Who Is the Empty Chair at the Passover Seder Intended for?

Along with the ancient tradition of leaving an empty chair on the Seder Night for Elijah the Prophet, a modern Zionist tradition has developed in which we leave an empty chair for our loved ones who have not yet returned from captivity. In the 1970s-80s, these were the “Prisoners of Zion”. Today these are the hostages of October 7. "Let my people go," Moses commanded Pharaoh in the name of God, and thousands of years later the same call is carried in Passover celebrations around the world, and with it we leave an empty chair and a glass of wine waiting for every single one of them to return

“And you shall tell your son, next to the Passover Seder table, across from the empty chair…” - A Hebrew poster on behalf of the Ma'oz Association, which worked to open the gates of the Soviet Union to Aliyah (from the Ephemera Collection of the National Library of Israel), and in the background a Passover Seder held by refuseniks in Moscow. Courtesy of the Enid Lynne Wurtman Archive, the CAHJP at the National Library of Israel

While we all sit, as we do every year, at the Seder table, while we sing, ask questions, read the Haggadah and enjoy the holiday meal, hundreds of families among us will not be able to do this. Their holiday spirit, their joy, their loved ones were taken from them.  Their loved ones were kidnapped; they are still being held captive by Hamas. In fact, for the majority of Jews in Israel and שרםומג the world, it seems that the Hebrew month of Nissan, which in Judaism usually symbolizes the renewal of spring, the blossoming and the departure of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom, stands in complete contradiction to the current public atmosphere. But history shows us that since the beginning of time, the joy of the people of Israel during the festival of Passover has never been complete, due to the heavy price they have had to pay for their very existence.

One of the characters that comes to visit us on the Seder Night is Elijah the Prophet. Every Jew is familiar with the amiable custom of opening the door in his honor during the “pour out thy wrath” section of the Haggadah, after the meal. We usually pour Elijah the fifth glass of wine and leave it full for him, as well as prepare a chair for him at the table in case he drops by for a visit. Elijah the Prophet symbolizes the hope to return to Israel. According to the prophecies, he will come to announce a new redemption. Therefore, opening the door on Seder Night also symbolizes the readiness to receive Elijah the Prophet and go with him to the Land of Israel. It turns out that this ancient tradition is accompanied by another long-standing tradition, designed to mark and remember those who cannot be with us.

ציור של כיסא אליהו המרכז לאמנות יהודית באוניברסיטה העברית בירושלים Center For Jewish Art At The Hebrew University Of Jerusalem
Painting of Eliyahu’s chair, the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

In the 1950s and 1960s, many Jews in Israel and the Diaspora used to commemorate their loved ones who perished in the Holocaust by leaving an empty chair for them at the Seder table.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a custom began in the Soviet Union of leaving a chair empty on the Seder Night for the “Prisoners of Zion”. The idea behind the custom was to not forget the Jewish prisoners languishing in Soviet prisons and to express the pain of Jews throughout the Western world who fought for the freedom of their brothers and sisters in Eastern Europe. At the time they were called “The Jews of Silence”, as in Elie Wiesel’s famous book, because they were forbidden to practice their Judaism and observe the mitzvot of the Jewish religion. Jews all over the world left an empty chair at the table, in order to express their pain and desire to tear down the Iron Curtain and allow Soviet Jewry to return to their Judaism and immigrate to Israel.

The Prisoners of Zion were activists – Zionist men and women in various countries around the world. Many of them were arrested and imprisoned in their homelands because of their Zionist activities, others were deported because of their Jewishness or because of their country’s hostile relations with Israel.

כרזה של אסירי ציון, תחילת שנות ה 70 בהוצאת Jewish Chronicle בלונדון, 23 בנובמבר 1973.
Prisoners of [for] Zion poster, early 1970s, published by the Jewish Chronicle in London, November 23, 1973

After the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews from all over the world worked to free their brothers and sisters, who were banned and imprisoned because of their Zionist activities, and bring them to Israel. Prisoners of Zion suffered arrests, imprisonments and some also suffered torture and other violations of their freedom. They are part of a long-standing heritage of Jewish heroism. Prisoners of Zion were held against their will across the globe, in Romania, Iraq, Morocco, Yemen, Ethiopia, Egypt and of course the countries of the communist bloc in the former Soviet Union.

The Soviet authorities refused to recognize Judaism and the national aspirations of Jews, and in response to this some Jews became active in various Zionist undergrounds. If they were caught, they were imprisoned and tortured by the regime. Some were exiled to remote places in the Soviet Union, some were sent to forced labor camps, some died in prison, often under false accusations, and some were forcibly placed in psychiatric hospitals, even though their mental health was not in question.

A demonstration in Jerusalem for the Prisoners of Zion. Courtesy of Enid Lynne Wurtman whose archive is deposited at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

From Rabbi Nachman of Breslav to American Jewry

“The Empty Chair” is also the name of a book that contains the writings and philosophy of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. It includes advice for living a spiritual life and various pearls of wisdom. The empty chair which appears on the book’s cover is in fact Rabbi Nachman’s chair, which was brought to Israel by his followers and is kept in the Breslov Synagogue in Mea She’arim in Jerusalem. For the Breslov Hasidim, the Rabbi’s chair symbolizes both presence and absence.

