Book Review

The Kibbutz Movement’s Lessons For Communal Living Today

05.07.13 5:15 PM ET

Although it seems lost in the mists of time, it really isn’t so long ago that the mention of Israel did not immediately prompt the associations “occupation,” “conflict,” “terror,” or “Palestinians.” The word that popped into one’s mind when the topic of Israel came up was always “kibbutz.” Those days are long gone, which is deeply regrettable to this writer, a long-term kibbutz observer and admirer, but sadly it must be admitted that the change is appropriate. Our problem with the Palestinians is by far the most pressing and important problem that we Israelis face, and this is reflected in the way people see us. Nevertheless, the old Israel is still around and it pays to take a look at it from time to time.

These thoughts came to me as I read Globalization of Communes by Yaacov Oved (Transaction, New Jersey, 2013), a comprehensive account of intentional societies around the world. At this time, when the all-conquering free market structure is facing an international crisis, it is surely worthwhile to take a look at one of the few alternative ways of organizing society. Despite the current travails of the capitalist system, it is probable that cooperative and communal structures will remain a minority phenomenon in our world, but there is much to learn from their experience. Moreover, Israel, which was built with cooperative structures, and which has hosted the kibbutz movement for a century, is probably the most instructive example.

Oved’s book, which is truly global in its scope, is only marginally about Israel’s kibbutz movement, but I venture to suggest that only a kibbutz member could have written it. A professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University and a noted historian of the anarchist movement and the communal scene, Oved is more than qualified to instruct us, but it is his experience of more than fifty years of communal living, as a member of Kibbutz Palmachim, that gives the book its remarkable insights.

Oved points out that the past five decades have shown a steady increase in the creation of cooperative communities in dozens of countries, offering an alternative lifestyle to the competitive society in which most of us live. Based on a measure of economic equality and cooperation between the members, they are often, like the early Israeli kibbutzim, agricultural communities, with jointly owned farms. Sometimes they are urban, with a high tech business providing most of the income. In other cases they may be groups of people pooling their incomes from a variety of professions and occupations. Oved notes the surge in the creation of communes in the 1960s in the U.S. and Europe, together with the student revolts and the emergence of the "hippies." A majority of these communes were relatively short-lived because their members were insufficiently prepared for the complexities of communal living, but in the 1970s more pragmatic and successful communities were established in Europe, the United States, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.

The author describes the enormous range of today’s intentional communities. They are religious and secular, socialist and evangelist, green and New Age. Co-housing in the U.S. and Europe offers a relatively loose form of community; eco-villages emphasize the struggle to preserve the environment. In Israel too, there have been interesting new developments, with a notable increase in the number of urban communes, their members employed in education and social work, many of them established by the children of privatized kibbutzim, who want to find new ways of carrying forward the mission of their parents.

Whereas in the 1960s, communes (including the kibbutzim) were numbered in hundreds, notes Oved, today there are thousands all over the world. What typifies the modern commune is the fact that it has learnt from earlier mistakes. Today's commune members strive to reconcile communal responsibility with individual ambitions and aspirations. They also for the most part seek to engage and challenge the surrounding society. Modern means of communication, such as the internet and the cell phone, link these societies to each other, ending the isolation that once prevailed. An eco-village in Italy, for example, can be in immediate contact with a cooperative farm in the U.S. or an Israeli kibbutz, leading to a beneficial dialogue.

Oved emphasizes that, as opposed to revolutionary theories, aiming to build a new world on the ruins of the old, the communes have traditionally adopted a positive attitude toward social change, leading by example and striving to build better relations between human beings. There cannot be one conclusion on a subject of such complexity, but the overwhelming thought that emerges from this book is that historically the dominance of the community over the individual was morally wrong and ultimately self-defeating. Freedom, flexibility, transparency, and diversity are vital in the creation of cooperative and communal societies. The kibbutz is the most comprehensive and influential of these movements and it is currently learning the lessons of its mistakes. Its experience and current difficulties are paralleled by those of intentional societies around the world. Moreover, the lessons apply to all societies everywhere.

Although it might seem like self-indulgence to engage in such esoteric issues when a devastating explosion in our region could happen at any time, I submit that, for all our faults, we Israelis do have something to say to the world at large about how human beings can relate to one another and Globalization of Communes, a valuable document for our times, illustrates this contention.