They May Be in Their 80s, but Haganah Vets Are Alive and Kicking

No one sings the organization's anthem or uses a secret handshake any more, but the message is clear: The Haganah is alive.

It is most unlikely that any of those sitting around the table at the meeting last week of veterans of the Haganah (the underground pre-state army) would have imagined such a scene way back when. None of these venerated types could have imagined decades ago that one day, he would exchange dusty battlefield rations for gourmet sandwiches in a conference room on the fourth floor of Tel Aviv's Beit Golomb. Nor was it likely - when breaking through the siege on Jerusalem in those days so long ago - that they could ever conceive of sitting around and discussing how to get financing from a bank for a special project. But all this is a sign, like the men's bent backs and hearing aids, that times have changed.

It was not a regular day in the lives of those veterans. At 10 A.M., the 14 members of the presidium of the Haganah organization gathered to greet their new president. The youngsters among them are now octogenarians, and some are in their 90s, but their spirits were high. The new head of the group is Israel's fifth president, Yitzhak Navon, who was received with due honor.

Even before he appeared, those present were debating whether to raise a glass in his honor, for agreeing to take the position upon himself, or in celebration of the secular new year, or perhaps in anticipation of the upcoming 90th anniversary of the organization. The debate was short as the men, with their thinning hair and intense gazes, decided that all three were good enough reasons to make a toast.

In June the Haganah veterans' group will celebrate the big anniversary, and this has provoked a bustle and excitement that has not been seen for years among these men, if at all. One morning not long ago, the chairman, Colonel (res.) Zvika Levanon, decided it was time to set up an army of volunteers to help him launch what they hope will be the "Year of the Haganah" this year. They have set up teams to deal with different aspects of the celebration and have held meetings with the commander of the army's Manpower Division and the chief education officer. Which was why two fresh young reporters from the army magazine Bamahaneh were writing down what Navon was saying at the recent gathering. His words also generated a sense of excitement.

"Without the Haganah, the Israel Defense Forces would not have been established," Navon declared at the outset.

"The Haganah is the IDF," one of the veterans shouted out. "In May 1948, its name was changed to the IDF."

"The badge of the officers' course is the symbol of the Haganah, too," said another proudly.

A third added immediately: "And it's part of the IDF's badge."

Navon looked around and then said quietly: "People who were not in the Haganah also joined the IDF." Everyone fell silent.

Levanon updated the group on the ideas and efforts that have been made so far for the year of festivities - about youth counselors that have received guidance in educating the younger generation; different educational events that are being planned; and the reunion of the graduates of the Haganah officers' courses at Juara that is taking shape. He added with sadness in his eyes that of the 1,300 graduates, there are only 750 alive now.

Also being planned is the reconstruction of four of the "Stockade and Tower" settlements that were set up overnight - but this time the building will apparently be done with the assistance of Bank Leumi.

Levanon reported that Haganah monuments are being taken care of, and youth movements and the army will publish bulletins, and there will be media coverage when the time comes (all eyes were on the two army reporters). The TV anchors London and Kirschenbaum needed to be spoken to still, he said. ("They can call me," suggested Navon, who added with a smile that his number is available from information, and "in my old age, I am still living, despite everything, on Jabotinsky Street".)

The only unresolved issue, Levanon reported, to the dissatisfaction of those present, was whether a Haganah vet will participate in the lighting of a torch on Independence Day.

After the meeting, some more white-haired veterans - men and women - joined the group downstairs for salmon-and-cream-cheese sandwiches. Quick introductions of Navon were made before he had to rush off. All those present told him they had joined the organization at the age of 14, except for one who was 16.

The men present all had a proud military past and the women were all women of valor. No one sings the organization's anthem or uses a secret handshake any more, but the message is clear: The Haganah is alive and well, and is planning a comeback with the advent of the new decade.