When you stand on the roof of Beit Alami on Kibbutz Zikim, at the southwestern tip of Israel’s coastal plain, you see a large area – and a huge story. The story is historical, regional, national and environmental.
As in a mirage, you can see from here water in the Shikma stream, a large lake, water in a concrete tower, high groundwater that creates a wonderful nature reserve and the blue water of the Mediterranean.
If you squint you can also see Jews and Arabs, refugees from Europe and from the Gaza Strip, Zionism and war. In a kind of horrifyingly realistic version of Mini-Israel, it is as if someone has spread before you all the elements of the Middle Eastern sphere and mixed in a large dose of (sometimes literally) explosive current events.
Built a century ago and recently renovated, Beit Alami (Alami House) is still referred to as “the Arab house” by the kibbutzniks. It is named after the family that built and resided in it until 1947, using it as a vacation home.
The Alami family was one of the five wealthiest and most influential families in Jerusalem during the early 20th century. Faidi al-Alami was mayor of the city; his son Musa became famous as a brilliant legal scholar and a senior official in the British Mandatory government, and owned a farm in Jericho. But still, the attempt to trace and correctly identify the branch of the Alami family that built the house on Zikim is confusing. More on that later.
Beit Alami was there, perched on a high hill at the end of the coastal plain, when the first members of Zikim settled the land in 1949. Around it are scattered the houses of the kibbutz, which in the coming weeks will be celebrating its 70th anniversary. Today, each house has a reinforced room (mamad), usually added on after the homes were constructed. Above the children’s houses looms a kind of huge concrete shell that protects them from incoming missiles and bombs.
The rejuvenated Beit Alami, now a visitors center, has a lovely entrance with columns and arches, facing the southwest. This week, even on a very hot day, there was a refreshing breeze there. A glance south from the roof reveals the tall buildings of Gaza. Although the Strip is several kilometers away, it is still easy, even on a scorching-hot August day with poor visibility, to discern the neighborhoods of Gaza City.
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Even closer, looking south, is the large Shikma reservoir with its dense greenery; slightly to the east lie the homes and hothouses of Moshav Netiv Ha’asara and sections of the high separation barrier; and in the southwest, you can even see part of the wall disappearing into the sea. When you look in other directions you discover the coast and the huge Holot nature reserve to the west. A bit further to the north you can see the Rutenberg power station, with its tall chimneys.
No ‘Founders’ House’
In the early days of the kibbutz, Beit Alami was used for housing refugees arriving from war-torn Europe, and also as a dining room, a children’s house and a stable. Afterward, small cottages were built around it and it served as a communal space (where clean laundry was folded), a shop, a warehouse, a clubhouse and a pub. Slowly but surely the building was totally abandoned and shuttered.
For decades Beit Alami deteriorated until there was a danger of collapse. Now Zikim is completing a long process of renovating it and determining its future uses. The most important part of that discussion has been the fact that the kibbutz has made a principled and well-considered decision to continue to call it Beit Alami – in other words, to specifically acknowledge the Arab history of the structure, instead of concealing or blurring it, as has been the case at many similar sites in Israel.
They could have called it the Founders’ House, or the House on the Hill, the House of the Pioneer Women, the Memorial to the Fallen, or some other vague name. But they decided not to do so.
On nearby Kibbutz Carmia, for example, a room commemorating members who died in the country’s wars was set up in the only Arab house that remains from the village of Hirbiya, which stood there until 1948. In Zikim they made a different decision, which is more interesting, respectful and complex: Beit Alami, in the heart of a kibbutz affiliated with the left-wing socialist Hashomer Hatzair movement, will continue in future as well to bear the name of the Arab family that built it a century ago.
A few decades ago, I lived for a while on Zikim, so the place is close to my heart. I like going there. I have good friends who live there. This week one of them, Roni Gilat, described the impetus for sprucing up the building.
“Beit Alami is the most beautiful place on the kibbutz. It’s the highest hill with the prettiest and broadest view,” he said. “Some people said that the time had come to demolish it and build something else. There were kibbutz members who expressed a desire to remove any sign of the past of Arab settlement at the site.
“At one point the structure was defined as hazardous, in danger of collapse, and it was said it shouldn’t be approached. We had to make a decision. I was pleased that there was a group of members who said that the past is part of the history of this place and that includes the Arab past of the house. A decision was made to preserve it and have it serve as a site that tells the story of history of the region as well as the story of the kibbutz.”
Is preserving the name “Beit Alami” a statement?
Gilat: “We deliberately decided that we wouldn’t run away from that. It’s important to us that the name remains. In my opinion, this move contains a real hope for the future. I believe that this house will serve as a possible meeting place for Palestinians and Israelis. Not only because of its perfect location in the middle of the road between Ashkelon and Gaza, but also because of its history and that of its founders.
“Its name is a declaration that we aren’t hiding from that past. We’re acknowledging the history and clearly saying: This is our place, it belongs to us now, but we remember and respect what was here in the past.”
