When the Farhud Came to Be’eri: October 7 and the Legacy of an Iraqi Pogrom

“We made Aliyah from Iraq to Israel so that Arabs wouldn't be able to enter Jewish homes and murder us,” said Kibbutz Be'eri members who survived the pogrom known as the Farhud. In Be'eri, founded in part by Iraqi immigrants, there is a monument to the victims of the Farhud, suffered by the Jews of Iraq over 80 years ago. They couldn’t know that years later, their children and grandchildren would face a similar horror – but this time, in the Jewish state.

832 629 Blog

The Farhud pogrom in Iraq, from the Yad Ben Zvi Archive. Picture of Yaakov Tzemach ob”m, a Farhud survivor who became a member of Kibbutz Be'eri, with his grandson, Shachar Tzemach ob”m, who was killed as a member of Be'eri's civilian emergency defense squad on October 7. Photo from a family album.

Every Shavuot eve, Yaakov Tzemach would tell his family and Kibbutz Be’eri members the story of the Farhud, the brutal pogrom carried out against the Jews of Iraq during the holiday in 1941. His family survived the massacre solely thanks to a neighbor, an older Muslim woman who physically blocked the way to their house and prevented the rioters from entering.

The Farhud, Baghdad 1941. (yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi Archive)
The Farhud of Baghdad, 1941. From the Yad Ben Zvi Archive.

“We made Aliyah from Iraq to Israel so that Arabs wouldn’t be able to enter Jewish homes and murder us,” Tzemach explained to his kibbutz comrades and his family. After surviving the Farhud, he joined HeChalutz (“The Pioneer”), a Zionist youth movement, and made Aliyah to Israel to establish a home in Be’eri.

Over seventy years later, one of Yaakov’s sons, Doron, told me in tears how he recalled this quote on October 7 as he was hiding for many hours in the safe room of his home in the kibbutz. Shachar Tzemach, Doron’s son and Yaakov’s grandson, was part of Be’eri’s civilian emergency defense squad that Saturday. He took part in a heroic and desperate defensive battle for many hours, before he was eventually killed.

שחר צמח מתוך אלבום פרטי
Shachar Tzemach ob”m. From a family album. “The picture which most reflects who he was,” according to his father Doron.

 ***

The Farhud was an antisemitic pogrom which took place in Iraq on the eve of the festival of Shavuot, 1941. Taking place over the course of a few days, rioters looted Jewish homes and shops, while Jews in a number of Iraqi cities were cruelly murdered. The descriptions of survivors are horrific [WARNING: GRAPHIC – Y.I.]. They told of babies whose hands and feet were cut off in order to remove golden jewelry that had been hidden on their bodies. They witnessed acts of rape and abductions of young women who were never seen again.

קבר האחים של נרצחי הפרהוד בבגדאד, מתוך הספר עיראק, בעריכת חיים סעדון
Monument to the mass grave of the Farhud’s victims in Baghdad. From: Iraq, Haim Saadon (ed) [Hebrew]. There was no inscription on the monument, whose unique form was that of a semi-cylinder.

The riots sped up the process of Iraqi Jewry’s departure and immigration to the Land of Israel with the aid of activists sent by the Zionist leadership based in the Holy Land. Professor Esther Meir-Glitzenstein, head of the Research Institute at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, explains that during this period, the kibbutz movement played a central role in Zionist activity in the Diaspora. The movement believed that Iraqi Jewry could play a significant part in the Zionist settlement of the country. The idea was to prepare Jewish-Iraqi youths for immigration and to provide training in skills that would be required in establishing new pioneering communes. From 1942, hundreds of young Iraqi Jews headed to the Land of Israel, with some of them forming settlement groups or joining training farms, where they waited for approval to go and establish new communities.

On the eve of Yom Kippur 1946, a settlement group of Jewish-Iraqi immigrants, who were known as the “Babylonian” group within the HeChalutz youth movement, realized their dream. Be’eri was originally established near Wadi Nahabir, a few miles west of the kibbutz’s location today, as one of 11 different settlement points that were set up that day, in a famous coordinated effort known as the “11 points plan”. Three settlement groups took part in the founding of Be’eri: one from the HaNoar HaOved movement, one from HaTzofim Bet, and “the Babylonians” – two groups of native-born Jews and one group of Jewish-Iraqi immigrants.

