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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hitchhiking through the past

Most of the time when I write about hitchhikers, I am talking about the soldiers and students who routinely catch a ride with me on my daily commute from Gush Etzion to Beer Sheva.  But occasionally Zahava needs to use our car... and on those days I'm the one doing the hitchhiking (or taking the bus).

Yesterday was one such day, and since it was a bright beautiful morning, I simply asked Zahava to drop me off at the Gush Etzion Junction so I could try to catch a ride south through the Judean hills towards Beer Sheva.

Before I go on, a little background is required for those who are not familiar with the history of Gush Etzion:

The first modern Jewish attempt to settle within the area known today as Gush Etzion took place in 1927 by a group of Yemenite Jews who founded an agricultural village called Migdal Eder (Hebrew: מגדל עדר), in reference to a biblical quotation (Genesis 35:21). The location was purchased because it was roughly equidistant from Bethlehem and Hebron, and thus fell between the zones of influence of the local Arab clans. This early community did not flourish, mainly due to economic hardships and escalating tension with neighboring Arab communities. Two years later, the 1929 Arab riots and recurring hostilities forced the group to flee. The inhabitants of Migdal Eder were saved by the villagers of the neighboring Arab village of Beit Umar but were not able to return to the land they left behind.

In 1935, Jewish businessman Shmuel Holtzmann provided backing for another attempt at settling the area. The initial kibbutz, built on or near the remains of Migdal Eder, was named Kfar Etzion, in his honor ("Etzion" being a Hebraization of "Holtzmann"). The 1936-1939 Arab revolt made life intolerable for the residents, so they returned to Jerusalem in 1937.

The Jewish National Fund organized a third attempt at settlement in 1943 with the refounding of Kfar Etzion by members of the religious Mizrachi movement. Despite the tough soil, shortage of potable water, harsh winters, and constant threat of fatal attacks, this group managed to succeed. Their isolation was somewhat relieved by the establishment in 1945 of two more kibbutzim]; Masu'ot Yitzhak and Ein Tzurim, also populated by young members of the religious Mizrachi. Against the backdrop of an impending struggle for Israeli independence and as a show of solidarity, the secular Hashomer Hatzair movement founded a fourth kibbutz, Revadim.

On November 29th 1947 the United Nations approved the partition plan.  However despite the fact that the Yeshuv (the defacto Israeli government) accepted the plan, all of the surrounding Arab nations rejected it and immediately attacked.  The entire Gush Etzion block came under intense attack by both Arab irregulars and the well organized Arab Legion, and was besieged for a period of five months.

Initially there was some discussion of whether the four kibbutzim should be instructed to withdraw.  But because of their strategic location as the only Jewish stronghold protecting the southern approach to Jerusalem from the direction of Hevron, they were told to stay and defend their area even though it was nearly impossible to resupply them with food, medicine and ammunition.

In January of 1948 the British helped evacuate most of the women and all of the children from Gush Etzion, but the rest of the women and men remained to defend the settlements.

On 12 May the commander of Kfar Etzion requested permission from the Central Command in Jerusalem a permission to evacuate the kibbutz, but was told to stay. Later in the day, the Arabs captured the Russian Orthodox monastery, which the Haganah used as a perimeter fortress for the Kfar Etzion area, killing twenty-four of its thirty-two defenders. On May 13 a massive attack involving parts of two Arab Legion infantry companies, light artillery and local irregular support commenced from four directions. The kibbutz fell within a day, and the Arab forces massacred the entire population of Kfar Etzion, soldiers and civilians alike, the total number of killed during the final assault, following massacre and suicide was between 75 to 250. Only three men and one woman survived.

The following day - the day of Israel's declaration of independence - the three other kibbutzim, Masu'ot Yitzhak, Ein TZurim and Revadim, surrendered. The surviving kibbutznikim were taken as POW's by the Arab Legion and held in Jordan for a year before being released.

During the period when Jordan occupied Gush Etzion, all of the kibbutz buildings were destroyed and the thousands of trees which had been planted were uprooted.  All the trees, that is, except one extremely large old oak tree.

Alon_Gush_Etzion

It was this lone tree, visible from the Israeli side of the armistice lines, that many people looked at longingly... praying for a day when Jews would once again return to Gush Etzion.  I've taken my children to see this tree on many occasions.  It sits next to a small town called Alon Shvut - meaning 'the Tree of the oath', so named for the promise to return to resettle the area that the tree represented.

[information source]

Anyway, back to the present... or rather, since we're talking about yesterday, the recent past:

I hadn't been standing on the side of the road at Gush Etzion junction with my finger out (we use the index finger here for hitchhiking, not the thumb) for more than 5 minutes before a large, late model car pulled over and the older gentleman behind the wheel said in Hebrew, "I'm driving to Beer Sheva... do you need a ride?"

