A society of misfits? The Kibbutz experience

In a previous post, I mentioned that

In a future post, we’ll be looking at an example of a society raised all “wrong”…

The society I was referring to is pretty close to home (for me, that is): the Israeli kibbutzim.


Children's Home in Kibbutz Ga'ash, 1950s. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/33241726@N00/297283320/

The Kibbutz movement is nearly 100 years old; the first kibbutz, Deganya (now Deganya A, on the southern bank of the Sea of Gallilee), was founded in 1909. There are currently 256 kibbutzim scattered around Israel, with over 100,000 members. Even in its heyday, kibbutzniks comprised only about 3% of the population of Israel. Despite this, kibbutz-borns make up a far greater percentage of the country’s social, professional and military elite (one of the better-known examples being current Defense Minister and former Israeli Chief-of-staff and Prime Minister, Ehud Barak).

The kibbutz (communal) ideology demanded members share everything: food, labor, clothing, and naturally – also childcare. Up until the 1980s, many if not most kibbutz children were raised, for the most part, apart from their parents, in peer groups cared for by a metapelet (female caretaker in Hebrew). Mothers would care for their babies along with the metapelet until the babies were 6 weeks old; then, after the mothers returned to work, the babies were cared for by the metaplot, and later on, by group counselors, until adulthood (which meant age 18 and upon conscription into the army). Parents, typically, were in contact with their children for about 3 hours daily, though this wasn’t a rigid arrangement: parents could visit whenever they were free to do so, and usually took care of their children when they were sick. Kibbutz child care was considered very good; urban children from broken homes were sent to live with kibbutz children and take advantage of superior upbringing in what was considered an elite society*.

However, most kibbutzim who had the communal sleeping arrangement abandoned it during the 1970s-early/mid 1990s, and there are currently no kibbutzim where children sleep apart from their parents. This, as far as I can tell, didn’t come about because of any evidence of harm to kibbutz children, but was part of the general disenchantment with certain aspects of utopianism and communal living, and was paralleled by various other changes in that sphere, such as providing a sliding scale of pay to members according to the type of labor they did, and making use of the common dining room optional.

The unusual infant care setup provided much study material for child psychologists and attachment researchers from Israel and abroad. Bruno Bettelheim, child psychologist and father of the “refrigerator mother” theory of autism, studied children in Kibbutz Ramat Yochanan – without knowing a lick of Hebrew, mind – and concluded that kibbutz-raised children were destined for mediocrity:”[kibbutz children] will not be leaders or philosophers, will not achieve anything in science or art.” History has proven him as wrong on that score as he was on the origins of autism; as I pointed out before, kibbutz-borns are overrepresented among the ranks of the elite. Namely, even though kibbutz parents practiced parenting that, according to attachment theory, should have been a total disaster, the products of this society have, by and large, become productive, successful human beings (for more on kibbutz life and members’ take on its various aspects, see this book via Google Books).

Sagi et al compared toddlers from kibbutzim with and without communal sleeping arrangements. They found that many more toddlers were securely attached (80% vs. 48%) when children slept with their parents, though all other factors were the same. Their reasoning for this was that during the night, the children were attended by watcherwomen who changed periodically (as opposed to their regular daytime metapelet), and the absence of their regular attachment figures made the infants conclude their mothers were not always going to be there for them – hence, the insceure attachment (mostly of the anxious/ambivalent type – which, incidentally, is relatively more common also in non-kibbutz Israeli and Japanese society).

However, secure attachment is, to remind you, but a means to an end: a psychologically healthy, functional adult. Did kibbutz upbringing, ‘detached’ as it was, deliver the goods on that score?

In 1979, the International Journal of Psychology published an interesting study by Beit-Hallahmi et al. The research group had originally looked at children aged 1-17 years of age, who were either raised on kibbutzim or moshavim (the moshav being a non-communal agricultural settlement) in 1955; in the mid-70s, they tracked down some 85% of each group (83/92 kibbutz-raised, 72/79 moshav-raised children) and asked them to fill out an 80-item questionnaire devised by one of the researchers (Nevo) which covered, to quote, “basic personal information, information on the parents and their background, the respondent’s formal education, work history and current education, military service, physical illness and psychosomatic symptoms”.

The results, as the researchers put it, were that the members of both groups were more similar than dissimilar (as they had been, incidentally, at the time of the original research 20 years earlier). Both groups had similar rates of married members – about 2/3 of the group, with the youngest members in their early 20s typically the unmarried ones. All but one of the kibbutzniks graduated from high school (as opposed to all but 8 of the moshavniks); Conversely, twice as many moshavniks achieved higher education. This was explained by the prevailing socialist dogma on the kibbutzim, and that social status on the kibbutz was not determined by academic degrees (though a minimum level of education was a requirement) – whereas moshavniks adhered to the capitalist model of bettering one’s status through education. As military service is, however, prized by kibbutz members, it’s not surprising that more kibbutzniks were officers and held command positions in the army than moshavniks did.

