Tuesday, December 6, 2005

The View From Ammunition Hill

28 November 2005

We are standing on a hill overlooking Rehovot. Rehovot 100 years ago was sand dunes. Then and now the northern edge of the Negev. We are looking at a tower topped by an egg-like structure with oval windows; a tall, windowless building shaped like a giant cereal box with gently sloping sides; and a large tent covering a pavilion at the edge of a what appears to be an orchard.

My guide is Amit. A nice young man in his early to mid twenties. Amit says I am looking at the particle accelerator and the “sun building” (a building in which scientists can control the amount of sun light and every other environmental factor to discover what makes stuff grow or not in say a desert – you Cornellians can think Bradfield Hall on viagra). The two buildings are part of the Weitzmann Institute, one of the world’s preeminent high tech research centers. The tent marks the oldest orange orchard in Rehovot (grapes were too much trouble to grow so the local Jewish immigrants switched to oranges).

Amit belongs to an urban kibbutz that works on educational projects. His great-grandmother on his mother’s side came to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel, Palestine to you fans of the British Mandate) in 1899. A good 8 to 10 years before my grandparents came to America. The rest of his grand parents came in the Aliyahs of the ‘20s and ‘30s with the most recent to arrive after WW II. 100 years ago Rehovot was sand dunes and the occasional Bedouin tent. Kibbutzniks began to settle there about 80 years ago.

Behind us is a restoration of Kibbutz Hill, also known by the code name given to it by the TAS division of the Haganah – the Ayalon Institute. TAS was responsible for supplying the Haganah with tools of war and constructing whatever had to be built to create the state. Haganah would eventually morph into the first government and army of Israel. Its political wing is became part of the Labor party and ruled Israel until 1977 (see blog of 29 Nov).

From 1945 through 1948, a group of kids no older than Amit and my daughters manufactured around 2.25 million 9mm bullets in a secret underground factory. The bullets found their way into Sten guns, the standard weapon used by Israel in its War of Independence. Above the factory stand a few single story structures that formed the Kibbutz Hill training facility. Here groups of people would come in the years from the late 20s to 1948 to learn how to be a kibbutz. They were trained in communal living, decision-making, agriculture and basic industrial skills. This particular training center had a dining hall, laundry, bakery, gan (a combination of school and childrens’ living quarters), barracks-like residence hall and a dining hall. All earmarks of a typical kibbutz.

In 1945, Scout Group A came to Kibbutz Hill to transform themselves from a youth group into a kibbutz. Representatives of TAS, a division of the Haganah, asked Scout Group A to postpone the establishment of their own kibbutz and stay on Kibbutz Hill to establish the Ayalon Institute. After the sort of cacophonous meeting that only a group of ardent leftists can hold, they agreed to put off their dreams to build and operate a bullet factory. Oh yeah, the penalty under the British Mandate for the importation or manufacture of weapons was death.

So, under the direction of a few “responsible adults” they excavated the factory space 8 meters underground. The laundry and bakery were used to hide entrances to the ammunition factory. The chimneys for the oven and laundry boiler served as ventilation shafts. To make this even more fun, the kibbutz sold bread and laundry services to local residents including British soldiers stationed in Rehovot.

The members of Ayalon Institute succeeded in keeping the factory a secret, not just from the British but also from newer members of the kibbutz including a spouse or two. Neil Stephenson fans will appreciate that to maintain a cover story that 45 kibbutz members were working “in the fields” the women (who spent the most time underground) had to sit under a quartz radiation tanning lamp and take lots of vitamin D and calcium supplements so they would look like they worked in the fields. After the 1948 war the factory was moved and combined with another TAS operation. The Ayalon Institute members went on to found Kibbutz Magan Michael.

As you leave Ammunition Hill you drive through the Tamar Rabin Science and Industrial Park, passing corporate and laboratory facilities for organizations such as Objet, a nanotechnology company. In 100 years, Rehovot has gone from nothing to training the people who created a nation to providing the world with cutting edge technologies. Some would say that this is evidence of a miracle from G-d. Others would point out that this happens when people work together for a common cause and subordinate their personal desires for the greater good of the group. Either way it’s impressive and inspiring.

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