Kibbutz (plural: kibbutzim) is the Hebrew word for communal settlement, and it refers to a particular type of rural community in Israel. The basic principles on which the kibbutz is based are joint ownership of property, social and economic collectivism, cooperation in production, direct democracy, egalitarianism in work, and voluntarism. While initially agriculturally based, most kibbutzim have expanded into small industries as well (e.g., metal work, plastics, processed foods). Some have also expanded into tourism and recreational facilities. Many kibbutzim run study courses for the integration of new immigrants to Israel, focusing on intensive Hebrew language instruction, lectures on Israeli culture, and tours of the country. Although each kibbutz is an independent entity, national federations have formed to coordinate activities and facilitate cooperation between kibbutzim.
The first kibbutz was founded at Deganya, Israel, in 1910, primarily by Russian immigrants. There are fewer than 300 kibbutzim, with most formed prior to Israeli statehood in 1948. Kibbutzim range in size from about 40 members to over 1,000; however, most have between 300 and 400 members. In total, the kibbutz population is approximately 130,000, about 2.5% of Israel’s population. Although early kibbutz founders were largely secular, ideological supporters of socialism and Zionism, religious kibbutzim began to appear in the 1930s. Most kibbutzim belong to one of three major movements, each with a distinctive ideology, although these distinctions have become blurrier in recent decades. The United Kibbutz Movement, usually referred to by its Hebrew acronym TAKAM, comprises approximately 60% of the total kibbutz population. Kibbutz Artzi, which recently decided to merge with TAKAM, includes over 30% of the kibbutz membership. The third major movement, Kibbutz Dati, is composed primarily of religious kibbutzim.
Currently, the kibbutz movement is confronting what some observers characterize as a demographic crisis. Younger generations are leaving the kibbutzim, and the average age of the population is increasing. This demographic shift has prompted several adaptations in kibbutz living; for example, many kibbutzim are relying increasingly on paid workers for factories, agricultural tasks, and tourism services. Others are intensifying efforts to expand work exchange efforts, bringing in volunteers from within Israel and abroad. Despite the initial ideological commitments of the early kibbutzim to collective and egalitarian production, almost two thirds of the kibbutzim workforce is now comprised of hired workers. An additional strategy taken up by some kibbutzim as a way of coping with recent demographic shifts is the rental of housing to nonkibbutz members. Some kibbutzim have even built neighborhoods specifically for nonmembers. These shifts have contributed to the blurring of the line between the kibbutz as a social and economic entity and the kibbutz as a geographical/ municipal unit.
Kibbutz members also have more opportunity now for individual choices in higher education, the arts and literature, vacation time, and so on than was the case in the early days of the movement. This is possible in part because of shifts in the distribution of resources within the kibbutzim, in which more money is allocated to personal budgets than had been the case previously. Additionally, many kibbutzim now allow free choice of workplace, resulting in increasing numbers of kibbutz members working away from the kibbutz. These economic changes have resulted in increased hierarchy within the kibbutz, which is also reflected in shifts from political systems of direct democracy to representative democracy. These shifts have contributed to increased income inequality both within and between kibbutzim.
Changes in kibbutz life are also occurring in gender relations and the organization of family life. Ideologically, women are equal participants in the labor force, with all jobs open to them. In practice, most women work in education, health care, and other service positions, although in the earlier days of the movement women worked in agriculture. In contrast to early kibbutz practices that were designed to relieve women from domestic chores, today more women are seeking release time from communal kibbutz responsibilities in order to spend more time at home raising their children. Although meals still tend to be eaten communally rather than in individual homes, the nuclear family structure has grown increasing prevalent in kibbutzim. In contrast to early collective kibbutz housing, which reflected the movement’s ideological rejection of the “ownership” of children, private homes with children raised by their parents rather than in communal children’s houses have grown increasingly common.
Various commentators have been ringing the death knell for the kibbutz movement almost since its inception; nevertheless, it has continued to survive. The major challenge facing the kibbutz movement today is how to maintain the ideals associated with its communitarian history while adapting to current demographic and economic challenges.
- Ben Rafael, E. (1997). Crisis and transformation: The kibbutz at century’s end. Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Gavron, D. (2000). The kibbutz: Awakening from utopia. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Rosner, M., Ben David, I., Avnat, A., Cohen, N., & Leviatan, U. (1990). The second generation: Continuity and change in the kibbutz. Westport, CT: Greenwood.