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Urban Kibbutz - Socialist-Zionist Pioneering in Israeli Cities

Socialist Zionism and Labor Zionism   gave Israel the Kibbutz, a uniquely Jewish and uniquely Zionist vision of democratic  utopian socialism.  The big difference between Kibbutzim and previous voluntary socialist commune experiments is that Kibbutzim really worked. They helped form the backbone of the State of Israel, its economy and its defense.

However as the state grew, it became apparent that a society founded on agrarianism would have difficulty surviving in a post-industrial economy in a country with scarce land and water resources. In modern Israeli society, the challenge of pioneering is no longer draining swamps, clearing land of rocks, bringing produce to market and building roads. The swamps that must be drained are swamps of urban poverty. The "produce" that must be generated is often hi-tech solutions that are marketed abroad. The roads that must be paved are roads of understanding between different communities in Israel. The kibbutz movement was always a blend of pragmatism and idealism. Not surprisingly, the communal spirit has bounced back with new answers to communal living that helps realize the Zionist dead. New and different models of cooperation are being explored, one of which is the urban kibbutz. Below are two articles that discuss the Urban Kibbutz.

A New Kibbutz Movement

Adapted from an article by JAMES GRANT-ROSENHEAD, a member of Kvutsat Yovel, describing the new communities in Israel that are co-operating to create a new Kibbutz Movement. Copied from CALL No. 22 (see http://www.communa.org.il/newkibbutzmvt.htm )

Crises and privatization are still ravaging the traditional kibbutzim, once heralded by Buber as the experiment that did not fail'. Meanwhile, new models of kibbutz are emerging, and tentatively forming a network - the Circle of Groups - between themselves. Is this the beginning of a new kibbutz movement?

One model is the 'urban kibbutz', such as Tamuz in Bet Shemesh. In their own words: "Kibbutz Tamuz is an urban kibbutz, a small Jewish community, and like the traditional kibbutz, Tamuz is a collective. Its 33 members function as a single economic unit, expressing the socialist ideals of equality and cooperation, ideas and praxis. However, unlike the traditional kibbutz, we are located in an urban environment, keeping us in tune with what is happening in society around us." (see  http://www.tamuz.org.il/english/about.html)

The urban kibbutz title is also used by Migvan in Sderot (www.migvan.org.il), Bet Yisrael in Jerusalem (www.reut.org.il), and Reshit in Jerusalem. 

Another model is that of the 'Tnuat Bogrim' (graduate movement) groups of the youth movement Noar Oved ve'Lomed (NOAL for short). Such new NOAL communities tend to define themselves as 'educational' or 'societal', deliberately placing the emphasis on the projects which they take on in tackling the ills of modern society, rather than on their geographical locations. Indeed, whilst most of their members work in various educational and social projects in urban centres, Ravid, Eshbal (www.eshbal.org.il) and Hanaton are physically located in green, northern, rural settings, rather than within towns. Even more confusing terminologically, is that others of these urban / social / educational communities are not using the word kibbutz, preferring instead to refer to themselves as 'kvutzot', connoting their smallness and intimacy.

The crises and privatisation of the traditional kibbutz framework in the 1980's meant that NOAL graduates were no longer attracted to kibbutz on the one hand (historically they built many) and the kibbutzim could no longer afford to send their best emissaries to work for the youth movement on the other hand. In response to this decline, a new stream developed within the youth movement during the 1990's, producing many small, intimate, consensus-driven, anarcho-socialist groups of graduates. The new NOAL graduates of the 1990's decided to cut out the kibbutz intermediary from their traditional symbiosis. They retained their small, intimate group life as separate new adult communities after they had graduated from the youth movement and the army. Instead of integrating into a traditional kibbutz, they took on responsibilities within the youth movement which were formerly undertaken by the kibbutz emissaries. At first, many Socialist Zionists saw this as an historical betrayal by NOAL, abandoning the kibbutz. One decade later however, it is already becoming clear that this change in methodology has revitalised NOAL as the primary creative force behind dozens of small new kibbutzim / kvutzot / communes all over Israel.

Both 'urban kibbutzim' and 'graduate movement kvutzot' function similarly internally, replacing the democracy and bureaucracy of the bigger traditional kibbutz with the levels of consensus and anarchy attainable in small intimate groups. Externally, the urban kibbutzim are primarily involved in education and social action projects in their local communities, whereas the NOAL kvutzot emphasise the growth and development of their national network, multiplying their ranks by bringing forth increasing numbers of new graduate groups each year.

