An aerial shot of Kibbutz Maagam Michael-Photo: Dany Sternfeld-www.flickr.com
Sushi and bagels and lox are on offer in the kibbutz cafeteria at Friday brunch, along with the hard-boiled eggs and unpeeled cucumbers. In the dining room entrance hall, a television screens a continuous live-time view of the current condition of the sea, for the benefit of surfers and sailors. More than 100 kibbutz cars are available to be used by some 800 members. In other words, this is not your grandmother’s kibbutz.
The children’s houses, the austerity, the sacrifice of the individual for the sake of the totality which characterized the kibbutzim of the pioneers – those are gone. But what remains? Has socialist ideology been completely overtaken by the capitalist spirit of the times? Can ideology survive plenty? And what of the future?
I visited Kibbutz Maagan Michael recently to learn more about what kibbutz life is like these days, guided by Herman and Daphne Musikanth, a charming couple who have lived here since 1978. Herman calls the kibbutz, with some reservations - “people remain people” - Utopia. They have never regretted their decision to move here. And living as they do, near two of their children and their grandchildren, in beautiful surroundings with everything they need, who can blame them?
Admittedly, Maagan Michael, one of the wealthiest kibbutzim in Israel, may not be typical. The successful Plasson factory, a public company with branches in Germany, Brazil, India and the US, manufactures plastic and polyethylene products for the poultry industry and agriculture and has an annual turnover of some $200 million. The kibbutz Suron plant is hi-tech and in addition, the kibbutz has fish farms covering 1000 dunams, has dairy cows, ornamental fish, poultry, avocados, bananas, papayas and cotton. The total kibbutz covers an area of approximately 600 dunams of land. All this supports about 1,800 people in comfort and security.
Maagan Michael was founded in 1941 by a group of 22 young members of the Hebrew Scouts movement, next to Pardes Hanna, where they were soon joined by others. By Hagana request, they built and operated an illegal arms factory under the noses of the British, which operated until the end of the War of Independence. In 1949, the kibbutz moved to its current side site, on sand dunes overlooking the sea, and subsisted on fishing, livestock, fish ponds and field crops. By 1963, there were 240 members and the need to expand the number of jobs led to the establishment of the Plasson factory. Today, it employs about 600 people, about half from the kibbutz. Total number of members today is about 900.
The Musikanths chose to live on Maagan Michael because they had a cousin there, and they were enticed by the way of life. Herman had been a successful accountant in South Africa, but as he describes it, “I looked at family life and the way the generations lived together on the kibbutz and compared that to what it was like in South Africa, and I knew this was for us.” Adds Daphne, “From day one, this was my country.”
Life was simple and intimate in the early days, with few luxuries. Professionally, though, Herman did well. Starting out as a laborer in the plastics factory, his accountancy skills were soon discovered and made use of. He established a financial system that is still in operation. Fortunately for the kibbutz, the founders were conservative; instead of investing in fancy buildings, they put money back into industry, which is one reason the kibbutz is on such a sound financial basis today.
Although Maagan Michael is still a traditional kibbutz in many respects, such as providing three meals a day in the central dining room and a free laundry, some of its ideological principles have loosened. For example, because food was freely available, people would waste it. “As we became bigger, the wastage became more obvious. Then we decided that people would have to pay the equivalent of the cost of the ingredients. It had an immediate effect; wastage stopped. We used the money we saved to upgrade the food,” Herman explains.
Similarly, with cars freely available, people would keep them for long periods of time. “We decided to charge per hour, as well as per kilometer driven. That solved the problem.”
The children’s houses, now castigated by many who lived in them at the time, have been done away with, but as Daphne says, “We just accepted them at the time. That was the way it was.” Adds Herman, “The advantage was that all children were equal, rather than my child being better than your child, and they lived like brothers and sisters.”
In many respects, life is much easier on the kibbutz than it is in towns. Homes are relatively generous in size, ranging from 80 to 140 square meters. Members are allowed to work outside and if they do work on the kibbutz, they are not forced to take a job they don’t want. Education, including a first degree, is free, as is accommodation, water, health care and television (though not electricity to avoid wastage.) The aged and ailing are fully taken care of. The monthly budget is about NIS 6,000-10,000, without tax, adjustable for the number of children. Everyone earns the same. To some, that is controversial, considering that some people work harder than others, but that is the basic ideology, which remains unchanged.
About 90 % of kibbutz children return to live there.
As for the future, many decisions have to be taken that pit the traditional way of life against the zeitgeist of modern day Israel. How big should the kibbutz grow, while still retaining its character? How should it use its funds? What about inheritance – how can members leave something to children who are not on the kibbutz? (An inheritance fund has been created to help deal with this.)
Has the secular character of the kibbutz gone too far in eliminating Jewish tradition?
According to Herman, “I feel our way of life is more humanitarian than the world outside, but if we grow much bigger, that may change.
“The kibbutz today is much less rigid than it once was. We have members from many different ethnic backgrounds and even political views. Once, if you didn’t vote Labor, you were an outcast. That’s not true today. The movement in the kibbutz today is towards more openness.”