What is a Kibbutz?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

A kibbutz is an Israeli commune, or intentional community. The first kibbutz was founded during the Second Aliyah, the second wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine, in 1909, and kibbutzim remain a viable Israeli institution today. Though kibbutzim have undergone many transformations over the years and have never accounted for more than seven percent of the Israeli population, the kibbutz has immense cultural significance.

Woman waving
Woman waving

The first kibbutz, "Degania," was founded by Joseph Baratz and eleven other members, including two women, with the goal of bringing Jewish Zionist ideals to Israel. Zionists, who became active in late 19th century Russia as a result of anti-Semitic persecution, sought a homeland in Palestine in which Jews would work the land. After the First Aliyah in the 1880s, Jewish immigrants in Palestine had begun hiring Arabs to work their farms. Baratz opposed this practice and started the first kibbutz as a result.

In the early days, kibbutzim held fast to socialist ideals. There was no private property, not even tools or clothing, all work was shared, and land was owned communally. The bulk of the work was agricultural.

Kibbutzim attempted to build a self-sufficient economy, but this proved unfeasible. Instead, they were supported by subsidies from charities and later from the Israeli government. Today, most kibbutzim are no longer strictly socialist, though they do retain many communal aspects. All kibbutzim, for example, are democratic.

Over time, it became clear that agricultural work was not enough to sustain the institution of the kibbutz. Kibbutzim began to industrialize, with a large surge in that direction during the 1960s. Some kibbutzim focused on military efforts. Today, some kibbutzim have even turned to the tourism industry. The kibbutz has a long history of political and cultural contributions to Israel as well. A disproportionate amount of Israeli government and military leaders, artists, and intellectuals have come from kibbutzim.

There are many differences among kibbutzim, though they are outweighed by the similarities. The first kibbutzim were socialist, secular, and agriculturalist, whereas later kibbutzim either retained these ideals or became variously religious or militaristic, spanning different points on the political spectrum. Some kibbutzim became quite large, with as many as 1,500 members, while others remained small.

The kibbutz system has met with controversy over the years. Some groups have been criticized for elitism, while others have been accused of straying from their ideals. Nevertheless, Israeli culture would not be the same without the kibbutz. It is a specifically Israeli institution that has made invaluable contributions to the nation's political, economic, and intellectual life.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments


I think it's really cool that all the kibbutzes are a little bit different. They all evolved from the same beginnings, but I think it's good that each of them kind of goes their own way.

I feel like whenever you get a group together, you definitely have to grow and change based on the people in the group. What works for one group, might not work for another. So it's neat that some kibbutzes do farming, some do military stuff, and others are into tourism.


@strawCake - That is a good point. Communes aren't very significant in the US. I think here there's a conception that they're weird places ran by hippies!

And of course, some of them are. My sister spent a month working at a commune one summer, and the people there treated her like she was some kind of freak because she wore deodorant and painted her nails. I suppose it depends on where you go though!

Either way, I'm kind of sad the early socialism of the kibbutzes didn't totally work out. I think sharing communal property and everything else sounds kind of neat, but obviously it's hard to do in reality.


I heard about these Israeli communes a few years ago from one of my friends, who happens to be from Israel. I thought the whole thing sounded really interesting. It kind of reminds me of communes people attempt to create in the United States.

I think the thing I find most interesting though, is that the communes in Israel have survived for so long and have so much cultural significance. I can't think of any communes in the US that have had cultural significance. In fact, I don't think I could name one commune off the top of my head at all!


A communal farm in Israel.

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