A Tale of Two Kibbutzim and How Capitalism Doesn't Always Trump Socialism

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Ein Dor, which went private in 2003 after finding itself heavily in the red in the 1980s and '90s.
Ein Dor, which went private in 2003 after finding itself heavily in the red in the 1980s and '90s.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

They call it a “renewed kibbutz,” but today Ein Dor is really a kibbutz in name only.

The accidental visitor might be confused, as this kibbutz in northern Israel still has the look and feel of an old-fashioned one: Bungalow-style homes, lush fields and orchards, old and young residents riding around on beaten-up bicycles, and the pungent scent of fertilizer in the air.

Situated in the Lower Galilee, Ein Dor did start out as a collective agricultural community devoted to the Marxist principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” But like the vast majority of Israel’s 230 or so kibbutzim, when forced in recent decades to choose between ideology and economic survival, Ein Dor opted for “renewal” – a code word for privatization.

Today, its members are required to pay for basic necessities like food, electricity and laundry services – not to mention luxuries like cars and overseas travel. And rather than receive a monthly budget based on their needs, today they earn salaries determined by what job they perform and what position they hold – just like in the outside world.

The communal mess hall – once the center of life on this and every other kibbutz – still exists (now operated by a private subcontractor), but rarely gets much use outside of lunch and Shabbat dinners. Most of Ein Dor’s residents prefer to take their meals at home these days.

A 30-minute drive away in the Jezreel Valley, Yizre’el is among a handful of kibbutzim that still embraces the old-fashioned principles of communal life.

Here, monthly allocations are based not on job description and title, but on seniority at the kibbutz, family size and need. At Yizre’el, the mess hall is still the place where all members take their three daily meals (free of charge) and gather for events, activities and important votes.

Both Ein Dor and Yizre’el were founded in 1948, the year Israel gained its independence. And in recent years, both have emerged as desirable places to live, attracting growing numbers of new residents.

New homes in Ein Dor. The kibbutz’s population has grown to some 1,100 in recent years due to expansion.Credit: Gil Eliahu

But that is where the similarities end.

Ein Dor and Yizre’el represent two very different models of the modern kibbutz. Although only a small fraction of Israel’s population live on kibbutzim today (as has always been the case), the kibbutz is still perceived by many as a quintessential feature of the modern Jewish state.

In their very different ways, Ein Dor and Yizre’el are examples of how the kibbutz movement has adapted and responded to social and economic change since the state’s foundation.

Where pragmatism trumps utopia

Ein Dor, which takes its name from the biblical town of Endor, holds the distinction of being the first Jewish settlement founded in Israel after statehood was declared. The kibbutz rose from the ground in May 1948, during a lull in fighting in the War of Independence. Among its founding members were Zionist youth movement activists who had immigrated to Israel from the United States, Hungary and South Africa.

Ein Dor was the first Jewish settlement founded in Israel after statehood was declared in 1948.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Affiliated with the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement, Ein Dor was among the last kibbutzim to break with the long-standing tradition of having kids sleep separately from their parents in their own designated “children’s houses.”

Tamar Charvet, 68, considers it a badge of honor to have been among the first crop of babies born at Ein Dor. Although past retirement age now, she continues to work at Teldor – the large, export-oriented cable and wire company founded by the kibbutz more than 50 years ago.

“We were the classic sort of kibbutz,” she recounts, “with lots of emphasis on agriculture, a very leftist orientation and rowdy debates in the mess hall about what we should and shouldn’t do.”

Tamar Charvet at Ein Dor's Teldor factory. "The decision to end separate sleeping arrangements for children required massive investment in home expansions, plunging Ein Dor into heavy debt."Credit: Gil Eliahu

In the 1990s, along with many other kibbutzim, Ein Dor found itself deep in the red. Teldor, its main source of income, was losing lots of money. At the same time, the decision to end separate sleeping arrangements for children required massive investment in home expansions, plunging Ein Dor into heavy debt.

In 2003, after many long and painful debates, a majority of the members voted for privatization.

By that time, many second- and third-generation members had left the kibbutz for the city, raising concerns about Ein Dor’s long-term sustainability. Like many other kibbutzim facing similar challenges, it opted to sell some of its land and create a new neighborhood that would target young families drawn to the country life.

More than 80 families now live in that new neighborhood, which boasts one of the most spectacular views in Israel – overlooking Mount Tabor and the Jezreel Valley. Although they are not full-fledged members of the kibbutz – and therefore do not hold shares in the main commercial enterprises owned by Ein Dor – they pay dues into a common association, which allows them to benefit from many of the services provided on the premises.

