Religion & Beliefs

Kibbutzim? What Kibbutzim? These Are Eco-Farms!

When the early settlers in Palestine vowed to "make the desert bloom," it wasn't the fight against global warming that inspired them, but the idea that the Jewish people could be physically and spiritually redeemed through farming the land. These … Read More

By / May 28, 2008

When the early settlers in Palestine vowed to "make the desert bloom," it wasn't the fight against global warming that inspired them, but the idea that the Jewish people could be physically and spiritually redeemed through farming the land. These days, though, the Israeli kibbutz movement is re-branding the famous collective communities as eco-villages in order to attract a new generation to live a rural life in Israel. Considering the kibbutzim’s international image as bohemian communes, and considering today’s romantic ideas about country living, it might not seem all that strange that the kibbutz movement is embracing recycling, energy efficiency, organic farming or any other elements of sustainable living. Yet turning kibbutzim into eco-farms is a clear sign that the kibbutz movement is willing to part with its original ideals. The kibbutzim have gone through several changes over the years. They started off as the vanguard of Zionist colonization of Palestinian land in the Yishuv and early state periods. From the 1970s on they tried to find a role as business enterprises, and now they are becoming eco-villages, advocating and implementing environmental policies and opening up to rural tourism. The kibbutzim were integral to the Labour Zionist enterprise of creating a Jewish working class in Palestine as a way of ‘normalizing’ the Jewish people. The aim was for the Jewish state to have rural kibbutzim and moshavim (cooperative agricultural communities) and an urban Jewish proletariat, forming a nation with, as the slogan went, "Jewish land, Jewish labor and Jewish produce."

The absence of an environmentalist ethos in the original kibbutz movement was not accidental. Nor was it due to simple ignorance of the importance of sustainable development, of minimizing our carbon footprint or any other of the contemporary green movement’s mantras. The very notion of treading lightly on the earth was anathema to the early settlers, who strove to imprint the Zionist footprint as effectively as possible. They planted trees, drained swamps, and lifted rocks to help the Israeli state take root, so that the people who settled there could reap the benefits.
From this point of view, the early Zionists can be said to have been more humane than today’s environmentalists. For green-leaning campaigners, man must bow to nature rather than shape it according to his desires; effectively, we should forego our own needs in the name of protecting the planet. Today, the idea that humans should do with nature as they please is perhaps even more unpopular than Zionism, which might explain why the kibbutz movement has decided to leave both ideas out of its new advertising campaign. To be launched later this summer, the campaign targets a young, hip, eco-aware generation. It downplays the old ideas in favor of environmental ethics, replaces conventional agriculture with organic farming, and foregos old kibbutz poster boys like David Ben-Gurion for international stars like the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (of Ali G and Borat fame) and US actress Sigourney Weaver, both former kibbutz volunteers. This is the kibbutz movement’s first advertising campaign in a decade. Why is it going for a makeover now? Considering the general decline in the kibbutz population, which is also steadily ageing, it is not surprising that the kibbutzim feel the need for a new lease on life. The very first kibbutz, Deganya, was founded by a group of Jewish pioneers from Russia in 1909. By the end of 1948, Israel’s year of independence, there were 54,200 people (six percent of the population) living in 177 kibbutzim. The kibbutz population increased until the late 1980s, when the communes hit a collective low point after an economic crisis and after their image as socialist communities fell out of favour. By 2001, just 1.7 per cent of the total population in Israel were living on kibbutzim. Younger Israelis understandably seem to prefer traveling or living in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv over picking avocados, wearing bucket hats and singing patriotic songs in the fields. The kibbutz establishment has given up trying to appeal to them through old ideals, avoiding mention of the Z-word entirely as if they themselves are ashamed of their ‘dirty past’. Perhaps they now view Zionism itself as unsustainable.
In fact, the kibbutz movement’s eco-friendly re-branding exercise is a clear snapshot of the hollowing out of Zionism, which can also be seen in other key institutions like the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The army has historically been a crucial and prestigious institution in Israel, defending the country against "the Arab threat." In the past it has done so remarkably successfully, but after the so-called Second Lebanon War in July 2006 it became clear that it takes more than sloganeering and military might to win a war, even if it is against a ragtag guerrilla force. In past wars and invasion the IDF didn't have access to the advanced weaponry it has now, but it did have far more advanced levels of commitment, zealotry and patriotism. Today, by contrast, well over one quarter of army-aged men avoid enlistment, while 43.7 percent of eligible women did not enlist in 2007. Last month, the IDF rolled out a series of initiatives to boost motivation for military service. Internationally, Israel is commonly seen as an arrogant and ideology-driven state. It appears, however, that not even Zionism’s flagship institutions are able to stand up for their old ideals. This is less the result of revolutionary societal changes than growing political disillusionment and identity crises, and the Israeli elites’ attempts to re-invent themselves appear directionless, visionless and uninspiring. The very formation of the ruling centre-right party Kadima (Forward) in 2006, for instance, seems to have been a way of giving Israeli politics direction simply by naming a political party rather than by having a genuine sense of purpose. There is little reason to feel nostalgic about the early days of the exclusivist kibbutzim, which were designed to colonize hostile Palestinian land. But neither is there anything inspiring about the current re-branding exercise, which cashes in on a regressive, Western environmentalist fad in order merely to keep the kibbutzim running. Those who seek out alternative lifestyles on eco-farms are usually disaffected with mainstream society and so it seems that, today, the kibbutz movement is helping cynicism about modern life bloom.

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