Green Print Interviews – members of Kibbutz Samar
Ya’ir Selah was born on Kibbutz Ein-Dor. He was interviewed on the evening of 30/Jul/00 in his home. We talked about the early kibbutzim and Samar at its’ beginning.
Early Kibbutzim: The idea was to take up the challenge to create ‘something from nothing’, to come back to the Land and make it work. The ascent (Heb: aliah) of the Jews from Europe to the Land was the central challenge of those generations. To become farmers, the principle of self-work and the physical task of building the Land were what we strove for. So groups of people formed these communes, these kibbutzim. We had to share, since most of us had very little other than ourselves to offer. So the kibbutz was communal. Kibbutz means a ‘grouping’.
Attitudes: The kibbutz was the symbol of the new reality of Israel. The kibbutz set norms in the social development of the state. The kibbutzim had great power in the new state by right of their huge contributions to settling the Land, the developing economy, to agriculture – food production, leadership roles, in the army, etc. Kibbutzim, like Yad Mordechai defined the borders by their very existence. The caricature of Israel in any political cartoon, was the kibbutznik with the kova temble (lit: fools’ hat; a round cap worn by Israeli farmers). The kibbutzim were a source of national pride. That is, until 1975, or even, the ‘73 Yom Kippur war. They evacuated kibbutzim in the face of the approach of Syrian units. This shattered the perception of the kibbutznik who held the line at all costs. The split was always there. The left against the right, the worker movement against the revisionists. Nowadays, the kibbutzim have been discredited and maligned. They have lost their standing and they don’t even appreciate themselves.
The Arava: The kibbutzim had nothing to do with ecology, as it is understood today. The idea was to exploit and develop the land for its economic value. The Hula valley was drained and destroyed for the farmland. It was more naive than malicious, and there was a sense of return to the land. People were living here, in the Arava, a thousand years ago. There was agriculture, mining of minerals and metals; all on the meager resources available. There were twice as many people in the Arava valley then. Today, there are about 2000. We waste resources, air conditioners, plant lawns – we had no experience with desert life before we came to live here. We dragged it all with us from the city. Like a space station, we built the kibbutz to survive the environment, not to become part of it.
Founding Samar: In September of ’73, Yossi, Gil, Gonen, Dudu, myself and others, meeting within the framework of the kibbutz movement, first proposed the idea of starting a new kibbutz in the Arava or the Golan Heights. The Arava was as yet wild and unsettled, exciting and far, far away from the rest of the story. That was just before the war. After the war, there was a feeling that all was lost. For a kibbutz to loose 10-15 sons was …We formed a group of about 25 young people. We knew only what we didn’t want. That’s the old kibbutz with the committees and functions to which the individual was subject. We held the individual as having the ultimate responsibility for his actions. We wanted to “take” what we felt we needed rather than be “given” it. We decided that there would be no committees, no by laws, no bosses. Each one decides for themselves. Organized anarchy rather than communism. The desert ‘winked at us’. To make something where there was nothing, that’s dedication. I loved it: the desert, the distance, the Zionism. We didn’t want the apathy of the older kibbutz. Here, the individual is more important than the group.
Demographics: Samar was planned for 70 to 80 members, like it has turned out. 60 apartment units were built.
Children: We assumed that the kids would live and sleep in the children’s-house, as it was in most kibbutzim at that time. Aside from a few unsuccessful attempts to organize a group to plan our own school, it was always assumed that the schooling would not be at Samar. Yotvatah was where the regional school opened.
Energy: There was plenty of electricity, plenty of gasoline. We never considered using the sun or the wind or other alternatives.
Water: We had the two grades of water: the “sweet”, which was really very saline; about 700 to 900 Mg of Cl per liter. And the “salty” which had then 1200-1300 Mg. That today gets up to 1600. We drank the “sweet” and used it for cooking and showering. Back then, we didn’t give it a thought. It tasted okay to us, even though it was full of salts and minerals, metals; too much fluoride, among others. It was ten years before the national water company put a purifier in here.
