Hashomer Hahadash: A volunteer’s perspective

To combat this phenomenon constant harassment and theft, one activist group now offers to guard properties and deter violence.

Two Hashomer Hahadash volunteers 521 (photo credit: Ariel Shalom)
Two Hashomer Hahadash volunteers 521
(photo credit: Ariel Shalom)
It was an unusually hot day for mid-February, even in Israel. The rolling green hills just north of Beersheba were as lush as any found in Scotland. On the hill just to the east of our group was a modest forest of several hundred trees that formed a picturesque landscape waiting to be immortalized in a painting. The sky was clear and blue with a smattering of light clouds enhancing the panorama.
We came to the Har Shemesh Ranch to hear a story that was both disturbing and empowering. The man who talked to our group was Moshe Har Shemesh, a sheep rancher, the proud owner of a modest farm with 200 or so sheep that he raised together with his large family.
Over the years, the government has made a priority of encouraging the establishment of small family farms and ranches, known as havot bodedim. These ranches were to be set up in many of the less-populated and fertile areas in the country, primarily in Galilee, the Golan and the Negev. Like numerous others, Har Shemesh chose this way of life for himself and his family when he built his ranch nearly 20 years ago.
As his story began to unfold, it struck me that the scenario we were hearing echoed a movie script for a classic Hollywood western. The plot was basic and familiar: The protagonist, a man of strong values and character, boldly leads his family to an isolated and beautiful fertile stretch of land in order to raise a herd of sheep and connect with this land (the Hollywood version would feature cattle, of course).
Born in the US, Har Shemesh made aliya in 1980 from Silicon Valley, California. With the help of his family, he succeeded in building a small farm and sheep ranch. Together, they surmounted numerous obstacles and deprivations, yet managed to work the land that they loved, in turn becoming part of the land. However, just as they were finally about to enjoy the fruits of their arduous labor, they received visitors – neighbors from other farms and clans in the area who took a contemptible interest in what these people had managed to achieve.
The rancher had heard the stories about other farmers and ranchers, even long-established kibbutzim, being forced to abandon large tracts of their legally owned land, hundreds and even thousands of dunams, as a result of direct physical violence, slaughtered and stolen livestock, arson and other forms of vandalism and intimidation. He had heard about other farmers being awakened in the middle of the night to discover many of their herd dead in their barns, or of large tracts of land set ablaze and property vandalized.
He knew that this was not the politically inspired terrorism to which Israelis have grown accustomed. The reality these farmers and ranchers faced was economic terrorism in its most basic and debased form. These ruffians watched the success of their Jewish neighbors with envy, and decided that they wanted to drive them off their legally acquired land by intimidation and force, and steal their livelihood in the process.
Har Shemesh had believed and hoped that he would not incur such a violent fate. Unfortunately this hope evaporated. The thugs lay in wait patiently for an opportunity for strike. That moment came when his family headed off to town, leaving him alone. With metal rods and poles, they beat him to a pulp, tied him to a tree and stole all of his sheep.
As in most classic westerns, the victim had little to no recourse to the local authorities. At one point, a bureaucrat even cynically hinted to the injured rancher that since he “currently” did not possess any sheep, he would lose his grazing rights in the adjacent hills and fields. After filing numerous complaints with the authorities, ranchers were even told straight-out by the police that in their “professional opinion,” the ranchers should simply pay protection money to their attackers. Ironically this was precisely one of the attackers’ goals to begin with.
The theft of livestock from Israeli farms has unfortunately become all too commonplace an occurrence, so much so that the police rarely lift a finger with each new complaint that is regularly filed. Even when the police do act appropriately and the culprits are arrested, there is no effective enforcement of court-mandated decisions. To date, several hundred sheep have been stolen from the Har Shemesh Ranch, at a cost of roughly $500 per head. These losses severely hurt the small ranch.
The stories that we were hearing that day seemed an anachronism of classic proportions. Had these events occurred in the beginning of the 20th century, I would have realized that I was witnessing the occurrence of a historic metamorphosis.
In the wake of the infamous Kishinev pogrom of 1903 in the capital of the Russian Empire’s Bessarabia province (now the capital of Moldova), and the subsequent violence against the nascent agricultural settlements and farms in the Holy Land, Jews became empowered for the first time since the fall of the Second Temple. After witnessing firsthand the aftermath of the brutal assault in Kishinev and interviewing many of its victims, Haim Nahman Bialik penned his famous poem “Ba’ir Hahariga” (In the City of Slaughter), where he bemoaned the perceived passivity of his Jewish brethren when they were faced with anti-Semitic violence and murderous barbarism.
