How Kibbutzniks Lost Power in Israel

Happier times: members of the iconic communities used to define political life in Israel. Not anymore. Polaris

Avshalom Vilan has the kind of résumé that once exemplified the Israeli elite: born on a kibbutz, served in the military’s most prestigious antiterrorism unit, Sayeret Matkal, but also worked to advance peace with the Palestinians. So when he ran for Parliament for the first time in 1999 with the left-wing Meretz Party, Vilan had no trouble getting elected and later reelected. Three of Meretz’s 10 members that year were from kibbutzim (the plural of kibbutz), those iconic communal villages that defined the Zionist enterprise going back a century. In the entire 120-member Parliament in 1999, kibbutzniks numbered eight—proportionally more than three times their size in the population.

Vilan, who is 61 and has the rugged good looks of a character in a cowboy movie, will be on the ballot again when Israelis go to the polls next week to choose a new Parliament. But he’s unlikely to win this time. In fact, for 
the first time since Israel’s founding in 1948, not a single native kibbutz member is expected to enter the regal building in Jerusalem where Israelis 
make their laws and trade in power. “I’m still hoping, but I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he tells Newsweek in an interview. “It’s a big 
change in Israel.”

For people who still think of Israel as the country it was in the ’50s and ’60s, the shift is almost incomprehensible. For decades, kibbutz members dominated Israel’s most important institutions, including the Army and politics, even as their numbers never grew beyond 6 percent of the population. Many of the country’s towering figures, from David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan to Amos Oz and Ehud Barak, were either born on a kibbutz or joined one as adults.

But their disappearance from the political scene is the culmination of a broader trend underway in Israel for some time now: a shifting of power from an old elite to a new one. As the last kibbutzniks leave Parliament later this month, up to 16 residents of Jewish settlements in the West Bank will enter the building, either as newly minted lawmakers or returning ones. That’s a larger representation for the settlers than at any time since Israel captured the Palestinian territories in 1967 and set about establishing communities there. “We’re seeing a decline in the importance of the kibbutz movement and the rise of another group ... that’s more nationalistic and more religious,” says Efraim Inbar, a poli­tical scientist who directs the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. “They are the new aristocracy.”

Ideologically the two groups couldn’t be more different. Kibbutzniks, the vast majority of them, are ardently secular and politically moderate. Most support parties on the center and left, like Labor and Meretz—political entities that have cham­pioned peacemaking with the Palestinians. Settlers, by contrast, tend to vote for parties on the right side of the political map, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and the religious factions in Parliament. If the polls are accurate and Netanyahu forms the next government, up to a quarter of his ruling coalition could be composed of settlers.

The implications are potentially dramatic. As Israel prepares to mark 65 years since its founding this year, many of the core questions about its character as a country have yet to be settled. The most urgent one is the status of the West Bank, which Palestinians claim as part of their future state and which a growing number of mainstream Israeli political figures now talk openly about annexing. Almost as pressing is the relationship between religion and state, which is often the subject of heated arguments among Israelis. Even the preeminence of democracy as the country’s guiding principle now seems open to debate.

NB40-ephron-kibbutznik-second “We called ourselves Zionist socialists. Everyone wanted to be like us.” Jerry Cooke/Corbis

It is conceivable at least that Israel might begin to resolve some of these questions in the coming decade—during a time frame that analysts are increasingly viewing as the era of the settler. And though the group is not entirely homogeneous politically—many Israelis moved to the West Bank for cheap housing and not necessarily to satisfy some right-wing ideology—their leaders tend to have sharply delineated ideas on all the issues. Kibbutzniks will have little or no say.

So how did kibbutzniks come to lose their influence? Until a few decades ago, kibbutzim were one of the most interesting, most talked-about experiments of the young Jewish state: rural communities where, typically, a few hundred people shared the work, pooled their income, and lived by a quasi-socialist ethos that allowed for members to (in the words of the movement) “give what they could and get what they needed.” In a country of immigrants and refugees, kibbutzniks were the status group—instantly recognizable in their open shirts, khaki pants, and twin-strapped biblical sandals. “We called ourselves Zionist socialists,” says Aharon Yadlin, who helped found Kibbutz Hatzerim in 1946 on a stretch of sand in Israel’s Negev Desert. “Everyone wanted to be like us.”

Yadlin, who is 86, typifies the kibbutz leadership of the era. He fought in the most elite of the prestate militias, known as Palmach; spent 19 years as a member of Parliament (kibbutzniks numbered 26 in Israel’s first elected legislature in 1949); and served for three years as Israel’s minister of education. Yadlin gave me a tour of his kibbutz recently, pointing out the first huts thrown up in a single night in 1946—part of a construction blitz designed to help persuade U.N. fact finders to assign the Negev to the Jews in the coming partition of Palestine. His home, where the walls are lined with books, is small and unpretentious. He told me his monthly pension of about $8,000 from his years as a lawmaker—a significant sum by Israeli standards—goes directly to the kibbutz, which doles much more modest salaries equally to him and every other member.

NB40-ephron-kibbutznik-third In a country of immigrants and refugees, kibbutzniks were the status group—instantly recognizable in their open shirts, khaki pants, and twin-strapped biblical sandals. B. Anthony Stewart, National Geographic/Getty

Yadlin says the kibbutz lost its status largely because the ethos of the country itself changed. Starting somewhere in the 1970s, Israel went from 
emphasizing shared wealth and social equality to having one of the largest gaps between rich and poor in the Western world. When an economic 
crisis in the 1980s threatened many of the kibbutzim with bankruptcy, their own members began doubting the viability of their collective system. “This was in the era of Reaganomics and Thatcherism,” says Dani Zamir, a sociologist at the University of Haifa who studies the kibbutz movement. 
“So you had these very dominant ideas of free market penetrating the kibbutzim as well.”

Within a few years, most of the kibbutzim had jettisoned the main tenets of collectivism, opting for a more capitalist framework (though not Hatzerim, which remains true to the model). Even the emblems of the kibbutz, the communal dining hall and the deliberately unceremonious dress code, went out of fashion. In one of those small changes that represent larger shifts, sandals were banned from Parliament in 2007, a move that would likely have incensed Ben-Gurion.

NB40-ephron-kibbutznik-fourth As Israel prepares to mark 65 years since its founding this year, many of the core questions about its character as a country have yet to be settled. David Rubinger/Corbis

But that’s only part of the story; by the late ’90s, there was another reason for the decline. Kibbutzniks had long been identified with the Israeli peace camp, which had brought Israel the Oslo deal with the Palestinians in the 1990s and subsequent accords. When the agreements gave way to mass violence, the peace camp and the Labor Party that led it lost much credibility. How much? In the 19 years since the Oslo accords were signed, Labor—the party that once dominated politics and that the kibbutz movement mainly aligned itself with since Israel’s founding—has managed to win just one election. “The kibbutzim had two things: egalitarianism and the peace issue,” says Inbar, the political scientist. “Israelis have lost interest in both.”