Reflecting on a South African ‘dreamer’ and ‘doer’ at Rosh HaNikra – Israel’s rocky border outpost with Lebanon
By David E. Kaplan
I started the week with a visit to Rosh HaNikra, the scenic grotto with a cable car reputed to be one of “the steepest in the world”. It’s the most northern point in Israel’s Mediterranean coastline – next stop lies an historic enemy – Lebanon.
A turbulent past of thunderous shelling, this day I was happy to absorb the thunderous crash of the waves on the rocks which reminded me of those onomatopoeic lines of W.H. Auden in his poem ‘On This Island’:
“…Oppose the pluck
And knock of the tide….”
These words resonated as I listened to the “pluck” of the wave as it receded within the grotto back to sea and then returned with a crashing “knock” against the rocks. It was an endless noisy battle from time immemorial – much of what transpired only metres above as armies ‘crossing’ from the ancient to the modern world physically crossed here on the coastal road. Among them were the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, the Crusaders up to and including the British who in the 1940s paved a rail line between Haifa and Tripoli in Lebanon. Bombed by Jewish fighters in June 1946 in the prelude to the War of Independence, it was at this rehabilitated relic of a railway line – today a historic site – that I was looking at when I noticed in the information plaque of the contribution of the South African engineers as part of the South African Engineering Corps. It was then that I remembered that this was the very spot that Norman Lourie, the founder of the South African Habonim youth movement in 1930, had come to cover as a war correspondent attached to a South African engineer unit.
Was it fortuitous, I thought, that the Habonim movement reached its 90th in 2020 but due to COVID, will be celebrating this milestone event this coming October 2022 in Israel?
While studying at university in the UK in the late 1920s, Norman Lourie heard a young man like himself, Wellesley Aron, speak about starting a Jewish youth movement in the poor East End of London. So inspired, Norman returned to South Africa with his ‘dream’ and what emerged was to become the largest Jewish youth movement in Southern Africa. Initially modeled on the scout movement, it soon emerged into an ideological powerhouse, whose young bogrim (graduates), would settle in Israel making a superlative impact in every field of human endeavour.
Some would emerge recipients of the country’s highest civilian award – the Israel Prize – for reaching the pinnacle in their field. This year, on Independence Day, Prof. Ruth Berman who was born in Cape Town in 1935, and grew up in Sea Point and attended Habonim – which she says “influenced my decision in 1954 to make Aliyah” – was awarded the Israel Prize for her trailblazing work in linguistics.
In an interview with the SA. Jewish Report, Prof. Berman (née Aronson) expressed that she dedicated the award to her fellow South Africans:
“who came to Israel in the 1940s and 1950s, who haven’t always received acknowledgement for their tremendous contribution to building Israel. This is especially in regard to those who came from the Zionist youth movements and went on to become leaders in their fields, from medicine to academia to the arts. This award isn’t only mine, but theirs.”
One such individual from this early period deserving of recognition is Norman Lourie, whose dream of the youth movement was to influence the lives of so many.
But Norman himself had another dream. While Habonim means ‘the builders’, it was about building in Israel, that Norman’s next dream physically took shape and not too far from where I was standing at Rosh HaNikra.
The seed of that dream germinated during World War II, when Norman, as a war correspondent attached to a South African engineer unit tasked for maintaining the stretch of rail from Haifa to Beirut, found himself on a train that stopped at a sandy station “in the middle of nowhere.”
“Where are we?” he asked.
“Shavei Zion,” someone told him. He quickly learnt it was a moshav on the coast started by German immigrants who fled Nazi Germany in 1938. He instantly fell in love with the place and pledged to return.
After the war, he returned and negotiated with two sisters for the purchase of their small hotel that in their advertisement, boasted “running water in each room.”
Norman’s dream was to transform it into a luxury hotel. He formed a syndicate of South African investors and over the next few years built a 5-star hotel, called Dolphin House (Beit Dolphin).
It became the summer home of Israel’s state presidents and a favourite resort for visiting dignitaries and celebrities.
