What’s the strangest museum you’ve ever been to? Was it one of those fun science museums where you can interact with all the experiments and equipment? Was it a modern art exhibit that had you squinting at abstract shapes and bizarre sculptures? Wherever you’ve been, it probably isn’t as strange as the Ayalon Institute, a museum dedicated to illegal ammunition production!
Don’t worry, this isn’t a blog celebrating crime or war. There is a good reason this museum has been preserved and curated for generations. The Ayalon Institute represents the proud Israeli tradition of determination and courage in the face of oppression and hostility.
The origin of the clandestine operation goes all the way back to the 1930s, back when Israel was fighting for independence and still part of the British mandate. The relationship between Israel and Britain wasn’t always so rosy and the political situation was such that Britain was acting as a governing body over both Israel and Palestine at the time. While they interceded to prevent conflict between the two groups, they also did not want Israel to gain too much independent power at the time. There were laws put in place regarding the formation of Israeli militias, armies, and the production or stockpiling of arms designed to undermine and prevent Israeli independence.
This left the young nation in a tight spot. Jewish immigration was exploding due to the rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism in Europe. As Jews fled oppression in one land, they were coming to a new home under a different thumb. One with hostile neighbours and frequent attacks. No nation that longs for self-determination and independence can allow themselves to depend on another for protection. While the British were content to say "if you have a problem, come to us and sort it out” this was cold comfort to the families who lived under real threat of attack. This wasn’t a school yard where you could go running to the teacher when a bully hit you, real lives were on the line.
The solution was to set up an underground arms smuggling operation, one that was tremendously successful. The Haaganah (the paramilitary Jewish organization that would later become the IDF) were able to create a pipeline of imported and locally produced weapons. Particularly the Sten submachine gun (which the British themselves would use in the millions over World War 2). Despite the British Provisional forces’ best effort, the Haaganah had more than enough weapons to protect themselves. There was just one catch.
They didn’t have any bullets.
It’s one thing to be able to import or produce a simple machine stamped firearm like the Sten. When you get right down to it, it’s a very simple item that can be produced by almost any metal shop. But ammunition on the other hand is a different story. One that involves volatile materials, precise measurements, and tricky to obtain materials. And that’s where the location codenamed "the Ayalon Institute” fits in.
Located in Rehov, this underground munitions factory was built right under the nose of the British military, neatly disguised as a kibbutz for new settlers. It was pitched as a place for new immigrants to get their feet wet when it came to kibbutz life and get used to their new normal. This was a clever way of explaining away a constant stream of new faces and shipments coming in and out of the community. And it was at least partially sincere, only a certain segment of the population knew what was really going on underground. There were some kibbutz members who never had a clue what was going on just below the surface.
All of this secrecy was conducted with good reason. Because near Rehov, barely a stone’s throw away was a British base. One that made it their business to randomly inspect trucks and businesses for anything suspicious. One that contained armed troops with equipment and resources that far outstripped the small little kibbutz. The slightest mistake would have given the Haaganah members away, and the punishment for their crime would have been death. No wonder they were careful.
Piece by piece, the factory parts needed to assemble the ammunition were brought in, often by Jews who served with the British (sometimes using British transportation!) Of course, concealing an operation like that is a huge undertaking. The factory was built 13 feet underground with extra thick walls and ceiling to help limit the noise generated by the machines. Overtop, a seemingly normal looking kibbutz took shape. Looking around you wouldn’t notice anything different, they had houses, common gathering halls, barns and livestock, even a laundry service.
That laundry was key to the operation, providing cover in more ways than one. First, the heavy machinery of the laundry allowed the team to smuggle in more factory parts when needed. Secondly, the ventilation and steam of the laundry allowed them to conceal ventilation pipes to the factory underneath. And lastly, it provided a kind of social cover, the laundry was frequently used to clean the uniforms and personal clothes of the British officers of the nearby base!
So how do you keep an operation like this hidden? Flattery and trickery.
Copper was a vital component for the manufacturing process, and one that was monitored and controlled at the time. Why would some settler kibbutz need to import so much copper? To answer this, the team came up with a little side business – lipstick. Premium Kosher lipstick, handmade, and packaged in gorgeous copper tubes. And they were so generous with them! British officials visiting the Kibbutz were often given cases to give as gifts to their wives and daughters. Of course, the British gladly accepted these gifts and never questioned why so many shipments of copper seemed to be coming through the area.
But how to avoid those pesky random inspections and drop-ins from the British? One soldier or officer coming through at the wrong time, who saw the wrong thing, could spell doom for everyone involved. How could it be prevented? Good old fashioned hospitality. When a group of British soldiers came to the kibbutz they were given beer. Warm beer. Naturally, the soldiers were grateful but remarked how much nicer it would be out in the hot sun if those beers were cold.
"No problem” said the kibbutz members "just give us a shout before you come next time and we’ll make sure we have some chilling in the fridge!”
Can you believe this worked? Soon they were getting regular calls that some troops would be coming over and it sure would be nice if there were some cold ones waiting. The inspectors reliably told on themselves!
This is the legacy that the museum today celebrates. Not the war or the conflict of the time, but the resourcefulness and spirit of the Jewish people. The fierce demand for independence and self-determination. The charming mix of brilliance and humor that allowed them to not only create an underground munitions factory, but keep it secure by being unfailingly kind and hospitable to their occupiers.