Kfar Giladi - The Watchmen 691

Kfar Giladi (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Kfar Giladi
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Beit Harishonim. The settlement's first structure served as community center, children's dormitory and dining room for decades. Take a tour of Kfar Giladi's weapons 'sliks.' Only some of the unusual hideouts have been brought to light - sometimes completely by accident.During a dispute over land ownership in 1908, an Arab guard at the Galilee settlement of Mes'ha shot an unarmed Jewish farmer at close range. The bullet missed its target, ricocheted off a basalt rock and hit the guard in the chest. He died on the spot, and his Mugrabi tribe decided to take revenge on the Jews of Mes'ha (today's Kfar Tabor).

Word of their plans reached young immigrants at the nearby settlement of Sedjera. Fortunately, they were well prepared for just such a situation: as members of Bar Giora, a group that had been established specifically to protect Jewish settlers, they had been diligently studying Arab customs, Arab behavior, and the local lingo for nearly a year. They even dressed, occasionally, in Arab attire. Now, donning formal Arab garb, they mounted elaborately decorated Arabian steeds and rode out to Mes'ha to wait for the attack.

Immediately, a rumor began to circulate that a rival Arab gang had begun guarding the Jews at Mes'ha. The chief of the Mugrabi tribe took several of his bodyguards and galloped out to the settlement to check it out.

As the Mugrabis neared Mes'ha, the supposed Arabs cocked their weapons and aimed them in his direction. Nevertheless, the chief greeted them withcourtesy and suggested that they leave the Jews, their common enemy, to him.

Still pointing his gun, one of the group - Israel Giladi - spoke up in fluent Arabic. 'Listen carefully,' he said sternly. 'We are not an Arab gang. We are from a Jewish tribe. We dare you to try anything at Mes'ha, but if you do, I swear in the name of Allah that our tribe will take blood revenge and wipe out every last male Mugrabi in this part of the world!'

In centuries of Muslim rule, no Jew in Israel had ever dared to point a weapon at an Arab, and in his own language threaten not only his life - but that of his people. The chief dreaded to think what would happen when this new tribe appeared in full force. Within seconds he and his buddies had turned tail and fled.

A full-blown photograph of the youths who faced the tribal chief on that eventful day covers an entire wall at Beit Hashomer (House of the Watchman), a museum built in 1968 at the entrance to Kibbutz Kfar Giladi. The museum tells the story of Bar Giora, and of the Watchmen (and women) who were to lay the foundations for the Israeli army.

IT ALL began in 1907, when a small group of young immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia met for a festive dinner at the Jaffa apartment of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (later to become the State of Israel's second president). That night they founded 'Bar Giora,' named for the fearless zealot who had headed Jerusalem's defense during the Great Revolt against Rome. They had two goals: to guard defenseless Jewish communities who were being victimized by neighboring Arabs and to settle the land.

Theft and murder were commonplace in those days, and powerless Jewish settlers were forced to hire Arab guides as a form of 'protection.' Yet Jewish farmers rejected the overtures of Bar Giora, afraid of creating even more problems than they already had with the Arabs.

Then came the incident at Mes'ha. Suddenly, Jewish guards were in great demand and young people thronged to Bar Giora's ranks. After a rigorous screening process they spent a year in training until finally, in 1909, the little movement of Bar Giora became an organized unit known as Hashomer Eretz Israel (Land of Israel Watchman).

By 1916 the Watchmen realized they needed roots, and were anxious for land of their own. They chose a beautiful Galilee hill and founded Kibbutz Kfar Giladi, bringing with them the wives and orphans of fallen Watchmen: like the army today, the Shomrim took care of their own.

Indeed, all kinds of values and traditions that we associate with the Israel Defense Forces were born in Hashomer - from the swearing-in ceremony to the IDF's standing orders for opening and holding your fire. The first rule of the Watchmen's Code which hangs on one of the museum walls may sound familiar: You must come to the aid of a comrade in arms, no matter what the danger to yourself.

With the exception of one large room, full of agricultural implements, tools and household items used in the early years of the kibbutz, the entire museum is dedicated to the Shomer movement. Exhibits illustrate what these courageous young men and women looked like, the way they dressed and how they decorated their mounts. And you can see how they entertained their Arab neighbors by examining the medefa, an Arab-type guest room, at the museum.

