The Kibboutzs In Israel: From Socialist Ideals to Modernity Crisis

April 6, 2008

The Kibboutzs means in Hebrew union or group. Kibboutzs are collective villages situated in Israel which were created by the Zionist movement during the beginning of the twentieth century as the first germ of Jewish Nationalism in the land of Palestine. These rural communities were mainly influenced by the ideals of Tolstoy about Associative Socialism and pure egalitarian rural society. Yet, the Kibboutzs have evolved today to a more complex communitarian structures, including not only agrarian activities but also industry and services since the creation of the state of Israel during the middle of the last century.

Originally, the idea of Kibboutzs required a deep political militant spirit, which was born in the mind of the early Zionist thinkers and settlers. Many ideologues and pioneers of the Zionist movement as well as important military officers lived in the Kibboutzs until the 1980s. However, the spirit of the community life went through a serious economic, demographic and moral crisis since the 1970s, which reached its highest level with the crisis of 1990. Nevertheless, the Kibboutzs remain an important aspect of the building of the state of Israel and the implementation of the Zionist ideals throughout the 20th century. In addition, the 300 Kibboutzs that exist today in Israel are seen as an example of prestigious life style, as they learned how to adapt to the new challenges of modern life.

In this article, we will try to explain what the Kibboutzs is and how they function politically and economically. We will also try to explain the socialist ideological inspirations of these communities as well as the mutation of the Kibboutzs since 1970 to adapt to modern life. Furthermore, we will focus on the contradictory discourse of the left wing in Israel, which calls for the construction of an Israeli-Arab state and at the same time take off the land from Palestinians to build its ideal socialist communities. We will also explore some of the problems the Kibboutznikim (residents of the Kibboutzs) are facing today.

According to Encyclopedia Judaica the Kibboutzs are “communities deliberately formed by its members, for agricultural work. There are no private properties in the Kibboutzs, as the income of work is divided between equally between the members of the community and their families” (Encyclopedia Judaica 2006). The Kibboutzs are based on the values of equality and common good, which favors the unification of the community around common values and the offering of welfare services to everyone without distinction of sex or social class. Yet, the Kibboutzs is also a Nationalist Jewish Organization, which helped in the colonization and the building of the state of Israel by Zionist pioneers. “These communities are in reality how the early thinkers imagined the whole country of Israel but on a bigger scale, by focusing on the ideals of collective entrepreneurship and individual engagement, as to guarantee the economic wellbeing of the members of the group” (Ekkert-Jafé 1986).

The urban architecture of the Kibboutzs is following the same original design. At the center, there is the core infrastructures like the administrations, the auditorium, the schools and the hospital, surrounded by the residential area then the several acres of greenery (Ekkert-Jafé 1986). Nowadays, the Kibboutzs has expended beyond the borders of the gardens to include the newly build services and industrial areas.

Politically speaking, Kibboutzs are very egalitarian, since there are no elected representatives and it is at the level of the General assembly that decisions are taken. Thus, we notice that some Kibboutzs started integrating more and more functional structures from the democratic model of governance.

Some Arab Kibboutzs tried to develop in Israel but have failed, because the Kibboutzs are above all Jewish Nationalist entities, which were created in a specific purpose. Yet, it would be very positive if Palestinians or other Arab states can benefit from the experience of the Kibboutzs as long as they adapt it to their own way of living and to their ideological aims (Donath, 1969).

There is no money circulation in the Kibboutzs and no salary system. The structure is build to support in an egalitarian way or the members in terms of food, clothing, daily goods and all possible needs. In the distribution of goods no distinction on socio-economic basis are allowed, and no sex differentiations are tolerated neither apart in Jewish Religious Kibboutzs. However, a small amount of money is given to the community members in a regular basis in order to be spent outside the Kibboutzs on goods that don’t exist inside.

The dispatching of the work is circular and includes all active members in the community families. Work division is rational and exploitation materials belong to the community, as preached in socialist ideals.

