Kibbutz and cohousing
From: David Mandel (
Date: Wed, 17 Sep 1997 02:15:22 -0500
Ruth Hirsch wrote about kibbutz:
>A Kibbutz is an Israeli commune.  Resources are shared.
> Households do have individual dwellings, with kitchenettes, nonetheless,
>meals are offered and usually shared in common kitchen and dining room.
> Children live together in children's housing.  They do have meals and
>evening time with family of origin.

This is about 30 years out of date. It was a gradual process, but in
virtually no kibbutz now do children sleep in separate houses. One of the
original purposes of that policy was to liberate women, since it was
assumed that they would by default assume most of the responsibility for
children if the burden were placed on the nuclear family. What happened is
complicated and subject to debate, but my take on at least one of the main
factors is that women never came close to achieving equality despite being
"liberated" from intensive caregiving for their own children. They tended
to work in services -- including collective child care, of course -- while
men worked more in income-producing branches of the kibbutz economy and
held more political power. Having also lost their traditional power base in
the nuclear family home, second and third-generation kibbutz women tended
to spearhead the demand to return to a more traditional arrangement.

In the broader context, Israel evolved from a heavily state-led, relatively
egalitarian economic system at its founding to a highly capitalist society
today. The kibbutzim, which were always utopian islands but imagined
themselves as the vanguard of a future socialist society, lost their
ideological bearings and instead adjusted to the demands of the market,
becoming quite successful capitalists, albeit with an egalitarial internal
lifestyle. Production for profit has its imperatives, and throughout the
'60s and '70s, more and more kibbutzim became large employers of cheap
labor -- mostly Arabs and Jews from Middle Eastern countries, while the
vast majority of kibbutz members were and are of European Jewish
background. A sociological transformation followed in that the kibbutzim
became identified with the elitist, sometimes racist Labor Party
establishment. It was defeated for the first time in 1977 by the more
militant nationalist rightist/fundamentalist camp, with most of the votes
coming from the working class and culturally disenfranchised non-Europeans.

The kibbutzim passed through a severe economic crisis in the late 1980s
when they gambled on the wrong side of hyperinflation and got stuck with
unmanageable debt. The political establishment bailed them out, for the
most part, but the outcome has been even further integration into the
market economy. Kibbutzim that happened to be favorably situated sold some
of their land to speculators and have become quite rich. Among them, the
next step has been extensive privatization. Incomes are no longer pooled;
different jobs come with different pay scales; the common dining room, if
it exists at all, hires crews from within or without and sells meals to
those who wish to partake. There is talk in some kibbutzim of actually
dividing up the assets among members -- a prospect that contributes to even
more elitism: while in the past kibbutzim sought out additional members to
contribute to their labor power and growth, in the current scenario, it
would just mean smaller shares of the pie for current members.

More isolated kibbutzim have not "evolved" this far, and even the least
egalitarian ones can still be pleasant, cooperative places to live for
those privileged enough to have a stake. In fact, the extreme devolution of
the kibbutz leads to something a lot like the cohousing idea, I sometimes
observe, with a lot of irony. The difference is that while kibbutzim once
fancied themselves to be the vanguard of socialist revolution (boy were
they naive!), cohousing here is not really setting out to confront the
basic assumptions of American capitalism, except in some very subtle and
utopian ways (sharing personal resources more effectively and using
consensus, for instance). Compared to where we're coming from, cohousing
can be a small step forward, while kibbutz, along with Stalinism, is one of
the two worst things that ever happened to the Israeli movement for

Ah, the importance of history and context.

David Mandel, Southside Park Cohousing, Sacramento (also an Israeli citizen
and veteran peace and justice activist over there; and yes, I've spent a
year being a kibbutz farmer and shorter times at many other kibbutzim.)

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