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International Socialist Review, March-April 1970


Constance Weissman

Kibbutzim Children


From International Socialist Review, Vol.31 No.2, March-April 1970, pp.55-58.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Children of the Dream: Communal Child-Rearing and American Education
by Bruno Bettelheim
Macmillan, 1969. 363 pp. $6.95.

Among those who settled Palestine in the attempt to make it a Jewish homeland were Jews of various classes and political ideas. One section was composed of people who had become socialists in Eastern and Central Europe and who then abandoned or, as they preferred to think, “adapted” socialism to Zionism. These were the people – mainly the young among them – who set up the kibbutzim (the Hebrew word for groups), which were in fact voluntary collective (“socialistic”) farms.

Work in the kibbutz entailed much sacrifice, hardship and danger since the land usually obtained was. harsh, the living standard low and the Arabs, from whom the land was taken in one fashion or another, resentful.

The original dreams that these “socialist” Zionists had that Israel would develop on the basis of the kibbutzim into a socialist society have long since disappeared. For the kibbutzim, with all the “socialist” sweat and tears incorporated in them, have proved to be a useful part of the infrastructure of capitalist Israel. In this respect the history of the kibbutz bears an interesting comparison with the Utopian socialist colonies of the nineteenth century which also were founded on the hope of achieving a socialist society on the basis of small communal economic units but which were eventually overcome by the capitalist environment and succumbed to it

Though nothing positive is to be learned about achieving socialism from the history of the kibbutz, its method of rearing children has provided data which is attracting the attention today of those interested in the questions of child psychology and development, the position of women and the family.

The most significant aspect of the kibbutz system of educating children is that the power over the children’s lives is given by their parents to the communal leadership of the kibbutz. Children live, from birth on, in children’s houses and only see their parents two or three hours a day at their parents’ homes, where the time together is spent in pleasurable activities. Parents also put their children to bed in the children’s houses. All the children’s food, clothing, housing and education are provided by the kibbutz.

The origins of this form of bringing up children are deeply rooted in the struggle of young Jewish women to break away from the traditional role they played in the all-enveloping Jewish family. At the beginning of the century, the young Jews of Central and Eastern Europe felt a desperate need to break with their authoritarian and constricting family life. For the girls, particularly, the prospect of having to live like their mothers was intolerable.

When these young women went to Israel, they were determined to break up the family as they had known it The most important thing for them was to live in equality with the men. Thus, at first, they took on the heaviest jobs in the fields to prove their ability.

They did not intend to have any children. They were afraid that caring for children would thrust them back into the hated confining role of motherhood. They were afraid that they would fall into the same patterns with their children that they hated in their own upbringing. Among the patterns they feared was the immense concern of the ghetto family with both religious values and earthly possessions. They determined that neither religion nor personal acquisitiveness would exist in the kibbutz.

A founder of the first kibbutz relates that the original kibbutzniks wanted no children in their community. Most of the settlers did not even want to marry, because “they were afraid that children would detach the family from the group, that ... comradeship would be less steadfast” It was even proposed that all members should agree not to marry for at least five years because “living as we do ... how can we have children?”

When the first baby was born nobody knew what to do with it. By the time there were four children, the democratically-run kibbutz council had to make a decision. It was a difficult problem. How were the women both to work and look after their children?

Once a decision was reached, the bonds were so strong between the kibbutz members that no one went against it. They elected caretakers called metapalets to be with the children in the nursery from the time the babies were weaned. Even before they were weaned, the babies were returned to the nurseries after nursing.

The metapalets were changed every few years so that no strong attachments to them would be formed.

Dr. Bettelheim, a psychiatrist who has had considerable success with acutely disturbed children in his institution in the University of Chicago, is an outspoken reactionary on the subjects of women and youth. Rather than rebelling against the wrong role into which they are forced by society, today’s young women students, he says, are rebelling against femininity. He labels the vast protest movement against the war and the efforts of young people to change the intolerable conditions of society as an adolescent revolt against their “permissive” parents. Some students at the University of Chicago call him “Dr. Brutalheim.”

Nevertheless, Dr. Bettelheim completely reversed himself on the importance of the nuclear family in the raising of children after his observations in the kibbutzim. He went there because he just didn’t believe all the criticisms he read about raising children away from their parents. He felt that Western observers were so prejudiced in favor of family-rearing and close mother-child relationship that they could not view the kibbutz nurseries objectively. So he went to see for himself. Because of his worldwide reputation as a child psychiatrist, he was given every opportunity to visit and interview in Israel.

“First, then, what of the rearing of infants away from their parents?” he asks. “The kibbutz experience clearly demonstrated to me that children raised by educators in group homes can and do fare considerably better than many children raised by their mothers in poverty-stricken homes, and better than quite a few raised at home by their middle-class parents.”

Besides being assured good health, clothing, education and work-training from an early age, the kibbutz children feel themselves to be an integral and important part of the community. The children are the most valuable asset of the kibbutz. The most skilled psychiatrists, experts in child rearing, well-trained metapalets, look after them. They know their parents, love them, even though their parents have turned the power to protect them over to the community.

In our capitalist society, parents are supposed to protect their children so that they can grow and learn without fear. But how can poor parents protect their children? They can’t even protect themselves, especially in the ghettos where the whole power of the police is arrayed against them. Nor can they be sure of providing for their children.

As for education, kibbutz children have the great advantage over poor children elsewhere.

“Most lower class drop-outs leave school because the years spent there have made them more and more convinced that education as they know it does not meet their needs. They leave in self-defense. In order to spare themselves recognition of their deficiency, they turn on school as an enemy. The abyss between what they view as today’s reality for them and what they aspire to for the future is what makes for their final break with education as a dead-end solution. By contrast, kibbutz education is so much part of a common way of life, so embodies the youngsters’ future aspirations that, however much they sometimes tire of learning, what they never feel is a split between them and the educational system.”

This book should prove of interest to all those concerned over the perplexing contradictions in women’s lives today, the generation gap, and what kind of bring up children need.

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