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Israel Society & Culture: Hashomer Hatzair

Hashomer Hatzair, the initial Zionist youth movement, was founded in Eastern Europe on the eve of the First World War. Many Jewish youth, affected by the process of modernization which had begun among Eastern European Jewry, sought a means of maintaining their Jewish identity and culture outside the stifling barriers of the shtetl and of Orthodox Jewish life. On the other hand, they were troubled by the crumbling of the foundations of society around them and by the growing anti-Semitism which threatened their very existence. In its early stages the movement was heavily influenced by the Scout Movement organized by Baden-Powell and it embraced scouting as a basic principle to teach ghetto youth self-reliance, outdoor life and a love and knowledge of nature. Another important influence upon them was the Wanderfoegel movement in Germany, which emphasized youth's independence and creativity.

Hashomer Hatzair forthwith adopted a Zionist ideology and stressed the need for the Jewish people to normalize their lives by changing their economic structure (as merchants) and to become workers and farmers, who would settle in the Land of Israel and work the land as "chalutzim" (pioneers). They were influenced, as well, by the burgeoning socialist movement, and they dreamt of creating in their new homeland a society based on social justice and equality.

The first members of the movement went to settle in Palestine in 1919, immediately after the war. There they found not "a land of milk and honey", but rather a barren, impoverished, undeveloped country lacking all means to maintain them. "If you will it, it is no legend" Theodore Herzl had said. They had the will, and a movement behind them, so they found the way. No one could build the land for them, therefore they had to do it on their own. Individually it could not be done, so they banded together and formed kibbutzim, collective settlements. The idea evolved naturally as a result of the conditions they found in Palestine. A few kibbutzim were already in existence when they arrived, particularly Degania, the first kibbutz, in the Jordan Valley

In the spirit of the goals that the original founders had set for themselves, the movement established schools, cultural facilities, a publishing house and a daily newspaper, joint economic projects and instruments for mutual help.

The years of the Holocaust brought catastrophe to the Jewish people, it also destroyed the core of the Hashomer Hatzair movement in Europe, many of whose members fell in activities against the German forces. Hashomer Hatzair was active in leading resistance in the ghettoes, the forests and the concentration camps. In the Warsaw ghetto, members of the movement were among the organizers of the Jewish Fighting Organization, and a member of Hashomer Hatzair, Mordechai Anilewicz, stood at its head. In Hungary, Lithuania, Slovakia and elsewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe, members of Hashomer Hatzair were to be found in the front ranks of the Jewish and general resistance and in attempts to rescue Jews.

As the war ended and the remnants of European Jewry were freed from the death camps, members of Hashomer Hatzair were among the first to organize the "illegal" flight of the survivors across the borders of Europe and to take part in the illegal immigration to Palestine, whose gates had been barred by the British. The leader of the refugees aboard the famed illegal immigration ship "Exodus" was a member of Hashomer Hatzair.

At the same time Hashomer Hatzair was active in the Haganah, the underground army of the Jewish community in Palestine. Together with the other kibbutz federations, its members formed the nucleus of the Palmach, which served as the shock troops in the war for Israel's independence. When the State of Israel was proclaimed on May 14, 1948, six Arab armies attacked the new nation and tried to crush it still-born. The battles were bitter. High in the annals of the struggle stand kibbutzim of the Kibbutz Artzi which were settled along the borders of the new country and were among the first to bear the brunt of the attack. Kibbutz Yad Mordechai (named for the commander of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt) and Kibbutz Negba, blocked the path of the Egyptian army to Tel Aviv. These and other Hashomer Hatzair kibbutzim were in the forefront of the effort of the entire Jewish community to win the final liberation of Israel.

Source: The Kibbutz Artzi Federation