תפילת סדר פסח למען יהודי ברית המועצות, 1969
Passover Seder prayer for the Jews of the Soviet Union, 1969

Eventually, the idea of the “empty chair” at the Passover Seder was given new meaning. Dr. Chaim Neria, curator of the Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel, recalled an early childhood memory of the custom of leaving a chair empty at the Seder table for the Prisoners of Zion: “The custom was created when the Jews of the Soviet Union were behind the Iron Curtain. There was always one empty seat at the table. When I asked about it, I was told that it was for the Jews in the Soviet Union who were forbidden to celebrate Passover, so we saved a seat at our table, to remember that they could not be with us, and in honor of their actions. Next to the chair, we would put a sign on the table with the phrase ‘let my people go’.”

עפרה חזה שרה בהופעת אומנים בהיכל הספורט למען יהודי ברית המועצות. צילום מוטי פתאל ארכיון דן הדני הספרייה הלאומית
Ofra Haza singing at the Sports Hall for the Jews of the Soviet Union. Photo by: Moti Fattal, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

This old custom is described in the children’s book, An Extra Seat, by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. The book was written in 2016 and contains the following passage:

Far away, in the Soviet Union, a group of Jews had tried to leave to find a better life in Israel. They were not allowed to. In fact they were punished for trying to leave – as if a giant iron door was closed in their faces.

One of those courageous Jews was called Anatoly Sharansky. He had just been arrested. 

The book tells the story of the release of a number of Prisoners of Zion, among them the human rights activist Natan Sharansky, who would go on to a career in politics and who became a close friend of the author. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld was a student of Rabbi Avi Weiss, who told him about his volunteer work promoting the cause of the Prisoners of Zion, including Natan Sharansky. Sharansky – who was convicted in 1978 of treason, spying for the United States, incitement and anti-Soviet propaganda – was sentenced to thirteen years in prison. He was released in 1986 after nine years behind bars, and was finally allowed to immigrate to Israel.

הפגנה למען יהדות ברית המועצות בניו יורק.
Demonstration for Soviet Jewry in New York ~ Aliyah refuseniks and Prisoners of Zion. Avital Sharansky (center) holds a poster of her husband, Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky. Posters published by the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry

Rabbi Herzfeld decided that it was important to tell the story of the Prisoners of Zion to children as well, and that’s how the idea for the book came about. An Extra Seat describes how two kids from New York, Sarah and Joseph, hear of Sharansky’s story and decide to join the demonstrations for his release. The book relates how, during the years of Sharansky’s imprisonment, the children made sure to keep an empty chair for him at every Shabbat and holiday meal, with their friends following them and also adopting the habit in their homes.

משמאל לימין יולי קושרובסקי, טניה אדלשטיין, הבת של טניה ואסיר ציון יולי אדלשטיין, מוסקבה
Left to right: Yuli Koshrovsky, Tanya Edelstein, Tanya’s daughter and the Prisoner of Zion Yuli Edelstein, Moscow

Let My People Go

Enid Lynne Wurtman also remembers the old custom and kept it herself in her home with her family.

Enid grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and has lived in Israel since 1977. She is among the most prominent activists in the struggle for the Prisoners of Zion and their immigration to Israel. Enid, a social worker by profession, and her husband, Stewart, who was a lawyer at the time, visited the Soviet Union in their early thirties, an eight-day trip to Moscow and Leningrad: “In 1973, my husband and I went to the Soviet Union to visit besieged Jews who were desperate to immigrate to Israel,” Wurtman says. The Jews they met experienced many difficulties: they lost their jobs, their children were expelled from the universities they studied in, and their telephones were disconnected – all because they were Zionists and longed to immigrate to Israel. Enid was heartbroken when she heard their stories. She felt that she was watching a different version of her own life, an alternate reality in which her grandparents had never left Russia for the United States. She felt she had to help them.

הבן של אניד, אלי וורטמן, בהפגנה למען אסירי ציון בפילדלפיה. ארכיונהשל...
Enid’s son, Elie Wurtman, at a demonstration for the Prisoners of Zion in Philadelphia. The Enid Lynne Wurtman Archive, deposited at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

The inspiration for the slogan which became a symbol of the movement came from the story of the Exodus. “Let my people go” is the first part of God’s command to Pharaoh, repeated throughout Moses and Aaron’s exchanges with the ruler of Egypt. The biblical verse became the slogan for the inspirational campaign to exert pressure on the Soviet authorities to grant exit permits to Jews who wished to leave for Israel. The expression appeared in many posters promoting the cause of various Prisoners of Zion, in particular the struggle for the Jews of the Soviet Union. The phrase “Prisoner of Zion” is taken from a line in Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s poem “Zion, shall you not beseech the welfare of your prisoners.”

כרזה מעצרת שלח את עמי, 1969, מתוך אוסף אפמרה של הספרייה לאומית
“‘Let My People Go” – a Hebrew poster promoting a rally featuring Golda Meir, Menachem Begin and Yosef Burg, January 1968, from the Ephemera Collection at the National LIbrary of Israel

“Our meeting with these Soviet Jews, who were ready to sacrifice everything for their dream, and some of whom lived in very difficult conditions, ignited our Jewish consciousness,” Enid says. “We lived in Philadelphia at the time and began to be active in the fight for them.”

