The Kibbutz Movement

Then and now.

Print this page Print this page

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

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.

The kibbutz movement needed to redefine itself in order to survive economically and attract new members. And so, at the start of the 21st century, 179 of Israel's 270 kibbutzim privatized. Instead of doing away entirely with personal property, members of privatized kibbutzim pay the kibbutz a progressive rate of their income. This ensures that differences in earnings on a kibbutz are still much smaller than in Israeli society as a whole. Privatized kibbutzim use their communal coffers to take care of the elderly, sick, and those otherwise unable to earn high wages, and they also provide for health care, education, and culture for their members.

This arrangement has rescued the kibbutzim economically, bringing most out of a state of crisis, and made kibbutzim more attractive to new members. Today, thousands of Israelis are coming back to the kibbutzim, including children who grew up on kibbutz and later left to seek other opportunities. Many kibbutzim have long waiting lists for membership.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rachael Gelfman Schultz

Rachael Gelfman Schultz holds a B.A. in religion from Harvard University, and completed her M.A. in Jewish Civilization at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a Jewish educator in Karmiel, Israel.