For the past seventeen years I have visited Kibbutz Kfar Giladi in the far north of Israel and was never once told the fascinating history of the area. What a revelation it turned out to be. It was here that the Hashomer organisation was started by 12 young idealists from Eastern Europe. They arrived in Ottoman Palestine in 1907 with the aim of working the land and setting up a group to protect Jewish settlements from their hostile Arab neighbours. Hashomer laid down strict rules for new members. They had to undergo a one year trial period to demonstrate their commitment and bravery, show their competence in handling weapons and working on the farm and in addition prove that they were capable of keeping secrets. The latter was absolutely vital during the Ottoman period since Hashomer’s activities were clandestine. Not everyone was accepted. David Ben Gurion applied to join. He went off on horseback one afternoon. The horse returned without him. Others went out to look for him, worried that he might be in trouble. They found him sitting under a tree reading. He was refused admittance on the grounds of ‘irresponsibility’. Once the newcomer was accepted, an initiation ceremony was held in a cave at Sejera. Allegiance was sworn over a Bible and a revolver. This ceremony as well as other Hashomer traditions were adopted by the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) and continues until today. The need for secrecy led to the establishment of hidden arms caches (SLIKS) throughout the country. I had never heard of them so when my guide, Torah, offered to show me one I could not refuse. We entered what resembled an old tool store. In the centre was a large wheat hopper surrounded by sacks of grain and various farm implements.
She moved towards the hopper holding a massive spanner, turned something gently and, like magic, this three ton piece of engineering moved silently to one side revealing a hole in the floor less than a metre square. It was like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie. I was invited to climb down a steep vertical ladder into a black hole. Apprehensively, I made my way carefully not knowing what might await me.
The entrance to the slik.
At the bottom I was blown away – perhaps the wrong phrase considering that I was now in an ammunition store. Around me were shelves stocked with hundreds of boxes of bullets, rifles, machine guns and other weapons dating back many years, all perfectly maintained should they be needed again. This slik, established during the Ottoman period, was operating during the time of the British Mandate when many of these weapons were ‘borrowed’ from His Majesty’s Government.
An engineer was brought over from Pinsk to design and build the equipment. He constructed it in another location but was completely unaware as to where it would eventually be installed. When finished, it was taken in secret to Kfar Giladi by members of Hashomer. It is believed that Kfar Giladi has over 20 sliks, but the whereabouts of each was known only to one or two people. Even today nobody is sure where they are. Hashomer members never divulged the secret even to their closest family. When the wife of one kibbutzik became suspicious about her husband’s nightly wanderings, she was sure he was having an affair with a neighbour’s wife and insisted on a divorce. Despite this he never revealed the truth. Torah reached up and took a small package from a shelf. It contained a tiny pearl-handled pistol. The story was that, many years ago, some Arabs arrived at the kibbutz water well intent on causing trouble. Yehudit Hurvitz, the young wife of one of the original founders, was on guard. As they approached, she stood firmly, raised her gun, demanding that they leave. For centuries of Moslem rule no Jew had ever pointed a weapon at an Arab. Much to her – and everyone else’s surprise, they turned and left. Some days later the kibbutz had an unexpected visitor. It was the Mukhtar from the local village together with a few of his tribesmen. He had come, he said, to meet the woman who had confronted his men a few days earlier. On greeting Yehudit he presented her with a package. Inside was the pearl-handled pistol Torah had shown me. He said he wanted to meet Yehudit as she had shown such bravery and he gave her the gun in honour of her unique courage. On receiving it she vowed never to leave Kfar Giladi, a promise she kept all her life. No one on the Kibbutz knew of the existence of this cache until 1996. Torah’s father revealed the secret shortly before he died. Tourists can now visit the slik, a powerful reminder of a heroic and dramatic period of history.