The Fallen Kibbutz: A Microcosm of Israeli Society

November, 08 2010

By Lily Hoffman Simon

This year marked the centennial birthday of the Kibbutz. However, the structure of these unique societal experiments has changed so dramatically that, today, their original founders would barely recognize them.  The values of a Jewish and Zionist social revolution, which birthed the kibbutz movement, don’t exist in the modern kibbutz. With all of these shifts, are the kibbutzim still a relevant force for Israeli and Jewish life?

A kibbutz is a collective settlement in Israel, traditionally based on communal life, agriculture, and an emphasis on physical labour.  This ideology emerged in Eastern Europe in the 1900s, when Jewish youth began to question the value in a self-victimized, oppressed, and religiously observant Jewish lifestyle, a lifestyle which dominated the Jewish narrative and experience throughout Europe. These idealists, frustrated by the lack of Jewish autonomy, latched on to the growing Zionist momentum to develop their own ideology—that of labour Zionism, which fused the ideas of a Zionist revolution with socialist principles.

Alongside the development of this unique Zionist perspective through the works of A. D. Gordon and Nachman Syrkin, to name a few, masses of Jews began to immigrate to Palestine to form collective, agricultural kvutsot, the precursor to kibbutzim. These communities dominated the Jewish attraction to Israel up until the end of World War II, and helped build Israel’s physical and social infrastructure. The underlying goal was to create a Jewish state based on the principles of Jewish liberation and autonomy, as well as egalitarianism, a return a nature, and the importance of interpersonal relationships.  Traditional kibbutzim forwent paying wages, instead giving everyone a specific job to maintain the collective kibbutz lifestyle. All money and property was shared.

So where are these utopian communities today?  Facing a booming Israeli population, structural changes in the Israeli economy and growing religious influence in national politics, many kibbutzim started to dramatically shift their focus in the 1980s. They underwent a process of privatization, introducing private wages and private property and contracting manual labour from outside the community. The kibbutzim’s initial economic success and vast influence on Israeli politics–the kibbutz-affiliated Labour party was in power until 1977–also contributed to these structural changes. Increased living standards undermined the simple, naturalistic lifestyle they originally promoted, and technological development encouraged them to hire outside labour to work the fields instead of the members themselves. All of these changes represented not only a changing Israel, but a dramatic ideological shift in the kibbutzim. Today about 70% of kibbutzim run on a privatized model, and the kibbutz movement is little more than another lobby group, with loose affiliation to the dwindling Labour Party.

While acknowledging the legacy of the kibbutzim during their prime, it is important to ask whether these societies accomplished their utopian Zionist goals. Was the new Jew created? Were the Jewish people liberated?  Open up any newspaper about Israel, or the Jewish people, and it becomes clear the answer is no.  Israel today is rampant with problems like racism, environmental issues, and religious political dominance. All of these are in direct contradiction to the original kibbutz values. The same can be found in the greater Jewish community, which still tends to focus on its past persecutions as a dominant defining feature of Jewish identity, especially the Holocaust (check out Netanyahu’s speech at Yad Vashem). Despite years of influence on Jewish life towards egalitarian and emancipated ideals, the fall of the kibbutz today seems instead to reflect the stagnation of Israeli and Jewish life.

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5 thoughts on “The Fallen Kibbutz: A Microcosm of Israeli Society

  1. Kenneth Bob says:

    This is an extremely simplistic analysis of the impact of the kibbutz movement on modern Israel. To suggest that because there is racism in Israel, the idea of kibbutz failed is ludicrous. The writer says that among the utopian goals of the early pioneers were creating a new Jew and liberating the Jewish people. Saying “no,” these goals were not reached, without addressing the successful establishment of a liberal democracy in the middle east where Jews are free to govern and, yes, make mistakes, is quite shocking. Would the editors of Moment entertain a counterpoint to this piece?

    1. elisniv says:

      Yes, we would welcome a counter-point! Feel free to submit it to me at

  2. Matan Naamani says:

    I think that it is clear that the Jewish people of todaycompared to those of 80 years ago have been liberated. We discuss these things openly, we grapple with our nationality, we have a homeland and a political forum for discussion in some way that spans the world. So yes, the
    Jewish people have been liberated. While I agree when Kenneth Bob writes: “Saying “no,” these goals were not reached, without addressing the successful establishment of a liberal democracy in the middle east where Jews are free
    to govern and, yes, make mistakes, is quite shocking.” it also opens the door to making excuses for the failures of the kibbutz movement and the struggles of liberalism in Israel. As Jews we cannot say that Israel is like every country and the fact that we make mistakes and do things wrong shows that we have reached nationhood like everyone else (while I’m not trying to imply that Mr. Bob is saying this, it is something that is said). Israel is the home of the Jewish people and it was founded with intentions to be a light unto nations and to be the home of the Jewish people and NOT to be like every other country. the kibbutzim’s revolution was not to have their values half-way integrated into Israeli society and it was not just to make a country (that was every Zionist movements’ goal). It was to create a socialist country based on values of labor, equality, and genuine Jewish identity. Also, to say that Israel has a “liberal democracy” does not seem entirely on point. So- have the Jewish People been liberated? Yes we have been. Have the values of kibbutz and that form of chalutziut found a meaningful way into Israeli society that feels permanent, pressing, and sincere to the Jewish and Israeli people? I think they have a ways to go. What is most important is that we do not take our Jewish identities, accompishments, and liberation in the present for granted.

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