Waste Cycles: The trash is picked up by a truck from the municipality. Everything gets thrown into a big dry pit, like today. The sewer drains take all the liquid waste to an evaporation pond east of the kibbutz. No one thought of reuse or recycling anything.
Agriculture: First, came the windbreaks. We grew vegetables. Anything you could produce in winter was worth gold. Tomatoes, melons, bell peppers, cucumbers, onions and flowers were all grown at the beginning. We planted the date saplings. The barn and dairy were planned.
Industry: We didn’t want any industry. To my joy, it never happened. We didn’t want to be another kibbutz with a plastic factory. Some ideas rose and fell. No one wanted to invest in such a thing.
Transport and tractors: We had three tractors that were left over from the samar farm (a few of the fields at Samar were used in an unsuccessful samar plantation before the kibbutz opened. Samar is a plant in the papyrus family used for making rope and paper). We had one car a Peugeot pick-up. There was an Egged bus every few hours in either direction. It was a long hard ride in the heat, down from Tel Aviv.
Housing: Seen from above, Samar looks like big flower with six petals, which are the six neighborhoods, and the entrance road is the stem. The homes were designed to be portable from the factory, where they were made, on trucks. That’s what concerned them most. We wanted to build our own homes but we didn’t get permission. The settlement people just wanted it cheap and up to code. There was no insulation, tiny windows, units placed too close to each other. Because this is a border kibbutz the walls had to be at the security standard. Thick, reinforced cement.
Money: We weren’t concerned with income, per se. We wanted to find out what grew well here. Samar was subsidized for the first eight years, which was less than the original 20 years that the settlement agency assumed.
Communications: There were two phone lines. One was in the office, the other was in the dinning room. There was always a huge line to wait for the phone on Friday nights. There was one TV, in the dinning room. Later another was bought for the clubhouse. Mail came each day and was put in a single basket. You could always see who got what, from whom. It was great. We got the newspapers, but we felt that the distance disconnected us from the rest of the country. It was hard to participate in demonstrations, for example.
Yuval Ketner was then the business manager of Kibbutz Samar. He was interviewed on the morning of 16/Aug/00 in the metal shop/garage. We talked about the problems he has with coordination between work and workers. He expresses his frustration:.
Yuval: I’m not pleased with the situation.
So why don’t you take a deep breath, see the…
Yuval: This mindset that people have! This comfort, that if anything breaks, Doron will fix it. And if he doesn’t know how to fix it, he’ll scratch his head a little, and figure it out; and if he still can’t, he’ll just run it up to Elichai (The commercial garage at nearby Kibbutz Grofit). And on and on. There is the feeling here, that anything can be done. That’s what I wanted when I ran this welding shop.
For instance, one of the big things that happened was when they closed the field crops. And that whole group, Giora, Harel, Doron; they all came inside the kibbutz, they all came home. They’re involved in so many things, now. That ‘coming closer’, it’s the right thing. It’s a process, I see it as a process of improvement. Can’t be stopped. Things were too chilled out, here. This was a real turn.
The secret of life, from the point of view of one who’s seen a bit of it, life is a system of interests, which exist in constant struggle. It’s all interests and control. And if you know that, and look out for the landmines in that, you find that the strongest control is in yielding, in giving in. When you give in, suddenly, the other side says: ‘Wait a minute, he’s willing to compromise, I’ll compromise too.’ You have to deconstruct all these power games so you can get some connection. Now, within the connection you get more little power games all the time, which you have to resolve the same way. That’s the method Samar is based on.
What’s the strongest tool we have at Samar? It’s the fact that we, as a society, value production over management. Someone who does something is more important than someone who says: ‘this or that needs to be done’. Someone who does something has more weight, more honor. But along with that comes more responsibility. There’s no point in asking some people here to do things, I know it won’t get done. So I ask Giora to do it, but Giora wants to decide for him self when to do what. So I end up getting mad at him, why?, because he does more than others!