Shortly afterwards, Stewart became president of the Union of Soviet Jewry in 1975-77. Enid became involved in local organizations for Soviet Jewry and in the 1970s returned to the Soviet Union twice more to visit Prisoners of Zion. In 1977, Enid herself immigrated to Israel with her family. In Israel as well, she did not stop volunteering for the Jews of the Soviet Union. She always knew what was happening with each of the Zionist activists – who was arrested, who was sick, who needed financial help. “I worked on advertising, fundraising and political activism. At first from my home in Philadelphia and then from my home in Jerusalem,” she describes. “In all those years, we left an empty chair for the Prisoners of Zion at the Seder Night table, it was a custom we always maintained.” Enid continued to volunteer for the Jews of the Soviet Union and does so to this day, alongside various social activities, even in her eighties.

, ​כרזה מטעם אגודת מעוז, שפעלה למען פתיחת שערי ברית המועצות לעלייה, מתוך אוסף אפמרה של הספרייה הלאומית
And you shall tell your son, next to the Passover Seder table, across from the empty chair…” –A poster on behalf of the Ma’oz Association, which worked to open the gates of the Soviet Union to immigration, from the Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel

The New Empty Chairs

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the restrictions on the Jews of the Soviet Union were lifted and they were finally allowed to immigrate to Israel in the 1990s. However, instead of removing the empty chair from the Seder table, Jews began looking for new Zionist and Jewish symbols for which they would reserve a seat. Thus, empty chairs were left for captured soldiers – including Ron Arad, Udi Goldwasser, Eldad Regev, Gilad Shalit, and Jonathan Pollard – all of them chosen to be remembered with an empty chair at the Seder table by many Jewish families in Israel and around the world.

Meanwhile, the struggle for the Prisoners of Zion did not stop after the Jews of the Soviet Union began arriving in Israel in the early 1990s.

פוסטר משנת 87 פורסם על ידי המועצה הישראלית ליהדות ברית המועצות
Poster from 1987, published by the Israeli Public Council for Soviet Jewry

“Many activists decided that the story ended when the Soviet Union ceased to exist. But hundreds of thousands of Jews still needed help when they arrived in Israel. The refuseniks who were the heroes of the movement often needed help the most. After years of struggle, they lost their professions and many found themselves destitute, they could not survive on the allowances provided by the state,” Wurtman describes. She established an emergency aid fund and worked tirelessly for them, on a completely voluntary basis.

אניד וורטמן ומשפחתה
Enid Lynne Wurtman and her family. Taken from a private album

Enid has been living in Israel for 46 years. She has eight grandchildren and continues to be involved in social causes: “I really think that I had a great privilege, to help the Prisoners of Zion and to live in the State of Israel. The happiest moments of my life were when my children were born and when I had the privilege of seeing the Prisoners of Zion arrive in Israel and becoming their friend.” Even during these difficult times, she does not regret her choice. Today her daughter continues the tradition of volunteering, engaged in a campaign for the release of the hostages of October 7. She suggests that we maintain the tradition of the empty chair for them: “Now, we have to do it again.” Enid tells me. “This will not be the festival of freedom for the families of the abductees. We need to reserve a seat for them at our Seder table, in solidarity with them and their families.”

מוסקבה, סדר פסח של מסורבי עליה
Moscow, refuseniks holding a Passover Seder. In the picture are Leah Chernobylsky, Boris Chernobylsky, Yuri Stern, Lena Stern, Galia Kerman, Mikhail Kerman, Yaakov Rachlenko, Gennady Hassin. Courtesy of Enid Lynne Wurtman whose archive is deposited at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

This request does not only come from Wurtman. There is also a touching request from Shelly Shem Tov, the mother of Omer Shem Tov who is still held by Hamas. “My suggestion, as Omer’s mom – is to immediately after drinking the fourth cup and just before the great blessing, with the pouring of the fifth cup, say the blessing ‘I shall bring’ [veheveti]  for the hostages… I believe in the power of a great prayer, I invite you all to share and help, to spread the word, so the message will reach as many people as possible.” 

This request is joined by a civil initiative – a request that all the Jews in Israel and around the world leave an empty chair for the hostages who have not yet returned home. After everything we’ve been through lately, and with some of us still experiencing these ordeals, celebrating the Exodus and freedom can seem absurd. In order to have faith in a future redemption, or a glimmer of hope, the least we can do is fulfill the request of Shelly Shem Tov, and reserve a seat for the hostages at the Seder table, as well as keep a permanent place in our hearts for them. We should not forget, even for a moment- they are still there.

The blessing as suggested by Shelly Shem Tov, Omer Shem Tov’s mother:

May it be Your will that every expression of redemption is realized in each and every captive.

And I shall deliver-and I shall rescue-and I shall redeem-and I shall take-and I shall bring

May they all return to their families in good health

May we all receive them with unsurpassed joy

Soon, in our own days, amen

A Woman as She Is: The Story of Rachel Katznelson-Shazar

She was a different sort of feminist Zionist leader, establishing an alternative female ideal in the pioneering era of the Zionist Second Aliyah. Alongside widespread social activity, she raised her special child, without shame or concealment, in an era when such a thing was highly unusual. She also found time to edit one of the first Hebrew-language women’s monthlies and win the Israel Prize. Despite this, she is still remembered and commemorated mostly as the “President’s wife.” The time has come to get to know this incredible woman in her own right.


