Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The End of Utopia

When I was 18, I lived in a kibbutz for nine months. It was a great experience. Kibbutz Yakum was conveniently located in the main road from Tel Aviv to Netanya (which is why we chose it, we didn't want to have to schlep through the desert for a night out on the town). If you crossed the main road, you crossed some big avocado and peanut fields that belonged to the Kibbutz, you'd go down some steep dunes and meet the sea. People used to sunbathe in the nude there.
I haven't been to Israel since 1988. When I say that, those who have tell me "you are not going to recognize it". Gone, for instance, is that ridiculous international airport that looked like a seedy supermarket. Now apparently it is not only state of the art, but a mall.
It's funny how the mind expects everything to remain exactly the same as one left it. Yakum was surrounded by fields, and you really felt that you were in the country, even if it was really close to Tel-Aviv. Now, some friends who were there with me report that there is an Office Depot on the other side of the road, that you have to really look for the entrance because everything around it is totally built up, and that the little road that took us from the entrance of the Kibbutz to the dining hall is now surrounded with an office park. The houses in which we used to live are now rented as office space. The value of the land of this kibbutz is astronomical on both sides of the road, and its members sold some of it, split the proceeds, in true socialist fashion, and became millionaires. All those years of milking cows and driving tractors and picking cotton and working in their plastic factory paid off.
I was listening to this in disbelief. It makes perfect sense but somehow it hurts.
Of coursethe kibbutz was not utopia by any stretch of the imagination, but of every other socialist dream put into practice I think it was the closest to not bad at all. It was a functioning cooperative society where everyone had exactly the same things as everybody else. Now some of the members apparently have their own businesses outside the kibbutz (in my day they had to sign up to borrow a car, or for vacations). I asked if there were still cows. There are. The people who now tend the fields and milk the cows are hired hands. The kibbutz closed its admissions to people once it was clear they were going to be raking it in. Totally understandably. In 1981, when I was there, they were happy to take people in, after a thorough screening process. On one hand, they had a huge risk of losing their younger members because the placidity could be stifling. On the other even then life at a kibbutz had its advantages. You worked eight hours a day either on the fields, the farm or the factory and everything else was taken care of. You didn't have to worry about taxes, education, healthcare, food, clothing, profits. And it was a beautiful, placid place, like a country club but with cows and chickens and tractors (and a great swimming pool). Now I guess, whoever lucked in at the time, made out like a bandit. And I wonder if all of those who left have changed their minds all of a sudden.
I think it's fair for the kibbutz to adapt to a mercenary world. God knows it was a swamp when they built it and a lot of effort and hard work and principle and ideology went into it. It was the classic story of socialist idealism. Educated people working the land, sharing the burden, reaping the rewards equally. Yakum was one of the truly lefty kibbutzim. It resisted change for longer than most, as I understand.
So it isn't only fair, it is probably imperative to change in order for it not to die. But man, knowing that the idea of the kibbutz, and it is astonishingly successful implementation, are now almost an archaeological thing of the past, saddens me to no end, (despite the fact that I for one, wouldn't want to live in one except probably in my retirement years). But it was an admirable undertaking and as painful as it is to imagine an Office Depot across the road, I hope the members are enjoying their newfound wealth in peace.

No comments:

Post a Comment