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1.Settling in

During the negotiation involving Yizreel Valley’s land purchase, Yehoshua Hankin applied to “Hashomer Hatzair” organization’s committee and asked them to assemble a group of people who will live in Fulla Hill for a year, work its fields and watch over the property (it was an unusual offer since up to that time the “Hashomer” occupation’s was merely safeguarding grounds and its members wandered with their families from place to place according guarding duties). This proposal was discussed in the organizations’ meeting and Hankin convinced the members to accept the offer and get ready to carry it out. The guards, originally emigrants from east Europe, were supplied with official documents testifying they are natives and Turkish citizens from birth, and the whole project was confirmed by the regional committee in Tiberias (who were generously bribed…)

A picture of the guards
Slutzki and Katzenstein

In 11.11.1910, Hankin came to Fulla Hill accompanied by “Hashomer” members, in order to obtain actual ownership of the ground. The Arab tenant farmers aggressively confronted them even though they were requested in advance to evacuate the property and received recompense as well as additional payment for straw they stored in the crusader fortress cellars. The tenants tried to attack Hankin and only the presence of the three armed guards, who spoke Arabic and were familiar with their customs, prevented them from doing so. Eventually the Arabs left the place but some of them moved to, the adjacent village, Sulam, and constantly persuaded its inhabitants to harass the Cooperation members.

2. Cultivating the land

A few months later the first settlers arrived. They were 25 pioneers from Poland, formerly trained in an agricultural farm in Germany. Professor Frantz Oppenheimer (who instigated the Cooperation project) appointed agronomist Shlomo Dikke to be in charge. The settlers immediately set to work on the extremely hard ground, which was not ploughed for many years. The area was mostly filled with prickly deep-rooted bushes, thorns and thistles (the workers often returned home with faces swollen from bites of bees and hornets whose nests they destroyed). A big swamp lay west of the site, containing Malaria mosquitoes.

Tel Fula’s advantage was the great manure pile that had accumulated there for hundreds of years: the settlers loaded wagons with it and dispersed it over fields, fertilizing and enriching the soil. The Turkish authorities tried to interfere, with the excuse that the ploughing may damage the archeological site. Consequently, as Turkish clerks occasionally turned up and forbade people to continue working, the settlers appointed guards to warn them when a Turkish delegation approached. Upon the arrival of such visitors,” illegal” labor would stop, and resume only upon their departure.

The road to Fula, with the workers and the guards

In 1913,Shlomo Dikke bought new choice cows in Lebanon, thus increasing the local cattle’s milk production. A new dairy was built, the biggest one in Israel at that time. To improve milk selling, the pioneers contacted the German Colony in Haifa and the German settlers (descendants of the Templars who came to Israel in the 19th century) in order to establish a united milk marketing association in Haifa, despite local cattle diseases that resulted in milk production instability. As the dairy farm began to recover from the ailments, a Turkish vet came along and ordered the extermination of 25 cows and heifers that, according to his inspection, “did not recuperate yet”. When the settlers paid him a large sum of money, the “plague” immediately came to an end…

The German “seeds cycle” system was introduced that year for the first time in Israel, as well as agricultural machines, which saved a lot of handwork. The chicken coop grew and the eggs collected improved the quality of the Cooperation inhabitants’ meager food.

The settlers planted a big vegetable garden, but the birds regularly ate whatever grew there. Scarecrows and nets did not help until the farmers found the solution: they sprinkled food remains and breadcrumbs in the garden’s corners, the birds simply “changed diet” and the vegetables were finally left alone. The Cooperation’s crop, however, was severely damaged by mice, which devoured the majority of it. The farmers used poisoned seeds and other techniques but masses of new mice flowed in from adjacent fields, which did not belong to the Cooperation. The year of 1915 brought further trouble: a terrible locust plague. Flying locusts arrived first and the farmers attempted to drive them away by intensive tin can drumming, shouts and other noises. But dark clouds of locusts continually hid the sun as millions of them covered the land, consuming the crops and laying eggs in the soil. When these eggs hatched, a vast quantity of maggots swarmed the ground, penetrating every corner and eating all. Still worse, the maggots became locusts that hopped in every direction. They finally flew away only when their wings grew. Undeterred, the settlers continued laboring despite all these natural catastrophes, planting olive and fruit trees east of the living quarters.