Rachel Katznelson-Shazar. Photo courtesy of Government Press Office

Sixty-six years of a relationship that knew its ups and downs, a daughter with Down’s syndrome, decades of Zionist public activity before and after the founding of the state, ten years in the President’s Residence. Despite this impressive record, the name Rachel Katznelson-Shazar doesn’t mean much to most people, even Israelis, unless she is mentioned alongside her husband – Israel’s third President Zalman Shazar.

But Rachel Katznelson-Shazar was not just “the President’s wife.” She was a woman of many accomplishments and a Zionist leader brave enough to knowingly and deliberately focus on an issue which was then in its infancy and even treated with criticism and contempt: the role of the woman and her importance within the Zionist movement.

Rachel Katznelson was born in 1885 in the city of Bobruisk in Belorussia. This was a city with a clearly Jewish majority, with a rich and varied Jewish life. She herself was born into an established, well-off family that allowed her to acquire a western-style education. But despite a comfortable living, surrounded by a loving family, Rachel was always drawn towards that which was different.

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The synagogue in Bobruisk, Rachel’s hometown. The Institute of Jewish Studies St. Petersburg, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection]

In those days, Zionism was a new, revolutionary movement growing in Europe, attracting younger members of Jewish families. After the Kishinev pogrom in 1903, many Jews were drawn towards the Zionist dream of establishing a Jewish state in the distant Land of Israel, even if the practical realization of that dream remained distant.

Rachel, for whom a long, obstacle-ridden path only served as an incentive, became an enthusiastic Zionist activist, inspiring her relatives to join the cause as well. By the end of the 1930s, all of her close family members had made Aliyah, with the exception of her brother who died before he could leave (his widow and children made Aliyah after his death).

How irregular was this? Rachel said it best: “Of all my 70 cousins, only the children of my father and mother came to the country, another one or two had a peek and left; others did not bother with a peek.”

As befitting the pioneer that she was, Rachel came first, reaching the port of Jaffa in 1912. The country, then under Ottoman rule, was far from a comfortable or easy place to live. The neglected, dusty, and poverty-stricken land was utterly different from any reality she had experienced or known from the wealthy European home she left. But Rachel faced another, no less formidable obstacle in coming to be a Zionist pioneer: she was a woman.

דבר הפועלת, 1948
The spirit of the Hebrew woman – serves as a guarantee for the people as a whole” – A feminist Zionist doctrine? From Dvar Hapo’elet, 1948

On the one hand, it could have been much worse. The pioneers of the Second Aliyah – people like David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharet, and Berl Katznelson – were influenced by socialist ideals that developed almost in parallel to Zionism, and as a result Zionism would become a truly pioneering movement (pun intended) when it came to the status of women.

On the other hand, like any historic change, the struggle of the pioneering Hebrew women for status and recognition was not a smooth one. The female pioneers, most of whom were single and childless, were expected to be completely devoted. Family life and the life of a Zionist pioneer did not go hand in hand. Alongside the Zionist men who believed in women and their ability to become an integral part of the pioneering project, there were many who dismissed them and closed the door in their face. Besides, the men did not want to take an active role in the life of the family and the household, forcing women to face a cruel choice – avoid family life entirely, or leave the rearing of children to nannies or the kibbutz children’s home and entirely disavow the motherly role.

In some places, things were so bad that women took their own lives, unable to cope with the gap between their duties and their desires.

These were Rachel’s first few years in the country, and she experienced every aspect of the pioneering lifestyle: She worked on the farm at Kinneret and other kibbutzim, was a partner in establishing another farm with Berl Katznelson in Jerusalem, and even taught Hebrew at the “Maiden’s Farm” (Havat Ha’Almot) where she was sent shortly after making Aliyah.

This farm was founded by Hana Meisel, an agronomist and pioneer who bought farmland on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, where she trained women in farm labor alongside “normal” household duties.

When Rachel was sent there to serve as a Hebrew teacher, she felt inferior compared to the male immigrants who had also just arrived and who were also teaching Hebrew. She wrote to her close friend Berl Katznelson, who had encouraged her to apply for a teaching position at the farm: “Berl, it’s a hard thing for me to write a letter like the one I wrote to Hana Meisel. I wished her to know that I should not be compared to a real teacher who taught in heder [a traditional Jewish school] and so on. Do it for me. Tell her all this. I’m especially pained at not having gotten around to going over the whole Bible.”

With kibbutz members at the spa at Ma’ale HaHamisha. This picture is part of the Archive Network Israel project, made available thanks to collaboration between the Kibbutz Ma’ale HaHamisha, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, and the National Library of Israel

It was in that atmosphere that she started to form her feminist outlook, which differed from those of other women of her generation.

While other Zionist activists like Manya Shochat and Golda Meir believed the ultimate goal was to emulate the successful men around them, Katznelson believed in equal opportunity while also seeing benefit in fundamental differences between men and women, with the idea that it was these differences which would allow female pioneers to contribute even more to Zionist society.

