TODAY there are some 280 kibbutzim in Israel with a total population approaching 150,000. Although they comprise just under four per cent of the population, kibbutzum members produce nearly 40 per cent of the country’ s agricultural output and nearly six per cent of the industrial output One of the first kibbutzim, Merchavia, was founded in the 1920s mainly by a group of single eastern Europeans who bought with them the egalitarian spirit of social revolution summed up in the kibbutz motto: ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’.
There was to be no sex-based division of labour. And in fact women did work in heavy building and road construction as well as irrigation works, quarries and agriculture. However, even in the early days work in the communal kitchen tended to be reserved for women. Then, as now, there were no wages. Each kibbutz supplied all the material needs of its members. At first even clothing was deemed communal property.
A member’s primary allegiance was to the kibbutz. Spouse and children came second and various measures were voluntarily introduced as ‘norms’ to curb any anti-communal ‘family’ tendencies.
Couples tried to avoid working in the same jobs, and took their meals with everyone else in the communal dining room rather than in their private apartment And ‘couple behaviour’ in public was frowned upon. These measures were seen as a means of liberating couples from archaic relationships left over from feudal and capitalist societies.
In Merchavia, as in many other kibbutzim, it was decided that children should be brought up communally in peer groups. After six weeks babies would sleep in a separate ‘children’s house’, and be looked after by kibbutz members during the day. This, of course, increased the number of jobs available, though most child care workers tended to be women. And the children were supposed to be raised in an atmosphere without sex discrimination in work or play.
In traditional patriarchal society, decisions are usually made by the male household head, mainly due to his economic leverage. Since in a kibbutz neither sex had this economic advantage the pathway was cleared for a more egalitarian system of administration — with a weekly meeting for general discussion and voting and smaller committees for more specific concerns. Committee members were elected and served for one year. Men and women were supposed to be equally represented.
Over the years many of these original ideals have been modified. And in Merchavia today there is a marked sexual division of labour with men working mainly in the plastics factory and in agriculture while women do most of the work in the kitchen, laundry rooms and the children’s houses.
The nuclear family has been slowly reasserting itself and now forms the basis of kibbutz social life with family members choosing to work together and cooking their own family meal in the evening. Family apartments also serve as a place for entertaining friends or watching television and community socialisation is infrequent.
Last year for the first time babies were allowed to sleep in their parents apartment rather than in the ‘babies’ house’. In fact. many young children sleep in their parents apartment too, though older children remain in the ‘children’s house’. And apartments currently under construction on the kibbutz are incorporating an extra bedroom reflecting this new trend, though all babies and children are still under communal supervision during working hours.
Because children have been raised in peer groups they usually consider themselves as brothers or sisters in terms of any sexual relations. Marriage between a boy and girl in the same peer group is very rare and felt to be almost incestuous. In fact, this is true of all kibbutz-born children: marriages between different age groups do occur but most members look for a partner from outside the kibbutz. Of the 36 members of the three peer groups aged 24—27 on Merchavia, 18 are married but only three married someone from within the kibbutz.
Some sex differences have also cropped up in education — for example girls learn cooking, while boys learn carpentry or metal work.
But the egalitarian administrative structure and basic economic equality between the sexes remain largely as they were. However the representation of men and women participating in the general meeting and serving on the committees has begun to alter.
Men are over-represented on committees dealing with finances and building, while the reverse is true for committees on food, education, clothing and culture. And the highest administrative position, the General Secretary, has been filled seven times by a male member in the last ten years.
Nor is Merchavia exceptional. These changes are happening on all kibbutzim and a variety of explanations have been suggested. Some say they are due to ‘imperfect education’ in the early days — that is, not sticking closely enough to socialist principles. Others say the changes are only natural’ — illustrating the deeply-rooted patterns of human behaviour.
But whatever the reasons the kibbutz remains a unique social experiment. The fact that the original radical vision has been blurred by time shows just how difficult it really is to bring sweeping change to private human relationships.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7