An illuminating crossover visit to kibbutz Ha’on and the formerly owned now privatized Daria Resort on the Sea of Galilee
By Motti Verses
Some of the most inviting beaches on the Kinneret – the Sea of Galilee – are along its eastern shore. They are located some distance away from the bustling but ancient city of Tiberias with its restaurant-lined Yigal Allon Promenade, hotels, marina and a fish market on the western shore, as well as the connecting arterial highways from central and northern Israel.
It is here, under the shadow of the imposing Golan Heights that three shorefront Kibbutzim were established during the pioneering era preceding and following Israel’s independence in 1948. They are Ein Gev more to the north established in 1937, in the south Ma’agan established in 1949 and sandwiched between the two, Ha’on, founded the same year.
Only a terrifying stone’s throw from the once pre-1967 militarized Syrian border, these settlements were a display of Israeli defiance – bravely staking ownership and permanent presence. Syria had used its hold of the high ground of the Golan Heights up to the 1967 Six Day War – not as a tourist lookout – but as a military stronghold from which its troops would randomly shoot at the farming Jewish communities below. While mostly abandoned before Israel’s independence in 1948, this threatened eastern side of the Sea of Galilee in the immediate post-independence began a new chapter of permanent settlement and in 1949, Ha’on was founded with 120 members.
As a child living in Jerusalem, I kept hearing this name – Ha’on and the constant confrontations with the hostile Syrians from across the raised border. The kibbutz residents trying to live ‘normal’ lives were at the mercy of the Syrian soldiers above and children my age were forced to sleep in bomb shelters. Photographs of this daily deadly routine appeared at the time in all the newspapers. As a child, I could never understand why they stayed there but these pioneering settlers hung on bravely. Ha’on steadily grew in membership and following the 1967 war, when Israel took control over the Golan Heights, the settlers below began to enjoy for the first time peace and tranquility. In the mid-1980s, believing in tourism, they adventurously decided to invest in establishing a pastoral resort village next to the beach.
That was all history.
CHANGE OF SCENERY
When I recently walked on the beach of Ha’on, I knew the scenery in 2023 would be totally different. Until July 2007, Ha’on operated as a kibbutz, but debts of NIS 50 million meant that it had to sell its businesses and return its land to state ownership. Only 30 families live there today. Most of the houses look neglected with backyards covered with weeds and thorns. The Kibbutz synagogue too had seen better days appearing in a state of sad decay. A large structure, one could only imagine all the lively activities and celebrations that had taken place within. It reminded me of a beach shell, its owner within long gone.
The only occupied residences, clearly unmaintained, were for students of the nearby Kinneret Academic College who rented accommodation. I thought, “Hardly an ideal home for them,” seeing the place littered with old furniture and scattered laundry and the public walls telling their own stories by its graffiti!
The paths were cracked; broken and assaulted by overgrown weeds – a metaphor of the direction not of the paths themselves but the failed future of the kibbutz itself. They led to decrepit buildings that seemed to have voluntary collapsed by themselves with no reason to be – casualties of emptiness. Occasionally the imagery of collapsed walls and roofs which didn’t seem like anyone was in a hurry to clear, was met, like an oasis, by a well-kept house, one that had life within.
The dining room – once the hub of the kibbutz where all the residents would have congregated for meals, events and festivities – has been closed for years. A group of dogs bark at us, protecting a land without people. The only pleasing sight remaining from a once-pulsating past was a tree, an impressive tree – a gigantic Ficus benghalensis right in the center of Ha’on. So sad!
Almost 20 years have passed since the government decided to dismantle cash-strapped kibbutz Ha’on saddled with heavy debts. The plan was to sell its assets, divide the land and establish a community settlement in its place. This is still pending. What a sad story for the Kibbutz movement that was traditionally based on agriculture and its visual vegetation today – for the most part – weeds!
While Ha’on’s land is perfect for banana growing, it is really its paradise beachfront with its mountainous backdrops that makes projects catering for tourism so much more appealing.
And so on these banks on the Kinneret, kibbutz members with a vision embarked on a private venture creating Ha’on Village Resort, which in recent years was rebranded as the Daria Resort, within the Rimonim hotel portfolio chain. The operators were determined to continue running the hotel with the same pioneering concept as the founders with the result that Daria offers today environmentally friendly accommodation – chalets that blend into the pastoral landscape, providing an authentic Kibbutz-style feeling. There are different styles of rooms to choose from, all of which are surrounded by luscious green lawns and incredible views with direct access to the beach. The paths of the village have been named after celebrated Israeli poets and singers that are the pillar stones of Israeli culture from the past to the present. It pleased me to see how a resort chose to immortalize its country’s cultural icons. Usually Israeli songs can be heard in the background while walking the streets of the resort, although unfortunately not while we were there.
That’s an ‘unfinished symphony’ for next time….
I met with the Hotel Manager Dor Sircovich, formerly a successful young Israeli businessman in Jerusalem, who during the Covid pandemic, was forced to pursue alternate options. He moved with his small family to live and manage Daria Resort and it looks like he made a wise choice.
“I am very proud that we carry the torch and preserve the feeling of the Kibbutz. This is Israel at its best,” he says. “Ha’on founders focused for years on overseas tourists, mainly pilgrims. We are still hosting them, however we have learned like most hotels in Israel that domestic tourism is no less important. The pandemic taught us a lesson”, he says.
For those less familiar with the traditional lifestyle of an Israeli kibbutz, a reminder may prove instructive to better understanding and appreciating Daria. While not “luxury” in the traditional sense, it exudes a ‘traditional’ charm – a special type of ambiance synonymous with Israel’s unique collective country living. With Daria however, it’s even better being at the water’s edge of the majestic Sea of Galilee – and its breakfasts in the dining hall are totally Kibbutz style offering an array of farm-fresh Israeli produce.
The gorgeous stretch of beach is clean, the water crystal clear and we experienced there moments that I can only describe as ‘heaven on earth’. Is it any wonder that this region is so associated with the Bible?
Daria and Ha’on coexists shoulder to shoulder with open gates separating the two and one is free to cross over. However doing so, like we did, was like entering another world, an age past. Even the old kibbutz beach was charmless, overgrown with bushes stretching all the way into the water. It was a picture of man having retreated, leaving nature to reclaim it.
Standing there and staring at the two worlds – the old, failed kibbutz with its rusting relics of yesterday and the vibrant and successful lakeside resort of today’s Daria, I could not resist pondering the question whether passing through that gate was like the passing from the past to the future – from failed kibbutz socialism to the triumph of modern capitalism embodied in the Israel of today branded as the ‘Start-Up Nation’.
Sadly in this case, it is.
About the writer:
The writer, Motti Verses, is a Travel Flash Tips publisher. His travel stories are published on THE TIMES OF ISRAEL https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/author/motti-verses/.
And his hospitality analysis reviews on THE JERUSALEM POST, are available on his Linkedin page LinkedIn Israelhttps://il.linkedin.com › motti-verse…Motti Verses – Publisher and Chief Editor – TRAVEL FLASH TIPS
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