The Prime Minister’s Stuttering Speech

In the lead-up to one of Israel's greatest-ever military victories, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol took to the airwaves to address the nation. It didn't go well, and the national crisis became significantly worse as a result. Despite his failure in a critical moment, today Eshkol is often viewed as one of Israel's greatest leaders.

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Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and IDF troops during the Six-Day War, 1967. Both images are part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and are made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Levi Eshkol Archive, the Oded Yarkoni Historical Archives of Petach Tikva, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

If only Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, prior to addressing panic-stricken Israelis on live radio on May 28, 1967, had reviewed his short speech to ensure that everything was in order—or, better yet, rehearsed it.

If only word processing existed then, it would have obviated the need for Eshkol’s top aide, Adi Yaffe, to scribble a change to the text that the Prime Minister—fresh off a cataract procedure, exhausted from late-night meetings in the lead up to the Six-Day War and having rushed to the Tel Aviv broadcast studio to deliver his remarks—struggled to read. Confused by the wording, Eshkol whispered to Yaffe in Hebrew, “What does it say?” (again, this was a live broadcast) and stumbled and stuttered. That undermined Israel’s confidence in its 71-year-old leader, led to Eshkol being compelled to relinquish his other job as Defense Minister, necessitated the government’s being expanded on an emergency basis to include opposition parties and, at least temporarily, tarnished Eshkol’s reputation.

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Prime Minister Levi Eshkol speaking at the podium of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, 1967. Photo by IPPA, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The episode would become known as Eshkol’s Stutter, hardly Israel’s parallel to Abraham Lincoln’s stately Gettysburg Address at wartime a century earlier.

It wasn’t what Eshkol said, but how he said it—and its context was everything.

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IDF tanks near Jerusalem’s famous Montefiore Windmill, during the Six-Day War, 1967. Photo by Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

By the time Eshkol addressed the nation, Israelis were white-knuckled, fearing for the country’s survival after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in mid-May evicted United Nations peacekeepers from the Sinai Peninsula and deployed his own troops there, then blocked the Straits of Tiran to cut off Eilat from Israel’s Red Sea commerce—an act of war under international law. Israel’s military mobilized, and Tel Aviv residents dug ditches in anticipation of mass fatalities.

Reassurance through a national address was needed. Eshkol’s meetings at the Defense Ministry’s Kirya compound in Tel Aviv ran long, leaving no time to record the address that afternoon at his office on the grounds. Instead, he went across the street to a radio studio to speak live.

In a vacuum, Eshkol’s mistakes during the address were minor. Cross-outs and insertions dotted the 1½-page text, and Eshkol handled them fine, with slight hesitations and stutters here and there.

His pivotal screw-up centered on one word.

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Prime Minister Levi Eshkol during a visit to Dimona in southern Israel, 1967. This image is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Levi Eshkol Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

It occurred near the end of a broadcast that ran just over three minutes. Listening to a recording of the speech today while following along on the typed text containing the handwritten changes, the drama builds. That’s because Eshkol reached the end of the first page, flipped to the second page—we hear the crinkle of the paper—and immediately encountered the fifth word crossed out and two scribbled words above replacing it.

Instead of reciting, “Likewise, directions of activity were specified for withdrawing the [Egyptian] military concentrations from Israel’s southern border,” we can imagine Eshkol’s confusion upon encountering the handwritten Hebrew word for moving. (Italics added for this article.)

That’s when Eshkol turned to Yaffe and whispered his question. Yaffe made a hand-rolling motion to signal Eshkol to quickly continue. An engineer cut the sound for seven seconds. Silence. The sound returned, and Eshkol proceeded.

But the whisper, the sound cut and the resumption—all vital to understanding the magnitude of the screw-up—aren’t grasped by listening to the audio recording today. Rather, those key components, and Yaffe’s gesture, come courtesy of an archived interview the Israel Broadcast Authority conducted years later with Yigal Lossin, who was working that day in the studio’s sound engineer booth.

The audio that exists is Eshkol’s address after it was edited—the whispered question and the seven-second pause were deleted—for rebroadcast later that night, because Eshkol’s staff realized the magnitude of the Prime Minister’s blunder.

The edited speech in Hebrew can be heard here:

Where the original audio is today is anyone’s guess.

Ehud Shapira, a businessman who was 11 years old at the time, remembers the tension Eshkol’s hesitancy caused. Shapira’s father had been called up to reserve duty and was away. Shapira, his siblings and their mother listened together to Eshkol’s radio address. She pronounced in Yiddish, “Oy a brokh!”—What a disaster!