In a film prepared by kibbutz native Aviv Peres and screened at Beit Alami, several kibbutzniks explain the significance of the structure. Marky Levy calls it “the Temple of Kibbutz Zikim,” adding that the building is a reminder that we Israelis reside in a country that is shared by Jews and Arabs, and that we must find a solution enabling us to lead life together in it.
Prof. Eli Tzur, a historian at Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College, describes Beit Alami as “a place where the kibbutz began” or as “the fortress of the kibbutz.”
There is something encouraging and very moving about listening to people whose home has been shelled for years, and are still able to speak optimistically about rapprochement with the neighbors from Gaza, a shared country and a solution that begins with dialogue.
On the day the kibbutz was officially founded in 1949, the first settlers hung a large sign on Beit Alami bearing the words “Kibbutz Zikim – another home for the nation, another guardian of the border, another red flag on the way to Suez.” After stormy arguments the words “to Suez” were erased and the members remained with the home, the border and the red flag on the way.
Judging by the wrinkled faces of the veteran kibbutzniks who appear in Peres’ film, we can understand that life in the corner between Ashkelon and Gaza was never easy.
Architect Zvika Pasternak, who has been in charge of the renovation of Beit Alami, told Haaretz that at first he was involved in a plan to develop tourism to Zikim, and the idea of rehabilitating the structure was added later. The objectives: to preserve the historical building, to turn it into a multifaceted visitors’ center and to use it for conferences and workshops.
One of the painted ceilings was restored, tiles similar to the original ones were laid on the floor, and the windows, light fixtures and even the furniture preserve the original ambiance of the house. Pasternak says that the observation point created on the roof constitutes a restrained and modest change in the structure, which makes it possible to maintain the original character and appearance of the building while still attracting curious visitors who want to learn about the surroundings.
“We built one stairway, which does not harm the façade and enables us to use the roof as an open museum, without changing the overall appearance,” Pasternak explains.
The total cost of the renovation is about 4.5 million shekels ($1.3 million), and it has been financed by a long list of organizations, including the KKL-Jewish National Fund Australia, the Agriculture Ministry, the World Zionist Organization, the Prime Minister’s Office and the kibbutz itself.
Who is/was Alami?
According to the signs, Beit Alami was built by Hafez al-Alami, who according to his grandson, who visited Zikim in November 1978, was the brother-in-law of Musa al-Alami. Construction began on the building during World War I and was completed in 1920. Very little is known about Hafez al-Alami and therefore it’s tempting to concentrate on the more intriguing figure of Musa. He was born in the late 19th century, as said, to one of the wealthiest and most famous families in Jerusalem, where his father Faidi al-Alami served as mayor from 1906 to 1909.
Musa al-Alami was educated in Western schools and had many Jewish friends. In Hadara Lazar’s book “Six Singular Figures: Understanding the Conflict: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate,” he is described as someone who wasn’t a political leader, but was closely involved throughout his life in the history of the Palestinian people during the 20th century. While he never belonged to any organization or party, he occasionally – and unenthusiastically – took part in political activity in Mandatory Palestine. He was familiar to the Palestinian Arab community, but was completely different from the community’s leaders of that period, according to Lazar.
In her marvelous book “Jerusalem Memories,” Musa’s niece Serene Husseini Shahid al-Alami described her uncle as “an exceptional person.” In the chapter devoted to him, she describes in detail the determined way in which Al-Alami, a brilliant legal scholar and a seasoned diplomat, discovered water on the property of a desert farm that he built as a charitable project near Jericho, where the family had a winter home. Musa al-Alami had no descendants, so his heirs are the children of his sister.
I was unsuccessful in the attempt I made this week to link the family of Musa al-Alami to Beit Alami, and was unable to dispel the fog surrounding the identity of the builders of the house and its owners. Leila Shahid, the daughter of Musa’s niece Serene, told me, “I am not familiar with any house of Uncle Musa al-Alami in southern Israel. Maybe that house belonged to another branch of the family that lived in the Gaza Strip. I have never heard of Hafez al-Alami.”
Leila Shahid served for many years as a Palestinian diplomat – first as a representative of the Palestinian Authority in France and later as a PA representative in the European Union. Although she wrote at first that she would agree to talk to me to clarify some issues, subsequent attempts at such a conversation went unanswered.
Roni Gilat, optimistic as always, told me that even if Musa al-Alami was not the owner of the house on Zikim, as a person who seems to have been moderate, diplomatic and ready to talk – he would seem to be a model that suits the objectives of the renovated structure.
“In the pages of history he seems to have been a person with a somewhat melancholy nature, lonely, who invested great effort in developing the farm in Jericho. He continued to live in Jerusalem and chose not to go into exile elsewhere,” says Gilat. “His story contains hope that even in the Middle East it’s possible to choose another path. If that’s the message that visitors will absorb in Beit Alami – we’ve done something good.”