KKL-JNF and the Modi'in Region

Sunday, July 07, 2013 4:07 PM

KKL-JNF's history and the history of modern-day Israel go hand-in-hand. The story of the Modi'im region is a good example of how KKL-JNF enabled Israeli settlement of border regions and was partner to every aspect of development, from preparing lands for agriculture to paving roads and much more.

The History of the Modi'in Nahal Stronghold and the Ben-Zvi Road

04.06.2013, NRG
Dotan Goren and Maayan Hess Ashkenazi

A new Bar Ilan University study tells the story of Modi'in and environs, places where great efforts for settlement were made prior to the Six Day War. The wish to settle the area of the Tombs of the Maccabees was important for the leaders of the Yishuv in Israel, who did not give up their vision even when the area was right next to the Jordanian border.

Ayalon Canada Park. Photo: KKL-JNF Archive

Modi'im (also known as Modi'in) was an ancient town in the Judean lowland, where the Hasmonean insurrection began in the 2nd century BCE. The Hasmoneans were buried in a magnificent family mausoleum. “Shimon built a great monument on the graves of his parents and brothers, with stones carved on both sides and seven pillars, one facing another, for his father and mother and his four brothers” (Maccabees I 13:25-27).


Where are the tombs of our great heroes?

Scholars and visitors have reached different assumptions in the course of generations as to the location of Modi'in. In 1866, a Franciscan monk identified ruins next to the village of al-Midya in the Judean lowland as ancient Modi'in because of the similarity of the name, the nearby site called Kubur al-Yahud (tombs of the Jews), and the likeness of its location to historical written records. French and British scholars excavated in the region and seem to have confirmed his assumptions, and people and organizations tried to acquire rights in the region of “the Tombs of the Maccabees” in the following decades.

Jewish attempts to redeem the land of Modi'in failed, and it is perhaps a consolation that the identification of the location is not accepted today, and the remains are dated from the Byzantine era. In late summer 1909, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi explored the area and wrote, “Here we are in Modi'im. It is a small village, polluted, neglected. Its name in Arabic is al-Midya […] and here they are before us, these sacred tombs that have been hewn in the hard rock and sealed with boulders […] Could this be the place where the Hasmoneans were laid to rest? Are these the tombs of our great heroes?” (Y. Ben-Zvi, Travel Notes, Jerusalem 1972, pp.33-34).

Following his tour, Ben-Zvi published an article in the Hashiloah newspaper on “The Economic Factors of the Hasmonean Rebellion.” In those years, the teachers and students at the Hebrew Gymnasium began the tradition of pilgrimages to “the tombs of the Maccabees” on Hanukah, and the site became a national symbol. Starting in 1944, members of the Young Maccabees led a torch race on Hanukah, which began at the tombs of the Maccabees and was relayed by runners throughout Israel. After the establishment of the State of Israel, the president would light the Hanukah candelabrum in his residence from that torch.


Historical necessity: a Hebrew village of Modi'in

In early May, 1948, plans were drawn for settlement points in regions that were outside the borders of the State as proclaimed by the UN, among them the Modi'in area. They were not actualized, however. On March 24, 1949, Josef Weitz, Director of the KKL-JNF Land and Forestry Department, toured the area as a member of the committee for exploring settlement possibilities in abandoned Arab villages. He later wrote, “I especially took my time in the Modi'in area where the tombs of the Maccabees are located. The village [al-Midya] itself is not in our possession, only the tombs and part of the land. I said it was of historical necessity that a Hebrew village of Modi'in be established here” (J. Weitz, My Journal and Letters to the Children, vol. 4, Ramat Gan 1965, pp.20-21).

Four years later, when he was visiting President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (February 13, 1953), Weitz suggested founding a residential community in the Modi'in area and another community alongside Ben Shemen as part of the settlement initiative funded by the Farband (Jewish National Workers Alliance) in the USA, which would be named after the President. Ben-Zvi rejected the idea with regard to its personal context but supported the settlement itself.

A month later, it appeared that the Chief of General Staff, Moshe Dayan, was opposed to establishing the community, because the area was being used for military training. The following week (March 20, 1953) another meeting took place, and Dr. Raanan Weitz, Director General for Settlement at the Jewish Agency, and the son of Josef Weitz, agreed to settle IDF Nahal soldiers in Modi'in, and immigrants in a nearby location. A committee was formed for mediating between the army and the needs of the communities, which required thousands of dunams in order to survive.

On April 24, 1953, Ben-Zvi gave Weitz a permit for founding a community to commemorate the Hasmoneans in the Modi'in region in accordance with his original suggestion. Around the time of Ben-Zvi’s 70th birthday, in 1954, KKL-JNF began the settlement project “for the restoration of the hometown of the Hasmoneans from its desolation.” It was decided that two rural villages would be founded—Modi'in, next to the Tombs of the Maccabees, and Shimon Hanassi, named after the son of Matityahu, one of the leaders of the rebellion, a high priest and leader of the Judeans.

On December 16, 1954, it was written in the Hatzofeh newspaper that KKL-JNF had begun to develop 100,000 dunams for settlement, among them 4,000 dunams for intensive agriculture and 1,000 dunams for planting a forest. In addition, they began to forge a road between Ben Shemen and the two other communities called the President’s Road—in honor of Ben-Zvi.


The Border Forts Program

In the early 1960s, Weitz devised the Border Forts plan for creating settlement facts in the hill regions along the borders. These “forts” were based on settling the areas with rocky hills that had no contiguous lands that could be cultivated. The program determined that the IDF Nahal strongholds would develop the land for cultivation initially, supervised by KKL-JNF, and later on they would become civilian agricultural communities.

