From Utopianism to Realism: The Communist Kibbutznik Who Discovered Freedom

How does a long-time kibbutz member and one-time communist become a free-market advocate? Find out in this fascinating interview with Yehuda Harel, regular contributor to Mida.

Yehuda Harel, a decades-long member of the Kibbutz movement and one who saw himself as a devotee of Tabenkin for many years, later became a free-market advocate espousing explicitly liberal principles in his book ‘Privatize’ • A once ardent communist now sees many similarities between socialism, communism, fascism, Nazism and social-democracy, all of which are enemies of freedom which aim to increase the power of the state • A talk with a man who saw and lived socialism, collective living and the socialist utopianism and in contrast to many others, adapted himself to the constraints of reality.


Anyone who met Yehuda Harel in the 1960s and told him that in 2010 he’d be publishing a book called ‘Privatize’ would have been met with bemused laughter. Harel, a kibbutz movement member and devotee of Yitzhak Tabenkin, and one who saw himself as part of the left wing of the labor movement his whole life, defined himself as a communist back then.

In the beginning of the 1970s Harel – one of the founders and leaders of settlement in the Golan Heights – tried to infuse the kibbutz movement with new energy. His purpose, which he declared at the meeting of the kibbutz movement conference, was to double the movement’s numbers.

Within a short time, Harel began to draw up a plan for a new settlement drive. However, within a few weeks he found himself at a loss. The kibbutz movement was revealed to him with all its weaknesses and faults. What looked like a flourishing movement with tens of thousands of followers revealed itself to be a building tottering on the edge of collapse.

The failure of arrogance and utopianism. Kibbutz Degania. Photo: Yossi Zamir / Flash90


Harel tried to introduce gradual reforms into the movement, but he found himself in conflict with its leadership. He was appointed as head of the ‘Yad Tabenkin’ research institute – the ideological center of the Kibbutz movement – but the appointment did not change the trend and within a few years Harel started to prepare a move towards an overhaul of Kibbutz life. Already in the 1980s, Harel called for the complete separation of the Kibbutz’s economy from its community. According to this separation, Harel suggested that the economy be run according to the rules of the market economy, while kibbutz members would continue living collectively. A voice in the wilderness in the 1980s, over time he became the prophet of change in the kibbutz movement, which in the first decade of the 21st century adopted almost all of his ideas.

Harel, who began by merely proposing partial reforms meant to make the kibbutz movement more efficient, has in the meantime undergone a long ideological journey. Once an active supporter of communism, he has adopted clear-cut liberal principles after becoming convinced of the greater efficiency of the free market and the inherent advantages of government non-involvement in all walks of life.

Harel is not only a man of action; he is also one of the prominent intellectuals to come out of the kibbutz movement. He wrote one of the most important columns in the kibbutz newspaper for many years and published books. He also has extensive academic knowledge of the history of the kibbutz movement, Russia, Germany and more.  His book Privatize (2010) presents the variety of existing theories and approaches on economics, socialism, liberalism, market economies and different planning approaches in science, architecture, culture and economics in a clear and concise manner. However, as opposed to other theoretical books, this book stands out in its ability to present a broad erudition demonstrated by innumerable examples and cases which show what happens when utopian theories run into reality.

Yehuda, it would seem that like many converts who crossed ideological lines, you became an extreme capitalist.

When I was head of the ‘Yad Tabenkin’ research institute, I used the endless resources at the institute’s disposal to study the kibbutz. I used many researchers and then my worldview began to change. I discovered that the kibbutz movement’s economic system could not work, and the system that can work is the one which works everywhere – the capitalist system.

After two years I had to leave ‘Yad Tabenkin’. I was seen as someone who was sowing panic, because I said that [the kibbutz arrangement] is going to collapse. It’s in my nature that if I can’t go through the door, I come in through the window, so I did something that didn’t yet exist in the kibbutz movement – I established a consulting organization for kibbutzim which started to advance changes in kibbutzim who realized they were on the brink of collapse. When I finished I wrote a book called ‘The New Kibbutz’. I still had a socialist outlook, albeit a limited one. What I suggested to the kibbutzim, and first and foremost my own kibbutz, was separating the economy from the community. The basic idea was that the former needs to be run in an entirely capitalist manner while the latter should be collective and egalitarian. We ran this idea in my kibbutz as a trial run and in a number of other kibbutzim.

What was the result?

Total, swift, sudden economic recovery. But gradually it became clear to me that the communal community structure also doesn’t work. Why? Because the youth didn’t want it – not the garinim and not the second generation. When I saw that it doesn’t work, I started to examine myself, because letting go of a [personally held] ideology of so many years is not a simple matter. So I did a seminar for myself. I went back to Karl Popper, who I’d read before as a critic, I delved deep into the works of Friedrich Hayek, I went back over the history of the social-democrats, of the Bolsheviks, and I re-formed my outlook.

Your move from a belief in a centralized economy to a belief in free markets is also a move from a belief in the power of intelligence and rationalism to shape the world at will, to one of epistemic humility and realism.

It’s called ‘The Fatal Conceit’. This arrogance – that we can plan society, culture and science, and that the Council for Higher Education can decide how many scientists we need of type A and how many scientists we need of type B – this is the conceit of the twentieth century, of rationalism, of intellectualism. My book presents my release from this conceit and the outlook I arrived at. By the way, you can see the failure of this conceit in Syria. All the various experts and intelligence agencies couldn’t foresee the war in Syria or the changes in the Arab world, in spite of their intellectual pretensions.

What is the result of this conceit?

Let me give you an example. In the past there was a Eugenics movement, a movement which aimed at improving the human race by sterilizing the unfit and increasing the fertility of the fittest. There was a Eugenics department in most universities in the world and many of the greats of British socialism believed in it, for instance, H.G. Wells and the great economic planner – Keynes. Keynes was president of Eugenics in Britain. This is also part of the desire to design human society. A hundred thousand people were sterilized in the US – criminals, drunks &c. All this has to do with the conceit of the 20th century.

 John Maynard Keynes


And what will replace the Utopianism of design? Will we not have a vacuum?

I deal a lot with youth in the Golan. What can I sell them? If you tell them that they can’t do anything, where will all the energy of the eager youth go? I tell them – with your ideals, of justice and equality, don’t ask the state what to do but what you should do or the maximum we can do. You can increase justice in your immediate surroundings, in your family or your life. Don’t think that you can change the whole country. But I don’t suggest becoming passive. Maybe the community is the answer.

That is, voluntary communities which people willingly choose to belong to?

Voluntary communities which are easy to leave. This is the lesson of the Kibbutz. The kibbutz was the most totalitarian organization in the world, even more totalitarian than Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. They told you what to eat in the mess hall, they told you how to spend the little money you had, and they told you if you’d learn and if so, what you’d learn. Why didn’t it become a tyranny? Only one reason – because it was easy to leave.

The organization cannot do what it wants with the individual because the individual can leave the organization for the price of a bus ticket, a possibility that didn’t exist in Russia or Germany. When the individual can leave, the organization can’t be abusive. Maybe not everyone can leave, but the strong, the talented, the young can.

And what about morality? Doesn’t the capitalist world leave the individual alienated, isolated and meaningless?

Today on the kibbutz when you need to help the individual, say someone who’s sick and I help him, with my own money and time, that’s far more moral than what used to be in the kibbutz when the kibbutz secretariat gave it the same assistance and the members’ committee saw to it that someone looked after his kids. Why? Because then I wasn’t required to give up something of my own; the organization did it. In order to be moral you need the freedom to choose. A precondition of true morality is freedom, when you can be moral or immoral and you have to choose.

Harel’s book, “Privatize”.


If the moral result occurs, what difference does it make what mechanism caused it?