The Arab hut where Deeck the agronomist (on the right side) lived in the cooperation's early days

Some time after the farmers settled in the Cooperation, three families from Glasgow unexpectedly visited them. It was a group of 15 men, women and children who wanted to build a community of craftsmen in the vicinity of the Cooperation. They planned to sell their merchandise to the cooperation members and receive agricultural products in return. Since there was insufficient amount of houses for all the families, they were housed near the ruined gristmill, close to the well. In due course, the foreigners bought land in close proximity to the Cooperation and founded a settlement that became later Moshav Merchavia The years 1916 –1917 were prosperous: the crops were abundant and the threshing machine continually worked, smoking and making thundering noises. But World War I began and the Turkish authorities, realizing Merchavia was flourishing, arrived – policemen, soldiers and officers – and confiscated the harvest for the benefit of the Turkish army, the minute it was out of the threshing machine. Gershon Gafner outsmarted them by “damaging” the threshing machine, and reaped crops were covertly sent to nearby settlements to be threshed there.

All in all, Merchavia was a large-scale agricultural experiment as well as a means of introducing European farming methods and newly imported German agricultural machinery. In irrigated and rain watered fields as well as orchards and vineyards, in the dairy, chicken coop and sheep shed, vegetable garden and beehive, in all these a great deal of vital experience was acquired through hard labor. This knowledge was valuable for all settlements in Yizreel Valley and beyond it, long after the Cooperation ceased to exist.

The Rabbi Avraham Yizhak Hacohen Cook

3.The Rabbis visit to Merchavia

In the winter of 1913, a distinguished delegation arrived in Merchavia, led by Rabbi Abraham Yitzhak Hacohen Cook and several other Rabbis who were dominant figures in Israel’s religious life. Rabbi Cook endeavored to bridge the gap between orthodox and non-religious Jews (who mostly came in The Second Aliyah). Arab rioters usually attacked on Friday eve, assuming the guards were not on duty. Therefore it was essential to increase guarding specifically on that day, carefully getting ready for the nocturnal assailants. This action prompted a rumor that Merchavia’s inhabitants did not keep the Sabbath, to irritate orthodox Jews. The Rabbi delegation set out to check this hearsay, consequently visiting Merchavia along with other settlements in the Lower Galilee and the northern coastline.

When the Rabbis arrived at the railway station, they were courteously driven to Merchavia by a wagon while Cooperation manager Shlomo Dikke hastily placed mezuzahs in all the houses. The delegation was warmly welcomed and given the opportunity to discuss their concerns with the settlers. But that evening, news of the terrible murder of Moshe Berski and Josef Zaltzman (who was a Cooperation member) from ambush near the Kinneret, reached the community. This event had a great impact on the Rabbis who witnessed the people’s grief and realized the terribly dangerous life led by the pioneers. Memoirs of that expedition recount how the Rabbis Zonenfeld and Cook, profoundly moved by the funeral, delivered touching eulogies during the member meeting that evening, making an unforgettable impression on everyone present. Eventually, despite intensive arguments among the settlers (there were 50 young men and 10 young women in the Cooperation at the time, but only 15 of them fasted on Yom Kippur and were ridiculed by the others), Dikke decided to set aside ten per cent of the crop, as Jewish religion requires. He was also determined to render the kitchen kosher and build a mikveh if the Rabbis will raise the money required, and they agreed immediately. Rabbi Cook declared that since guarding the settlement is a matter of life and death, the pioneers’ obligation to defend themselves correlates with the Jewish law of “saving a life” (“Pikuach Nefesh”), although there were other Rabbis who refrained from expressing their own views. Ever since then, until the Cooperation ceased to exist, Rabbi Cook maintained the relationship with the settlers who greatly respected him. According to one writer from that time, when Cook returned to Jerusalem, he said: “ My visit to Merchavia and the Galilee settlements enabled me to understand the phrase “ The mitzvah of settling in Israel is supreme to all other mitzvahs in the Torah”.

