The kibbutz is Israel’s original start-up

Born out of necessity as well as ideology, the first kibbutz, Degania, was established in 1910. The ideology consisted of a blend of socialist thinking and class struggle with Zionism. A communal lifestyle made it possible to cope with the challenge of developing an agricultural economy in a harsh environment.

Still, kibbutz life is not for everyone. My parents made Aliyah from Canada in the early 1930s and joined a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley. They were among very few of their Canadian contemporaries, and after several years of kibbutz life, my parents became disenchanted and left, returning to Canada in the late 1930s.

Despite the hardships, however, in 2010, one hundred years after the establishment of Degania, there were 270 kibbutzim in Israel, with a population of 126,000. And though they represented less than two percent of Israel’s population, they were responsible for 9% of industrial production and about 40% of agricultural output.

The kibbutz has consistently played a disproportionately large role in the nation’s economy. However, by the late 1980s, the economic reputation of the kibbutz was hurt by inflation as well as pressures associated with globalization and market competition. In response, much of the kibbutz movement introduced private ownership and salary differentials, while still trying to protect the ideology of equality as much as possible.

Amnon Rubenstein noted in The Jerusalem Post in 2007 (https://www.jpost.com/opinion/op-ed-contributors/return-of-the-kibbutzim ) that these changes were needed to maximize the talents of the kibbutz workforce and a number of reports have highlighted the remarkable contributions of several kibbutzim to the economic miracle of Israel as the “Start-Up-Nation” and Israel’s success in the high tech market.

For example, in 2018, the Mexican firm Mexichem purchased an 80% share of the drip irrigation firm Netafim, founded in 1965 on Kibbutz Hatzerim, for $1.5 billion. In 2019 it was announced that a French conglomerate had purchased Algatech, a company developed by Kibbutz Ketura to produce microalgae used in cosmetics and food supplements, for $100 million. Another, Yotvata, a neighbor of Ketura, has become a major producer of Israeli milk and dairy products (especially chocolate milk) and has partnered with a large private sector corporation to distribute its products.

Kibbutz Sasa is the home of perhaps the most impressive kibbutz success story. Founded in 1949, the early years emphasized agriculture, including the cultivation of apples. Today Sasa is the home of Plasan, a plastics/carbon composites business created in 1985 that manufactures vehicle armor protection. The company, which is privately owned by only 100 kibbutz families, is now a world leader in armor protection. It employs 1300 workers in plants in Israel, France and the US and has signed contracts worth billions of dollars. Moreover, in 2012, Sasa developed a new and fast-growing cybersecurity company, Sasa Software.

And what about the kibbutzim whose economic successes been more modest? How has the shift in kibbutz lifestyle impacted them?

In Chasing Utopia (2016), David Leach, a Canadian writer at the University of Victoria, who spent eight months as a volunteer on Kibbutz Shamir in 1988, describes the changes he found when he returned twenty years later. The kibbutz, which had diversified from agriculture to manufacturing eyeglass lenses, now produced valuable algorithms to optimize the manufacture of progressive lenses for reading, a development which led to Shamir being the first kibbutz to be listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange.

Leach, who is not Jewish, interviewed one of the founding members on his return visit. She noted the changes in the kibbutz, but added that they were made in a “humane way, in a way that considers the person who is weak and who is sick, and supports the families with a large number of children.” Leach notes that Shamir’s shift to “soft capitalism” was accomplished by setting up an internal welfare system in which part of the income from its enterprises is set aside to provide a minimum wage, retirement benefits, health care and education, along with a host of additional services. No family has to pay more than 20% of its income on health care or education.

While a large majority of the kibbutzim have chosen the privatization approach, capitalism doesn’t always trump socialism, as noted by Judy Maltz in Haaretz. Several, including such successful examples as Sasa, Ketura and Yovtava, still live communally and share incomes.

Over the years, thousands of foreign volunteers have been drawn to Israel to experience the kibbutz first-hand. In 2010, the Taipei Times published an article that focused on Kibbutz Hulda (the late author Amos Oz’s home for many years) and its approach to privatization, which involved building a new neighborhood for non-members who are willing to pay for the benefits of rural life without having to share the kibbutz’s founding values.

More recently, the Morocco World News published an article that highlights the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Located on the grounds of Kibbutz Ketura, the Institute is an accredited educational institution attracting Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian students, as well as students from Europe and North America. The Institute is based on the idea that nature knows no political borders.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote in The Guardian that the kibbutz ideals of communal living, equality and fraternity have succumbed to the pursuit of individual fulfilment. “Maybe in a generation’s time there will be a few kibbutzim. But they will be relics of another age, and of an idea whose time has come and gone.”

Now, almost 20 years later, it would seem that Wheatcroft’s prediction was premature. Yes, the kibbutz has adapted to new circumstances, but the idealism and sense of purpose hasn’t disappeared. Moreover, the innovative drive of the kibbutz may have been the seed that led to Israel’s tech success. The original innovative start-up, kibbutzim may well continue to drive the Israeli economy forward.

Jacob Sivak, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, is a retired professor of Optometry, University of Waterloo, where he continues his research interests as a Distinguished Professor Emeritus.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

The kibbutz is Israel’s original start-up

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