חברי הגרעין הבבלי
Members of the “Babylonian” settlement group being trained at Alonim in 1946, shortly before settling the lands in Nahabir. From a book on Yoav Goral, native of Baghdad and co-founder of Be’eri, p. 16 [Hebrew]

Shortly after breaking ground in Be’eri, some of the “Babylonians” were asked to return to Iraq on behalf of the Zionist movement. There, they worked as counselors in the youth groups, preparing additional young men and women to make Aliyah.

Yaakov Tzemach was one of these young Iraqi Jews trained by the “Babylonians”. He was a member of the HeChalutz youth movement in Baghdad and he and his friends worked together to support the pioneering efforts taking place in the Land of Israel which they had long dreamed of reaching:

“We collected money, our allowances, so that they could build a club for the pioneers in Be’eri. We didn’t go to the movies, drink juice, or take the bus to school for months. We collected the money and gave it to the movement to build a club in Nahabir. A kibbutz of veterans of the movement – an example and a model for us.”

From From the Same Village – Kibbutz Members and Families Speak of Bereavement in Kibbutz Be’eri [Hebrew] p. 18.

Later, after joining the IDF, Yaakov was part of the Israeli army’s Nahal agricultural settlement program, which sent a group to help strengthen Kibbutz Be’eri in the early 1950s.

תמונה משפחתית
Yaakov Tzemach ob”m (right), survivor of the Farhud, Shachar Tzemach ob”m (center) killed on October 7, with one of the family girls in his lap, and Doron Tzemach (left), member of Kibbutz Be’eri. From a family album.

When you understand how the kibbutz was founded and the Jewish history woven through the story of this southern Israeli community, you discover the amazing secret of Be’eri – its diverse mixture of people.

The Iraqi immigrants, many of whom were well-educated, enriched the life of the kibbutz and contributed to the culture and knowledge of its young native-born Sabra members, some of whom barely graduated high school. Today, members of the kibbutz laugh as they recall how the educated immigrants contrasted with the Sabras, who were more concerned with the movement and the running of the kibbutz than the homework they were given at school.

The cooking in the dining hall was also influenced by the immigrants from Iraq: “even the gefilte fish was done in Mizrahi style,” recalled the 80-year-old Avraham Dvori (Manchar), who was born to an Iraqi family and who came to the kibbutz at age eight, where his older brother was already set up. Manchar was a member of Be’eri’s first school class, the “Eshel” group.

He stayed on the kibbutz his whole life, and his five children and 15 grandchildren also live there. He tells of how the Iraqi family that adopted him in the kibbutz only spoke Hebrew. “I entirely forgot the Arabic I knew from home,” he recalled. Manchar, who recently returned to Be’eri along with some 100 veterans and young kibbutz members, told us of the significance of Be’eri for him: “We have members from over 30 countries of origin. Everyone is mixed with everyone, this is the Land of Israel for me. This is what gives the kibbutz a sense of warmth.”

בבגדד
HeChalutz counselors in Baghdad, 1950. From a book on Yoav Goral, native of Baghdad and co-founder of Be’eri, p. 13 [Hebrew]

The close ties between Kibbutz Be’eri and Iraqi Jewry were further cemented in 2002. Manchar was then the head of the Eshkol Regional Council, which includes Be’eri. Two years previously, during a routine tour for guests visiting the region, Mordechai Bibi, a former member of the Knesset and one of the leaders of the Babylonian immigrants’ organization, turned to Manchar and gave him a crumbling letter from 1945:

“I hereby confirm that members of the HeChalutz movement in Babylon collected donations amounting to 3,500 dinars for the planting of a forest in memory of the murdered of the Farhud.”

On the envelope, Yosef Weitz, Chairman of the Jewish National Fund during the pre-state era, wrote that a kibbutz was about to be established on the lands of Nahabir and that it would include a group of Iraqi members of the HeChalutz movement. There, he decided, a forest would be planted in memory of the victims of the Farhud.

Manchar picked up the gauntlet and made sure the plan was finally implemented – many decades after Weitz’s decision was taken. The monument which was established is modest, its shape resembling that of the monument set up by the Jewish community in Baghdad to mark the location of a mass grave for victims of the Farhud in the city’s Jewish cemetery. The Baghdad monument was later destroyed by the Iraqi government. The monument in Be’eri, by contrast, lies next to the Be’eri forest. A playground, a water fountain, bathrooms, and shaded places to sit can be found next to it, enabling visitors to come and enjoy the scenery in the beautiful spring months. On October 7, the forest near the monument was used by Hamas terrorists as a staging area before moving to attack Be’eri and other nearby communities.

