Today there are about 270 kibbutzim across the country, and they still hold economic weight. Their factories and farms produce 9 percent of Israel’s overall industrial output, worth US$8 billion, and 40 percent of its agricultural output, worth more than US$1.7 billion.
The brainchild of eastern European socialist Zionists, the kibbutz quickly became a symbol of the pioneering and socialist ethos of the country’s early years. The first one was Degania, founded on the banks of the Sea of Galilee in October 1910.
Kibbutzniks built many of the settlements that defined and defended the country’s early borders. Many of Israel’s early political, military and business leaders came from kibbutzim, and the communes drew thousands of foreign volunteers.
The movement was unique in the annals of socialism because no other voluntary form of collectivism attracted so many devotees.
Their socialist and Zionist ideology was based on the principle of shared agrarian labor, shared income, shared meals and shared housing for children. Even individual life decisions — like a choice for university studies — could be subject to a vote.
However, over the years the idea lost its utopian communal gloss, mirroring Israel’s shift to an industrialized free market and an emphasis on individual goals. Thousands of younger members decamped to cities in the 1980s, chafing at the restrictions of kibbutz life.
Meanwhile, the kibbutz’s political patron, the Labor Party, lost the political and economic hegemony that guaranteed the collectives favored treatment.
Kibbutzim groaned under billions of dollars of debt that burgeoned during hyperinflation in the 1980s, driving some to the brink of bankruptcy and forcing most to jettison parts of the communal life.
Still, some kibbutzim are thriving financially, and about 15 still follow the full traditional communal model, according to the kibbutz movement.
Essilor, the French ophthalmic optical products maker, recently paid US$130 million to buy 50 percent of the optics business at one Galilee kibbutz, Shamir. The NASDAQ-listed Shamir Optical Industry reported revenues of US$142 million last year.
In another kibbutz, Sasa, on the Israel-Lebanon border, the Plasan armored vehicle factory has won contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars from the US military since the Iraq war began in 2003.
Zohar Shpak spent his early years on a kibbutz, but when he moved to another one with his wife and three children six years ago he had no interest in becoming a member.
Today, the family lives in a neighborhood of 42 homes built — like the planned expansion at Hulda — for non-members on Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Gaza Strip. Their kids go to the kibbutz school, the family shops on the kibbutz and socializes with kibbutzniks, but the lines are drawn.
“We’re inside the kibbutz, but have our own lives,” Shpak said. “I am not built to be so communal.”