In the spring of 1961, Weitz, who was now the Director of the Israel Lands Authority as well as the Director of the KKL-JNF Land Development Authority, visited the site that was to be the Modi'in stronghold. His pressure on senior IDF officers bore fruit, and on February 13, 1963, a tour was organized for representatives of the settlement organizations and of the IDF with the aim of selecting a place for the stronghold and marking the route to Ben Shemen. “We walked by the tombs and in the vicinity. Unfortunately, the border is before the Arab village of al-Midya. We stopped on one hill, not far from the village and from the tombs, which seemed suitable for the point of inhabitation, since there are a few valleys around it, the lands of which, after improvement—hundreds of dunams—will be good for intensive agricultural cultivation” (Ibid., vol. 5, pp.251-252). Following the tour, a discussion was held by the planning authority attended by the Minister of Agriculture, Moshe Dayan, and approval was granted for establishing five strongholds, among them Modi'in. KKL-JNF started forging a road to the designated stronghold, but the army halted the work. Just then, the Chief of General Staff, Zvi Tzur, updated Weitz that it was not possible to release the land for the stronghold in Modi'in.

Weitz did not concede, and he continued working over the next few months on the development plan for the Modi'in area. On August 4, 1963, the Mitzpe Modi'im forested area was dedicated as well as a watchtower shaped like a torch for forest fire prevention, an amphitheater and the Ben-Zvi Road—named after the President who had passed away three months earlier. In the Davar newspaper it was written that the ceremony included the planting of the Farband Forest, and that Weitz had announced to the audience that “in the distant future a city will be built here as an extension of the Tel Aviv area.”

In November 1963, Weitz reached an understanding with the outgoing Chief of General Staff and with his successor, Yitzhak Rabin, regarding the settlement of the land by November 1964. The settlement organizations had no communities in the area except for Shaalvim of Poalei Agudat Yisrael. The IDF Nahal Program granted approval to the Hareidi (ultra-Orthodox) movement to adopt the planned stronghold and recruited a core from the Ezra youth movement and a core of yeshiva boys from the Hareidi (ultra-Orthodox) IDF Nahal Program. In July 1964 the first buildings were constructed, only about 350 meters from the Jordanian border, and KKL-JNF developed 800 dunams of land for cultivation.

On the eve of the first night of Hanukah 1964, the 15th anniversary of the UN vote for the Partition Plan (November 29, 1964), a ceremony was held for the founding of the Modi'im Nahal stronghold. Hundreds of guests attended the reception of the Torah scroll at the new synagogue there, and President Shazar blessed the soldiers. “You have volunteered of your own good will,” he said, “in order to rid this holy place of its desolation, this location that is so special for our nation, and by doing so you are ending its abandonment." Shazar acclaimed the participation of the ultra-Orthodox societies in settling the land of Israel and mentioned his predecessor, the late Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, one of the initiators of settlement in Modi'in.

Chief of General Staff Rabin wished the stronghold members luck in their mission at the symbolic location. “Privilege and obligation are bound together in your move to this place. The privilege is to dwell in the land where people lived, who took part in one of the most heroic chapters of our nation. However, you are also facing an obligation that is not easy. Tomorrow, all the people who came to celebrate will be gone, all the flags folded, and you will be standing here in the face of a bleak reality, the reality of a stronghold surrounded by rocky hills. In the merit of glorious heroism, we hope that your strength will sustain you in accomplishing the mission” (Herut, November 30, 1964). At the conclusion of the ceremony, seven trees were planted next to the tombs of the Maccabees, in memory of Matityahu the Hasmonean, his wife, and their five sons, by President Shazar, Lieutenant General Rabin, Deputy Defense Minister Shimon Peres, Deputy Education Minister Rabbi Dr. Kalman Kahana, Chief of Central Command Yosef Geva, KKL-JNF Chairman Jacob Tsur, and Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi. This became the core of the Maccabee Forest, which was planted in 1965 by members of the Maccabee movement in honor of the 7th Maccabiah Games.

In December 1964, the Government Names Committee approved the name Mevo Modi'im for the IDF Nahal stronghold, the pioneering Jewish settlement in the Modi'in region. Since the following year, 1965, was a sabbatical year, the ultra-Orthodox Nahal men who were strict about the sabbatical laws suffered from lack of employment. Therefore, with the approval of the IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren and of the Nahal Commander, they decided to open the first yeshiva in Nahal history at the stronghold, and the Nahal members were divided into three alternating groups—one to be engaged in military training, the second in general and educational studies, and the third in Torah studies.

After the Six Day War (June 1967), the border was distanced from the “border fort” of Modi'in. On August 28, 1967, the stronghold was populated by civilians, and a religious kibbutz was established there by the Poalei Agudat Yisrael movement. Its members left in late 1969 and founded Kibbutz Mevo Horon in the Ayalon Valley. After the Yom Kippur War, the community moved to its present location and became a communal village. In the mid 1970s, Rabbi Shlomo Carelbach and his followers came to live in Mevo Modi'im, which became a village. The route of the Ben-Zvi Road was paved, became Highway 443 (to Beit Horon), and its name was forgotten. It would be only proper and fitting in the 50th year since Ben-Zvi's passing that his name be restored to the region that so inspired him.

Dr. Dotan Goren is a research fellow in the KKL-JNF history chair at Bar Ilan University. He teaches in the School for Israel and Jerusalem Studies at the Lander Institute and studies the Jewish efforts to reclaim holy places and historic sites in contemporary Israel.

Dr. Maayan Hess Ashkenazi studies the history of the settlement of contemporary Israel and the factors in the formation of the settlement map of the State of Israel. He is the founder of the Internet initiative for the promotion of international tourism in Israel, http://www.israel-webguide.com/#.