Finding a ride door to door after such a short wait is almost unheard of, so I thanked him warmly and got in.

Israeli hitchhiking etiquette dictates that the passenger sit quietly and let the driver initiate conversation if he/she is so inclined.  Usually one rides in silence, but this gentleman was in a chatty mood, so we began to talk.  He asked me where I worked... where I lived... how long I had been commuting to Beer Sheva from Gush Etzion, etc. 

For my part I asked him similar questions, and it emerged that he had been working in Beer Sheva for more than 30 years.  When I asked him if he had lived in the Gush all that time, he smiled and hesitated.  He explained that for the first few years that he had worked in Beer Sheva, he had lived in that desert city.  But eventually he and his family had decided to move to Gush Etzion. 

Now, this struck me as a bit odd, since it's one thing to live somewhere and accept a new job an hour away.  But few Israelis willingly move an hour or more away from their current place of work.  When I pointed this out and asekd him 'Why Gush Etzion and not one of the bedroom communities ringing Beer Sheva', he smiled again and said, "Because I'm a child of the Gush.

I may not be very good at math, but I knew the following two bits of data:

  • I was driving with a man who was at least 60 years old, if not older.

  • Gush Etzion had been in Jordanian hands from 1948 until 1967

Given that he couldn't have been a child in Gush Etzion later than 1967, and was likely born before 1948... he had to have been born on one of the four original kibbutzim.

When I asked him about this he responded that he had been a child on kibbutz Masu'ot Yitzhak, and once Gush Etzion was again in Israeli hands he decided to move back to the area where he had been born. 

In 1967, immediately after Israel's victory in the Six Day War, many survivors of Gush Etzion returned to reestablish the communities.  Kibbutz Rosh Tzurim was been established on the ruins of the destroyed kibbutzim Ein Tzurim and Revadim.  And kibbutz Kfar Etzion was re-established on its old site. 

But if you go to the site where Masu'ot yitzhak once stood, all you will find are the silent ruins of the old kibbutz buildings and some tumbled stone walls sitting amid a thick, second growth forest on a mountainside. 

I've been to the ruins many times by myself and with my family... and it has always bothered me that kibbutz Masu'ot Yitzhak was left forgotten while the rest of Gush Etzion has spring Phoenix-like from the ashes.  But after having had the privilege to ride with a survivor of this old kibbutz, I realize now that it is far from forgotten. 

As he shared some of his memories of the place, and stories that he had heard from friends and family, I realized that like almost all of Israel, it is a fitting symbol of historic renewal that shiny new towns and cities sit side by side with ancient... and not so ancient ruins.

The crucial link between the old and new is that the people of Israel preserve the memories and knowledge of their past, and share it with each successive generation.  I'm just glad I had the opportunity to speak with a living link to the historic area I now call home... because it has allowed me to share this bit of our history with you.

Posted by David Bogner on April 23, 2009 | Permalink

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GAH! Again, your kleenex alert is nowhere to be found!

And, as usual, a yarn artfully spun....

[sniffle]

Posted by: zahava | Apr 23, 2009 3:12:32 PM

Thanks for sharing, David !

Posted by: Jany | Apr 23, 2009 3:59:15 PM

My grandfather was part of the 1940s refounding of Kfar Etzion, although he moved shortly afterwards to Ein Hanetziv and then to K'far HaRo'eh. I don't know if it's still there, but there was a picture of him in the museum wielding a jackhammer (at least, family legend has it that it's him). Unfortunately, he's not well enough now to give me accurate details of that time, and I didn't have the sechel to grill him about it when I was younger...

Posted by: efrex | Apr 23, 2009 5:16:30 PM

... and do you intend to share a selection of his memories and stories with your faithful readers ??

Posted by: britac | Apr 23, 2009 9:08:55 PM

Wow, that was great. Thanks for this sliver of history. When I'm in Israel, especially Jerusalem, my husband and I always marvel at the layers and layers of history you can peel back. I remember standing at the bottom of Yafo Road, at the big junction and Simon pointing out bullet holes on this building from this war, and this is where this happened etc etc. We could have stood there for hours recollecting what occurred when. Then someone would stop by and chat and would tell another story to fit into the jigsaw. Thanks too for giving that potted history of the Gush, much of which I didn't know (er, being a Kiwi!).

Posted by: Noa | Apr 23, 2009 9:40:37 PM

Very cool.

Posted by: Jack | Apr 23, 2009 11:13:45 PM

Hate to nitpick (actually, I LOVE to nitpick, nut this post is so amazing it seems mean to nitpick it), but Alon is an oak. Ilan is generic tree.

Posted by: triLcat | Apr 24, 2009 4:59:44 AM

David, you are an excellent storyteller and author. I hope you write a book someday (and I hope you will sign my copy of it). On the other hand, don't stop writing in your blog, instead compile your best posts and turn that into your book.

