Self-defense apart, the first concern of the
or “guards” was to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the small towns from which they came and that, to them, stood for everything that was base, cowardly, and weak. Accordingly they modeled themselves on the Circessians, who enjoyed a reputation for bravery and whose place, after all, they sought to take. They grew mustaches and put on Arabic dress including
(a curved hunting knife with grooves to take the blood), and a bullet-studded bandoleer. Some also set out to acquire at least a smattering of Arabic language and culture—including the establishment in many settlements of a
(guest room) where visiting Arabs would be served coffee and engaged in long, leisurely, conversations.
Precisely because they represented a vital part of the Guards’ attempt to create a new self-image, these affectations were by no means universally welcomed by the established Jewish population. To them, the attempt to replace a crowd of real Arabs with their Jewish imitators seemed either reprehensible or ludicrous.
Partly by persuasion, partly by less reputable methods such as mounting raids and thus displaying the inadequacy of the existing security arrangements, Ha-shomer was able to take over guard duties in a considerable number of Jewish settlements. As is apt to happen in such situations, it was by no means always entirely clear whether the sums they received (usually very paltry, but often combined with room and board) represented wages or protection money; on at least one occasion they even threatened to kill some farmers who would not take them on.
Riding horses and carrying rifles, pistols, sabers, and sometimes merely sticks, the
engaged in occasional skirmishes—brawls might be a better term—with Arab intruders, horse thieves, and the like. From time to time there were casualties on both sides. However, the
understood that the objective of Arab “warfare” during those years was booty rather than blood. Hence overall violence was held within bounds and the matter was usually settled by holding a
or “reconciliation ceremony.”
A highly secretive, elitist organization—it held its initiation rites in dark caves lighted by candles
—at peak Ha-shomer itself numbered approximately a hundred members. Its hard core, some ten or twelve in number, originated in Chankin’s own hometown, Gomel, and were related to each other by blood or marriage. However, it did not admit “ordinary” people—including, as it happened, a black-haired, stocky, recent immigrant by the name of David Gruen (later David Ben Gurion), who apparently refused to swear unconditional allegiance to the organization and its leaders.
Ha-shomer was by no means sufficient to mount guard over the Jewish agricultural settlements that, though small and comparatively few in number, were already coming to be scattered all over the country. Accordingly, the nucleus of true
was supplemented by several hundred others who were not members but whom the organization, acting as a contractor, hired and put to work. Funding came from the various Jewish land-acquisition companies that, through their agents, advanced money for purchasing arms. For example, a rifle cost 120 French francs and a horse 400; a major item of expenditure consisted of an insurance fund of 7,000 francs, which was meant to cover any claims for compensation that might arise from the Guards failing in their duty. Conversely, the farmers who hired the organization’s services undertook to pay it 40-120 francs a month for each Guard (payment varying on whether or not he was mounted). In addition, one
(a small Turkish coin) was owed in case the farmer himself proved negligent by leaving gates open and the like.
The organization’s name notwithstanding, even at this early stage the line separating defense from offense proved difficult to maintain. In addition to its declared task of guarding the settlements, Ha-shomer provided escorts for men and women traveling from one place to another. Chasing away intruders and recovering stolen property such as horses, mules, and livestock easily translated into hot pursuit, ambushes, and the like.
It also translated into vendettas (
in Arabic) with neighboring clans, who sought to avenge their members who had been wounded or killed by the
(Jews). Gaining confidence—also as a result of self-designed training exercises—the organization’s members sometimes initiated punitive expeditions or simply raids in order to acquire arms from their enemies. They also helped settlers clear newly acquired or disputed plots, an operation that then and later was known under the grandiloquent name of “conquering [i.e., settling] the land.”
A typical “conquest” took place in the summer of 1909 at Kfar Tabor near the mountain of that name.
Twenty-five Ha-shomer members—a huge force for those days—were concentrated together with arms, plows (for opening the land and thus marking it), and draft mules. A morning parade was held and those present took an oath to conquer or die; equally important, a field kitchen was improvised and staffed by the men’s sisters, girlfriends, and wives. In fact, a handful of women had been members of Ha-shomer from the beginning; others were brought in as dependents of individual
. In both capacities they took their share of the primitive life, not seldom at the cost of considerable physical hardship that in turn led to miscarriages. Nevertheless, they were almost entirely confined to auxiliary tasks such as cooking, doing the laundry, nursing (and, in the person of Shochet’s wife, Manya, bookkeeping), a situation about which they not infrequently complained.
Arriving on the spot, the Guards followed their preprepared plans and divided into two groups. While the one plowed, the other engaged in a rock-throwing exchange with some members of the local Zbich clan and, displaying their weapons, drove them off. Next the two groups reunited and sat down to a picnic that, to judge by the loving detail in which it is described, was by no means the least important part of the proceedings. The Arabs watched from a safe distance. Later they returned, claiming and, in the end, obtaining
pecuniary compensation for land on which they had been living for centuries but that, having been sold beneath their feet, they could no longer defend. Throughout the operation, which from beginning to end lasted six days, not a Turkish soldier or policeman appears to have presented himself.
