Long before the Six-Day War and Camp David Accords, Jewish settlers and Hamas militants, there was the kibbutz – that early 20th-century experiment in collective living now celebrating its 100th anniversary. Although the majority of Israel’s kibbutzim are now privatised, their pioneering spirit lives on – in Israeli culture, politics and in the nearly 400,000 volunteers from 45 nations who worked on kibbutzim from the late 1960s though the 1980s.
A recent study by The Kibbutz Movement – an umbrella organisation representing Israel’s 273 remaining kibbutzim – revealed that 90 per cent of volunteers viewed their kibbutz experience positively. This legacy of goodwill forms the centrepiece of a new project to identify and reunite this far-flung volunteer diaspora as part of the kibbutz’s centenary celebration. Along the way, these efforts could very well help resuscitate Israel’s battered public image in the countries where it’s currently needed most.
“Even decades after their time in Israel, we still see the volunteers as potential ambassadors for communicating the contrast between what actually happens in Israel and what folks see on TV,” says Professor Eytan Gilboa, director of the Center for International Communication at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. “Even if just a small fraction speak out favourably, it will be a major achievement.”
In the wake of May’s Gaza flotilla debacle and ongoing West Bank settler squabbles, the centenary events arrive at a moment of much-needed positive PR for Israel. What’s more, with the majority of former volunteers coming from nations currently most critical of the Israeli government – particularly Denmark, Sweden and the UK – the kibbutz offers a real-life vehicle for separating Israeli people from Israeli policies.
To promote this, the Kibbutz Movement has launched a robust social media effort to reconnect former volunteers online – followed by offline, face-to-face reunions at kibbutz-focused gatherings in Israel and abroad. The programme began late last month with the debut of a dedicated website (kibbutzvol.com).
Meanwhile, the Kibbutz Movement is organising activity-filled “Kibbutz Weeks” launching later this month across Northern Europe. Packed with kibbutz-related films, art exhibitions and concerts, the “weeks” will be promoted via local print and online media campaigns. These hope to give the kibbutz – and the volunteering experience – a renewed sense of relevance.
With the international centenary operation barely weeks old, it’s too soon to gauge if kibbutz-induced nostalgia can actually create those “ambassadors”. Still, no matter how few volunteers actually arrive in Israel – or reconnect back home – they’re likely to leave the country with an image of Israel at its idealistic best. “The social uniqueness of the kibbutz is Zionism, this is its most distinguishing factor,” says Yaacov Oved, a former history professor at Tel Aviv University. “Take the Zionistic element out of the kibbutz and it just becomes another commune.”