The Old Young Guard

Reprinted from Jewish Ideas Daily.

One of the most significant movements of Jewish renewal in the 20th century was Hashomer Hatzair: the Young Guard. Founded as a youth group in Vienna in 1916, the movement set itself in opposition to what it regarded as the emaciated character of Jewish life. In place of this, it aimed to restore vitality, community, and optimism to the Jewish people by founding communal settlements (kibbutzim) in the land of Israel. There, life would be reorganized along Marxist-Zionist lines and people would be re-educated to share everything. Against the “idolatrous worship of books” typical of traditional Jewish society, Hashomer Hatzair also called for a return to the simplicity and beauty of nature.

For a time, the kibbutz movement associated with Hashomer Hatzair and other such groups was a wild success, especially among young Jews attracted by the idealism of a collective life on the land. After Hashomer Hatzairthe founding of the state of Israel, the kibbutzim produced a disproportionate number of elite Israeli soldiers and officers. One Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz was Yad Mordechai, established in 1943 about a mile north of the Gaza Strip. It was named after Mordechai Anielewicz, a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and himself a member of the movement. In his final letter from the besieged ghetto, Anielewicz celebrated the revival of the Jews’ martial spirit: “The dream of my life has risen to become fact. . . . I have been a witness to the magnificent, heroic fighting of Jewish men in battle.”

That spirit would be put to the test when Yad Mordechai came under attack by Egyptian forces during Israel’s war of independence. Abandoned in May 1948, the kibbutz was razed by the Egyptians before being retaken by Israeli troops toward the end of the year and later rebuilt from the ground up.

In 1968, a museum was opened at Yad Mordechai to commemorate the lost world of European Jewry, the battle for the kibbutz, and the rebirth of the Jewish state. Since it lies off the beaten path and is now within range of Kassam missiles fired from Gaza, the museum has tended to attract relatively few visitors. But it recently made a bid for greater attention by hiring a prominent designer to bring an Epcot Center-like sensibility to its exhibits. Among the innovations was a technologically sophisticated tribute to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, complete with yellow stars projected onto visitors’ clothing and a reconstruction of the basement bunker housing the command center of the Jewish resistance.

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Aryeh Tepper completed his doctorate in Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in July, 2010. He presently writes for Jewish Ideas Daily.

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