A pilot from the Bavarian Squadron 304 with his airplane.

4. The guards

The first man was killed in 13.2.1911: Ezekiel Nisanov who emigrated from Caucasia and was renown for his courage and good nature, went with Nathan Bergman by wagon to the settlement Yavneel.They were suddenly attacked by robbers who blocked the road, engaging the pioneers in a shooting battle. One bullet penetrated Nisanov’s head and though Bergman drove the wagon as fast as possible, he was already dead when they arrived in Yavneel.

In 26.4.1911, twelve Arab horsemen confronted the guard Yig’al, closing in on him in three groups: the first let him pass but blocked him from behind, the second blocked the road in front of him and the third commanded him to dismount and hand over in his weapon. Yig’al pretended to surrender but instead drew his gun and shot the horse that blocked the way, knocking down his rider and managing to escape. The Arabs summoned hundreds of armed people from all neighboring villages and stormed the Hill, shooting and howling. Terrifying though they were, the nocturnal attackers failed to break through the ring formed by the Hill’s few guards. The Turkish Kaimakam arrived from Nazareth in the morning. He hated the pioneers, so instead of driving the Arabs away, he confiscated all the weapons found and arrested three of the guards. Then the mob raided the houses, robbing and stealing all possessions uninterrupted. At the same time, neighboring villagers ransacked the fields, reaped part of the crops, loaded their donkeys and camels with it and took it home. This outrageous plundering and looting stopped only upon the arrival of Turkish policemen from Haifa. Four other members were later summoned for questioning and were immediately arrested by the chief interrogator as they reached Nazareth. Thus, seven leading members were missing from the community and a great deal of the property was lost. After an extensive negotiation the detainees were released, but Yig’al was forced to leave and was forbidden to set foot Merchavia again.

Meir Hazanovitz was the second guard killed, in 1913. He lived with his pregnant girlfriend, Sonia, but their son never got to see his father. All Merchavia’s chronicle writers praise his courage. Merchavia’s cemetery, overlooking the valley, contains the graves of many pioneers who died young from various diseases, but some graves bear the inscription “ Died while guarding the fields of Merchavia on the night of…” Hazanovitz’s grave is among them, and a felled oak as well as the inscription “ Judea fell in blood and fire, Judea will rise again in blood and fire” (the “Hashomer” motto) decorates his tombstone.

I n 1916 the “ Israel office” bought the land where Tel Adashim stands today, and ”Hashomer” members moved there in order to build their own settlement. Nonetheless, they kept visiting in order to keep learning and continued their close relationship with the “elder sister”, Merchavia. The Cooperation members replaced them in the guarding duties, having been trained by “Hashomer” men. That year, the first Cooperation guarding member, Hanan Reznick, was killed from ambush.

5. Women, children and families in Merchavia

Life in the Cooperation was hard, but it was even harder on the young women. Physical work was demanding to begin with, but their determination to equal the men in everything required them to undertake the most challenging chores. Hygienic conditions were dreadfully primitive: the living quarters were mud huts roofed by straw mats, freezing in winter and scalding in summer. Rats, fleas and bedbugs swarmed the place; showers were a luxury and hot water a rare treat. Food was scarce and the doctor was far-off. Beside this daily hardship there was the ever-present terror of Arab attacks, shooting from ambush, robbery, theft and pillaging as well as a general uncertainty as to the community’s future, economically in particular. This state of affairs proved difficult for the women who mostly came from well-off or even wealthy European families. Furthermore, the Cooperation consisted of many men and a few women who lived together with no privacy whatsoever, so that even the most intimate relationships were common knowledge. But the women’s dedication to the pioneer’s Zionist ideal of settling in Israel did not diminish – on the contrary, it was often they who encouraged the men, gave personal example and became the group’s social unifying center.

