As a secular and democratic community, the kibbutz—first founded in 1910—strove to implement egalitarian principles as expressed in the slogan: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” In addition, from the 1920s on, due to kibbutz women’s collective action, gender equality became part and parcel of the kibbutz movement’s normative discourse, a kind of “self-understood symbol of this classless society” (Bernstein, 1992; Fogiel-Bijaoui, 1992; Izraeli, 1992; Near, 1992; Reinharz, 1992).
Nearly a century later, however, the kibbutz is strongly marked by social and economic stratification; privatization—i.e., transfer of functions from the community to the individual and the family—is in process, while the introduction of differential remunerations for work may give a decisive coup de grace to the egalitarian ideology (Topel, 1995; Ben Rafael, 1997; Achouch, 2000; Ben-Rafael, Topel, 2003, Avrahami, 2002). Moreover, it appears that the kibbutz today—more than ever in the past—is a gendered, male-oriented and male-dominated community (Palgi et al. 1983; Palgi and Adar, 1997; Zamir, 1999; Adar, 2002; Lieblich, 2002).
What follows seeks to provide a coherent framework for describing and understanding this captivating “venture in utopia” (Spiro, 1971) and the gender order institutionalized in that community. Thus, focusing on women’s and men’s agency to analyze the kibbutz’s gender order and the dynamics of social change, we shall relate to four interrelated factors: 1. The social construction of women in the kibbutz, which equates womanhood and motherhood while, at the same time, the social construction of men identifies manhood as the effective symbol of kibbutz ideology and kibbutz organization. (On the social construction of masculinity see Connell, 1995; MacInnes, 1998; Whitehead and Barrett, 2001). 2. The normative meaning given in the kibbutz to gender equality, constructed here as women’s ascension to the level of men. 3. The gendered allocation of tasks and the structure of the apparatus of production. 4. The institutionalization of parental roles.
Women’s history in the kibbutz can be conceived of as women’s Sisyphean attempts—at the collective and at the individual level—to be both normative mothers and equal haverot (female members) in a male-dominated utopian community which institutionalized equality according to masculine standards. (On the social construction of motherhood, cf: De Beauvoir, 1975; Badinter, 1980; Rich, 1985; Le Faucheur, 1998; Berkovitch, 1999; Lamdan, 2001.)
Following this argument, this article will be divided into four parts according to the collective struggle women conducted to shape their own space and transform the gender order in the kibbutz.
There can be no doubt that in the two decades between 1911 (the founding of the first kevuzah, Deganyah Alef) and 1930, the kibbutz women succeeded in implementing radical changes in order to achieve gender equality. These changes occurred, even though the young women of the Second Aliyah (1904–1918) and of the Third Aliyah (1919–1923) were only a small minority among the young halutzim (male pioneers)—themselves a tiny portion among these two waves of immigrants. In fact, women constituted only twenty-five to thirty percent of the Third Aliyah halutzim, and that was by far a larger percentage than the percentage of women among the pioneers of the Second Aliyah (Fogiel-Bijaoui, 1992). Like their comrades, the halutzot (female pioneers) came to Palestine to build a new society of agricultural workers according to the Zionist-Socialist ideology. Unlike them, however, at this crossroad of Jewish history they wanted to create “a new Jewish woman” together with a “new Jewish man” in the “new Jewish society.”
As a matter of fact, in the kevuzah—a small, intimate agricultural collective and the forerunner of the kibbutz during the Second Aliyah—it seems that the conscious rebellion against traditional Jewish society did not extend to women’s rights and duties: the women were automatically assigned to the kitchen and the laundry, and with the birth of the first children they were automatically given prime responsibility for child-care; moreover, women suffered from the degrading attitudes of the men (Maimon, 1955; Bernstein and Lipman, 1992; Izraeli, 1992; Shilo, 1992; Bernstein, 2001).
The women, however, were far from resigning themselves to this situation. On numerous occasions, they raised the problem of their scarcely enviable status within the kevuzah, which was considered the most revolutionary creation of the Jewish Workers’ Movement in Palestine. As early as 1911, the first organized meeting of women took place in Kinneret, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, to discuss the place of women in the Zionist revolution, in the Jewish Workers’ Movement and within the kevuzah. At this encounter, the seeds of the Women Workers’ Movement were sown.
By 1914, at the end of the Second Aliyah, the status of women within the collective was radically transformed: the rigid, traditional and gendered allocation of tasks had loosened up with time. Men had indeed agreed to participate from time to time—and not on a regular basis—in performing the “dirty work” hitherto reserved for women: dishwashing, lighting the stoves, carrying heavy pots, chopping wood, cleaning the floor, etc. On the other hand, women had become agriculturalists and had even developed new branches of agriculture, especially that of market gardening. In addition, after the birth of several children, a communal child-care system was established since mothers like Miriam Baratz, the first mother in Deganyah (Sinai, 2002), positively refused to give up their work within the kevuzah. It is important to stress that though “collective care” was considered most revolutionary, it included neither night hours nor a common dormitory, but “only” the care given the child during the daytime. After the day’s work the child rejoined its parents, played with them and slept in their room. Nevertheless, such a day-care system did not arouse enthusiasm on the part of all the “founding mothers”—quite the contrary. It therefore became necessary to convince most of them that they could give up taking care of their baby in the daytime without the child suffering as a result (Fogiel-Bijaoui, 1992).