AFTER ENJOYING the exhibits, and watching an excellent movie, walk over to the kibbutz proper. The settlement's first structure is known as Beit Harishonim and served as community center, children's dormitory and dining room for decades. Famous World War I hero Joseph Trumpeldor was just finishing his breakfast here one morning in early 1920 when he was informed that Arabs had surrounded the adjacent settlement of Tel Hai. Rushing to its defense, he was mortally wounded. Today he lies at rest underneath an impressive statue called the Roaring Lion in the Kfar Giladi cemetery - worth a visit in itself.

That same year, a small, secret army - the Haganah - was established to defend the country's Jews. Shomrim were among its first recruits, although a few of the original Watchmen weren't pleased that their work had been taken over by others. They found it especially galling in the face of Arab riots the following year, when hundreds of defenseless Jews were killed or wounded.

One of the original Bar Giora group, kibbutznik Israel Shohet, decided to keep the Shomrim movement active. He sent people to Europe to train as pilots, and to Haifa and Caesarea to learn about the sea. Most importantly, Shomrim brought thousands of weapons from abroad to the kibbutz.

These were the days of the British mandate, when Jews were not allowed to own weapons. So Shohet instructed several of his people to prepare 'sliks' (special hiding places) - and swore them to secrecy. So well camouflaged were these sliks that despite repeated searches for nearly three decades, the British didn't uncover a single weapon at Kfar Giladi.

The vast majority of kibbutzniks had no idea that there were 'sliks' at Kfar Giladi, and the secret often went with an old timer to his grave. Little by little 22 of the unusual hideouts at Kfar Giladi have been brought to light - sometimes completely by accident. A couple of the more ingenious, revealed in 1995, are open to the public within the framework of a guided tour (details below).

Kfar Giladi's 'sliks' are credited with saving the Jews of Haifa in 1929. It was a time of terrible Arab riots, and Haifa's Jews were under attack. The Haganah desperately needed weapons, so Watchwoman Manya Shohet transformed a truck into an ambulance and filled it with machine guns and rifles. Then, dressed as a nurse, she and a 'patient' took to the road.

At a British checkpoint, the officer insisted on searching the vehicle. Before he could do so, Manya took a pocket knife, and cut her companion's arms and forehead. Then, her hands covered in blood, she insisted that she had to get to the hospital without delay. The hoodwinked British officer even accompanied her so that she could reach her goal as fast as possible!

A basement of the Haifa hospital, as you have probably guessed, was serving as headquarters for the Haganah...

Guided tours of the sliks and the cowshed that hid 7,000 illegal immigrants during the British Mandate take place in Hebrew every Saturday morning. Kibbutz hotel guests pay NIS 15; others NIS 20.

Even if you don't take the tour, visit the kibbutz's brand-new French Garden and waterfall. Future plans call for coffee shops and artists' studios along a lovely walkway.

Taking a scenic pause

While searching for overnight lodgings near Kfar Giladi, I unearthed a brand-new guesthouse in Moshav Sha'ar Yishuv. Called Pausa, it is billed as a Galilee gourmet inn and is the fulfillment of its owners' fantasies.

Avigdor and Einat Rothem wanted hills - so they hauled thousands of tons ofsoil to their nine dunams of flat, thorny land and made their own! The hills are covered with trees, plants and flowers, and they offer such a gorgeous view of the Hermon Mountains and the Golan Heights that you may be moved to meditate, stand on your head yoga-style or practice tai-chi. All are within the spirit of Pausa, which is meant to offer a break from the everyday rush.

Guests begin their stay with a cocktail get-together in the early evening, and can enjoy a jacuzzi beneath the heavens at night. Gourmet dinners are purposely leisurely and somewhat ceremonial, giving guests the chance to socialize with each other and with their delightful hosts into the wee hours.

The inn's eight rooms are attractive, with interesting little touches, while two are decorated Japanese style. All include luxurious extras like robes and super-fluffy towels. Satellite TV, great showers, wireless computer connections and a mini-bar are a given. But you probably won't spend much time in your room, when you can be outside chatting and enjoying the unusual landscape.

For bed and breakfast at Pausa during the week you pay NIS 450 or NIS 600 depending on the room you ask for. On weekends your reservation includes two nights and at least one gourmet dinner.