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Kibbutzim drop socialism to survive

Shia Levitt May 15, 2007

Kibbutzim drop socialism to survive

Shia Levitt May 15, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: Jordan’s King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Ohlmert met today to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Olmert said he’s ready to talk to Arab leaders about a peace plan. The King called for a timetable, and he cautioned Olmert to stop building settlements on occupied lands.

Kibbutzim, or communal farms and factories, sit on some of those disputed territories. When they started in the early 1900’s kibbutzim were places where no one was supposed to have more than his neighbor. And in exchange for an honest day’s work, the kibbutz took care of electricity, food and medicine. Even weddings and funerals.

But a century later collective econonomics aren’t working out so well. And rising debt has forced more than half the kibbutzim in Israel to at least partially privatize.

Shia Levitt reports.

SHIA LEVITT: Kibbutz Alumot is located on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan Valley. From here, you can see Syria and Lebanon.

Kibbutz business manager Shmuel Bogoslavsky is checking in on the dairy goat shed, where newborns are playing on scattered straw and munching on food pellets. He oversees everything here — from the chicken farm to agricultural fields to real estate. For many years, he worked without a salary. But he started to feel that not everyone was pulling his weight.

SHMUEL BOGOSLAVSKY: Every socialist society, there is not motivation to work hard. Because it’s not important what you do — you finish your work day and you paid the same.

The kibbutz was plagued with growing debt and a severe decline in membership. In 2000, the kibbutz privatized. They instituted differential salaries for their workers, and began to charge for services that were previously free. Today, the kibbutz is no longer in financial crisis. About a third of the families have remodeled — even doubled — their homes.

BOGOSLAVSKY: Now, everybody, even the people who worked with a low salary, have more money than before.

But not everyone agrees. Esti Rosen says her family makes just enough to pay their bills. The old system took into account that she had four kids, but today she and her husband make the same minimum wage as anyone else.

ESTI ROSEN: My son is sick with a muscle disease and they said, “Oh, don’t worry, everything is going to be OK.” And it’s not so.

Her son’s medications now eat up a third of her monthly salary, and she’s not sure how she’ll be able to repay the kibbutz loan for his treatment. The old system was supposed to come up with the funds to pay for each member’s medical needs. Rosen sometimes feels let down.

ROSEN: I didn’t expect everything. But I know that I gave my youth to work here, and then when they changed it, they changed almost everything.

Day care, health insurance . . . everything comes out of pocket now.

Education would be one way to get ahead, but the kibbutz no longer funds it. Many families have little or no savings to help their college-age children.

OFRA BEN EPHRAIM:“I will have to pay for my own school tuition for three years and my living there. And it’s going to be a lot harder than it would have been had the kibbutz stayed socialist.

But 21-year-old Ofra Ben Ephraim says the system works better now, in other ways. She’s got a job at the local gas station, and she looks forward to saving and spending her own money.

BEN EPHRAIM: If we want to travel, then we can afford to do it — unlike before when they wouldn’t pay for, like, a trip to South America. But now, after we work, we can pay for it ourselves.

No matter how people feel on a personal level, most will say the decision to change was right for the kibbutz. But this doesn’t dampen their nostalgia for the old socialist ideal.

BOGOSLAVSKY: It’s a little sad for us to see that the place we built, we must change this. But we need to change not because we believe that capitalism is better, we believe that if we want to keep the kibbutz, we must make the changes.

There are still many kibbutzim that do practice the socialist model, but most are financially stable enough for now to have the choice.

In Northern Israel, I’m Shia Levitt for Marketplace.

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