My grandmother was alone in the house. Not really alone, her two small babies were there and the accountant that would be useless in a fight was there too. Her husband (first husband, not my grandfather) Haim Natanzon was away guarding the territory they had been assigned to protect. She didn’t know how far away he was. She did know that he had taken their only horse and the only gun they had.
It was before the re-establishment of the State of Israel, when the land was called Palestine. My grandmother and her husband belonged to an organization called the “Shomer”, the Watchman, founded in 1909.
The organization was responsible for guarding Jewish settlements, freeing Jewish communities from dependence on foreign consulates and Arab watchmen for their security. My grandmother had been given a house to live in on a piece of land bought by the Jewish National Fund (near Netanya). Their task was to guard the land, to be present and ensure that Bedouin did not come and settle on the land intended for Jewish settlement.
That day was the test.
Alone, she saw to her horror, a Bedouin tribe, moving on to the land. What was she supposed to do?! If she hid in the house, by the time her husband came back, it would be too late. The Bedouin would claim that the land had been empty and they had the right to be there. Or they would claim that they had always been there. If she confronted them, with no weapon and two babies in the house, they could very easily kill her and take the land anyway.
Not on her watch.
She told the accountant to watch the babies, grabbed a box of matches and stormed out of the house.
They paused in shock to see a woman, alone, with fire in her eyes, fly at them. Standing in their midst, she held up the matches and announced: “This is MY land. If you don’t leave NOW, I will burn down your tents.”
Not wanting to lose all of their worldly possessions, they began folding up the encampment. Why didn’t they just kill her? They could have but they did not. They believed her. The land was not empty. It had been claimed by a Jew. It was very clear who belonged and who did not.
As a conciliatory gesture, my grandmother gave them permission to settle on the land bordering hers. Access to water was from her territory and could be done with her consent.
Since that moment they lived side by side, in peace. No violence was necessary, a steadfast Jewish presence was enough.
Today we are approaching the 70th Independence Day of the State of Israel. We have our own government, clear laws, police, military and courts of law. Israel is a high-tech superpower and, in many ways, a military superpower and yet, we are facing some of the same issues that the Jewish community faced pre-re-establishment.
The politically correct call it “agricultural crime”. Israel’s farmers, especially herders, ranchers are under attack. Marauders steal their equipment and their animals. They sometimes demand “protection money” and when it is not paid farmers find themselves beaten, livestock slaughtered, their barns and fields burned.
The police and court system are incapable or unwilling to put an end to these problems. They are unwilling to admit that these crimes are really agricultural terrorism. Often the damage goes beyond stealing for financial gain, it is to instill fear, to break the will of the farmers, to make them leave. The victims are (almost always) Jews and the perpetrators Arabs, Israeli citizens – Arabs living in villages near the farmers in Israel’s north, in the south Bedouin.
When Jewish farmers abandon their land because they can no longer keep up the fight for it, the land does not remain empty. The perpetrators move in and claim the land as their own.
The goal is to remove Jews from the land.
Obviously, this is illegal but the State does not have the tools or willpower to deal with the problem.
When Haim Zilberman told his family that they were bankrupt and had to give up the family holding his son Yoel decided that he would not let this happen.
At first, Yoel thought he could do it on his own. He knew that the Shomer had guarded and protected the land for the Jewish communities before the State had been re-established. It had been done before, it could be done again.
It quickly became clear that he could not do it alone – but he didn’t have to. Friends and neighbors began showing up, volunteering to help. They announced with their presence: “I am my brother’s keeper. When my brother needs me, I will be there!”
That is how the Shomer Hachadash, the New Shomer, was born.
When the government is not capable of fixing problems, the people of Israel are.
This is the spirit of Israel, what founded the country and made her great. This is what Zionism looks like – individuals, banded together, to protect their brothers and sisters, to hold and defend the land that is theirs. This is a love story between a people and their land, a land and her people.
In any love story, it is necessary to be present. To live and breathe together, to touch and be one. This is true of Israel and her people as well.
The Shomer Hachadash began as a way to defend individual farmers and ranchers. It is swiftly becoming a movement for the return to our roots. Israelis feel called to volunteer to help guard farmers and ranchers. Young Israelis feel drawn to the leadership programs the New Shomer has developed.
There is something about touching the land, working the land, sweating and teaching others what they can achieve if they too remember their land, that awakens the heart of our people.
And this is just the beginning.
This is a love story, between a people and their land, between a land and her people. As long as we declare: “I am my brother’s keeper!” NOTHING has the power to rip us apart.