Question: "What is a kibbutz?"
Answer: A kibbutz is a relatively modern communal settlement unique to Israel. The earliest kibbutz (Degania Alef) was established in 1910 in the Jordan Valley near the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Today, more than 270 kibbutzim (plural of kibbutz) exist in Israel. Initially, almost all kibbutzim were collective agricultural settlements or farm communities. Over time, these societies have branched out significantly. Nowadays, many kibbutzim are private communities, home to a wide range of economically and developmentally motivated industries and activities.
The word kibbutz comes from the modern Hebrew term qibbūs, which means “gathering” or “clustering.” The first kibbutzim were called kvutzat, referring to a “group.” A member of a kibbutz is known as a kibbutznik.
The kibbutz movement began in the early 1900s in the wake of the Bilu movement as Russian Jews immigrated to Israel to develop agricultural settlements. The harsh environmental conditions made the land impossible to cultivate through independent farming. Living collectively and working together as a community provided the only chance for success.
In 1909, ten young men and two young women—subsidized by the Jewish National Fund—purchased land and founded Kvutzat Degania or Kibbutz Degania Alef. The name literally means the “collective of wheat” or “community of cereal grains.” Yosef Baratz (1890—1968), a Zionist activist of the Russian Empire, and Manya Shoḥat (1880—1961), a female Russian revolutionary, were two pioneers of the kibbutz movement. Other notable early participants include David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister; Moshe Dayan (one of the first children born on Kibbutz Degania Alef), who grew up to become Israel’s Minister of Agriculture, Defense, and Foreign Affairs; and Joseph Trumpeldor, an early Zionist activist who earned the status of Jewish national war hero.
Several kibbutzim were established during Israel’s pre-state period, and they continued to pop up all over Israel after the country was formally recognized by the UN. Kibbutznikim (plural of kibbutznik) divided the workload, each taking a different job. Some managed the household, cooked, and provided an education for the children, while others farmed the land and harvested the crops. The people shared everything in common. Meals were taken together in a grand dining hall. The work was backbreaking, and the daily challenges were significant, but the sense of community and accomplishment was gratifying.
A trend in recent years has been the privatization of these communities as Israel’s economy has progressed. One of Israel’s biggest and wealthiest kibbutzim is Ein Gev on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. This community boasts a robust agricultural and tourism industry. The company Netafim of Kibbutz Hatzerim became a global forerunner in drip irrigation equipment. The humble Degania now brings in millions of dollars annually through its diamond-cutting factory. Some kibbutzim specialize in resort hotel operations and destination tours, such as Rosh Hanikra, with its spectacular cliffs, grottoes, and caves on Israel’s Mediterranean Coast.
The kibbutz movement helped shape the present-day identity of the State of Israel. Ranging in population sizes from 80 to 2,000, kibbutzim are home to about 120,000 Israelis today, or 2.8 percent of the total population. Both olim (immigrants from foreign countries) and sabras (people born in Israel) are kibbutznikim.
Every member of a kibbutz speaks Hebrew, Israel’s primary language. A member with full voting rights and privileges is a chaver who lives long-term on the kibbutz. A guest or participant is someone who lives temporarily on the kibbutz. A unique “Kibbutz Ulpan” program, offered on a temporary basis, provides participants with a five-month working knowledge of conversational Hebrew, the ability to read simplified texts, and a foundation for further study of the language (https://kibbutzulpan.org/about_program/, accessed 8/21/23).