Monday, August 15, 2011

A Summer Lesson about Mesirut Nefesh: A Visit to the Ayalon Institute

The Place: Pre-State Palestine
The Time: Mid 1940's
The Problem: With Arabs attacking Jews relentlessly and the British preventing Jews from procuring weapons, ammunition supplies presented a serious problem. Where would Jews get bullets to shoot to protect themselves from attack and fight the inevitable war?
The Solution: Build an underground factory right under the noses of the British authorities, in which dedicated people work in total secret to produce millions of bullets crucial for the initial stages of the War of Independence.

I'm on vacation for a couple of weeks, and today we visited the Ayalon Institute, a very small museum on the outskirts of Rechovot, which takes you into the underground factory that the Haganah built in order to produce bullets in total secrecy. For a full description you can see here, or just Google the Ayalon Institute.

First of all, it's powerful to experience history first-hand. They still have the original machinery (much of it still works), and you get a sense of the tight working conditions, and how hard they worked to keep the factory secret even from many of the people living above the factory in the working kibbutz. It's also a pretty short tour - about an hour and a half - that goes by really quickly. It's really something that an entire family can (and should) do.
Mostly though, I was taken by two aspects of the visit: Firstly, I'm in awe of the self-sacrifice of the young people who worked, day in and day out, in that factory. They lived under constant threat of discovery - and if so - execution at the hands of the British. And yet, they volunteered to work in the heat, noise and danger because they knew just how important their work was. We don't live in such desperate times, thank God, but we also seem to lack that same sense of self-sacrifice and dedication to the klal.

The visit also reminded me that as much as things change, they remain the same. The tour began with our excellent guide asking us, "Imagine that someone was punching you in the face, but the person charged with protecting you wouldn't let you fight back or defend yourself." That was the situation of the Jewish community in Pre-State Palestine, forcing them to work as they did in secret.
But it's also still true today. The world still deems it necessary to tell us how we're supposed to defend ourselves, and what is and is not legitimate to protect our citizens. We still hear about how Israel is guilty of "disproportionate response", as if we don't have the right to decide the best way to protect ourselves.
Thank God, today we've learned to listen less and do what we think is right. But it's always good to remember that not that long ago, the world not only told us how to behave, but took steps to prevent us from taking the necessary measures to defend ourselves. We made the bullets we needed, but we did it in secret, under their very noses. (Take the tour. It's fascinating).
We still act in secret, without the knowledge or assent of the powers that be when necessary. The people of Israel learned the hard way that the world wouldn't come to our defense and protection, and if we felt endangered, it would be up to us to take action. We did back then, and thankfully, when we have to we continue to do so to this very day.