The first kibbutzim
Second Aliyah workers eating lunch in the fields of Migdal.
The kibbutzim were founded by members of the Bilu movement who emigrated to Palestine. Like the members of the First Aliyah who came before them and established agricultural villages, most members of the Second Aliyah planned to become farmers; almost the sole career available in the agrarian economy of Ottoman Palestine. The first kibbutz was Degania Alef, founded in 1909.
Joseph Baratz, one of the pioneers of the kibbutz movement, wrote a book about his experiences.
- "We were happy enough working on the land, but we knew more and more certainly that the ways of the old settlements were not for us. This was not the way we hoped to settle the country—this old way with Jews on top and Arabs working for them; anyway, we thought that there shouldn't be employers and employed at all. There must be a better way."
Though Baratz and others wanted to farm the land themselves, becoming independent farmers was not a realistic option in 1909. As Arthur Ruppin, a proponent of Jewish agricultural colonization of the Trans-Jordan would later say, "The question was not whether group settlement was preferable to individual settlement; it was rather one of either group settlement or no settlement at all."
Ottoman Palestine was a harsh environment. The Galilee was swampy, the Judaean Mountains rocky, and the south of the country, the Negev, was a desert. To make things more challenging, most of the settlers had no prior farming experience. The sanitary conditions were also poor. Malaria, typhus and cholera were rampant. Bedouins would raid farms and settled areas. Sabotage of irrigation canals and burning of crops were also common. Living collectively was simply the most logical way to be secure in an unwelcoming land. On top of safety considerations, establishing a farm was a capital-intensive project; collectively, the founders of the kibbutzim had the resources to establish something lasting, while independently they did not.
Finally, the land had been purchased by the greater Jewish community. From around the world, Jews dropped coins into Jewish National Fund "Blue Boxes" for land purchases in Palestine. In 1909, Baratz, nine other men, and two women established themselves at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee near the Arab village of Umm Juni/Juniya. These teenagers had hitherto worked as day laborers converting wetlands for human development, as masons, or as hands at the older Jewish settlements. Their dream was now to work for themselves, building up the land. They called their community "Kvutzat Degania" (lit. "collective of wheat" or "community of cereal grains"), now Degania Alef.
The founders of Degania endured backbreaking labor: "The body is crushed, the legs fail, the head hurts, the sun burns and weakens," wrote one of the pioneers. At times, half of the kibbutz members could not report for work and many left. Despite the difficulties, by 1914, Degania had fifty members. Other kibbutzim were founded around the Sea of Galilee and the nearby Jezreel Valley.
During the British Mandate
The fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, followed by the arrival of the British, brought with it benefits for the Jewish community of Palestine and its kibbutzim. The Ottoman authorities had made immigration to Palestine difficult and restricted land purchases. Rising antisemitism forced many Jews to flee Eastern Europe. To escape the pogroms, tens of thousands of Russian Jews immigrated to Palestine in the early 1920s, in a wave of immigration that was called the Third Aliyah.
Zionist Jewish youth movements flourished in the 1920s, from right-wing movements like Betar to left-wing socialist groups such as Dror, Brit Haolim, Qadima, HabBonim (now Habonim Dror), and Hashomer Hatzair. In contrast to those who came as part of the Second Aliyah, these youth group members had some agricultural training before embarking. Members of the Second Aliyah and Third Aliyah were also less likely to be Russian, since emigration from Russia was closed off after the Russian Revolution. European Jews who settled on kibbutzim between the World Wars were from other countries in Eastern Europe, including Germany.
In the early days, communal meetings were limited to practical matters, but in the 1920s and 1930s, they became more informal. Instead of meeting in the dining room, the group would sit around a campfire. Rather than reading minutes, the session would begin with a group dance. Remembering her youth on a kibbutz on the shores of the Kinneret, one woman said: "Oh, how beautiful it was when we all took part in the discussions, [they were] nights of searching for one another—that is what I call those hallowed nights. During the moments of silence, it seemed to me that from each heart a spark would burst forth, and the sparks would unite in one great flame penetrating the heavens.... At the center of our camp a fire burns, and under the weight of the hora the earth groans a rhythmic groan, accompanied by wild songs".
Kibbutzim founded in the 1920s tended to be larger than the kibbutzim like Degania that were founded prior to World War I. Degania had had twelve members at its founding. Eyn Harod, founded only a decade later, began with 215 members.
