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October 13, 2015 | 30th Tishrei 5776

The Pendulum Swings

March 17, 2002
Marc Rosenstein

The other night I met with representatives of the remnants of the Shorashim commune, to renegotiate our lease on the prefab “caravans” we use for our hostel. The meeting brought back a host of not-so-pleasant memories of the privatization process that we went through here ten years ago.

When we arrived at Shorashim, it was a “moshav shitufi,” a socialist commune similar to a kibbutz but with a greater degree of personal independence and freedom (e.g., no dining room, no laundry). Each family placed all of its earned income into the common account, and received a house, a living allowance based on family size, with various other needs like health, culture, education, etc., at least partially covered by the community. The community owned five businesses; most people worked in them, but it was possible to work “outside” and deposit your paycheck in the common account. While an inordinate amount of time was spent on discussions of what the community should and should not pay for, and while the system did indeed make it too easy to take risks and too easy to avoid responsibility, on the whole we found it liberating, and liked the ethic of mutual responsibility upon which it was based. Moreover, the communal economy encouraged and subsidized community life, an aspect that was very attractive to those of us without extended family in Israel: the community became our extended family.

But then, within a few months of our arrival, we began to hear the rumblings of discontent: the frustrations of people nearing forty after ten years together, with no savings to show for it, and lots of debt; the burnout from endless general assemblies and committees; the feeling that the world was passing us by, as even the USSR was privatizing. Within two years, a minority who had had enough of socialism had worn down the majority, and we voted - not unanimously - to privatize, selling off the communal businesses and starting a process of parcelization of the land and private purchase of the homes - a process which took almost ten years to complete.

It turned out that the fears of those who argued that privatization would diminish members’ commitment to spend time and energy on communal activities were indeed justified. Holiday observances have gotten simpler, to say the least; the culture committee has collapsed; there is on the whole a lot less togetherness and people spend more time working. I know that the privatization was inevitable, and that there is a limit to the amout of control and intense togetherness that middle class families can take, but nevertheless something special and valuable was lost, I feel, in the transition.

The transition turned out to be a fuzzy, slow, circuitous process that is still not completed. Not only did we have to contend with a bevy of bureaucracies that didn’t know how to handle what has become an increasingly common situation, but we ourselves harbored all kinds of ambivalences, which is why the relationships between the various legal entities (the original commune, the new municipal association, and the moshav businesses that were purchased by members as private businesses) are still being sorted out ten years later. Some of the most enthusiastic supporters of privatization ended up being surprised and not entirely happy with some of its implications.

And it turns out, of course, that our little hilltop is a microcosm of Israel at large, where the “tikkun olam” idealism of the socialist pioneers who dominated the culture and politics of the country until 1977 has given way to the idolization of entrepreneurship, and the belief that socialism may not have been the messiah, but capitalism certainly is. And so today, in Israel, the land that gave the world the kibbutz, the gap between the richest and the poorest strata is among the largest and most glaring of any western country. I wonder how long it will take for the pendulum to swing back the other way...


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