Har Tuv - Salman - 3.2012
A photo of residents of Har Tuv before the War of Independence. Photo by Emil Salman
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Emil Salman
Esther Haimov Photo by Emil Salman

For years, descendants of the founders of Har Tuv near Beit Shemesh have felt betrayed by the Israeli establishment. Their agricultural community, founded in 1895 by Zionist pioneers from Bulgaria, became the only Jewish community in the new state that was not re-established after it was destroyed in the 1948 War of Independence.

The local regional council did not use the name Har Tuv (Mountain of Goodness ); it was reserved for a nearby industrial zone. Now the descendants' morale is sinking again; the Mateh Yehuda regional council is converting part of the small museum that memorialized the village into an office.

Har Tuv was always unusual. Unlike other moshava settlements, Har Tuv was not affiliated with a political party or movement. Its founders bought the land with their own funds and faced tough conditions on the ground. Har Tuv was also the only pioneering settlement founded by Sephardi pioneers from Bulgaria.

Three times village residents had to flee their homes due to attacks launched from neighboring Arab villages: in 1929, 1936 and 1948. The name of the Har Tuv moshava is remembered in the chronicles of the 1948 war as the place from which fighters from the "mountain platoon" set out, heading toward Gush Etzion on a tragic mission. As fighting intensified, Har Tuv residents were evacuated in a heroic operation led by Shlomo Lahat, and the settlement was destroyed.

Ethnic discrimination

After the war, residents tried to re-establish it but received no government backing. According to descendants, the re-establishment campaign was thwarted by political and ethnic discrimination. A few residents attempted to stay in the area despite the lack of government support; the last such pioneer, Ben Zion Giron, remained at the site until 1982. The other families scattered around the country.

A moshav communal farming settlement, Naham, was set up on Har Tuv's ruins and was designated for new immigrants from Yemen. The Mateh Yehuda council took possession of buildings that had belonged to Har Tuv. The structure that remained in the best shape was used as the regional council's psychological services facility.

About 20 years ago, descendants of the Har Tuv settlers established a nonprofit organization and a small memorial museum in the basement of this facility. Since there are no physical remains of life in the village, the museum featured photographs and papers documenting the origins and fates of the founding families. Tourist groups visited the small museum.

In recent months a dispute has flared between descendants of the settlers and the regional council. The council renovated the basement and set up a work station in part of it to be used by employees from its tourism branch. Moshe Dadon, head of the Mateh Yehuda council, says this was done to improve access to the museum.

"The place was in a state of neglect. Keys to it were held by dozens of people," Dadon says. "If I had left things as they were, it [the museum] would have disappeared. Now anyone who wants to visit it can come; somebody is responsible for the work area. This is not private space for the exclusive use of descendants of Har Tuv residents."

A question of fair play

Members of the families reject the council's explanation, saying it has taken steps to remove the last vestige of their parents' and grandparents' pioneering efforts.

"It's neither a museum nor a memorial room, but the Har Tuv families are happy there's some memorial to the village," says Esther Haimov, the daughter of village pioneers who recalls life at Har Tuv before the 1948 war.

Council officials promise that the museum's activities will not be obstructed by the new branch of the tourism office. But the Har Tuv activists and council employees have battled over every box or piece of office equipment moved into the basement.

"They switched the lock, and that says something about what they consider fair play," says the memorial organization's director, Yael Keinan, who has worked as a history teacher in the area.

Former bar association chief Yori Geiron, a descendant of a Har Tuv family, is trying to help the memorial organization. "It's sad to see this village destroyed over and over again," he says. "Even if the council's intentions are positive, there were other ways to create facts and talk about the situation."

Omri Salman, director of the council for the preservation and restoration of historical sites in Israel, has asked Minister Matan Vilnai to mediate between the sides.

"There are wonderful aspects of persistence and faith in this story, and there's room for discussion here," Salmon says. "As long as the two sides sit down and try to find a solution."