Once Labor's Heartland, Kibbutzim Find They Are No Longer Political Hothouses

The number of Labor members in kibbutzim nationwide has dwindled to a mere 7,610, but they still comprise 11.5 percent of the party's members.

It is 9:30 A.M., half an hour before the polls open for the Labor leadership primary elections, and Gadi Horvitz is looking for the polling station in Kibbutz Afikim. Horvitz is a member of Kibbutz Degania Alef, but the number of party members in the Jordan Valley kibbutzim is so small that the party opened only one polling station in Afikim for the entire area.

The number of Labor members in kibbutzim nationwide has dwindled to a mere 7,610, but they still comprise 11.5 percent of the party's members.

kibbutz - Gil Eliyahu - June 20 2011
Gil Eliyahu

Horvitz, who left the banana plantation to travel to another kibbutz in the middle of the day's work, defines himself as a "social-Zionist."

"Even if it was in Tel Aviv or Eilat I'd vote," he says.

"Shelly Yachimovich is the closest candidate to my worldview," he revealed, coming out of the polling booth.

But Horvitz's ideological fervor seems completely at odds with yesterday's primaries' atmosphere. Around the tables in the communal dining room or sidewalks in kibbutzim, the talk has long ceased to be political. A passionate argument like the one between Rafi and Mapai followers, that ripped Afikim apart almost 50 years ago, has no place in today's world.

"Today there is no agenda and ideology is a four-letter word," says Horvitz, returning to his bananas.

Horvitz may be one of the last ideologists, but his support for Yachimovich is shared by many kibbutz party members, judging by the conversations of voters entering and leaving the Afikim ballot box.

In the morning, mostly the older Laborites come to vote. Today they must pay for half of their membership fees, unlike the past when the kibbutz treasurer paid for them, yet the veteran kibbutzniks hold on to their membership.

The first of the elders to vote was 106-year-old Yisrael Hofesh, who attended Mapai's (Israel's left-wing political party and the dominant force in Israeli politics until its merger with Ahdut Ha'avoda and Rafi to form the Labor Party in 1968 ) founding convention and has remained loyal ever since.

His son, Levy Hofesh, says they discuss the goings-on in Israel and the world every day for an hour.

"In the past month, father was mainly preoccupied with the party's situation and the primaries," Levy says. "First he supported Amram Mitzna but then transferred his support to Isaac Herzog."

The candidate he votes for invariably wins, Hofesh Snr. says.

United Kibbutz Movement secretary-general Ze'ev Shore, who came from his Kibbutz Ein Gev to vote, remains loyal to his former kibbutz neighbor Mitzna. A few others said they would vote for Herzog. Amir Peretz is another story. It seems only Ariel Choynes and his father, Zvi, will vote for Peretz in the largest kibbutz polling station.

Ariel says that with Peretz as its leader, Labor won 19 Knesset seats and wonders how everyone has forgotten that. He repeatedly calls Peretz's headquarters to ask if he is needed at the polling station. But Peretz's campaign staff seem to have given up on the kibbutz voters. They tell him he is dismissed and had better return to counting votes later in the day.

Afikim's Yami Roth, 24, a student and guide in the Yigal Alon Museum at Kibbutz Ginosar, is an exception. Sitting all day in the polling station as Yachimovich's representative, he says he is saddened to see kibbutzniks vote for Kadima, not Labor, and is frustrated by his generation's lack of political awareness.

Roth worked hard to ensure Yachimovich's success, urging voters, talking at political home gatherings. He says he won't let the indifference get him down and that he believes in change.