The diseases that plagued the community created a difficult problem. Malaria was the main illness they suffered, brought in by the Anopheles mosquitoes who swarmed the adjacent swamp and harassed people so badly that the neighboring Arabs’ expression “ There are no children in Fulla” since all die in young age, was true enough for Merchavia as well. Dysentery was another sickness that attacked due to the polluted water, dreadful hygienic conditions and lack of preventing medication. There were also typhus, Spanish influenza, yellow fever and black- urine malaria, each worse than the other, and the nurses had their hands full. In his book, ”Merchavia”, Cooperation’s secretary Josef Hazanovitz described how in one year, 1918, “The Angel of Death took away eight children…. high fever would burn them in one day before we could find a way to help them”. These events’ traumatic impact on the young families can only be imagined. There were many stories on the intimate relationship that may have existed between the Cooperation women and the German pilots of the Bavarian squadron 304, who camped in the fields of Merchavia in the years 1917-1918. This gossip was not surprising since the pilots were young, talented handsome men who left their families in Germany and came to a foreign land, while the Cooperation women were young too, mostly single, spoke German and longed for some European culture in their strange Middle Eastern country. The parties in Merchavia, held by the Cooperation and the Squadron people were widely renowned, and one can only guess what after-party nocturnal affairs went on later in the barn. But the war was over; the majority of the Germans were held in captivity and later returned home, and apart from some “spicy” anecdotes related by the Valley elders, there was nothing left.

The community’s families faced a critical problem that cast a heavy shadow on life in Merchavia and eventually became one of the chief reasons for the Cooperation’s failure: nobody undertook the task of looking after the children, and they became the women’s responsibility, thus preventing them from working. As a result, the family’s revenue decreased since work wages were the people’s only source of income. The Cooperation’ solution for this dilemma was setting up small vegetable gardens or little chicken coops near the family’s house, so that mothers could work and watch over their offspring simultaneously. Nevertheless, the money earned was insufficient. This situation eventually led to the coexistence of two classes in the Cooperation: the relatively “poor” families and the relatively “ rich” singles, whereas according to common sense it should be the opposite. The Cooperation project did not seriously consider children education or mutual support, therefore the families left the community one by one.

6. The Cooperation’s disintegration

World War I was over and the British armed forces conquered Israel. It was a relief to see the corrupted hostile Turkish administration replaced by British rule, but the Cooperation members were already weary: most of their property was gone during the war, the people were exhausted and weakened from hard labor, diseases and imprisonment by the Turks. Moreover, all members were Turkish citizens since according to law only Turkish citizens could live near the strategic iron railroad track. When the British came along, some members whom the Turks imprisoned as suspects for working as undercover British agents, were released and immediately arrested again because as Turkish citizens they were suspected Turkish spies… and above all, there was the problem of the families departure, including most of the members who were experienced in agriculture and administration.

After long debates and anguished soul searching, the members gathered and decided to select 15 men and 8 women among the youngest and healthiest people who will stay in the place and minimize the farm’s activity until the area is cured malaria and new Cooperation settlers can arrive (they never came). It was sad and mournful day, because at that moment the Cooperation ceased to exist. All the families left after the meeting, as well as some of the older, more experienced members, and each went his way. Several people moved to Nahalal, a new settlement at the time. The small group who stayed in the location left a year later and other small groups came instead, but they, too, did not last for long. Finally, in 1929, a group of “Hashomer Hatzair” members arrived and built Merchavia again as a kibbutz, establishing a large and flourishing settlement that stands until today.

In order to coordinate your visit the Great Courtyard, please call Shlomo Sdeur and inform him of the date and hour you will be coming. Mr. Sdeur’s cell phone number: 052/3638156.