האנדרטה
Monument at Be’eri Forest in memory of the Farhud pogrom, 2024. Photo: Yisrael Neta

“We were taught that the civilian settlement determines the boundaries of the State of Israel,” Manchar said, “and it was therefore clear to me that I’d be returning here. Everyone should do what they can, when they can. It’s clear to me that no-one else will rebuild the kibbutz if we’re not there.”

Hollywood in the Holy Land: The Story of the First (and Last) “Matzah Western”

The Israeli film industry has known its share of successes despite a whole range of challenges. But the dream of setting up an international film studio producing Hollywood-level movies in the Holy Land never really got off the ground. This is the story of the plan to transform the resort city of Eilat into Israel's filmmaking capital and its connection to Gregory Peck and the first “Matzah Western.”

832 629 Blog

Israeli actor Zeev Berlinsky portraying a Native American in the movie “Billy Two Hats.” Screenshot from film

The Western Billy Two Hats hit theaters in 1974. It starred Gregory Peck and Jack Warden, two Hollywood legends, alongside Desi Arnaz Jr., son of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who was in a relationship at the time with superstar actress and singer Liza Minnelli. But none of this helped. The movie remained a marginal and forgettable cinematic foray, but it does serve as a piece of fascinating history – a brief episode during which Hollywood attempted to bask in the glow of the Holy Land.

As befitting a classic western, Billy Two Hats tells the story of two highway robbers (Peck and Arnaz Jr.) who are fleeing a tough and determined sheriff played by Warden, after one of their robberies leads to a murder. Arnaz Jr. plays Billy Two Hats, a young man who never got to know his Native-American mother nor his white father. He is treated as a kind of adopted-son by his older partner in crime Arch Deans, a roughhewn Scottish thief played by Peck.

מעריב 22 באוגוסט 1972
Gregory Peck to Star in Film to Be Shot in Eilat” – A news item on the planned filming of Billy Two Hats in Eilat, Maariv, August 22, 1972. From the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

The film depicts their escape, including Deans’ wounding by the sheriff and an attempted robbery by four Natives who take pity on the wounded Deans and his young friend Billy, as the latter speaks to them in their language and identifies as one of them. And of course, there’s a love interest – a forbidden romance between the handsome, soft-spoken Billy and the beautiful Esther, a mail-order bride married to an abusive husband.

Underneath the standard Western plot devices and the requisite gunfights is a film that examines racism and the humiliating treatment meted out to Native Americans.

Despite its star-studded cast, Hollywood production levels, and even its message of tolerance, the movie was a flop – with critics and at the box office.

We would not be paying any attention to this film had it not been dubbed the “The First Matzah Western.” To understand exactly what that means, we need to go back to late October, 1972. Yaakov Gross, a reporter for Al Hamishmar, an Israeli newspaper, wrote at the time: “At a celebratory press conference at the HaSharon hotel, you could find a ‘Who’s Who’ of the Israeli film industry. They had all come to welcome the producers of the film Billy Two Hats starring Gregory Peck.”

על המשמר 18 אוקטובר 1972
The Western Goes East” – a report in Al Hamishmar, dated October 18, 1972. From the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

Yes, Billy Two Hats was filmed entirely in Israel, despite the plot taking place in the deserts of the American frontier in the 19th century. It remains one of the few films made in Israel with no actual plot connection to the region itself.

Just as Westerns produced in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s were called “Spaghetti Westerns”, Billy Two Hats ended up being the first Western filmed in Israel, with plenty of locals taking part in the production. Naturally enough, it was called the first “Matzah Western.”

Nnl Archive Al11497134780005171 Ie202483652 Fl202483656
Dezi Arnaz Jr. and Gregory Peck on set near Eilat. Photo by Aliza Auerbach. From the Aliza Auerbach Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the NLI

The film’s production took two months and involved an extensive Israeli staff, including two actors: Zeev Berlinsky and Nathan Cogan. Berlinsky was an experienced theater and film actor who was among the founders of the Cameri and Sambation theaters. On set, Berlinsky told reporter Baruch Meiri: “I was killed dozens of times by Gregory Peck. It was an unusual pleasure to be killed by this great actor.”

Untitled
Two Israelis in ‘Two Hats’” – Feature article by Baruch Meiri in Maariv on the filming of Billy Two Hats in Israel, November 11, 1972. From the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

Peck’s double was also Israeli. Gadi Katz was hired at first to be a local guide for the production and didn’t even dream of actually taking part in the film, but due to his clear physical similarity to the star of the movie, he was immediately chosen to be Peck’s double. This didn’t surprise him at all: “When I was in the United States, where I met my wife, a few girls stopped me and asked for an autograph,” he told Maariv reporter Baruch Meiri.

