Protecting the periphery

By YITZCHAK BESSER
April 14, 2013 15:04

Hashomer Hahadash takes its cue from the organization’s pre-state predecessor in striving to promote Zionism and a love of the land while helping farms struggling with theft, vandalism and the lack of law enforcement.




Hashomer Hahadash volunteers at vineyard near Mitzpe Ramon

Hashomer Hahadash 521. (photo credit:Courtesy Hashomer Hahadash)

A GROUP of pioneers bands together to fight the forces of lawlessness in their small farming communities.

Together, they become the defenders of the Jewish frontier.

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It sounds like the plot from a spaghetti western, but as is so often the case in Israeli history, the truth is stranger than fiction.

This was the humble beginning of Hashomer (“The Guard”), an organization established in 1909 to protect Jewish farms in Palestine, then under the control of the Turks. The Yishuv movement sought to settle the Land of Israel, a noble Zionist endeavor that many commemorate on Independence Day. But Hashomer recognized that there was a second half to that equation: protecting what you’ve created.

Israelis, and their pre-state forebearers, are no strangers to defense. That legacy began, at least in part, with Hashomer. By 1913, it had enlisted approximately 400 members, and operated in 13 moshavim.

After 11 years of service guarding the crops and cattle of fledgling Jewish farms, the organization disbanded in 1920, having decided to join forces with the Hagana and thereby present a united front in defending the regional Jewish communities.

But its spirit lived on, and would serve as an inspiration for another group of Zionists nearly a century after its inception.

In 2007, Yoel Zilberman and On Rifman founded Hashomer Hahadash (“The New Guard”) for largely the same reasons as those of their predecessors: to help the ranchers and farmers living in the remote areas along Israel’s periphery.

As with many things, necessity was the mother of Hashomer Hahadash’s invention.

Although he had been been thinking about his personal identity as an Israeli, the government’s role in society and the general well-being of the nation for a number of years, largely as a result of his service in the Second Lebanon War, Zilberman was spurred into action after his family’s ranch in Tzipori was attacked.

Beduin vandals threatened to kill his father, torched fields, destroyed property and either killed or stole cattle. Dozens of complaints to the police were entirely ineffective in stopping the criminals.

The blow to the business was enormous, to the point that the embattled rancher almost abandoned his property. But Zilberman, only a few days after his discharge from the IDF, came to his father’s aid, insisting that he not give up.

Together with a group of army friends, Zilberman set up a makeshift command post on the property to defend the farm from thieves. If authorities were either unwilling or unable to solve the problem, Zilberman felt that he and his friends would do it themselves.

Pleas for help soon came in from other struggling farmers in the area and the network of civilian guardsmen was born.

The organization has 700 volunteers based in 20 locations. Volunteers usually spend one night a month guarding a farm, although some do so on a more frequent basis. They also mend fences, pick vegetables, put up property markers and feed the animals.

Although it originally began as a volunteer grassroots movement, Hashomer Hahadash grew to include programs for connecting people to the “values on which the State of Israel was founded” and fostering Zionism, volunteerism, activism and a sense of civic leadership among the young.

“One of our main goals is educating about the importance of maintaining a connection to the land and creating a conversation about our roots,” says Zilberman. The organization’s other two main priorities are helping farmers in need and championing Zionist values among today’s youth.

“We want to see young people become active leaders on a familial level, on a communal level and on a national level,” the Hashomer Hahadash founder explains.

In addition to creating a cadre of young leaders, the organization aims to raise public awareness about the difficulties of the farming communities in the Negev, Galilee and Golan, and works to establish an atmosphere of national unity in which members of widely divergent sectors of society can rally around a common goal: preserving the safety of those facing lawlessness on the modern-day frontier.

Zilberman points out that this emphasis on the Land of Israel is built on a national, rather than a religious, foundation, and that the organization has both haredi and secular members.

“We stand for the concept of mutual responsibility. We want to see an Israel where everyone is safe to go wherever they want, even out into the middle of nowhere, and that if an Israeli is ever in need of help, even if they are in the middle of nowhere, there will be someone to give them a hand,” he says.

At its core, Hashomer Hahadash stands for a universal ideal: helping those who cannot help themselves. Yehuda Marmor was one such individual. A 50-year-old farmer in Moshav Yavniel, Marmor feared in 2009 that he would be forced to close the cattle farm created by his grandfather after he faced growing problems of theft, arson and vandalism from the local Beduin community. Marmor was physically attacked and even shot at a number of times. After beginning the process of finding a buyer for his ranch, he was approached by Zilberman, who told him not to sell and promised that Hashomer Hahadash would work to protect Marmor, his property and his livelihood.

Four years later, that relationship is still going strong. Volunteers and young people working in national service programs come to the farm a couple of times a week to guard it from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.

“I would not have been able to survive without them,” Marmor says emphatically.

“The volunteers and people doing their national service show the good side of Israel. There’s nothing like them; they are the next generation of leaders in our country. I really have no words to describe just how much I appreciate them.”