She was especially sad to see how women were pushed aside when they formed families and became mothers: “Is it not absurd that such a young woman, when she enters into a family life, thinks with complete seriousness that she will organize her life as her mother and grandmother did and be happy – serving the children and the husband? Why does her husband organize his life openly and she in concealment? Why is it that he simply lives his life, while she lives only during the breaks – after satisfying the needs of the home, the needs of the child, and his needs? Why is the stream of her life but a side stream?”

Based on that same sense of missed opportunity and public marginalization, the female pioneers of the Second and Third Aliyahs founded the Va’ad Hapo’alot or Female Workers’ Council in 1921, one year after the establishment of the Histadrut or General Organization of Workers in Israel. The council operated under the Histadrut, but with openly feminist goals – with a special emphasis on the image of the Hebrew, Zionist female pioneer.

Meanwhile, alongside her work, Rachel turned to building up her personal life, marrying Zalman Rubashov, the man she loved, in 1920. Her life with Zalman had its ups and downs: Rachel was already in the country as Zalman, who spent much of his life working for the Zionist cause, toured Europe as a Zionist activist and diplomat.

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Rachel with her husband, Zalman. Photo courtesy of Government Press Office

A year after their marriage, Rachel joined her husband in Vienna, where he was appointed a member of the offices of the Poele Zion movement (“Workers of Zion”). It was in Vienna that she gave birth to their only daughter – Roda.

Already from the start, Rachel felt that Roda was not like all the other infants. The “ordinary” difficulties of motherhood combined with Roda’s uniqueness led to a real crisis- for Rachel. “I cannot hide from you,” she wrote Zalman, who was far away on a mission in Berlin. “I live in a nightmare world. Day and also night, there is no rest. My heart is not silent, different thoughts pass and I cannot even let them leave my mouth. I am not afraid of evil, but rather of the hardening of the heart.”

When Roda was three, she was diagnosed with Down’s syndrome. The concern and duties of caring for her accompanied the Shazars for the rest of their life. Unlike many others during that period in time, they did not turn their back on their daughter. They did not send her off to be taken care of by someone else, or feel ashamed of her.

Throughout her life, Roda Shazar was treated with love and devotion, but there is no doubt that the difficulties and the sense of missed opportunities left their mark on her mother, Rachel. Although she believed, contrary to most female pioneers of her time, that motherhood was not a handicap but rather a privilege and even a virtue, she was disappointed at the failure of women in getting men to share more of the family burden: “I have long since ceased to see the idyll of the worker’s family life. I see the suffering … the young mother is entirely mired in her private life and she is blind and deaf to the affairs of our lives. This blindness does not mean that she takes excellent care of the child. Every woman feels she is sinning: [not fulfilling her duties] to the child, the home, the floors. She works a great deal and always lists her sins. The woman is an echo of the life of the male comrade.”

The “First Mother”. Rachel Katznelson visiting IDF wounded at Hadassah Hospital. From: the Dan Hadani Archive, the National Library of Israel

In 1924, the Shazars returned home, and Rachel was selected for a position on the cultural committee of the Female Workers’ Council. This was further proof of her uniqueness in the pioneering milieu – she believed culture was an inseparable part of the shaping of Zionist society, just as important as farming and security.

She also consciously chose to remain with the Female Workers’ Council. While other female activists like Golda Meir and Manya Shochat viewed it as nothing but a springboard to the main political arena, Rachel believed that the cause of the female worker was just as important.

After a few years at the Histadrut, she began editing the first edition of Kovetz Divrei Ha’Poalot [“The Collected Words of the Female Workers”]. After its publication, she was even elected to the secretariat of the Female Workers’ Council in 1930. She did all this while she and her husband continued their shared Zionist work in Europe and America.

But in 1934, she left to found a new paper – Dvar Hapo’elet [“The Word of the Female Worker”], and a new era began for Rachel Katznelson-Shazar.

דף שער001

Already in 1926, Rachel strove to found a paper which would give voice to the women of the Zionist movement, speak in their name and bring more women closer to the Zionist idea and existing institutions in the country.

Journalism and writing were not foreign to the Shazars. Both worked in writing, translating and editing journals or newspapers over the course of their lives. Zalman Shazar wrote the first draft of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, while Rachel edited and collected articles, books, and works of Zionist thought.

In those years, members of the Female Workers’ Council founded Ha’Isha or “The Woman”, an independent publication addressing current events from a female perspective. “The monthly Ha’Isha aims to create a new type of Hebrew woman, who does not see her home and work as an end in itself but rather as part of the public and national building enterprise in general,” read the editorial in the publication’s sixth monthly issue. But the paper did not last long and ultimately closed down.

Now it was replaced by Rachel Shazar’s life’s work – Dvar Hapo’elet. The paper started as a supplement of the leftwing workers’ paper Davar, with the aim of helping it reach new audiences. Only in the early 1950s did it become an independent paper in its own right.

Aside from Rachel, who was the editor-in-chief who brought all the other writers on board, women like Devorah Dayan, Moshe Dayan’s mother, Rivka Aaronsohn, a relation of the founders of the Nili underground, Manya Shochat and more were part of its roster.

