Kibbutz: the word sounds strong and decisive, ergo divisive. I have never been sure what category to put the kibbutz in. Is it any different from a settlement? Were the people socialists trying to build a progressive version of Israel or Zionists in communist clothes? We recently stayed four nights in a kibbutz, for lack of alternative accommodation options in the stunning Arava area and also perhaps to scratch a curiosity and to learn more about kibbutz life.
The kibbutz is an Israeli phenomena. The first kibbutz was founded in 1909, and they went on to have a heyday in the 1960s with many Europeans and socialist sympathisers coming to volunteer in kibbutzim. Most were small communities, dedicated to agriculture and living communally together. Today there are still around 270 kibbutzim across Israel and although things have changed significantly, they still carry a hippie reputation.
We stayed at Kibbutz Lotan, deep in the Negev desert, isolated apart from the several other kibbutzim that are located nearby. Established in 1983, it is one of the newer kibbutzim.
The Lotan offers simple but comfortable rooms for couples or families with a shared kitchen and BBQ facilities. We went with another family and the kids had a riot exploring the grounds which had lots of things to keep them occupied including a playground, a fishpond and a perpetual stream of loose cats and dogs to play with.
In the evening we were surprised that Arabic was the main language amongst the other residents. One man told us that he was from Hebron and he stayed and worked here during the week, travelling home at weekends. It wasn’t clear if he was employed on the kibbutz or was using it as affordable accommodation, but it was another side to the hidden economy of Palestinian workers.
On our final morning we took a tour with a young kibbutz member to hear more about life on the kibbutz. Leor was probably in her late 20s and was wispily thin and wore black doc martin boots, tracksuit bottoms and a long sleeved t-shirt and scarf. She had delicate and pretty features and her naturally dark hair was died a peroxide blonde. We would have guessed she was vegan before she told us.
She was very open about life on the kibbutz and extremely knowledgeable about the environmental projects they pioneered. She had grown up on a nearby kibbutz and explained that everything had been provided for. There was food in the kitchens for people to cook with. Children attended the school as their parents worked in the date fields on in other farming roles and people didn’t need to handle money.
There were benefits to this familiar community, but the downsides were that some people suffered from not having money for the things they needed and as Leor explained, ‘everyone knew everything about each other’.
She said that until six years ago Lotan had also been run entirely communally with all money and other resources being shared. Things had now changed, and people could choose where they wanted to work and what they did with their money. People had more privacy as a result and Leor thought these were all good things.
Certainly, when we were there, it seemed like a hive of activity where everyone had a role to play and we saw people emptying the bins, cutting down trees, servicing the guest house rooms and generally maintaining order across the grounds.
Leor said that on Friday’s there was still a communal Shabbat dinner with songs and prayers but that observance of the Shabbat was not strictly enforced and people had more freedom to live how they wanted to here. There was also no requirement now for all employees to be kibbutz members and external recruitment of key positions (such as finance manager) had allowed the kibbutz to professionalise and commercialise its services more. The majority of the kibbutzim across Israel seem to have moved in this direction over the past few decades and Leor thought that only a few still lived the traditional kibbutz lifestyle.
Leor showed us the environmental projects which were founded on the principles of building and living sustainably. The kibbutz had perfected techniques for building with mud and had constructed many things in this way including huts, a playground and other structures. She demonstrated how compostable toilets were used to create fertiliser for the trees and how bio-gas was being generated from food scraps. The kibbutz has become well established as an educator in these areas and offered a range of courses for people to learn about permacultures and sustainability. As we walked around, a group of students milled around engaged in outdoor lectures and activities like establishing their own composters in dustbins.
Living in the desert entailed battling for survival against a harsh climate and limited resources. Summer was long and daily temperatures often exceeded 40 degrees with 50 degrees not being unheard of. This had no doubt sparked the creative approach to sustainability. Far from being niche and ‘hippie’ however, these projects felt like positive demonstrations of a future we would all have to embrace sooner or later.
Another young person we spoke to had come to the kibbutz as part of their national service which some people could do instead of military service. Lamenting the fact that Israel still had compulsory military service for both young women and men, she shrugged and said ‘small country, lots of enemies’.
I am not sure what I expected, but we didn’t find any skeletons in the kibbutz closet. Nobody we met was preachy or domineering in their religious or political views, if anything they were laidback and inclusive. I was sorry not to have been there to join a Friday Shabbat dinner and because of COVID-19, breakfast was delivered to our room rather than the communal dining hall where we might have met more residents.
It seems that many Israelis also don’t know what to make of kibbutzim today and this opinionated piece gives one take on that. If you find yourself in the Arava area however, you could do much worse than to spend a few nights at the Kibbutz Lotan which won’t break the bank and is a good base for exploring this stunningly beautiful area.