About half a century ago, when volunteering on a kibbutz was all the rage, Israel could barely accommodate all the young internationals – Jews and non-Jews alike – seeking unpaid work picking fruit or milking cows on its storied agricultural collectives.
As legend has it, volunteers landing at Israel’s international airports in those days – often planeloads of them – would sometimes have to circle the entire country in buses before finding kibbutzim that would consent to take them in, and even then, only after much pleading. There was simply not enough work to keep that many hands busy.
By the start of the new millennium, however, kibbutz volunteering had fallen out of fashion. The blond Scandinavians and American hippies, once a fixture of kibbutz life, had all but disappeared from the landscape. By then, Israel, as a whole, was in a much different place as well.
It is probably no accident that kibbutz volunteering started losing its appeal, just as Israel was beginning to fall out of favor with the world. As duly noted in “Apples and Oranges,” an excellent new Israeli documentary by Yoav Brill, the rise and fall of the kibbutz volunteer movement is also the story in a nutshell of the rise and fall of Israel in the eyes of the world.
As several of Brill’s interviewees note, for young idealists eager to change the world during the flower-power-driven 1960s, the kibbutz was once the place to go. It offered an opportunity to take part in the grand Israeli experiment in communal living while connecting to Mother Earth. But their age cohort today – many from the very same countries that were big suppliers of kibbutz volunteers, like Sweden and Denmark – would rather pick olives in the West Bank and show their solidarity with Palestinians struggling against the Israeli occupation.
“Apples and Oranges,” which premiered this summer at DocAviv, Tel Aviv’s international documentary film festival, and is now streaming on Israel’s Yes TV, is Brill’s first feature-length documentary. The film incorporates rarely seen archival footage of kibbutz volunteers (not always fully clothed) that is sure to cause anyone who has lived, volunteered, or even visited a kibbutz to wax nostalgic.
Brill’s interviewees include an assortment of colorful characters: former volunteers who fell in love with kibbutz life (or a kibbutznik) and ended up staying; former kibbutzniks who fell in love with volunteers and ended up leaving; and Israelis who grew up on kibbutzim in an era when nothing sparked more excitement than a new batch of volunteers being dropped off at the gate.
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As Na’ama, a kibbutznik from Mishmar Ha'emek who would end up marrying a Swedish volunteer, recalls in the film: “You’d be sitting in the mess hall, and then these young people from another world would enter. They were better looking, taller, blonder, they dressed differently, they’d drink milk with their meals, and you just couldn’t fathom where they had parachuted in from.”
Dror Shaul, whose mom used to be in charge of the volunteers on the kibbutz bordering the Gaza Strip where he grew up, says these foreigners added “spice” to the highly regimented lives he and his friends led, which often included manual labor in the fields and sleeping in specially designated “children’s homes” away from their parents.
“They were good-looking, and they were interesting,” reflects the acclaimed Israeli movie director who is interviewed in Brill's film. “For me, they were like big brothers and sisters, but after a few months they would pick up and go, and each time, it would break my heart.”
Kibbutzim began taking in volunteers in the early 1960s, but then only in relatively small numbers. Only after Israel’s victory in the June 1967 Six-Day War – when world sympathy and admiration for the country were at their peak – did volunteering on a kibbutz start becoming a rite of passage for many young men and women from around the world. Between then and the early 1980s, when world opinion would start turning against Israel over its actions in the first Lebanon war, on average about 7,000 to 8,000 volunteers would flock to the kibbutzim every year.
For kibbutzniks coming of age back then, who hardly ever interacted with other Israelis, let alone foreigners, the experience was jolting. “When the volunteers started coming after the Six-Day War, we didn’t even have television in Israel,” notes Aviva, an interviewee from Lahav, a kibbutz in the Negev.
In contrast with her fellow kibbutzniks, who were literally fighting for the survival of their country and seemed to have “the sorrows of the entire world on their shoulders,” she recounts that the young foreigners descending on her kibbutz didn’t seem to have a care in the world. Through the music and books they brought with them, they helped introduce the sheltered kibbutzniks to the big world.
