The Kibbutz Movement to the Right: Why Even Kibbutzim Shunned Israel's Left

The Israeli left's election failure is even more painful following its defeat among Kibbutzim voters ■ Remaining Meretz and Labor stalwarts are trying to figure out what happened

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חדר האוכל בקיבוץ פלמ"ח צובה עם פוסטרים של מיכאלי וגלאון
Kibbutz Palmach Tzova members dine at the kibbutz's dining room with posters of Merav Michaeli and Zehava Galon behind them.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg, Tomer Applebaum, Ofer Vaknin / Art: Masha Tzur Gluzman
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

One by one they got up, taking turns selling their wares. This is a critical moment, they stressed, each in their own way. Then other alarms were sounded, culminating in a big dose of gevalt. All the participants in this particular event, held on Kibbutz Ein Shemer, were candidates for the Labor Party. This was on the eve of the primaries – a sort of Judgment Day for beginners.

At least one thing said there came to pass, exactly as predicted: “The battle awaits us on November 1,” declared Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai, who has since lost twice, in his party’s primaries in August and on Election Day.

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The results in Ein Shemer presaged the change: Only slightly over 15 percent of its members' votes went to Labor. Yesh Atid triumphed, with 37 percent of the vote. Meretz, with which the kibbutz, in the northern part of the country, is closely identified, came in second. This was no coincidence, but rather a reflection of a trend. The Kibbutz Movement is not static.

In fact, in kibbutzim across Israel, Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid was the big winner in the recent election, leaving Labor and particularly Meretz in the dust.

“The social fabric of the kibbutz has changed,” says Moti Balabin, a member of Kibbutz Tzuba, outside Jerusalem. “They have expanded [to absorb new residents] and the older Labor voters are now in cemeteries.”

Yair Lapid visits Kibutz Magen in 2012. The winner among Kibbutim voters.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovich

Even if Balabin is exaggerating a bit, the situation he describes is quite accurate, says Yori Kandel, district coordinator of the Kibbutz Movement’s political-ideological department. “Out of 140,000 registered voters on kibbutzim today, only 55,000 are actual kibbutz members," he notes – as opposed to those living in the new, expanded parts of these communities, renters, children of members, etc.

Kandel, a Meretz activist from Lehavot Habashan, not far from Kiryat Shmona, explains: “In the past, everyone here was a member, so obviously Labor and Meretz supporters were the majority. As soon as the status of residents changed, not a bad thing in itself, everything changed. There are Likud voters and supporters of [Religious Zionism's Bezalel] Smotrich and of Ometz" – referring to a party that opposed the Health Ministry’s policies regarding the COVID pandemic.

Indeed, some experts tell Haaretz, the kibbutzim's break with their traditional patron parties is a process that’s been going on for several years now. Along with demographic changes, due to the new waves of construction that have diversified the erstwhile homogenous nature of these communities – there have also been changes in personal priorities.

“The kibbutz is now part of Israel’s middle class,” Prof. Sigal Ben-Rafael Galanti, a political science at Beit Berl College, says, noting that both privatized and non-privatized and more traditional kibbutzim are much more open today to the outside world. “It’s not like it used to be,” she adds.

Palmach Tzova dining room last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Thus, within this part of Israel's population, just as among other center-left voters, there were those who were persuaded that they should vote strategically in the recent election – for the largest party, namely, Yesh Atid.

“There was almost no movement outside the [center-left] bloc – there was only movement within it, from Meretz and Labor toward Yesh Atid, and a bit to Kahol Lavan,” says Haim Oron, a former lawmaker and chairman of Meretz who lives on Kibbutz Lahav, in the south. “There were people in the kibbutz movement who also bought the claim that casting a ballot for the larger party could tip the election results. This was enough for people to vote for any candidate they considered to be a reasonable choice.”

The bottom line, Oron continues, is that “the kibbutz movement is not the political force it once was, when people knew there were Meretz and Labor.” Today there are kibbutz members who no longer see the once-total overlap between their kibbutz identity and a political movement, he says. An extreme example, possibly a representative one, was the Facebook posting by the Kibbutz Movement’s secretary general, Nir Meir, on the eve of the election, indicating that he himself was voting for the National Unity Party headed by Benny Gantz, since only he would look after the interests of the kibbutzim. Meir is no longer a politically influential figure like he used to be, but this kind of declaration would have been deemed heretical in the past.

Just like in Tel Aviv

With publication of the final results of the November 1 election, many Israelis rushed to see how their own community had voted. The kibbutz movement was especially interested in this. The victory of Yesh Atid in the land of the now-defunct Mapai and Mapam parties may have been received with anger and sadness by veterans of those left-wing movements – but not necessarily with surprise. It wasn’t even unprecedented: According to The Israel Democracy Institute, this trend began during the first round of elections in 2019. Kahol Lavan, led by Gantz, received 50.6 percent of the kibbutz vote, with Labor garnering only 21.2 percent (similar to the results in the most recent election).

