For the past 17 years, I have visited Kibbutz Kfar Giladi in the far north of Israel and was never once told the fascinating history of the area.
What a revelation it turned out to be.
It was here that Hashomer was started by 12 idealists from Eastern Europe who arrived in Ottoman Palestine in 1907 with the aim of working the land and setting up an organization to protect Jewish settlements from their Arab neighbors.
Hashomer laid down strict rules for new members. They had to undergo a one-year trial period to demonstrate their commitment and bravery and prove their competence in handling weapons, farming and their ability to keep secrets. The latter was vital during the Ottoman period since Hashomer’s activities were clandestine.
Not everyone was accepted. David Ben-Gurion was refused membership for “unreliability.”
Once the newcomer was admitted, an initiation ceremony was held in a cave at Sejera (now Moshav Ilana). Allegiance was sworn over a Bible and a revolver. This ceremony as well as other Hashomer traditions were adopted by the IDF and continue until today.
This need for secrecy led to the establishment of hidden arms caches (sliks) throughout the country. I had never heard of them, so when my guide, Torah, offered to show me one I could not refuse. We entered what resembled an old tool store. In the center was a large wheat hopper surrounded by sacks of grain.
She moved toward the hopper holding a massive wrench, turned something and, like magic, this 3-ton piece of engineering moved silently to one side, revealing a hole in the floor less than a meter square. It was like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie. I was invited to climb down a vertical ladder into a black hole.
Apprehensively, I made my way carefully, not knowing what awaited me.
At the bottom I was blown away – perhaps the wrong phrase considering that I was now in an ammunition store. Around me were shelves stocked with hundreds of boxes of bullets, rifles, machine guns and other weapons dating back many years, all perfectly maintained should they be needed again.
This slik, established during the Ottoman period, was operating during the British Mandate when many of these weapons were “borrowed” from Her Majesty’s Government.
An engineer was brought over from Pinsk to design and build the equipment, but he never knew where it would be located. When complete, it was transported to Kfar Giladi and installed secretly by Hashomer.
It is believed that Kfar Giladi has more than 20 sliks, but the whereabouts of each was known only to one or two people. Even today nobody is sure where they are. Hashomer members never divulged the secret even to their closest family. When the wife of one kibbutznik became suspicious about her husband’s nightly wanderings, she was sure he was having an affair with a neighbor’s wife and insisted on a divorce. Despite this he never revealed the truth.
Torah reached up and took a small package from a shelf. It contained a tiny pearl-handled pistol. The story was that, many years ago, Arabs arrived at the kibbutz water well intent on causing trouble. Yehudit Hurvitz, the young wife of one of the founders, was on guard. As they approached, she stood firmly, raised her gun, demanding that they leave. For centuries of Muslim rule no Jew had ever pointed a weapon at an Arab. Much to her – and everyone else’s – surprise, they turned and left.
Some days later the kibbutz had an unexpected visitor. It was the Mukhtar from the local village together with a few of his tribesmen. He had come, he said, to meet the woman who had confronted his men a few days earlier.
On greeting Yehudit, he presented her with a package. Inside was the pearl-handled pistol Torah had shown me. He said he wanted to meet Yehudit as she had shown such bravery.
He gave her the gun to honor her for her unique courage. On receiving it she vowed never to leave Kfar Giladi, a promise she kept all her life. No one on the kibbutz knew of the existence of this cache until 1996.
Torah’s father revealed the secret shortly before he died. Tourists can now visit the slik, a powerful reminder of a heroic and dramatic period.
Ruth Corman, who lives both in London and Jerusalem, is an art consultant and photographer. Her next book, Unexpected Israel, should be published later this year.