Barely two percent of Israelis live on kibbutzim, but seven of the 53 soldiers killed in Operation Protective Edge – more than 13 percent – hail from these close-knit, collective communities that once epitomized the Israeli pioneering spirit.
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Not only have the kibbutzim suffered a disproportionate share of the casualties in this war, but, with many of them located along Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip, they are also among the most vulnerable to threats from Hamas rockets and tunnels. In the last 12 days, Gaza militants have infiltrated Israel through tunnels four times, emerging next to kibbutzim in three of those incidents.
This hasn’t prevented the kibbutzim from contributing – also disproportionately, perhaps – to the national common good. Of late they have stood at the forefront of efforts to provide relief to Israelis temporarily displaced by the hostilities, opening their gates in the north to families who have been forced to evacuate the south, while welcoming soldiers in the south who are stationed nearby and are in dire need of rest and respite.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the death of the kibbutz movement, not to mention its spirit, appear to have been greatly exaggerated. The movement was originally founded over 40 years before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, by young Jews who hailed mostly from Eastern European countries. These idealistic pioneers sought to reclaim what they saw as their ancient homeland and to forge a new life there. Despite overwhelming physical, economic and other hardships throughout the years, these typically socialist-oriented rural, collective communities have played a major role in the development of modern-day Israel.
To be sure, the kibbutzim have lost the dominant status they once enjoyed in Israeli society; indeed, in the last elections, for the first time ever, not one representative of the movement won a seat in the Knesset. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t continue to wield a disproportionate influence in Israeli life.
“It just goes to prove how wrong those were who wrote them off,” says Dr. Alon Pauker, a historian of the kibbutz movement from Beit Berl College and a member of Be’eri, a kibbutz situated a few kilometers away from the Gaza border.
“There are those who might have had an interest in portraying things differently, but the truth is that despite all the changes they’ve been through, the kibbutzim continue to account for a high share of the combat soldiers in the army, and they are still big champions of mutual aid.”
Michal Palgi, head of the Institute for Research of the Kibbutz and the Cooperative Idea at the University of Haifa, notes that even though kibbutzim have reinvented themselves – for example, by privatizing their operations and changing their ideological orientation somewhat over the years – they “have always been on the front lines, with two-thirds of them located in the periphery of the country.”
Despite the myth which Palgi says is largely perpetuated by the religious right, kibbutzniks also maintain a prominent place on the front lines when it comes to Israel Defense Forces activity, and are no less inclined to sacrifice their lives for their country than members of the religious settlement movement.
“According to our figures, 90 percent of children from the kibbutz serve the army, many of them in combat units,” Palgi explains.
Indeed, the following casualties of the past 10 days reflect that prominent status at the front: Maj. (Res.) Amotz Greenberg, 45, of Hod Hasharon and originally from Kibbutz Yotvata; Capt. Zvika Kaplan, 28, of Kibbutz Merav; Sergeant First Class Oded Ben Sira, 22, of Nir Etzion, a religious kibbutz; Lieutenant Paz Elyahu, 22, from Kibbutz Evron; Shahar Dauber, 20, from Kibbutz Ginegar; Staff Sgt. Guy Boyland, 21, of Kibbutz Ginosar; and Captain Dmitri Levitas, 26, of Kibbutz Geshur.
Another casualty, Max Steinberg, a “lone” soldier from Los Angeles – meaning he had arrived here without his family and volunteered in the IDF – had been “adopted” by a family on Kibbutz Urim. Plus, several days ago, the grandson of Haim Oron, a kibbutz movement leader and former MK from the left-wing Meretz party, was injured in battle on the Gaza border.
“I think that a great disservice has been done over the years to the kibbutzim, this attempt to delegitimize them,” says Canadian-born Vivian Silver, who has spent 40 years living on kibbutzim, the past 26 on Be’eri in the south.
Many kibbutzniks, herself included, blame the beginning of their movement’s fall from grace on derogatory remarks made by Menachem Begin, the late prime minister and Likud party leader. In a now-famous 1981 campaign speech, Begin referred to the “millionaire” kibbutzniks lounging around their swimming pools.
Due in part to poor economic management, in the mid-1980s the kibbutzim found themselves on the brink of bankruptcy, with their political opponents gloating.
It was this financial crisis that forced many of these communities to embrace new economic models to survive and paved the way to their large-scale privatization. To many observers on the outside, it signaled the demise of the traditional model of the kibbutz movement.
According to Palgi, following a steady drop, the number of Israelis living on kibbutzim affiliated with various movements today has risen in the past 15 years. Of the 274 kibbutzim today, 60 are still communities resembling the old-fashioned, socialist-oriented kibbutzim, 17 are religiously oriented, and the remainder are “renewed” kibbutzim based on a less collective model.
The increase in new members in recent years has come both from former kibbutzniks moving back home and city-dwellers seeking greener pastures.
“Many have come for the quality of life, but not only,” Palgi explains. “The appeal of the kibbutz for many newcomers is that they can have a greater influence on decision-making in their communities.”
As Pauker notes, “even in the renewed kibbutzim, there is far more egalitarianism that in other Israeli communities and a far more intensive communal experience.”
Considering how close-knit and united these communities are, he adds, it is quite natural that they would be among the first to take on the cause of helping others during the war. Eitan Broshi, secretary-general of the United Kibbutz Movement, the umbrella organization for all nonreligious kibbutzim, says he’s not surprised that these communities have been rediscovered.
“The past few weeks have taught us yet again that a united movement, with strength and solidarity, is not only powerful during ordinary days, but critical to its members and Israeli society as a whole during days of crisis and battle,” he says.
What might be surprising to some is that the kibbutzim, traditionally aligned with the left and the Israeli peace movement, have been among the staunchest supporters of the current operation in Gaza, urging the government not to bow to pressure for a pullout.
But as Pauker notes, although kibbutzniks may be prominent members of the peace camp, that doesn’t make them pacifists. “Almost all the members of the kibbutzim down south will tell you they support a political solution to the conflict,” he notes, “but they also believe that this is not a war of choice because they see themselves under an existential threat today. And I say that as a card-carrying member of Meretz.”