Meir Zaraya, left, and Marco Sarrabia at Kibbutz Palmach Tzova, last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“That was the first time Labor and Meretz received less than 50 percent of the vote in the kibbutzim. Kahol Lavan devoured them,” says Ofer Koenig, a research fellow at the institute. The professor notes that in 1992 and 1996, Meretz and Labor won more than 90 percent of kibbutz votes; they almost had a monopoly. But in the intervening decades, the numbers have changed, and the drastic shift in the balance of power in 2019 became part of a trend. The only exception was the election in 2021, in which Labor, with 25.6 percent of the vote, passed Yesh Atid, with 23.1 percent, and Meretz, with 18.9 percent of the vote. This seemed like some sort of mirage in advance of the election held a few weeks ago.

In this context, it appears that kibbutzim are experiencing the same trend that is being demonstrated in other Israeli communities identified with the center-left. “I suggest we internalize that,” Oron stresses. “The kibbutz movement today is part of an electoral zone that is similar to Tel Aviv, Ra’anana and their ilk.”

Koenig takes this a step further: “The kibbutzim are part of Israeli society, which has shifted rightward over the last three decades. Support for Labor and Meretz has shifted to parties such as Yesh Atid, Kahol Lavan and (the now-defunct) Kadima and Hatnua. In that respect, the kibbutzim are no different than Tel Aviv. Liberal and secular center-left people have shifted their support to parties situated more in the center.”

For his part, Dr. Alon Pauker, from Beit Berl College's Faculty of Society and Community History, suggests looking at the temporary spike in the kibbutz vote for Labor and Meretz in the 2021 election through the same prism: The same trends were seen among all center-left voters then, not just on the kibbutzim. “A kibbutz background has some impact, but it’s not the only factor” determining how a person votes, Pauker says. “On my kibbutz, Be’eri, Labor still got the most votes, with Meretz also doing well, but the shift from these two to Yesh Atid is clear.”

'No general'

It’s midday on Kibbutz Tzuba, and one doesn't really notice anything out of the ordinary. It’s early in the week, with a hint of autumn in the air. The lawns are lush, the views of the Jerusalem hills breathtaking, and in the communal dining hall all is as usual: people coming and going, kibbutz members as well as young people from abroad attending the ulpan [Hebrew-language program], all coming for lunch. But under the surface, it seems that mood is not what it has normally been.

Nitzan Horowitz, Yair Golan and Stav Shafir visit Kibbutz Nahal Oz in 2019.Credit: Ilan Assayag

“Where are we heading?” laments Shosh Kalifon, reviewing the election results. “We are in the third phase of our lives, but what future awaits our children and grandchildren? What kind of future will they have? It’s very difficult and frightening, despite the soothing messages.”

Kalifon, a veteran member of Labor (“I can’t remember for how many decades”), believes that her party’s past still hovers over those members who are continuing in its path. “We are paying for sins committed in the 1950s,” she explains. “There are many communities in this country who still, in the fourth generation, are not at the center of things. The ones giving them a sense of dignity and self-worth are on the right.”

Alon Leshem, another veteran Labor member, says there are other reasons for the recent election failure. “It could be that the slate was too left-leaning,” he says. “There was no general in charge. Some people say that Labor is passé. I hope not.”

Tzuba is considered one of the bastions of the Labor Party among the kibbutzim. For years, it had the highest proportion of Labor voters. Indeed, in the 2019 election, when only two kibbutzim voted predominantly for Labor, it was one of them. But prevailing political trends have not passed it by. If in that election Labor maintained a clear lead (with 41.5 percent of the vote), in the subsequent rounds there was a drop, on Tzuba. On November 1, only 32.6 percent of its voters opted for Labor under chairwoman Merav Michaeli. Yesh Atid got four more votes.

The political upset in Tzuba raises a whole new discussion. “I got a call from a very concerned 90-year-old kibbutz member,” says Marco Sarrabia, the Labor branch secretary on the kibbutz. “He wanted the party to be more ideological, more connected to the values of the Labor movement.” But Sarrabia believes it's not time to point fingers: “We’re good at blaming ourselves,” he says. “The left always blames itself and the right is always sure of itself. It won’t help us. We must understand that we did the best we could, even with a reality in which Lapid wasn’t dominant in our bloc, like Bibi [Benjamin Netanyah] was in his.”

Alon Leshem at Palmach Tzova. 'There was no general in charge. Some people say that Labor is passé. I hope not.'Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Meir Zaraya, a former Labor branch secretary, disagrees. “The organizational infrastructure of the kibbutz division of the Labor Party grew weaker, which is why we lost our power,” he explains. “Given the absence of this division, mutual commitments have also diminished. Another problem is Merav Michaeli. She is a smart woman, bringing young groups into the party, but she has deliberately given up on its deeply rooted, veteran members. This has led to the great anger being directed at her.”

