An Arms-Selling Kibbutz Echoes a Shift in Israeli Values ; Riot-Control Equipment Was Shipped by an Israeli Kibbutz to Zimbabwe Last Month

Article excerpt

With its haystacks, rusting plows, and the scent of livestock, Kibbutz Beit Alfa at first seems to resemble its founders' vision of a model community based on agriculture.

For generations, members of this kibbutz prided themselves on their idealism, defined themselves as a vanguard of Zionist socialism, and believed that their effort to create a utopian community was part of a revolution that would improve the lot of mankind.

On a stretch of land near the Jordan River Valley, they sought to create a new species: the Hebrew farmer organically tied to the land of his forefathers, historians say.

But 81 years later, Kibbutz Beit Alfa has an economy centered on industry rather than agriculture, based largely on the manufacture and export of para-military equipment, most recently a controversial deal to supply riot-control hardware to President Robert Mugabe's pariah regime in Zimbabwe.

Beit Alfa's journey from a model of socialist agriculture to a profit-driven exporter parallels Israel's change in values from collectivism to capitalism and its development of a market economy stressing a huge defense industry, analysts say.

"Like many utopias, when Beit Alfa was implemented in practice it became part of an economic and political framework," says Yisrael Bartal, a Hebrew University historian. "It adjusted itself to concrete reality."

The Zimbabwe deal was reported by the Ha'aretz daily newspaper to include 30 riot-control vehicles to be supplied in exchange for $14 million. The Zimbabwe Standard reported that five vehicles arrived last month and were part of a package that also included gas masks. Two of its journalists were arrested for reporting on the arrival of the Beit Alfa equipment.

The sale follows supplies by Kibbutz Beit Alfa to countries including Angola, Uganda, and Sri Lanka. In the Israel Defense Directory, published by the defense ministry, Beit Alfa advertises its "armored personnel carriers" and other vehicles that have been "proven in combat."

Vehicles can be equipped with a "front bulldozer" it says. The company's website advertises a chemical additive that can be injected into water streams to "demobilize" inmates in prison disturbances.

It was not always this way. According to the ideology of HaShomer HaZa'ir, the "young guard" movement to which Beit Alfa's founders belonged, the kibbutz was meant to be an archetype of a utopian socialist society.

"The principle was to work the land, that a [Jewish] nation of merchants and luftmenschen [impractical and contemplative people without a trade] would return to the soil," says Ely Avrahamy, a historian of kibbutzim. …