All, aside from Rachel who earned a pittance, wrote for free. Rachel considered the paper to be a means for educating women and delivering messages, knowledge, and information to female workers in Israel: “(The female worker) must stress her independence and originality and add to the intellectual culture of the whole movement.”

Rachel speaks at the President’s Residence. Photo: the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Finally, Rachel had found a real home where she felt she could act and express herself freely. After years of public and political activity during which she never felt like she fit in, being forced to adopt male airs or ignoring her feminine traits, she now found her place in the pages of a newspaper, which she would edit for twenty-seven years.

Years passed, and more crises befell the Jewish People at home and abroad. During WWII and the Holocaust, Rachel supported the idea of women enlisting in the British Army, in the hope that their practical participation in the defense of the country and the Jewish community would make its own contribution to advancing their social status.

Once the state was founded, her husband joined the provisional government and served as its Education Minister. He also served in a variety of positions in the Jewish Agency and other Zionist institutions.

Rachel continued to edit the paper while engaging in activism to advance the cause of women. On Israel’s tenth Independence Day in 1958, she received the recognition she so richly deserved when she was awarded the Israel Prize.

Among the reasons for her selection were “…her work among society and its systems, for her work close to fifty years in the field of the educational and cultural absorption of the working woman in the country. She should be seen as the soundboard and the collector of the literary expression of the pioneering woman.”

Rachel Yana’it Ben Zvi (right) speaks to Rachel Katznelson-Shazar at the seventh Workers’ Convention. This photo is part of the Archive Network Israel project and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

In 1963, Zalman Shazar was elected President of Israel, a role he filled for a decade. Rachel continued her public activity alongside him, this time as the President’s wife.

Naturally enough, this role left its mark on how the two were remembered. Rachel Katznelson-Shazar is known today primarily as the wife of the fourth President. But before that, she was an enthusiastic pioneer and Zionist, a journalist and an author, and a staunch feminist in the days when the feminist struggle was still in its infancy. Even if it seems that true equality is still far off, her ideas and writings were the solid foundation from which generations of women set out to pave the path of the Israeli woman for recognition and equality.

The First Night of Captivity: Memories From the Fall of the Jewish Quarter

A text found at the National Library unearthed the story of Aharon Liron, a young soldier captured by the Arab Legion during the battle for Jerusalem's Old City in 1948. Liron was able to document his experiences as he witnessed the fall of the Jewish Quarter.


Aharon Liron is seen in the center of the photograph, on the truck that brought the soldiers from captivity

By Udi Edery

Jerusalem has many names, and even more books have been written about this famous city. When you type the word “Jerusalem” into the search bar on the National Library of Israel website, over a million results come up. Somewhere among them, we came across a Hebrew pamphlet titled “Jerusalem Sinned a Sin” (חטא חטאה ירושלים), containing a manuscript that describes in rare, moving detail the battles for the Old City of Jerusalem during Israel’s War of Independence. It also describes Haganah soldier Aharon Liron’s first night in captivity, following his capture by the Arab Legion when it seized the Jewish Quarter.

The late Aharon Liron was captured by Abdullah al-Tall (sometimes spelled el-Tell), the commander of the Arab Legion in Jerusalem, after the defenders of the Jewish Quarter surrendered on May 28, 1948. An Arab Legion platoon entered the Quarter at about five in the afternoon, to accept the surrender of the Jewish defenders. Aharon was wounded in the fighting. After the uninjured soldiers were transferred from the quarter to “The Kishle” (the old Ottoman police station, built on the ruins of King Herod’s palace), and the residents of the quarter were moved to the area of the Zion Gate, where they were to be handed over to the Palmach, Aharon remained with the rest of the wounded soldiers at “Batei Mahse”, a 19th century apartment complex in the Jewish Quarter. Liron found himself “in a long structure, parallel to the wall [of the Old City]. The building’s rooms and entranceway served as a hospital.”

The Jewish Quarter’s houses on fire

With his memories still fresh, Aharon sat and wrote down everything he remembered from his first night of captivity in the Old City, in extremely vivid detail: “The last rays of the sun have faded on the red-tiled roofs. The walls, gray with age, are shrouded in darkness. The pillars supporting the stone arches cast their shadows on the long entranceway of ‘Batei Mahse’ in Old Jerusalem, and in the shadows of its arches, descending and merging with the walls, we lay on abandoned mattresses, right and left, dozens of wounded soldiers.”

When he opened his eyes and looked outside, he remembered that the first thing he saw was the looting that was taking place in the Jewish houses along the street, and how the soldiers demanded that their captors do something about it. It was at that moment that he realized the Old City had fallen: “First, we protested before our captors and demanded that they disperse the mob. When we saw their indifference, we realized that we had to accept the fact that the houses were no longer in our possession, and what the looters were doing was no longer any of our business.”

The first page of the manuscript “Jerusalem Sinned a Sin” (חטא חטאה ירושלים), written and edited by Aharon Liron

After that, a silence fell on the room, allowing the sounds of gunshots and exploding shells to creep in from the fighting that was still ongoing in the distance. Aside from the wounded soldiers, the others appeared indifferent. Aharon recalled that one of the guards leaned his rifle against the door and seemed to be dozing off. Nurses, in their pristine white uniforms, entered and left the rooms freely as they tended to the wounded. “One of them walked slowly among the injured soldiers and hung an oil lamp on a nail in the wall.”