People need to be educated towards morality from the beginning. For instance, we were all party members, because the kibbutz paid the party membership dues. As soon as the kibbutz stopped paying, the political activity was not across the boards; some were convinced and paid, others weren’t and didn’t. Before, they didn’t have the option of making that decision. So you can say that in organization there is power, but it dulls the individual. Therefore individualism and individual freedom are morally preferable. What is individual freedom from? The government. The state.

The individual had no freedom to make moral decisions in the kibbutzim?

How does the left hide the fact that it eliminates individual freedoms? By democracy. That is, by identifying the individual with the collective. The kibbutz was pretty successful in this area. When such an identification exists, there is no need to give the individual any freedom, because he perceives the collective’s freedom as his own. This held up for many years until the number of those who left outnumbered those who joined. The reason is simple: people want individual freedom.

You divide the argument for freedom into two types: a utilitarian argument, which states that it has been proven that in practice freedom brings about better results, and a moral argument, according to which a planned economy and a planned society are not moral.

In a planned economy, a person’s freedom to choose is taken away from him. When a person, state or government presume to know what another person needs to do, how he needs to behave morally, what he needs to pay taxes for, why he needs to work, what he needs to learn and so on, this denies freedom. The left offers democracy as compensation for the individual freedoms lost. Democracy is the rule of representatives and I will quote Rousseau who said: as soon as you choose representatives, then they represent themselves first, the party second, and the voters last of all.

You have a better system?

Yes, give the representatives less power.

In other words, the same system of representative democracy but minimize the power the government has?

Minimize their power because any power the state has is power society and the individual doesn’t. I want as small a government as possible, the more that can be privatized, the better. A lot can be privatized in the defense sector as well. For instance, food and vehicle maintenance. Give the state as little power as possible and leave society and the individual as much as possible.

Small government – Israeli style. Photo: Jonathan Sindel / Flash90


And what is the state’s part?

The state needs to establish traffic laws but not say where to go. It needs to establish commercial laws to prevent monopolies but it can’t run the economy. Basically what I’m saying is that the state needs to be the umpire but it can’t play the game. Today, the degree of involvement is such that the state’s part of national output is 50%. That’s more than the biggest socialists dreamed of. In the US, it’s 30-40% of output, which is one of the lowest. In Europe it’s 50%, by us it’s 50%. That’s too much but those who call themselves “social” [politically] are always trying to raise it, including parties labeled “right-wing”.

And what about successes of planned economies? For instance, the success of the Nazi planned economy which devotees of the planned economy put on display? Did it not do a better job of getting Germany out of the Great Depression than other European countries?

It’s a bluff. The Nazis led to a huge deficit, and the deficit eventually required them to choose war. They didn’t have the money to buy raw materials so they conquered them. The Nazi economy said that the economy had to serve the Reich. In recent years I discovered a researcher of the Nazi economy from the Lehavot Habashan kibbutz, who published a number of books. I met him. He remained a socialist, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that he believes in the Nazi economy. Why? Because if you’re a Marxist, planning is part of the articles of faith. But they don’t pay sufficient attention to the similarity between socialism and Nazism.

If so, is the accepted distinction between right and left, with socialism and communism on one end and fascism-Nazism on the other, is wrong? The true distinction is between étatism and liberalism?

Exactly. Between the totality which a centralized regime leads to and a free regime. “Social-democracy” is also entirely étatist.

You put social-democracy in the same camp with socialism, communism, fascism and Nazism, as the enemy of liberalism?

Of course. We learned from Marx and Hegel that the best definition of a movement is its history. The founder of social democracy and national-socialism, not surprisingly, was a Jew named Ferdinand Lassalle, which it isn’t well known that he was a friend of Bismarck. He believed in socialism through (Prussian) nationalism. He founded the first social-democratic party in the world, in Germany, and Marx attacked him for being a German nationalist. The root of national-socialism and social-democracy is similar.