We have a demographic window. We’re missing those who’ve finished their military service and the obligatory vacation out of the country after that, but who don’t yet have kids. It’s not so much the age, as the family status. We’re missing some young adults. But I wouldn’t say we’re lacking young adults who want to live here. Because a guy who’s 22 or 25, doesn’t need to decide yet to sit out to the last of his days at Samar. He needs to come for a period of time, to enjoy the place, to work here and to move on. Afterwards, from all these episodes, we have a reserve of people like this in whom we can see the good ones joining us, at some point. But at that age, no one wants to make a commitment. They want to do things: to study, to work, to take a place in the city. To take someone like that and try to get a commitment out of him – what would be the point? We’re missing that middle age – younger than us, older than the kids. For them, we need apartments – for people at that phase in life.
In ten years, how do you see the demographics?
All the ‘oldies’ will be ten years older. (laughs) It all depends on what kinds of jobs we’ll have to do then. If we’re smart enough to think and plan and institute the kind of livelihood appropriate for people that age. Today we have a lot of farm work, which is appropriate for young bodies, not for mature people. Some are saying that the dates are OK for older workers, or the tropical fish; I don’t buy it. Anything connected to intensive agriculture is going to be inappropriate. A bit of the work may be fine for older people, but it’s an all or nothing situation. You’ve got to have a staff who’ll take responsibility for it all. So we’ll see if we’ll be smart enough to plan ahead for it. It’s not just a question of bringing young adults – they’ll get older too. We need a system like that to move young temporary people through who’ll come, make some money and move on. All those young folks who love to stay here – they’re not here for the money. We sure don’t pay very well. They’re here cause they think it’s fun, and there’s a little money in it. So we have to encourage that. We have to see that there’s where to work and where to stay for these folks.
What about the permanent population of the kibbutz? Are we doing well financially? Do we have enough income?
I like Elisha’s answer to the question. I asked him once how big our budget needs to be. He said: “As big as can be, there is no limit. The more money there is the better.” So the question is ‘What do we do with the money?’ Not that we need money to throw out on nonsense, but the more the merrier. And he’s right. The sky’s the limit.
Okay, that’s the sky, but where are we? Are we financially sky high or buried?
I’m no economist, and my gut feeling is that an economist would also not have a real answer to the question. So we set parameters for ourselves and see how well we meet them. See, the strength of Samar isn’t economic, it’s social. So long as we’ll be able to preserve the elements that are important to us as a society: freedom of the individual, that the kibbutz doesn’t mix in to your private life like other kibbutzim, that we’ll allow people to grow and all. Money in the cash box is one of those elements. Today, our situation is okay. What’s okay? There’s money in the box. We have more income than outlay. True, some of the income isn’t directly from our labor, it’s from our ownership of certain things, but that’s okay. Bill Gates’ salary doesn’t just come from what he types on his terminal, rather that someone else does it for him.
Our situation is okay, I don’t want to say more than that. We face some uncertainty, since we have to know how to change with the changing conditions. That’s the first law of evolution and we face it as a society; not as individuals, as an economic entity.
In Samar we are sometimes apathetic. For instance, the fact that we’re getting older and the way we sustain the place is really laid out for the young. We are not concerned with the future. We don’t think about what will be, not about what will we want from it, and not about how we plan to get it. We’re not busy with it, we’re busy with what’s happening now. ‘It’ll be okay,’ we say. My opinion is different. I think we need a model of what we want. We need to pick a goal and figure out how we get it. It could be a sum of money in the bank by a certain date. That could be a goal, but it’s hard to just get money. But more like: ‘Which branches of the kibbutz do we want to strengthen and expand?’ or ‘What kind of people do we want to live with us?’ These things are under our control. How do we relate to that?
Shelly Ashkenazi was then the Secretary General of the kibbutz.
Are the demographics here problematic?
No, I think we have a balanced mix. There aren’t any old people. We do have a small hole between the ages of 25 and 30; very few people. That seems to be problematic, but if you look at the whole picture, it’s not. If you think about maintaining some kind of flow, or continuation, it can be a problem when you have this hourglass: tons of kids, a lot of people thirty-something plus. And between 25 and 30 there’s nothing there. It might be balanced that way. Maybe that’s just the way it’s got to be at the kibbutz right now.
How do you see the demographics in another ten years?
Well that picture, that hourglass, will keep moving. We’ll all stop having kids at some point.
