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Eight Question on Kibbutzim: Answers from Noam Chomsky Questions from Nikos Raptis


Question 1. Where can one trace the roots of the kibbutz idea?

The origins were in part European libertarian socialist thought. In part they were in a kind of romantic "back to the land" movement, suffused sometimes with Tolstoyan anarchism, in other cases part of a (very conscious) effort to reverse the "inverted pyramid" of European Jewish society, which lacked a working/farming class). Marxist Zionists (notably Ber Borochov) argued that this lay at the core of the "Jewish problem." In part it was just necessity: these were civil-military outposts in a hostile environment (it was, after all a colonization movement as well as a nationalist revival). One can’t dissociate all of this from the nationalist revival, including the virtual invention of a national language and the very conscious attempt to change the fundamental nature of Jewish life, intermingled with a complicated array of motives having to do with particularities of the Jewish settlement and socialist-anarchist ideals.

There’s a good bit of literature on the topic, if you’d like to pursue it, and a lot of controversy. Not surprisingly; it’s a complicated story, there is a lot of internal variation, and there are many ways to look at it. Merely to illustrate, much of what I experienced first-hand (briefly, but with vivid impressions) I can’t find in the literature about the kibbutz; and some of what I’ve read in current Hebrew fiction seems to me more like what I experienced than what I read in the social science-type literature.

Question 2. As an experiment is the kibbutz considered, by the number of members, a small scale one?

It was intended to be small scale, and remained so. But it’s well to remember that the entire Yishuv (Jewish settlement) was based rather widely on related concepts of social organization: producer and consumer cooperatives, worker run transportation and other enterprises, worker-based social services,… So the kibbutzim found their place in a larger network.

Question 3. What was the role (if any) of religion in the kibbutz?

The major movements were non- or anti-religious, often militantly so. There were some religious kibbutzim, but at the margins.

Question 4. Is the family and the raising of children in the kibbutz radically different than that in an industrialized western "democracy", say the US?

Until recently it was radically different. Children lived in children’s houses. They came to the parents’ homes (a room usually) after the working day, and spent several hours with parents and siblings and neighbors until dinner, which was again collective, usually separate for adults and children. Parents would put kids to sleep, but in the children’s house. I’ve never seen a systematic study, but my rather strong impression is that this led to much closer and more intimate family ties than one finds typically in western societies; for one reason, because the parents were free from other obligations during the hours when parents and chilren were together, something hard to duplicate outside of a communal setting. Parents weren’t preparing meals, cleaning living quarters, doing laundry, etc. Those were shared tasks in the community (though, I’m afraid, often "women’s work," despite efforts to overcome that).

In the past few years the situation has changed considerably, but there are still substantial differences from the prevailing western standard (with a lot of variation, again).

Question 5. Is there a great difference between the kibbutz of the ’50s, that you knew, and the present one?

Quite a lot. They’ve become far more reactionary, far more wealthy, and much more like wealthy suburbs. So I understand; I have no direct experience and am relying on secondary sources, often not all that revealing, to my knowledge.

Question 6. As an anarchist community, can one see the kibbutz as separate from the Israeli state?

Not at all. It was an intimate part of the state-building project. Of the two major Kibbutz movements, one was officially binationalist, opposed to a Jewish state, up to 1948; it might be recalled that even the main Zionist movement was officially committed to a Jewish state only in 1942, at a meeting in New York, then ratified by the Jewish Agency, the basic political body. The other was a mixture of socialist and extreme expansionist-nationalist, officially committed to incorporating both sides of the Jordan — up to the 1980s at least, I believe. But whatever the ideology (and the ideologies were passionate and complex), the kibbutzim were part of what was, in fact, a state-building project. These were mostly outposts in difficult areas: border areas pressing the boundaries of settlement, areas where farming was often extremely difficult, and so on. Also, there was a kind of compact with the main Zionist organization and later the State of Israel. Particularly after 1948, the Kibbutzim were expected to provide the elite military elements: jet pilots, paratroopers, commandos, etc. Boys were raised in the Kibbutz to take that to be their responsibility, and failure to be accepted into one of the elite units could be a serious psychological blow. In return, the Kibbutzim were heavily subsidized, a large part of the reason why they changed from poor agricultural settlements, often close to subsistence level, to something more like rich suburbs, with industry, tourism, etc.

There were many other complexities. The elements that most strongly supported Arab-Jewish working class/farmer-peasant cooperation in a binational state, as a militant ideology, were also permeated with anti-Arab racism, mostly unconsciously I suspect (from my own experience). And there were even sharper splits between the European (Ashkenazic) and (so-called) Oriental (Sephardic, Mizrachi) Jews. I doubt that there has been a single Arab in the Kibbutzim, even today. In fact it would have been of doubtful legality, since they are lands owned or controlled effectively by the Jewish National Fund, which bars Arabs by complex legal and administrative devices designed to render the facts obscure to outsiders who don’t look too hard. It was a lot easier for Western non-Jews to become members (whether legally or not, I don’t know) than Arabs. And there were very few Oriental Jews. These were overwhelmingly European Jewish settlements. There may be published evidence on these matters. I’m not sure. But the basic facts are pretty clear.

Question 7. Now, in 1999, do you consider the kibbutz experiment as a successful one?

Hard to answer. There are too many dimensions on which one can measure "success."

Question 8. Are there any lessons that we have learned from the history of the kibbutz?

A lot, I think. In some respects, the Kibbutzim came closer to the anarchist ideal than any other attempt that lasted for more than a very brief moment before destruction, or that was on anything like a similar scale. In these respects, I think they were extremely attractive and successful; apart from personal accident, I probably would have lived there myself — for how long, it’s hard to guess. But they were embedded in a more general context that was highly corrosive. In part this had to do with the colonization/settlement project, which — undeniably — was taking away the lands of poor people, however the fact was concealed in ideological constructions, which I recall very well, having been part of this indoctrination system when I was a teenager leading youth groups. The doctrine was that Jewish and Arab workers should be pursuing common interests in opposition to rich Arab landowners and British imperialists; a fine ideal, but very far from the reality, and illusion when that rather crucial distinction was blurred, as it commonly was. In part this had to do with other aspects of the ideology, in particular, the fervent nationalism (without which the whole enterprise would have quickly collapsed — it did take a good deal of fanaticism to endure the difficulties and hardships in the early days, lasting after the establishment of the State). Also highly destructive was the extreme Stalinism, even as late as Stalin’s last anti-Semitic paroxysms. Pretty astonishing to witness first-hand. There were other internal problems. And then there was the tacit compact with the state that I mentioned.

All in all, a complex story, but one well worth understanding, I think. I wouldn’t want to suggest, incidentally, that my own picture would be all that widely shared.

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