Road Map / On Kibbutzim, Too, Voters Are Undecided

Once upon a time, when a kibbutz was really a kibbutz, everyone - or nearly everyone - knew how to vote. Members did not need general meetings or conventions or instructions from the kibbutz secretary, or a circular from the secretary of the movement. The kibbutz way of life dictated political choices. For years, anyone who did not vote for Labor was openly denounced.

Politics on the kibbutzim have undergone a process similar to the privatization that has affected most kibbutzim in recent years - all members, or voters, are on their own.

"We're not what we once were, either," Avner Sachs, in charge of Kibbutz Givat Brenner's cattle sheds, said yesterday. "We're like [the rest of] the people, even our famous solidarity has lessened. Everything has changed. The youth don't volunteer for combat units anymore, and everyone lives within himself. The communal dream is over."

Communal parties are gone, too. Three months before the election, Sachs feels that the mood on kibbutzim is not very different from that in the closest city, Rehovot, or in other cities.

"True, in the past most members voted for Labor," Sachs added, "but I remember that in the '70s we had 150 members who voted for Likud and even more to the right. I personally will vote for [Labor Party Chairman] Amir Peretz because I can't stand Shimon Peres. If Peres had been elected [as Labor chairman], I definitely would have voted for Meretz. In the primary I supported Matan Vilnai, but the way in which he resigned and then joined Peres convinced me that he's no leader."

Sachs is no longer so sure of his support for Peretz. The most recent polls, showing a steady decline in his electoral status, have undermined his initial enthusiasm. It turns out that the public opinion polls not only reflect the situation but also affect it. Their frequency has made them an influencing factor. They can attract supporters but also chase them away. "What can I say," Sachs sighed. "I hope Amir recovers."

The elderly Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is popular among younger kibbutz members, and people who never saw themselves as having an obligation toward an opinion. Here too, Sharon has gained fans thanks to the disengagement from Gaza and his political wisdom. Sharon and Peretz present voters with a typically Israeli dilemma: Which flag to fly first? Which world to repair first? Is it the international and security situation, or the socio-economic distress of hundred of thousands of citizens?

Avraham "Avramiko" Sigura is torn between the need for security and the need for social welfare. He is troubled by the lack of security, but even more troubled by the images of soup kitchens and people searching for food in the streets. Avramiko will vote for Amir Peretz because he has always voted Labor. But if Sharon is elected he will not mourn.

"What can I tell you?" Sigura says on his way to pick up his grandson from kindergarten. "I truly think that Sharon can do it, bring peace. I'll vote for the Labor Party, but a lot of my friends on the kibbutz have told me they're voting for Sharon. If we could combine Sharon's statesmanship with Peretz's social welfare abilities, we'd have a perfect match."

More than 2,000 people live on Givat Brenner - the largest kibbutz - including 600 members. Despite the economic revolution it has undergone, there are still obvious signs that this is a kibbutz: the narrow paths, the manicured lawns, the bicycles, the ascetic architecture. Members must pay for each meal, there is no longer a common kitty or common laundry or distribution of profits according to need, but there is still something that distinguishes the place from the city. A lifestyle that refuses to change. Maybe it's the simple manner of dress, the blue work clothes, the simplicity.

Three months before the election, Givat Brenner largely reflects the political pluralism of urban society. It was not always this way. This kibbutz, which was founded in 1928, has seen ideological hatreds that drove it mad. In 1952 the kibbutz movement was split over the Soviet Union. Ahdut Avoda (United Labor) saw Joseph Stalin as "the sun of the nations," while Mapai viewed him as a mass murderer.

Kibbutz members argued in their search for the truth. The sides were so polarized that many kibbutzim split up. Those who left Givat Brenner created Netzer Sereni. Memories of the time still send a chill down the spine of some members.

"It was terrible, terrible, awful and terrible," Avramiko said. "I was 12 and saw some of my closest friends leave with their parents. Families were destroyed over ideology. [Israel's first prime minister David] Ben-Gurion on one hand and [labor leader] Yitzhak Tabenkin on the other. It was terrible, terrible. I was young, but I remember my mother saying, `Avramiko, don't speak to those people. They don't think the same as us.' "

Those days are gone, together with the blind ideological zealotry that wrecked homes and families and broke the heart of innocent children and youths.