Between these positive developments and gender equality, however, there was a long way to go, and in fact within the kevuzah women were never the equals of their male companions. They never entered agricultural production on an equal footing with men; since they were not defined as full-fledged members of the kevuzah, they had no direct earnings and were employed by the male members as wage labor, while their monthly income was less than that of men, even if they worked in agriculture. Moreover, they were not always invited to take part in the kevuzah’s internal decision-making. Last but not least, from the very beginning only the women operated the services allocated to the newborn, without the men entering the scene: children were cared for by the women of the kevuzah—by their mothers and the other women acting as “surrogate mothers” while the role of the father generally consisted only of playing with his child.
During the Third Aliyah, in the early 1920s, a decisive change took place with the foundation of the kibbutz, a more socialist-oriented and larger commune than the kevuzah. One of the main objectives of this change was to encourage true and equal integration of women into collective life. Collective services were established, not only common services such as meals, the kitchen, the refectory, the laundry (even clothing and showers were collectivized for a time), but also the “children’s house” where children slept together outside their parents’ dwelling (Tsur et al., 1982, 173–213).
As a result, not only did the kibbutz family no longer function as a production unit, but its function as a consumer unit was reduced to a minimum, while its educative function was largely restricted, since education and child-care were mostly the task of the community (Shepher and Fogiel-Bijaoui, 1992). At this time, the kibbutz family cell constituted primarily an “emotional shelter” for its members. A parent-child relationship did of course exist, but it was placed under the vigilant eye of the community, personified by the metapelet, the woman in charge of child-care. And so, once out of the hospital, the newborns were housed in the “children’s house” and spent only a few hours daily with their parents, in the afternoon (between two and four hours, depending on their age). Modes of education were determined by the kibbutz committee on education. As for the “great fundamental decisions,” they were made by the general assembly of the kibbutz (ibid).
It is amazing that gender inequality persisted within such a revolutionary framework, in such a radical society, clearly committed to gender equality. In 1926, for instance, in the work archives of kibbutz Tel-Yosef—one of the first kibbutzim, founded in 1923—agriculture (the prestigious branch) was conducted almost totally by men, while services (construed as the “non-productive branch”) were almost entirely conducted by women (Rozen, 1984, 77).
Such a gendered division of labor also existed with regard to the key positions of the kibbutzim, as for example at En-Harod, the first kibbutz, founded in 1921. Yokheved Bat-Rachel, one of the leading figures of the kibbutz, writes:
I realized that at En-Harod the secretariat of the kibbutz was all male, even though the women work in the barn, the poultry coop, the garden, and do all kinds of hard work and though, in addition, they carry the burden of raising the children after working hours (Bat-Rachel, 1981, 94).
In order to deal with this situation and ensure a minimal representation of women, a group of En-Harod women, Bat-Rachel among them, demanded a quota of one-third for women delegates within the institutions of the Kibbutz Movement and of the workers’ movement in general (Bat-Rachel, 1981, 96). Once accepted, this proposal became the “Law of the Third” (Hok Ha-Shlish) and for years remained a legislative principle within the workers’ movement, even though it was not always applied (ibidem; Fogiel-Bijaoui, 1992).
We have yet to explain the fact that during these two decades, the most revolutionary decades of the communal settlements, gender inequality nevertheless persisted. To do so we have to refer, on the one hand, to the way gender identities and gender equality were constructed in that revolutionary society; on the other hand, we have to refer to the way these social constructions came to be implemented in the economic structure of the kibbutz—each of these factors reinforcing the other. For instance, during the 1920s, the most radical years of these revolutionary decades, there is no doubt that collectivization of services allowed women to become integrated into production, but this was done “with reservations.”
Actually, deference to masculinity (which then came to be expressed in the external appearance of the women, the way they dressed, cut their hair, etc), as well as the importance of physical strength, given the low level of technology at the time, had made the halutzim the most “adequate” and most “profitable” workers for agriculture: the economic viability of the kibbutz experiment and its ability to compete with the outside market rested first and foremost on men’s shoulders. As a result, even at the time of collectivization, pioneer women continued to work according to the principle of “internal rotation” as in the Second Aliyah, dividing their activity between certain agricultural branches (the poultry coop, the barn, the vegetable garden, the apiary), auxiliary services (cooking, laundry, cleaning) and child care. As for men, they occasionally participated in auxiliary services (if assigned the duty or during labor shortages) but they were never to be seen in the kitchen and never took care of small children. Moreover, since the men constituted more than seventy percent of the members, there was no shortage of males and thus no urgent need to call upon women in the agricultural branches (Blumberg, 1983).
The question remains as to how the pioneer women, who denied the legitimacy of profitability as the organizing principle in the capitalist social order, could nevertheless accept it in their “classless society.” The answer is to be found in the social construction of motherhood and in the way it was institutionalized in the kibbutz. Indeed, collectivization of services and child rearing, radical though they might have been, in no way meant the end of the family or the negation of the parental role. Rather, it meant the end of the patriarchal family and the creation of a new nuclear family, whose existential basis was no longer private property but the affective bonds between its members. Within this context the place reserved for the child in Jewish tradition remained intact. In the kibbutz, just as within the framework of traditional Judaism, the child remained synonymous with love and happiness. Motherhood—constructed as “innate motherhood”—was perceived as the very essence of the feminine nature, enabling any woman, whether or not a mother, to take care of children. That is why, given deplorable living conditions and high child mortality, breastfeeding and no other modern system—which might have relieved women of this “imperative duty”—was unanimously adopted as the only means to ensure the survival of the suckling, thus de facto creating a rigid gendered division of labor.