The Kibboutzs are autonomous districts ruled from within as an independent municipality. They are treated by the state as autonomous politically and economically regarding its free decision making and free market trade, but still owe taxes to the state of Israel and carry its National flag. Nevertheless, the Kibboutzs by the force of history and ideological affinities got united as three main federations. The need to create federations came from the pressures imposed by the outside world on the Kibboutzs to adapt themselves and to cope with the governmental strategies on education and other issues. Since then, four major Kibboutz federations raised; “the Unified Kibboutzik Movement is the major Kibboutz federation with more than half the settlements affiliated to it. This federation is called commonly Takam in Hebrew, and is supporting the Israeli Labor Party “The Mapai”. The second federation is called Kibboutz Artzi, with more than 30% of affiliation. Artzi consolidated its position after its fusion with the Takam 7 years ago, as it shares with it the same socialist values. However, the Artzi remains more radical and Zionaist. Kibboutz Dati is the third biggest federation. This federation is a religious Kibboutz influences by socialist ideas. The last the religious orthodox Kibboutzs created by the Ahoudat Israel party” (Raphael 1980, pp 32).

We must objectively see the Kibboutz experience, not as an ideal model of the implementation of associative socialism in Israel, but more of a functional solution to the problematic of settlement and management of the flows of migrants coming during different Aliyas. In fact, at the beginning of the Kibboutz experience, many models were tested unfortunately none was useful, which led to the egalitarian form of division of work as an imposed solution to manage the problems of early settlements. Thus, the experience was a small laboratory of experimentations that served in the shaping of the state of Israel later on.

The Russian socialist thinker and writer gave the inspiration of the Kibboutzs building in Israel to the early Eastern European Jewish communities. Consequently, the Hapoel Hatzayer party built the first rural anarchist communities in 1908. Degania the first Kibboutz even constructed was built by European socialist settlers in 1909 next to fertile agricultural lands of the Tabaria. Other Kibboutzs followed in 1912 and 1913 following the same rural model, as to implement the Zionist plans. The early Kibboutzs were utilitarian for the poor immigrants, since the lands were used for intensive agriculture to provide the populations with food, but soon the exploitations and the populations of the Kibboutzs grew and so did the level of life and welfare. To understand the values of the Kibboutz, we must go deeper in the Zionist ideology behind it. The Zionists aimed through the Kibboutzs to build not only a new community but also a “New Man” (Raphael 1980, pp: 56) for the promised land of their ancestors, as they claim. It is not a socialist ideal but also a religious one related to the promise of a salvation for the Jews of the world.

Under the British rule, and while Europe was sinking in war, the Mapai movement formed a new form of Kibboutzs. The Mapai was aware that agrarian Kibboutzs can’t survive for a long time in the wave of industrialization, so it decided to integrate some light forms of industrial infrastructure in the Kibboutzs. Since that time many Kibboutzs had the follow the example of the Mapai Kibboutzs, and fully integrated the secondary and tertiary sectors by the 1970s. At that precise time, The Kibboutzs were facing a problematic economic and demographic crisis under the rule of the government of the Right wing Likoud party. By the 1980s, the communities had to unify in form of federations to face the government pressures and to review its economic strategy towards a less agrarian economy opened to modern market competition. Nowadays, Kibboutzs resurrected more strongly after the heavy crisis of 1990, since the Kibboutz population is one of the richest in the whole country of Israel.

Unfortunately, the Kibboutz structures are facing a moral crisis after the structural changes it experienced during the last 30 years. The values developed by the Kibboutz communities are challenged by the wind of modernity. The pressure of modern like imposed many changes in the rhythm of life of these people. Daily collective meals aren’t observed regularly anymore, and many residents start seeking for outside work opportunities, whereas foreign workers Jews or even Arabs are introduced to do the work. As regards the education of children, it became a personal affair instead of a collective one, as children are in nowadays Kibboutzs spending their like in the family’s house instead of the community dorms. Thus, these changes must be seen as an evolution and an adaptation to modern life not as a menace to a stagnant way of being as Zionist orthodox Kibboutz dwellers tend to see it. Other changes affected the community, as the introduction of “personal budgets” in opposite to the early Kibboutzs where money circulation was banned. Consequently, the Kibboutz system in Israel is going through a real crisis of values. Many Kibboutz residents start to move to large cities and the community values are regressing (Donath, 1969).

