'Proud of how we have lived'

Kibbutz Beit Hashita is known for having lost more people, proportionately, in our country's wars than any other settlement, town or city in Israel.

October 5, 2008 08:28
'Proud of how we have lived'

Beit Hashita 88 224. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Israel is like a book that is constantly being written. Behind every face in this country is a story, underlying every square inch of space is a fascinating history, and stretching before all of us is a challenging and unknowable future. Most of us, young and old, are acquainted with varying amounts of the biblical and ancient history of the land. Many older Israelis, however, fear that fewer and fewer of the country's young people seem to feel the drama of the history of the modern state, or understand the purpose and responsibilities of citizenship. As we approach Yom Kippur, a day of remembrance, we are fortunate enough to be able to turn to a venerable old kibbutz to remind us of some of the values upon which the State of Israel was built. Kibbutz Beit Hashita lies about halfway between Afula and Beit She'an in northern Israel's Jezreel Valley. Founded in 1928 and named after a nearby biblical town, Beit Hashita is one of Israel's oldest kibbutzim. Today, it is home to approximately 1,000 people, of whom 430 are kibbutz members. Now 80 years old, Beit Hashita lives with a history that many find poignant. The kibbutz is known for having lost more people, proportionately, in our country's wars than any other settlement, town or city in Israel. Most recently, Maj. (res.) Yotam Lotan was killed in the battle for Bint Jbail in the Second Lebanon War. In 1973's Yom Kippur War alone, Kibbutz Beit Hashita lost 11 of its sons. Amichai Yarchi, 65, is an unofficial spokesman for the kibbutz. Born and raised on Beit Hashita, Yarchi is currently in charge of the kibbutz's social welfare programs for those in need. He also founded and directed the highly acclaimed American-Israel High School Program at Kibbutz Beit Hashita High School, which accepted 10th- and 11th-grade students from all over the United States for a year of life, work and intensive study on the kibbutz. Established in 1985, the program flourished until it closed in June 2002, a casualty, so to speak, of the second intifada. Yarchi recalls, "I ran the high-school program for 17 years. I was the director, the principal, the founder - all of the titles." He tried to help another kibbutz start such a program, but was unable to recruit enough children while the intifada continued to rage. "This is a reality of life in the Middle East," he says. Asked to comment on a kibbutz history that most people would call heroic, Yarchi replies, "I don't like terms such as this - 'heroic history.' We are a part of the establishment of the State of Israel. And we did what we could, my dad's generation. They built a kibbutz in the middle of nowhere. They had many, many difficulties. They didn't have houses. This is how it was for all the kibbutzim that were founded 70 or 80 years ago. And yes, 44 people from our kibbutz fell in wars, from the War of Independence up to the Second Lebanon War. But I don't like the term 'heroic.' It was simply our participation, our part, our share in the establishment of Israel." Still, the kibbutz is known for having sacrificed more than its share of war dead, proportionately more than any other city or town in Israel. "I've heard this," Yarchi replies, "but I've never studied the statistics. This is what people say, but I really don't know. I want you to know something. It's not as though I'm wearing a slogan on my T-shirt that says 'We have lost the highest number of people in Israel's wars.' It's not something that I'm boastful about. It's simply part of our heritage, the history of Beit Hashita. But we're not making it a reason to be proud. We're proud of how we have lived. The number of our war dead seems to be much more important to people who write articles or produce programs about Beit Hashita. But for us, it's not an issue." Hagai Ben-Gurion seems equally uncomfortable with the status of hero. Grand-nephew of David Ben-Gurion and son of a founding member of Beit Hashita, Hagai is 66 years old, born on the kibbutz, and married to another Beit Hashita native. He says, "I don't know if what we did is so unique. I think it's something that happened on many kibbutzim. In the Yom Kippur war, for example, we lost 11. But there are many kibbutzim that lost nine, 10. In other wars we lost around 30, but I'm not sure that's very different compared to other places." Nevertheless, Beit Hashita's war sacrifices have been commemorated in a feature-length movie and a popular song, both named Unetaneh Tokef, after the prayer recited on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Although they eschew the mantle of heroes, Ben-Gurion adds, "We do memorialize everyone who fell in