Kibbutznik, can you spare some land?

27 May

I pull into a parking spot to the one grocery store in Kfar Tavor.  The engine is still buzzing, and so are my ears.  The talk show host on the car radio tries to calm down the invited guests.  It’s not going well.  The explosive debate races from zero-to-sixty faster than a Ferrari.

The subject: Land

It’s not the standard battle of words between “Us and Them,” between Jews and Arabs who claim they have first rights to the land.  This battle is between “Us and Us,” between Jews and Jews.  And the land in question is the land farmed and used by Kibbutzim, collective settlements that blend socialism and Zionism.  There are 270 Kibbutzim in Israel, most of them established in the periphery, from the tip of the Lebanese border in the north to the Negev Desert in the south.  Many were founded decades before Israel was established in 1948.  Back then, they were distant from city centers.  Kibbutzim were the frontier, guarding the water sources of River Jordan, the first line of defense against Arab attacks.

Kibbutz near Sea of Galilee

Things have changed.  Cities have grown and spread, forming urban sprawl in every direction in this small country.  Today most kibbutzim are within 40 kilometers (25 miles) from city limits.  And here lies the new battleground.

The city folks want the land “owned” by Kibbutzim.  In fact, the kibbutzim land is owned by Israel Land Administration, a government entity whose predecessors had “leased” the land to Kibbutzim for renewable terms of 49 years each.  This is in step with God’s biblical command, Leviticus, chapter 25: “The Land shall not be sold forever; for the land is mine, for you are strangers and foreigners with me.”

This command had practical implications, according to Dr. Oren Yiftachel from Ben Gurion University.  “By not being able to sell the land, only use it, Arabs can’t buy it.”

The city dwellers of Tel Aviv might raise a stink about so much land being controlled by so few Kibbutniks, but the people spearheading the debate are those living in what are commonly called Development Towns.  During the 50s, The Israeli government built these Towns in the “periphery,” not far from the kibbutzim to help absorb the hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants.  The immigrants who settled in these Towns were primarily Sephardic Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.  They lived far from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa and worked in low-paying factory jobs.  The Eshkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe who’d arrived in Israel decades earlier settled in the Kibbutzim (Many, of course, had settled in Tel Aviv, but that’s another story).

These circumstances set the stage for the ongoing friction between Eshkenazi Jews (kibbutzim) and Sephardic Jews (provincial towns).

Kibbutniks make up only 2% of Israel’s population, yet use millions of acres.  They claim they came first; they endured hardship, gunfire; they sacrificed; they improved and tilled a stubborn and dry land.  The Sephardic public doesn’t dispute their claim.  Through their well-oiled public relations machine, The Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow, they say that so long as Kibbutzim remained true to their mission statement: Use the land for agriculture, all is fair.  But once they deviated from that mission,  started building high-tech factories, built guest houses for tourists, sold the land to the sons and daughters of the kibbutzim at favorable rates – then all bets are off.  Kibbutzim should now return the land back to the government for re-distribution.

The kibbutzniks see it as nothing more than sour grapes.  “No one gave us the time of day in the old days.  You left us for dead.  Now you covet our land.”

People from the neighboring Development Towns remember things differently.  “The kibbutzim never wished to employ us in their factories or to pick the fruit in the fields.  They kept us out.”  They even mention Menachem Begin, Israel’s fromer prime minister who’d sided with them.  In 1981, Begin, a shrewd politician who’d wanted to rally votes from the Sephardic block accused the Kibbutzniks as nothing more than “millionaires with swimming pools.”  Begin had won in a landslide back then.   The kibbutzniks put on gloves.  They throw punches.  “It was against kibbutz policy to employ non-members.  We have nothing to apologize for.  We earned what we have today.”

Because of the scrutiny and public debate, Israel Land Administration is keeping an eye on how kibbutzim are using the land.  It borders on the rediculous.  Undercover agents went into a kibbutz and confiscated money collected as “season tickets” to non-kibbutz members for the use of its pool.  Chocolate milk sold at the canteen to “outsiders” was also banned.  The message: We gave you the land, we’ll tell you what to do with it.

Kibbutz Farmland

The kibbutz of yesteryear is gone.  They can’t rely on agriculture alone.  Subsidies from the government are down.  Prices are down.  Competition from other countries is stiff.  Many kibbutzim have gone “private.”  The population is old.  Many of the kids who’d gone to war, travelled the world, and couldn’t afford to live in Tel Aviv, are coming home to the kibbutz.  They hope to buy affordable land on which to build a home, to infuse the old kibbutzim with renewed energy and purpose.  They may have to compete with city folks who want a piece of that same land.

The radio host concludes the morning show.  “We made little progress in bridging the divide.”

I step out of the car and enter the grocery store to buy avocados, most likely grown in kibbutzim.

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5 Responses to “Kibbutznik, can you spare some land?”

