Lessons from the Kibbutz

Alan Elsner Image
Alan Elsner
on February 12, 2016

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As Americans try to learn more about Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, attention has also been lavished on his experience in the early 1960s working as a volunteer on a kibbutz in Israel.

For many young people — not just Jews — of my generation, spending a summer or a year on a kibbutz was a youthful rite of passage. It was a cool thing to do. It’s estimated that over half a million people took part in the program, coming from some 35 countries, with Britain, the Scandinavian nations and Germany. Many of us formed lasting relationships with Israelis and our experiences colored the way we viewed Israel.

I first volunteered on Kibbutz Ramot Menashe for three months in 1972 just before beginning college. I picked apples and pears for six hours a day and the rest of the time was my own. Some of the Israelis of my own age that I met that summer are still dear friends. For many volunteers, the time they spent in kibbutzim was their only experience of doing manual labor — dirty, smelly, sweaty work — before going on to white-collar careers.

The following year, I volunteered immediately at the kibbutz after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War and spent a year mostly on neighboring Ramat Hashofet where I got up at 3 am each day to milk sheep and attended the Ulpan after work. That’s when I learned my Hebrew.

The kibbutz system was far from perfect — one could see that even as an outsider — but it was a truly idealistic experiment in socialism and an attempt to build a more egalitarian society. It was a symbol of an Israel seen then as a courageous young nation seeking to construct a society that brought something truly new and fresh to the world.

How different from the image Israel projects to the world today.

At that time, Israel was still under military threat from surrounding Arab states which did not recognize its existence. The kibbutzim symbolized Israel’s determination to survive, and every foreign volunteer who came lent support to that goal.

Now, tragically, Israelis have become occupiers and control the lives of another people. The settler movement claims that they hold the mantle of Zionism and represent its pioneering spirit. And, to our shame, we have allowed them to do so.

The kibbutz movement has been decimated by economic crises and the withdrawal of government support. Its socialist ideals now seem antiquated and outmoded; many kibbutzim have privatized and agricultural work is done mainly by workers from Thailand.

At its height in the 1970s, around 12,000 volunteers were coming annually to work at hundreds of kibbutzim. The list of ex-volunteers who went on to become famous include not only Sen. Sanders but also comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Sacha Baron Cohen, actors Bob Hoskins, Debra Winger, Helen Mirren and Sigourney Weaver, photographer Annie Leibovitz and neurologist Oliver Sacks. You can still volunteer today and around 1,500 do each year — but it’s not the same.

Despite its shortcomings, I still believe the kibbutz movement represented something good and precious in Israel — something we have lost. I’m proud of my service and I only wish today’s young people could have the same experience –the chance to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty working to build a just society and a new Jewish homeland.

We have to recapture that pride but to do so, we must end the occupation and reach a just peace with the Palestinians. It can be done but it’s going to need hard work and sweat. Those of us who worked on kibbutzim know how to do that.

Alan Elsner is Special Advisor to the President at J Street. He’s on Twitter at @alanelsner