Another Failure to Correct Human Nature

January 08, 1991|By Yossi Melman | Yossi Melman,Los Angeles Times

LOWER GALILEE,ISRAEL — SHMUEL HADASH has no more illusions. ''The kibbutz as an idea has failed,'' he says, seated on the volcanic stones in the cemetery of Kinneret, his kibbutz. On his right are the tranquil waters of the Sea of Galilee and, facing him, the graves of the founding fathers of the kibbutz movement, the jewel in the Zionist-Socialist crown.

''They tried to change human nature and to create a new man,'' Mr. Ha-- says, pointing to the headstones of Berl Katzenelson, Ber Borochov and others. ''To my regret, the kibbutz did not succeed in this task, because man's nature is stronger than his ideas. In the kibbutz, as in any other human society, people like to sow the minimum and reap the maximum.''

Recounting his personal history, Mr. Ha--, in blue overalls and high boots, could be a model for the average kibbutznik. He is 65 years old and was born in Kibbutz Kinneret. His father was among the founders of the first kibbutz in Israel.

In 1909, a group of pioneers who lived on Kinneret farm and worked as hired laborers, decided to establish a commune. They moved two miles down the lake and set up Degania, the first kibbutz in the land of Israel -- then under Turkish rule. The idea, inspired by communist philosophy, was summed up in one sentence: Contribute according to your ability and receive according to your needs.

The kibbutz movement strived to alter the image of the Eastern European Jew -- from a trader, merchant and middleman to a pioneer farmer working his land. These rural outposts strengthened the security of the Jewish community in pre-statehood days, and continued in that role after independence in 1948.

Now, as the kibbutz movement in Israel celebrates its 82nd anniversary, heretical voices like that of Mr. Ha--, who have lost faith in the kibbutz, are heard throughout its ranks. But because of the brutal Arab-Israeli conflict's persistent domination of headlines, the wind of change shaking all Israel's 270 kibbutzim, goes relatively unnoticed. The source of this upheaval can be found in a strong desire for economic survival. Due to bad management, lack of motivation and speculative investment on stock markets as a desperate way of surviving hyperinflation, the total debt of the kibbutz movement is now $10 billion.

Therefore, the movement is prepared to clutch anything that might alleviate its economic burden -- even if this means stripping itself of the symbols and traditional values that have come to be identified with its way of life.

Although the 100,000 members of the movement make up no more than 3 percent of the country's Jewish population, their contributions to the State of Israel have long been held in high regard. In the air force kibbutz members represented about 10 percent of the pilots. A significant portion of the country's leadership during 30 years of Labor Party political dominance originated in the kibbutz movement. It provided for 50 percent of Israel's agricultural needs and produced 25 percent of the country's industrial export.

Now, all this has dramatically changed. Since the Labor Party lost power to the right-wing Likud, kibbutz input into the political sphere has dwindled. Substantial numbers of the young generation no longer volunteer for elite units in the army and often do not return to their kibbutz homes after concluding their three-year national service.

Seeking to stave off ideological decay, social decline and a steady fall in population, the kibbutz movement has gone a long way. In an effort to retain them, younger members are now able to acquire higher education in universities and to take a year's leave in Israel's urban centers or even abroad. To increase the appeal of kibbutz life, luxury goods have been permitted, and a greater degree of individual freedom allowed. The dining hall, once the symbolic focus of community life, has lost its centrality.

Despite the anger of true believers in the kibbutz's ideological purity, changes have also been introduced in the communal education of children. Kibbutz children lived with their peer group from birth -- not at home with their parents, but in separate children's houses, being raised by specially assigned members of the community. This method, according to the late psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, in his study of kibbutz education, was ''remarkable and the most unique contribution of the kibbutz.'' Today, children live with their parents.

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