by Yael Adar
Just above the Lion Monument at Tel Hai, stands Beit Ha'Shomer – at kibbutz Kfar Giladi. It majestically overlooks the valley below and Mt. Hermon. Ha'Shomer, which means The Watchman, has often been referred to as the grandfather of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Beit Ha'Shomer provides a wealth of information about this elite organization of 108 men and women that was founded in 1909 in order to provide Jewish protection to the Jewish settlements. At the time, this was a novel concept since up until that time Circassians, Arabs (and Moroccans) were employed as guards at the various Jewish settlements.
Ha'Shomer's primary leaders were Yitzhak Ben Zvi (later Israel's second president), Israel Giladi, Alexander Zeid and Israel Shohat. At Beit Ha'Shomer which is one of the Ministry of Defense museums there is an audiovisual program and a room dedicated to the sculptures of Batia Lichansky, sister of Rahel Yanait Ben Zvi, (Yitzhak Ben Zvi's wife).
The early 1900's were hard on the residents of Eretz Yisrael. The early pioneers were aging young, a direct result of their continued strenuous labor and rampant malaria. Many of their children went abroad to study and never returned – and increasingly they began employing local
Arabs to do more and more of the physical work, including guard duty.
Many of the settlements were prey to thieves and attacks by local villagers. The newer immigrants were critical of the early settlers' use of Arabs as guards. The people behind Ha'Shomer were active in Jewish defense in their homelands during the days of the pogroms and to them a Jewish defense organization was a natural necessity.
Ha'Shomer was preceded by another secret self defense organization, called Bar-Giora, an organization established in 1907 in Jaffa, at the home of Yitzhak Ben Zvi. A month after the new organization was established they set out to the Sejera Ranch, which became the first Jewish settlement in the Lower Galilee.
By 1909 Bar-Giora had 26 members, but that was no longer enough to carry out all the necessary guard duties of the day, so Ha'Shomer was established on April 12 1909. It became the legal version of the secret Bar-Giora organization.
Ha'Shomer's expressed goal was to transform Jewish workers into laborers and guardsmen. They wore special clothes, in order to better blend with the local environment (see photo). Their base was
at the Sejera Ranch (which today is a Moshav called Ilaniya). The ranch was located near what at the time, was known as Mescha, and later became Kfar Tavor.
( National Photo Collection - please click on the photo to view a larger sample)
The meeting that founded Ha'Shomer was supposed to take place in Sejera – on Passover eve, 1909. However that day there was an incident between some Jewish settlers and the residents of nearby Kfar Kama, who accosted two settlers on their way to Sejera. One of the Jewish settlers shot and killed one of the attackers. As the Jewish holiday descended on the Yishuv – there was much concern about possible reprisals. Consequently at the last minute the meeting was relocated to Mescha.
Zvi Beker, became the first Jewish Watchman at Sejera. The local Circassians tried each night to get him to resign, but he resolved to make Jewish protection of the settlement a reality. With
time, small successes followed and Ha'Shomer began guarding other settlements, for an annual fee.
Ha'Shomer exacted a price for their guarding efforts (in addition to the fee). They made it compulsory for the settlements which they protected to employ only Jewish laborers, instead of the cheaper Arab workers which many of the settlements had been utilizing. The organization functioned until 1920, when it was disbanded, when the Haganah was formally established.
Directions: Beit Ha'Shomer is located at Kibbutz Kfar Giladi. Take Route # 90, drive through Kiryat Shmona and turn left at the sign for Tel Hai and Kfar Giladi.
Visiting Hours: Sunday-Thursday 8:00 AM – 4:00 PM, Friday and Holiday eves for pre-booked groups.
Entry fees apply.