We wont be taking another ‘garin’(youth group) will we?
We might take on a ‘garin’. Ideally, it should look like a big tree. You have your people who start it out. They’re the top, the leaves and branches, and you just need the trunk to keep growing, so the tree doesn’t get too tall without enough girth. It has to get big and tall in proportion. So you hope that the kids will stay here and that the garin will stay here. So the tree will stay wide enough.
Financially, are we okay?, in trouble?, could be worse?, doing great?
Financially we’re okay; could be worse, could be better. We’re okay. I hope it doesn’t get any worse. I hope it only gets better.
Uri Ashkenazi was born in Jerusalem. He is a farmer and, lately, a carpenter at Samar. He was interviewed on the morning of 20/Aug/00 in the woodshop. We talked about changes in the farming.
I find you here in the woodshop.
Are you tired of farming?
No, not at all. I was in the farm this morning, to change an irrigation head.
We’re not growing vegetables any more.
Is that good, that we dropped the vegetables?
‘Good’ isn’t the question. It wasn’t appropriate for us anymore. ‘Good’ from an economic standpoint? Well, we could have made more money.
Do we have water rights to enough water to grow vegetables?
What grades of water?
All grades: Saline, semi-saline for vegetables, and treated wastewater. Water’s no problem.
I saw that field you just planted, coming up; looks good.
There’s a lot of weeds. Loaded! Look, farming is tough work. It’s hard to keep at it, and see it through. And as you get more mature it gets harder.
So, what could we grow, onions, for instance…
No, we’re not going back to any of those crops, now. Whatever we grew, we could grow in the future.
If there was a staff, ready to take it on, what would be worth it? Melons? Tomatoes?
Economically? . Economically, you could grow all of it. Look at the moshavim in the northern Arava. Peppers, eggplant, if you have those low greenhouse structures, you can grow two or three crops a year. They cool them in summer, heat them in the winter, shade them and so on. They’re making a lot of money. They hire the work force.
Workforce, people is the bottleneck here.
It’s not water. We have land, experience, equipment, and money to invest. We do not have the workforce.
The date orchard brings in a lot of money so there is more willingness to put in the work-time. The Dates is more relaxed, too. You don’t have to put down and pick up the irrigation all the time. It’s permanent. Timing is less critical, weeds, for instance. In vegetables, everything is critical. It demands a young, alert staff. The Dates is better suited to Samar, better suited to our age, better suited to the energy, to everything. It brings in good money and the date palm is a part of the environment. It feels very much at home here. Tamar (date) of the desert, Samar of the desert. That’s the crop that survived.
To grow onions, or potatoes, to grow yams or whatever takes lots of people and hard work in the sun, work without ‘hours’ That’s for long periods of the year, not just at market time. It’s not like the dates, where you need to give one push each year in the harvest. In the fields it’s the seeding, and the first watering…
Can’t the hours be divided up amongst…
No! That’s impossible. The crop needs all of your attention at some stages. It’s like a newborn baby. For 3 months there’s nothing else. The mother is nursing all the time, you get up all night, and all day, until he stabilizes. Same thing with a crop: You don’t catch your breath until it stabilizes in January or February. The plowing is the same thing, or the thermal sterilizing against weeds: everything has to move ‘chik chak’ you water the field, pull out the irrigation lines, lay down the plastic. If you goof up or take too long you have to start over. All the time you’re under crazy pressure. Not just the irrigation, the whole structure of the field has to be taken apart, nylon and all, every year from scratch.
And since that work kept us out in the field all the time, we were out of touch with what was happening in the kibbutz. We were like a Junta out there; unconnected.
Like a band of outlaws – Butch Cassiday’s gang
Yeah, because that’s the kind of work it is. You’re there all the time and you start to see it as the center of the world. You don’t get around to being aware of what’s happening around you, you don’t lift your head up.
But if there was more money in it, we’d keep at it another year and another.
The low price for onions is what shut the fields down.
Yes, when they allowed importing of cheap onions from out of the country. We used to expect a good year every 2 or 3 years, when the price would rise and we’d make something, oh, 3 ½ shekel a kilo, and everyone would come to work extra in the afternoon. But when the import came we knew it was all over. The price wobbles between .80 to 1.80. So, that became a matter of hard labor for peanuts. No hope for a serious profit.