And not only music and books. Among the wackier incidents recounted in Brill’s documentary is the little prank pulled by a group of American volunteers on their hosts on Kibbutz Lahav in the late 1960s: Without letting them know, the volunteers served them brownies laced with hashish on one of their joint Shabbat outings.
“They thought we were too square and that they needed to loosen us up a bit,” Aviva says. Not everyone thought the prank was funny, especially those kibbutzniks who ended up in the hospital after eating too many brownies. But it could have ended worse, as Aviva recalls: The original plan of the volunteers was to lace the Friday night chicken soup served up in the communal dining room, but fortunately, someone had the good sense to warn them that the Shabbat staple is also served to the children.
It was incidents like these that helped reinforce some of the classic stereotypes about kibbutz volunteers – that is, that their primary interests were sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. More often than not, however, these individuals found willing accomplices in these pursuits among their kibbutz peers. As Na’ama speculates: “If there hadn’t been volunteers, many of the guys on our kibbutz would probably still be virgins.”
When the kibbutzim first started accepting volunteers, it seemed to be a win-win situation for all concerned. In exchange for putting in eight hours a day of work – typically in the fields, dairies, chicken coops and children's houses – the volunteers got free room and board, use of the kibbutz swimming pool and other facilities, and if they stayed on long enough, they could even tag along for the weekly Shabbat excursions.
The kibbutzim, in return, got free labor, while Israel got great publicity, as many of these volunteers would end up becoming goodwill ambassadors for the state. Indeed, Brill's film cites a letter from Abba Eban, Israel’s legendary foreign minister, urging the government to promote kibbutz volunteering. “It is a fundamental and long-term investment in Israel’s international standing,” he wrote.
About two decades later, however, something in the relationship between the volunteers and their hosts had soured. Unemployment, especially in Europe, was rampant, and many of the volunteers of this era were less ideologically motivated than their predecessors. It wasn’t the socialist, quasi-utopian values of the kibbutz that interested them as much as the opportunity to escape from their own economic woes. It was during these years that alcohol abuse became a major problem among the volunteers. The volunteers, in turn, were increasingly complaining about always getting stuck with the less desirable jobs on the kibbutz and about feeling exploited in general.
By then, after so many years of taking in volunteers, there were other problems that had begun to surface as well. What to do, for example, with all the non-Jewish volunteers who ended up marrying kibbutzniks when Israel’s religious authorities adamantly refused to convert them on the grounds that they could never lead full-fledged Jewish lives (i.e., observe Shabbat and kashrut) on secular kibbutzim? And what about the many kibbutzniks who fell in love with volunteers and followed them back to their home countries?
As the director of a travel agency that brought Swedish volunteers to Israel would recount in the film: “I once had a kibbutz secretary tell me that he didn’t come to Israel and help create this kibbutz so that his daughter would end up in Stockholm and his son in Copenhagen.”
By the 1980s, many kibbutzim were deep in debt and experiencing severe financial hardships. To survive, the majority would eventually conclude that there was no choice but to abandon the communal socialist values of their founding fathers and mothers, and undergo privatization. As part of this process, members started working outside the kibbutz, they began paying for their food and other necessities, and many kibbutzim started selling off their agricultural lands. “It gradually became irrelevant to send people to study something that no longer existed,” a former volunteer from Sweden would lament.
Eventually, paid workers from Thailand would replace most of the volunteers, in many cases moving into the rooms once reserved for them. As Brill's film notes, kibbutz volunteering has rebounded somewhat since 2001, when it dropped an all-time low, and in recent years, there have been an average of 1,000 volunteers per annum. The new cadre, however, tend to come from different places – mainly Asia and South America, rather than Europe and North America as in the early years.
Forty-year-old Brill, who grew up on Be’eri, a kibbutz near the Gaza border, was born too late to remember the days when volunteers from around the world would gather in the main dining hall or around the swimming pool. But one of his uncles, who lives on the kibbutz, did marry a volunteer from England, and like her, there are still many former volunteers who are now full-fledged members of Be’eri.
“It was a subject that always fascinated me,” says the filmmaker. “These people who are not really immigrants and not part of the Zionist story, but yet, they’re an entire community, and they live here among us.”