32. Meet Me at the Kibbutz

The kibbutz is perhaps the most famous Israeli institution, and has its origins in the Labor Zionism tree brach. Labor Zionism’s deep ideological tradition traces back to the socialist vision of Jewish workers in Russia and Eastern Europe. It was the dominant Zionist tree branch in Israel for decades.

THE PLOT

The genius of the kibbutz system is that it exemplified two trends that complemented each other at this moment of Jewish history. One was economic necessity. The immigrants of the First Aliyah — the first wave of immigration in the last decades of the 19th century — largely failed at developing individual private farms. But those of the Second Aliyah realized that they could pool together their resources under the umbrella of a coordinated land purchase from the Jewish National Fund, to create a collective farming community. They called this type of community a kibbutz.

The second reason is socialism, which Jews in Eastern Europe, especially Russia, found themselves attracted to. Zionist and socialist ideology seemed incompatible at first. But for one thinker, Nachman Syrkin, Zionism needed socialism in order to be successful. The Jewish state, he said, should be based on social justice, equality, and secular culture. If Jews were to leave Russia, taking with them their socialist ideology, and merge it with Zionism in the Land of Israel, they would create their own successful Zionist-oriented socialist revolution there. Thus was born the Labor Zionist tree branch. 

The kibbutz was the vehicle for implementing the socialist-Zionist vision. The Labor Zionists looked with disdain upon the impoverished, physically weak Jews of Europe, and determined that the hard work of manual agricultural labor would create a New Jew who was physically and mentally strong.  AD Gordon, the spiritual father of Labor Zionism, called this “the religion of labor.”

To live on a kibbutz was to live by a set of principles around collectivism: communal property, communal care, communal decision-making. Gender equality was a necessary component, since all were required to work to ensure that the community functioned properly. 

The kibbutzim, focused on building the New Jew, didn’t use Arab labor on Jewish land. For one, they wanted to train Jews to defend themselves and so used Jewish guards to protect the kibbutz. Secondly, the point of the movement was to force Jews to do the manual labor of farm work, not to hire anyone else to do it, which would create an un-socialist class division between owners (Jews) and workers (Arabs). So a key feature of the kibbutzim is that they were populated solely by Jews. 

By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the Yishuv was developing apace. There were about 85,000 Jews living in Palestine, spreading out in agricultural communities and coastal cities. But then came 1914, the world went to war, and Palestine all but collapsed.

NAMES TO KNOW

Nachman Syrkin. Russian Jewish socialist thinker who set forth the founding principles of the Labor Zionist tree branch. He saw a natural merge between Zionism and socialism in which Jewish immigrants to Palestine would import revolutionary ideas to create a Jewish homeland free of class struggle. 

Kibbutz: collective farming community representing the practical expression of the revolutionary socialist ideology that Eastern European Jewish immigrants were bringing into Palestine.

AD Gordon: spiritual father of the Labor Zionist movement. He came from a well-off Orthodox family in Russia and didn’t come to Palestine until he was already in his 40s. But he devoted himself to working the land on a settlement near the Sea of Galilee, practicing the philosophy which he believed would lead to individual and national redemption. 

Ha’Shomer: meaning “the Watchman”, it was a semi-professional Jewish guard force trained to defend the kibbutz.

KEY CONCEPTS TO KNOW

Kibbutz life was hard. Here is how an early pioneer described kibbutz life, as told in Ari Shavit’s book, My Promised Land: “It’s either day or night here. Hard labor at the noon of day and ideological debates into the night. A loving family, a soft caress of a mother’s hand, the stern but encouraging look of a loving father — all the things that make life bearable — are not here.” There was searing heat, backbreaking work, little infrastructure or machinery to help with the labor, swamps and disease, and a rigid ideological structure. To be on a kibbutz wasn’t just to sign up for a life of labor; it was to sign up for an entire way of life.

Labor Zionism, merging socialism with Zionism, said that “in a Jewish state, and only in a Jewish state, can Jews live normal, healthy lives, and develop a community around socialist principles.” This tree branch will be the dominant tree branch for most of Israeli history, responsible not only for much of Israel’s founding ideology but also for many of its founding fathers and later leaders. From Labor Zionism will we get most of the powerful institutions that built the Jewish homeland and then, when the state was declared in 1948, were turned into official government agencies. 

Second Aliyah. The second major wave of immigration came on the heels of the infamous 1903 Kishniev pogrom. Zionism only played a small role in the decision of millions of Jews to leave Europe. Only around 40,000 went to Palestine. Although most left, the ones who stayed were passionate about the socialist revolution, took up modern Hebrew, and set about building the institutions and settlements necessary for the Jewish revival. 

FUN FACTS

Ki-betz” is a Hebrew root word meaning “to gather or collect as a group”.

On many kibbutzim parents didn’t directly raise their own children in their home. There was a children’s house where kids lived from toddler to teenager under the watch of workers dedicated to child care and teaching.

The first kibbutz was called Degania, meaning “Cornflower”, and was established on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in 1909 by ten men and two women.

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© Jason Harris 2018