In Israel, Kibbutz Life Makes a Surprising Comeback

Aging socialist communities are revived by a jolt of capitalism.

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IBBUTZ DEGANIA, ISRAEL—As it nears its centennial, Israel's kibbutz movement ranks as one of history's most durable utopian experiments. Its egalitarian, communal philosophy helped build the early Jewish state and drew many idealistic, young, western volunteers (including Jerry Seinfeld, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Sigourney Weaver) to pick fruit and vegetables. But now, ironically, the movement's future depends on a bracing dose of capitalist individualism—and Israel's 120,000 kibbutzniks, on the whole, welcome it.

That change has come to Kibbutz Degania, the oldest of Israel's 273 kibbutzim. Spread out across the highway from the Sea of Galilee, Degania is a forest of trees, bushes, and flowers dotted with little bungalows and smelling of freshly mowed grass. Two years ago, life changed dramatically for members of this comfortable little community. They stopped receiving equal pay regardless of the work they did (or, in many cases, didn't do) and started getting paid according to their productivity. Nina Ben-Moshe, born here 70 years ago, recalls the impact: "All these members who'd been staying home with back problems suddenly felt well enough to go back to work," she chuckles. The kibbutz's operating deficit vanished. "There were a lot of parasites in the old days," she says. "It's not like that anymore."

Turnaround. The advent of "differential salaries" and other reforms has brought a turnaround to the kibbutz movement, which had become a socialist subculture on the verge of economic and social collapse. The average income on a kibbutz is now about on par with the Israeli national average. Most kibbutzim offer enviable schooling, healthcare, old-age pensions, and cultural life. And the drastic attrition of young people is being reversed. From the mid-1980s to mid-2000s, an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 kibbutz members left the fold. In the past three years, though, the hemorrhaging has stopped, with 2007 marking the first year in over a generation when there were more people joining the kibbutzim than quitting, according to the United Kibbutz Movement.

The reforms give kibbutz members more choices. "There's something in the atmosphere now—it's freer," says Moran Chen, 31, a second-generation Degania member and recent returnee, playing on the floor of her home with her infant son. "People aren't looking at you, judging you over whether you're working hard enough." On leave from her job as a teachers' supervisor, Chen says she almost certainly would not have come back if Degania had stuck with its old, rigidly egalitarian system. "For one thing, I would have had to put my son in kibbutz day care when he was 3 months old and go back to work; now I can stay home with him as long as my job allows," she says. "For another thing, we wouldn't have been able to save any money; now we can."

The kibbutzim started out as doctrinaire communes of pioneering farmer/soldiers who valued hard work, austerity, and conformity and where the economy was based on the principle—if not always the practice—of share and share alike. But by the mid-1980s, kibbutz life had become prohibitively wasteful, unproductive, and stifling. The threat of bankruptcy and depopulation forced kibbutzim to give their members more responsibility and more freedom.

Making a profit. The kibbutzim started to be run like a business. From a narrow focus on farming and heavy industry, they began building housing projects, shopping centers, amusement parks, guesthouses, banquet halls, and any boutique industry that might make a profit. Kibbutz families became budget-minded consumers, making their own decisions on what furniture to buy and where and when to go on vacation, instead of having such decisions made by committee.

Yet while the kibbutz movement has gone capitalist in many respects, it has not gone all the way over to a system of every man for himself. One third of kibbutzim still give their members equal salaries, although this minority is inexorably shrinking. And the majority that give differential salaries run on what kibbutzniks call a "Scandinavian" model of social democracy, which means high progressive taxes to prevent large income gaps, maintain good community services, and ensure a generous "safety net" for the aged and handicapped. "There's still a far greater degree of mutual care on the kibbutz [than in Israeli society at large]," says Daniel Gavron, a former kibbutznik who wrote the 2000 book The Kibbutz: Awakening From Utopia.