That’s what’s happening to the dairy too? Erosion of profits?
Wait and see, there’s still profit in the dairy. They are proud and hold their heads up in the dairy, for now.
Gigi Strom moved to Samar from neighboring Kibbutz Lotan four years ago. She then heads the dairy. It is a very demanding job: 500 cows, of these 250 ‘milkers’. The dairy makes about one quarter of Samars income.
Do we have a ‘good’ refet (dairy cow operation)?
Yes and no. We have a lot of advantages on Samar relative to the other refetot in the region. We have more professional people who want to work in the refet, and enjoy working in the refet and enjoy working together and want to do more than just milk the cows, throw out the food and hope that everything’s okay.
The problem is that to run a refet you don’t need four people, you need eight people. Each day you need to fill in two for milking morning and afternoon, one for the calves, and one on feed. In addition to that you have people doing repairs and upkeep, and the veteranairy work, and general management. This means that if you want to have all of those holes filled and you want to give people time to do other thing than just milking and feeding, where do the other four people come from? In the past we’ve been lucky, and this year it looks like it’s going to work out because of this new volunteer and Galia, who says she’d like to work here, plus Gadi is going to come back on a half time basis. But if you were to ask me two weeks ago, who is going to be on the staff, I had no idea!
We, the professional staff, who see ourselves working here for ten or twenty years, if we spend all our time running around trying to find people to fill those holes, we get discouraged. It affects our motivation to be doing other things.
The other problem is that when you have well-meaning, but non-professional people coming in, they mean well, but make mistakes that…
Make more work?
Not just make more work, for example, one Friday evening, the milkers mixed up cows from group ‘Alef’ in group ‘Dalit’. Carlos told them not to worry about it, and that Rom would deal with it in the morning, but no one told Rom, and he didn’t notice. That left 60 cows in Dalit with enough food for 45 cows. It wasn’t corrected until Sunday. The cows were in near starvation conditions for 48 hours; it hurt them. We say to ourselves: ‘Wait a minuet, we’re doing all of this work, and you take two steps backward for every one step forward. It’s not about people being lazy, it’s just that if you’re not on the ball all the time, it’s not going to be done properly.
That’s why we need a robot (automatic milking system). A refet like ours…
How many people would a robot free up? You say a minimum of eight, so with a robot you’d need six?
Four. It means a professional staff of four. It means we don’t have to come and say: ‘Bryan, please milk this afternoon.’ It means we don’t have to get angry because Bryan came to milk but didn’t know that this cow has a dry right-rear teat, and not a dry left-rear teat.
And, of course it’s better for the cows. They milk when, and as often as they please.
Do they give more when a robot milks them?
About 5 to 10% more milk.
How does our refet compare to others?
In terms of yeild, we’re average for the area. For calf mortality, we’re a bit lower than average. But the point is to make money. Kibbutz Yahel had the best refet professionally, last year, but they were among the least profitable. We’re in 3rd of 4th place depending if you take labor costs in to account. Yahel has Thailandi workers who work very cheap.
Our cows are not suffering. We are giving them good enough conditions, they look happy, relaxed, they’re healthy. I take it as a point of pride when people notice that the cows kick much less, nowadays, in general, they’re relaxed.
About water use, how much do we use? What grades?
I don’t know. We don’t have a water meter here. I use a rule of thumb to figure it annually. I don’t remember what that is right now.
Can you foresee cutting back on water?
If you’re going to save water here then it’s got to be in recycling, rather than in using less. If we don’t wash with enough hot water, we’ve got bacteria problems. If we cut back on the showers in summer, the cows get heat stressed. They sure can’t drink less than what they drink now.
How about cutting back on energy use; electricity, gas…
I don’t see how.
Would you like to see a biogas extractor to process the slurry for fuel?
If you had to spend a half hour per week to add manure to the digester…
That’d be fine. We should be able to integrate it.
Dani Za’ira has been in charge of irrigation of the date orchard for over ten years.