With Eshkol’s performance, “she thought it was impossible to rely on him,” he said. “The Six-Day War was a big victory, but it was not taken as a given” at that point, he added.

Afterward, like a game of Telephone, Israelis’ anxiety levels multiplied. People commiserated about their fears, magnifying the collective dread. Rumors spread of a coup. Shapira recalled that a Hebrew term coined at the time evoked both the military and the deteriorating mood of the street: “Maj. Rumor” (Rav-seren Shmuati), which typically refers to the unclear or dubious source of whatever widespread rumor is circulating in Israel at any given moment. These days, he quipped, social media’s power would bump that up to Lt. Gen. Rumor.

Arnon Lammfromm, who worked for the Israel State Archives for many years and authored a 2014 biography of Eshkol, holds Yaffe responsible for not ensuring that his boss rehearsed, or at least reviewed, the speech. Eshkol also bears responsibility, he added, for not ensuring that Yaffe did just that.

The fallout was swift, and shocking. Opposition leader Menachem Begin approached former premier David Ben-Gurion to urge that his Rafi party join Eshkol’s ruling coalition during the wartime crisis, something Begin and his Gahal party did. Moshe Dayan, a Knesset member from Rafi and a former IDF chief of staff, replaced Eshkol as Defense Minister. (Dayan wouldn’t be sworn in until after the war.)

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Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (center, middle row) sitting between Defense Minister Moshe Dayan (left) and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Yitzhak Rabin (right). Other members of the general staff are also pictured, including Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon, Maj. Gen. Chaim Herzog, Maj. Gen. Ezer Weizmann and Maj. Gen Shlomo Goren, among others. Photo by Avraham Vered, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Eshkol’s stuttering address didn’t politically doom the Prime Minister, who remained in office until his death in early 1969, having served nearly six years. Nor did it harm his legacy in the long term. Lammfromm considers Eshkol one of Israel’s most important leaders for his range of accomplishments, including, as Prime Minister, signing a defense pact with U.S. President Lyndon Johnson that became the basis for Israel’s ongoing alliance with Washington.

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Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (center) reads the newspaper as Defense Minister Moshe Dayan eats an apple and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Yitzhak Rabin relaxes. The three were on their way to visit the troops shortly before the war broke out in June, 1967. Photo by Avraham Vered, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Lammfromm pointed to Eshkol’s wide-ranging impact on Israel. As Treasury Minister, and as treasurer and settlement director of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel before that, Eshkol handled the deficit arising from the War of Independence, helped the country fund the absorption of more than 650,000 immigrants (doubling Israel’s population), transferred the Absorption Ministry from the Jewish Agency to the government, expanded the economy from agriculture-based to industry-based and added approximately 300 settlements. Eshkol also launched the Mekorot water utility.

As time will do, Eshkol became forgotten in subsequent decades. But historians and older Israelis later came to appreciate Eshkol, Lammfromm said.

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Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (center) reviewing the Independence Day IDF parade in May, 1967. On the left are President Zalman Sazar and IDF chief Yitzhak Rabin. Photo by IPPA, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

“In 1967 was the last time that Israel went to war and won a clear victory. People long for victory and for his personal leadership,” he said. Eshkol wasn’t charismatic, but “his strength wasn’t there,” Lammfromm added. “It was managing people, getting into the weeds in many things. He was multidisciplinary.”

That said, was it fair that Eshkol is so well-known for his inopportune mistake in 1967?

“No, because he was a good prime minister and defense minister,” Lammfromm said. “But that’s life.”

Writer-editor Hillel Kuttler can be reached at hk@HillelTheScribeCommunications.com.

Freedom Under Siege: The Last Seder in Kfar Etzion

How can one celebrate the festival of freedom, with the clear knowledge that your life or liberty will be taken from you in just a few days? The Seder night of 1948 was one of the last nights of freedom for those in besieged Gush Etzion, but this fact did not prevent the isolated group of men from creating the most celebratory atmosphere possible under the circumstances.

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The Nebi Daniel convoy, the last convoy to leave the besieged Gush Eztion, and the agenda for the last Seder. Image courtesy of the Dov Knohl Gush Etzion Historical Archive

On the 14th of Nissan (April 23), the eve of Passover 1948, the defenders of Gush Etzion knew that their fate was sealed – and that if they stayed where they were, they would die. They were surrounded by Arab villages which served as bases for the Arab Legion, a Jordanian military force that outmatched them by orders of magnitude. Efforts to reinforce the settlement bloc had failed, and a plane meant to land there on Passover eve was forced to turn back due to thick fog.