Not all “conquest” operations were so cozy or ended without bloodshed. In February 1911 another group of Ha-shomer members sought to establish themselves in a place named Merchavia in the Valley of Esdraelon. Ten thousand
(ten square kilometers) of land having been purchased by Chankin in his capacity as a JCA agent, a force of twenty Guards set out. The head of the local Sulam clan tried to make them pay protection money; failing this, harassment began, and the next three months witnessed a number of skirmishes. After an incident in which two Arabs died and a Guard’s horse was wounded, their fellow clansmen (“hundreds” of them, if the Jewish participants’ memoirs may be trusted) assembled and mounted an attack. Conducted mainly with old-fashioned rifles and accompanied by much shouting, demonstrations of horsemanship, and the like, the “battle” lasted for six hours; at that point Turkish policemen arrived from Nazareth, rescued the Jews by arresting them, and left the Arabs to plunder what remained of the settlement. An investigation was launched and, after more than a year, led to the release of the
and the reestablishment of Merchavia. According to an anonymous quote in the official Hagana history,
supposedly the episode “proved to the Arabs that Jews could not simply be robbed; people spoke admiringly of the Jew who heroically resisted a whole bunch of robbers.”
Originally based in the north of the country, Ha-shomer gradually spread to the rest as well, reaching as far as Gedera some thirty-five miles south of Tel Aviv. However, in the absence of a developed infrastructure of roads and telecommunications the distances between one settlement and another seemed enormous. This in turn made the construction of a centralized command structure impossible. Instead the organization acted as a sort of clearinghouse for Guards including those engaged in day-to-day duties and those who were occasionally assembled for larger operations. It provided both members and nonmembers with arms, appointed them to the places where they were needed, and switched them from one settlement to another as needed. It also looked after financial affairs including, by this time, a mutual sickness fund that covered the expenses of the many who were wounded in action. By 1914 its assets, most of them in the form of horses and weapons, stood at 17,000 francs; its debts to the JCA and to private individuals amounted to 27,000 francs. Then as now, obtaining economic self-sufficiency was not exactly the strongest point of the Jewish community (
Though no figures are available, by 1912-1913 Ha-shomer seems to have gone a considerable way toward its goal of replacing the Circessian Guards with Jewish ones in many of the settlements. The original hunting arms had been replaced by pistols and bolt-action rifles, some of them purchased legally from merchants in Haifa, Beirut, and Damascus and others stolen from the Ottoman army. Most were old and could only take a single bullet in the breech; a few, however, were magazine-loaded and, regarded as a great innovation, much feared by the Arabs who called them
(father of five).
Then as later the greatest advantage that the organization possessed was the members’ education and the ties that they maintained with their former homeland. This even enabled them to obtain and put into operation a machine for filling spent cartridges with gunpowder, something entirely beyond the capacity of their Arab opponents. In 1912 these achievements apparently made Shochet feel confident enough to present the Jewish Agency with a proposal for creating a countrywide defense organization for the entire Jewish community. Its core was to be formed by an unspecified number of “regulars” provided by Ha-shomer; around them would cluster a much larger number of part-time “reservists,” that is, workers and farmers who would receive training, acquire or be provided with arms, and be available in the emergency.
Given the technical obstacles, particularly the near-total lack of telecommunications, the proposal was premature.
In December 1914 a new military governor, Jamal Pasha, had arrived in Jaffa, where he doubled as commander in chief of the 4th Ottoman Army. As it happened, this was not his first encounter with the energetic Jews from Erets Yisrael, some of whom, including, besides Yisrael Shochet and Yitschak Ben Tsvi, David Ben Gurion, had been studying law in Constantinople during 1912-1913. When the Balkan wars broke out a number of them tried to volunteer for the Ottoman army, the idea being to prove their loyalty to the empire as a way of obtaining greater autonomy for the Jewish community. Understandably in view of the fact that Russia was supporting Turkey’s enemies, the idea was not well received. It fell to Jamal, a leading “Young Turk” who at that time was serving as the town’s military governor, to have them arrested on suspicion of being Russian spies. Their comrades complained to the Russian ambassador, who quickly obtained their release; however, suspicion remained.
At the outbreak of World War I, the capitulations system, under which the citizen of foreign powers living in Palestine enjoyed certain privileges and immunities, had been abolished. This enabled Jamal to proclaim martial law and apply it to the entire population, regardless of which passports they held. He also prohibited all associations, political movements, newspapers, flags, as well as the parades to which the Guards, riding their horses in their exotic dress and firing into the air in the Arab fashion, were much addicted.
His attitude to the Jewish community was governed by the fact that many of its members were Russian citizens and thus enemy aliens, as indeed were many of its leaders. Specifically, Ha-shomer was suspected of engaging in pro-British activities.
In fact opinions within the organization, as within the Jewish community as a whole, were divided. Some
, notably Ben Tsvi with his excellent Arabic and genuine admiration for Arab culture, saw the war as an opportunity to prove their loyalty to the Ottoman empire; as in 1912-1913, they proposed to take out Ottoman citizenship and create an “Ottoman Legion” that would fight in its ranks. Others, to the contrary, thought the time had come to rid the country from a hopelessly backward, corrupt, and rapacious government—including not least the impositions of Jamal himself.
In the spring of 1916 Shochet and a few of his comrades-in-arms even hatched a fantastic plot to capture Jerusalem and deliver it to the British as an Easter present.
Overcome by gratitude, the latter, it was hoped, would help the Jews realize their own nascent national aspirations.
In any event these plans came to naught. American and even German protests to the contrary, Jamal set out to banish as many Russian immigrants as he could lay hands on; some 7,500 of them, mostly young ones, eventually reached Egypt. An order to surrender all arms went out and was, of course, disobeyed; Ha-shomer, however, was forced underground. All three of its leaders were deported, along with a considerable number of their followers. Some of the deportees got as far as eastern Turkey, from where they moved into the Caucasus and on to Russia; a few died under the harsh conditions.