How much water did we use last year?
About 2,500 ‘cube’s (a cube is 1m3, or 1000 liters) per dunam (1/4 acre), times 400 dunam. It’s about a million cube. Really it’s more like 1.1 million per year. That’s partly because they want us to use excess water in the winter. Also, we sometimes give extra on very hot days in summer.
Why do they want you to use extra water in winter?
To get rid of it! They have to make room in the reservoir. It’s free, so we oblige.
The recycled wastewater is free?
Just about free.
But some trees are watered with saline ground water.
Only a hundred, or so. Only a small fraction.
So there’s no lack of water
No, there’s no shortage. Not in summer, either. The water athority has added a new pump, so now they have more water.
More water for us, less pollution for Eilat.
Ofer Ben-Tovim was then the treasurer of the kibbutz. I asked him about industry at Samar.
Industry, in the common sense of the word, we don’t have at Samar. We don’t have a factory. The kibbutz is a partner in the regional packinghouse. That’s an industry. We’re part of Ardag (fish breeding and growing in the Red Sea) and the packinghouse there. We’re a part of the Negev Business Group, but as far as here, at Samar? Crystal is something like it. The garage is an industrial service branch.
How much do we make from all this?
I can’t really tell you, because there’s no standard way of comparing these ventures. In the packinghouse we don’t make anything, it costs. But that’s just how we’ve arranged it there. Crystal brings in about 100,000 to 200,000 shekels a year.
Is that a pity, that there’s not any…
‘Pity the dead’ as we say. I’m not sure a standard factory is befitting of what we want to do here. Few of us are willing to sit on their ass on the job, in a factory. I’m a fine example of that. To sit and tighten screws for three days is a bore. Do it for a month and you’ll go nuts.
All your life-
-forget it! So, an industry, here, would have to be somewhat more intelligent. That’s why the dairy doesn’t do so well, here. It’s gray work for the most part, with some considerable advantages. A milking robot “winks” at Samar since that’s a cleaver, progressive approach, which swaps a lot of hard physical work for a technology and a price. Any kind of industry here will have to be at that level: a machine, or process that works, with a technician who oversees. With the human resource we have here.
But you’re the treasurer of the kibbutz. I don’t hear you bewailing the lack of some great moneymaker.
“If only we had a factory…” Let’s take the Carlsberg brewery for example, or the Eden bottled water. That’s great. Two people really work there, and another two do maintenance. That’s how it’d have to be, for Samar. I’m sure we’d be able to find two or three people for something like that. That’s industry like we could run at Samar. Not that we have the capital, nor the marketing mechanism. We’re at a real disadvantage. For that reason I think we need to develop more in the direction of working outside the kibbutz instead.
Where all the infrastructure is on someone else
If people like what they do and get a good wage, that’s fine.
Doron Bashir is in charge of the garage and Samars’ fleet of vehicles and tractors.
How many cars does the kibbutz have?
Eleven cars divided by how many members?
85 members, about 100 drivers, all told.
That’s nine drivers per vehicle
Is that enough?
Yes, yes. When it’s not enough we rent a car, but usually it’s enough. We make do with what we have. If all the cars are taken, people put off their trip till tomorrow. We make do with what we have. We just bought a new one.
That sounds like it’s more economical than if each person had their own car.
In my opinion, that’s right.
But do people keep the vehicles up? Do they take care of them?
I think the people of Samar deserve a lot of credit for how well they take care of the cars and the tractors. Sometimes less, sometimes more, but all in all, I’m very satisfied with the respect people have for the vehicles.
How many tractors are there?
Twenty, including the gardening tractor and the fork lift.
Ten years from now do you see there being more cars? One per family?
More will come, no doubt. Nir is the oldest kid on the kibbutz. He’s just got his license. Five years from now we’ll have twenty kids with licenses. They’re gonna be on the cars all the time. Also people get cars with some outside jobs. We have a school principal, people working in Eilat; there are five cars, right there.
That’s five families who don’t need to use the common vehicles; ten drivers.
What would you say to having an electric vehicle.
Fantastic! For trips around the kibbutz, or to Eilat, that’d be fantastic.