Nnl Archive Al11497339860005171 Ie202529203 Fl202529207
Liza Minnelli on the set of Billy Two Hats, photo by Aliza Auerbach. From the Aliza Auerbach Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the NLI

Aside from the leading actors, who were major Hollywood stars at the time, one of the world’s most famous celebrities also arrived in Israel to support her partner, who was acting in the film. Liza Minnelli, star of the Oscar-winning 1972 film Cabaret, came to spend time with her young fiancé, Desi Arnaz Jr.

Nnl Archive Al11497339920005171 Ie202529168 Fl202529172
Liza Minnelli and Dezi Arnaz Jr. on the set of Billy Two Hats, photo by Aliza Auerbach. From the Aliza Auerbach Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the NLI

But how and why did the powers that be in Hollywood decide to film an American Western in Israel of all places?

Ever since motion pictures were invented, the Land of Israel – then still Ottoman Palestine – had been a major destination for filmmakers. One of the first films by the Lumière Brothers from 1897 depicted the landscapes of the Holy Land, according to movie critic and screenwriter Yair Raveh.

During the first decade of the State of Israel’s existence, the country’s tiny movie industry tried to take its first steps like many other newly independent countries. In 1955, the film Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer was made as a joint Israeli-British project. The turning point came with the film Exodus, filmed in Israel in 1959.

The movie, starring Paul Newman, was released in 1960, telling the story of the Zionist movement and the establishment of the State of Israel. It was based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Leon Uris. Exodus was filmed in Israel: “It was the first time that the tiny Israeli film industry here was involved in the professionalism of a Hollywood production, rather than the propaganda films that were common back then,” Raveh explained.

Exodus
Paul Newman on the left as Ari Ben Canaan, in Exodus (1960). Screenshot

The filming of Exodus gave birth to the Zionist dream of founding a film industry in Israel which would allow for cheaper productions than in America, though the local potential went beyond matters of finance: “Israel offers a very great variety of landscapes in a very small area: deserts, snowy mountains, ancient and historic structures,” Raveh explained. Peck agreed with him, as he explained to the press during the filming of Billy Two Hats: “Eilat is a wonderful place for the film industry. There is a combination here of Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming, and California. Who could ask for more?”.

Peck was not just flattering his Israeli hosts. After the filming, he visited the country dozens of times and even filmed additional movies here. In fact, a documentary telling the story of the filming of Billy Two Hats, meant to attract more production companies to the Holy Land, was narrated by Peck himself. Peck’s children also came to Israel and his daughter, director and producer Cecilia Peck even directed Brave Miss World, which documents the story of Linor Abargil and her publicized fight for justice after her rape.

But let’s get back to the 1960s for a moment. At the time, perhaps due to Exodus or Israel’s own military and cultural achievements, the Jewish state itself was often seen as a sort of inspirational miracle, and this popularity extended to Hollywood as well. With plenty of Jewish producers playing major roles in the American film industry, that popularity was hardly a surprise.

Over the next two decades, many other international films were also filmed in Israel. A few could easily have been filmed in plenty of other locations (such as The Big Red One), but the majority of these movies had an actual plot connection to Israel itself, like The Ambassador or Jesus Christ Superstar. During the filming of the latter, Norman Jewison, the film’s director and producer, discovered Israel’s potential as a desert setting. It was exactly what he needed for another film he would end up producing – Billy Two Hats.

Nnl Archive Al11497123990005171 Ie202483267 Fl202483271
Gregory Peck and Desi Arnaz Jr. alongside David Huddleston on set. Photo by Aliza Auerbach. From the Aliza Auerbach Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the NLI

In 1966, just as Hollywood interest in the Holy Land was on the rise, a film entrepreneur named Alex Hacohen received permission to establish a large Wild West style film set near Eilat, resembling an actual town. The project was a failure. In its five years of existence, just three films were made there, and it usually looked as abandoned as many an Old West ghost town.

In 1971, the set burned down in a fire, with Hacohen racking up large debts due to the failed venture. The Naveh Ilan studios established near Jerusalem by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were also planned to attract big name productions from overseas, but without much success.

If you visited Eilat in the 1980s, you could have your picture taken next to the “Texas Ranch” guillotine. “Texas Ranch” was another film set established in the area, which ended up becoming a tourist attraction before closing down and later being converted into a water park.

