Israel travels

Prickly past: A trip to Mitzpe Revivim

Few can comprehend the reality of pre-state life, when the British ruled the country. The restored Mitzpe Revivim offers physical evidence of the pioneers and their travails

Revivim cactus (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Revivim cactus (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the British severely limited the number of Jews who could immigrate to Palestine. Indeed, they proposed dividing the country into three parts and leaving Jerusalem and the Negev out of Jewish hands.

Alarmed, Jewish leaders in Palestine concocted a scheme that could conceivably place the Negev inside of a future Jewish State, a plan that would take into account the fact that Jewish settlement in the south was absolutely forbidden. In 1943, they put the first phase into motion: three little groups were sent deep into the Negev, ostensibly only to conduct agricultural research, but actually to gain a foothold on the land in outposts called mitzpim.

Later on that year, collective settlements called “kibbutzim” were established in other parts of the Negev, and on the famous “Night Of The Eleven,” 11 new settlements were formed overnight.

Last week, the Tel Aviv Cinemateque hosted Yaakov Gross — famous for restoring impossibly dilapidated films — including the movie Pillar of Fire. Not the modern day Pillar of Fire, which tells the story of the birth of the Jewish State, but a film produced by American/Israeli director Larry Frisch in 1959. In black and white, it told the story of the danger and the hardships faced by young Jewish soldiers at Mitzpe Revivim (the Revivim Outpost) in a bleak and desolate wilderness.

Imagine: when the movie was produced, only 16 years had passed since the outpost was established, on July 7, 1943 — 70 years ago last month. Viewing shots of one youth trying desperately to make a tree grow in the desert, a young woman shooting Arab assailants, destruction and renewal, and a reminder of the Holocaust through the eyes of two young soldier-survivors in an almost contemporary film was an experience to be treasured.

From the film The Pillar of Fire, 1959. (photo credit: Cinematographer Chayim Schriber)
From the film The Pillar of Fire, 1959. (photo credit: Cinematographer Chayim Schriber)

Few of us can comprehend the reality of life in the Israeli wilderness during this period, a time during which the British ruled our country. So if you are in Israel, or planning a visit, I recommend this very special trip to Mitzpe Revivim. Fully restored, it offers physical evidence of the pioneers’ early travails and helps us understand the crucial importance of those hardy idealists without whose courage the State of Israel would probably not exist.

Mitzpe Revivim is located right next to Kibbutz Revivim, and south of Be’er Sheva. Follow the signs, buy your ticket, and ask for directions to the dam.

Revivim was not only the southernmost mizpe, but was also located further south than any other Jewish settlement. Like the other two mitzpim (Gevulot and Beit Eshel) Revivim started out with a handful of young men, some of whom left wives and children in their homebases further north. They had some incredible difficulties to overcome: not only were they completely isolated and horribly lonely but they were camped on a desert wasteland.

Settlers pretended that the antenna they used for radio contact was essential in testing climate conditions, and were so convincing that the British bought the story. The radio was hidden in a first-aid kit

Without water, life would have been impossible. Here at Revivim, a single-minded engineer named Dov Kublanov tried to harness the Mashabim River. Note the fantastic water system he created (and look at the little hut on the hill where he often spent his days and nights). It includes canals, dams, and a cistern lined with tar to the northwest. Unfortunately for the settlers, however, Mother Nature had her own plan. Time and the return of flooding waters destroyed the walls and the river channel and eventually the system was abandoned.

Desert plants prove, if proof were needed, that Revivim was established on wastelands. You may see saltwort, which, in the summertime, utilizes brackish water that has remained deep underground. Foxthorn, a prickly plant common to the Negev, is barren all summer and only sprouts green leaves in winter. Hairy leatherwood makes a fine strong rope when three strands are braided together. The leatherwood’s tiny leaves provide minimal exposure and lessen condensation.

Modern attractions at Kibbutz Revivim (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Modern attractions at Kibbutz Revivim (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Return to the office to view an audio-visual presentation and then begin touring the outpost. You will be passing right through some rusty barrels used by the settlers as barriers against enemy vehicles. As you can see any intruders would have had to swerve back and forth to get inside the outpost.

Besides their political raison d’être, the mitzpim performed a major agricultural service. Differing geographical settings provided excellent ground for experiments with all kinds of soil, weather conditions, and seed. Some samples are on display along the sidewalk as you walk to the fortress.

All of the mitzpim were built like tiny castles and included a two-story security edifice within a courtyard surrounded by a wall. Here the wall was made of stone and the roof of the security building was used as a watchtower. Settlers moved to an adjacent area and built permanent housing in 1950.

Just one attraction at Kibbutz Revivim (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Just one attraction at Kibbutz Revivim (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Near Kublanov’s simple cabin is a communications center whose operation was forbidden by the British. A `slik’, or hiding place, outside looks exactly like a wall for hanging coats, with pegs and all. (“Slik” may come from the Hebrew word “lesalek” or “to dispose of,” at least that’s what they think at Revivim.)

Settlers pretended that the antenna they used for radio contact was essential in testing climate conditions, and were so convincing that the British bought the story. The radio was hidden in a first-aid kit; if you press the button on the wall you can hear what transmissions sounded like.

A culture hall contains an old-fashioned gramophone and records of 78 rpm, as well as the original backgammon, chessboards, and books from the kibbutz’s first library. Take a look at their songbooks which contain old favorites still sung today and find the radio; it was a gift from David Ben-Gurion when he learned that the settlers received newspapers only every two weeks. Turn it on to get the original sound.

If you climb the tower you will see bunkers and fortifications used through 1948. Note how the dining hall and other common rooms were part of the wall around the fortress. Below are agricultural equipment and two exciting caves: this is where you are headed next.

An original Caterpillar D2 tractor (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
An original Caterpillar D2 tractor (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The tractor should really be a museum piece, for it is a little Caterpillar D2 used by the first three settlers when they marked out a makeshift border; it was later used for plowing. Also on view: a World War II Dakota C47 like the planes that brought weapons and supplies when the Negev was under siege during the War of Independence.

Both of the caves at the site are actually water cisterns that were originally built by the Nabateans. The larger one housed the pioneers during their first year in Revivim and later became a field hospital. Pipes — which have become the symbol of the museum — were hastily erected as support when settlers needed to build a back wall in the cave.

The smaller cistern wasn’t discovered until 1948, when members dug the ground for a bomb shelter. This cistern became a command post during the War of Independence in 1948 and contains some vintage weapons and an escape hatch.

Revivim plane  (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Revivim plane (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

When you finish your tour, perhaps you would like to wander around the modern day kibbutz, visiting the animal enclosure, tree sculptures, and cactus garden. When you do, you can ponder upon the mind-boggling differences between life 70 years ago in the Negev — and life there, today.

Note: if you are planning to visit, you must call first: from Israel 08 – 6562638 or 08-6562570.  Entrance fee: NIS adults 18; children and seniors NIS 15.


Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed, private tour guide in Israel.

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