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Is kibbutz lifestyle sustainable?

Israeli students who grew up in a kibbutz intend to leave their communities in favor of city life and a profitable career.
Children sit on bales of hay at the annual harvest festival in Kibbutz Degania Alef on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, northern Israel May 23, 2015. Twenty-five years ago kibbutzim, collective communities traditionally based on agriculture, seemed all but doomed. But the last few years have seen a surprising turnaround, with young families seeking to escape the high cost of living and alienation they find in cities for a cheaper, rural lifestyle in a closely knit community. Picture taken May 23, 2015. REU

One cannot ignore the trend: While the 1990s and the early 2000s saw a mass desertion of the younger generation of kibbutzniks, who left for the city, in recent years the trend has reversed. More and more former kibbutz members in the age group of 30 to 40 (and even 40 plus) are making their way back home to the supportive framework of the kibbutz, the unique form of Israeli collective community based on socialist ideals. Quite a number of them are couples with young children, born after they left. Back then, in the years of mass desertion, it was the collapse of the socialist model and the economic difficulties encountered by the kibbutzim that prompted their youth to leave for the big city. But these days, the ex-kibbutzniks are turning their backs on the pronounced individualism and lack of solidarity in Israeli society, not to mention the skyrocketing cost of living, with which they cannot cope. It's the kibbutzim nowadays, of all frameworks, that can still provide an economic safety net and a reassuring sense of community — and this not least is thanks to the economic recovery programs and privatization they have undergone. Having been restructured, the majority are only partially cooperative today.

Eyal Miller, 31, who left Kibbutz Beit Zera in northern Israel and moved to Jerusalem seven years ago, is currently thinking of going back to his birthplace. He told Al-Monitor, "I keep telling my friends from the kibbutz that we, me and my spouse, are going to return home in a year or two." Miller added, "But they don't take me seriously; they say that at 60, I'll still live in Jerusalem and talk of returning in a year or two. Yet there is a real desire to return. It is driven by the exorbitant housing prices and the difficulty to make ends meet due to the high cost of living in the city versus the sense of community, solidarity and cooperation in the kibbutz."

You could imagine that this trend would signal to the present generation of young kibbutzniks in their 20s that they should perhaps stay where they are rather than leave the protective bubble. A sense of deja vu could also be expected with the revival of the once prevalent mood that gave rise to the "Ballad for a Kibbutz Deserter" popular at the time in the early 1970s — when any occurrence of desertion by a kibbutz member, rare in those days, was deemed a communal tragedy, no less. However, that's far from being the case today. Nowadays, too, many of the young kibbutzniks are determined to leave, at least for a while. Still, looking further ahead, they are willing to consider their return to the kibbutz at some future date — primarily for the quality of life and the sense of community, but certainly not for any economic ideology. Quite the contrary, it seems that several among the young kibbutz members oppose the socialist ideology.

Adam Edry, 24, from Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan in northern Israel, told Al-Monitor, "Life in the kibbutz is quite convenient and offers a high standard of living. However, individual advancement is blocked by a glass ceiling. I would rather not become a kibbutz member as I don't want to tie myself down." Dorin Pollack, 23, from Kibbutz Urim in southern Israel, studies management and physics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, and is of the same opinion. "I have no chance to get ahead in the kibbutz," she told Al-Monitor. "Students of engineering and exact sciences have nothing to look for, professionally speaking, in the kibbutz."

And it is not just an issue of self-realization. They are skeptical about the economic model the kibbutz is based on. In their teens, they witnessed the privatization of the kibbutzim, implemented in an attempt to save them, and their belief in absolute economic cooperation was shattered. "Once I graduate, I'll probably find myself a lucrative job outside the kibbutz, and I'll have no wish to hand it over to the kibbutz," Pollack said. Edry said the same: "I am studying for a degree that assures a nice income, and I have no interest in sharing it with others." At the same time, he noted that as a student, he enjoys amazing conditions in the kibbutz, which make his life much easier in comparison to the average student.

"Anti-capitalism may be a noble idea. However, it is a model that cannot hold for long," argued Yael, 21, who asked not to use her family name and is currently serving in the army; she comes from a kibbutz in the north. "After all, people get tired of working hard and receiving in return exactly what others who don't do anything receive," said Yael. "There are prosperous kibbutzim that are capable of providing a high standard of living for all their members, and there it actually works. But in most of the kibbutzim, this is not the case." Pollack agreed, noting, "A wealthy kibbutz has no problem sustaining itself as a cooperative community. However, when a kibbutz runs into financial difficulties, it is privatized."

Talking of the survival capability of the kibbutz, Edry raised an interesting point, which may unconsciously affect the economic views of the young generation. "The kibbutz is a socialist bubble riding on the back of the most capitalistic thing in the world — the kibbutz production plants," he said. "Socialism is upheld by the kibbutz; however, it is made possible only thanks to capitalist achievements." In other words, even when the kibbutz is doing well economically and consequently succeeds in maintaining its cooperative framework, the message delivered to the youths is that capitalism rather than socialism is the real success story.

Sapir Buskila, 23, from Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk in the western Galilee, estimated that some 70% of her age group leave the kibbutz. "One has to get out [of the kibbutz] and experience other things before settling down, building a family and changing direction in life," she told Al-Monitor. "You should become aware of and understand what is good and right for you and what isn't rather than stay stuck in a protective bubble, never getting to know anything else."

All things considered, it seems that it's primarily the quality of life and the sense of community that the ex-kibbutzniks look for and that ultimately draw them back home to the kibbutz. "Once I have children, I am almost certain they will not grow up in the city," said Yael. "I had a great childhood [in the kibbutz]; I wouldn't change anything about it. I also worked in a kibbutz kindergarten, and I realized that it's the sort of life children in a city kindergarten cannot experience. Knowing everybody, it's a special experience. The friends I grew up with are like my brothers, for life. True, things may have changed since my childhood; but even now, children there grow up in a familiar environment where they feel safe and protected."

Buskila believes that she will not raise her children in the city but rather "in a kibbutz or in a 'moshav' [a cooperative agricultural community]. The kibbutz has its advantages. What's important to me is the community life, the culture, the way holidays are celebrated and the education that characterize the kibbutz — a place where people are not sitting alone and alienated at home."

The socialist ideology has been practically abandoned in the privatized kibbutzim. It is a natural process that they undergo. It seems that if the kibbutzim seek to bring back home the youths who left them, those in the age group of 20 plus, or to keep them in the first place, they essentially should offer them some measure of community life and a peaceful environment and minimize economic intervention as far as possible.

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