Most of the women and children had been sent just to Jerusalem, just north of Gush Etzion, several months earlier. The last few women had left more recently. The men remaining there had all the reasons in the world to become mired in despair: their personal situation was hopeless, they missed their wives and children (some of whom, having been born in Jerusalem, they had yet to meet) and were worried about them. After all, Jerusalem was also under blockade and anything but a safe place.

Family in Kfar Etzion, part of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. Photo courtesy of the Dov Knohl Gush Etzion Historical Archive

Shlomo Garnak ob”m shared the mixed feelings they felt with his wife:

“We’re planning here for the Passover holiday. But I lack the sense of a holiday eve. When they put together a plan for guard shifts on the Seder night, I said I don’t care if I guard from 6 in the evening or 8 or 10. If you and the children are not here – celebrations are far from my mind. And still we must overcome and not let despair and bitterness control us. We especially must not arouse grief and sadness during the holiday.”

They were a wonderful mixture of the diversity of Jews present in the Land of Israel at that time – Holocaust survivors who’d just arrived to the Promised Land, Israeli sabras who consciously chose to take part in establishing new communities in one of the most dangerous locations in the country, and volunteers who came to support their efforts.

The quiet before the storm: the trees planted in Kfar Etzion, before the war began. Picture courtesy of the Dov Knohl Gush Etzion Historical Archive

This home, which they’d just started building but a few years before, turned into a military camp before their very eyes: holes formed by shells adorned the walls of the white houses, cow dairies were turned into weapons storage facilities, and playgrounds became fortified positions.

Endless debates accompanied the decision to stay in the bloc, which lay outside the territory assigned to the Jewish State in the UN partition plan. They fought not to save themselves, as the settlements of the Gush Etzion bloc (Kfar Etzion, Revadim, Masu’ot Yitzhak, and Ein Tzurim) were at this point clearly beyond rescue, but rather to give hope to besieged Jerusalem, by keeping the Arab Legion busy to the south, and preventing if from invading the Jewish neighborhoods of the Holy City.

It was in this atmosphere that the holiday arrived.

Agenda for the last Seder night. Courtesy of the Dov Knohl Gush Etzion Historical Archive

Between standing guard and caring for the wounded, the men found the time to decorate the collective dining room in Kfar Etzion. Spring-themed landscape pictures were hung and flower pots spread out throughout the room, adorned by verses from the Song of Songs – “the vineyard has flowered, the nascent fruit has opened,” “the buds have been seen in the land.” The courtyard, neglected since the beginning of the siege, was cleaned up and organized. The customs of Passover eve were adhered to in full, despite the void left behind by the children who had left.

“This morning we held a siyum masechet [celebratory ceremony for completing the learning of a Talmudic tractate], in which the “first born” took part [the ceremony allowing them to eat rather than adhere to the traditional fast for first born on Passover eve]. I also participated, in the name of our eldest son. There were cakes and drinks. The happy news encouraged us and excited us until we went out to dance. And now everyone is rushing to finish the last meal of chametz [leavened bread and grain food, forbidden on Passover].”

(Letter from Akiva Galdenauer ob”m to his wife in Jerusalem)

“I just finished bedikat chametz [ceremonial check for chametz to ensure none is present for the holiday]. Yair my son was not with me, and there was no-one to hold the candle. In these days, I miss you most. But the encouraging news of our victory in Haifa [most of the city of Haifa fell to Jewish forces a few days before] sweetens the suffering of detachment. Perhaps we are close to victory. True, we have no illusions that the war will end quickly. But the recognition that our strength is with us to acquire our state with God’s help, immunizes us in these grim and dark days.”

(Letter of Shmuel Arazi ob”m)

As evening came, a holiday prayer was conducted at Neveh Ovadyah – an impressive stone house, less than two years old, which served as the central beit midrash or house of religious learning in Gush Etzion, after which everyone gathered for the Passover Seder – the religious kibbutz members together with the Nebi Daniel Convoy drivers and members who remained there.

Neveh Ovadyah, the building serving as the religious and communal center of Kfar Etzion, where holiday prayers took place. Picture courtesy of the Dov Knohl Gush Etzion Historical Archive

The traditional Haggadah, which now took on a new and contemporary significance, was peppered with newly written Zionist texts.

“Every so often, a [Kfar Etzion] member got up and read from the works of our time, things related to the project we are defending. The whole group joyously sang passages which have become popular during Eztion Passovers.”

