Accessibility links

Breaking News

Israel's Oldest Kibbutz Votes to Privatize

For nearly a century the Kibbutz movement in Israel was defined by its commitment to socialist ideals. Now that is changing, as VOA's Jim Teeple found out when he visited Israel's oldest and most famous Kibbutz: Degania, which was founded in 1910 on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

The Degania dairy is one of Israel's biggest and oldest. Cows have been milked here since 1910 when the Degania Kibbutz was established by Zionist pioneers from Russia, who believed they were building a socialist utopia.

But dairy workers, unlike those who came before, now receive a salary, just like workers in any other business.

Degania is no longer a socialist enterprise -- but is run like a big business.

The Kibbutz has a thriving industrial diamond business and it also grows and sells millions of dollars of agricultural products.

Recently, the 320 members of the Kibbutz met here and voted to stop putting all their wages into a collective account and start receiving individual salaries based on ability -- salaries they could spend as they wanted. The move made headlines in Israel; Degania - Israel's oldest socialist Kibbutz - had gone capitalist.

Shay Shoshani runs the multi-million dollar operation. Shoshani, who has lived at Degania for nearly 30 years, says the reforms were necessary. "I can say to you that many people say to us today after we make the reform that now they feel more commitment and more "kibbutznik" than in the past. You know, in the world things and ideas change and we decided here not to stay stuck in the past."

Degania members now pay for services such as electricity and water -- and also a new tax to support the elderly and those less well-off. The changes would have shocked Degania's early pioneers -- a mix of socialists, anarchists and communists who believed strongly in a collectivist ideology.

Most members backed the changes. The few who do not refuse to talk on camera about them.

Others are like Yonah Shapiro, whose parents were founders of Degania. Shapiro says at first she was unsure about the reforms, but now has adapted to them. "It is different. I can't say it is what it was before. But it also did not change so much for me because in my life I live as I lived before. The fact that I go to work puts me in touch with younger people. I don't have to work but I do and I talk to them so I cannot say that I feel any different in this way."

Allen Shapiro, Yonah's husband moved to Degania in 1955 from the United States. He says he too was reluctant to embrace the changes, but now believes they were a good idea.

"There were many members who were underemployed - perhaps taking advantage or at least relying on the general kibbutz rule of to each according to his needs and from each according to his abilities," says Shapiro. "People do earn more if they work more and we have a number of members who are working more than before the change and this is reflected in the economic situation of the kibbutz."

Degania occupies a special place in Israel's history. A Syrian tank was captured by Degania's members in Israel's war of Independence in 1948. The legendary Israeli general Moshe Dayan was born and raised at Degania.