Guardians of the valley

Mishmar Ha'emek, now 85-years-old, is one of the last kibbutzim that can still be called a true kibbutz.

Cow Kibbutz 88 (photo credit: )
Cow Kibbutz 88
(photo credit: )
Established in the 1920s on the western rim of the Jezreel Valley, Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek (Guardian of the Valley) has managed to remain just that - a kibbutz in the true sense of the word. Some two thirds of kibbutzim today are either fully or partially privatized, with some of the remaining collectives seriously discussing processes of reorganization akin to privatization. Not so in Mishmar Ha'emek. Founded by pioneers of the Hashomer Hatzair (Young Guard) movement from Poland and Galicia, the kibbutz celebrated its 85th anniversary on the date officially recognized as the kibbutz 'birthday,' adopted as such over eight decades ago when the first babe in the community was born on 21 January, 1922. Still without a permanent place of their own, the group of hardworking and idealistic young Eastern Europeans were, in fact, breaking rocks building roads in the area of Neveh Sha'anan near Haifa when that child was born. The group had also worked as agricultural laborers at Nahalal and as building laborers in the then developing Jezreel Valley town of Afula. In l926 the group began to build their permanent community on the slopes of the Menashe Hills overlooking the Jezreel Valley, sandwiched between a number of Arab villages, namely Abu Shusha, Rubaya Tuchta and Rubaya Foca. "As children we would often go to visit the neighboring Arab villages with our educators and also our parents," reminisces Ora Ron, these days a grandmother to kibbutz-born teenagers, whose father Mordecai Bentov was a founder of both Mishmar Ha'emek and Hashomer Hatzair in Poland.A member of the Mapam party, Bentov was a signatory on the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel. He served five terms in the Knesset, including stints as minister of development and minister of housing. "My father believed that we should learn Arabic and have a better understanding of the Arab culture so as to live together as good neighbors," explained Ron. "He regularly visited the landowner's overseer (known as the Bek) in the village of Rubaya Tuchta, literally over the other side of the kibbutz perimeter fence. This man lived in a stone house and spoke quite good English, while the rest of the people in the village lived in small huts built from mud bricks," recalled Ron, a well-known painter, ceramics artist and long-serving cultural programs organizer for her community. "Some of the children in my group, like myself, were very fair skinned and had rather blond hair and the villagers really used to get excited at the sight of blond children in the village," said Ron with a broad smile. "I even remember when we would go to the kibbutz fence and exchange marbles with the Arab kids through the netting - but that was then," she recalls rather wistfully. For a period of years prior to the War of Independence, on Thursday afternoons Arab children from the local villages would come to Mishmar Ha'emek for activities and sport, some of which were photographed and filmed by Mordecai Bentov. The Mapam politician was an ardent photographer, as was fellow founder Yoel Lotan, whose films of the early days of the kibbutz and the heavy fighting around the kibbutz in l948 can be found in the Stephen Spielberg archives in America, the Jewish National Fund archives in Israel and also of course among the kibbutz collection of celluloid memorabilia. "In the films we see the Arab boys barefooted and wearing keffiyehs and the girls in dresses while the kibbutz children are all wearing shorts and sandals," laughs Ora, who together with a few of her fellow kibbutzniks recently unveiled a small in-house museum in a building known as the 'Emda' (station). Built in 1928 to house a pump drawing water from a nearby well dug by the kibbutzniks the previous year, the building was used for some years to store eggs from the kibbutz poultry farm and the ground floor used as a small winery by one of the members until the outbreak of the War of Independence. The'Emda' was vacated during the war and used as a defense position, as it was only a few meters from the fence and the spot where Ora remembers exchanging marbles with Arab children from Rubaya Tuchta just a short time before. Following the war the small, narrow, two-floor building was used as accommodation prior to becoming artists' studios and in later years the site of the kibbutz museum documenting photographs, maps, film and memorabilia - including weapons, tools, kitchen utensils and more items from the early years of the kibbutz up to and including the War of Independence. The mini-museum also contains an impressive scale model of the kibbutz as it was in the 1930s, made by one of the community's artisans, whose own grandfather was a founding member and was murdered in l938 while riding horseback in the hills behind the kibbutz. The members of Mishmar Hae'mek lived up to their name as guardians during a bitter and costly battle in l948 against the Arab Liberation Army, commanded by Fawzi al-Kaukji. The heavily armed force with an arsenal that included Syrian mortars, had high hopes of breaking through the Jezreel Valley and forging on toward the Carmel mountain range and Haifa. The besieged kibbutz succeeded in evacuating the children to another settlement across the valley and the fierce battle turned in their favor after reinforcements arrived from the Haganah. Visiting the museum during the recent celebrations, kibbutzniks Ofir Tzur, 8, and her mother Inbar took a keen interest in the model of the then fledgling kibbutz, now on permanent display in one of the two small rooms on the Emda's second floor. For Ofir and Inbar this is more than just a homely museum. Sixty years beforehand that very room had been home to Ofir's grandfather, Elisha Amir, one of the veterans of the present-day kibbutz who were on hand to take visitors on a short walk down Mishmar Ha'emek's memory lane.