The mother was therefore the one who not only fed her child, but also took care of all its needs when the child was in its parents’ room. Moreover, according to the kibbutz construction of motherhood, all women were first steered towards tasks involved in the care of children. In other words, the social construction of motherhood in the kibbutz finally legitimized the organization of production according to the criteria of profitability, in the eyes of both halutzim and halutzot. Many did not accept these principles of collective upbringing, an educational system which undoubtedly implied a minimalization of family functions and redefinition of parental functions. Many left the kibbutz, while among those who stayed there was no consensus on the educational system. The price exacted by this was doubts, rigidity and anguish. The most affected were the women, especially those who wanted to be both equal haverot and (kibbutz normative) mothers (Bassevitch and Bat-Rachel, 1944). To be both mother and pioneer was, it seemed, the maximum equality women could aspire to; the economic and social independence of women, the collective system of education and the community of services were the very symbols of the feminist-socialist revolution. At that time the kibbutz constituted one of the boldest human experiments, even when compared with the “Big Sister,” Russia. Hence the feeling of impasse, frustration and sometimes even despair (Fogiel-Bijaoui, 1992).
During the 1930s the leaders of the kibbutz movement themselves acknowledged the failure in achieving gender equality. Thus in 1935 Meir Yaari (1897–1987), one of the leaders of the radical stream of the kibbutz movement, Ha-Kibbutz ha-Arzi Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir, speaking at a meeting of his movement, asked: “ Why have we failed so miserably in this field?” (quoted in Fogiel-Bijaoui, 1992, 223).
Data referring to the late 1940s, compiled by Tiger and Shepher (1976), confirm the validity of his remarks. According to their research, gender equality existed neither in the domain of work nor in the area of politics in the kibbutzim of the time. For instance, in 1948, in eight kibbutzim of the Ihud, a kibbutz federation with a pragmatic socialist orientation, 78.3 percent of the women worked in services (services for adults, child care, education) as compared with 16.7 percent of the men. That same year, 15.2 percent of the women worked in production as distinct from 58.2 percent of the men (Tiger and Shepher, 86). The situation was the same in political life. Referring to political participation among 3,400 members of twenty-four kibbutzim of the Ha-Kibbutz ha-Arzi federation in the years 1943–1944, Tiger and Shepher (124) reported a comparatively low rate of women’s public/political activity: women were only twenty-nine percent of the members in the various committees; their percentage was thirty-seven percent among those working in branch management in agriculture, industry and services and they were only 19.4 percent of those engaged in external political activity, i.e. holding a position within the movement’s federative organization at the national level. A partial explanation of what is described here relates to the growth of services in the kibbutz during the 1930s and 1940s, following an increase in birth rates and a rise in the standard of living, partly due to the modernization of kibbutz agriculture. Between 1931 and 1948, the kibbutz population grew from 4,391 to 47,408 persons; its percentage of the total Jewish population of Palestine went up from 2.5 percent in 1931 to 7.5 percent in 1948, a record figure never reached either earlier or later (Shur, 1976, 197–198). While this noteworthy increase was certainly linked to Jewish immigration to Palestine, the birth rates in the kibbutzim had already risen, since many of them were now composed of families, with a far more equal ratio of women to men, sometimes up to fifty percent (Fogiel-Bijaoui, 1992, 225). The rise in the standard of living and the increase in the birth rate allowed and entailed the extension of services, while the work force that was steered toward the services was a distinctly female one.
In the 1920s, three kibbutz federations were constituted: Hever ha-Kevuzot, founded in 1926 and composed mainly of small agricultural collective settlements, later became Ihud ha-Kevuzot ve-ha-Kibbutzim. Ha-Kibbutz ha-Me’uhad, founded in 1927, stood for large agricultural as well as industrial collective settlements, open to all. Ha-Kibbutz ha-Arzi, also founded in 1927, was always the most radical in its socialist orientation. In 1980, the Ihud united with Ha-Kibbutz ha-Me’uhad to form Takam, The United Kibbutz Movement. Today, the majority of kibbutzim (254 out of 272) belong to two federations: Takam with 170 kibbutzim and Ha-Kibbutz ha-Arzi with eighty-four. Since the late 1990s, these two movements have been in a process of unification, i.e. of becoming “The Kibbutz Movement.” Two small religious federations—Ha-Kibbutz ha-Dati with sixteen kibbutzim and Po’alei Agudat Israel with two—maintain separate frameworks on the margins of the large federations (Fogiel-Bijaoui, 1992; Ben Rafael, Topel, 2003).
As in the first two decades of the kibbutz, a gendered allocation of work was based on “economic rationality.” Actually, most women were steered in advance toward services and did not work in “productive sectors,” having no such access to vocational training as the men, which in turn kept them further from the productive sectors. In this context, it was rightly viewed as a plain waste to bring men, technically prepared for production, into services or to steer women—who had no vocational training—toward production.
Besides, as in the first two decades, the social construction of motherhood and the institutionalization of parenthood only supported and reinforced this state of affairs. Indeed, those years, like the earlier ones, were marked by the considerable importance given to the child by the members of the kibbutz. This attitude was expressed by permanent and “massive” recourse to professionals in education (pediatricians, psychologists, teachers) in order to construct an optimal educational system in the framework of collectivized child-care. In this context, it sometimes seemed that the values of Judaism (the “Jewish Mother”) coincided with the most modern theories in the fields of education, psychology and medicine by affirming the predominance of the mother over the father in ensuring the optimal development of the child.
