Celebrating a Century of Kibbutz Life

The idea was sublime, but little remains of the kibbutz project in its original, ambitious format.

The kibbutz movement marked its 100th anniversary Wednesday in a ceremony on the first kibbutz, Deganya. Last year Tel Aviv celebrated its 100th birthday. It seems that between the first modern Jewish city and the first kibbutz in the world, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee, lies the Zionist narrative.

It's easy to get the impression today that the city won. Kibbutz residents are a small minority, about one in every 30 Israelis. The banner they carried proudly for decades is still fluttering up there, somehow, but kibbutzim have been moving toward privatization and toward favoring the individual's needs over those of society. Little remains of the kibbutz project in its original ambitious format.

And yet, it would be premature to mourn the kibbutz. We should take a good look at it for a moment on its centenary and count its praises. The idea was sublime, albeit impractical - a community that would cling to the land, especially along the border and in the wilderness, conduct a collective lifestyle, and sustain itself primarily off the land.

In reality, the kibbutz failed to change man's nature. Politicians and others found ways of either ignoring the principles or using the kibbutz ideology and its adherents for their own benefit. Nor did the economy respond well to the great kibbutz experiment. The successful kibbutzim in recent decades are those that invested in modern industry and did not indulge in the legacy of agriculture, dairy farming or fish breeding.

However, the kibbutzim had a major role in changing the face of the Land of Israel and the State of Israel. Without their strategic positioning in the country's weaker points and their high-quality volunteer work force, it is doubtful whether the Jewish community would have emerged from three decades of British rule with the strength to deal with the Arab resistance to establishing the state. The pre-state Palmach underground militia relied on the kibbutzim and nourished them, as did the Fighting Pioneer Youth, which historically combined military service with the establishment of new agricultural communities.

Four prime ministers - David Ben Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir and Ehud Barak - lived on a kibbutz at some point. Many of the IDF's most outstanding commanders, pilots and combatants were raised and educated on a kibbutz. Israeli culture owes a great deal to writers and poets, composers and singers, painters and sculptors from kibbutzim.

One hundred years after its birth, this may not be the kibbutz's finest hour - but without the kibbutz, Israel would look very different today.