|Shot of kibbutz children in 1948, from the film, reproduced in NY Times
What struck me almost from the outset of “Inventing Our Lives
,” the new documentary on the history and evolution of the kibbutz movement, was that I knew one of the key onscreen personalities whose opinions and experiences shape this film. It was the summer of 1982 when my tour group of North American young adults, organized by Americans for Progressive Israel, visited Israel as guests of the Kibbutz Arzi [National] Federation, arguably the most left-wing of Israel’s four kibbutz federations at the time (now condensed into two). And it was Aliza Amir-Zohar, KAF’s executive head, who met and spoke memorably with us on the nature of kibbutz life and the special challenges faced by the movement at this time of national crisis during that summer of the first Lebanon War, the first war undertaken by Israel without a firm national consensus.
Associated mostly with Mapam (the socialist-Zionist party that coalesced with Shulamit Aloni’s Ratz and part of Shinui to form Meretz in the 1990s), the KAF was very much in opposition to the invasion of Lebanon from its outset, feeling that Menachem Begin’s government had seized upon the flimsy excuse of a Palestinian splinter faction attempt on the life of Israel’s ambassador to Britain, in order to forestall the possibility of negotiations with the PLO, ten years before they began in earnest with Oslo. We heard about Mapam’s nuanced advice to its supporters to serve in the war as ordered, but when on leave, to demonstrate with so many others against it. Why the decision to serve in a war that the movement disapproved of? It was explained that considering Israel’s precarious security, given its tiny size (much smaller 30 years ago than the not-quite 8 million population of today), they didn’t want to undermine the army, the one institution that guaranteed the country’s survival. But some kibbutzniks we met, even some staff at the KAF headquarters in Tel Aviv, were members of Sheli, a newer left party that urged refusing military service in Lebanon and in the occupied territories. (I wonder if Ms Amir still holds to this view.)
Be that as it may, I was moved by Aliza Amir’s intelligence and humanity. I also marveled at how
Sheli party members worked without constraint for the Mapam-aligned central kibbutz federation. The Tel Aviv headquarters of the KAF was abuzz with activity; it was a shock in future visits to find these same offices almost empty as the functioning and importance of the central body to the kibbutz movement as a whole, diminished sharply, simultaneously shrinking and coalescing; the KAF merged some years ago with Takam (the United Kibbutz Movement), associated historically with the Labor Party, into an umbrella body known today as the “Kibbutz Movement.”
One of the first and most dramatic reforms on kibbutzim was the elimination of the children’s houses, the places where kibbutz offspring were raised away from their families. The film discusses its pluses and minuses, but mostly comes out with a negative verdict on this experiment, dictated largely by the radical notion of raising people to value their community and society above the “narrow” interests of their families. Perhaps it’s understandable that this aspect of kibbutz life was one of its least popular.
Their was also much discussion on the move in most kibbutzim to differential salaries, allowing members to be rewarded with more income than others with less capability, skill or responsibility. Is the kibbutz abandoning its egalitarian principles in doing so, or simply adapting to the inevitable? Perhaps it’s only fair for people who work harder or better or in more important jobs to earn more than others, as long as its economically most vulnerable are protected. Nearly four years ago, Kibbutz Movement co-head Gavri Bargil spoke to us positively
on these changes. He indicated, for example, 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.
In occasional visits to my cousin’s kibbutz in the Galilee (Cabri or Kabri, near Nahariya), I’ve been impressed by the kibbutz’s enterprising spirit. It has two decades-old factories, resort houses, and any number of business ventures that come and go. I’m also impressed by the fact that kibbutzniks are still not as materially motivated as most other people are. Although no longer existing in a money-free economic unit, they live in a pleasant environment, with a relatively high standard of living. And the film indicates what Gavri Bargil mentioned four years ago, that most kibbutzim are no longer losing population.
The film only touched upon the urban kibbutz phenomenon. Some young kibbutzniks and young families are setting root in communes in towns and cities. They attempt to integrate themselves in their neighborhoods with educational and social welfare projects of value to the larger community. I recall visiting, and being impressed by, one such commune on a Meretz USA Israel Seminar a few years ago.
Filmmaker Toby Perl Freilich
was very informative at the Q & A she conducted at the screening I attended. Yet she didn’t know what to say when asked what might have happened had the “Labor Party” remained in power. First, the pedant in me knows that he should have asked about the “Labor Alignment”–the electoral alliance of Mapam with Labor from 1968 until its dissolution in the early ’80s. But more to the point, it is my understanding that a supportive government in power, when the kibbutzim went into debt in the 1970s and ’80s in order to industrialize, would have been very helpful. It also might have meant averting the debt crisis of the 1980s in the first place, as politically-driven Likud governmental policies under Menachem Begin triggered the ruinous inflation of those years. The kibbutzim had to renegotiate its debts during an inflationary spiral that went as high as 400 percent annually.
What resonates with me in an overall evaluation of the kibbutz discussed in the film, is that people in the early generations were willing to sacrifice in ways that they don’t today because they were creating a new society. Material incentives pale when individuals find deeper meaning in their lives.
The kibbutz was instrumental in Israel’s establishment, both in the outsized contribution of kibbutzniks to Israel’s defense and in its economic development. Kibbutzim never housed more than five percent of Israel’s population, but its contributions (in economic output and otherwise), even today, is larger than its current contingent of about 1.5 percent of all Israelis.