  1. Sandy Galfas May 27, 2012 at 5:15 pm #

    Thanks Maurice. An inciteful probe of a topic about which I knew very little. Keep ’em coming, please. 🙂 Sandy

    • Maurice Labi May 27, 2012 at 5:25 pm #

      Thanks, Sandy, always good to hear from you. Just when I thought I ran out of things to write about, this land provides ample ammunition..

      Best,

      Maurice Labi

  2. Avi May 28, 2012 at 1:58 am #

    Maurice, I think one huge variable was left out of your article, known as the “kibbutz crisis” which impacted every Israeli in every city, including the poor in development towns.

    With all due respect to the kibbutzim and their contribution to Israel, their argument “we earned what we have today” rings hollow. Their lavish swimming pools and comfortable lifestyle were heavily funded by cheap credit and easy money funneled to them by successive governments of the labor movement at the expense of the rest of the Israelis, including poor Sephardic Israelis in the neighboring development towns.

    Saving the Kibbutzim required a hefty bailout from the Israeli taxpayers, and brought the entire Israeli economy in the 1980’s to the verge of collapse. Situation was so bad, many Israelis, me included, left Israel at that time. No American can even fathom how bad it was, and how many working people lost their entire retirement savings.
    The anger today emanates from many Israeli taxpayers, not just Sephardic Jews in development towns. Taxpayers are angry were left to hold the can and pay for the huge mess the kibbutzim created, while the kibbutzim were allowed to keep amazing swatches of land worth billions of dollars.

    We all saw what happened in Tel Aviv last summer. Israeli taxpayers are getting desperate. They are fed up with successive governments (including the current one) who funnel confiscatory tax-revenues to their political allies, be it the kibbutzim, Haredim, etc. Many Israelis feel the kibbutzim are not entitled to hold these lucrative assets and convert them to cash after the massive bailouts.

    Google “the Kibbutz crisis” and you will get nearly half a million entries in English alone.

    Here it is From Wiki:

    “The Kibbutz crisis (Hebrew: משבר הקיבוצים‎) was an acute economic crisis many of the kibbutzim in Israel experienced during the 1980s and that many still experience today. The crisis began in the early 1980s and intensified after the Israeli economic stabilization program of 1985 during which the inflation stopped, and was characterized by the accumulating of large debts from the kibbutzim and in low return. The economic crisis in many of the kibbutzim was also accompanied by a social crisis and a demographic crisis. In 1989 and 1996 the Israeli government, the Israeli banks and the kibbutz movements agreed upon two debt arrangements to help resolve the economic crisis. The demographic crisis and the social crises were the major catalyst for the change processes many of the kibbutzim have experienced since the 1990s”
    “The Kibbutz crisis during the 1980s was not the first financial crisis of the kibbutzim. It was preceded by many crises, which were followed by many debts settlements as well. The first debt settlement took place in 1924 and since then, debt settlements have been carried out about once a decade.

    In the 1950s, following a deep crisis in the kibbutz movement, a new department was established in the Ministry of Agriculture whose main purpose was to make a recovery program in the kibbutzim. This department developed in 1958 a concentrated credit plan, according to which each kibbutz was assigned to one of three banks. The three banks were Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi and the Agriculture Bank. As part of this settlement many of the debts of each kibbutz were deleted, while the other part of the debt was re-distributed, and these banks were responsible for giving the kibbutzim the credit for their development.

    During all those years, a recognition formed among the Israeli governments, the banks and the kibbutz movement, that the Israeli governments are supposed to guarantee the kibbutzim’s debt, and that they would keep on making the payments for the kibbutzim’s debt in one way or another. This realization crystallized during the period when the Israeli government completely controlled the capital market, and allocated credit to selected favored destinations – according to its own priorities.

    The role of banks in the system was technical: they were used as a mean for the government to transfer credit, without actually carrying out financial risk management as needed in a free market system.

    In addition to receiving credit from the banks, the kibbutzim also received additional credit from kibbutz movement funds and from regional and national shopping organizations. As part of this credit guarantees were made according to which each kibbutz had a guarantee to the debts of the kibbutz movement funds, and through this mechanism to all the kibbutzim’s debt. These credit guarantees gave the financial systems in the kibbutzim and in the banks the false feeling that they would be capable of overcoming any financial crisis in the future.”
    (More info on Wiki).

    • Maurice Labi May 28, 2012 at 6:02 am #

      I guess it’s similar to the American government bailing out the American farmer. There too the farmers wield power and influence much greater than their actual numbers would suggest. They provide the most basic of commodities – food – and are therefore forgiven for much of their actions and inactions.

  3. Mark Bernhard May 28, 2012 at 7:36 pm #

    I sent my comments previously, but did not notice them posted, so am resending and I paraphrase myself here. My own experience living in the Kibbutz back in ’71 makes me reflect on the right of passage as a Jewish American college student experience. Kibbutzim served a indispensable role in the development and defense of the state. Once everyone was fed and housed they lost their present day function. Israelis have turned in their kova tembelim for surgeons caps, executive wardrobes, and hi-tech lab suits. Hopefully future generations will remember their humble heritage and maintain an important place for the kibbutzim in historical memory.

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