The German social democracy joined the German nationalists in the First World War, which was considered a betrayal by the communists. But this was not a chance betrayal, they were strongly integrated into German nationalism.

There was another Jew, Bernstein, who believed socialism will be realized by an increasingly centralizing state, until all workers are clerks. This is how national-socialism developed. No-one thought it would take a racist direction, but the economic and social direction of Nazism started from there. It’s no coincidence that the term National-Socialism was chosen. Social democracy was also socialism with the state. Now, look at Israeli socialists today. They want to give the state more and more. They see privatization as the greatest threat. It’s similar, it’s connected, it’s on the same continuum, although it’s obviously not identical.

How do you explain the fact that in spite of the great failure of socialism, the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the collapse of the kibbutz movement, socialist ideology and populism are still alive and kicking?

To them, socialism can’t fail. Why? Because they identify socialism with the most moral system in the world.  So when someone implements socialism and it’s not moral, it’s considered proof that he’s not a socialist. Because of this, socialism is not falsifiable. Hanan Porat would explain to me that a religious person can’t steal, because if he steals, he’s not religious. In the same manner, socialism can’t fail because if it does that means the person who led it wasn’t a socialist.

If so, this is blind faith, a system that can’t be refuted?

It’s a dream, a dream that makes life easier. Our position is difficult. Advocates for the free market say that the economy develops from crises. A failing business closes, a successful business survives and so the economy advances and improves.

Crises are a hard thing: workers are fired, there are human disasters. Let’s say I tell local farmers that imports will shut their branches down. It hurts. Instead socialists come and spread promises: instead of advancing through crises we’ll advance through planning and spare ourselves the crises. Like the crisis our economy is in today, if we had planned, it would have been prevented. It’s very seductive.

What does liberalism answer to all this? The planning will be worse than the market, and only through crises will we reach a better place. Don’t save the American auto industry, don’t throw more tens of billions of dollars to save failing factories or banks, let them collapse. But there are workers there with families, with children. So you’re ostensibly saying something bad. And those who propose to prevent the crash, all they’re doing is printing more money and giving it to them – it sounds better. Leftist ideology sounds more attractive, sexier.

And when it fails, they won’t recognize it?

They won’t. If there was a failure, it’s a sign that they didn’t plan well enough, they need to plan better. For instance, in East Germany everything was planned. Why didn’t it work? They say – the planners weren’t good.

This economic utopianism is reminiscent of the political left’s utopian arguments.

It’s the same conceit, we’re going back to conceit. The assumption that one can plan reality, one can plan the economy, biology, peace, the Middle East. There is such a great revolution now in the Middle East and everyone who tried to foresee what will happen in a month failed. I’m the best commentator, because I say “I have no idea what will be”. The conclusion is that we need to sit quietly. Don’t do a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians because you don’t know who the Palestinians will be tomorrow, and you don’t know if Jordan will last or become a Palestinian state. Don’t make an agreement with Syria and come down from the Golan, after all no-one knows what will be there.

You were the founder and leader of settlement in the Golan. Later you also led the struggle against withdrawal from the Golan, both in the non-parliamentary arena and as a Knesset member in the Third Way. According to your evaluation, has the option of withdrawal from the Golan come off the agenda?

The only thing that’s permanent between us and Syria is we are sitting on the Golan, 50 kilometers from Damascus, without a land obstacle, and we can reach Damascus in 24 hours. Israeli tanks can be in the parliament parking lot or the Presidential palace within a full day’s time. That has tremendous significance. It’s kept the peace for 40 years. That’s a little? That’s a lot. So to give it up when you don’t know what’s going to happen in the Middle East? I’ll say something even more extreme: after what was done on the Golan, even if “Peace Now” leads Syria, a government which recognizes Zionism and Israel, I’m not prepared to give up the Golan.