A new home in the privatized kibbutz of Ein Dor. Mount Tabor is in the distance.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Thanks to this new neighborhood, the kibbutz’s population has grown to some 1,100. And, according to Charvet, “There is a waiting list for every house that becomes available.”

Moving abroad, in Hebrew

Yoel Solter’s parents were among the founding members of Ein Dor. His father was from Detroit and his mother from Chicago, “but like good pioneers back then, they refused to speak to me in English,” recalls Solter.

Taking a visitor around for a quick tour of the premises, he pauses near a nondescript patch of vegetation. “That used to be the children’s farm where they’d teach us how to grow crops,” says Solter, 69. “When we were older, we’d consider it a great honor to be allowed to join the volunteers who came from Europe out on the fields.”

After Ein Dor was privatized 15 years ago, Solter was appointed manager of the chicken coop, where he had worked on and off since he was a young boy.

Yoel Solter at Ein Dor. "There will always be those who take advantage of the system – the parasites who feed off of the hard work of others."Credit: Gil Eliahu

The classic kibbutz model, he believes, was doomed to failure “because there will always be those who take advantage of the system – the parasites who feed off of the hard work of others.” Consequently, Solter is convinced the kibbutz acted wisely when it voted for privatization, even though many of the old-timers panicked when the idea was first broached, as he recounts.

“They were scared they wouldn’t be able to find work, that they wouldn’t be able to travel abroad anymore, and that they wouldn’t have anything to live off of after they retired,” he explains. “But in the end, everyone managed.”

Asked how this remote part of Israel has been able to attract so many new residents in recent years, Solter responds: “For people coming from the center of the country, it’s like moving abroad – but in Hebrew.”

A recipe for waste

Photos of large and lively Passover seders from years past hang on the wall of the communal mess hall at Ein Dor. On a recent afternoon, barely a week before Passover, the dining room was open for lunch but most of the tables were conspicuously empty.

Balancing a few trays in his hand as he guides his visitors to one of the many free tables, Ezra Almog, 77, explains why he supported the privatization move. “When times were good financially, we could afford to live it up and continue this collective way of life,” he says. “But if you take into consideration normal human behavior, it’s a system that can be very wasteful. After all, when everything is free, people need to exercise a lot of self-restraint not to exploit it.”

Ezra Almog at the Ein Dor kibbutz. "When everything is free, people need to exercise a lot of self-restraint not to exploit it."Credit: Gil Eliahu

Almog, who was born in Bulgaria, moved to Ein Dor at 15. While working out in the fields, he met his future wife, Janet, a volunteer from the United States. In June 1976, Ezra and Janet were on the Air France jet that took off from Tel Aviv for Paris and was hijacked and flown to Entebbe – prompting the most famous and daring Israeli rescue mission ever.

From years of living on the kibbutz, Almog says, he has learned firsthand the failings of the utopian ideas he once embraced. “When it comes down to it, people think first about themselves and their families – only after that about the larger community,” he believes. “This ‘new man’ we all once dreamed about – he doesn’t really exist.”

Ironically, during the ’80s, many kibbutzim lost huge sums of money by giving into capitalist temptation and speculating on the stock market. Almog served as Ein Dor’s treasurer at the time. His kibbutz was spared, he says, because it pulled out of the stock market just before the big crash of 1987, in order to invest in new housing.

Ein Dor is certainly not a failing kibbutz today, but Almog says it isn’t the most financially successful, either.

“You could say we’re balanced,” he says.

Yizre'el. Homes there doubled in size in recent decades.Credit: Gil Eliahu

A socialist enclave with a gold mine

Yizre’el was established in August 1948 by veterans of the Palmach (the elite strike force of the Haganah, the pre-state Jewish militia) – originally on the ruins of the Arab village of Zir’in. Two years later, it moved to an adjacent hilltop.

With some 600 residents, it’s about half the size of Ein Dor. Among just a handful of kibbutzim that continue to embrace the old principles of sharing, it was also the first in the country to do away with separate sleeping arrangements for children.

Nitzan Feldman, a 68-year-old peace activist, has been living in Yizre’el since 1980, after she married a South African, Jules Feldman, who had immigrated to the kibbutz.

“My motto has always been that a kibbutz on a given day should never resemble what it was the previous day,” says Feldman, a former ulpan teacher who now runs a center for seminars and workshops on the kibbutz. “If it didn’t keep changing, it would cease to exist.”

Nitzan Feldman in Yizre'el. "My motto has always been that a kibbutz on a given day should never resemble what it was the previous day."Credit: Gil Eliahu

Yizre’el was on the verge of collapse in the mid-’50s after many of the original members left, unable to cope with the extremely difficult conditions. But within a few years it received a new lease of life when several organized groups of immigrants from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand set up home there.