Anger aimed at the party apparently stems not only from the fact that it's left those veterans behind, but also because it has abandoned the values that are important to agricultural communities like kibbutzim. In the Facebook post in which Meir, the Kibbutz Movement’s secretary general, called on people to vote for Gantz, this issue came to the fore. He named those who had helped the kibbutz movement of late, and Labor did not head the list. But that is no coincidence, Beit Berl's Ben-Refael Galanti says.

“Since Labor moved into the opposition, hardly involved in forming coalitions any more," the professor says, "people don’t turn to it regarding issues such as agriculture or water; they approach anyone who can help out." That too, apparently, comes with a price, at the polling station.

Labor leader Merav Michaeli gives a speech at Kibbutz Gevim, last year.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Among the older, veteran kibbutz electorate, there may be other considerations. For years, they’ve been looking at Labor and Meretz slates and hardly finding any people from among their ranks, at least not like in the past. Labor had one kibbutz candidate with a realistic chance of getting into the Knesset this time, but Meretz, who anyway missed the electoral threshold, had none.

“Kibbutzniks were once very significant in Meretz,” party sources said before the election. “We’ve seen slippage over the last decade. There was a nucleus of voters who continued voting for Meretz, but not in large numbers like before. This really reflects what has happened to Israeli society.”

Dr. Pauker doesn’t believe that personal identification was a major factor in the voting “since people really wanted to get Ram Shefa, from Kibbutz Givat Haim, who was No. 5 on the Labor slate, into the Knesset, as well as Naama Lazimi, who has done a lot to support the Kibbutz Movement.” Nevertheless, he says that “if a kibbutz member had topped the list and (Meretz MK) Yair Golan, who is much more connected to the movement, had headed Meretz [instead of Zehava Galon] – that may have attracted more votes.”

Labor and Meretz campaign signs at the entrance to Kibbutz Degania Alef.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

Ben-Gvir arrives

Muki Tzur, from Ein Gev, is considered to be an authority on kibbutz history. When he talks about the political arena and the changes in the voting culture on kibbutzim, he mentions a loss of tradition – and not of the religious variety.

“In general, one should say that all the traditional parties in Israel have disappeared,” he observes. “Likud is not [Menachem] Begin’s party, Mapai opened the way to pro-rightist changes, Meretz lost Mapam and Ratz. Everyone has undergone a dramatic change.” This, he says, has made a dramatic contribution to the breaching of the leftist gates in the kibbutz movement. Tzur, who is 84, recalls how at one time there was only one newspaper associated with one party on kibbutzim, and there were arguments as to whether it was permissible to bring in papers distributed by other parties.

But all that is in the past. The future is another story. “The next generations,” he says, “have a big mission. This is a long-term race.” However, it’s not at all clear that young kibbutzniks are waiting at the starting line, at least politically.

“We've barely managed to recruit young people to become involved in political activism,” says Kandel, of the Kibbutz Movement. “I’ve been distributing protest materials against government corruption for several years; it all goes to the older population. People born in the 1980s, '90s, and afterward don’t understand the reality of the occupation. They were born into it. It’s the same for people who were born into the perennial rule of Likud. They don’t understand why we, this ‘bunch of old-timers,’ keep waving black and pink flags.

Far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir visits Kibbutz Ayelet HaShahar. So far he is still unpopular among Kibbutznikim.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

Veterans of the movement don’t have to look just at the future in order to be concerned. The recent election proved that the seeds of the extremist right have been planted in their very own backyards. So far this is a marginal phenomenon, but according to the Israel Democracy Institute, 2.8 percent of the vote of kibbutz members living within the pre-1967 Green Line went to Religious Zionism. That’s a low number, but it’s higher than in the past. And there is other evidence of this trend.

During the election campaign, Itamar Ben-Gvir made a trip to Kibbutz Ayelet Hashachar, in the Upper Galilee, that was widely covered in the media. It’s not clear to what extent it was part of the campaign or a provocation, but 23 kibbutz members voted for Religious Zionism, compared to 2 in the previous election. Similar changes were noted in the adjacent kibbutzim Kfar Hanassi (12 compared to 5), Hulata (going from 9 to 22) and Mahanayim (from 3 to 31).

Prof. Koenig says that, on one hand, this is another indication that the kibbutzim are not immune to processes affecting Israeli society in general. On the other hand, he wants to remind people that these figures amount to less than one-10th of one Knesset seat. That's it. At least for now.

“The whole world is shifting to the right,” says Charlene Blum, a community coordinator on Tzuba and a Labor Party member, who is trying to stay optimistic. “What we’ve learned from history is that when you make a hard right turn, you later return to the left.”

Charlene Blum, a community coordinator on Tzuba and a Labor Party member. 'The whole world is shifting to the right.'Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

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