'Cowardly' Israeli Kibbutz Seeks Redemption in New Movie

Sha’ar Hagolan's behavior in the 1948 War of Independence has long been viewed as a form of treason by other Israelis. Now the kibbutz is trying to shed light on why it had to retreat against the Syrian army.

The bombed children's room at Kibbutz Sha'ar Hagolan following the War of Independence in 1948.
Gil Eliahu

On the bulletin board at the entrance to Kibbutz Sha’ar Hagolan’s dining room, two notices about a film are prominently displayed. One invites kibbutz members to audition for a historical feature film, “Gevurot,” which will go into production soon. The other invites them to a festive screening of the film on the Rosh Hashanah holiday in September.

This year, Sha’ar Hagolan will celebrate the 80th anniversary of its founding as a border community near the Jordanian and Syrian borders. And some residents feel the time has finally come to tell their own version of the kibbutz’s role in the 1948 War of Independence.

The story is well-known to most Israelis. The day after Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948, the Syrian army attacked the kibbutz. For four days, kibbutz members fought under impossible conditions, with little ammunition. Then they decided to leave, together with members of the neighboring Kibbutz Masada. Five days later, when Israel recaptured the area, they returned to rebuild the kibbutz, which the Syrians had razed to the ground.

Kibbutz member Danny Brayer, who was a child during the 1948 War of Independence.
Gil Eliahu

But their flight was viewed as a form of treason. A leaflet published by the pre-state Palmach militia on May 31, under the title “Failure,” accused both kibbutzim of “abandoning the battle.” That accusation has stuck for generations.

Yoav Arazi, the kibbutz member who is the codirector and driving force behind the film, said “Gevurot” is meant to remove this stigma. He wants to tell of kibbutz members’ heroism in holding out for four days, with almost no assistance, against a much larger force, as well as their heroism – seen at the time as cowardice – in deciding to save their lives by fleeing.

It’s not easy to remove such a long-standing stigma. Ofra Shen, a kibbutz member who was 9 in 1948, recalled stopping at a mall to use the bathroom during a kibbutz outing a few years ago and having an elderly man ask where they were from. “We said Sha’ar Hagolan and he said, ‘You ran away!’”

A destroyed tower at Kibbutz Sha'ar Hagolan in 1948.
Gil Eliahu

Nothing could be farther from the truth, said Gusti Paz, who married a kibbutz member in 1944 but now lives in a Kfar Sava nursing home. She recalled that when the first Syrian shell hit on May 15, she immediately ran to get her 10-month-old daughter and take her to the still unfinished shelter. A tractor worked all night to cover the shelter with earth.

The babies were evacuated later that same day and, two days later, older children and some parents followed as well.

The kibbutz was attacked with artillery, planes and tanks, Arazi said. Its 150 members – some of whom had never held a gun before – had just 80 rifles and a few Molotov cocktails with which to fight back. Water, electricity and phone lines was cut off; they communicated with neighboring kibbutzim and army headquarters by Morse code.

Members of Kibbutz Sha'ar Hagolan, with "Gevurot" codirector Yoav Arazi standing.
Gil Eliahu

“They managed to repulse two attacks,” Arazi said. “But after a day, their ammunition ran out.”

That night, help arrived: soldiers with an anti-aircraft gun. The reinforcements stayed for 24 hours but were then sent elsewhere, to repulse a Syrian attack near Lake Kinneret. The only other help came from Kibbutz Beit Zera, whose members sent food and water and helped dig ditches.

Throughout the fighting, Arazi said, the sector commander visited just once. “And even that wasn’t to see how they were doing, but to scold them for evacuating children over the age of 12 – after all, they could have been fighters.” Even before the war, the army invested less in fortifying Sha’ar Hagolan and Masada than in other area kibbutzim, Arazi alleged.

His views were formed partly on the research of historian Asaf Agin, who said, “The decision to leave was made after faith in the shared fate of the front and the rear was destroyed.”

Kibbutz member Aviv Leshem, who is involved in the film’s production, said his grandfather and his comrades indeed felt abandoned. “They bore this humiliation for decades, and longed for recognition of their sacrifice,” Leshem said. He noted that in letters to his evacuated wife, his grandfather “voiced great pain over the decision to temporarily retreat, along with a great desire to rebuild the kibbutz.”

The final straw, Leshem said, was when members of Masada – a smaller kibbutz – said they had many residents sick with dysentery and were considering retreating. Sha’ar Hagolan members then met and decided to leave as well. Thus was born the years-long dispute between the kibbutzim over who left first.

Arazi said the fact that he and producer Shulamit Hefetz aren’t from Sha’ar Hagolan helps them “tell the story without fear or bias.”

Five days after kibbutz members left, the Israeli army repulsed the Syrians, enabling the adults to return. The children remained in Haifa for another 15 months while the kibbutz was rebuilt. Adding to the difficulties of separation and rebuilding was the stigma.

“The leadership didn’t back them,” Arazi said. “At that time, evacuating communities was considered treason.”

Kibbutz member Danny Brayer, who was a child during the war, said the adults never spoke of the evacuation for years afterward. But the story pursued him: During his army service, Sha’ar Hagolan and Masada were mentioned in an officers’ course as an example of “retreating without orders.”

While the rest of the state was celebrating the victory, Shen recalled, her parents “were unable to rejoice.” Paz agreed: “It was a terrible feeling,” she said. “There were people in very bad emotional shape there.”

Nevertheless, Paz isn’t angry. “Those were difficult times,” she explained. “People thought what we did wasn’t right; I understand that. Nevertheless, we had no choice.”

It took five years before Sha’ar Hagolan and Masada were finally awarded the medal given to other communities that fought in the war. An inquiry report into their conduct was shelved for 40 years; kibbutz members were allowed to see it, but not to publicize it.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the adults finally told their story to the kibbutz’s young people, and even then only in general terms, Brayer said. His mother, who was among the last fighters to leave the kibbutz, told him her personal story only shortly before her death in 2000.

Shen still isn’t sure the movie is a good idea. She recalled that in the 1960s, kibbutz members voted against a proposal to stage a show about the issue. She believes this was due both to their pain and to “fear of ruining our relations with Kibbutz Masada again.”

But many kibbutz members are auditioning and/or raising money for the film. Filmmaker David Ofek volunteered to direct it and, later, Masada members asked if they could help, as did other kibbutzim and institutions in the area.

Sara Chaplin of Masada will be one of the actresses. She will play her mother-in-law, Gila Chaplin, who served as a medic during the battle.

Two years ago, Gila was transferred to the Sha’ar Hagolan nursing home after Masada’s nursing home closed. “She said, ‘I won’t live among them,’ and died two weeks later,” recalled her son, Benny, Sara’s husband.

Brayer, like the Chaplins, supports the film. The issue it raises – the pointlessness of a vain sacrifice – is timeless, he argued. But it’s also important to tell the story for the kibbutzim’s future generations, he said, “so they won’t feel their parents did something wrong, but the contrary: They’ll be proud that their parents acted wisely, and that they had the strength to return and rebuild.”