KFAR ETZION, West Bank – Yossi Ron, 69, never knew his parents, Yehiel and Tzipora Rosenfeld, Holocaust survivors who met and married in pre-state Israel when Tzipora was just 16. Both were killed in fighting there, on the terraced hills of this West Bank kibbutz, one day before the State of Israel was created on May 15, 1948. Ron was just 18 months old.
He was adopted and grew up in Tel Aviv, where he became a colonel in the Israeli air force, and then a high-tech entrepreneur. He was one of the first to see the new Gush Etzion Heritage site, a $4 million renovation with marble and glass of an outdated small museum at the same site. The new site uses state-of-the-art technology to tell the story of the 127 kibbutz members and pre-state Hagana fighters who were killed by the Arab Legion, composed of Jordanian and local fighters. The others surrendered and dozens spent months as prisoners of war in Jordan.
“It’s very accurate in showing the original ideas that brought our parents here, and very moving,” Ron told The Media Line. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a leftist or a rightist. Anyone who comes here will feel something.”
While several of the children of Gush Etzion lost their fathers in the fighting, Ron was the only one to lose both his parents. The movie at the site shows his mother’s doubts about staying and fighting, a decision Ron says was the correct one.
In the hour-long movie that traces the lives of seven of the Gush Etzion fighters including the Rosenfelds, the 1948 battle at Kfar Etzion is dramatized based on letters written by the fighters to their relatives who had left the kibbutz for the relative safety of Jerusalem. The movie is gripping, made with surround sound and historically accurate dramatizations of the battles here. At the end of the movie, the screen rises to show the bunker where the last fighters huddled before being killed by hand grenades thrown by the Arab fighters.
The four million dollar price tag came mostly from the Gush Etzion Regional Council, with about $1 million donated by the Jewish National Fund in the US. The site was opened on Tuesday, the day before Israel’s Memorial Day, when the country mourns the more than 22,000 people killed in war and terrorist attacks, which then transforms into the raucous Independence Day.
In 1967, Israel conquered the area of Gush Etzion, about a dozen miles south of Jerusalem, and gradually built 22 communities there with more than 70,000 Israelis living there, known in Israel as the “Gush” or the Bloc. Some of those who founded Kfar Etzion were the children of fighters who had been killed at the site.
Many Israelis believe these communities of white stucco single family homes with red roofs are part of the “consensus”, meaning that they would remain part of Israel even after a peace agreement with the Palestinians that would create a Palestinian state in much of the West Bank.
To the Palestinians, however, these homes just a few miles south of Bethlehem are settlements that must be evacuated under any peace deal. There have been a series of Palestinian attacks in the area, most notably in January when Palestinians stabbed to death 21-year-old Hadar Buchris. It is also the site where three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas in the summer of 2014, an event that helped set off the 2014 war in Gaza.
Shaul Goldstein, the former mayor of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, says the heritage site has a political purpose as well.
“We want people to understand why we are living here so we can stay in the consensus,” Goldstein told The Media Line. “The last presentation we had here was a little too old for young people. We recognized that people between the ages of 15 and 40 will not relate to black and white movies that we made 30 years ago.”
Goldstein said that the former site had about 60,000 visitors per year, and he expects that number to double now. The opening was attended by several veterans of the 1948 battle as well as their descendants.
David Zwebner, a Jerusalem businessman, says his uncle was a medic who was killed in the fighting. He is also an amateur tour guide.
“I normally take people to the City of David (believed to be the original city of Jerusalem built by King David 3000 years ago), and I tell them ‘this is where it all began,’” he told The Media Line. “Now I’ll bring them here and say, ‘this is where it continues.’ This is what Israel is all about.”