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Beit Lehem HaGlilit – Bethlehem of Galilee

Beit Lehem Haglilit, former Templer settlement Bethlehem of Galilee (to differentiate it from the more famous Bethlehem in Judaea), is one of the more picturesque places in the area of the valleys and perhaps even in the whole of Israel. This town of Bethlehem is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as being in the territory of the Tribe of Zebulun, which included the lower Galilee (Josh 19:15). Aviram Oshri, a senior archaeologist with the Israeli Antiquities Authority concludes that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of the Galilee, not in Bethlehem of Judea. Ancient Beth Lehem Ha Glilit was destroyed in the 7th century A.D.

This German-built gem is tucked away neatly in a nook of the Jezreel Valley between the Beduin village of Bosmat Tivon and Ramat Yisha]. In the folds of undulating hills covered by oak trees and small fields brimming with crops of many colors and flavors, sit two villages founded by the Templers, a German-Christian sect who settled Bethlehem of Galilee in 1906 and neighboring Alonei Abba a year later in 1907. The villages lie nestled between several hundred acres of nature reserve rich in Tavor oaks, and the impressive majestic and solid trees line both sides of the approach road. In times of yore, such natural forests would have been the norm from Caesarea to the western Galilee.

Bethlehem of Galilee built  a two story meeting hall since they believed that they their faith did not require a formal church building hasten the coming of the Messiah.  Next to it is the water tower, which resembles a fortress with a jagged turret, and the long milking building. The belfry is on the water tower.

Bethlehem of Galilee Water
Bethlehem of Galilee Water

Unfortunately the historic bell has been stolen from the belfry.

Bethlehem of Galilee Water & Bell Tower
Bethlehem of Galilee Water & Bell Tower

In 1906 Templers from the German Colony in Haifa established a colony in Galilee, naming it for the ancient city. Most Templers bore German citizenship. In 1932 the Nazi party won its first two members in Palestine, Karl Ruff and Walter Aberle from the Templer colony in Haifa. In the course of the 1930s, Bethlehemites also joined the Nazi party, indicating the fading affinity to the Templers’ original ideals. By August 1939, 17% of all German Christians in Palestine were members of the Nazi party. During World War II, the Templers identified with the Nazi regime.
After the Nazi takeover in Germany, all international schools of German language subsidized or fully financed by government funds were obliged to employ teachers aligned to the Nazi party. In 1933, Templer functionaries appealed to Paul von Hindenburg and the Foreign Office not to use swastika symbols for German institutions in Palestine and voiced opposition to the boycott of German Jewish shops. Later, this opposition subsided. An Arab branch of Hitler youth was established with the help of government subsidies. On August 20, 1939 the German government called on German Christians in Palestine to join the Wehrmacht and 350 men enlisted.

Bethlehem of Galilee was turned into an internment camp, surrounded by fences and guard towers. Most of the German Templers were ousted from Palestine by the British, and the remnants were sent packing in l947 when the Hagana captured Beit Lehem Haglilit on 17 April 1948. Jewish immigrants moved into the elegant two-story houses (at first with a number of families in each building), formed a moshav and began a new life as farmers.

After the start of the Second World War, all Germans in Palestine were declared enemy aliens. The British authorities sent them to Sarona, Bethlehem (Galilee), Waldheim (today’s Allonei Abba) and Wilhelma. In summer 1941, 665 German internees, mostly young families with children, were deported to Australia, leaving those who were too old or sick. In December 1941 and in the course of 1942 another 400 German internees, mostly wives and children of men who had enlisted in the Wehrmacht, were released – via Turkey – to Germany for the purpose of family reunification. Another group of Templers were repatriated to Germany in exchange for 200 Jewish female inmates from the Bergen Belsen concentration camp.

In 1945 the Italian and Hungarian internees were released but the Britons refused to repatriate the remaining German internees to the British zone in Germany. On April 17, 1947, forces of the Haganah captured Beit Lehem haGalilit. The new settlers who arrived in Bethlehem following the Independence War of 1948, preferred the new Jewish Agency-constructed homes to the old stone houses. Only the visionaries fell in love with old houses and preserved the community’s unique character. Thirteen large Templer houses still remain in Bethlehem of Galilee.

Bethlehem of the Galilee Holocaust Memorial
Bethlehem of the Galilee Holocaust Memorial

Located in the rear of the center’s courtyard is a moving memorial composed of large standing stone slabs engraved with the names of family members of the village who had perished in the Holocaust. A memorial plaque erected by the second generation of residents, commemorates the struggle of their parents who had survived the Holocaust to ultimately settle in Beit Lehem Ha Glilit.

In 1947, the last Tempers were allowed to emigrate to Australia. By May 14, 1948, when Israel declared independence, only 50 Templers remained in the country. In 1952, as part of the reparations agreement with Germany, Israel paid $13 million to the Templers in compensation for their property.

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