Living History: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement
“I am neutral on Israel,” I said as I helped lay out the first issue of a women’s newspaper one evening in the early seventies. “After all, I am not Jewish.” Like many critical of nationalism, I was silent. After all, comments on Israeli policy can be matches igniting discussions among friends and co-workers that end in bitterness, charges of anti-Semitism, or in the case of Jewish critics, of being “self-hating Jews.” Frankly, only the bombing of Lebanon in 2006 and the invasion of Gaza last winter pushed me into open criticism of Israeli policies and my first participation in protests. White phosphorus, like napalm, is just plain wrong.
Against the current occupation of Gaza, is there a positive aspect to the project of a Jewish homeland that led to this tragedy? The answer is “yes,” if one returns to early in the last century to the early kibbutz movement. For this, A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement by James Horrox has done so much to make anti-authoritarian thought more widely available.
Horrox begins his history of the kibbutz movement with an introduction to modern anarchism, starting with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, credited with giving this political philosophy its name. Also, Horrox addresses the often-repeated libel that “anarchist” is synonymous with “terrorist.” Yes, there have been instances of violence, but the violence is miniscule compared to the violent deeds of those committed to other political philosophies, for example, nationalists. The Jewish socialists who dreamed of an egalitarian, nonauthoritarian society were deeply influenced by Peter Kropotkin, the Russian aristocrat who worked with Jewish workers during his exile in England and spoke fluent Yiddish. Who knew? His ideas about the need for a balance of intellectual and physical labor, rejection of the wage system, and holding property in common were ones that inspired those who went to what is now Israel at the beginning of the last century to revitalize a people.
Inspired by him and other thinkers, they founded cooperatives that served the member/owners in all aspects of their lives. Governmental power (Turkish and British) was weak at the time, so the kibbutzim were relatively free to create these self-managed organizations whose members met each other’s needs rather than looking to an authority. Most of the farms of the first wave of immigrants defaulted to hierarchical management and the employment of Arab workers, replicating old patterns from Russia and Eastern Europe. Many efforts at economic self-sufficiency through agriculture were hamstrung by conditions placed on Rothschild family funding, which required that agents manage the farms and supervise the workers and that a single crop be planted. They were dependent on capitalist money. (Think Bill Gates and his predilection for genetically engineered seeds and you get the idea.)
The Second Aliya, the next wave of immigrants were shocked that the old patterns of exploitation were being reconstituted in these first farms, and the newcomers were determined to be self-sufficient. Their farm, Degania, the progenitor of the kibbutz, was successful and its members ran it their way: egalitarian with a mix of crops. The utopian movement they started lasted a lot longer than the Paris Commune and the communes of revolutionary Spain. Even so, Horrox argues, their influence was eroded by the Israeli push for a state and the machinations of the British.
In this unacknowledged history, today’s radical will find cautionary and inspiring stories, even if neither Jewish nor anarchist.