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.
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.