I’ve written in the past about my experiences and what I learned on kibbutz; the most successful attempt I know of, to create a truly democratic and egalitarian society. I was a relatively young man at the time… this was more than forty years ago… and influenced by the many ideas that were going around in the 60s. I wanted to know if it was possible for people to live happily in a commune, where the wealth was shared, and where each person received what he needed to live a wholesome life, and contributed to the collective according to his abilities. The idea was simple. It appealed to my ideals. And there were many such villages scattered around Israel where that was actually happening.
We had heard of the abuses of power in the communist states of eastern Europe, and in Asia. The cold war was being fought along ideological lines. In the west, communism was considered synonymous with tyranny. Was it possible that such a system could work in a free society? I felt I had to try it out. I had a family at the time; a wife and small children. I came from a rather conventional background, with the talents and the education of a typical 20th century intellectual. And so I felt that I could easily test the viability of the system on myself. Most important, I had a desire to see a better world; a world in which society was able to compensate for some of the unfair distribution of talent and physical strengths by nature.
When I went up north to visit my friend, last week, I visited that same kibbutz where I had spent a couple of years, long ago. It was a visit that brought back memories that had almost faded away… memories of people and of situations… What had once seemed as critical and important as life itself, was barely relevant today. Many of the people I had loved and befriended were no longer part of the society now. Some had died, and some had moved away. The kibbutz itself was no longer the same society in which I had chosen to live. The people there, had chosen democratically to change the rules. There had been a process of privatization, in which individual members of the commune had been given more freedom of choice, and the right to work at whatever they wanted to do, and to own personal belongings without obligation to the collective.
The place is still called a kibbutz, but it operates along different lines altogether. The one social characteristic that remains the same after all the time that has gone by, is that the society there is governed by a direct democracy, in contrast to the representative democracy that we enjoy today in most democratic societies. That means, that instead of being governed by representatives who are elected by popular vote, all major issues are decided by a direct vote of the entire population, or at least those who care enough to express their opinion.
I remember that when I first arrived there, I felt as if I had landed in paradise. It was almost too good to be true. And strangely enough, after those many years… when I visited the place again, it still seemed like the garden of Eden to me. The ideas might have changed. There was a different generation of people living there. People owned their own homes or rented. The houses were more individual, many of them different from their neighbors. In many ways, it was a village just like any other in my country. But when I looked at the gardens, I felt the difference.
The gardens are an example of integration. For the most part, the grass is not mowed like it is in most suburban neighborhoods. Wild flowers and cultured varieties grow side by side among the grasses, dotting the lawns with color. One doesn’t feel that that human order has been imposed upon nature. On the contrary, wherever you go, there are pleasant surprises. When I lived there, there was a central dining room where everyone ate. There were children’s homes where all the children lived. The children would visit their parents for afternoon tea, and then return to their children’s houses. And the parents would visit with their children in the evening. Now people make their own dinners in their own homes, and children live with their parents.
In the old kibbutz, there were committees that decided where people would work, and all the people took part in producing those yields which the society had decided were most advantageous for the community. Now people get into their private cars and drive off to work in the morning. And these residents come home whenever their work is done. One man or woman may earn twice as much, or even four times as much as his or her neighbor. And yet, there still is a collective responsibility for the poor, the weak, and those who’re ill. For the most part, the kibbutz has turned from a communistic society to a socialistic one. People still seem happy, but they are far less involved in the community.