Israel’s presidents of the fifties – Chaim Weizmann and Yitzhak Ben Zvi – mixed socially with the likes of Danny Kaye, Sophia Loren, Ralph Richardson, Israeli actress, singer and model Daliah Lavi who was born on Shavei Zion, and many others of the movie industry’s celebrities – most notably, the entire cast of the movie blockbuster – Exodus.
Dining with the Stars
During the filming of Exodus, another South African fell in love with Shavei Zion and experienced a brush with stardom. In 1960, Ivor Wolf of Ra’anana was in Israel as a volunteer in Nachal. The movie’s director, Otto Preminger, had negotiated with the IDF, to hire some Israeli soldiers to play the part of British soldiers stationed in Acre during the famed breakout scene of the prison, where on May 4, 1947, 28 Irgun and Lehi prisoners were freed. “I was one of those British soldiers and was happy to let the Jews escape,” laughs Ivor. During shooting, Ivor would frequently share meal tables at Dolphin House with the likes of Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Peter Lawford, Lee J. Cobb, Sal Mineo, Hugh Griffith and Ralph Richardson.
Shavei Zion had also a more direct connection to the movie’s plot. Following the breakout of the Acre prison, all the prisoners killed in the action, were carried by the escapees and buried on the moshav, the first refuge on route following the escape.
Well into the 1960s, Dolphin House was riding a crest of a wave, “actually a metaphor,” says Ivor, “because it still stands next to one of Israel’s finest beaches.” On Sundays, an orchestra used to play on a band-stand and people from all over the north came to enjoy open-air music “in this piece of paradise.”
The movies and the music however did not last. The ‘final curtain call’ on this era came when the property was acquired by Kupat Holim Klalit and turned a 5-star resort into a medical facility. Even this use of ‘Norman’s Dream’ had its time as the property fell into disuse until Ivor again stepped into ‘the picture’, this time not as a ‘walk-on-part’, but as a major actor in the on-going saga of Shavei Zion and Dolphin House.
Representing a group of investors, like Norman had done before, “we bought the premises comprising the old, desolate hotel and adjacent buildings and built 22 fully-equipped holiday bungalows called Dolphin Village.” Norman’s vision was restored – from Dolphin House to Dolphin Village.
Ivor, who had been a leader in the Betar movement in South Africa before making aliyah, is proud of promoting a project that was the brainchild of the founder of Habonim. “After all,” says Ivor, “the bottom line is that our youth movements at the time were all about promoting and building a strong Jewish state. This is what we did, and this is what I feel I am still doing today.”
Shavei Zion is a far cry today from when its founders absorbed the illegal immigrants off the ships evading the British blockade, or when Norman Lurie alighted from a train at a stretch of dirt and saw a property that prided itself on offering “running water”.
It is somewhat poignant that Norman Lourie, who would go on to become as well a prizewinning filmmaker was born in South Africa in 1909 – the same year the first Tel Aviv dwellings were erected on empty Mediterranean sand dunes. But there is another striking meaningful coincidence. When in 1935, Norman captained a team of South African athletes to the second World Maccabiah Games in Palestine, he met Lord Melchett (Sir Alfred Mond, Bt), a British industrialist and ardent Zionist, who wrote to Norman’s father on his behalf urging him to allow his son to remain in Palestine. Although it would take another decade for Norman to follow his dream and settle permanently in Palestine in 1946, Lord Melchett’s support was never forgotten and when in 2014, a luxury boutique hotel named after Norman Lourie called ‘The Norman’ opened in Tel Aviv, its location was none other than on the corner of – Melchett Street!
Tel Aviv today is not short of good bars and pubs but when the former members of South African Habonim from all over the world gather in Israel this October to celebrate the long-awaited 90th anniversary, they may want to pop into the Champagne and Wine Bar or the Library Bar at The Norman and toast a L’Chaim to their founder.
Staring at the long unused railway line at Rosh HaNikra – a casualty of war – one can only add to the ‘dreams’ that one day in the not to distant future, that line that Norman came to film will be reopened as Lebanon gets on track in pursuing peace.
But that’s a script that still needs to be written by future dreamers and doers.
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