wars. That is very much implanted here in the kibbutz - something connected to our heritage, which is very important to us." Some kibbutz members even think that memorializing the dead has become too important. Ben-Gurion says, "Some people say that it's already too much. They say we have to start emphasizing present-day life, the economic crisis and other issues. But, on Yom Kippur, we still put all the names and faces of those who fell on a wall, ask all the children to come, and we explain to them what happened." Beit Hashita, once one of the five largest kibbutzim in Israel, was for most of its history the living symbol of the country's early socialist spirit. Rigidly communal - right down to the classic common dining room and iconographic children's house - Beit Hashita was seen as so emblematic of the kibbutz movement that, under a fictitious name, it became the focus of a 1981 anthropological study of life on a "typical" Israeli kibbutz. Due to the financial difficulties that have plagued most of Israel's communal settlements over the past few years, Beit Hashita has had to reconfigure itself, chiefly through privatization and by selling kibbutz assets to cover kibbutz debts. A lot of the kibbutz's businesses and holdings thus had to be sold off at the beginning of the decade. "It was a huge crisis," Ben-Gurion recalls. "We sold everything - the pickling industry, most of our agricultural branches, cows, fishponds, orchards, everything." According to Ben-Gurion, "These changes hurt many of us, particularly the founders, but Beit Hashita is slowly beginning to recover." With much of Beit Hashita's agriculture and most of its former industry now gone, the kibbutz's income derives largely from money paid by non-members who rent houses and apartments, and from what its members earn in jobs throughout the area. Kibbutz members are required to pay two different taxes: an equal, flat amount of money that all members must pay, and a graduated income tax, proportionate to the amount of each member's earnings. Says Yarchi: "Individual members today have jobs, earn salaries and live on what they earn in their jobs. I guess you understand that this is a radical change from what we were before. However, we still maintain a very high level of mutual help. We help people who have tried to find a job and have not succeeded. We help needy people, retired people, aged and sick people. So on the one hand we are a reformed kibbutz - privatized and individualized - but we still maintain a high level of mutual aid. We're very proud of that." Another major source of pride is the Kibbutz Institute for Holidays and Jewish Culture. Established in the 1930s by Hagai Ben-Gurion's father Aryeh, one of the founders of Beit Hashita and nephew of Israel's first prime minister, the Kibbutz Institute began as a personal collection of materials on Jewish holidays, and grew into what is today an educational organization whose stated mission is "the creation of a significant pluralistic dialogue about Jewish cultural activity, with focus on Jewish festivals and life-cycle events in Israel. We seek to reinforce humanistic values in Israeli society with emphasis on helping individuals, their families and their communities to connect to the heritage of Judaism and Eretz Yisrael." These goals are achieved through a variety of on-site learning activities as well as outreach programs throughout Israel. The Institute's Internet site (www.chagim.org.il) went online in August 1999 and now reputedly receives an average 3,500 hits a day. "We are very famous for our cultural heritage and holidays. The Institute is located here. We're not in Tel Aviv, and we're not in the Center. Our cultural life, especially centered around the festivals and holidays, is very rich. In spite of all the changes in our way of life, we believe that it's very important to maintain a high level of cultural life. Also, education is a key issue for us, something I hope we can continue into the future," Yarchi says. Which begs the question of whether Beit Hashita - like other kibbutzim - really has a future, or whether the country has simply moved too far away from the older Israeli values that kibbutzim traditionally represented. Significantly, while both Yarchi and Ben-Gurion were born on Beit Hashita and have lived there most of their lives, neither man has any of his children or grandchildren living on the kibbutz. Plans to build a new special neighborhood to lure back previous members of Beit Hashita are on the drawing board. Yarchi laughs wryly and says, "I don't know what the future of Beit Hashita will be. I don't know what will be the future of Israel. I know that if Israel will survive, then Beit Hashita will survive as well. But as for what will be the character of Beit Hashita in five or 10 years, or what Israel will be like, I don't know. It's a big question."

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