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Are Israel’s cooperatives making a comeback?

Tel Aviv’s Bar Kayma is more than a meeting point for vegan hippies – it’s a sign the Israeli cooperative is back in vogue

Are Israel’s cooperatives making a comeback?

Israel has always done cooperatives, associations that come together for mutual economic and social benefit. Since the early days of Zionism in the late 19th century, the kibbutz and moshav agricultural communities were central to society, and many of Israel’s largest companies have been cooperatives.

But since the 1970s, government legislation and a wider shift towards pure capitalism has placed the old co-ops on the endangered list. The kibbutzim have struggled financially and the likes of Egged – Israel’s largest bus company – have reduced cooperative members and employed more regular employees.

“In its early days, Israel was a cooperative empire,” says Yifat Solel, an Israeli lawyer who specialises in civil and social rights issues, and has helped to set up many of the new generation cooperatives. “Much of its industry was cooperative, most of its supermarkets and department stores, some of its cultural life – publishing houses and theatres – almost everything was cooperative. But increasingly they’ve disappeared – they’re no longer considered relevant.”

Then, in 2011, Israel saw widespread protests against rising house and food prices, and a new generation of cooperatives started springing up again. A year after the protests, more than 40 new cooperatives had formed, from the Ha’agala co-op grocery store in Mitzpeh Ramon to a social workers’ cooperative and one in northern Israel comprising teachers employed by manpower companies. One of the most interesting is Bar Kayma in Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighbourhood. Yigal Ramban and Julian Feder, both leading activists in the social protests, had the initial idea for a cooperative bar-restaurant. By the time a space had been found and renovation started the group had grown to 50; at opening time in May 2012 there were 150 members, and today there are more than 400.

“We wanted to propose a solution to the problems we were shouting about in the streets,” says Dafna Brenkal, an activist who was part of the founding group of Bar Kayma (Hebrew for “sustainable”). “The beauty of this place is that it’s not a pyramid, it’s a circle, and we are a community.”

As the community grows, so do Bar Kayma’s aspirations. From a bar-restaurant, the cooperative has grown to encompass weekly concerts, a roof garden (from which some of the restaurant’s vegetables are harvested), and workshops and lectures on anything from astrology to ecology. There are now plans for a vegan shop. Members pay a one-off lifetime membership fee of ILS1,000 (NOK1,720), which entitles them to special members’ prices and the opportunity to be as active within the community as they choose, through monthly members’ meetings and an annual general assembly. “There are assigned jobs,” says Brenkal, “but no hierarchy – everybody’s voice is the same.”

So far so hippy, but it’s not quite that simple, says Brenkal. “Like any community, we have our disagreements. This is good, though. If we didn’t have criticism within the community, this place would be as bad as anywhere else. We’ve had some really hard discussions – a few people have even left because they didn’t agree. That’s okay – we’re 400 people, and even if we were five people it would be hard for everyone to agree.”


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Tel Avi tips

Life’s a beach
National Geographic rates Tel Aviv as one of the world’s Top 10 beach cities – the 13km stretch on the Med is just steps from the city. Head to the central Gordon-Frischman Beach for its saltwater pool or the northern Tel Baruch to get away from it all.

Bauhaus wonder
Built in the 1930s by emigré architects, the 4,000 buildings in Tel Aviv’s White City make up the world’s largest concentration of Bauhaus buildings. Open House Weekend is a good opportunity to see inside some, from 22-24 May.

Party town
Tel Aviv is known for its nightlife - clubs and bars tend to come alive around 11pm and stay open till morning. It’s also celebrated for its gay scene – the city’s 16th Gay Pride Parade is on 13 June.


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