Nonetheless, this revolutionary system of upbringing did not please everybody and quite often led to waves of departures, generally at the initiative of women who rejected such modes of childrearing (Maimon, 1955, 152–153). Those who stayed in the kibbutz, especially the women, were asking themselves many questions about collective child-rearing, torn as they were between their traditional conception of parenthood and the new definition they were developing. The anguish would burst out in almost cyclic fashion during heated discussions, every time the question of the kibbutz children was raised (Tsur, 1982, 286–296). Such dilemmas and tensions only served to stress the importance of the “innate mother” in comparison with the father, in the eyes of the men as much as in those of women. As a result of this approach of “innate motherhood,” the gendered division of roles within the families grew more and more traditional. At the collective level, it caused women to gradually leave production and concentrate on child-linked services.
However, in order to better understand gender inequality in the kibbutz during the years 1930–1948, other factors directly connected to contemporary events must be taken into account. At the time, especially from the mid–1930s with the national upsurge of the Arabs of Palestine, the Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine) was fighting for its survival and its future, and the role of the kibbutz was that of “an elite in the service of the nation.”
Although women participated in the struggle for a national home and eventual independence, this in no way changed the gendered distribution of roles in the kibbutz. One of the reasons, we would argue, is that despite their feelings of frustration and anger, the war restrained women from struggling for equality of rights and led them to fight for equality of duties. This came about for two main reasons:
a. In wartime, the rights of the individual and of the citizen become secondary, not only so far as the government is concerned but also in the eyes of the individuals themselves ( Yuval-Davis, 1997; Thebaud, 1998; Goodman, 2002). Thus, at times when issues of life and death were critical for the Yishuv and for the entire Jewish people (World War II), the problem of gender equality became more secondary than ever in the eyes of the kibbutz and of its women members.
b. The concept of equality adopted from the start by the women members of the kibbutz was one which made equality of rights subject to equality of duties. Thus the more militant women mobilized for “ the right to do their duty” for the Yishuv and the Jewish people, their model being the “real warriors,” i.e. the men (Maimon, 1955, 195 –205; 251–256). In 1936, with the national uprising of the Arabs of Palestine, when men once again denied their female comrades the possibility of standing guard around the kibbutzim, there was a rebellion. Under the leadership of a handful of women from En-Harod, the women of the kibbutzim demanded to be included in the defense of the communes. The “Women’s Rebellion,” as it was called, was both swift and strong and quickly attained its goal. This was the last collective action by women to protest their position in the kibbutz of the pre-1948 era (Bassevitch, 1981, 112–114; Bassevitch and Bat-Rachel, 1944, 89; Slutzki, 1972, 3, 1224–1225).
However, each time the Haganah (the Yishuv defense organization) assumed new tasks, the debate on the role and contribution of women within its ranks burst forth once again with increasing vigor. Such debates also took place within the elite commando of the Haganah, the Palmah, of which one-sixth of the members in 1948 were women, mostly young and single (Elad, 2000).
The role of kibbutz women in the national struggle in no way changed the unequal gender order in the kibbutz, which was economically structured and legitimized by a non-egalitarian definition of parenthood. Thus it was precisely during this period that gender inequality increased, especially in the economic sphere.
With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, it became evident that the kibbutz had lost its status as the “socialist vanguard of the future Jewish society.” Most of its national functions (populating remote areas, developing agriculture, assuming defense and military roles) were now fulfilled by the state; the percentage of its population in Israeli society was steadily decreasing—4.2 percent of all Israeli citizens in 1952; 2.8 percent in 1983 (Pavin, 2002, 121)—while its prestige and power were declining. These years were precisely the time when kibbutz women struggled to resume many of their traditional (Jewish) functions as mothers and wives, while from the 1970s on they also tried to gain some access to the new employment and educational opportunities created by the “kibbutz industrial revolution” (Fogiel-Bijaoui, 1992a, 109–124).
On the surface, the dramatic transition to independence and statehood had no influence on the gender order in the kibbutz community, which remained characterized by the same gender inequality as before. For instance, according to Yonina Talmon-Garber (1970, 61), in the kibbutzim of the Ihud in the mid-1950s sixty-three percent of the men and only eleven percent of the women worked in the high-status “productive” branches; in the same year, seventy-three percent of the women and only eleven percent of the men worked in services. The same situation existed at the decision-making level of the kibbutz: eleven percent of the male members and only two percent of the female members were in charge of any public function. On the whole, women did not hold powerful positions such as treasurer, general economic manager or general secretary. A decade later, Leon (1969, 130–132) reported more or less the same figures for the Ha-Kibbutz ha-Arzi.
As Amiya Lieblich (2002, 67) puts it:
[…] there was always a predominance of women in the “services” while men were free to work in the high-status “productive” branches. Thus women’s work was of lesser community value. The more children were born, the greater proportion of women that had to work in child-care and child-related services, including education on different levels. A pattern was clearly established: men engaged in traditional male occupations—agriculture, industry and other productive work—and women in “services”—child-care, education, kitchen and laundry. Moreover, from its earliest days, the kibbutz’s democratic institutions were almost entirely dominated by men. “Women spoke far less in the general meetings, were rarely elected to the central decision-making bodies of the kibbutz, and virtually never held such administrative posts as farm manager or secretary.” Women were active only in committees within their own occupational domains, namely education, health, clothing and the distribution of consumer goods” (Near, 1992, 367).