They began to accept the situation, and even started dozing off, but then they began hearing different sounds coming from outside. Not shelling, but cries of revelry, which seemed to be getting closer. In the beginning, the captives were alarmed: “We thought we were hallucinating, hearing voices, but then they became clearer and louder. Then we heard the clear, monotonous sounds of cheering. The villagers of the surrounding area surged toward the Old City when they heard that the Jewish Quarter had been seized.” The Arab Legion officer shot twice in the air and dispersed the crowd. Then, when Aharon thought they were safe from danger, he noticed a reddish glow outside, which was getting brighter.

“Fighters of the Old City, 1948” – a pin awarded to Aharon Liron

A burning house! Another house was set on fire and then another one! They were setting fire to the quarter. We looked at the light flickering on the walls and were silent. I thought to myself: ‘My mother and father must be standing on the balcony of our apartment on Jaffa Street in new Jerusalem, watching the flames and fearing for my life. Who knows what they’re thinking?'”

As he watched the flames flicker on the wall and thought about his family, several doctors and soldiers suddenly entered the room, bringing with them Rabbi Mordechai Weingarten and his two daughters. They updated the soldiers about the efforts to evacuate the Jews from the quarter, the attacks and the shooting, and told them that the fire was raging throughout the entire Jewish Quarter. By the end of the night, they would also have to evacuate the captives from the area.

Yehudit, the Rabbi’s daughter, then issued a plea: “Anyone who has a hand or a leg to help, let them come and help!” Their mission was clear. During the fighting, the big iron gate of Batei Mahse was blocked up with stone, and if the obstacle wasn’t cleared in time, they wouldn’t be able to leave the quarter in one piece. Aharon documented how they performed the task:

Aharon and the prisoners in the detention camp in Jordan, waiting for their release

By the light of an oil lamp, we carried away the stones, one after another, but we weren’t very strong. And then, the Arab Legionnaires joined the effort. We worked together. But all of a sudden, we heard pounding on the iron gate, curses, and threats of gunfire.” An angry mob outside demanded the Legionnaires hand over the Jews, but the Legion officer in place chased them off through a side alley, firing at them until he succeeded, once again, in scaring them away. “We watched them anxiously. The Legion soldiers alone dealt with the removal of the stones.”

Aharon would never forget the sight of destruction that met his eyes when the captives were led in threes from Batei Mahse. “The Jewish Quarter was illuminated by the flames that destroyed its buildings… The scene looked as though it was taken from ‘The Scroll of Fire’ by Bialik. ‘All night the seas of flame raged and tongues of fire leapt scorching over the Temple Mount.’ We looked at everything, tormented by the destruction we saw, trying to burn in our memories the sight of every house and every corner.”

“The First Night of Captivity in Ancient Jerusalem”, Aharon Liron’s text

Aharon, who was wounded, was taken from the Jewish Quarter to the Armenian school. On Sunday morning, he and the rest of the captives were taken out of the city through the Lions’ Gate, and placed on a convoy of trucks that took them to Amman, and then to a detention camp in Jordan. He described, with profound sadness, the last time he saw Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, on his way to Jordan: “It was three days since our surrender, and from the Mount of Olives, we saw the Jewish Quarter’s synagogues, full of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, rising in flames. I sang in my heart the song of Avigdor HaMeiri, ‘From the top of Mount Scopus, I will bow to you, from the top of Mount Scopus, Shalom Jerusalem.'”

Aharon Liron was a prisoner of war in Jordan for a period of nine months and one week. He was released on March 3, 1949. After being freed, he worked in education and studied the history of Christianity in the Land of Israel. He wrote books about this subject and about the battles for Jerusalem in 1948. Aharon Liron passed away in 2010. After contacting his widow Sarah and daughter Yardena, Sarah sent us his memoirs, while Yardena helped us find the photo of the pin he was awarded and the images of her father as a POW.

“The Night of the Ducks”: An IDF Drill Gone Wrong

What had all the makings of an April Fools’ prank in 1959 was no joke.

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Photo of IDF soldiers by Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Yitzhak Sadeh collection. Collection source: Yoram Sadeh. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel. Photo of radio: Rawpixel, photo of ducks: ZeroOne

This is the story of how the Israel Defense Forces attempted to mobilize its reservists in a drill in 1959 to test the call-up system on national radio, while needing to be sure that citizens didn’t misunderstand the exercise to mean that a war loomed, but neglecting to make that clear in the broadcast, but then having enemies react by mobilizing because they figured Israel really was planning to attack (so did IDF soldiers and Israel’s population), but then red-faced political leaders and IDF brass admitting that this might’ve been a colossal screw-up and then having to prevent escalation into a real war…

Well, the incident came to be lampooned as “Night of the Ducks,” a play on one of the code words the military had selected for the faux mobilization.

Night of the Ducks? It might as well have been Israel’s hybrid sequel to the Marx Brothers’ 1930s comedies A Night at the Opera and Duck Soup, no doubt produced by Chelm Studios.

