Israel Sites – Degania
Degania Alef (A) and Degania Bet (B) on the Jordan plain, South of Lake Kinneret [Sea of Galilee]. The name Degania – “cornflower” – was given for the Arab designation of the land – Umm Juni.
Degania Alef was founded in 1909 by seven Second Aliyah Halutzim (Halutz), who came from Romny, Russia, on land acquired by the Jewish National Fund. Although the economically successful as a settlement, the group dispersed a year later. In 1911, the place was resettled by a group of pioneers from Russia known as the “Hadera Commune”.
Degania Alef was the first settlement based on communal living and became known as the “Mother of the Kevutzot”. Members of Degania Alef insisted on maintaining the frame of the small kevutzah, as opposed to the bigger collective settlement – the Kibbutz – and therefore, in 1920, with the coming of Third Aliyah pioneers, Degania Bet was founded. In 1932, part of the land was granted for a third collective settlement – Kibbutz Afikim.
During the War of Independence, the Syrian army reached the gates of Degania Alef, but was bravely repulsed. A burnt Syrian tank remains on the site as a memorial. The two Deganias have a combined population of about 1,000. Due to the hot climate and abundance of water, both Deganias are engaged in fully irrigated farming. Degania Bet has also a metal factory.
(C) Reproduced with permssion from “Junior Judaica, Encyclopedia Judaica for Youth” CD-ROM by C.D.I. Systems 1992 (LTD) and Keter.
More – Galilee (Getting Israel Together, 1986)
The first group to be trained in Chavat Kinneret, the Kinneret Farm, left it with the aim of settling a piece of land of their own. They founded Degania, the first kibbutz, in 1910. While these young people farmed the land, they also struggled with the question of their future, personal and national, which for them were inextricably tied up.
These chalutzim (pioneers) faced a dilemma. Although they were still only in their teens, they believed themselves to be the vanguard of the Jewish nation, working to restore a Jewish national life. Whatever the ‘nation’ demanded of them, they would do; wherever the ‘nation’ needed them, they would be. The pioneers took the burden of their people’s whole history on their shoulders. They felt that their task was to correct the faults of the past and iron out the distortions that the exile had caused in the national character of their people.
But how could they translate these soaring ideals into reality? The halutzim of Degania had decisions to make. They had dedicated their lives to the needs of their nation. But what exactly did the nation need most? Should the pioneers stay on the move, taking on one new project after another, breaking new ground at each site and then entrusting the project to others to continue? Was that what the nation demanded of them? Most of them thought so, and envisioned a future of unlimited romanticism, of constantly breaking new ground – both literally and metaphorically.
One boy, at least, stood against his comrades. “No – that’s not what the nation needs of us. That is the easy option,” he said. “Always moving, always seeking new paths – there will always be those who are ready to do that. Our task is to give the people what it lacks more than anything else. And that thing is roots. The Jew has been wandering for too long. It’s time he had a chance to rest. On his own land. In control of his own life.”
This young man was Yosef Bussel. For two years, he argued against his comrades, to persuaded them to stay in one place and to set down roots. He finally convinced them in 1912. The group decided to stay and to live out their lives in Degania. They moved into new houses that had been built by the Zionist movement, and settled down to fashion a life based on their ideals.
Through the daily attempt to live out their ideals in a new framework, the settlers of Degania laid the basis of the new society which came to be known as kibbutz. The kibbutz is a community based on total democracy, where all decisions are made collectively by all members. The early kibbutzim were based on the ideals of equality and self-labor, and reflected the creativity which the chalutzim brought with them.
The founders of Degania, while building a new form of life, put great emphasis on creating proper relationships, suitable for communal living. It was not always easy. In 1918, shortly before his tragic death by drowning in the Kinneret, Yosef Bussel penned a letter to a friend who had recently left the kibbutz. In it, he indicates the struggle among the members to reach a better understanding of one another – something that they considered to be essential for group living:
My dear Gershon, Already two weeks have passed since you left us, and this period with everything that happened in it, has passed very quickly, really without us being aware of it. These two weeks did not pass in a regular fashion.
We had an asepha [communal meeting of all the members] a week ago that continued from Thursday evening till Saturday night, with only small breaks for food and rest. On Sunday again we met for an asepha. Yes, an asepha like we haven’t had for a long time….
The asepha made a very strong impression on all of us, even if it made no concrete differences in our lives. We were trying to find out from each other answers to questions of our relationship to the meaning of life and to our future, to what we believe in. Everyone spoke very intimately and personally, opening themselves up to each other – we heard some very beautiful things indeed.
Nevertheless, on Sunday there was a difficult atmosphere and it was almost impossible to go out and work. About six of us went up to Moshe’s grave and sat and cried as we talked. Hearts poured out what had been stored in them for a long time.
