Pre-state Jewish police force fights for its heritage
Members of the Notrim say they did the 'dirty work' in pre-state days, but have yet to earn their historical credit.
Eighty six-year-old Haim Karbi raised his voice: "I was one of the Notrim and I am still one of the Notrim," he said, referring to the Jewish supernumerary police force that served under the British police during the Mandate. Karbi, a resident of Kiryat Tivon, spoke on behalf of most of the members of the Jewish force who had been active during the British Mandate, a force which effectively served as a legal arm for the Haganah (a pre-state underground militia). He spoke at a conference held last week in the former British police station in Nahalal, and attended by the former guards as well as pupils from the Reali school in Haifa.
Even though more than 60 years have elapsed, it was only last year that the Notrim received any kind of recognition. "The years go by and we are not getting any younger. Today we want our actions to also be remembered by generations to come," says Shmuel Rabino, chairman of the association of the Jewish guards.
"The Notrim did not receive the historical credit they were due," says Dr. Arye Yitzhaki, a military historian and the son of a Noter. "They were the high point of the Haganah's militarism. In 1939, 22,000 fighters were serving as Notrim - an amazing figure. Almost one-third of the men fit to serve were then Notrim. We are talking about the basis for the organized army of the War of Independence."
After a great deal of effort on the part of the guards, and with the assistance of the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, a modest visitors' center has been set up in one wing of the police station. Compared with the impressive museums and memorial sites of organizations like the Palmach, the Haganah and the Irgun, it is difficult to see how the Notrim will be able to make their mark on the collective historical memory. So far, a series of pictures from the "old days," a model of a guard on horseback and a short film are somehow supposed to capture the imagination of the youth of today.
"We didn't have cabinet ministers or prime ministers [in our ranks]," Rabino said, offering an explanation of why they've been pushed aside. Issy Vardinon stood next to him, wearing a big hat, perhaps as a nod to the Australian bush hats the Notrim used to wear. "It hurts me to think that they don't know what we did," Vardinon says. "Who helped the Palmach? Who rode out before them when they smuggled in children from Syria and Lebanon? We went there every night."
Yitzhaki believes the Notrim have been forgotten "because they did not have public relations experts and poets like the Palmach had - for example Haim Gouri and Haim Hefer. The Notrim were simple folk who did the dirty work and did not take the pen of a writer into their hands. Also the fact that they belonged to the [British] Mandate police perhaps created the feeling that they were not a 'pure' force of our own. That is how it happened, that over the years very few research works were written about them even though there is quite a promising source for books here. There were not even songs about them, except perhaps for the song 'Hatender Nose'a' by Yaakov Orland and Moshe Wilensky." Attorney Eliahu Tsuk says he came to the conference "because they kept calling" him. He was a Noter in 1946 and '47 in the Jezreel Valley and served in the 9th Regiment. He says the regional commander paid every Noter seven pounds and 24 grush per month. "We were the cover for the Haganah's training exercises and the legal weapons store for the organization," he says. However, he admits that "all the fame went to the Palmach. I asked to join the Palmach at the end of my studies, but we received instructions to go to the Jewish settlement police instead. It was a disappointment."
Shimon Tzafrir, the director of the northern region of the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, agrees that "nothing about [the Notrim] is known today." Tzafrir set up the room in the Nahalal police station that serves as the center, and helped to organize the conference. "The Notrim were fearless fighters," he says. "They effectively made up the force that preceded the Israel Defense Forces. It is regrettable that they aren't getting assistance today and that the [next] generations are not connected to the subject in any way. They beg their sons and grandchildren to join the association. But it doesn't work."
A group of pupils gathers around Karbi after his speech, giving him hope that their efforts will pay off. They encourage him enthusiastically to come to the school and continue telling his stories of those days. "It was great," one of the students says, as they look at Karbi with admiration.