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Leon Kaye headshot

Ideas for 21st Century Sustainable Development Are Found in Israel’s Kibbutzim

By Leon Kaye

For years, Israel’s kibbutzim (collective farms) offered Jewish settlers the chance to build a life in their new homeland while minimizing their financial risks in a punishing and harsh environment. Many kibbutzim were founded by settlers from the former Soviet Union, who were either comfortable with or accustomed to life under communism and socialism. Life in the kibbutzim during Israel’s first few decades is now unthinkable to many Israelis: children were raised in nurseries, and slept separately from their parents; residents did not receive salaries, but instead shared all of the available resources; and all three meals were eaten communally -- not unlike university dormitory living.

The kibbutzim were instrumental in transforming Israel’s economy from what was best described as a struggling developing country well into the 1960s to one of the world’s most dynamic societies with per capita income ranked between New Zealand and Japan. Israel, with its population of 8 million, now has more tech companies than any place else on Earth other than Silicon Valley. The country boasts the highest number of scientists per capita in the world. And investments in infrastructure and technology has turned a once-parched country into a net water exporter.

But this progress, which has transformed Israel into more of an extension of Western Europe than one similar to its poorer Middle East neighbors, has led to a change in life on the kibbutz for many Israelis. One example is Kibbutz Hatzerim, a 90-minute drive south of Tel Aviv and a short drive from Beersheba, the Negev Desert’s largest urban center. This 70-year-old community, one of many kibbutzim that launched across Israel during the twentieth century, was once a typical farming commune. But a Hatzerim engineer became intrigued at the site of a huge tree in the middle of the desert that had long thrived with no obvious water source nearby – and his tinkering led to Netafim, now a billion-dollar company. This kibbutz still produces agricultural products such as jojoba oil, but water technology drives this community's economic success.

The industrialization of the kibbutzim has been one of the triggers behind Israel’s spectacular growth, but many old-timers have lamented the shift from idealism to pragmatic capitalism. Meanwhile, many younger Israelis have shunned life on the kibbutz and moved to the cities. And why not? After all, living within a kibbutz is often like herding cats. As anyone who lives in a condominium and has been involved with an unruly homeowners association (HOA) in the U.S. can testify, managing a place where equality is preached but where personalities often clash can often present a day-to-day headache.

But as explained to TriplePundit during visits to some of Israel’s kibbutzim, a slow shift is underway as more Israelis are considering moving back to these communities. One reason is economics: the cost of living in many of Israel’s cities makes it more difficult for millennials to get ahead, and starting a family can make life even more complicated. Furthermore, many kibbutzim councils realize that new blood and new ideas can help revitalize them. More kibbutzim are open to having families inside, and will even allow them to work elsewhere and keep their income. Other kibbutzim, however, consider that income part of the community’s treasury. For example, one executive we met is married to a medical professional that sees patients outside the kibbutz – when those patients are billed, payments are directed to the community, not the doctor.

The fact is that there are many benefits to living on a kibbutz, which is why tourism organized to visit them is still popular across the world. Citizens from Korea to Latin America, whether they are indulging in a “gap year” or just want to see the world, will live and work in a kibbutz for months, and even longer, at a time. “Building community” has often become a repetitive cliché, but there is something to be said about knowing your neighbors, dining with them, and taking part in everything from the most mundane and annoying chores to reaching consensus on long-term financial and infrastructure decisions. Many kibbutzim, even if they are now manufacturing the most sophisticated industrial and electronic equipment, still produce much of the food consumed on the premises. Cars are often shared; a clinic meets many of these communities' health care needs.

Today there are approximately 270 kibbutzim across Israel. Around 75 percent operate on a model called mitchadesh (renewing), in which the communities generate and keep their income. The rest adhere to the traditional model, shitufi (collective living), which compensates all members equally, regardless of their daily work. Not everyone who lives on a kibbutz (such as commuters or short-term visitors) is a member – those who are members have an equal vote when these communities meet to vote on decisions.

One example of a kibbutz that melds these communities’ ideals with practical modern day life is Kibbutz Neot Semadar. Located in the Arava Desert, the arid stretch of land wedged between Egypt and Jordan, this kibbutz is relatively young, founded in 1989. Surrounded by pink and mauve mesas, Kibbutz Neot Semadar defines the term “oasis” with its lush gardens, olive trees and vineyards. A massive solar field adjacent to the site powers its operations, which includes a winery, a whimsical art center and workshops that emphasize a wide range of topics from self-awareness to resilience.

Many of the residents who founded Kibbutz Neot Semadar still live there – and they were involved with everything from laying the art center's terrazzo floors to raising the goats that produce the most sublime dairy products. About 90 children live here, but they live with their parents, not separate quarters; and Kibbutz Neot Semadar pads its bottom line with a guesthouse that welcomes tourists who are exploring the region’s spectacular natural parks or are scuba diving at the resorts along the nearby Gulf of Aqaba.

Can these ideas scale worldwide? The kibbutzim are indeed a system that is unique to and largely defines Israel. But there are elements that can be applied elsewhere, and in fact, some ideas have already morphed into practices that have become popular around the world. Think of community gardens, which have bonded communities; and even crowdfunding, which allows people to invest in ideas with minimal risk, knowing that they are a contribution to the public good and more sustainable development. In a more crowded world with limited resources, living closely together as part of the environment could become the most viable option in both urban and rural areas.

Image credit: Shani Sadicario

Editor’s note: Vibe Israel is funding Leon Kaye’s trip. Neither the author nor TriplePundit were required to write about the experience.

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye