 11 percent receive salaries of over NIS 12,000. One hundred eighty-eight kibbutzim (72 percent) are run according to the "new kibbutz" privatization model, which includes differentiated salaries for members; 65 kibbutzim (25 percent) are communally run; and nine kibbutzim (3 percent) are run as "integrated" kibbutzim.

A communal kibbutz is one in which there is no relationship between the work a member carries out and the budget he receives; in other words, everyone is paid the same amount. The integrated model combines a basic budget equally distributed among all members along with a percentage of each member's salary. A "renewed kibbutz," the privatized model most popular today, replaces the budget with regular salaries from work and other income sources specific to each individual member. The privatized kibbutz retains joint ownership of the kibbutz instruments of production and other assets, along with a "safety net" for health insurance, pension, education and supporting members with special needs.

From 2007 to 2008, 14 kibbutzim were privatized; only five were privatized between 2008 and 2009. In a number of kibbutzim, the privatization process failed after most members chose to retain the traditional cooperative model.

"The really interesting news is that a number of kibbutzim decided not to privatize," Elisha Shapira, the coordinator of the cooperative branch in the kibbutz movement, said. "I don't want to prophesize, but it may be the beginning of a sobering up."

More and more members understand that going from cooperative to differentiated harms the majority of them, and benefits only a select few. When you take a society that used to be equal and you let it run by market rules, it's self-evident that a minority is going to move up and the majority is going to move down," Shapira said. "When privatization begins, the member suddenly gets a lot more cash in hand, so he thinks things just got better - but then he gets the bills for health insurance, education, transportation and other fairly basic services. The kibbutz member then realizes his condition actually worsened."

However, the director of the research institute, Dr. Shlomo Getz said it was too soon to tell. "We shouldn't conclude that the privatization process has been stalled because in 2009 [only] two communal kibbutzim and three integrated kibbutzim adopted the privatized model. Twelve more communal and three integrated kibbutzim are already discussing changing their administration model."

The great challenge before kibbutzim today is the image of the kibbutz as we emerge from a two-decade long economic and social crisis," said Ze'ev Shor, secretary of the Kibbutz Movement. "Most of the movement fared well through the crisis. All the kibbutzim are now economically stable and their [children] are coming home. Twenty-five hundred new members joined kibbutzim in recent years, 60 percent of them returning kibbutz members."

There have been great changes to the kibbutz way of life during the crisis, but even those kibbutzim operating privatized salaries, products and certain services still retain the solidarity and mutual assistance that is the DNA of the kibbutz," Shor said.

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