The Story of Degania Alef, the first Israeli Kibbutz – an interesting story

Joseph Baratz wrote “A Village by the Jordan: the Story of Degania” in the mid-1950s; I have two copies – one published in 1957 and one in 1960.  I do not think there have been any editions since then.

Degania was the first kibbutz established in what was then Palestine – in 1910.  Baratz, who died in 1968, was one of the founders.  His story is very interesting.  Born in the Ukraine, his family moved to Kishinev, and he decided he wanted to go to Palestine.  He went with a family friend when he was only 16, left the friend when they got to the port of Jaffa, and set off on his own.  He toured the country (no easy trick in 1906), did all sorts of physical work, and with a number of his friends decided that (1) it was possible to restore land to agricultural use, (2) Jews coming to Palestine should not be colonizers of Arab workers, but should do their own manual labor, and (3) this would be a noble and meaningful way to live.  They were able to locate a large parcel of land south of the Sea of Galilee and east of the River Jordan which they were permitted to work, and they started working.

It was a two day trip to Tel Aviv, and they had no doctor or health care – they started out with only twelve members (of whom two were young women).  They made a lot of mistakes in trying to establish a cooperative village – where to plant, where to build homes, should they have cows or chickens, should they plant vegetables as well as grains?  What about relations with their Arab neighbors, and with the nomadic Bedouins?  How do they organize themselves?  What the appropriate jobs for the women?  What about marriage, or children?  How would money be handled?

All these questions and more were addressed by the original members as they worked the fields, and battled disease.  And, slowly but surely, their settlement grew.  Pretty soon, they thought it had grown too big, so they started a second kibbutz, calling the first Degania Alef, and the second Degania Bet.  And kibbutzim spread across the land, and inter-kibbutz organizations were established.

It was not easy.  Work was very hard.  Disease and death hovered over everything. Growth in settlers meant widespread differences of opinion.  But progress was constant, roads were improved, electricity and technology arrived.  As the British mandate was ending, the boundaries of the proposed Jewish state needed to be determined.  Degania lay east of the Jordan River, and the river was the most obvious border line.  But an exception was made, the boundary moved to the east, and Degania became part of Israel.  Of course, its location near the Jordanian border meant that it was in a very dangerous place during the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, and Degania was invaded (unsuccessfully as it turned out) and pretty much destroyed by invading Syrian troops.  This story is also an interesting one, the Syrians had tanks, while the kibbutz members had rifles, but the Syrians did retreat after the death of their commander, and they didn’t come back.  But Degania had to be rebuilt pretty much from scratch…and it was.

Baratz had married a young woman who also wound up at Degania, and they eventually raised seven children, most of whom stayed on the kibbutz.  And Baratz was not only a leader at home (as was his wife, who became an expert at dairy farming), but became an emissary for the kibbutz movement, traveling to Europe and to America to participate in conferences, to raise funds.  He also became involved in various social welfare activities in Israel – he comes across as a modest, but extraordinarily effective and right-minded individual.

This is not a book of high drama.  But it is a very realistic story of twentieth century agricultural and social development in Israel, when the kibbutz movement was at its strongest.  It’s a short book, and it’s very readable.  And it will increase your understanding and appreciation of this facet of Israeli development.

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