On the evening of May 19, Meretz USA cosponsored a talk at Beit Shalom by Gavri Bargil, secretary general of the Kibbutz Movement, entitled “The Kibbutz: Reports of its death are greatly exaggerated.” Gavri is a longtime friend; he was the North American shaliach (representative) of the former Kibbutz Artzi (National) Federation in 1996-99.
First, Gavri indicated that kibbutzim are recovering from economic and social crises that threatened their demise just a few years ago. In 2000, when he assumed office, more than half of kibbutzim faced financial bankruptcy and almost all were losing their young generation. But today, kibbutzim are experiencing a net gain of members, including a returning young generation; only about 30 of 272 kibbutz communities are still in economic trouble.
Then, he methodically laid out the changes that kibbutz life have undergone in recent years to continue their existence as viable collective entities. These reforms include: the professional management of kibbutz enterprises, the charging of members’ consumption of kibbutz food and electricity resources against family budgets, the beginnings of a system for allocating equity and pensions for a member’s career on kibbutz, the ability to take outside jobs (an opportunity availed by 30 percent of kibbutzniks), and the development of a system of modest economic incentives (differential wages) dependent upon the level of responsibility or skills required in a member’s job. Gavri also cited statistics that show that the 1.6 percent of Israel’s population on kibbutz today (about 120,000 people) produce about seven percent of the country’s GDP.
Some people see these changes in economic and social structure as negating the meaning of kibbutz, but Gavri disagrees. He argues that the progressive internal income tax insures fairness, although not complete equality. He says that about 180 member kibbutzim have so far adopted the principle of differential income but that the income distribution is still relatively flat (with the gap from highest to lowest no larger than two to one) and with internal tax revenue supplementing state programs to insure a safety net for poorer members.