Israel’s kibbutzim, each a block of neat cottages built round a communal dining room, have always concerned themselves with more than the shared tilling of soil pioneered by Jewish settlers in 1911. Since the prospect of a spring election appeared in the autumn of 1982, kibbutz members have been preparing their customary campaign on behalf of factions in the Labor opposition with which they are affiliated. Well organized and articulate, they have provided Labor with campaign bases, public speakers and leading political figures.
Although the kibbutzim house less than 4 percent of the population, they are influential in the most important sectors of Israeli life. Kibbutz members hold nearly a sixth of the parliamentary seats, farm a third of the agricultural land and contribute a quarter of the military officers. But growing conflicts over land and labor issues may now be sapping their political strength.
Israel&rquo;s invasion of Lebanon has given rise to some bitter kibbutz arguments. While the kibbutzim were officially backing the Labor Alignment’s demand for the creation of a permanent 28-mile Israeli security zone inside Lebanon in the summer of 1982, some kibbutz soldiers were publicly defending the army’s advance beyond that line into Beirut, ordered by Menachem Begin’s Likud government. Other kibbutz soldiers were, and still are, calling for a total and unconditional withdrawal of all Israeli forces from Lebanon.
Many kibbutz members discovered from the debate aired in kibbutz bulletins that Israel’s policy toward Lebanon is not easily separated from the kibbutzim’s relationship with the Palestinians. Much of this is a matter of geography. While the earliest kibbutzim were founded on land purchased with foreign donations or, like the Houla swamps, first made arable by Zionist immigrants, kibbutzim founded after 1948 often took over the fields and orchards left by Palestinian refugees who today live in Lebanon. Consequently, kibbutz soldiers who returned with harrowing tales of the refugees’ plight in refugee camps have been asked by older members whether they would be prepared to return the kibbutz to the refugees.
The minority of kibbutz members who support the creation of a small Palestinian state alongside Israel face another embarrassment. There are now about 25 kibbutz settlements in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights, with another ten on the drawing board. The increase in settlements is evidently wrecking prospects for peace, not only with the Palestinians but also with the Jordanians with whom the Labor Alignment would like to share the West Bank in a “territorial compromise.” Kibbutz members living on the two sides of Israel’s pre-1967 border have been moving apart from one another on this issue. After hearing kibbutz members from Galilee call for a “smaller but more Jewish Israel” at peace movement demonstrations, collectivists in the Occupied Territories have started to look around nervously for new allies. Many are growing closer to the ultra-nationalist individual settlers who are their direct neighbors, and one group of kibbutz members in the Jordan Valley has left Labor in favor of the ruling Likud Party.
Kibbutz unity has been greatest over the Golan Heights. The first of ten kibbutzim on the mountain range overlooking the fertile plains of both Israel and Syria was established soon after the Six-Day War. Today their inhabitants form part of a population of 7,000 Israeli settlers and 12,000 Syrian Druze. When the Likud coalition decided to annex the Heights formally to Israel in December 1981, against the wishes of the Druze inhabitants, the kibbutz parliamentarians sided with the government. While many urban Labor supporters abstained or voted against the proposed law because it would destroy chances of concluding political agreement with Syria, the kibbutzim wanted to ensure that the Syrians could never again use the Heights to shell their plains settlements.
Farm labor has also been a divisive issue. In 1982, one in five kibbutz agricultural workers was a hired hand, not a member of the collective. Most hired workers come from Israel’s remaining Arab villages. The practice contradicts the kibbutzim’s ideological commitment to self-labor, as well as giving rise to tensions. The collectives’ relations with their Arab workers are often poor. One reason is that some kibbutzim have increased their land holdings through government transfers of plots confiscated from their Arab neighbors.
In areas where relations tend to be more amicable, this itself can cause other problems. Over the years, a number of Israel’s Palestinian citizens have applied for kibbutz membership, either because they were drawn toward collective living or because they were about to marry a kibbutz woman. These young men, who had entered the kibbutz daily as employees, all had their applications rejected for security reasons.
Another work force available to the 120,000 adults and children living in kibbutzim are the 40,000 foreign volunteers who come annually to do a few weeks’ manual work when agricultural labor is needed, in exchange for bed, board and pocket money. “The volunteers,” a member of Kibbutz Maanit recently told Israeli reporters, “are used by us as hewers of wood and drawers of water. They do all the jobs we ourselves don’t want to do.”
Between them, the 260 kibbutzim run some 350 industrial and tourist enterprises. Kibbutz factories produce steel helmets, plastic pipes, chemicals, paper products, textiles, computer components and much else. It is no longer uncommon for a kibbutz of 300 people to derive two thirds of its income from industry or to employ twice that number of industrial workers.
Kibbutzim lacking the space or money to set up their own industrial plant frequently join together with others to set up a regional kibbutz factory. Some kibbutzim have entered industrial partnerships with Israel’s only trade union, the Histadrut, which is also one of the country’s largest employers. The work force almost invariably comes from the neighboring development towns set up for the Oriental Jews who immigrated after 1948 from the Arab countries. To them, the egalitarian principles espoused by the kibbutz members, most of whom are of European origin, are of no direct relevance. According to a study by Israeli professor Sheva Weiss, “The relationship between the Oriental Jewish working class and the two socialist bodies [the kibbutzim and the Histadrut] which serve as the showpiece of Israel’s Labor Party is simply that of a worker with his boss or bosses.”
Workers have long expressed particular resentment at the low wages paid by many kibbutz-owned enterprises with multi-million-dollar turnovers, and at the lack of promotion prospects. Foremen and managers are brought in from the kibbutzim, and there are no facilities for sharing either decision making or profits.
Kibbutz living standards are high and still rising. Internal equality continues to be strictly observed, but this involves little hardship, given the kibbutzim’s financial resources. Kibbutz members are provided with their own stereos and televisions, take their holidays in Europe, and have access to a car pool during leisure hours. Some kibbutzim have even installed tennis courts and riding stables. Although Oriental Jews in the development towns suffer from a shortage of recreation facilities, the kibbutzim do not let them use their swimming pools, and educate their own children separately. When looking for new members, kibbutzim have been known to advertize for ”educated and cultured applicants,“ thereby excluding their more proletarian neighbors.
These policies are having increasing electoral implications. Unskilled Oriental Jews employed by kibbutz enterprises were more likely to vote against the Labor Alignment than workers employed elsewhere in the June 1981 elections. Trends can, perhaps, be deduced from a more recent attempt by the Labor leader, Shimon Peres, to hold an early election meeting in Kiryat Shimona, a development town of some 16,000 inhabitants in which half the work force is employed by the kibbutzim. Local people drowned Peres’ speech by pro-Begin and anti-kibbutz slogans, and only the intervention of his bodyguards protected him from injury.
Kibbutz doves are having even greater difficulty in getting their message across. When some members of Kibbutz Magan Michael proposed a day’s collective fast over the horrors of Lebanon, others opposed them for tactical reasons. “One day without food will not do any harm to those fat kibbutz millionaires,” was all the opponents of the idea expected their neighbors to say when they heard of the protest action.
Author’s Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in the Guardian in January 1983.