On January 14, 1991, when the first Iraqi scuds hit Israel, one of the central commitments of the kibbutz—that children are best educated among their peers in the communal children’s house—shattered within a few hours. Parents swooped up their children and took them “home,” to be by their side in a secured room. On kibbutz after kibbutz, the grand experiment of collective child rearing, which had been gradually disappearing over the last several decades, collapsed completely as children camped out on their parents’ floors, sofas, cots, and bunk-beds, in tiny two-room houses built for couples living alone. Long-running ideological debates about whether or not to abolish communal child rearing were decided by Saddam’s scud attack. After the war, there was no turning back. Kibbutz children and parents would not be separated for the sake of a lost ideal.
Suddenly, the kibbutz economy, already in deep trouble because of the agricultural and inflationary crises of the 1980s, had a new financial burden. Houses would need to be enlarged, families accommodated. Perhaps it’s not strange that after all the debates about the right way to raise children, the deciding push came from outside the community. The crisis of the kibbutz today derives from the inescapable interaction of its communal philosophy with the outside world—most pointedly, with the materialism of its neighbors (most of the world, after all). Today, kibbutzim are privatizing on a large scale, giving up on many of their utopian ideals. Although this article tells the story of one kibbutz, it is not an atypical tale. The grand experiment has failed—or it is entering a new era.
The demographics of the kibbutzim over the last fifteen years demonstrate the depth of the problem. In 1983, there were 267 kibbutzim in Israel with a total population of 115,000. This increased to 125,000 in 1990 and dropped back to 114,000 by 1996. From 1994 to 1998, there was a net decrease of approximately 2.5 percent. The population was declining and might soon decline much faster: the median age for kibbutz members in 1998 was fifty-three years, up from fifty-one in 1994. (These figures exclude the sixteen religious kibbutzim of the Ha’Dati movement.) Young people were voting with their feet against kibbutz ideals.
In spite of this grim reality, we believe that the kibbutz can be remodeled for a new era. Building on the accomplishments of the founding generations, we think it is possible to equip the kibbutzim with the economic and social tools to save the existing communities—to mark out a “third way” between collectivism and the market, combining justice with individual freedom and a higher standard of living.
This is the story of Kibbutz Hatzor’s struggle to attain that goal. The kibbutz was founded in 1936 as the third settlement of the left-wing Kibbutz Artzi Federation (KAF). In 1946, these Socialist-Zionists were allocated land ...
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