The Czarist authorities at that time did nothing to protect the victims of the attacks, nor did they prosecute the villains responsible, even though the ringleaders were well known to all. After suffering repeated harassment, violence, arson and vandalism, Jews in Russia and in Palestine decided that they could not stand idly by while their brethren were left to the wolves. The time had come, they decided, for Jews to start defending themselves and their property.
In Eretz Yisrael, raising the banner of Jewish self-defense, the secretive Bar- Giora group was founded in 1907, to be absorbed into what would become the Jewish defense organization called Hashomer (the Guard) in 1909. Rather than accept the common practice at that time of hiring local Arabs to stand guard and protect the Jews against Arab marauders and thieves, the members of Hashomer felt that these jobs, as well as other defensive actions, must be carried out by Jews.
Their goal was multifaceted. This effort provided much-needed employment to the Jews of the Second Aliya and helped connect them to their new land. It likewise provided a sense of strength and empowerment they had never before experienced. Finally, it presented a clear statement to their Arab neighbors that these young settlements were self-sufficient – and more importantly, capable of self-defense. In 1920, David Ben-Gurion ordered the members of Hashomer to turn in their weapons and join the ranks of the newly established clandestine Hagana, the predecessor of the modern IDF.
OUR GROUP that February day comprised nearly 100 people, volunteers all, encompassing an impressive cross-section of our society: men and women, secular and religious, army-aged youth alongside pensioners. The objective of that day’s “outing” was a few hours of orientation for new volunteers signing up for guard duty with the organization Hashomer Hahadash (the New Guard). The common thread that connected the group was a feeling of disgust with the current situation, and of solidarity with the plight of these farmers and ranchers. The overall sentiment was that every single person could make a difference and could indeed help those in grave need.
It was these feelings, four years ago, that prompted Yoel Zilberman – then an officer in an elite IDF unit – to resurrect the ethos of the original Hashomer ideology and create Hashomer Hahadash.
For Zilberman, 26, who lived in Moshav Tzipori in Lower Galilee at the time, this was a personal issue. His father, Haim, was one of the ranchers prepared to abandon many dunams of hard-earned land due to continued harassment, physical violence, and even death threats from Arab and Beduin neighbors. In the course of three years, Haim Zilberman had filed 240 complaints with the police. Out of sheer desperation, seeing that nothing was being done to correct this injustice, he saw no alternative but to abandon large portions of his property. While on leave from an IDF officers’ course, Yoel Zilberman learned of his father’s plight and told him that he would not allow this to happen.
Together with several of his army friends, Zilberman started to spend nights guarding his father’s fields, effectively reclaiming them. The harassment ceased. As word quickly spread to other ranchers, he started getting requests to set up shifts of watchmen on other farms and ranches. The organization started to gain momentum, and people rapidly began signing up to join their ranks.
Today, Hashomer Hahadash boasts more than 1,200 active volunteers. Of these, more than 500 do nighttime guard duty in 11 observation posts (seven in the North and four in the South). Currently there is a waiting list of 265 people. There are 27 people enrolled in pre-army work study leadership training programs. Others help out wherever they can, including rebuilding vandalized property and donating much-needed equipment and other resources.
Leaders from Hashomer Hahadash meet regularly with local law enforcement officials, as well as the commanding officers from the IDF in the areas in which they operate. For the most part, the group’s activities are greatly appreciated by both the IDF and the national police, and they have received acclaim across the political spectrum in the Knesset. This cooperation is important, as Hashomer operates within the confines of the law and cannot afford to be perceived as a private militia that takes the law into its own hands.
Any soldier in any army in the world could tell you that being on guard duty all night, to put it mildly, is not enjoyable. The minutes pass like hours; the rain, the cold and the boredom only enhance the flavor. However, being on guard duty for Hashomer Hahadash is different. Those who “donate” one night of guard duty have the satisfaction of knowing that an exhausted farmer and his family can finally have a restful night, sleeping in the comfort of their own beds, with the assurance that someone who cares is protecting them and their property.
Yet with all the attention and accolades that this group has received, one wonders why this has not become a concern for national institutions such as the police, IDF or Border Police, rather than falling to civilians to handle. As yet, there is no answer, and the violence persists.
Meanwhile, I feel honored to have joined the ranks of Hashomer Hahadash, volunteering my one night of guard duty every month or so and helping out however else I can. Let Yoel Zilberman’s father and the many like him know that they are not alone. People do care.
The writer is a business consultant and volunteers with Hashomer Hahadash. He resides in Hashmonaim with his wife, Yonina, and their children.