However, this description is only partial for it does not take into account the role women played in the 1950s and 1960s in initiating and leading a drastic reform, which resulted in minimizing the collectivization of child-care and the educational system and in bringing the children back home. Indeed, in the 1950s and 1960s kibbutz members promoted some individualistic changes in their daily life. Central to this trend was the desire of women to revert to many of their traditional functions as “real wife and mother”: for instance, more and more women began to launder and iron themselves because they were critical of the quality of the collective service; a four o’clock family snack was instituted, at which parents and children—and sometimes grandchildren—met in the parents’ room, while more and more members began to have their evening meal in their room instead of in the collective dining-room. In the 1960s a “love-hour” was even adopted where young mothers could come to the children’s house in the middle of their work-day for thirty to sixty minutes in order to breastfeed and/or play with their children. Women’s concentration in the services and men’s concentration in production, as depicted above, certainly explain the fact that the male members and the kibbutz establishment accepted this behavior; after all, these changes did not affect either the economic structure of the kibbutz or the basic values of the collective, since women, as service workers, worked in the kibbutz and could come to the children’s house for a while before returning to work (Shepher, Fogiel-Bijaoui, 1992, 30–41).
It is precisely in this de facto favorable context that women brought about the most radical change in the kibbutz at that time, namely the transition from collective to familial sleeping arrangements or, as Lieblich puts it, it is in this context that women took leadership in “changing the kibbutz from a collective of individuals to a community of families” (Lieblich, 2002, 70).
The transformation from collective to familial lodging, which was decided upon in 1967 and implemented during the following decades, was not only a tremendous change in kibbutz life but also an immense expense for all kibbutzim, since it necessitated rebuilding the single room so as to transform it into a family apartment capable of accommodating the children. Moreover, this transition to familial lodging further limited women’s ability to participate in the collective activities and public functions of the kibbutz, for most of the “new” child-care (at night or in the morning, before daycare or school day) and “new” housework fell on women’s shoulders.
Much has been written and discussed about what seems to be a paradoxical process: women living in an egalitarian community, ideologically committed to gender equality, fought to institutionalize in that community some of the basic functions and roles allocated to them in patriarchy.
Most certainly, as Ben Rafael and Weitman (1984) have argued, women turned to the family domain out of their frustration with the discrimination against them in the kibbutz from the very beginning; segregated in the inferior “service” branches and excluded from political and economic power positions, women found refuge, i.e. some power and prestige, in their families.
Actually, by this time the family institution had already become the “de facto ally” of the kibbutz, even though the early kibbutz was not family-oriented. Ben Rafael (1997, 61) even argues that the early kibbutz was characterized by “its virulent antifamilism,” though this was not yet conceptualized de jure. The reasons for the change were mainly connected to demographic factors: the “second generation” was already the main source of population growth, in contrast to the pre-state period, when the kibbutzim were growing thanks to a steady inflow of newcomers (Blumberg, 1983; Shepher, Fogiel-Bijaoui, 1992). In this new context, one can understand that having children and taking on more responsibility for the essential life-maintaining functions within the family home could give women more prestige and some power at the community level, since these were perceived as crucial contributions to the biological and ideological continuity of the community (Shepher, Fogiel-Bijaoui, 1992; Fogiel-Bijaoui, 1992a).
Certainly, in a gendered economic context, where on the one hand the family was achieving more and more power in the community and where, on the other hand, women had considerably less occupational choice and less freedom of movement than men, this familistic process demonstrated the strength of women’s aspirations to personal autonomy at the expense of collective control.
To fully understand this paradoxical process, however, we have to bear in mind that, from the very first, women, as “innate mothers,” experienced conflicts and dilemmas about child-care as regulated by the kibbutz. These dilemmas and conflicts were sometimes expressed as indicated above, even though collective practices were still strongly believed in and enforced. They came to the fore with the decline in the revolutionary nature of the kibbutz: what “the innate mothers” were ready to accept in the name of the revolution, they were less and less ready to accept in the kibbutz of the 1950s and 1960s, which was no longer the ultimate symbol of the Zionist revolution. They were no longer prepared to reconcile themselves to separation from their children, especially at a time when, more than ever in the past, the collective sleeping arrangement seemed to them “against nature,” endangering the psychological and physical health of their children (Talmon-Garber, 1959). Their firm stand against collective child-care practices was reinforced by the fact that women of the “second generation,” born in the kibbutz, were already mothers of children of various ages. Recalling memories of growing up in a system which, according to them, was mostly negative or even traumatic—“no hugging, or kissing, or physical warmth”; “We grew up without the basic security needed for survival” (quoted in Lieblich, 2002, 72; for further details, Leshem, 1991)— they were active in the attempt to become “true mothers” by putting an end to the communal sleeping arrangements.
At first, most of the kibbutz members opposed this “mothers’ revolution” because they believed that the abandonment of the communal sleeping arrangement was the beginning of the dismantling of the kibbutz way of life. But for the majority, the very conception of “innate motherhood” held by most of the women members also reflected their own deep convictions. Thus the historical (and persistent) construction of motherhood and of parenthood finally enabled the “mothers’ victory.” (For more details about the attitudes of the male and female kibbutz members on this subject at that time, cf: Talmon-Garber, 1959; Tiger and Shepher, 1976; cf. also Ben Rafael and Weitman, 1984; Fogiel-Bijaoui, 1992a.)