Moshe Har-Shemesh took a different route on the way to becoming a rancher.

Born in the US, he made aliya from California 30 years ago. After serving in the Nahal Brigade, he worked at a kibbutz on the Golan Heights before starting his own farm raising sheep near Lahav Forest between Kiryat Gat and Beersheba, seven years after moving to the country.

Like many Jews in isolated agricultural communities, Har-Shemesh was plagued with theft and violence. He was attacked on several occasions, although he notes that it is difficult to tell whether the incidents were criminally or nationalistically motivated. Entire flocks of sheep were taken. Fences were destroyed or stolen.

These losses took a severe toll, especially when coupled with the other problems that farmers face, such as inclement weather, disease and bureaucratic issues.

Other ranchers faced these problems as well, and as a result of the lawlessness, the number of farms in the country declined.

Har-Shemesh recalls that he was “pleasantly surprised” when Hashomer Hahadash reached out to him. Now two or three times a week, volunteers come to guard his land and his sheep.

Hashomer Hahadash helps on a practical level, but also on symbolic, psychological and local levels as well, he explains, in that it shows “that there’s a network here” and that ranchers aren’t fending off criminals on their own. The organization also raises public awareness of the difficulties that people in the agricultural community face and promotes a sense of national unity on the issue “strengthens the bond that binds Jews and Israelis together.”

Gil Glaser, a volunteer who frequently works with Har-Shemesh, also made aliya from the States, although Glaser did so as a child. The 47-year-old went on to serve in the Israel Navy for 20 years before retiring six years ago, and now is studying in a teaching program.

Glaser notes that with his background in the navy, he was “facing toward the sea and didn’t see the problems behind [him].” He explains that Lehavim, the small town outside Beersheba where Glaser lives, faced many problems involving the lack of law and order in recent years. There were stories of burglaries and car thefts. People “felt less safe in the area, both in terms of personal security and in terms of property.”

“As a dual citizen, I don’t take my Israeliness for granted. I wanted to contribute,” Glaser says in discussing his response to the problems faced by the community.

In a moment of serendipity, Glaser found a YouTube video of Zilberman speaking about Hashomer Hahadash, and decided that he wanted to volunteer.

Training consisted of learning about the organization and about what his monthly guard duty – either in the barns or in the fields – would entail. He also learned about the “Shai Dromi” Law. Named after the Negev farmer who shot and killed Khaled el-Atrash when he broke into Dromi’s farm with a group of people intent on stealing livestock, the law gives property owners more freedom to use lethal force against thieves.

The newly minted volunteer also learned about the body language techniques and correct tone of voice to be used when talking to suspected thieves or vandals.

“That’s all you have out there – your body, your voice and the phone,” Glaser explains, emphasizing that volunteers do not carry firearms, in order to prevent their misuse. “When you carry a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. So we don’t carry the hammer.”

Glaser puts a premium on the positive nature of the organization, saying that it stands for something rather than against something. Hashomer Hahadash is only and explicitly “anti-criminal,” and not against any group of people in particular, he explains.

“It doesn’t matter if the person [committing the crime] is Jewish, Arab or Martian. We are for making sure that the farmer’s animals are safe.”

Another laudable result of Hashomer Hahadash’s work is its social aspects, Glaser states, in that it brings together people from very different backgrounds.

People from the West Bank interact with those from the Center.

Farmers from the Arava volunteer their time in defending the land belonging to ranchers outside of Beersheba. The organization, he explains, provides people an outlet to converse and exchange ideas.

“We spend the night talking [while on guard duty] about different views.

It’s better than a year of university,” he declares.

When asked about the roots of the organization, Glaser is quick to express his respect for the original Guards and the sense of Zionism he feels in carrying on their legacy.

“I think about them a lot, and hope I am worthy of using their name,” he says with reverence. The volunteer work, he explains, is a way of expressing the Zionist views and love of the land he shares with those who defended Jewish communities in the early days of the Yishuv.

This mentality also motivates another volunteer: 38-year-old Nahariya-area resident Miri Bokhbot. As an animal therapy profession who works with atrisk youth in Talbiye, Bokhbot says that the volunteer work fits in with other parts of her life.

She first heard about the organization through the media and joined in June.

For the vast majority of her nine months, he volunteered twice a week, usually at a farm in Lachish.

“I am a nostalgic person. I look back on the pre-state period and think that if I could go back in time, I’d go there.

I wanted to connect with that, and with the Land of Israel and with nature. Before I joined, it was difficult for me to see the values connected with that time period. It’s good to see that the stores of Zionism [from that era] are not completely gone.”

Turning to contemporary issues, Bokhbot focuses on the people with whom she has worked during her time with the organization.

“It’s fun to meet with the other volunteers and talk with them, especially the old ones. The 60- and 70-year-olds. The people are great and really impressive,” she says.

“I feel like I came to the right place, like I’m coming home.”

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