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On an Israeli kibbutz, praise for country's protesters

KIBBUTZ GAN SHMUEL, Israel — Little has changed over the past 60 years in the communal dining hall of this communal farm. Most of the kibbutz members eat breakfast and lunch here, on plain wooden chairs and tables that make it resemble a high school cafeteria. The walls are decorated with paintings by well-known Jewish artists alongside school science projects by children from the kibbutz.

"We have held onto the values that this kibbutz was founded on because we know they work," said Rafi Ashkenazi, who's been living in Gan Shmuel since 1954. "We know how to share with each other and rely on each other."

But outside this kibbutz in central Israel, almost everything has changed. The nearby town of Hadera has become a city, swollen with Ethiopian and Russian immigrants. And the kibbutz movement, the communal farms that were a unique part of Israel's founding, has changed as well.

The ideal that drew many of Israel's pioneers from youth movements across Europe to join kibbutzim and "work the land" in what they hoped would be the future Jewish state is now largely a thing of the past.

Of the 256 kibbutzim — the plural of kibbutz — listed on Israel's website, most no longer follow the precepts of the original socialist dream. About 61 percent of the collectives now pay higher salaries to workers who have greater responsibilities or special skills, and more than 20 percent have transferred ownership of kibbutz houses to the members who live in them.

Those changes, which have taken place over a generation, reflect a change in Israel as well, where the original socialist instincts of its founder largely have given way to a capitalist ideal.

Disenchantment with that transformation is behind an extraordinary series of protests that have roiled Israel for the past several weeks. Last Saturday, an estimated 300,000 people took part in demonstrations that protested the high cost of living, a percentage of Israel's 7.7 million population that would be roughly equivalent to 11 million Americans rallying on a single day for a cause.

Protesters calling for "social welfare" and chanting "socialism" say they want a return to the time when the kibbutz ideal reigned supreme.

"The vision this country was founded on, and then one that affected its early governments, was one in which people worked together and helped each other," said David Medina, one of the protests' organizers. "We want a return to social welfare, to some type of socialist values, instead of the capitalist king who rules now," meaning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who worked as an international businessman before he turned to political life.

Medina pointed out that while his family had never lived on a kibbutz, his parents received government grants to buy a heavily subsidized home in Israel's north in 1961.

"Where are the days when the government still wanted to invest in its citizens?" Medina asked.

Israel's move away from those days has been under way for more than 40 years. Many of the programs that subsidized housing or gave grants to young couples were phased out in the 1970s and early 1980s. Shortly afterward, kibbutzim across Israel started to privatize.

"It was a period of time when Israel gave capitalism a bear hug. Now this government values capitalism above all of us, above each other's well-being," Medina said.

Even in Gan Shmuel, there have been changes over the past two decades, Ashkenazi said.

In the early 1990s, Gan Shmuel closed its children's home, the separate residence where children lived communally away from their parents for all but four hours a day.

Such separate children's residences were once a quintessential part of kibbutz life. But many parents had objected to the practice, questioning whether it was wise to challenge the traditional nuclear-family structure. Gan Shmuel began bowing to those concerns gradually, allowing parents to decide for themselves whether their children would live communally or at home.

During the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, when Iraq fired missiles at Israel, all the children were pulled from the home and it was closed for good.

"I'm not sure if that was a good or a bad decision. But we have to change all the time. The kibbutz is a living, breathing thing and changes will come," Ashkenazi said.

Gan Shmuel still hews to some socialist traditions. The kibbutz collects the salaries of its 500 or so members and distributes money to families based on needs and family size rather than job status or skills.

"People will sometimes complain that the system is not fair, that they bring in twice as much as so-and-so, and so why should they each get the same amount of money and the same size house?" said Lesley Armon, the head of the kibbutz. "But the kibbutz is financially strong. We have a pool and a tennis court. There are beautiful grounds, and if I get sick, the kibbutz will pay for it. If I lose my job, they will help me find a new one. It's each person relying on the other."

Even so, the kibbutz is doing things few members thought it ever would. This week, for example, it was to vote on the sensitive issue of providing pensions.

"Forty years ago we wouldn't be thinking about a pension. The kibbutz is our pension," Ashkenazi said. "But today, everyone worries, so maybe a pension is a good thing."

As for the protests that are roiling Israel, Armon is supportive. The protesters, she said, make her proud.

"I think it is an important thing that they are doing, trying to improve their lives," she said. "If we — the kibbutzim — can inspire them or give them ideas, then that is great."

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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