This critical move towards more traditional functions and roles for the women in the kibbutz was halted somewhat by important changes in the kibbutz economic structure. Between the 1970s and the mid-1980s the kibbutz definitely became an “industrial society,” manufacturing plastics, food, metals, furniture, etc., at the expense of agriculture. At the same time, kibbutz industry became an important component of Israeli industry, in sales, in the number of employees, and particularly in exports (Pavin, 2002). Concurrently with these developments, more and more kibbutz members, both men and women, began to attend academic institutions and to study for advanced degrees. This was a new trend since, despite the fact that education, culture and knowledge were always valued in the kibbutz, formal education and formal studies were defined as part of the “bourgeois” heritage and “bourgeois decadence.” Kibbutz members contended that the kibbutz’s ability to transfer its unique system of values to the younger generation required that their educational institutions develop their own programs and methods, and thus they long remained suspicious of non-kibbutz formal education, including higher education. However, from the 1970s on, authority and prestige became more and more grounded on expertise and formal qualifications (Ben Rafael, Topel, 2003).
These structural and ideological changes impacted on the role and status of kibbutz women in two interrelated ways. Firstly, in those years of accelerated economic growth, kibbutz members—mostly men but also women—could serve in greater numbers than in the past in the administrative, financial, economic and cultural positions of the kibbutz, at the local level, at the regional level (in kibbutz regional industrial enterprises) or at the national level, i.e. in the kibbutz federations.
Thus, besides the kibbutz “regular services” (laundry, kitchen, etc.), women in larger numbers than in the past worked in clerical, industrial and academic areas. They also became more active at the community level, serving in greater number than before as heads of the committees to which they belonged, such as the educational committee or social committee. Some women even served as secretaries of kibbutzim and a very few as treasurers or as economic managers (Silver, 1984).
Furthermore, individual voices gained more legitimacy at this time. Men and women were more strongly encouraged than before to follow their desires and talents, and the search for self-realization became an accepted and prevailing slogan. The need for skilled and highly qualified workers in the “industrial kibbutz” certainly contributed to this ideological shift (Fogiel-Bijaoui, 1992a).
These trends, however, did not fundamentally change the gendered patterns of work in the kibbutz: most of “the women—the mothers” continued to work in the services, while most of the men, the “producers,” kept on working in “the really productive, money-earning branches” of industry and agriculture. As before, this gendered allocation of tasks was legitimized by the same social construction of motherhood, according to which the mother was “the innate parent” while the father had only a secondary role. The crucial change was only that in this cultural context women had more housework than in the past, due to the abandonment of the communal sleeping arrangements.
At the very beginning of the 1980s some feminist activists among the kibbutz women decided to organize in order to put the kibbutz’s unequal gender order on the agenda. According to them, gender inequality was a basic principle of kibbutz organization (women–mothers; men–producers) and not merely the individual problem of a “problematic woman.” A new section was thus constituted—the Section for Gender Equality, supported by both Takam and Ha-Kibbutz ha-Arzi (Silver, 1984). Its purpose was to put an end to the “kibbutz double message”: to be an “innate mother” and to “fulfill yourself as an individual.” The strategy was to promote a radical desegregation of gendered social roles as the conditio sine qua non for gender equality.
However, from 1985 on the kibbutz was stricken by an economic crisis which can be seen as a process of de-institutionalization of social equality (Achouch, 2000). It comes as no surprise that in this context, the attempts at desegregation were not successful and the Section itself disappeared during the next decade (Palgi, Adar, 1997). In other words, on the eve of the dramatic transformation of the kibbutz, women appeared as a powerless group, without control over economic, political or symbolic resources to lead that transformation or to influence it in any way.
The “dramatic transformation of the kibbutz” referred to above can be conceived of as the adaptation of the kibbutz to the neo-liberal structures and values of the global era. In the last part of this article, the impact of neo-liberalism on the kibbutz will be briefly presented together with an analysis of what Lieblich (2002, 77) calls “the mixed blessing” wrought for women by this process.
As research about globalization has shown (cf. inter alia: Robertson, 1992; Shalev, 1997; Sassen, 1998; Cohen, Kennedy, 2000; Ram, 1999; Brah, Crawley, Thomas, Storr, 2002; Martinelli, 2002), globalization or global neo-liberalism is a multi-faceted process with far-reaching consequences for the lives of all women and men. In this process a new regime of social inclusion and exclusion is constituted, imposing new constraints but also providing new educational, professional and financial opportunities for various individuals and different groups. Thus new patterns of hierarchy emerge, which threaten existing forms of social cohesion: they increase freedom of choice and open new opportunities for some groups and individuals but they expand inequality and exploitation for other groups and other individuals. Moreover, as feminist research on globalization has shown, globalization is a gendered process, defined and led by a well-crystallized neo-liberal androcentric discourse. In this process, men dominate the economic, political and cultural global scene, so that globalization is definitely— at least for the moment—a male-dominated and male-oriented neo-liberal process (Sassen, 1998; Brah, Crowley; Thomas, Storr, 2002; Fogiel-Bijaoui, forthcoming).
Israel entered the global economy in the 1980s. From then until the outbreak of the El-Aksa Intifada in September 2000 the process was fairly successful: the general standard of living in Israel rose steadily, although it was accompanied by increasing economic inequality and a threatening social polarization. In this development, Israeli society witnessed a dramatic transformation in its traditional economic structures and reorganized itself under the combined impact of privatization, deregulation, individualization and competition, according to the neo-liberal-meritocratic climate (Shalev, 1997; Shafir and Peled, 1998; Ram, 1999; Fogiel-Bijaoui, 2004).
