Environmentalists hope to restore the kibbutz movement to its former place on the leading edge of social innovation

by Jan Martin Bang

Imagine a string of villages, settled over the last twenty five years by young people from all over the world, inspired by the ideals of building a new society. A cooperative society, not using money, trusting each other, each village having unique characteristics, owning all things in common, bringing up their children in a new educational system, practicing democracy at a grass roots, village level. In short, building a new type of culture.

Doesn't that sound inspiring? Can such a thing exist? Is this just a dream? A utopia, no place?

On the plane down it dawned on me that I was on my way to a world where dreams were indeed being built, and my task there for the next few days became all the more important. The twenty seater plane was less than half full, but we were all members of different kibbutz communities, on our way down to the southern part of the Arava valley, some distance north of Eilat. Here the mountainous deserts of Jordan to the east and Egypt on the west squeeze Israel into a narrow corridor giving access to the Gulf of Akaba and the Red Sea.

The inflight snacks were on the back seat.
-Help yourself.
-Would the pilots like some too?

Unfortunately the noise of the engines was too loud for talk, and as it was an evening flight there was not so much to see except for pretty lights down below. I read, dozed and thought about the next few days. I had been invited down to visit seven kibbutz communities to talk to them about the Green Kibbutz Group, a new organization of sustainable communities in the process of being formed. This was an area which comprised only kibbutz, the whole of the regional municipality was exclusively settled by these type of communities, and if most of them could be interested in joining, it would strengthen the Group, and make the area very strong in its commitment to a green future.

We were met at the airstrip, on Kibbutz Yotfata, by a car from Kibbutz Ketura where I was to be staying. When we arrived it was all so familiar, the dining hall, visitors rooms, the members lounge with coffee on tap and biscuits to eat. No money changes hands, I felt deep in the bosom of kibbutz socialism.

On Kibbutz Samar my purpose was to talk to Brian about their Sunergy Project, an ambitious idea of harvesting all their electrical needs directly from the sun, using photovoltaics, and hooking into the national grid as a battery. In other words, when their use of electricity exceeded the amount provided by the sun, the grid would supply the shortfall, but when it was less, the surplus from their PV panels would be fed into the grid, and the electricity company would pay them for it.

The members of Samar have initiated a number of environmentally friendly projects over the last few years. Part of their date groves are organically managed, they are evolving a style of building that is of interest to environmentalists, their new library building is an earth sheltered construction, and additions to their houses are constructed with free form ferroconcrete.

Samar is a very radical community. One of the stories that circulates around the Kibbutz Movement about them is the story of their common purse. They used to have cash freely available in a basket in the dining room, whoever needed any could go and help themselves. This wasn't actually denied, but I saw no evidence of this basket when we had lunch together there. However, they do set their own budgets, both of money and of labor days, and the different members differing needs are respected and catered for. They are not strong on committee work, preferring to give themselves an anarchic freedom to do the things that seem best to each one. And they keep themselves solvent, generating a profit each year to invest in projects of various kinds. On the way down to the dairy farm Brian showed me some solar powered glow lights, enough to mark the path on moonless nights.

- Why not make them a bit bigger, I suggested, so they can light up the path itself?
- Oh, we don't like too much change here, it tends to upset people. We're really quite conservative, you know.

That was it! Conservative radicalism. Having found a social system which gave each member the maximum freedom within community, they were concerned to preserve it with the self discipline needed so that one person's activities should not infringe the autonomy of others.

The solar project was being developed in conjunction with the University of Beer Sheba, who have a research site at the Sde Boker Field School. The first step of the project has already been completed, being the construction of a pilot project at the field school, together with Professor David Faiman, which is already hooked up and delivering clean electricity to the national grid.

Kibbutz Lotan hosted a one day workshop on Permaculture a year ago, and the garden that was built as a part of that course is still producing vegetables for the dining room, and is remarkably free of weeds and pests. In addition, there are a number of other projects which are being considered, including the establishment of a bird sanctuary and a research project on solar cooling. New ways of creating an income are also being sought. Out of the discussion we had with Philip, in charge of the cooling research, Alon, the environmental coordinator and Naftali, the kibbutz financial manager emerged the idea of inviting groups of visitors and showing them the workings of a Green Kibbutz.

- But what can we show them to illustrate this? We don't have enough projects up and running yet.
- Show them some of the things you take for granted. Some of the things that are environmentally friendly by virtue of being communal. Let's take the car pooling system for a start. That's something we kibbutz members take for granted, yet it is a very environmentally approach to the motor car, and a good step away from the private car syndrome currently sweeping the country and threatening to strangle completely the mobility of people in cities such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

It is clear that many of the features of kibbutz society are not seen in an environmental focus. Sharing resources such as cars, washing, and eating makes for much less impact upon our natural ecology. Just the reduction in the amount of food packaging achieved by bulk buying is quite significant. Kibbutz certainly has not solved all the ecological problems of our society, but it is a long step forward from the consumer oriented nuclear family situation prevalent in most western societies.

