Off the beaten track in the Western Galilee

One of the first cooperative moshavim and a Greek Catholic village offer a fascinating glimpse into the area’s varied history.

One of the first cooperative moshavim and a Greek Catholic village offer a fascinating glimpse into the area’s varied history (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
One of the first cooperative moshavim and a Greek Catholic village offer a fascinating glimpse into the area’s varied history
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
In 1937, just over 200 Jews resided in the German town of Rexingen. Some of them relocated as a group to Moshav Shavei Zion in the late 1930s; every other Jew there who couldn’t bring himself to leave his home, or was too old or too ill to do so, perished in the Holocaust.
Jews had lived in Rexingen for over 400 years, first arriving in 1516 when the Knights of St. John – a Christian order dating back to the 11th century – offered them protection. Most of the Jewish inhabitants were farmers or owned small businesses, and the town boasted a variety of Jewish institutions.
For centuries, Rexingen’s Jews and Christians lived in peace and harmony.
But in the 1930s, a swastika appeared on the four-meter tower that overlooked the village; Nazis paraded through the village, and the Nuremburg Laws reared their ugly head.
We learned all this and more on a fascinating off-the-beaten-track trip to the Western Galilee. In the morning we toured Shavei Zion, near Nahariya; later that day we visited the nearby Christian Arab village of Mi’ilya.
Our guide to Shavei Zion was moshav member and archives director Judith Temime. She explained that almost half the Jews of Rexingen had read the writing on the wall and understood that they would have to leave their native country. But when they contacted organizations in England and Germany for assistance, it was suggested that they head for Uganda or Costa Rica.
No way, they said – if we have to leave, it will be to settle in the land of our forefathers. And in 1937, with the help of a former German lawyer who had already immigrated to British Mandate Palestine, a small group was sent to check out the possibilities that the Jewish National Fund offered.
In the end, they chose land near the beach in northern Palestine for what would become Moshav Shavei Zion.
Our tour of Shavei Zion began with the archives building, the first permanent structure on the moshav and at one time a Hagana outpost. Next were the barracks, where we viewed pictures and a model of the early settlement.
There we learned that the first group had arrived from Rexingen at the end of 1937 and that Shavei Zion (which means “Returnees to Zion”) was founded on April 13, 1938 – overnight.
The British objected to Jews setting up communities in Palestine, but from 1936 to 1939 they were busy defending themselves from an Arab revolt.
During that period, in a campaign known as the Tower and Stockade Operation, 52 Jewish settlements were established on land the Jewish National Fund had bought, each constructed in a single day and completed before nightfall. After that, according to a Turkish law that was still in effect, the authorities couldn’t demolish any building that boasted a roof. Shavei Zion’s raw new settlement consisted of a double-walled wooden stockade around the encampment meant to prevent bullets from hurtling through, wooden barracks, and a watchtower to help protect it from Arab attacks. The third moshav shitufi, or cooperative small farming community, in Palestine, Shavei Zion shared its assets with its members, and each family received a stipend according to its size. Unlike a kibbutz, however, families lived together. And as soon as the first houses were built at the end of 1938, the children, who were living in an institution elsewhere, moved in with their families.
A year later, a number of members who were not crazy about communal life bought land on the beachfront and built new houses for themselves.
Today, like the kibbutzim, the moshav has become far less communal than in the past and employs very few of its settlers.
Those who do work in the moshav are in managerial positions, farm the avocado and olive groves or labor in the plastics packaging factory.
Our tour included a number of the earliest houses, as well as the water tower constructed in a single day in 1939 to keep the cement from cracking.
Serving as both a reservoir and a watchtower, it was high enough for the young people stationed there to keep an eye on the Acre-Nahariya road and to signal other settlements with semaphore and Morse code when trouble lay ahead.
The synagogue, constructed in 1940, was meant to resemble Rexingen’s house of worship and was used as a community hall. Several decades later, one of the original settlers – now a businessman in America – donated money for a community hall whose stunning reliefs were created by German-Israeli sculptor Rolf Roda Reilinger.
On display in its memorial room is a Torah scroll, partially burnt and bearing marks where it was cut by knives and axes in 1938 on Kristallnacht, when Jews were attacked all over Germany and synagogues were destroyed. A Christian policeman who understood that the community would be leaving saved the scroll and helped one of the Jews smuggle it out of Germany. It sits on a wall inscribed with the names of all of the Rexingen residents who didn’t make it to safety in Israel.
Seven young men who belonged to the Irgun Zva’i Leumi are buried in a special section of the settlement’s cemetery. The youths were killed during a prison break the Irgun staged in 1947 to free their comrades.
