Middle East Features
At 100 years old, the kibbutz undergoes a metamorphosis (News Feature)
By Jeff Abramowitz Oct 27, 2010, 3:06 GMT
Degania Alef, Israel - They stare seriously from a black and white photograph and out of history, unaware that they founded a way of life that was once almost synonymous with the state of Israel.
On October 29, 1910, a dozen Zionists from Russia and Galicia founded Degania, the first ever kibbutz, on the southern shore of the Sea of Gallilee, on land bought from local Bedouin.
'They wanted to create a 'new man,' different from the humiliated Jew of the Diaspora - one who would be physically strong and who would till his own land,' says Shai Shoshani, the current director general of Degania - or, as it is now known, Degania Alef.
The vehicle for this transformation would be the kibbutz, a Hebrew word that means collection or gathering, but which now has also come to mean a communal settlement.
It was to be based on purely socialist principles, with strict collectivism penetrating all aspects of life, even the most private. When the first child was born in Degania Alef, the kibbutz members held a heated discussion over whether the infant should 'belong' to the entire community, or just to his parents.
In the end, the parents won out because, says Shoshani, 'it's more natural.'
(The second child to be born at Degania Alef, Moshe Dayan, grew up to become an Israeli icon for his role in shaping Israel's history as leader of the country's defence forces. 'People from the kibbutz say he was a very cheeky child,' Shimoni says.)
Degania would serve as the model for other kibbutzim, which at first were named Degania Bet (Degania B) and Degania Gimmel (Degania C), until the founders realised that perhaps other names were needed.
In Israel's formative years, kibbutzim formed an elite society, home to some of the country's most well-known personalities. With their emphasis on hard physical labour and austere, pioneering values, they also symbolised the nascent state for many people.
Today Israel has over 250 kibbutzim - with a combined population of around 120,000 people - scattered all over the country, from only a few metres from the border with Lebanon in the north to north of the Red Sea port of Eilat.
Virtually all of them have undergone a dramatic metamorphosis from the pioneering, and often austere, socialist collective farms they were envisaged to be.
Not all kibbutzim traditionally focused on agriculture - Na'an, south of Tel Aviv, for instance was a powerhouse of the sprinkler industry, while Mizra, near the city of Afula in the north, raises pigs and supplies meat to Israel's non-kosher food outlets.
And it was Kibbutz Hagoshrim, in the upper Galillee, that backed two Israeli engineers who had failed to interest major manufacturers with a device that eventually became the Epilady hair removal system.
Nowadays, only around 15 percent of kibbutz members work in agriculture.
Some kibbutzim have even branched into high tech, in keeping with Israel's status as a high-tech centre. Some 20 kibbutz-owned companies are now listed on the Tel Aviv stock exchange.
Kibbutzim have not only changed what they do, but the way they do it.
Communal living, the idiosyncracy of the kibbutz, is giving way to privacy - from families eating together in their homes, rather than in the kibbutz dining room, to children living at home, as opposed to being raised in a special children's house and spending time with their parents only after work.
Private property, once frowned upon, even outlawed, is now commonplace.
The old guiding ideology of 'from each according to his ability to each according to his need' - whereby each member was given a monthly allowance - has been replaced by a differential wage system, with higher pay for veteran members, those with responsible jobs or for off-kibbutz work.
And some kibbutzim even hire outside labour, rather than rely solely on members.
The changes may be necessary to enable the kibbutzim to survive in a different world, and to enable the members to survive on the kibbutz, but Israel's early pioneers would still have been horrified.
In the 1980s, the story goes, a group of them were sent to an old- age home in Afula, northern Israel. Within a week, says author Ze'ev Chafetz, they had organized themselves into a work brigade, torn up the flowerbeds and replanted them with vegetables.
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