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Oldest kibbutz in Israel goes capitalist

The Baltimore Sun

DEGANYA A, Israel -- The founders of Israel's oldest kibbutz, Deganya A, battled malaria and searing heat and even repelled an attack by a Syrian tank with Molotov cocktails to defend their communal way of life, a place where each person and every job is regarded as equal.

But nearly 100 years after the establishment of Deganya A on the lush shores of the Sea of Galilee, the fourth generation of kibbutz members admitted defeat last month. By an overwhelming majority, kibbutz members voted to shed their socialist, utopian aspirations in favor of a new free market system that empowers the individual, puts more money in members' pockets and, sadly for some, turns their once-unique community into a place much like the rest of the world.

Deganya A is not alone. Facing heavy debts, declining membership and growing frustration with the limitations of collective living, 180 of Israel's 266 kibbutzim have embraced capitalist reforms during the past decade.

Still, as the first kibbutz, Deganya A was a symbol of the spirit of the Jewish pioneers and an inspiration for other kibbutzim. Its decision to surrender to Israel's powerful, freewheeling market economy confirmed the fatal state of the old kibbutz ideals.

"In the end we have to be fair with ourselves, the dream of total equality is a dream that did not exist," says Gavri Bargil, head of Israel's kibbutz movement. "I want to believe and I hope that part of the kibbutzim will remain in the classic way. There is something very pure about it. But I think in another decade most of the kibbutzim will live according to this new way of life."

Since its founding in 1910, Deganya A was a unique enclave where property and assets were shared. Members lived by the Marxist slogan: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." So a banana picker and a high-powered lawyer were paid the same wage, ate the same food in the dining hall, shared cars and lived in the same quality housing.

Under the new system, members keep their respective salaries and pay for what they consume. A banana picker will now earn far less than an attorney. Instead of pooling their salaries, they have the freedom to spend their earnings as they like, on cars, home improvements or eating out instead of going to the communal dining hall.

But in a nod to their community's code of mutual responsibility, members will pay taxes to support kibbutz education, health care and a fund to assist poorer members. For many members of Deganya A, these reforms were long overdue.

"It gives us independence," says Dani Greenblatt, 34, a gardener on the kibbutz who voted in favor of the reforms along with 240 of the kibbutz's 287 members. "It give us the opportunity to make a higher living."

Greenblatt is pouring his savings into starting a nature healing and massage center outside the kibbutz, a business that he says he will work harder to make a success because he will keep everything he earns.

"The change wouldn't have come if people weren't ready," he says. "We're the fourth generation. We want to live. We want a house. We want a car."

A sprawling oasis of quiet and calm on the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee, the kibbutz has a dairy farm, orchards and date and banana plantations. Members live in tidy apartment buildings with access to a swimming pool, tennis courts and beautifully kept palm-tree-shaded lawns and shuttle between their homes, the dining hall and kibbutz offices on bicycles and electric carts.

"It's like living in an exclusive community," Greenblatt says.

Just behind this serene exterior, however, tensions have been brewing for decades over a highly ideological and rigid lifestyle that sometimes bred idleness, dishonesty and resentment.

Knowing that they would be paid no matter how much or how little they did, some people stopped working or stopped working hard, says Leah Snovskey, 38, who has lived in Deganya A since she was 5 years old. "The ideology justified the way of life they had," she says of the kibbutz's founders. "It doesn't fit us anymore."

Other members complained about overpowering control of the kibbutz in deciding where they could go to college and what they could study.

Yael Haran, 38, says she was always bitter that after she studied theater in college, the kibbutz leadership refused to allow her to accept a prestigious job in a Tel Aviv theater because it was not viewed as valuable for the community.

"We're happy the kibbutz is changing like we change," says Haran, who runs a coffee shop on the kibbutz.

But among some of the oldest and the most idealistic members, the reforms erased the foundations of kibbutz life.

"We have more money in the bank, but so what?" says Amalia Ilan, 60, a lifelong kibbutz resident who fears the changes will destroy their sense of community by cooking on their own instead of eating together in the dining hall and making other independent choices.

"Deganya A is a place where everyone is out for himself," says Herzel Fine, 78, whose parents moved to the kibbutz in 1925. "It's just a matter of time before the word kibbutz won't exist."

The kibbutz, or communal farm, played a key role in the establishment of the Jewish state by defending its borders and providing homes and food for the flood of Jewish immigrants.

During the 1960s and 1970s, many kibbutzim moved far beyond their agrarian roots by branching into industry. In 1968, Deganya A built a diamond-cutting tool factory that continues to be the kibbutz's main employer and primary source of income.

But the good time came to an end during a period of hyperinflation in the 1980s, when kibbutzim defaulted on billions of dollars in loans. A government bailout plan saved them from bankruptcy, though to survive many kibbutzim were forced to undergo a process known as privatization, charging members for meals, utilities and housing, converting cropland into high-priced real estate for shopping malls and opening businesses, hotels and spas and paying members. About 116,000 Israelis still live on kibbutzim, down from a peak of 125,000 in 1994.

Fine acknowledges that Deganya A needed to adapt but should not have compromised its socialist ideals. He is so disappointed by the decision of the kibbutz that he has stopped eating in the dining hall.

"I decided this is not a society I want to be part of," he says.

Shay Shoshany, Deganya's secretary for the past eight years, says he feels for the kibbutz's true idealists but he makes no apologies for the changes.

A year ago, he says, 66 percent of the kibbutz voted to implement the reforms for a trial period. When they voted to make the reforms permanent last month, support had grown stronger with 85 percent in favor.

"Maybe it looks terrible to break the romantic ideals but at the same time I prefer to keep the kibbutz a very strong community than for it to become a romantic memory," he says. "The pioneers would be really proud of the reforms we did."

Ultimately, though, the main force for reform was not economic pressure but the changing outlook of kibbutz members, says Shlomo Getz, a kibbutz specialist at University of Haifa.

"A kibbutz is open to its surroundings. If society becomes more individualistic and capitalistic its kibbutz members will change," he says.

A few kibbutzim remain the exception to this rule. One of them is Deganya B, less than a half-mile from Deganya A. Founded in 1920, the kibbutz is home to 400 people who preserve the old ways of the kibbutz. They earn the same wage no matter what their job. They eat together in a packed dining hall three meals a day and share a communal laundry and a fleet of cars.

Financially, they are doing well, running a guesthouse, farming and cooking meals for the dining hall in Deganya A, which shut down its kitchen two years ago as the number of diners dwindled. A few months ago, Deganya B also held a vote to adopt capitalist reforms. It was easily defeated.

"Some say change is inevitable," says Uzi Benshalom, 70, a former secretary of Deganya B who believes such reforms would be a mistake. "If they think another system is better, who am I to stop them?"

But in Deganya B, unlike its neighbor, the uncompromising ideals of its founders remain strong for now, he says.

"For 15 years, there have been efforts to change Deganya B," he says. "They work hard, they try, and they fail."

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