This reminds of one of the best summers I ever spent. I took the summer off and volunteered to work at Kibbutz Rosh Zurim in 1982. But unlike the rest of the Amerikaim that volunteered, I arrived very early in the summer on the afternoon of June 5'th, spent a few hours in Yerushalaim (generally, my "minhag" is to make the kotel my first stop if at all possible when arriving), and then made my way in the evening to the Kibbutz. I was assigned a room with one of the single guys that lived on the Kibbutz. But somehow I didn't see that guy for a few weeks after I arrived. That's because a war started the next day and the guy (along with a few others) picked up and made their way up to Lebanon to fight. I worked hard, or I thought I worked hard at first, in the orchard every day from 7am to early afternoon. But then after a few days when the kibbutznikim saw that I was "serious" (I realized later that they meant "not the typical amerikai volunteer", i.e. spoiled), they showed me what real work is, and I started waking up at 3:45am with the rest of them, working hard until shacharit, then eating (you can't imagine how hungry you are after working hard for 3 hours before breakfast!), and then going back to work in various places after breakfast. After a few weeks I even was assigned to go into the turkey coops (usually volunteers were never permitted to enter the refet or the loolim, because they were afraid that the cows or the turkeys would catch diseases from us foreigners) to pick up the dead turkeys here and there, place them in a sack, and bring them to the outer fields (outside the kibbutz fence) to feed the watchdogs. That summer we grew kiwi, walnuts, harvested some peaches, and harvested a lot of cherries which were each treated lovingly and carefully packaged for sale in Europe because the prices were sky-high that year.

Then, after a few weeks (I seem to recall 4 or 5) of my working, my roommate came home from Levanon. He literally threw his M-16 under his bed, ripped off his boots, and slept for about 15 hours. He woke up and ... prepared for his wedding! He was marrying the daughter of some muckety-muck minister in the government. What an amazing wedding! First of all, the security was awesome, helicopters flying all over the place looking for threats in the hills. This was wartime, you know, and half, almost literally half, of the Knesset was coming to the wedding. There were hundreds of soldiers all along the roads leading to the kibbutz and surrounding the kibbutz at every possible strategic position. And there were almost 1500 guests. The wedding was beautiful, the nicest I've ever attended. The meal, a typical kibbutz wedding meal, schnitzel etc, was served both in the gym and in the chadar ochel, and even at a few tables set up outside in (IIRC) the concrete area between. What a wedding, I'll never forget it.

Good memories. Shabbat Shalom all!

Posted by: Mark | Apr 24, 2009 6:01:27 AM

Thank you for that. During my year on Hachsharah (Be'erot Yitzchak) we did a middle-of-the-night tiyul following the steps of the ל'ה--the thirty-five members of the Haganah sent to bring supplies to the Gush during the '48 war who were ambushed by the Arabs and killed that made a great impression on me (I think there was at least one American in that group). Now I'm glad my kids are doing the same tiyul

Posted by: Baila | Apr 24, 2009 9:54:51 AM

And wasn't Masuot Yitzchak re-built somewhere else in Israel?

Posted by: Baila | Apr 24, 2009 9:55:38 AM

Baila, yes, it was -- not far from Kiryat Malachi, just down the road from the base where I spent several weeks as a Sar-El volunteer. If memory serves, I spent my very first Shabbat in Israel with a family there.

Posted by: Rahel | Apr 24, 2009 1:19:49 PM

Thanks for this thumbnail history of the Gush. I plan to forward it to my family to help them understand some of my motivation to live here ("here" being both the Gush and Israel). (Kibbutz Kfar Etzion has a wonderful video presentation of the history of the area, but you give a very nice written one here.)

Posted by: Shimshonit | Apr 24, 2009 1:21:10 PM

Good one, Dave

Posted by: Larry | Apr 24, 2009 8:30:18 PM

This was beautiful. My son serves at the moment in Gush Etzion as soldier, and your story makes the place even more special than history does. Thank you for sharing.

I'm always amazed at the stories you just seem to pick up, David. As if the stories knew you were the right person to tell them to a larger and appreciative audience.

Posted by: Lila | Apr 26, 2009 1:05:24 AM

update ur Twitter! also check ur @replies

Posted by: Drakesan | Apr 26, 2009 3:35:49 PM

Nice post. There is a harrowing account of the fall of the Gush in "Oh Jerusalem."

Posted by: jordan Hirsch | Apr 26, 2009 6:53:37 PM

Me and the missus are coming to Israel some time soon (5 years). Although the weather would be dreadfully similar (we live in desert at the same latitude... 120 degree summers, anyone?), that sense of history EVERWHERE, such as when she took me to London, is -- for us -- awe-inspiring.

Posted by: Wry Mouth | Apr 26, 2009 10:22:05 PM

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