This Day in Jewish History / Jews Take Farm Defense Into Their Own Hands

Farmers usually hired Arabs to protect them from other Arabs. The Bar Giora movement thought Jews needed to protect themselves.

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On September 29, 1907, the eve of the Simhat Torah holiday, the founding members of the Jewish defense organization Bar Giora met in Jaffa to establish the secret body, whose goal was to offer protection to Jewish agricultural settlements in the Lower Galilee from Arab marauders.

Although Bar Giora — which took its name from Shimon Bar Giora, one of the leaders of the so-called Great Revolt waged by ancient Israel against the Roman Empire in 66-70 C.E. – was short-lived, and was absorbed less than two years later into Hashomer, a nationwide defense body, its members were among the elite of the Second Aliyah pioneers. Their actions and their decisions had an important influence on both agricultural and military developments within the nascent Jewish community in Palestine.

The formative meeting took place in the Jaffa apartment of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who would later become Israel’s second president. Like Israel Shochat and Yehezkel Hankin, two of the others present that evening, Ben-Zvi had been involved in a Jewish defense organization in his hometown, Poltava, Ukraine, that was formed in response to the 1905 pogroms in czarist Russia. Other founding members of Bar Giora included Mendel Portugali, Israeli Giladi and Alexander Zaid.

During the period of the First Aliyah (1882-1903), Jewish farmers who found themselves under attack from local marauders and thieves generally hired other locals, also Arabs, to protect them, just as they hired Arabs to work on their farms. The founders of Bar Giora, members of the next, second wave of immigration (1904-1914), saw a need for the Zionist pioneers to be completely self-sufficient.

As historian Gershon Shafir writes in his book “Land, Labor, and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882-1914,” Bar Giora was “a self-selected elite group in which ‘Hebrew Labor,’ settlement, and guarding all occupied pride of place.”

Thus, the men of Bar Giora also accepted an invitation from Manya Wilbuszewicz — better known today as Manya Shochat, her name after marrying Israel Shochat — to come live and work on lands being leased by the Jewish Colonization Association at Sejera (today’s Moshav Ilaniya), the Lower Galilee’s first Jewish settlement. For a year, a dozen men and women worked as tenant farmers at Sejera, as they were simultaneously learning the basics of agriculture and providing security services there and at nearby Mescha (later Kfar Tavor).

Hashomer begins

At the end of a year, although the group had broken even financially it turned down an offer from the manager of the Sejera farm to stay on for an additional year as sharecroppers.

Instead, on April 12, 1909, the leaders of Bar Giora met at Mescha and decided to disband that body, and reorganize its reorganization as Hashomer (The Watchman), which would take on the mission of offering its guard services at Jewish agricultural settlements country-wide. They started in the Jezreel Valley, and within a year had signed contracts to guard at Hadera, Rishon Letzion and Rehovot as well.

With its ideology of “conquest of labor,” Hashomer also functioned as a settlement organization, and was responsible for establishing Tel Adashim, Kfar Bar Giora (whose name was changed to Kfar Giladi after the death of Israel Giladi in 1918) and Tel Hai. In 1920, Hashomer was incorporated into the defense organization Haganah, which was set up that year by the leadership of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine.