(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
ucked into a dense forest on a Menashe range hilltop is a museum dealing with one year in the history of officer training courses run by the Hagana, the pre-State underground defense organization.
A brown-and-white sign on the road leading from Kibbutz Ein Hashofet down towards the Jezreel Valley's main thoroughfare, Route 66, simply says 'JOARA' in English and Hebrew. Inside is a gem of a small museum telling a big story.
The Ottoman period building is in the center of a present-day Gadna (youth corps) IDF camp, and without prior appointment the duty guard will not open the gates to the site where men and women of his grandparents' generation trained to become officers in the army of the state-in-the-making.
Officers' courses were held at the Joara base for a decade (l938-48), but the intimate and innovative museum documenting the training of Haganah officers - a number of whom went on to become commanding officers in the IDF, famous archaeologists, writers and even a president or two - concentrates on the l944 intake.
"This is the year that a total of 140 men and women trained as officers, the largest number in any one year," explained museum curator and guide Hani Haim as she unlocked a metal door at the side of the building.
Entering a small lobby area, one faces an ominous looking ceiling-to-floor metal shutter of the type normally seen being brought down by shopkeepers at the end of a working day. Haim obviously has pressed a button somewhere, as there is a sudden buzzing noise as the metal shutters lurch upward and a light suddenly shines on three rows of soldiers standing to attention. A large mirror at the back makes the dozen-or-so figures look like a platoon guarding the entrance. First reaction was a comparison with the Terra Cotta warrior figures of Xian, China.
Lights ping on, crickets and birds of the night can be heard in the background, and suddenly an order to the rows of soldiers is boomed out - and they all turn around! The permanently at-attention male and female soldiers on the parade ground are of different age groups and their uniforms a bit of this and a bit of that: some with a 'kova tembel' on their heads, others bareheaded or draped with a keffiyeh-like scarf. The images' uniforms are original, and specially treated to give the impression they are not material at all but made of plaster. Hagana uniforms were manufactured by the long-defunct Israeli clothing concern Ata.
One fellow, a little older than most of the others, wears an army sweater obviously intended for someone far larger than he. One of the ladies is kitted out in army fatigue baggy pants more characteristic of Charlie Chaplin (hip-hoppers would probably view them as the height of present-day fashion).
Adequate space has been purposely left between the new recruits, so that visitors can join in for a bit of parade ground twisting and turning on the spot should they so wish - giving new meaning to the term 'interactive' museum. The exhibit is particularly popular with the many school pupils visiting Joara, one of 12 sites throughout the country operated by the Museums Unit of the Ministry of Defense.
The two-storey building is built from roughly hewn stone and sports a parapet on one side. An external stone stairway leads to the second floor and roof, and two attractive archways seem to prop up the building's lower floor, adding an interesting feature to what was the private residence of the Salah family from Haifa, who also owned much of the surrounding land.
In 1936 the building and land were purchased by Keren Keyemet L'Israel (JNF-KKL) and the founding members of neighboring Kibbutz Ein Hashofet began collective life together on the site, although after a relatively short time they moved to their permanent site on the next hilltop.
These days a large model of the Hagana emblem - an olive branch leaning against a sword with one leaf around the tip of the blade - appears on the top corner of the main building. The emblem was designed by Moshe Bar Tikva (Mondek Pasternak) during the time he commanded the Joara course. Bar Tikva drew the original design on the wall of the commander's office, and it eventually became adopted as the Hagana emblem and later on, that of the IDF.
To the backdrop of a grainy black-and-white photograph of the building as it was in the l930s stands an image of Joara's commanding officer. In his opening address to the officer trainees, the audio-visual 1944 commanding officer (General Yosef Avidar) speaks about the spirit of volunteering and the important role the soldiers will play in commanding fellow soldiers in defending their Jewish brethren.
Scenes from a film taken during the l940s show Hagana soldiers - men and women - shoulder-to-shoulder in training and maneuvering through deep trenches during an attack by Arab gunmen.
In another room half-a-dozen more lifelike Hagana soldiers stand, sit and crouch, clutching their weapons, which are real and different from each other. A color television offers further information about the officers' training course undertaken at Joara.
There are framed photographs of graduates on the wall, in the most part their names synonymous with the struggle to create a state and the continued struggle to protect it after the Declaration of Independence. Yitzhak Rabin (1943), Avraham Ze'evi (1947), Motta Gur, Yigal Alon, Haim Bar-Lev and Ephraim Katzir, to mention a few, were among the 1,412 Hagana soldiers who graduated the Joara officers' training course during the decade prior to the War of Independence. The first Hagana officers' training course was held under General Yitzhak Sadeh at Tel Aviv's historic Gymnasia Herzliya school in 1921. No fewer than ten of the subsequent IDF commanders-in-chief were graduates of the course.
The second floor contains a large room with models depicting a day in the life of a trainee officer, covering living conditions, training methods and even a glimpse of sports day at Joara. Songs of the Hagana play in the background. Detailed maps, films and documents appertaining to battles fought in the Jezreel Valley and Menashe Hills are also on display.
In front of the Ottoman-period building we see a clutch of trainees pulling on the four corners of a large blanket and looking up to the roof of the model building, where one of their comrades is about to leap into their safety net below.
The view from the roof is an added bonus. Through and over some of the surrounding trees one can see portions of the Jezreel Valley and Afula below, the Menashe Hills lopping off to seemingly join the Carmel mountain range to the left, and the Mukhraka monastery perched above. On the clear but cold day Metro visited, Umm el-Fahm was also clearly visible on the Amir Mountain range to the right and seemed far closer than in reality.
The Joara museum is open from Sunday to Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. For non-Hebrew speakers explanations in English are available but it is necessary to call ahead (04-959-7402) so that Haim can let the soldier at the gate allow you to register for the Hagana officers training course of 1944.