Behind the Headlines Israeli Defense Army Recall Its Beginning
Menu JTA Search

Behind the Headlines Israeli Defense Army Recall Its Beginning

Download PDF for this date

Israelis honored the precursor of their Defense Army this week and to do so they had to travel back in time, far beyond the founding of the State 26 years ago and beyond even the era of Hagana, the defense force of Jewish Palestine during the latter years of the British Mandate. Hagana, which is duly regarded as the embryo of the Israeli army that took shape in. battle in 1948, had its own antecedents in the early years of this century. in a modest organization that called itself “Hashomer” (the Watchman).

The year was 1908 and the place was a small room occupied by a young immigrant from Czarist Russia, Yitzhak Ben Zvi, who would one day be the second President of Israel. Gathered with him in the room was a select group of young men who had volunteered to protect the scattered Jewish colonies, from marauders.

Among them were Yehezkel Hankin, Israel Giladi, Berele Schwiger. Yehezkel Nissanov. Tzvi Becker and Alexander Zeid. The names of most of them and of Hashomer itself have been obscured by the momentous events that. the still young century had in store for the Jews of Palestine. But on that October day, 65 years ago, in the ancient seaport town of Jaffa (the founding of Tel Aviv was still a year off.) the first organized Jewish defense force was established.


Palestine was under Turkish rule. a flabby, decaying regime that provided little protection. Arab hostility was not yet politicized, but murder and banditry were rampant and the isolated Jewish farms were tempting targets. Jewish farmers employed Arab or Druze watchmen. The dedicated Zionists who met in Ben Zvi’s room were convinced that the Jewish foothold in Palestine could be maintain only by its own strength.

They had to convince their fellow Jews to hire them as watchmen. Some farmers feared reprisals from the Arabs displaced from their jobs. But gradually the men of Hashomer took over their duties as guardians–first at Mescha (now Kfar Tabor), then Sedjera (now Ilaniya) in Lower Galilee; and then at the Hashomer’s own settlement in Upper Galilee, now known as Kfar Giladi. They put on their flag the motto “Bedam ve’esh Yehuda Nafla–Bedam ve’esh Yehuda Takum.” (Judaea fell in blood and fire, and in hired and fire it will resurge.)


Only one to the original Hashomer men is alive today. He is Mordechai Yigael. a courageous youngster when he was entrusted with the defense of Merchavia, the first Jewish settlement in the Jezreel Valley. Yigael recalls that he owned a beautiful mare. Arabs had an eye on it and one night as Yigael patrolled the fields on his mount he was ambushed by would-be horse thieves. He resisted, killing one of his attackers.

The traditions of the East forced him to give himself up to the Turkish authorities. He was imprisoned in Nazareth until 1911. He has never forgotten the cruel treatment he received in that prison. During all of the next 63 years he never once sojourned in Nazareth.

This week. during celebrations marking the 65th anniversary of the founding of Hashomer. however, Yigael returned to that Galilean town with other Hashomer veterans and members of their families. They placed a wreath on the old Turkish prison that still stands where he and other Shomrim had suffered imprisonment. Later, at a road junction not far from Sedjera and Mescha. they planted trees in memory of the volunteers of Hashomer, living symbols of the past for Israelis of the present and the future.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund