Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Capitalism at the Kibbutz the Socialist Ideals of Israel's Agricultural Communes Are Colliding with Economic Necessity, as Debts Mount and Bankruptcy Threatens

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Capitalism at the Kibbutz the Socialist Ideals of Israel's Agricultural Communes Are Colliding with Economic Necessity, as Debts Mount and Bankruptcy Threatens

Article excerpt

MANY of the men who gathered in the auditorium of Kibbutz Kfar Hahoresh in the fertile Sharon Plain wore short pants, sandals, and weather-beaten faces. But if a visitor closed his eyes as the speeches began, he might have imagined attache cases and ties.

"Profit is not a dirty word," said one of the opening speakers. That sentence - spoken half defiantly, half apologetically - summed up the misgivings and heady aspirations of a proud but down-at-the-heels socialist movement about to strike a bargain with the capitalist world in order to survive.

Three hundred kibbutz delegates gathered in June to vote on changes that would permit the collectives to enter into partnerships with private enterprise, to include outside executives on boards of directors overseeing kibbutz industries, and to reorganize the kibbutz economy so that it is guided principally by cost-effectiveness rather than social welfare considerations.

It was not the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe that led to these hitherto heretical steps but problems within Israel itself. An economic crisis that struck the rural sector in the late 1980s left most kibbutzim debt-ridden and some facing bankruptcy.

Although kibbutzim contain only 3 percent of the country's population, they constitute the most distinctive element in Israeli society. Three of the country's eight prime ministers were ex-kibbutzniks, and kibbutzim long provided the bulk of Air Force pilots and officers in elite military units as well as leaders in other spheres of life. For the past 70 years, kibbutzim have been repositories of much of the country's idealism and mythos.

The kibbutzim constitute perhaps the purest form of voluntary communism practiced anywhere in the world, matched only by certain religious orders. A Kibbutz member who manages the collective's factory or is a highly trained engineer receives the same size apartment, clothing allowance, and pocket money as does another kibbutz member who milks cows or works on the factory production line.

The weekend meeting in June was of the council of the Kibbutz Artsi Movement, the most ideologically pure of the country's three kibbutz associations. To achieve greater cost-effectiveness, the association decided it must waive some of the pure democracy represented by the Saturday night general assembly held at every Kibbutz.

The assembly is a town meeting at which issues affecting the commune's life are discussed and voted on by all members who show up. Until two decades ago, kibbutzim were essentially farming communities but industry now accounts for the bulk of their income, and members are often asked to vote on business matters beyond their ken.

The delegates voted to relegate economic decisions to a council made up of members with suitable backgrounds.

THE kibbutz association also decided to decentralize the economy of the collectives to give branch managers clear responsibility for profit and loss. …

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