Kibbutz Leaders Fear Backlash Against Privatization

Gidi Cohen, the director of community life at Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh, was shot and wounded by a disgruntled member of the kibbutz last week, apparently due to the gunman's dismay over the kibbutz's privatization process. Yossi Schneiberg, 60, had been a member of the Sharon-area kibbutz, where he worked as a maintenance man, for decades. He came to the kibbutz office for a meeting to set his salary, but when he arrived, he learned that the meeting had been postponed. He committed suicide after shooting Cohen, witnesses said.

Since then, the attack has been a major topic of conversation among kibbutz members, both in person and online. Criticism of kibbutz officials have made some feel that they are potential targets of similar attacks. The community directors of several privatized kibbutzim said in an open letter that a campaign against them was underway "whose most visible new height was at the last assembly of the Kibbutz Movement's discussion of pensions."

"Another such incident - if and when it happens, before we recover and react appropriately, and in such an unrestrained public atmosphere - is only a matter of time," the letter said. "Let us not all say, 'We didn't know, we didn't think, we didn't believe.'"

"Don't be disillusioned: The attempt to murder Gidi Cohen is not a one-time event," the directors said. "There have been more than a few attempted murders and attempts to inflict physical harm, not to mention sharp verbal abuse, and they occur daily on almost every kibbutz. The community directors fill an important role today in the kibbutz. We stand every day on the front and between the hammer and the anvil, between the kibbutz member and the kibbutz resident, and between the kibbutz and its decisions."

The community directors are for the most part outsiders at the kibbutzim at which they work. These directors become the target of the anger of those hurt by the privatization.

Ze'ev Shor, the Kibbutz Movement's secretary general, defended the kibbutz directors.

"We vehemently denounce any act of violence and denounce the attempt to link the tragic incident that occurred... to the recovery process the kibbutzim are in the midst of," he said. "The Kibbutz Movement sees the kibbutz leaders as emissaries who have taken upon themselves the onus of leading the kibbutzim for the benefit of all members."

The privatization process is underway in most kibbutzim.

Many times, the process is the result of an internal financial and social crisis. Kibbutz members are split over privatization, which can create rifts between those who receive good salaries and those who suddenly discover that their jobs are not worth much, on either the financial or social scale. Some kibbutz members found themselves struggling with savings accounts and supermarkets for the first time in their lives, after having had all their needs met on the kibbutz.

On some kibbutzim, like Ramat Hakovesh, members continue to receive social benefits, but an atmosphere of insecurity often remains in place. Privatization sometimes also leads to a sense of injustice over the gaps created, especially when external directors who don't live on the kibbutz are suddenly responsible for determining the fate of longtime members.

Some kibbutz members have been complaining about privatization, and the kibbutz directors involved in administering the process, on kibbutz-related Web sites. One surfer said kibbutz privatization results in the "oppression of the minority."

"As long as the veteran people on every kibbutz continue to worry only about their own personal needs while blatantly dismissing the weak minority that consists mostly of veteran kibbutz members - be it the way in which salaries are distributed, the way pension arrangements are made, the way payments are made for health care or the way apartments are allocated on the kibbutzim - the possibility of other such incidents like the one in Ramat Hakovesh cannot be ruled out," the commenter wrote. "The Kibbutz Movement must immediately set up an independent legal body whose sole purpose is to address each case in which the minority is oppressed."

Another surfer lashed out against the movement's statement after the attempted murder, writing: "What did you want the spokesman to say, that against the backdrop of the unbearable tensions in the different kibbutzim, this incident occurred? That it happened against the backdrop of the forcefulness of the kibbutz directors? Or against the backdrop of the feeling among many kibbutz members that the management does not take them into account at all? Or that it resulted from decisions made in inappropriate ways or undemocratically? Or from a group of directors who act like the pigs in George Orwell's 'Animal Farm'?"