Because there’s a point on the timeline where you don’t need justifications anymore. The settlement in the Beit-Shean valley was because Beit-Shean was an Arab city and they established Homa and Migdal settlements on Beit Shean’s border. A security reason. Meantime there’s no security reason and Bet Shean is a Jewish city. So can you cancel Tel-Amal or Tirat Zvi or the Beit Shean Valley settlements? Today you want to stay there because it’s part of the land, there is no longer any security reason. So I think that after 40 years, which is a generation, the Golan no longer needs a security reason. If someone explains to me that from a security standpoint the Golan is no longer needed, I won’t argue with him. Even if there wasn’t a security justification – and there is a security justification – that doesn’t mean we need to give up the Golan.

Among the older generation, you’re known as one of the leaders of settlement in the Golan but a chapter in your life that people aren’t aware of is that you were part of the establishment of ‘Gush Emunim’ and the establishment of settlements in Judaea and Samaria.

For Tabenkin, the land of Israel has no border. Where is the border? The answer is active. That is, where we act and create a Jewish majority – that’s the border.  And the longer we can prevent the drawing of the border, the better. Because of this, the question of whether the Golan is part of the land of Israel or not – it all depends on what we do. How successful we are. That’s Tabenkin’s approach. The Revisionist approach is the borders of the Mandate, like in the Logo of the Etzel and the Herut Movement. That’s a “mamlachti” approach. My friends from Gush Emunim, they’re mamlachtiyim; my education is not mamlachti, it’s the opposite.


Mamlachitiyut is a bad word by me. Perhaps that is what drew me to my approach today, the liberal one, which is also anti-mamlachti. Mamlachtiyut is étatism. I can say today that there are at least eight settlements which I was involved in their establishment, including Katzrin. Most of them were established before a government decision, but differently than Gush Emunim – we never reached a conflict. At some point I made contact with them, with these friends, especially with Hanan Porat, and entirely by chance I got to be involved in establishing ‘Gush Emunim’.

The idea of starting settlement in Judaea and Samaria was thrown out at a meeting in the home of [Rabbi] Chayim’ke Drukman. I was dealing then with the Golan and I was with someone who went to this meeting. The meeting started with Divrei Torah, the first time I heard that style. They quoted Rav Elazar Hakapar who said of settling the Land of Israel that it is worth more than all the other Mitzvot. Everyone spoke, and when it was over, I dared to ask permission to speak. I told them that a few weeks earlier a stone had been discovered on the Golan, a doorpost, at Deborah, which said “this is the Beit Midrash of Rav Elazar Hakapar”. This is the first time, the only time, of an archaeological discovery of the name of a Talmudic sage. And then I added that everything they talked about is very nice, but if tomorrow there won’t be someone who has a vehicle and start work then nothing’s been done. It draws from Tabenkin’s approach.

At the end of the week this came up at a gathering at Kfar Etzion and a Peugeot van was approved for Hanan Porat. He started driving, and the rest is history. Later, along with Hanan and some other partners, we established an organization for non-agricultural settlements beyond the green line. Between then settlement was only [agricultural] settlement: either a moshav or a kibbutz. Then they started two-three others, Alon Shvut and Bnei Yehudah in the Golan. Katzrin wasn’t around yet, there was a garin for Katzrin. We went on a path and established an organization. With that organization we built Ofra and later more settlements.

And yet you are not part of the ‘Gush Emunim’ clique.

There’s a significant difference between me and Gush Emunim. As opposed to the settlement on the Golan, Gush Emunim’s attempt to penetrate the non-religious was pathetic and impossible from the outset. Rav Kook and his followers could convince their youth because they came from a religious ideology. The drawback is that with this ideology they had no chance of convincing the secular Jews. The paradox is that if they had given that up, they also wouldn’t have convinced those that they did. Because of this, no matter how much they pressured me to be with them, it was unsuccessful. I also didn’t agree to run for Knesset with “Ha-Tehiyah”, and I have to say that I don’t believe in politics until today.

English translation by Avi Woolf.

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