The one parameter in which the two groups differ (in a statistically significant manner, as well) are their psychological attributes. More kibbutzniks reported having undergone psychological treatment than moshavniks (28/78 vs. 7/68), and more psychosomatic symptoms – fainting spells, muscle tremors, headaches, etc. – were reported by more kibbutzniks (57/78 kibbutzniks reported at least one symptom, mean # of symptoms 2.86/standard deviation=2.42 for kibbutzniks, vs. 42/68 moshavniks reporting at least one symptom, mean 1.90/SD=1.39). While this does suggest kibbutzniks tend to be more psychologically vulnerable, the authors note (emphasis mine):

…when these averages are compared to the findings of large scale surveys of psychiatric symptoms (Srole et al, 1962), it becomes clear the the higher average for the kibbutz group does not reflect a debilitating degree of symptomatology. Rather, it could be interpreted as reflecting both a higher anxiety level and a greater readiness to admit to problems. The meaning of the finding could be clearer as mote data are available regarding other measures of anxiety and symptomatology. The greater utilization of psychological services by the kibbutz group may be related to the higher level of anxiety and higher symptoms in that group, or it may be explained on the basis of the greater availability of such services, which are paid for or provided by the community. The population of kibbutz members and the kibbutz-born can be described as both more sensitized to psychological problems (Presumably, meaning they can more readily identify there is a problem ~ estherar) and more ready to seek professional help compared to most other social groups in Israel.

Let me note that I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of a kibbutz. As I pointed out before, all kibbutzim have now abandoned communal sleeping arrangements for children- and this is, IMO, a good thing. Also as mentioned earlier, though attachment researchers claim this arrangement was destined to end because it went against what attachment theory said was best for parents and children (and the above long-term study would suggest they were not necessarily wrong about this), the fact is that this was but one change among many in kibbutz life that came about as the movement turned away from its communist roots and put greater emphasis upon the individual.

What is clear is that, by and large, kibbutzniks have not ended up as Israel’s walking wounded, despite having been reared in a most attachment-unfriendly environment.

*These children were known as yaldei hutz, or ‘outsiders’. KIbbutz childcare is still characterized by low cost (free to members, I think), extended hours, and good quality; I have several doctor friends who choose to live as non-members on kibbutzim solely to partake of their child-care services.

7 Responses

  1. When I was a volunteer on Givat Hayim Ichud in the mid-70s, the movement for having the children sleep at home was started by the “graduates” of the children’s houses, themselves who claimed to have very bad memories of feeling abandoned at night. Their parents, the founding generation, felt very betrayed at this re-emergence of “primitive” family styles. The distance in emotional involvement between the founding generation and their children, and the “beneficiaries” of the kibbutz system and THEIR children, was noticeable. Also, the lack of affect in those raised in the children’s houses was noticeable — after all, the only private things they had were their emotions. Everyone seemed to walk around with the same bland, half-smiling expression on their faces all the time.

  2. I have to say that’s not the impression I get from the kibbutzniks I know, even the older ones who almost certainly were raised this way – their affect is not flat and as a group, seem to actually be more easygoing and calm than most urbanites. Daniel Gavron (in the book referred to in the post) mentions that some children really hated the communal sleeping, but most report it being a neutral or even positive experience.

  3. I am not surprised that the original movement arose out of communist thought as I believe early in the Soviet era similar attempts were made to dissolve the ‘oppressive’ bourgeois nuclear family structure.

    The military participation probably arises out of an esprit de corps fostered growing up which dovetails nicely with career service.

  4. I think people still want so much to believe that this is a wonderful way of life- but I lived in one- was forced to move there as a child and have never experienced such horrific ostracism, bullying, and over all lack of any sort of empathy for others- if they were not born there. It is a horrible place to raise children- many instances, even amongst the “natives” of bed wetting (into teen years) and psychological problems. Most of the adults just watch blandly as the stronger children assault, taunt and sometimes fondle other, weaker children or those who are “strangers”. In addition, dogs were often stoned, especially if they were strays or belonged to a new member. It took me years to recover from just one year of living in a kibbutz as a child.

    • Thank you for your post. I am married to a kibbutznik and the lack of empathy is astounding. it shows up most when I am “down” or suffering an emotional crisis. It amounts to kicking me when I’m down. He is also mean to dogs and children when he thinks he can get away with it. This sucks.

  5. I would be interested in hearing how this upbringing has affected the children and familial life of adults who were raised within this communal child care system and who are no longer living on the kibbutz. It seems logical to me that these “traits” such as lack of empathy, or failing to see the importance of the role of a mother, would get passed down to the next generation they are raising even if these children are raised in what appears to be a conventional nuclear family unit outside of the kibbutz environment.

  6. I first volunteered on a Kibbutz when I was 19. My first kibbutz was a bakery factory near Nazareth. I think it was called kefar hahoresh.

    the first day I arrived they sent me on a bus to a party on another kibbutz not far away. I was young the booze was cheap I got drunk. I missed the bus to the bakery factory the next morning. I apologised and turned up for work the next day. a couple of days later I was verbally abused by one of the kibbutzniks. I was working for nothing so I thought fuck that and left the factory floor. It was clear that this particular kibbutz had nothing positive to teach me.

    the kibbutz volunteer accosted me later asking why I left the factory floor. I said basically that there was an arsehole that offended me. the arsehole was her husband so I was asked to leave the kibbutz.

    a few weeks later I joined another kibbutz called gesher just south of the sea of galilea I stayed there for a while. I picked dates and avacados. I really enjoyed my time in gesher. but 1 day I was called in to the office of the volunteer leader.

    the volunteer leader had talked to my last kibbutz and apparently i had tried to rape young boys on the previous kibbutz. they painted me as a rapist and a paedophile and all i had done was missed 1 day of work due to over indulging in alcohol 1 night.

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