The Death and Rebirth of Kfar Etzion

"Yaldei Kfar Etzion" ("The Children of Kfar Etzion") by Amia Lieblich, University of Haifa Press and Keter Publishing, 512 pages, NIS 88

Of the many calamities that occurred during Israel's wars, no tragedy is likely to be greater than that suffered by Kibbutz Kfar Etzion during the War of Independence in 1948. It is the tragedy of a community whose male population, which included outsiders who had come to defend it, was killed almost in its entirety by the Jordanian Legion. Many of the men were slaughtered even after they had surrendered (127 people were killed there altogether, 80 of them from Kfar Etzion, the others outside members of the Haganah pre-state army). And since most of the children and all of the women had been evacuated from the kibbutz some months earlier, the tragedy of Kfar Etzion is also one of several dozen people whom the massacre turned into widows and orphans.

This great drama certainly deserves to be documented, and many years ago one of the survivors, Dov Knohl, already undertook to tell the story in his book "Gush Etzion bemilhamto" ("Gush Etzion During its War"), published by the World Zionist Organization in 1954. That volume became a canonical work for those who once lived in the community, and for a certain generation of Zionist-religious Israelis in general. Yohanan Ben-Ya'acov, one of the orphans of Gush Etzion, in the West Bank southeast of Jerusalem, has also contributed greatly to the painstaking work of documenting stories not only of the battles in the area, but also of the convoys that came to help the besieged settlement cluster, often at the cost of grave casualties.

Amia Lieblich's new book seeks to focus on the human aspect of the drama and to tell the story of the children of Kfar Etzion, most of whom, as noted, were orphaned in the war. A story of such obvious power, an author who has herself become part of the canon of documenting Israeli identity (in her books about the kibbutz movement and about Israeli soldiers), and the prominent publishing houses involved in this project - the combination of all these can bring the story of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion to the center of public discussion, and do historic justice to its children.

Lone oak tree

Lieblich, a professor emeritus of psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, tells the children's story chronologically: She describes the evacuation from Kfar Etzion to the Ratisbonne Monastery in Jerusalem, discusses the children's life at the monastery, their brief sojourn in Petah Tikva, and the years when the religious kibbutz reassembled at Givat Aliyah in Jaffa (a kibbutz of widows, orphans and few men). She goes on to tell of their dispersal throughout the country and concludes with the annual memorial services and the observation, from a distance, of the village's lone oak tree, whose size allowed it to become a focal point of longing and nostalgia.

The book's second part is devoted to the great drama of the kibbutz's resettlement. In this context, two facts are especially poignant: When former Gush Emunim leader and Knesset member Hanan Porat initiated the return of the people of Kfar Etzion to their kibbutz, shortly after the Six-Day War, a few of the widows confronted him, claiming that, "It is enough that the husbands died, there is no need to endanger the children as well." Porat succeeded in convincing them to give their blessing to the resettlement only after he asked them what their husbands would have thought of the idea. The second, no less significant fact that Lieblich uncovers is that 10 of the children of Kfar Etzion now live in the renewed kibbutz, and several others live in other nearby Jewish settlements.

Lieblich's research is very thorough, and she takes apart each period in the survivors' lives to consider its components: life in the Ratisbonne Monastery before and after the conquest of Gush Etzion; those moments when word came of the defeat; the lives of the widows in the subsequent years; and the way the few remaining men functioned as fathers for the children of the whole kibbutz.

Because Lieblich does not settle for predictable slogans, she arrives at some surprising nuances. Thus, for example, she finds evidence for the positive aspects of being fatherless, a condition that provides a freedom and license that are usually not granted to other children. She also identifies a dispute about life at Givat Aliyah: While the majority describe the children's existence there as cheerful and vibrant (in contrast to the sad life indoors, with the widowed mothers), Lieblich does not hesitate to include Ben-Ya'acov's description of the children's society as a cruel one.

More sensitive men

Lieblich also cites several of the orphans, who claim that there was no point in leaving the kibbutzim of Gush Etzion in their isolation; one of them, Shilo Gal, even says that the settlement cluster was abandoned (in terms of the labor force and equipment sent to it) because it did not belong to the "right movement." Most of the orphans reject these accusations and do not blame the leadership of those days for the loss of their fathers.

Lieblich's analyses contain some very interesting insights, including the fact that the orphaned men were found to have more characteristics in common than the orphaned women: The men are described as being more sensitive than is the accepted norm among men, whereas among the women Lieblich found a more common distribution.

The book does, however, suffer from certain flaws. The first is a technical one: The appendix listing the names of the interviewees provides too little information (51 of the kibbutz's 60 orphans agreed to be interviewed, a figure that suggests just how much they wanted their story to be told at last); it accounts only for where they now live. But since most of the book's chapters are thematic, making the life story of any particular child hard to follow, the appendix should have included a brief biographical sketch of each protagonist.

The second problem involves the manner in which the book is written - that is, the way in which the author presents her testimonies. Throughout most of the book, Lieblich chose to bring the words of her witnesses verbatim rather than integrate them into a new story, written in her own voice. This, of course, is a legitimate professional choice, and one often made by authors of scholarly works. In this case, however, dismantling the Kfar Etzion story into different testimonies and accounts tends to detract from the book's dramatic and narrative element.

The last flaw is a more fundamental one, and that is the apologetic tone used by Lieblich in the introduction, when she "explains" why she agreed to immerse herself in the story of Kfar Etzion's people, whose place of residence - in the territories - clashes with her own contemporary political views. She explains this by saying that her late father, Dr. Moshe-Arieh Kurtz, was an activist of the Hapoel Hamizrachi religious-Zionist movement and a friend of many of the (original) Kfar Etzion settlers, and she even recounts a bittersweet childhood memory of visiting the kibbutz with him.

Lieblich's personal connection to the story is moving indeed, but the apologetic way in which she uses it to "justify" her choice of subject is undignified: The story of Kfar Etzion has the power of a sacred story, and it should be a great privilege to examine and document it. Writing a book on this subject requires no apology.