Sojourn to Sasa

Perched above Israel's border with Lebanon, residents of the northern kibbutz offer a unique perspective into the daily lives of our Lebanese neighbors.

sassa museum 88 298 (photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
sassa museum 88 298
(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
Kibbutz Sasa sits atop a 900-meter-high mountain, affording wonderful views from almost any point one stands on the outer road surrounding the kibbutz, founded in 1949 by a group of North American members of the Hashomer Hatzair Zionist youth movement. As mountains go, however, Sasa's is in the mini-range compared to 'Big Brother' Mt. Meron to one side of them and in the not-so-far-off distance in the opposite direction, the Golan Heights. Amid the wide valleys and open spaces between the lower hills of this part of Upper Galilee, JNF planted forests, natural scrubland, orderly fields, and an abundance of apple and other fruit orchards - some still partially scorched by the scores of Katyusha rockets that fell in the area during last summer's Second Lebanon War - together with the scores of fields spread out below, create a massive patchwork quilt of nature. But suddenly the lush greenery and orderliness of the Israeli farms ends. In stark contrast lie house-dotted hills, creating a sea of yellow. These are the homes of southern Lebanese living in extremely close proximity to the border - 'neighbors' of Israel's Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druse and Circassian communities surrounding Sasa. With a decent pair of binoculars one can also make out a yellow of a different kind - the yellow flags of Hizbullah have reappeared here and there after last summer's war. Standing on the roof of Sasa's museum, one of the villages clearly seen with the naked eye is Romesh. "After the 1967 war, people from Sasa visited Romesh and other Lebanese villages, although it wasn't officially allowed," said Eli Shafran, tour guide and kibbutz member who manages the Sasa Travel Agency. Shafran, who moved from Holon to Sasa in 1967 with a group of then fellow-soldiers who thought to settle on the kibbutz after their army service, explained how during the last war Romesh and many other Lebanese villages close to the northern security fence were inundated with refugees fleeing Israeli bombing further north. "Romesh, a Christian village, was always very quiet. Suddenly, thousands of mostly Muslim Lebanese moved in on them and other villages close by. When the area became cut off from the rest of Lebanon there was a drastic shortage of water and food. The United Nations helped, but so did the IDF," explained Eli. "After the war the majority left to go home but we don't have any idea how many stayed, and who amongst those that stayed were Hizbullah," said Eli with a shrug of his shoulders. How come hardly any greenery can be seen over there? "In Israel there are stringent laws about building, felling of trees and the number of goats and other animals allowed to roam the open spaces. Over there you see the results when no such laws apply," he says pointing in the direction of Romesh. "Even from here it is obvious that there is no type of village planning and therefore a small village tends to spread out over a huge area, the same space which in Israel is sufficient for planners to build a town," says Eli. The Lebanese also use wood to heat their homes in the winter, as do many of the communities on the Israeli side, but the JNF and Border Police keep a watchful eye on the Galilean forests and limit tree cutting. "Goats are also a huge problem because they eat up the greenery, not only on ground level, but because they are nimble enough to climb trees and finish off everything in their path," explains Eli, who leads jeep and adventure tours in the area of Sasa catering to Israeli day trippers and overseas tourists. To the left of us, protruding from a range of hills on the skyline is a formidable British Mandate fortress. The fort was built in 1936 as a joint venture of the British and Jewish leadership - the Yishuv - in Palestine after an increase in Arab terrorist acts against Jews and British soldiers. The British put up most of the money and a Jewish company, Solel Boneh, was contracted to build the fort and approach road, all of which were constructed by Jewish workers. The fort is situated on a strategically important mountain overlooking southern Lebanon and is nowadays an IDF base. Coming down from the roof we enter Sasa's museum. The large stone building and enclosed courtyard was the home, until 1948, of the former mukhtar (mayor) of the Arab village of Sa'asa, built over the remains of a Crusader stronghold that in turn was built over the remains of a Jewish village from Talmudic times. The name "Sasa" is derived from the Mishnah and means the tassel at the top of a sheaf of grain. An archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority and kibbutz member, Brooklyn born Howard Smithline is curator of the kibbutz museum, named after Avraham Rashkes, a son of the kibbutz who was killed during the 1967 war while serving on the Golan Heights. Rashkes had intended to study archaeology after his army service. We find Howard sorting shards of pottery, his T-shirt covered in fine dust. The museum is extremely 'homely' as many of the exhibits were found by kibbutz members or through archaeological digs in the vicinity. Just a few meters away from the museum are the remains of an ancient synagogue, hidden by undergrowth and waiting for the day funds will be available for Howard Smithline and his colleagues to unearth more of the history of the Jewish people who lived on the site - long before a group of American Jews decided in 1949 to make the place their collective home.