Our Man Asks Mort and Brenner If the Kibbutz Has Become a Vestige

[Jo-Ann Mort and Gary Brenner are the authors of “Our Hearts Invented a Place: Can Kibbutzim Survive in Today’s Israel?” This interview, which follows up on O’Keeffe’s review of the book, was conducted by e-mail.
Our Hearts Invented a Place
Jo-Ann Mort and Gary Brenner
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RO: When did you first become interested in kibbutzim?

JM: I was in a socialist-Zionist youth movement in the 1970s in the U.S.—in Philadelphia, Hashomer Hatzair, which supported aliyahh (immigration) not just to Israel, but to kibbutz. While I didn’t make aliyah, I remained committed to the ideals of the kibbutz movement and the left wing Zionist movement and remain so to this day. Gary Brenner made aliyah to kibbutz in the 1970s from his home in Los Angeles, to Kibbutz Hatzor, where he settled and raised a family. He has been intimately involved in the changes at Hatzor.
 
RO: In a Nov. 30 LA Times OP-ED article you’ve discussed the tax breaks and other support for settlements in the occupied territories that could have gone to kibbutzim. Has this policy further exacerbated their fiscal difficulties? How do you think this shift occurred despite widespread support among the Israeli electorate for a two state solution?

JM: The kibbutzim lost their state support when the Likud, led by Menachem Begin, came to power in 1977. The Likud had a strategy to starve the kibbutzim, because they rightly understood that the kibbutz movement was integral to the broader labor Zionist movement and that the health of the kibbutz movement aided the health of the left wing. However, even when the Labor Party came back to power, the process of economic liberalization was popular among the left too. In the recent decades, the Israeli left has been more defined by its position on the peace process and less on economics. As the consensus in Israeli society emerged—among left and right—to privatize most aspects of the earlier socialist system, it became impossible for the kibbutzim to remain the only pure form of socialism within the broader state.

However, it is also true that the kibbutzim did make a decision not to pursue settlement beyond the internationally recognized borders of Israel. A small exception is in the Golan Heights, where there are a handful of kibbutzim, all of whom are committed to moving after a binding agreement between Syria and Israel. Today, the Israeli public consistently supports shutting down settlements and moving to a two-state solution. In fact, now leaders of the Likud—even Sharon himself—are calling for an end to specific settlements. The Israeli public understands that the price to be paid for continuing the occupation is something that severely threatens the Zionist dream.
 
RO: You seem to feel that settlements are kibbutzim’s anti-secular exclusionary counterpart but would it be inaccurate to say that kibbutz have been less than cosmopolitan themselves particularly in regard to Sephardic and Ethiopian Jews? Why didn’t a place at the table materialize for them as well? With Sephardic dissatisfaction providing such ammunition to Likud is there a way to incorporate them into Labor’s policies?

GB:  This observation is not accurate.   The kibbutzim were a key part of the process initiated by the Labor governments to absorb Sephardic Jews in the 1950s-1960s via the development towns and the regional factories that the kibbutzim owned. They also settled youth aliya—Sephardic children living in the kibbutz and educated by the kibbutz. The Ethiopian Jews are another story.  They arrived at a time when the kibbutz was already weakened, economically and socially.  Major cultural differences didn’t make their absorption into the kibbutz a viable alternative.  At least one kibbutz school system (near Hatzor) has a complete program for Ethiopian Jews.
 
JM: Yet, there is a lingering resentment by many in the Sephardic community to the way the Labor government of the 1950s settled the new immigrants in new towns and villages and how many became employed by kibbutz factories, but had to live in the development towns, many of which were not considered as inviting as the kibbutzim themselves. Today, however, the Likud is losing support among many Sephardic Jews due to its Thatcherite economic policies. Israeli politics is much more fluid today than simply the two traditional parties—Labor and Likud. In fact, it is new parties that are consistently gaining members, due to a range of domestic reasons, political, religious, and cultural.
 
RO: Also, have the kibbutz movement or Labor attempted to reach out to new immigrants from the former Soviet Union?

JM: The majority of Jews from the former Soviet Union have little interest in the kibbutzim because of the kibbutzim’s association with socialism.
 
RO: You discuss in Our Hearts how the Yom Kippur war exposed young kibbutznikim to how life is lived in the rest of Israel and wrought considerable changes in how they perceived their communities. Is such cosmopolitanism compatible with kibbutz ideology or will it provide a recipe for further dissolution?

GB: The Yom Kippur war created a breakdown in the internal belief of kibbutznik kids in the government and the social systems.  “Cosmopolitanism” is not an issue for kibbutz alone, but for all rural vs. urban societies.

JM: There is no question that for many young people born on kibbutz, the lure of the big city — Tel Aviv, for instance — is enticing. But one should also acknowledge that the kibbutz society, while originally an agricultural, rural society, also enjoyed and still enjoys a level of intellectual and cultural stimulation found rarely among other rural communities worldwide.
 
RO: What did the kibbutz symbolize in the early days of the Israeli state and what does it symbolize now? What about Israel lent itself to the unique kibbutz model and why didn’t it catch on anywhere else?

JM: The kibbutz was integral to the notion of Zionism as the majority of Zionists—the left or labor Zionists—envisioned it. The kibbutzim were created to settle the state and to build new citizens—new Jews—in a form of enlightened belief. Though they never exceeded 4% of the Israeli population, and today represent only about 2% of the state’s population, their influence in the building of Israel far exceeded their numbers. They provided political and military leadership. They fed the country with their agricultural output and they offered a vision of liberal and human Jewish life to the outside world. This project was unique to Israel and to Zionism.
 
RO: What is your long-term prognosis for kibbutzim’s ability to compete in the global market for processed agricultural goods? Can they survive against giants such as ADM or can that only be done with heavy subsidies and if so would that constitute fair trade with struggling agricultural export economies in developing nations?
 
GB: The kibbutzim today practice advanced technologies in agriculture, and industry.  The solution for the kibbutzim is to create joint ventures with multi-national corporations, to give them the investment capital required to expand and the access to growing markets.  Can small American family companies in survive against multi-nationals like ADM?  This is a question for all companies.  To succeed they also need to learn the appropriate management skills, financing, marketing etc. to be well positioned to enter into negotiations of this kind. The main point is how to stay away from multi-nationals’ skilled and expensive lawyers. Some the most highly subsidized farmers in the world are the Americans, e.g. American soybean growers.
 
RO: Can kibbutzim survive in a form that would be recognizable to the founders as a kibbutz?  

GB: Probably not, but clearly recognizable to people who are searching for a slightly better and more humanistic lifestyle than that offered by most contemporary societies.



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