In This Stretch of Desert, Israel Plans to Build Its First New Kibbutz in Decades

The yet unnamed cooperative settlement in the Eastern Negev plans to recruit 100 families, with the aim of turning the deserts sands into agricultural land

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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The Eastern Negev, near the desert city of Arad.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

For the first time in more than 30 years, a new kibbutz is to be established in Israel.

A decision to move ahead with the plan to set up a new cooperative settlement in the eastern part of the Negev desert was approved last week by the Kibbutz Movement, the umbrella organization for Israel’s roughly 230 secular kibbutzim. (The religious kibbutzim, of which there are about 20, belong to a separate organization.)

Representing a unique experiment in communal living, the kibbutz has become one of Israel’s best-known global brands.

The new kibbutz, which has yet to be named, will be one of five new communities slated for establishment on the outskirts of the desert city of Arad (situated some 135 kilometers, or 83 miles, southeast of Jerusalem).

The plan to set up this cluster of communities – which will also include a town designated for the Bedouin community and one for ultra-Orthodox Jews – was approved by the government in March.

Israel’s kibbutzim hit hard times in the 1980s, raising questions about the viability of the socialist principles upon which they were founded. In order to survive, the vast majority underwent various forms of privatization and began requiring members to pay for basic necessities like food. Instead of receiving a monthly stipend based on their needs, members also started earning salaries that were determined by the type of positions they filled.

As a result, very few kibbutzim today still embrace the old-fashioned principles of collective living.

“Renewed kibbutzim” is the code word for those that have undergone privatization, with the new desert kibbutz set to join their ranks. In other words, it will have no communal mess hall, no communal laundromat and no communal children’s houses (where kids sleep separately from their families) – in fact, none of the classic feature of an archetypal kibbutz.

When asked why not, Nir Meir, secretary-general of the Kibbutz Movement, responds: “We don’t want to start building something we’ll eventually have to shutter. We’ve already been there and done that.”

What will distinguish it from other rural communities, he says, is joint ownership of common facilities.

The decision on what to call the new kibbutz will be taken by its members. But if they were to ask him, says Meir, he would recommend a name that pays tribute to Aharon Yadlin – one of the last giants of the Labor Zionist movement who died last month at age 96.

The plan is to recruit 100 families to the kibbutz, which will include a large plot of agricultural land to accommodate those interested in farming. The first families should be able to move into temporary housing facilities in about two years, Meir says.

A road in the Eastern Negev outside of Arad.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

He anticipates tremendous demand for this rare opportunity to be part of a new cooperative settlement. “Right now, we have a list of somewhere between 30,000 to 40,000 people who would move onto existing kibbutzim tomorrow if only we had room,” he says. “But whoever applies needs to know that we’re looking for people who understand that this is a lifetime commitment and not just an adventure for a few years.”

Surprised but happy

Some 200,000 Israelis live on kibbutzim today, with about a third of them full-fledged members.

The first kibbutz, Degania Aleph, was established in 1909 (in what was then Ottoman Palestine). The last, Neot Semadar, was established in 1989 in the southern Arava Desert. The government implemented a huge bail-out plan for the kibbutzim in the 1980s. Ever since, it has discouraged the establishment of new ones.

“Our position has always been that we will not push ourselves,” Meir says. “But if and when the government decides to set up new communities, we want to be there too. So, when the decision was taken to build new communities in the Eastern Negev, we reached out to the authorities and said we’d like one of these communities to be a kibbutz. They were actually very surprised, but also very happy.”

Initially, the municipality in Arad was dead set against the plan to establish these communities on its outskirts. “We felt that before the government sets up anything new, it should be investing in strengthening existing cities like ours,” says Mayor Nisan Ben-Hamo.

After considerable lobbying on his part, the cabinet passed another resolution to invest tens of millions of shekels in the coming years in strengthening Arad and other places in the Eastern Negev.

The area around Arad that is set to become Israel's first kibbutz in over 30 years.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

What ultimately convinced Ben-Hamo to withdraw his objections was the realization that these new communities were no threat to his city.

“We were concerned that these might be exclusive, high-society communities that would lure our stronger population and lead to cannibalization,” he says. “We realized, though, that we had nothing to fear because these communities would not be competing for our residents. In the case of the kibbutz, for example, they’re talking about families who will come from outside the region and engage mainly in farming. People who live in Arad don’t want to be farmers.”

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