The impact of this neo-liberal trend on the kibbutz was tremendous and far-reaching, strengthened as it was by the financial collapse of the cooperative settlement sector. In addition, the fact that for the first time in Israeli history the Right had come to power in 1977 caused the kibbutzim, traditionally bound to the Left, to lose a broad range of material privileges such as financial support from the government and land and water quotas. A turning point in this context was the year 1985, in which the Israeli government officially adopted a neo-liberal policy. In other words, from the 1980s, the “global situation” forced the kibbutz sector to adapt to the newly prevailing “neo-liberal-meritocratic rules of the game,” i.e. to compete with other economic sectors in the free market in order to survive (Lapidot, Applebaum, Yehudai, 2000; Ben Rafael, Topel, 2003). As Achouch (2000, 3) argues: “What was first perceived as financial and temporary difficulties proved to be a deep, enduring and multi-faceted crisis of the kibbutz movement, affecting culture and values.”
In fact, a major outcome of this situation was that the kibbutzim were shaken by a wave of profound changes—each kibbutz undergoing its own changes. The process began with a change in the way goods were distributed (privatization) and continued with a decline in participation, management and direct democracy, together with a growing legitimation of hired work, including hired work performed by foreign workers (Rozenhek, Cohen, 2000). All these went hand in hand with the commercialization of the children’s houses and the dining room and their opening to outside customers in return for payment. There soon followed the establishment of differential monetary reward for members on the basis of job performances and rank, the removal of restrictions on members to use their private external resources outside as well as inside the kibbutz, encouragement of members to work outside the kibbutz, and even the acquisition of private cars or the private enlargement of one’s apartment within the kibbutz and the commodification of kibbutz land as non-cooperative neighborhoods (Achouch, 2000; Arbel, Czamanski; 2001; Ben Rafael, Topel, 2003; Lieblich, 2002).
In the kibbutz as elsewhere, the adaptation to neo-liberal meritocracy—what is currently called “the changes”—is male-oriented and male-dominated (Wagschall, 2002; Lieblich, 2002). Entrance into the global economy is led by men and women who function as managers, leaders and experts in the kibbutz’s major branches of activity. These men and women have a long career in positions of responsibility as well as diplomas from institutions of higher education; they are what Ben Rafael and Topel (2003) call the “kibbutz technocratic elite.” However, these men and women, who define individualism and competition as a central strategy, pay no attention whatsoever to the gendered structure of the kibbutz and to the fact that in the kibbutz women are “mothers” and men are “producers.” Thus decisions are made and economic projects and policies are promoted, without taking into account the different impact these changes have on the “mothers” and the “producers.” In other words, the “neo-liberal changes” do not address the historic unequal gender order of the kibbutz, neither its gendered structure of opportunities nor its gendered symbolic order, organized as always around the basic approach of “innate motherhood.”
With this analysis in mind, the question remains: what impact have these drastic changes had on kibbutz women?
For kibbutz women the neo-liberal transformation of the kibbutz is, as elsewhere, a multifaceted process: it promotes the inclusion of some women in the new kibbutz society while at the same time excluding and marginalizing others—a pattern well documented in research on globalization.
The neo-liberal-meritocratic changes currently occurring in kibbutzim present new opportunities for women. First and foremost, higher education is now totally legitimate: fifteen percent of kibbutz members have an academic education—twenty-one percent of men aged 25–39 and 27.3 percent of the women of this age group have academic degrees (Pavin, 2002, 24). Even if the prevailing approach now is privatization of education—i.e., increasing the individual’s responsibility for the management of his/her life at the expense of collective responsibility—it creates new opportunities for women, affording them an opportunity to study and work according to their talents and inclinations, both within and outside the kibbutz, sometimes with considerable material rewards. In other words, today much more than in the past, women have some freedom of choice ( Palgi, Adar, 1997; Zamir, 1999; Adar, 2002 ). Even in public life, women seem to be more active than before and they now represent twenty-five to thirty-three percent of those fulfilling a public function. The only function which is still totally male-dominated is that of general economic manager of the kibbutz: only five percent of the general economic managers in all the kibbutz federations, including the religious ones, are women (Zamir, 1999; Adar, 2002; Wagschall, 2002). In this general transformation, as Lieblich (2002, 77) has noted, men have even taken on more of the family housework in the kibbutz.
However, due to the fact that “the changes” are gendered individualistic processes, the women who “manage to make it” do so on an individual basis, as talented and career-oriented “superwomen” who can do it all: study, have a career, have children and be excellent wives. For them, the inclusion of the kibbutz in the global era means an improvement of their personal status, an increase in their prestige and quite often a better standard of living. They are very fond of the kibbutz and accept its way of life and its new neo-liberal meritocratic trends, even though they admit that female members meet with more difficulties than male members, especially if they want to hold central positions in the community. Aviva Zamir’s research (1999) on women in top managerial positions in the kibbutz clearly illustrates this point. According to Zamir, women who perform executives roles in management or economic-financial positions and who have all pursued academic studies believe that the kibbutz does not encourage women to enter central economic positions. These women report the numerous difficulties faced by married women with a career, functioning in two roles, in the home and at work. They speak about their guilt feelings as mothers; they even emphasize their difficulties in coping with social criticism and explain that the surroundings judge them with severity—as mothers who neglect their children—because the norms still construct women as the main carers for home and family. However, they believe that the kibbutz enables career development for those who truly wish to devote themselves to a career, reject allocating a quota of positions to women and reject affirmative action favoring women. The concept of feminism arouses their opposition and they clearly disapprove of any kind of autonomous women’s organization in the kibbutz, such as the Section for Gender Equality, established in the 1980s. Most of the women in top managerial position in the kibbutz expressed scorn or opposition to the existence of such an organization.