From the diary of Yaakov Edelstein, Kfar Etzion member

Between the song Vehi She’amda [a song about how enemies seek to eliminate the Jews in every generation] and the tune Betzeit Yisra’el Mimitzrayim, [“When Israel Left Egypt”] passages from the poems by Yitzhak Lamdan (Mitzpeh Beyehudah) and Uri Tzvi Grinberg (Hayakar Mikol Yakar) were read aloud. When they came to the verse “And I pass over by you, and I see you trodden down in your blood, and I say to you in your blood, Live!” they read passages from Shalom Karniel’s article – “In Your Blood, Live.”

Tzvi Lifshitz, one of the participants in the Seder, described the scene:

“there was some excitement when the door opened and everyone got up and excitedly called out ‘Pour Your fury on the nations who have not known You’– all the humanistic hesitations which accompanied the reading of these verses in previous years were now rejected. The blood of our dear friends, who fell in defense of the Gush and in the War of Liberation throughout the country, demanded revenge.”

Later, when they reached the song “Next Year in Rebuilt Jerusalem,” most of the members got up in a wild dance. But some remained to sit with a bowed head round the table – they could not dance as they remembered their friends and the members of the convoys who had come to save them, who did not get to sit with them now around the Seder table.

The relative quiet which enabled this Passover celebration did not last. The attacks on Gush Etzion renewed already during the holiday, with one of the fiercest battles taking place ten days after the Seder was held. On the 4th of the month of Iyyar, the day before Israeli independence was declared, the last of the defenders surrendered. Some were massacred by Arab forces, and the others were taken into captivity in Jordan.

The Knesset would later mark the day Gush Etzion fell as the Memorial Day for all the fallen of Israel’s various wars and conflicts.

“…I do not know of a more glorious, tragic and heroic struggle in all the valiant battles of the Israel Defense Forces than that of Gush Etzion…Their sacrifice, more than any other war effort, saved Jerusalem… The Gush Etzion campaign is the great and terrible epic of the Jewish war… If a Hebrew Jerusalem exists… the gratitude of Jewish history goes first and foremost to the fighters of Gush Etzion.”

 From a speech by Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, 1949

From Ben Shemen to the Concentration Camp and Back: The Story of a Family Photo

One photograph. That’s what Sarah Kagan left behind at the concentration camp in Klooga. But sometimes one picture is all you need to have closure on a painful chapter in a family's history.

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The Linkovsky family in Kovno (Kaunas). The photo was found among the ruins of the Klooga concentration camp and is now held at Yad Vashem

Family. Young men and women who share DNA or marital ties, and three little children, all of them smiling for a photographer, frozen in one moment in time and in a single place: Kovno, 1939. Just a few months before the whole world turned upside down. Ostensibly, this is a perfectly ordinary family picture, one of millions kept in the Yad Vashem photographic collections, each commemorating entire worlds which once were and are no more. But behind this specific picture is a broader story, written in part on the picture itself.

Writing on the back of the picture. Photo kept at Yad Vashem

On the other side of the photograph is a brief message written in Yiddish, in Hebrew script:

“A gift for the entire family, from your brother and the granddaughter,

Avraham

Daliah

Linkovsky

May 18, 1939

Ben Shemen”

How did a picture reach the distant concentration camp in Estonia from a Zionist youth village in the Land of Israel? Who were Avraham and Daliah Linkovsky and what was their connection to the people in the photograph?

To see the big picture, we have to go back a bit.

In the 1920s, a terrible tragedy befell the Linkovsky family living in Kovno: they lost both their parents. The father’s death certificate can be found at Yad Vashem, but the mother apparently also died before the war. The older brothers each went their own way, even if earlier than expected. But the two younger brothers – Avraham and Pesha – were sent to the Jewish orphanage in the city. This fact, which must have seemed particularly tragic at the time, ended up saving their lives.

Children at the Kovno orphanage. From the Ben Shemen Youth Village Archive, IL-BSYV-001-13-0102-02

The Kovno Jewish orphanage, or the Kinderhaus as it was known then, was founded and run by the German-Jewish educator Siegfried Lehman. Lehman came to Kovno at the request of Max Soloveichik – the Jewish Affairs Minister for the Lithuanian government. Lehman was an inspiring figure who dreamt of equal, collective education. He eventually became an enthusiastic Zionist, though he didn’t start out that way, and made Aliyah in 1926 to found what would become the Youth Village of Ben Shemen – an educational institution which served as a home for the children who grew up there.