January in the Arava is not really cold, but when we reached Neot Smadar in time for breakfast there was an icy wind blowing. Neot Smadar is in the mountains above the Arava, and we were glad to get into the shelter of their dining room. The spread of food greeting us was a feast for the eye as well as for the stomach. Freshly picked vegetables from their own gardens, herbs of many different kinds by the water boiler, milk, yogurt and cheese from their own herd of organically fed goats. The kibbutz is in many ways already far down the road to being a Green Kibbutz, but were having serious doubts about joining the rest of us, as they have doubts about joining any organization, preferring to go their own road in their own way.

The construction of their Arts Center was well in hand, self designed and self built out of adobe mud brick, and cooled by a water tower with underground ducts to all the wings of the complex. A holiday village is also planned, the groves having already been planted to provide shade for the cottages. Promoting these ventures more widely is one of the advantages of joining with like minded communities.

As we walked round with Anat, the kibbutz secretary, and Nava, who was responsible for agriculture we saw vineyards, olive trees, vegetables, a large thriving goat herd and serious compost heaps which kept the luscious growth going in this desert environment. A kibbutz which could have much to teach other communities about healthy eating and healthy growing, Neot Smadar would certainly be an asset to the Green Kibbutz Group.

Pressure to take more note of environmental concerns comes from many different directions. At Kibbutz Yahel there is an active seminar center, and Amnon, in charge of marketing, explained how they had decided to stop using plastic cups after an overwhelming amount of negative comments on the evaluation forms they issued to each group who they hosted. Idit, the kibbutz secretary, took us around on a tour which included the library, a truly sumptuous building donated to the kibbutz by the wider Reform movement, to which they are affiliated. We had ended up at the seminar center and were sitting with Lori, the manageress, and with Amnon.

- After all, the customer is always right, commented Amnon, and we have to bow to pressure from them. There is no doubt that awareness is rising, and we cannot be unaffected by this. So we are looking into using either recyclable cups, or ones that can be washed and reused.

This whole municipality is composed exclusively of kibbutz communities and this topic came up in discussion with Dina, the secretary of Kibbutz Grofit, and Ada, the environmental coordinator. A suggestion had been made to construct a new settlement in the valley, one which would not be a kibbutz. This has been met with a certain amount of resistance, the concern being that such a village would have different needs and priorities, and might be hard to integrate into an area with already set patterns and structures.

I spent the last evening at a meeting with the environmental committee of Kibbutz Ketura, and though I had toured with David, the secretary of the kibbutz, and we had talked about many of the projects which were currently underway, it was good to get the perspective of the group as a whole. Probably the most exciting project at Ketura is the setting up of a university department devoted to Desert Ecology, inviting students from abroad, and aimed at working together with Arabs from neighboring countries. This would have a stimulating effect on developing desert ecology as a discipline, and cooperation between countries which until recently have been at war with each other. There can be no better way to cement this freshly won peace than working together to improve the environment, especially one as problematic as the desert.

On the way home on the early morning flight I reflected on what I had experienced over the last few days. I had been privileged to visit a group of communities who were looking to the future with an earnest wish to create a culture and a lifestyle that would be sustainable and kind to the natural ecology in which they found themselves. This desire to give something worthwhile to the future was so in keeping with traditional kibbutz ideology that here indeed lay the future of our movement. We were founded upon a desire to build something for future generations, and much of this has been dissipated in the fast paced modern life we find ourselves in, compounded of intrusive western dreams of consumerism and competition. The task of the Green Kibbutz Group became quite clear to me, to find this concern in every kibbutz in the country, and nurture it, helping it along to make the kibbutz movement once again a leading social experiment. Where modern consumerism and capitalism armed with the latest technology are creating a wasteland unfit for human habitation, we have a task to create a new society, one which will use the technology available to us, in a spirit of cooperation, to create communities which will be sustainable and live lightly on the land.

Is this Utopia, no place? Is it just a dream, or is it , in the words of Albert Bates from The Farm in Tennessee, USA, one of the founders of the Global Eco Village Network, Eutopia, a good place?

Jan Martin Bang is an archaeologist. Originally from Norway, he currently resides at Kibbutz Gezer, D.N. Shimshon, Israel 73220. Tel. +972(0)89270650. E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This article was published in New Renaissance magazine Vol.7 No.1