Wait, wait — there’s more. The episode even involved a Belgian royal, Queen Elisabeth the Queen Mother.

And here’s the kicker: This scenario occurred on April 1.

Rest assured that you, dear reader, are not being pranked this April Fools’ Day, when people like to play practical jokes. The crisis in Israel truly occurred on April 1, 1959.

That Wednesday night, Israel Radio informed listeners that soldiers in three units — codenamed “Water Ducks,” “Expression of Importance” and “Band of Artists” — should report the next day to reserve duty. It was meant to test the military’s responsiveness. Problem was that the IDF didn’t clue anyone in that the call-up was merely a drill.

IDF artillery forces in the 1950s, photo by Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Yitzhak Sadeh collection. Collection source: Yoram Sadeh. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Hearing the announcement, Israelis sensibly figured that a security crisis brewed, perhaps even that war was imminent. So did Arab countries monitoring the radio. In response, for example, Syrian reserve units were called up and Jordan raised its alert level.

Israel’s leaders were left in the dark and fell for it, too. Knesset deliberations on the budget were interrupted as parliamentarians headed for radios to learn what was happening. Rumors spread. One minister announced that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who also served as Defense Minister, was incommunicado.

The mistake was corrected on the radio later that night, and calm was restored. The Foreign Ministry alerted other governments to the blunder and reassured them that Israel wasn’t on war footing. Even Belgium’s former queen and the mother of its then-king, Elisabeth Wittelsbach, during a week-long visit in Israel, had to be persuaded that the country remained safe enough to stay in. (In 1965, two months before her death at age 89, Elisabeth was awarded Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations designation for intervening with Nazi officials to release several hundred Belgian Jews during the Shoah.)

Former IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen Haim Laskov, seen here smoking a pipe. Photo by by Boris Karmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

In fact, in the chaotic moments following the radio announcement, Ben-Gurion sought to reach IDF Chief of Staff Haim Laskov. He telephoned the concert hall where Laskov was attending an event honoring the Queen Mother. An employee there, figuring himself to be the butt of an April Fools’ prank, hung up when the caller identified himself as the Prime Minister. Ben-Gurion called back, and again was hung up on. And yet again. Finally, Ben-Gurion prevailed upon the man to summon Laskov — pronto.

Detroit Jewish News
IDF chief Haim Laskov was forced to explain the mix-up to Belgium’s Queen Mother, from the April 10, 1959 issue of The Detroit Jewish News, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

It wasn’t Israel’s finest hour. Ben-Gurion set up a commission of inquiry. “The failure was not in the call-up but in the broadcasting,” he said. The flub came about, he explained, because, while the call-up drill was planned, its timing hadn’t been decided — and the broadcast occurred without the Defense Minister (himself) or Laskov having approved it.

Laskov (left) and Ben-Gurion (right), pictured about a decade before the incident, when Laskov was still a colonel. Photo by Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The fall-out was severe. Two top IDF major-generals, Chief of Reserves Meir Zorea and Chief of Military Intelligence Yehoshafat Harkabi, lost their jobs. A no-confidence motion was brought in the Knesset; the government easily defeated it and remained in power.

With the passage of 65 years, the episode can be shrugged off as an amusing anecdote, even a footnote.

Indeed, Yoav Gelber, a retired professor of Israeli military history who at the time was a 16-year-old student at a military boarding school in Haifa, chuckled about the incident during a telephone conversation this week.

But the backstory he related was no laughing matter. It was a story he learned of years later directly from Laskov, who Gelber said was “a good friend” of his.

In short: There was never meant to be a call-up. The duck hunting was all a decoy.

In those days, Gelber explained, Egypt flew surveillance planes into Israel at night, certain that doing so carried little risk: By the time the Israeli Air Force responded, the Egyptians would have photographed the areas they desired and departed. So the IAF’s commander in chief, Ezer Weizmann (later to become Israel’s president), set up an ambush. Announcing the IDF’s mobilization would draw Egypt’s surveillance planes. IAF planes by then would be aloft, ready to shoot down the Egyptian planes.

For some reason, Egypt didn’t bite and its planes stayed away.

Maj. Gen. Ezer Weizmann, head of the Israeli Air Force and future Israeli President, pictured speaking at an IDF ceremony in 1959. Photo by Boris Karmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, he National Library of Israel

That night, Gelber recalled, military commanders at his school ordered students to report to the armory to take weapons. Gelber went to sleep alongside a Czech rifle. When he woke up, things had returned to normal.

Gelber said that at the time, he was cognizant of the date, so he first suspected that the call-up order was a gag. He then decided it was real because, he reasoned, “it was at night, and April Fools’ jokes you generally do in the morning.”

The incident “wasn’t funny at all. It was very serious,” said Gelber.

Not that he resisted temptation decades later.

Gelber related a story from his days as a battalion commander in the reserves. This was in 1982, soon before the Lebanon War broke out. Gelber told his soldiers that because of the security situation, he was cancelling all vacations and leaves.

His men groaned.

“Everyone swallowed it. No one suspected,” Gelber said, giggling like a comedian struggling to restrain himself from revealing the punch line.

“Then I told them to look at the calendar. It was April 1.”

Writer-editor Hillel Kuttler can be reached at [email protected].