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Hanged For Our Right to be Here

The prisoners’ courtyard at Akko Prison

Early on November 21, 2017, a day the weatherman had promised would be rainy and windy, 50 fellow members of ESRA from Netanya and Raanana boarded a bus to begin our journey back in time to Akko (Acre).

Our tour was organized by Bish ben Ezra, Michael Altman and Michael Tucker from ESRA Netanya. Our guide was Stephen Kliner, a Scottish lawyer turned Israeli tour guide, who graciously donated his services, conducting the tour in his lilting Scottish accent.

From the start Stephen gave us the feel of the thousands of years we pass through as we travel in this land. He reminded us that Israel was always a corridor of land between great powers, like Syria and Egypt, or a pass through from East to West via The Via Maris. On the way, he pointed out a Roman aqueduct that had brought water from the springs of Shuni to Caesarea. We travelled on the ancient "pass through" road, still in use today, between the Carmel range of mountains, from the coastal road at Zichron Yaakov to Yokneam and on to Akko.

We arrived in Akko to a lovely bright, winter's day. Akko is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, from the time of Pharaoh Thutmose III (1504-1450) BCE until today. It was always used in ancient times as a strategic natural harbor, for example, by the Phoenicians, the Romans and the Crusaders. In 2001, Akko was designated a World Heritage Site as it an historic town that preserves the remains of the Medieval Crusader town (1104 – 1291), which lies almost intact above and below street level. It is also an example of a typical fortified town of the Ottoman Period (18th and 19th centuries), built partly on top of the remains of the Crusader structures.

According to Biblical tradition, the name is derived from Canaanite language, Adco meaning a border, referring to the Northern-most border of the Israelite tribes.

Before we reached the Old City of Akko, we paid a surprise visit to a unique, magical Tunisian synagogue, Or Hatorah. Kudos to Rika Meyerowitz, who had requested this special visit. The synagogue is decorated entirely, from floor to ceiling, with millions of natural mosaic stones from Israel and the mosaic was manufactured at Kibbutz Eilon. The daughter of the rabbi told us the story of how her father started building the synagogue in 1955.He had a great love of Israel. All the mosaic murals and stained glass windows are dedicated to the history of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel through stories from the Tanach, our history, our army, the flora and fauna of Israel and more. There are 31/2 floors with the top half floor mosaic decorations dedicated to the Holocaust. The woman's floor has beautiful mosaics dedicated to the women of the Bible. 

The gallows at Akko prison

 Our first stop in Old Akko was to the famous Ministry of Defence Underground Akko prison, containing a memorial museum dedicated to the activists of the Jewish Zionist resistance movements. They were held prisoner there and some of them were executed there. To get to the prison, we had to walk through the Enchanted Garden, the tree-filled courtyard which also leads to the Crusader Hospitaller compound and citadel. At the end of the 18th century, during the Ottoman Period, the Bedouin leader Daher el-Omar built a fortress on the foundation of the citadel of the Crusaders12th century Knights Hospitaller. It was also used as a prison during the Ottoman period and continued to be used as such during the time of the British Mandate. Today, this building is the museum. The British incarcerated many Arab and Jewish prisoners there as it served as the main prison for the North of Israel.

Our group all gathered in the courtyard where the prisoners used to exercise. The rooms surrounding the courtyard had one side for Jewish prisoners and one side for the Arabs. We listened to Stephen tell us of the hundreds of members of the Hagana, Etzel and Lehi organizations who were held there. We tried to imagine what it had been like for these young men fighting for our right to establish a home for us today in the Land of Israel. The first prisoner was Zeev Jabotinsky in 1920 with 19 of his comrades. In 1939, Moshe Dayan, together with many others, was held there. We learnt of how Etzel members broke into the prison in coordination with imprisoned members and we saw the actual place where they blasted their way in on the Arab side. Twenty-seven managed to escape but eight were recaptured along with five of the Etzel fighters and three were sentenced to death at the gallows we saw there. We walked around and saw displays that showed their way of life in the prison and their bravery in always trying to find a way to escape or to communicate somehow with their loved ones. We saw the Prayer Room. We saw the photos and read the heartrending accounts of the deaths of these young men who had fought, sacrificed and died for their beliefs and for our right to be here today.

After this extremely emotional visit we had a break for lunch either in the market or The Enchanted Garden.

We continued discovering Akko with Stephen after the break. It is many-layered city, the Crusader city discovered by archeologists, covered by sand below, and the Ottoman city above. We saw the beautiful high ceilinged subterranean Crusader Hospitaller Fortress from the Third Crusade conquest of 1104 in the 12th Century. We saw the impressive Hall of Pillars, the refractory and the public toilet system with rows of seats above and below. Apparently people were not as modest then as we are today! We walked through the alleys of the Old City to see the Turkish baths, The Hamam al Pasha, built at the end of the 18th century by the governor Jazza Pasha during the Ottoman Period. There we went on an electronic tour of the beautiful built Haman and saw a film called The Story of the Last Bath Attendant.

The refectory of the Crusader Hospitaller fortress

We ended our tour by walking through the market to the Templar's Tunnel. The tunnel was a strategic underground passage under the city, used to transport goods from the port to the citadel. It ran from the palace in the west and came out at the port on the east side. We came out of the dimly lit tunnel to the sun setting in brilliant colors into the sea and the waves crashing up high on the sea wall of the port into the sky, spray flying over us all. Magic.

Our tour whet our appetite to come back with our families and friends and explore this fascinating city

But for all its ancient history in the end what affected me the most emotionally and spiritually was the Jewish story of Akko. It never had a great historical Jewish past but again, wherever we go in Israel, we are faced with the struggles of the past, ancient or modern. On our trip to Akko, the underground prison showed me that once more. The Tunisian synagogue made me realize again that it was just another example of what all these young people had fought for, the right of Jews from all over the world to come here and live in whichever way they want. 

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Thursday, 30 June 2022

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