A little before evening, we came back feeling slightly calmer and called again an asepha for everyone and, after a beautiful discussion, we decided to continue our weekly asephot on Shabbat. On Monday, we went out again to work; this time full of energy and enthusiasm.
Whole generations have passed since this letter was written – generations of struggle, for the body and for the spirit. Throughout, the members of Kibbutz Degania have tried to put abstract ideals and principles into practice and to create a new way of life. The Degania of today is more than 70 years old. Some of the children you may see today on the lawns, are the great-great-grandchildren of the founding members.
The Beginnings of Self-Defense
When the young chalutzim of the Second Aliyah came to Israel in the first years of the century, they were determined that Jewish settlements must be guarded by Jews themselves. The image of the Jew as a defenseless individual always dependent on others, which had developed during centuries of life in the Exile, would have to change. From now on, Jewish settlements would no longer be guarded by local Arab horsemen.The Jews would defend themselves.
Thus, in 1908, a group of the newcomers set up the Hashomer (Watchman) Association to guard the settlements. Taking their job in earnest, these shomrim (watchmen) proved, quickly and in no uncertain terms, that the Jew could guard himself.
What a strange group of people the early shomrim were! Photographs show them sitting calmly on horseback, richly decorated in a mixture of styles and looking like a cross between a Cossack and an Arab. Indeed, they perceived themselves as such: a mixture of the Cossack, the fighter that some of them knew from their lives in Russia, and the Arab, whom they saw as the incarnation of what their Jewish forefathers must have looked like thousands of years before.
The watchmen often lived under very hard conditions, moving around from place to place every few months, in accordance with the demands of their jobs. Even for the most dedicated, it was a difficult life. But the shomrim kept going, as they were serving an ideal in which they believed.
The first night I came to guard, I was told that guarding is not a joke, and you must keep all your wits about you if you don’t want to get a bullet in your head and meet sudden death. This was not the most encouraging advice – but it was very much in the practical spirit of Hashomer. And what’s more – it was correct.
Guarding, especially in the Galil, was really no joke, and every slight lack of care could cost you your life. A person needed a lot of spiritual resources in order to become used to the demands of the night-guard. The nights were long, awfully long, full of splendor and beauty but also full of ambushes, and danger from every side. The silence of night became thickened with many different noises of animals, reptiles and insects, the rustle of leaves and grasses, and all of them mixed together forming a strange and threatening harmony.
The twinkling of stars up above, and the glimmering of fox’s eyes down below, and you, alone and lonely. And you have no idea whether behind that looming rock there is not an enemy who has managed to hide, and if the next step won’t be your last. The responsibility you have as a guard for those souls exhausted from their day’s work, sleeping their sleep, confident in your watchfulness, brings down upon you great courage but also great tension.
After a long circuit around the boundary of the settlement, you come with great relief to a secure corner to take a breather, and you feel how good it is to lay against a stone knowing that a bullet cannot reach your back. You think with sadness of home, and the pain you have caused your parents. You see the laces of your loved ones in the night before you. Your thoughts wander to the rooms of your parents’ home, full of warmth and love. How good it was there … and suddenly a noise! You clutch the rifle to your chest, listen hard and peer into the darkness. A small animal scuttles across your path and then, again, silence. Another moment of rest before you ‘sail’ out again on another long and tiring circuit.
Sometimes, I dream of leaving this life, and returning to work the land. But I hear, time and time again, the words of the leader of Hashomer, Israel Giladi, ringing in my ears. ‘(Many will be found to work the land. But only a few to guard. There is too much danger – but what will our work in Israel be worth, a we continue to rely on others to guard us? We have to take responsibility for our own security.” That is what Giladi had told me, and he was right. Our lives and property were at the mercy of others.
After a few years, some of the shomrim decided to establish a settlement for themselves, and groups of the shomrim and people close to them prepared to ‘settle down’ during the last days of the First World War. In 1916, they established Kfar Giladi in the extreme north of the ‘Galil Finger,’ the long narrow projection of land at the north-east corner of the country.
Towards the end of the First World War, it became increasingly clear that the Ottoman Empire would fall. The British and French, who had allied during World War 1 and were two of the great European imperial powers, saw a chance to extend their influence and control over territory which the Ottomans would surely lose. Thus, during the war, the British and the French signed a secret agreement dividing spheres of influence in the Middle East. But when the agreement became a reality at the end of the war, the line dividing the two spheres separated the Galilee Finger from the rest of Eretz Yisrael, leaving it in the French controlled area while the rest of the country was under British rule.
The French, in fact, never gained full control of the Galilee Finger, for the local Arabs began to fight against them. The Arabs accused the Jewish settlements of being in league with the French, despite the settlers’ repeated declarations that they were completely neutral in the struggle. Bands of Arabs began attacking the four Jewish settlements in the area, including Kfar Giladi and Tel Chai, in 1919.