Dr. Siegfried Lehman. Photo: Ben Shemen Archive, IL-BSYV-001-13-0102-01

He didn’t come alone. With him came the first class of students for this new youth village – the children of the Kovno Kinderhaus. Later, two more groups of children came from Kovno, mixing in with native-born “Sabra” children as well as kids who were later rescued from Europe and brought to Mandatory Palestine by the Youth Aliyah organization.

Avraham Linkovsky’s Aliyah certificate. Photo courtesy of the Ben Shemen Archive

One of the first groups to arrive included the orphans Avraham and Pasha Linkovsky. Avraham was sixteen years old, Pasha fourteen. Pictures from Ben Shemen show them with their friends and teachers who became their family. But they never entirely forgot their old family in Lithuania, and kept in contact via correspondence. Upon completing their studies, Avraham married Sarah (of the Warful family) and they stayed in the country to work at the youth village. They had a daughter, whom they named Daliah.

In the spring of 1939, the young family travelled to visit their relatives in Lithuania. Avraham and Sarah took Daliah to meet their uncles and aunts in distant Kovno, people she would see only once in her life, when she was too small to remember. As a reminder of their trip before heading back, they all took a picture together. A fence passed behind them, behind which was a river or fields. A European landscape. What were they thinking when posing for this picture? Did they think this might be their last meeting?

Picture kept at Yad Vashem

The picture apparently belonged to Avraham, and he took it back with him to the Land of Israel, where he developed the photo and sent it as a gift to his brother back in Kovno, as a souvenir. Did he keep a copy for himself? We don’t know.

Meanwhile, the war broke out. Avraham would never hear from his brother or sisters again, murdered in the Holocaust that engulfed European Jewry. For many years, the family left in the Land of Israel didn’t even know the exact details of when and where they died.

But the picture, the souvenir sent from the Land of Israel to Europe before it went up in flames, survived, and it tells us the story of the family that was lost.

In 1944, the Russians liberated Estonia from the Germans. Among other sites, they reached the remains of the Klooga concentration camp. This camp was established in 1943 as one of the work camps meant to exploit the area’s natural resources. Prisoners were mostly sent from the ghettos of Vilna (Vilnius) and Kovno.

But when the Russians finally came to “liberate” the camp, there wasn’t much to free. A few days before the arrival of the Red Army, as they heard the approaching Russian guns echoing in the distance, the German camp commanders understood that this was the end of the line for them. Together with local collaborators, they murdered all the prisoners, tying them to tree branches to entirely burn the bodies and erase any trace of the horrors that took place there. But perhaps due to haste or the weather, the fire didn’t spread to all the bodies, most of which remained intact.

The Russians found piles of corpses, still warm, a strong scent of burnt flesh, as well as piles of documents and photographs. Within this inferno and the horror covered in ash, pages and fragments of documents remained which would tell, silently, the story of those who perished there.

Among them was this photo, with the writing which clearly tied it to people who were still alive at the time. Those people being family members waiting in the Land of Israel and hearing of the worst from afar. Aside from this picture, other hints were found: Eliyahu Linkovsky’s death certificate (dated to many years before the war, a testament to the early orphanhood of the brothers) as well as the marriage certificate of Avraham’s sister, also named Sarah, and Yehudah Kagan. Sarah Kagan’s name was found on the prisoners’ roster, no. 856.

The connection between the siblings was apparently cut off in 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. From this point on, we can only guess, based on the stories of other survivors from that area, what Sarah went through. The crowding in the ghetto. The hunger. The death. The fear. The orders from the Germans to quickly pack their things: how to choose what to take from home, knowing how unlikely it was they’d return? The nightmarish trip to the concentration camps, the confiscation of everything she brought once she came to the German offices. The certificates. And the pictures.

They came with her, in her pockets or under her underclothes, but they didn’t stay with her.

They were left behind, to tell others a little more of what was and is no more.

Avraham, who was able to raise a model family in the Land of Israel, was never able to see the picture again or hear this story. The Russians eventually passed along the archival material of what is now known as the “Klooga Collection” at Yad Vashem, but only after he passed away.

Among the thousands of documents and pictures, the picture would probably have remained in the shadows, an anonymous item in the Yad Vashem collection. But one scholar, Orit Adorian, did not rest until she succeeded, together with the veteran staff members who run the Ben Shemen Youth Village Archive, in giving the family closure.

The items appearing in the article are preserved at the Ben Shemen Youth Village Archive and are made available thanks to the collaboration between the archive, the Ministry of Heritage, and the National Library of Israel.

Special thanks to Orit Adorian for sharing her part in the story and helping us prepare the article.

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