The kibbutz (Hebrew word for “communal settlement”) is a unique rural community; a society dedicated to mutual aid and social justice; a socioeconomic system based on the principle of joint ownership of property, equality and cooperation of production, consumption and education; the fulfillment of the idea “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”; a home for those who have chosen it.
The first kibbutzim (plural of “kibbutz”) were founded some 40 years before the establishment of the State of Israel (1948). Degania (from the Hebrew “dagan,” meaning grain), located south of Lake Kinneret, was established in 1909 by a group of pioneers on land acquired by the Jewish National Fund. Their founders were young Jewish pioneers, mainly from Eastern Europe, who came not only to reclaim the soil of their ancient homeland, but also to forge a new way of life. Their path was not easy: a hostile environment, inexperience with physical labor, a lack of agricultural know-how, desolate land neglected for centuries, scarcity of water and a shortage of funds were among the difficulties confronting them. Overcoming many hardships, they succeeded in developing thriving communities which have played a dominant role in the establishment and building of the state.
Today some 270 kibbutzim, with memberships ranging from 40 to more than 1,000, are scattered throughout the country. Most of them have between 300 and 400 adult members, and a population of 500-600. The number of people living in kibbutzim totals approximately 130,000, about 2.5 percent of the country’s population. Most kibbutzim belong to one of three national kibbutz movements, each identified with a particular ideology.
Most kibbutzim are laid out according to a similar plan. The residential area encompasses carefully-tended members’ homes and gardens, children’s houses and playgrounds for every age group, and communal facilities such as a dining hall, auditorium, library, swimming pool, tennis court, medical clinic, laundry, grocery and the like. Adjacent to the living quarters are sheds for dairy cattle and modern chicken coops, as well as one or more industrial plants. Agricultural fields, orchards and fish ponds are located around the perimeter, a short tractor ride from the center. To get from place to place within the kibbutz, people either walk or ride bicycles, while electric carts are provided for the disabled and elderly.
The kibbutz functions as a direct democracy. The general assembly of all its members formulates policy, elects officers, authorizes the kibbutz budget and approves new members. It serves not only as a decision-making body but also as a forum where members may express their opinions and views.
Day-to-day affairs are handled by elected committees, which deal with areas such as housing, finance, production planning, health, and culture. The chairpersons of some of these committees, together with the secretary (who holds the top position in the kibbutz) form the kibbutz executive. The positions of secretary, treasurer and work coordinator are, as a rule, full-time, while other members serve on committees in addition to their regular jobs.
Making the Desert Bloom
For the founders, tilling the soil of their ancient homeland and transforming city dwellers into farmers was an ideology, not just a way to earn a livelihood. Over the years, kibbutz farmers made barren lands bloom, with field crops, orchards, poultry, dairy and fish farming, and-more recently-organic agriculture becoming the mainstays of their economy.
Through a combination of hard work and advanced farming methods, they achieved remarkable results, accounting for a large percentage of Israel’s agricultural output to this day.
Production activities of the kibbutzim are organized in several autonomous branches. While most of them are still in agriculture, today virtually all kibbutzim have also expanded into various kinds of industry.
Although manufacturing a wide range of products, from fashion clothing to irrigation systems, the majority of kibbutz industry is concentrated in three main branches: metal work, plastics and processed foods. Most industrial facilities are rather small, with less than a hundred workers.
In many areas, kibbutzim have pooled their resources, establishing regional enterprises such as cotton gins and poultry-packing plants, as well as providing a gamut of services ranging from computer data compilation to joint purchasing and marketing. The contribution of the kibbutzim to the country’s production, both in agriculture (33 percent of farm produce) and in industry (6.3 percent of manufactured goods) is far greater than their share of the population (2.5 percent). In recent years, increasing numbers of kibbutzim have become centers for tourism, with recreational facilities such as guest houses, swimming pools, horseback riding, tennis courts, museums, exotic animal farms and water parks for Israelis and foreign visitors alike.
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