Israel’s first kibbutz was Degania, founded in 1909 by a group of young Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They dreamed of working the land and creating a new kind of community, and a new kind of Jew–stronger, more giving, and more rooted in the land.
The community they founded, and the hundreds more kibbutzim that popped up across the country, aimed to realize the Marxist principle, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” In the early years, kibbutz members worked mostly in agriculture. Instead of earning individual incomes for their labor, all money and assets on the kibbutz were managed collectively. In keeping with the ideal of total economic equality, kibbutz members ate together in a communal dining hall, wore the same kibbutz clothing (and had them washed at the kibbutz laundry), and shared responsibility for child-rearing, education, cultural programs, and other social services.
Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, 1950
By 1950, two years after the establishment of the state, 67,000 Israelis lived on kibbutzim, making up 7.5% of the country’s population. At this time, kibbutzim played a key role not only in Israel’s agricultural development, but also in its defense and political leadership. Early kibbutzim were often placed strategically along the country’s borders and outlying areas in order to help in the defense of the country. Many of the country’s top politicians and leaders in military and industry, particularly in the 1950s and 60s, came from the kibbutz movement.
Economic Crisis & Abatement
The kibbutz movement continued to thrive both economically and socially through the 1960s and 70s. In 1989, the population of Israel’s kibbutzim reached its height at 129,000 people living on 270 kibbutzim, about 2% of Israel’s population.
But high inflation and interest rates led to economic crisis for many kibbutzim. In the 1980s and 90s, many kibbutzim declared bankruptcy and thousands of kibbutz members defected. In keeping with an increasing trend of individualism in Israel and world-wide, these former kibbutz members sought new opportunities in Israeli cities, and some left Israel altogether.
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