A kibbutz – literally ‘gathering, clustering’ in Hebrew – is a collective community in Israel that was traditionally based on agriculture.
Today, farming has been partly supplanted by other economic branches, including industrial plants and high-tech enterprises. Kibbutzim began as utopian communities, a combination of socialism and Zionism. In recent decades, many kibbutzim have been privatized and changes have been made in the communal lifestyle. A member of a kibbutz is called a kibbutznik.
In the contemporary Yiddish anti-Zionist literature that was circulating around Eastern Europe, Palestine was mocked as the country that had died. Kibbutz members found immense gratification in bringing the land back to life by planting trees, draining swamps, and countless other hard-graft activities to make the land productive. In soliciting donations, kibbutzim and other Zionist settlement activities presented themselves as ‘making the desert bloom.’
The first kibbutzim were founded in the upper Jordan Valley, the Jezreel Valley and the Sharon coastal plain. The land was available for purchase because it was marshy and malaria-infested. The Zionists believed that the Arab population would be grateful for the economic benefits that developing the land would bring. Their approach was that the enemies of the Arab peasants were the Arab landowners – called effendis – not fellow Jewish farmers. The first kibbutzniks hoped to be more than farmers. They sought to create a new type of society where all would be equal and free from exploitation.
Kibbutz members were not classic Marxists though their system partially resembled Communism. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels both shared a disdain for conventional formulations of the nation-state and Leninists were hostile to Zionism. Nevertheless, in the late 1930s, two kibbutz leaders, Tabenkin and Yaari, initially attracted to anarchist ideas, pushed their movements leftward to reverence of Stalin’s dictatorship. Soon Stalin became hostile to Israel as it served Soviet diplomatic and military interests in the Arab world. This caused major crises and mass exit in both Kibbutz Meuchad and Kibbutz Artzi kibbutzim, especially after the 1953 Doctors’ Plot in Moscow and the Prague showcase Trials. Kibbutzim were run as collective enterprises within a free market system. Kibbutzim also practiced active democracy, with elections held for kibbutz functions and full participation in national elections.
Kibbutzim were not the only contemporary communal enterprises: pre-war Palestine also saw the development of communal villages called moshavim. In a moshav, marketing and major farm purchases were collective, but other aspects of life were private.