On the other hand, many women in the kibbutz feel that “the changes” put the burden of parenthood primarily or solely on their shoulders and that as mothers they have no possibility of having a career. Among these women, many work in the services or in the field of education (Palgi, Adar, 1997; Zamir, 1999). Many women are also very disturbed by the fact that they do not possess adequate professional and educational tools to work outside the kibbutz since they lack the necessary academic degrees and/or professional training. Besides, even outside the kibbutz, women’s income may be very low and not worthwhile because women are constructed as “second wage earners” and have “unequal pay for equal or similar work.” Women’s average income per working hour amounts to only eighty-three percent of that of men (data for the year 2000; see Fogel-Bijaoui, forthcoming). For these women, the adaptation of the kibbutz to the global era means a kind of exclusion, for it brings about their own marginalization i.e. a deterioration in their social and economic situation and their silencing in kibbutz decision-making (Wagschall, 2002; Lieblich, 2002).
Thus it comes as no surprise that women still feel inferior to men within the kibbutz community, in both the work and the political spheres (Ben Rafael, 1997; Lieblich, 2002). Nor is it surprising that women feel more personally insecure than men, and do not believe there will be improvement in their economic future; or that nearly forty-four percent of the women (and nearly twenty-nine percent of the men) define themselves as belonging to the lowest levels of income. In this context, it is quite understandable that forty-nine percent of the female members (and 42.3 percent of the male members) describe the “meritocratic changes” in the kibbutz as a process which has worsened their situation (Adar, 2002).
In other words, it can be argued that kibbutz adaptation to globalization and to neo-liberal meritocracy has been accompanied by an increase in economic and social inequality among its members. Some have gained from the process, while others have suffered a loss. For the moment, due to the social construction of parenthood and to the economic structure of the kibbutz, men are overrepresented among the “winners ” while women are overrepresented among the “losers.” The leadership of the Kibbutz Movement (both Takam and Ha-Kibbutz ha-Arzi) seems to be worried by this situation, for it comes together with a notable decrease in the birth rate and a high proportion of young people and families with children who leave the kibbutz (Pavin, 2002). In this context, the Kibbutz Movement in 2000 established the Department for the Advancement of Women, the main program of which is to transform the neo-liberal, individual meritocracy into a meritocracy based on equality of opportunities, i.e. a meritocracy in which the collective takes over some responsibility for the individual’s life so as to promote gender equality. In the twenty-first century, as in the 1980s, new mechanisms are being elaborated to promote women to central positions (in the individual kibbutz, at the regional level and at the Kibbutz Movement level). Moreover, a new notion of parenthood and of “productive work,” based on gender equality, is also being defined. This certainly represents a frame of reference for those kibbutzim that may decide to remain within the ideological and legal framework of a democratic community. However, the hard task will be to devise an acceptable compromise between the collective norms and the needs and aspirations of the female and male members, so as to really advance on the long road to gender equality.
This article has tried to present a brief outline of “mothers in utopia,” describing women’s Sisyphean attempts to be “mothers and equal members” of the kibbutz, which set out to be a secular, democratic and egalitarian commune. It has shown how, in the pre-state period, kibbutz women struggled to be like the men—at work, in public functions and in war—assuming that they should ascend to the level of men. For them, equality was equality of duties, a pre-condition for equality of rights with their masculine model.
In 1948, after the establishment of the state, when it became evident that there would be no socialist revolution and that the kibbutz had lost its status as the “elite in the service of the nation,” kibbutz women—mostly of the second generation—struggled to put an end to the communal sleeping arrangements so as to be “real mothers” and to get their children back home. This familistic process demonstrated the women’s aspiration to personal autonomy at the expense of collective control.
During all these years, kibbutz women were socially constructed as “innate mothers” and kibbutz men as “producers.” These definitions structured the unequal gender order of the kibbutz and gave it its legitimacy in the eyes of the women as well as of the men, for both men and women saw in the women first and foremost “innate mothers.”
In the 1980s, on the eve of the great neo-liberal transformation of the kibbutz and its adaptation to the global era—what is called “the changes”—“women–the-mothers” constituted a powerless group, lacking the control over the economic, political or symbolic resources required to lead this transformation or have any influence on it. In consequence, the neo-liberal transformation of the kibbutz is at present a gendered process, defined and led by a well-crystallized androcentric discourse. Due to new mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion which go together with neo-liberal meritocracy, some of the kibbutz women, especially the highly educated, succeed in improving their personal status; on the other hand, many women feel that the adaptation of the kibbutz to the global era is a kind of exclusion, for it means their own marginalization—that is, the worsening of their social and economic situation.
The history of the gender order in the kibbutz experience is similar to that of other communes, religious or secular, in the modern era. In the kibbutz as in the other communes the gender order has always been unequal, for there has never been a re-definition of equal parenthood and there has never been a structuring of the apparatus of production as a function of an egalitarian definition of manhood and womanhood (Oved, 1986; Fogiel-Bijaoui, 1992b).
Thus the communal experience teaches us that for those who strive to implement gender equality, these are the most radical changes that need to be considered. Today, it is also a crucial lesson for those kibbutzim which choose to remain egalitarian communities in the global era, striving—as they did almost a century ago—to be an alternative society.
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Fogiel-Bijaoui, Sylvie. "Kibbutz." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 17, 2018) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/kibbutz>.