That wasn’t the only close call Yizre’el would experience over its 70-year history. During the kibbutz debt crisis of the ’80s, Yizre’el was also extremely hard hit. Its good fortune, so to speak, was that it was in such dire straits that it was among the first kibbutzim in line for aid when the government ultimately announced a bailout program, recounts Feldman.

Today, Yizre’el is one of the richest kibbutzim in Israel thanks to its controlling stake in a company that is the world’s single largest supplier of robotic pool cleaners. Maytronics, which is traded on the Tel Aviv stock exchange, has a market capitalization of 1.9 billion shekels (about $540 million). Last year, it boasted almost $200 million in sales (almost exclusively exports) and net earnings of $24 million. Maytronics, which is 60 percent owned by the members of Yizre’el, now has subsidiaries in the United States, France and Australia, and recently opened a second plant in northern Israel.

The Maytronics factory in Yizre'el. The company is now the world’s single largest supplier of robotic pool cleaners.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Not that the pool-cleaning factory was always a gold mine. As Feldman recalls, there were also down years – but in retrospect, the kibbutz members learned some valuable lessons during that time.

“Some of the people running the plant back then had this aura about them that they could do no wrong and were, therefore, spared any criticism,” she says. “Once they left and a new generation of young skilled managers took over, things turned around dramatically.”

It took a while, though, for the members of Yizre’el to recover from their traumatic financial failure. “For quite a long time, even when we were doing well, we didn’t treat ourselves to any bonuses,” says Feldman.

Even today, there are few signs of conspicuous consumption on this extremely wealthy kibbutz. Several years ago, despite opposition in certain quarters, the kibbutz voted to allow members to purchase their own cars. “Not many people took advantage of the option, though,” admits Feldman.

Yizre'el, which is now one of the richest kibbutzim in Israel thanks to its pool-cleaning robots.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Basic living conditions have improved dramatically, however. When Feldman was raising her five children in Yizre’el, each family was entitled to a house no larger than 54 square meters (580 square feet). Today, they are double the size. In the old days, the lunchtime menu was limited to roast chicken, meat patties and a few sides. Today, kibbutz members can choose from a variety of dishes in the mess hall, including vegan options – not to mention an endless assortment of salads. From a stroll around its gorgeous grounds, it is also clear that the kibbutz puts lots of money into gardening and landscaping.

For a community built on socialist values, Feldman reflects, affluence is as much a challenge as it is a boon.

“As our spending ability grows, we have to make sure we are still upholding the principle of equality which is at our core,” she says.

But the success of Yizre’el should not be measured in financial terms alone, she says. Her kibbutz has long striven to balance the needs of the community with the needs of the individual. Therefore, unlike many others, it encourages the intellectual, creative and entrepreneurial development of its members, Feldman notes.

“Many kibbutzim would discourage university studies because they feared that if people left and opened their eyes, they would never return,” she says by way of example.

In the ’70s, a vote was passed to provide every member of Yizre’el with eligibility for 15 years of free education. It was considered a radical move at the time. But as Feldman points out, “It has contributed dramatically to the human and social capital on our kibbutz.”

Neomi Amit's cafe in Yizre'el. "I always fantasized that one day I would have my own cafe here on the kibbutz that would remind me of Provence."Credit: Gil Eliahu

This focus on individual needs, she says, may also explain why so many second-generation kibbutzniks – born on Yizre’el but who left after completing their military service – have returned in recent years.

The kibbutz has also established a special fund to encourage business entrepreneurship. Neomi Amit, who moved to Yizre’el 45 years ago, recently retired from her marketing job at Maytronics, which required her to travel regularly to France.

Neomi Amit. Her cafe has become a popular hangout in Yizre’el.Credit: Gil Eliahu

“I would spend a lot of time in Provence, where our subsidiary is located, and I fell in love with the region and its cafés,” she says. “I always fantasized that one day I would have my own café here on the kibbutz that would remind me of Provence.”

Last year, she realized her dream. Despite the initial skepticism of some of her fellow kibbutzniks, Amit’s little slice of Provence has become a popular hangout in Yizre’el.

Menashe Kadishman, the renowned Israeli artist and sculptor, lived on the kibbutz in its early years. He left because the kibbutz would not allow him to go to art school. But by the time South African-born Bernie Fink moved to Yizre’el in the ’60s, attitudes had changed.

Fink, a prolific sculptor whose work is on display not only on the kibbutz but also at sites across the country, was allowed to study art in Italy. When he returned to Israel, he set up a workshop on the kibbutz and has been allowed to devote himself full-time to his passion. In recent years, he’s been joined by his son, also a sculptor, who benefits from a similar arrangement.

As Feldman would say, it proves that in order to continue to exist, a kibbutz has to be open to change.