The Kibbutz is a uniquely Israeli type of community and a foundational piece of the nation’s culture. With the roots of the Kibbutz system stretching back to 1910, and more than 120,000 Israeli’s still living in modern Kibbutz’s today, it’s important to understand how these small communities have helped shape the nation of Israel.
So, what exactly is a Kibbutz and how does it differ from a normal neighbourhood? To answer that, we have to look back at the history of the Kibbutz, starting with the first one, Kibbutz Degania.
If you were to go to Degania today, you’d never guess that it was originally built on swamp land. Settled by early Zionist pioneers at the Southern end of the Sea of Galilee, the land was a true labour of love. Building the community wasn’t a matter of staking together a few cabins, it required years of backbreaking work and toil to transform it into the habitable, fertile fields it is today. When the settlers arrived, the land was rocky, covered in marsh, and unsuitable for almost any kind of farming. To make matters worse, those early settlers had limited farming experience and were decidedly unwelcomed in the area. Early irrigation efforts were met with sabotage, and they were targeted for harassment.
Yet, they persevered. They survived by banding together and relying on each other. They founded their community on egalitarian principles forged out of this shared struggle. When translated, "Kibbutz” means "gathering” and that’s exactly what Degania was, a gathering of like-minded people. They organized the farm around the creed "give as much as you can and get as much as you need” a proclamation that they would stand together to face whatever might come. They would not allow the elements, the conditions, or any kind of outside hatred stop them from living their lives. Dagania became a role model for other communities facing similar challenges who quickly adopted the Kibbutz system.
There was something special about Dagania. Not only was it one of the earliest of the Zionist settlements in the area, and not only did it become a model for other communities to follow, but it was also the place that gave us some of Israel’s greatest minds and most striking figures. Some of the community’s members included David Ben Gurion, the man who would become the first Prime Minister of Israel, Moshe Dayan, a legendary military commander, and Joseph Trumpeldor, war hero and founder of the Zion Mule Corps, an organization some credit as the ideological starting point for the IDF.
Hundreds of Kibbutz sprung up across Israel in the following decades. Most of these were agricultural communities, focused on farming. These were essentially self-sustaining communities that operated under a flat structure where each member was accorded equal respect and share in the bounty of the community. But as time has passed and the economy of Israel matured, many have moved to other pursuits such as industry, commercial trade, and increasingly, tourism.
While only about 4% of Israeli’s live on Kibbutzim today, the impact they have had on Israeli culture and the mindset of its people cannot be underestimated. That same spirit of civic duty lives on in modern Israel. From compulsorily duty in the IDF which is taken as a rite of passage for youths entering adulthood, to the way the nation responds to crisis. Take the 2016 wildfires, a series of blazes that pushed thousands out of their homes and into the streets. Israelis throughout the country opened their doors to those left homeless from the fires, relying on that same Kibbutz spirit of sharing what you have with those in need and supporting your neighbour through adversity.
While the modern Kibbutz might not function exactly the same as Degania and its immediate successors, the most important element of the Kibbutz spirit is alive and well throughout Israel. A devotion to one’s community and empathy for one’s neighbours.