Sunday, March 4, 2007

KIBBUTZ GA’ASH, Israel — The image of the bronzed and brawny kibbutz field worker was once the trademark of a young Israel, but the iconic agricultural communes are becoming a thing of the past.

In recent decades, kibbutzniks have grappled with crippling bank debt, membership attrition and the waning of the collectivist ethic on which the country was founded.

Now, in belated recognition of the demise of their utopian ethic and Israel’s shift to capitalism from socialism, a majority of kibbutzes are scrapping their egalitarian salary schemes and allowing members to live each according to their own earning power.

At the head office of Kibbutz Ga’ash, stacks of paper bearing a proposal to privatize work compensation sit on the desk of Kibbutz Chairman Hanan Rogalin. The plan will come up for a vote this month, and the chairman said the survival of the 56-year-old seaside kibbutz is at stake.

“The contemporary kibbutz doesn’t provide answers for life needs, and most important in my eyes, people’s aspirations,” said Mr. Rogalin. “The kibbutz creates too much friction. The secretariat dictates too many things to members. And people want more freedom to take responsibility for their lives.”

The process has been quietly proceeding for years, though Israelis took notice two weeks ago with the privatization of Kibbutz Degania, the first kibbutz established on the Sea of Galilee in 1909. With two-thirds of the 273 kibbutzes across Israel already privatized, the change at Degania was a ringing reminder of the seemingly inevitable extinction of the kibbutz as Israelis know it.

In the beginning, the communal agricultural estates laid down the fresh roots of Jewish settlement in the biblical land of Israel, ensuring a degree of economic independence for the fledgling state. The communities were given the task of settling what would become the frontiers of the new state.

“The kibbutz was an attempt to create a miracle and transcend human nature, and by trying to create a miracle, the kibbutz was instinctively seen by Jews as a worthy symbol of the miraculous return to Zion,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalem Institute.

“We’re so past the point of being shocked by the decline of the collectivist dream that this isn’t a moment that took anyone by surprise. Nevertheless, there’s poignancy. … We’ve lost something precious and essential in what defines Israeliness.”

Kibbutz members once dominated parliament and the key spots in Israel’s lionized military. Though secular and leftist, the movement’s pioneering activism inspired religious Jews who settled in the West Bank and Gaza Strip after 1967.

With large tracts of public land to cultivate, the kibbutz movement followed directives from the Agricultural Ministry on what to cultivate.

“We didn’t think if we were earning or losing money; we thought about what was good for the country,” said Yossi Katz, now 83, the founder of Kibbutz Ga’ash.”We were sure the entire country would become socialist.”

Walking past the seedy building that housed Ga’ash’s first chicken coop and the boarded-up old dining hall, he acknowledged that the kibbutz lifestyle could be oppressive and suffocating.

The kibbutz compelled members to turn over private possessions for public use. Children were even raised in communal dorms rather than in their parents’ homes. Social life revolved around the dining hall. A kibbutz committee approved plans for higher education and careers. Whoever left was considered a traitor.

With the ascension of the conservative Likud Party to power in the 1980s, the government cut off generous subsidies that exposed the waste and unprofitable operations of the kibbutzes, as well as billions of dollars in bank debt. A $17 billion bailout made the kibbutzes seem spoiled rather than selfless.

Meanwhile, observing Israel’s growing prosperity, kibbutzniks forgot the ideals behind their spartan existence and began craving the same creature comforts as their neighbors. The collapse of the Soviet Union and communism also had an impact.

In the past 20 years, the kibbutzes have lost one-fourth of their population and today number 120,000 members, a small fraction of Israel’s 6.5 million people.

“I know that if I work hard, that I’ll earn the same as the person living next to me who works less,” explained Sharon Tirosh, 31, director of human resources at Ga’ash, who also supports the change.

“There is something in the education, that begins at the bottom, that there’s no point in being terribly successful.”

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