Redistribution of wealth must begin with Israel’s kibbutzim

Instead of continuing to give benefits to Israel’s richest sector, it is time to redivide the pie and give some of that wealth to the poorest citizens.

By Sigal Harush Yehonatan

Kibbutz members march in a 1951 ceremony. (photo: אביבה שני בית חרות/CC BY 2.5)
Kibbutz members march in a 1951 ceremony. (photo: אביבה שני בית חרות/CC BY 2.5)

In the span of just one week, two separate headlines managed to demonstrate the intolerable social and economic reality in Israel. The first was about a deal that will allow residents of kibbutzim and moshavim (Israel’s communal settlements) to build third residential units on land originally slated for agriculture. This outrageous decision essentially hands over millions of shekels to these residents, as the deal allows them to purchase the land for a third of its value.

The second article was about the yearly poverty report published earlier this week, according to which a fourth of Israel’s population lives below the poverty line.

On the face of it, it seems like these two articles have little to do with one another. But dig a little deeper, and you will find that there is a straight line connecting the rustic villas of Israel’s kibbutzim to the child — one of 775,000 — who is hungry for bread.

From pioneers to real estate mogul

These two articles are an expression how different practices stem from the same worldview. This is a worldview that is deeply embedded in Israeli society, which is expressed in nearly each of its facets. Put simply: those who ascribe to this worldview believe that there are those among us who are worth more, and those who are worth less.

The far-reaching land deal in favor of the kibbutzim and moshavim is just one of many benefits that the sector has seen over the years. The ethos surrounding this particular social group has been molded diligently, to the point that it has become the national story that each and every Israeli child learns about from a young age. It is a carefully crafted ethos that portrays pioneers as redeemers, settlers and protectors of the homeland — one that guides those who have cultivated it to become the new feudal overlords of the land.

Meanwhile, the residents of Israel’s development towns and periphery, those who shed their blood and dignity for the new Jewish state, were cast as the black laborers of the Zionist enterprise. They never belonged to the national myth of heroism or pioneering; in fact, they were generally demanded to give thanks for being brought here in the first place.

Kibbutz Givat Haim celebrates the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.
Kibbutz Givat Haim celebrates the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.

The majority of kibbutzim and moshavim control enormous swaths of land that were originally leased to them as agricultural land, and which belong to the state — meaning they belong to the entire population. Over years this land was used for commercial purposes, sprouting monstrous, capitalist entities at major highway junctions across the country. A petition to Israel’s High Court in 2001 by the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition — a social justice organization comprised of Mizrahi Jews — put an end to the kibbutz-moshav party, establishing that the land belong to everyone, and that any change in designation — from agricultural to commercial, for instance — will require compensation. Over time, kibbutzim and moshavim became tourist attractions where families spend their vacations. This is how the pioneer becomes a real estate mogul; the Zionist idealist became a Thai worker, and the flag’s color changed from socialist red to dollar-sign green. The pioneer may have disappeared, but the pioneering ethos remains, fueling the fire of his privilege.

Redividing the pie

This year’s poverty report leaves no room for doubt over the unfolding tragedy in Israel. A quarter of the population, including children, live below the poverty line. Israel’s Arab citizens and the groups that make up the periphery — Ethiopians, Mizrahim, Russians — are groups that, year after year, have the honor of being featured in the report. This social periphery (poverty is not geographically-determined, it extends across the country) has the honor, year after year, of being excluded from land, culture, income, and education.

The lack of mobility for this group is not intractable. In fact is certainly solvable. The problem is that doing so does not align with the interests of the same group at the top of the pyramid. Leaving the situation as is — with the poor on one side and a growing class of real estate moguls in kibbutzim and moshavim on the other — is the ultimate tool for the latter to maintain their power. All mobility by members of other groups goes against the established order and its weakening grasp on the corridors of power.

In order to correct this lasting injustice, we will need to take a courageous, unavoidable step. We must take the pie and redivide it at the expense of those who have always had the biggest slice (and whose slice got bigger and bigger as the years went on). The kibbutzim and moshavim will either pay the full price for the land, or they will return it. The money can be put toward one goal: reducing poverty and distributing more funds to the periphery. We will no longer answer this injustice with silence.

Even if it takes time, the periphery will wake up and demand its legal and moral right to live in dignity and have its cultures recognized. A new social fabric will be established on the ruins of the old, as we redivide the fortunes amassed by the kibbutzim and the moshavim among the poor. This will not solve all of society’s ills, it will certainly not render the concept of social justice redundant. In order to fix a historical injustice, however, this must be our starting point.

Sigal Harush Yehonatan is the spokesperson for the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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