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Flags flying over a Kibbutz.
Breana Noble I Col­legian

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.”