Kibbutzim grew and flourished in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1922, there were 700 people living on kibbutzim in Palestine. By 1927, the number had risen to 2,000. When World War II erupted, 24,105 people were living on 79 kibbutzim, comprising 5% of the Jewish population of Mandate Palestine. In 1950, the figures went up to 65,000, accounting for 7.5% of the population. In 1989, the kibbutz population peaked at 129,000. By 2010, the number decreased to about 100,000; the number of kibbutzim in Israel was 270.
Development of kibbutz movements
In 1927, the United Kibbutz Movement was established. Several Hashomer Hatzair kibbutzim banded together to form Kibbutz Artzi. In 1936, Socialist League of Palestine was founded, and served as an urban ally of HaKibbutz HaArtzi. In 1946, HaKibbutz HaArtzi and the Socialist League combined to form the Hashomer Hatzair Workers Party of Palestine which in 1948, merged with Ahdut HaAvoda to form the left-wing Mapam party.
In 1928, Degania and other small kibbutzim formed Hever Hakvutzot ("The Kvutzot Association"). Kvutzot were deliberately small, not exceeding 200 members, in the belief that this was imperative for maintaining trust. Kvutzot did not have youth-group affiliations in Europe. Kibbutzim affiliated with the United Kibbutz Movement took in as many members as they could. Givat Brenner eventually came to have more than 1,500 members. Artzi kibbutzim were also more devoted to gender equality than other kibbutzim. Women called their husbands ishi ("my man") rather than the customary Hebrew word for husband ba'ali (lit. "my master"). The children slept in children's houses and visited their parents only a few hours a day.
There were also differences in religion. Kibbutz Artzi and United Kibbutz Movement kibbutzim were secular, even staunchly atheistic, proudly trying to be "monasteries without God". Most mainstream kibbutznikim also disdained the Orthodox Judaism of their parents, but they wanted their new communities to have Jewish characteristics nonetheless. Friday nights were still Shabbat with a white tablecloth and fine food and work was not done on Saturday if it could be avoided. Only late some kibbutzim adopted Yom Kippur as the day to discuss fears for the future of the kibbutz. Kibbutzim also had collective Bar and Bat Mitzvahs for their children.
Kibbutznikim did not pray several times a day, but would mark holidays like Shavuot, Sukkot, and Passover with dances, meals, and celebrations. One Jewish holiday, Tu BiShvat, the "birthday of the trees" was substantially revived by kibbutzim. All in all, holidays with some kind of agricultural component, like Passover and Sukkot, were the most significant for kibbutzim.
Religious kibbutzim were established in clusters before the establishment of the State, creating the Religious Kibbutz Movement. The first religious kibbutz was Ein Tzurim, founded in 1946.
Arab opposition increased as the Balfour Declaration and the wave of Jewish settlers to Palestine began to tilt the demographic balance of the area. There were bloody anti-Arab and anti-Jewish riots in Jerusalem in 1921 and in Hebron in 1929. In the late 1930s, Arab–Jewish violence became virtually constant; the 1936–39 Arab revolt in Palestine is also known as the "Great Uprising" in Palestinian historiography.
Kibbutzim began to assume a more prominent military role. Rifles were purchased or manufactured and kibbutz members drilled and practiced shooting. Yigal Allon, an Israeli soldier and statesman, explained the role of kibbutzim in the military activities of the Yishuv:
The planning and development of pioneering Zionist were from the start at least partly determined by politico-strategic needs. The choice of the location of the settlements, for instance, was influenced not only by considerations of economic viability but also and even chiefly by the needs of local defense, overall settlement strategy, and by the role such blocks of settlements might play in some future, perhaps decisive all-out struggle. Accordingly, land was purchased, or more often reclaimed, in remote parts of the country.
Kibbutzim also played a role in defining the borders of the Jewish state-to-be. By the late 1930s, when it appeared that Palestine would be partitioned between Arabs and Jews, kibbutzim were established in outlying areas to ensure that the land would be incorporated into the Jewish state. In 1946, on the day after Yom Kippur, eleven new "Tower and Stockade" kibbutzim were hurriedly established in the northern part of the Negev to give Israel a better claim to this arid, but strategically important, region. The Marxist faction of the kibbutz movement, Kibbutz Artzi, favoured a one-state solution over partition, but advocated free Jewish immigration, which the Arabs opposed.
Kibbutzniks fought in the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, emerging from the conflict with enhanced prestige in the nascent State of Israel. Members of Kibbutz Degania were instrumental in stopping the Syrian tank advance into the Galilee with Molotov cocktails. Maagan Michael manufactured the bullets for the Sten guns that won the war. Maagan Michael's clandestine ammunition factory was later separated from the kibbutz and grew into Israel Military Industries.