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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 February 2007, 13:28 GMT
Oldest kibbutz breaks with past
By Martin Patience
BBC News, Jerusalem

Founded almost a century ago on socialist principles, Israel's oldest kibbutz has taken a step closer to privatisation.

Ariel picture of Deganai
Built on socialist principles, kibbutz life has been transformed

Last week, the members of the Degania kibbutz on the shores of the Sea of Galilee voted to make permanent a one-year trial that entitled them to their own private salaries for the first time.

Kibbutz members had previously pooled their sources of income and received salaries on the basis of need, normally dependent on family size.

Residents will now pay a progressive income tax to the community ensuring a minimum salary for those on low incomes.

Keeping up

"We cannot live as an island," said Shai Shoshani, the chairman of the kibbutz management committee.

"We have to remain connected to the outside world. We will continue to look after one another but it will be different from the past."

Archive picture Deganai
Some of the earliest residents at Degania in 1910

In spite of objections, the vote was supported by 85% of the kibbutz's 220 members.

Tamar Gal-Sarai, 46, was a strong advocate of change.

"As far as I'm concerned this was the only way to continue," said the mother-of-two who works as a manager at the kibbutz primary school.

"Before someone who worked all day wouldn't receive any more money than someone who worked for an hour. It wasn't fair. It meant some people were taking advantage of the system and it had to change."

Disproportionate influence

Ms Gal-Sarai's grandparents had been among the original 12 pioneers who founded the kibbutz in 1910 and she feels they would approve of the decision.


"I think that if they were still around then this change would have happened 20 or 30 years ago," she said.

"They would have realised long before we did that the utopian ideals couldn't be maintained."

The kibbutz movement is regarded as one of the major building blocks of the state of Israel established in 1948.

The communities produced a disproportionate number of influential political and military leaders.

The first baby born in Degania, for example, was Moshe Dayan, the famous soldier and politician, who shot to worldwide fame during the 1967 Israeli-Arab War.

The movement was known for its socialist principles, excellent educational system, and communal living.

But in the last 20 years many of these principles started eroding.

Psychological Blow

In 1985, economic measures taken to curb hyper-inflation bankrupted many companies - and the kibbutz were particularly hard hit.

Moshe Dayan
Moshe Dayan: First baby born at Degania

"I think that marked the major change in the kibbutz movement," said Daniel Gavron, author of "The Kibbutz: Awakening from Utopia".

"Before 1985, the kibbutz could always say it worked, but after that they couldn't. It was a huge economic and psychological blow to the movement."

Mr Gavron said the latest generation of leaders in the kibbutz movement reject the principle of equality but are more interested in social responsibility.

"Unlike other communes around the world, the kibbutz movement was never isolated from Israeli mainstream society," he says.

"It was tied to it like an umbilical cord. Just as Israeli society became more capitalistic, I think it was almost inevitable that the communities would follow suit."

In recent decades, the influence of the kibbutz in Israeli society has waned and the movement has taken a more capitalistic approach.

Out of the country's approximately 270 kibbutz, only 30 or 40 have remained determinedly socialist, says Mr Gavron.

For many in the movement, it's a case of evolution - either change or completely disappear.

Ms Gal-Sarai is one member that agrees with this philosophy.

"If you walk around the kibbutz everyone is happy and the place is still green and gorgeous," she says. "But people no longer ask you why you're not at work - they don't care."

Pictures of the founder members of the kibbutz

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