In the past 5 years, the boundaries between these two categories have blurred for various reasons:

Many NOAL kvutzot have formed in urban centres;

Some urban NOAL kvutzot have conglomerated to form bigger communities whilst maintaining each small intimate kvutzot within - Eshkol in Beer Sheva is such an urban NOAL 'kibbutz of kvutzot';

Some NOAL kvutzot have started taking on more local community projects and less responsibility for their own youth movement; and

Several other Socialist Zionist youth movements which were once traditional kibbutz builders have formed their own graduate groups, drawing on a mixture of elements from both the NOAL and Urban models (eg Habonim Dror's Yovel - www.kvutsatyovel.com, Kvutzot Habehira in Migdal Ha'Emek - http://study.haifa.ac.il/~oshapi03/html/roots~1.htm or www.yesod.net/info/essayes/hevra2/kvutzot.htm, Hashomer Hatzair's Pelech, and Machanot Ha'Olim's Na'aran - www.naaran.org).

These new groups are each trying to work towards social justice and equality in Israeli society, through a wide variety of educational and social initiatives on both local and national levels. The number and variety of these groups is growing each year, and the rate of growth is increasing too. Contact between the various groups is developing through the umbrella of the 'Circle of Groups' (http://circle.kibbutz.org.il), which held a successful second annual conference weekend in May 2003. Inter-group discussions are already taking place regularly, with the main questions on the agenda currently being about the aims of the inter-group contact. It is still too early to call the �Circle of Groups' a new kibbutz movement, but it is not too early to see that as a work in progress...


Urban Communes - Kibbutzim Strike Root in the Israeli City       

 Adapted from an article by Nechemia Meyers, P.O. Box 2484, Rehovot, 76421, Israel

I suddenly felt that I had returned to the idealistic Israel that I first encountered when I arrived here over 50 years ago.   This was the result of my meeting with a group of dedicated youngsters in their 20s who have created a new urban commune on the outskirts of Rehovot, where they live a frugal collective life and spend most of  their time trying to help the underprivileged inhabitants of a nearby, predominantly immigrant Ethiopian (Jewish) neighborhood.

They are all graduates of the NOAL (Working & Student Youth Movement) with which they remain affiliated, and most of them grew up on old-style kibbutzim.  They have opted for this different kind of collective because, so they argue, the traditional kibbutzim have failed to address the problems that confront contemporary Israeli society.

"We see these problems every day," said Shlomo, an earnest young man with
burning eyes and an unkempt beard.  "The Ethiopian kids don't have the computers or the pocket money that allows youngsters in middle-class neighborhoods to enjoy their summer vacations. If it weren't that we were keeping them busy, they'd be out on the streets or maybe even in trouble with the police."

"The activities of our group have not attracted much press interest," says Maya, an articulate and attractive 26-year-old.  ''And the journalists who show up are inevitably  disappointed.  They expect to find a bunch of weirdos and druggies.  Instead," she laughs, "all they find are a bunch of squares."

Dozens of similar urban communes have sprung up all over the country, varying in size from a dozen to several dozen members.  In general, they don't want to grow much beyond 40 or 45 people, which would make it difficult for them to practice their characteristic form of direct democracy, which has sometimes been characterized as anarcho-socialism. Almost all the participants in these communes are Israeli-born, but there is also a group of immigrants from English-speaking countries in Migdal Haemek, a development town east of Haifa, where they work together on educational and community service projects with a number of Sabra collectives already established there.

"Settling down in Migdal Haemek is a big change after Jerusalem, particularly since we are people who grew up in big cities," says James, formerly of Leeds. "We also have to take into consideration the career aspirations of our members, all of them university graduates, as well as the need to balance our budget, not an easy matter in the present economic situation. "While the enormity of the challenges facing us is daunting," James observes, "we feel greatly encouraged by the fact that there are new groups like ours developing all over Israel."

The mushrooming of urban communes is a phenomenon characteristic of the last few years, but there are 4 two-decades-old urban kibbutzim, with similar ideals of bettering society. One question members of Kibbutz Tamuz (in the development town of Bet Shemesh) are often asked is whether they live a happier, more fulfilled life than they would were their lifestyle more traditional.  A spokesman for the group recently replied: "Fulfilled, yes.  Whether we are happier is difficult to ascertain, but the other alternatives seem less attractive. Here we have a community, which may be the most important thing.  It's a community that shares, whose members care about one another. We live in a unique place with unique ideals, and having any kind of ideals is rare in this post-modern age."

This article appears in  Zionism Commentary

More about Urban communes (Kibbutz) in Israel: www.communa.org.il



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