The Makings of History / The Hashomer Myth, Exploded

The organization Hashomer (The Watchman), founded a century ago, is generally regarded as the first incarnation of the Israel Defense Forces. This association, set up to guard farmers' fields, enjoys historical prestige thanks in part to its members' ostensible tendency to nurture peaceful relations with the Arab populace. The watchmen learned Arabic, wore kaffiyehs, rode on horseback and even made coffee in a finjan.

The problem is that practically everything known about the organization is based on its members' recollections from many years after it ceased to exist. The archives of Hashomer disappeared, leaving only the myth that was created.

Dr. Gur Alroey, a lecturer in Land of Israel studies at the University of Haifa, recently found previously unknown documents which reveal the Hashomer members' brutality toward the Arab population. In direct contradiction to the official historiography, which claims Hashomer tried to adopt the Arabs' lifestyle, Alroey describes a domineering relationship that included humiliation, abuse and vandalism; the watchmen are portrayed as violent thugs. Alroey found substantial evidence of this in the Rehovot municipal archives, as well as in papers involved in the preparation of "Sefer Toldot Hahaganah" ("History of the Haganah") - the massive, official, carefully censored multi-volume epic published by the Defense Ministry and the World Zionist Organization, beginning in 1954.

According to documents cited by Alroey, Hashomer used "protection" tactics and terror vis-a-vis their employers, the Jewish farmers, including issuing death threats. Tension between the two sides, which stemmed in part from the watchmen's salary demands, is considered by some to be the root of the fundamental left-right clash in Israeli politics. Alroey's article sheds new light primarily on the roots of the conflict between the Zionists and the Palestinians.

On June 25, 1913, a Rehovot farmer named Sammy Tolkovsky sent an angry letter to a local committee, complaining about watchman Eliezer Finkelstein's conduct toward his Arab laborer.

"It is my duty as a man and as a Rehovot resident to protest vehemently against certain phenomena prevailing in our town lately, which not only jeopardize our prestige, but above all constitute serious crimes against humanity," Tolkovsky wrote, in German. He went on to describe how members of Hashomer whipped Arabs for no apparent reason, "as though they were dogs instead of human beings." And he added: "We Jews of all people, who suffered persecution and abuse for thousands of years, we Jews of all people, whose backs recount the beatings by [other] peoples, are duty-bound to have a modicum of humanity so as not to whip unarmed and innocent people."

Alroey says the Rehovot archives contain papers documenting numerous such cases.

Visitors from abroad in those years, including writers David Frishman and Ahad Ha'am, described a similar state of affairs, along with roadblocks, closures and mobility restrictions. Frishman warned that the day would come when the Arab neighbors would arise "and take their revenge," as he put it.

Apparently, the thuggish behavior of the watchmen was one of the factors that motivated farmers to get rid of them.

Shaul Avigur, who was a key figure in Israel's security establishment and one of the editors of the Haganah chronicles, observed: "Remember that these men, many of them bachelors, were for the most part stubborn, ambitious and difficult to restrain and discipline." Avigur described them as a chauvinist bunch, who referred to women disparagingly in Yiddish as "servant girls."

One of the most extremist members of Hashomer was Michael Av-Ner Shpal. Shpal believed that a thief (an Arab, it goes without saying) caught in Jewish vineyards deserved to be put to death, since he stole not from the farmers per se, but rather from the "fruit of the Jewish people's labor." Shpal confronted the farmers about the way they employed Arab guards, and even set up a terrorist cell named Sons of Pinchas. In a flier he distributed to the farmers, Shpal declared: "If your ear is blocked to the voice of the masters of the desert, speaking from the mouths of our finest authors, it shall hear the voice of the first bomb exploding."

Ultimately, Alroey writes, no bombs were detonated, but the rhetoric of blood, treason, murder and national honor raised the Jewish-Arab conflict from a local conflagration between Jewish and Arab farmers to a national and even nationalistic level.

Shpal was left off the official list of Hashomer members that was laterpublished, and was expunged from the organization's collective memory. This was not because of his views, but rather because he left the country after World War I, was hospitalized in a mental institution in Vienna, and hanged himself a short while later.

Alroey's riveting article appears in the new edition of the quarterly Katedra, published by Yad Ben-Zvi. That in itself is interesting since Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel's second president, was among the founders of Hashomer.