lundi 16 novembre 2015

A weekend at the kibbutz

Kibbutz agriculture then
During our visit of my brother and his family in Israel we visited the kibbutz Degania Bet at the Sea of Galilee. Degania Bet was founded in the Twenties and is right next to the very first kibbutz, Degania Aleph. I was curious about kibbutz life. I met several people who spent a year volunteering in a kibbutz after school and I see parallels with to the Camphill movement (I have spent several years in a Camphill community). Both movements have a more collective, almost mythological past. Over the decades changes were made to accomodate for a stronger private sphere and a more individual lifestyle. Today they have changed so much, that both movements seem to be in a profound crisis. On the facebook page of former Degania B volunteers they share the same kind of photos and  memories of this time that they spent living in a community as they do on the facebook page for the volunteers of  Oaklands Park, the Camphill where I learned to grow vegetables and where I met Adele, my wife. This is something from the past as most kibbutzim have stopped taking volunteers as have most Camphill communities.

To get to the Sea of Galilee we drove through the Jordan valley. Knowing that the Jordan valley has very fertile soil and produces a lot of fruit and veg I imagined this somewhat differently. First of all the Jordan does not look like a mythical river. Most of the time it looks like you could almost jump over it. And the landscape it is flowing through is a harsh desert environment, with sun scorched hills on both sides and the fences of the Jordanian border on the left for some of the way. We drove by date plantations and vegetable growing operations, most of them were probably run by Israeli settlements, since Palestinians have only limited access to water.
and now

Upon arrival we drove through a gate with a "Private" sign and past industrial cowsheds
and banana plantations that were in contrast with the photos of the horseploughing and circle dancing on the website.

We rented two rooms at the Degania Bet Country Lodge, a two storey building next to the kibbutz kindergarden (that the kibbutzim apparently used to call Hotel California). It was surrounded by small individual houses and some bigger appartement buildings, that were all connected by footpaths and surrounded by well kept up and well irrigated lawns with many ornamental bushes and trees.
Hotel California

We had breakfast at the communal dining hall together with other guests and the mostly elder kibbutzniks who choose to still eat there, (my guess is that the majority of inhabitants prefers the privacy of their homes for meals) but we were there as tourists and to get a feel for the place I really wanted to talk to somebody who lived there.

I bumped into Miriam, when looking for my family. She asked me if I was lost. She gave me a ride on the golf cart she was driving (because of her health). She agreed to talk to us about kibbutz life and we met in the afternoon heat. She was born in Mexico, spent part of her childhood in LA and came to Israel and soon afterwards to Degania still a child.
She is retired now. She worked in the communal laundry, later in the communal kitchen and after that she ran a printing shop at the kibbutz.

Degania Bet is still a community, lots (according to Miriam most) of kibbutzim have been privatised. But  Degania is going through changes as well. It has a population of around 500 people. The people living at the kibbutz are either members, that means they can participate in decisions and receive a salary or non-member inhabitants who pay rent for their house and the infrastructure. The members initially gave what they could (in work) and took what they needed. Now there are different levels of salary according to responsibility.
Miriam talked a lot about people who want to join these days, because of the financial safety that it offers. This is certainly a contrast to what attracted early members to join up for a life of hard work, strong community life and no or almost no private property.
The first day we had the pool to ourselves
Miriam was indignant about people on the outside call the kibbutzniks  'the millionaires', because they have a pool, and because they enjoy a extra financial safety net that people in mainstream Israel middle class do not. For the life style at the kibbutz looked more middle class than millionaire to me. It looks well kept up, but the houses look old and they are relatively small (We did not see any private lodgings from the inside). There is the pool, but 500 inhabitants share it, which is still nice. I was told that most kibbutzim have large swimming pools because they pay agricultural (lower) rates for water.

I did get the feeling that the community is aging, that most members are retired, like Miriam. Money is coming in through the kibbutz owned businesses, the dairy farm, the banana and avocado plantations, the silicon factory and tourism. But maybe not many members work there. They employ people from the outside. Like a small mirror image of our aging western societies they have to let in people from the outside to rejuvenate their community but may also be supicious that the people who are coming are mostly attracted by the material comfort that they themselves enjoy and feel entitled to.