Socialism's fall reaches debt-plagued kibbutzim

September 17, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

NAHSHON, Israel -- Tradition won this May Day at Kibbutz Nahshon, but it was probably the last time the members will celebrate it.

Year by year, the red flag of socialism is coming down at most of the 270 kibbutzim, the communities that have been Israel's showplaces of social innovation. Individualism is beginning to rival communalism as a dominant ideology and is bringing about changes in housing, child-rearing and work.

It is a mild strain of the turmoil overtaking socialism elsewhere and making it almost unrecognizable. At Nahshon, the pressure for change began building at the factory making plastic packaging, the largest source of income for a kibbutz heavily burdened by debt.

"This year was the first time we had a debate about May Day," said Tami Yo'av, who recently finished a term as the kibbutz administrator. "People at the factory asked why we shouldn't work."

Members eventually decided to close for the day. But "next year I'm sure the factory will be open," Ms. Yo'av said.

On Yom Kippur tomorrow, members are going to move a little closer to the Israeli mainstream for the day on which Jews fast and pray. No one will go to a synagogue, since the kibbutz does not have one, but everyone will have the day off.

Nahshon was established in 1950 on 2,000 rolling acres midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. About 50 teen-agers, none married, were the founders, and they sought to build a community where all things were to be equitably shared.

Everyone was provided housing, education, work and rigorously equal status. The chief administrator got the same salary as a laborer in the fields. And almost everything belonged to the community rather than the individual.

Each person ate every meal in the communal dining hall, watched his children grow up in a communal house separate from his own and depended on the kibbutz for almost everything -- even underwear.

Nahshon developed the type of democracy that Americans usually cite as an unobtainable ideal. Every decision was made by the whole community, and no decision was too small to become everyone's business.

Every Saturday, the community met as a unit to decide whether a person could attend college, vacation abroad or take a job outside the kibbutz. If permission was granted for the outside job, the salary a person earned went to the community.

"Yes, this is socialism," said Michal Palgi, head of an kibbutz research group at Haifa University and a member of Nir David kibbutz. "The most important aspect is common ownership of goods. Everybody contributes as much as he can, and you receive as much as you need."

Even for Israelis, kibbutz life has been exotic. At the movement's peak, in the early 1950s, about 5 percent of the country's population lived on kibbutzim. In the last decade, the figure has held steady at about 3 percent, or 125,000 people.

Passionate advocates of kibbutz life acknowledge it is not for everyone. "To live such a life, you have to give up a lot," said Yonatan Brook, administrator of a kibbutz association. "You can find a lot of people who admire kibbutz life but can't live it."

A kibbutz member has to be able to live, in several senses, in close quarters. A person's neighbor is likely to be his colleague at work, his teacher, his student, his future spouse. A very large kibbutz -- such as Nahshon, with 474 residents -- is a very small town and, usually, a physically isolated one.

"It's a very close society," said Ms. Palgi, the researcher. "You have to know how to get along with people. The houses are

private, but there are not many private things."

In recent years, conditions have become significantly worse. Beginning in the late 1970s, kibbutzim went from being admired to being derided. They were condemned for being too rich, even as they struggled financially; too leftist, as the country was turning politically to the right; and too cocksure in their ideas about how to build the state.

As the country turned to the right, the government became more interested in promoting Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip than in lavishing attention on relatively well-off colonies of leftists. And kibbutz members were accused of being snobs.

"We are living in a hostile environment," Mr. Brook said.

The kibbutzim added to their problems by borrowing far beyond their means. They borrowed when high rates of inflation made money seem almost free, a situation that abruptly changed when the government froze wages and prices but allowed interest rates to rise.

By 1988, kibbutzim had $4 billion in debts and no hope of repaying them. The communities were rescued by political allies who rammed through a program to write off about one-fourth of the loans and to ease the terms for repaying the rest.

At Nahshon, ideology has been partially sacrificed to financial reality. Income, rather than a sense of community, has necessarily become the guiding value.

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