Modern American thinker Noam Chomsky, in his very important book on the Kibboutz, tries to reveal the reality behind the utopic socialist mask of the Kibboutzs, since he spent a 7 weeks field study in one of the Kibboutzs next to the coastal city of Haifa. Among the contradiction that Chomsky noticed, there is the deep feeling of racism among the Kibboutz members towards Arabs, whereas the socialist ideals are normally Universalists (Chomsky 2002). The Kibboutzs are even built on lands taken by force from Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, which is a serious contradiction with the discourse of the building of an Israeli-Arab state hold by the left wing parties. Chomsky also noticed a deep tense relationship with the Israeli state, and dissolution of the complementarity that existed between the early Zionist ideologues and the Kibboutz dwellers, since the Likoud party came to power (Chomsky 2002). Chomsky added in his work “Understanding Power”, that the group in the Kibboutzs is oppressing the free will of the individual, for instance military service and community work is taken very seriously, which may give birth to violence. What is revealing about the work of Chomsky, which took place in the 1960s, is that the Anarchic socialist equalitarian model that Israel tend to present to the world about the Kibboutzs was challenges, showing that these communities are an important and unique model in the world but yet not a perfect one.

In spite of the economic and moral problems and far from the illusions of the rural associative socialist utopia, one should admit that the Kibboutz remain the main Nationalist Movement in Israel and that it is somehow thanks to the effort of its groups that Israel exist in part today, since it gave Israel a complete communitarian experience to learn from. Nowadays the Kibboutz population in Israel enjoys a big prestige and lives a wealthy life, in spite of the massive movement of many Kibboutz dwellers to big Israeli cities to fulfill a more modern existence. According to encyclopedia Judaica, there is more than 269 Kibboutz in Israel today, with a population of more than 120 500 inhabitants from the Golan to the Red Sea living in small semi-agrarian groups.

Kibboutzs started as a manifestation of social Zionism and the will to make a “New Man” for the Promised Land on Palestine, following the ideals of Tolstoi and associative socialism. Gradually, the Kibboutzs became a machine of Zionist elites and a structure to assimilate new immigrants from different parts of the world and to teach them the language and the values of the state of Israel. However, the challenge of modernity forced the Kibboutzs to adapt to the modern world by becoming more flexible and including light industry, services, and money. Yet, it is legitimate to ask whether the Kibboutzs are doomed to perish as they already accomplished the aim they were designed for before 1948, or would they persist in new forms to face the future challenges Israel would be facing with its neighbors. It is also important to remind how much it is important to study the structures of the Kibboutzs as unique models in the world and to throw lessons for the construction of adapted democracies in the MENA region.


– Eyclopedia Judaica, online, 2006
– Chomsky, Noam. 2002. Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky. Peter R. Mitchell. New Press.
– Raphael, Joseph. 1980. The Communal Future: the Kibboutzs and the Utopian Dilemma. Sciences Socials des Religions. Vol 49, No 32. pp: 239-240.
– Ekert-Jaffé, Olivia. 1986. Effets et limites des aides financières aux familles: une expérience et un modèle. Population (French Edition). 41e Année, No. 2 (Mar., 1986). pp. 327- 357.
– Dieckhoff, Alain. 1989. Les trajectoires territoriales du Sionisme. Vingtième Siècle. Revue d’histoire. No. 21 (Jan., 1989), pp. 29-43.
– Barkai, Haim. 1979. Productivity and Factor Allocation in Kibbutz Farming and Manufacturing .Revue économique .Vol. 30, No. 1, Economie administree (Jan., 1979), pp. 144-161.
– Leibovici, Franck. 2003. Esquisse d’une histoire des Français en Israël. Vingtième Siècle. Revue d’histoire. No. 78 (Apr., 2003), pp. 3-17.
– Donath, Doris. 1964. La population juive d’Israël. Population (French Edition). 19e Année, No. 5 (Oct., 1964), pp. 941-956.
– Donath, Doris. 1968. Développement et sous-développement en Israël: aspects socio-culturels. Revue Française de Sociologie. Vol. 9, No. 4 (Oct., 1968), pp. 522-536.
– Danath, Doris.1969. L’intégration économique des immigrants nord-africains en Israël et des Juifs nord-africains en France (Essai d’étude comparative). Revue Française de Sociologie .Vol. 10, No. 4 (Oct., 1969), pp. 491-514.


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