TEL AVIV, Israel — A 20-year-old man in northern Israel woke up at 4:30 a.m to work in cotton fields for two years, hoping to earn his way into a university. Unlike an American with aspirations of education and a better life, Zeev Boker’s decision to enter college was not his own — his community had to decide.
Boker grew up in an Israeli communal village called a kibbutz. His kibbutz, Afek, is in Western Galilee near the border with Lebanon and the Israeli city of Haifa.
Kibbutzim arose in Israel in the first decade of the 20th century, when groups of socialist Zionists emigrated from Europe with idealistic dreams of establishing a Jewish homeland. They rooted themselves in the harshest places in Israel — near hostile neighbors, far from fresh water, and on undeveloped terrain. The Marxist Zionists didn’t have money to buy the best land, plus they wanted to build kibbutzim near the outskirts of Israel to establish borders for Jewish state.
And it wasn’t easy to defend their borders.
“We were surrounded by Arab border villages, which attacked the kibbutz, and we lost two members of the kibbutzim during the Independence War,” Boker said.
The 1948 War of Independence, also known as the Arab-Israeli War, formed the borders of the state of Israel and provided kibbutz Afek safety in the future.
Kibbutzim value defenders of their communities and their Jewish state. Boker said the kibbutz’s memorial garden, which commemorates its fallen soldiers, reflects this commitment.
After working in cotton fields for two years, Boker’s kibbutz couldn’t fund his education, so he left to pursue his aspirations without help from the community. Even though he left, Boker said he never felt distanced from his home.
“I still call it my kibbutz, even though I left in 1983,” Boker said. “You left the kibbutz like you left your military unit. There was a time when leaving the kibbutz was like leaving your family.”
He still returns to visit his brother and childhood friends who stayed.
Boker’s accomplishments after leaving Afek are remarkable, but they aren’t unusual. Boker said children of kibbutzim disproportionately hold leadership positions in the Israeli military and government.
He attended Hebrew University, where he earned a master’s degree in political science. After graduating he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1987, where his political life took off. He served as a diplomat to the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and Slovakia between 1990 and 2010, before he became the Israeli ambassador to the Republic of Ireland in 2015.
Zeev’s son Assaf Boker said members of kibbutzim became the “elites of Israeli society,” though he said they don’t hold that position, to the same extent, anymore.
While members of kibbutzim made up about 2.5 percent of the Jewish population in the mid-20th century, they held 40, sometimes 50 percent, of the combat positions in the Israeli Air Force.
“We never look at ourselves as elites,” Boker said. For him, it’s the circumstances that made children of kibbutzim so successful: “There was something special in the education and being part of a community that is struggling together, in not very easy weather and security conditions.”
Despite early struggles of kibbutzim, they set up a successful and unique education system. It is perhaps the strangest element of Israel’s collective communities — one which appears foreign, and even cruel, to Westerners.
At Afek, like most kibbutzim, children don’t live with their parents. They live in children’s homes. Children of both genders live and bunk together, largely separate from adult supervision.
Some strict kibbutzim allowed parents to see their children for as little as two hours every other day.
Afek allowed parents and children to spend four hours together each night. After school, from 4 to 8 p.m., parents bonded with their children. Then they sent back to the children’s home, where the kids put themselves to bed.
Boker spoke well of his youth in children’s home, though he recognized its troubles.
“Naturally children have to be with their parents, so for some children, it caused deep scars for them,” Boker said. “But from my point of view, it’s very positive. My mother was a teacher, so thanks to that my view is, maybe, more positive.”
The philosophy on kibbutzim, much like broader Marxist philosophy, is that teachers and child experts should raise children. Kibbutzim employed this philosophy, at least in part, though they still connected parents and children.
Boker said he was a “very dedicated student” who spent his time studying, so he rarely thought to miss his parents.
“I didn’t look at it as something that was right or wrong…it had advantages and disadvantages,” Boker said. “In retrospect, I would have appreciated spending more times with my parents. I remember escaping the children’s home to spend extra time with my parents, but there was no punishment. It was understandable…children want to be with their parents.”
It’s rare in the United States to see young children alone in neighborhoods, but in kibbutzim children have freedom to explore.
“If you enjoy the open space, exposure to agriculture, wildlife, then you liked childhood on a kibbutz,” Boker said. “There is freedom in the air.”
Today, kibbutzim do not separate the homes of parents and children. Children’s homes died out in the ’70s and ’80s, as Israel liberalized and kibbutzim followed.
From Israel’s independence in 1948 until 1977, Israel had a socialist government. In 1977, the government liberalized and so did the nation’s economy. This transition forced kibbutzim to reorganize.
Most of the nearly 300 kibbutzim in Israel dropped the communal way of life and switched to private ownership of property and means of productions. About 30 kibbutzim still have communal villages, but they’re exceptions. Most of the 30 are able to support their socialist economic systems because they own profitable factories, according to Boker.
“Kibbutzim had to adapt themselves to modern life and modern economic conditions,” Boker said.
He said the reorganization of kibbutzim doesn’t trouble him. He said he believes kibbutzim served a unique purpose that might not exist, to so great an extent, any longer.
Collective societies have a troubling history, and the mention of socialist communities gives up pause, but they worked for Israel at a perilous time.
“I think it’s the history of the Jewish people,” Boker said. “The fact that we were expelled from our homeland and forced during most of the time, wherever we were staying, to defend ourselves. This made communal life more attractive and appropriate. When fighting for survival, you cannot be selfish — mutual help was necessary.”