Because the organization was considered extreme, only Shavei Zion – which has never had any political affiliations – felt it was a mitzva to bury then.
A surprise awaited us near the lovely beach promenade reaching as far as Nahariya: remains of a Byzantine-era church with a large mosaic floor. It served both the fishing village nearby and pilgrims who stopped here on their way to and from Lebanon.
Along the shore stands a huge memorial to 12 naval commandos who fell during an ill-fated mission into Lebanon on September 5, 1997. It is composed of a dozen gigantic sandstone slabs leaning on one another, and a separate block carrying the names of the 12 casualties – including a young officer from Shavei Zion.
Less than 15 minutes away along on Highway 89, the village of Mi’ilya is off the main tourist route and, like Shavei Zion, boasts its own fascinating history. Mi’ilya, however, is ancient, and artifacts discovered in the village date back well over four millennia.
Byzantine-era inhabitants built churches at Mi’ilya, and the later Crusaders erected a castle known as Chateau du Roi.
With Crusader rule in Israel, and especially after Montfort Castle was built nearby, Mi’ilya became the administrative center for 36 farms and villages. Then, during the rule of the Mamelukes in the mid-13th century, Arab Muslims moved into the village.
In a startling development, in around 1730, Beduin sheikh Daher el-Omar got tired of collecting taxes for the Muslim Turkish rulers of Israel.
Instead, over the next decade, he fought and won the Galilee for himself.
And in an attempt to curry favor with Christian Europe, he transferred the Muslims out of Mi’ilya and populated it instead with Christians.
Today Mi’ilya is a thriving village of 3,000 people, and one of only two villages in Israel in which the entire population is Greek Catholic. Adults work in neighboring towns in industry, and as teachers, engineers, businesspeople, doctors and lawyers.
Thirty-two percent of the village’s girls and boys – startlingly high for the Arab population – graduate from university. And although not obligated to do so, a number of its young people serve in the IDF or perform national service.
On our afternoon visit to Mi’ilya, jovial tour guide Elias Abu Oksa met us at a bustling, modern coffee shop and took us on a tour of a few village attractions. First, we viewed the castle’s eastern walls, and then the village church that stands in its shadow.
Built in 1740 and damaged by an earthquake in the early 19th century, it has been completely restored.
It was here that we met Abuna (Father) Shakur Nadim, dressed in a very un-Catholic Eastern Orthodox cassock.
We were surprised, too, at the sight of an iconostasis (wall of icons) in front of the area where the priest leads his parish in prayer.
Nadim explained that Greek Catholics in this region – called Melkites – were originally Eastern Orthodox.
But feeling isolated in the Muslim world in the early 18th century, they asked for and were granted financial and spiritual support from Rome.
Although today, like Catholics, they recognize the pope as their final authority, cannot divorce, and follow the Catholic holiday calendar, their liturgy, churches and traditions are Orthodox.
We held a sad but riveting conversation with Abu Oksa and Nadim about the situation in Syria, where slaughter of Christians who refuse to convert to Islam is commonplace. We also discussed their feelings about Israel, and the desire of all the villagers to be viewed as citizens and not potential enemies – an issue that permeates Mi’ilya, according to Abu Oksa.
In 1980, Jews established a hilltop settlement called Mitzpe Hila on land that Mi’ilya claimed as its own. In reaction, famed sculptor Igael Tumarkin created a sculpture resembling a broken cross on the plaza next to the castle wall outside the church.
Nadim, who is from one of the families evicted from the friendly village of Bir’am in 1948, is calm about both situations. “Justice always wins out in the end,” he told us.
Aside from viewing the castle walls and the church, tourists to Mi’ilya can enjoy a meal in one of eight vastly different restaurants, lodge overnight in a small hotel, and visit two small factories. We didn’t have time for the chocolate plant, but did stop in at the arak factory.
Similar to the Greek Ouzo, but with its own particular taste, arak is a Middle Eastern alcoholic drink based on anise. Mi’ilya’s factory is called Massada – a name suggested by the rabbi who supervises its kashrut – and it is closed on Shabbat. Massada’s anise comes from the Syrian village of Kafrun, and the drink is produced in a mechanized process exactly as it is manufactured in Lebanon.
Visitors to the factory learn how Massada’s arak is made – and get a taste of the three award-winning types it produces there.
A two-hour tour of Shavei Zion costs NIS 50 for any group under 10 people.
You can make reservations at 054-564-1508.
You can visit Mi’ilya on your own, although we suggest you call Elias Abu Oksa at 052-282-9963 if you want to see the church or the factories. The wine festival ended last month, but on August 16 the village is hosting a music festival.
Details are available at