The Ayalon Institute is still one of the country’s best-kept secrets. It is situated on Givat Hakibbutzim (The Kibbutzim Hill), close to Rehovot’s train station, but as my family searched for it on a scorching summer’s day, we only found giraffes.
A giraffe is the term for someone not in the know, like the animals that can’t see what’s under their own noses. We learnt the phrase soon after finally finding the site. The importance of it also became immediately clear.
This kibbutz housed a clandestine ammunition factory. It was built
underground, beneath the laundry and the bakery, and operated in that
particularly tense period between the end of World War II and the
establishment of the state in 1948.
The bullet-building plant was deliberately situated near the station,
which was teeming with British soldiers, on the assumption that that
would be the last place they would think of looking. It was built when
the Hagana realized that the British, who had forbidden Jews to possess
weapons, would one day leave and the Arab population, including the
surrounding countries, would immediately attack the nascent Jewish
The production line for 9 mm bullets (suitable for Sten guns assembled
secretly elsewhere) was the work of a small but dedicated group of
Scouts from the Gymnasia Herzliya High School, who later went on to
realize their dream of creating a real kibbutz, Ma’agan Michael. First,
they had to help the state come into being and survive, even if it meant
risking their own lives by working and living in what has been
described as “the kibbutz on a volcano.”
One of the leading members of the group was Shlomo Hillel – later the
mastermind of the secret immigration of Jews from Arab countries, a
diplomat, Knesset Speaker, minister and one of the triggers behind
turning the site into a fascinating museum.
EVERYTHING ABOUT the site required secrecy and in the early years only
those who actually worked underground, and a few others like Esther the
washerwoman, knew about it.
Even other members of the kibbutz were not in on the secret. However, as
the British planned to withdraw and the need to increase production
grew, more and more members of the community were involved.
Some two million bullets were produced at the site, a 250 sq.m. area,
covered with a fourmeter thick layer of earth. Among Esther’s jobs was
to make sure nobody entered the laundry room as the young factory
workers scuttled quickly up and down the steps hidden under an
industrial-size washing machine at the start and end of shifts or –
because of the need to keep up appearances on the kibbutz – when they
went to and from the communal dining room for meals.
Another of her daily tasks, in between keeping a look out as she hung
the washing outside to dry, was to regularly “accidentally” spill water
on the floor, to put any British tracker dog off the scent.
The need for secrecy was paramount. And the group and its Hagana leaders
had to be very inventive to preserve it. The underground workers (in
more sense than one) had to make sure to remove all metal filings from
their shoes and hair before going up for air.
The fields where they were meant to be laboring were often sealed with a
warning of an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease to keep people away.
But the factory workers doing eight-hour shifts deep underground not
only lacked vitamin D (which was added by the doctor to their diets),
they also lacked the expected suntan.
Hence, near the subterranean testing range, the country’s first solarium
was constructed, a quartz-operated booth where the Scouts could sit and
tan themselves as part of their workload.
They probably welcomed the respite. The job was both dangerous and
mind-numbingly boring. The man whose job was cutting off the tips of the
bullet cases – naturally known as the mohel – once sliced his finger,
for example, although by miracle there were no other accidents.
To pass the time, the youths would sing pioneer songs, one person
starting at one end of the production line, and the tune being passed on
like Chinese whispers from worker to worker, each unable to hear much
above the noise of the machinery. On our guided tour, a former
kibbutznik joined the guide in demonstrating the sort of songs, and
briefly we could feel the spirit of those days fill the air.
Incidentally (or perhaps not), several marriages originated in the
underground factory, giving a different connotation to the phrase
Those who were in on the secret resent being portrayed as having
sacrificed their youths, we were told – their sole aim was helping
establish a secure Jewish state: As David Ben-Gurion once declared, “I
don’t know what was greater, their heroism or their modesty.”
The museum, under the auspices of the Society for the Preservation of
Israel Heritage Sites, opened in 1987. (There are tours in English.) The
tour guides are members of a Noar Oved Velomed movement “garin” who
live on the modern-day kibbutz, working in educational projects and with
disadvantaged youths. The work is more interesting, and definitely less
dangerous, but something of that early Israeli idealism is still
evident. The bullet building factory still seems to attract people of a