טקסס ראנץ
“Texas Ranch”, a 1980s Eilat-adjacent Wild West film set. Photo: Facebook

“In the 1980s, [film producers] Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus brought many Hollywood productions here. Brook Shields’ Sahara, Stallone’s Over the Top, and Chuck Norris’ Delta Force,” Raveh said. “Most of the movies were not particularly high quality but they were very successful and brought a lot of money into the country. Golan and Globus were very successful in Hollywood with [their company] Cannon during those years.”

Menahem Golan Awarded Kinor David 1964
The “Kinor David” (David’s Harp) award is given to Menachem Golan for Best Film, 1964. Photo: Fritz Cohen, GPO

But here is where our story ends, more or less. The intifada that broke out in the late 1980s and all that came after brought the saga of Hollywood movies in Israel to an end: “The high costs of production, which certainly increased after the inflation of the mid-eighties, combined with the security situation, made Israel an unattractive destination. Insurance companies simply refused to insure the actors. Today we’re in a situation where even movies whose plots occur in Israel are filmed abroad. In Steven Spielberg’s Munich, for instance, scenes ostensibly taking place in Jerusalem were filmed in Malta.”

In 2000, a tiny hope once again emerged with the arrival of a major production to Israel, featuring none other than Brad Pitt. Excitement in Israel was at its peak, but just then the second intifada broke out. Pitt’s arrival was cancelled due to insurance companies refusing to cover him.

Despite the efforts of various dreamers, Israel never managed to establish itself as a satellite of the American film industry.

Still, in addition to the local Hebrew and Arabic film industry which has seen its share of successes, Israel also has a whole other film industry many are not aware of: “Quite a few Christian films are made in the country which provide a lot of work for the industry in Israel,” Raveh explained. “These are not widely known films, and they go direct to home distribution or are distributed via religious platforms.”

In any case, we can always take comfort in the fact that there was once such a thing as a Matzah Western, and thanks to the National Library of Israel’s online catalog we can enjoy hundreds of behind-the-scenes photos from the filming of Billy Two Hats, taken by photographer Aliza Auerbach.

A Pilot and a President: Remembering Ezer Weizman

June 15 marked a century since the birth of the former Israeli President and Air Force chief

Ezer832

Ezer Weizman as a colonel in the Israeli Air Force. Photo by Boris Karmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Ezer Weizman was a legendary Israeli figure who reached heights in the military (commander of the Israeli Air Force), government (Defense Minister) and state (President), with stories abounding of his patriotism, foresight and force of personality.

Several people who worked closely with Weizman praised him for something else: his heart.

22505 001 29
Ezer Weizman after being elected as Israel’s seventh President, 1993. Photo by Zeev Ackerman, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Moshe Shahar, Weizman’s driver for the latter’s year-plus as Science Minister and seven years as President, calls him “one of the most special people I ever met.”

When, as President, Weizman visited Israelis recovering from Palestinian terrorist attacks and made shiva visits to families of those murdered, he refused to ride there in the armored vehicles his security staff preferred.

“I won’t travel in such a car while Israelis are being blown up on buses,” Shahar remembered Weizman telling him. Shahar said he instead drove Weizman in a standard presidential vehicle.

“He wanted to be like everyone else,” Shahar said.

Arye Shomer, the chief of staff of Weizman’s presidential office, pointed to a tragic national disaster that occurred during his term, when two Sikorski choppers collided in the Galilee panhandle on February 4, 1997, killing 73 Israel Defense Forces soldiers aboard.

Weizman was determined to make shiva visits to families of all 73 victims — and did just that. Shomer, who worked for Weizman for three decades, called that commitment “a true expression of participating in the families’ mourning.”

“He wanted them to know how much he understands them, feels for them,” Shomer said.

Weizman could identify with the families’ grief, having suffered the deaths of his son Shaul and daughter-in-law Rachel in a car accident in 1991.

997009327310705171
Weizman with his family during his time in the Air Force. Photo by Boris Karmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Weizman passed away in 2005 at age 80. June 15 marked a century since his birth and is an opportunity to recall the public figure and the man.

He was one of Israel’s most powerful and interesting personalities: a high achiever and confident, but secure enough in his own skin not to crave adulation.

From the start, Weizman’s heredity stood out. He was the nephew of pre-state Zionist leader and Israel’s first President, Chaim Weizmann. (The Weizmans were the first family to spawn two heads of state, the second being the current President, Yitzhak Herzog, and his father, Chaim.) Ezer Weizman’s widow, Reuma, who in August will turn 99, is the sister of Rachel Dayan, who married future Defense Minister Moshe Dayan.

997009327310005171 1
Ezer Weizman during his time in the Israeli Air Force. Photo by Boris Karmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Weizman made his greatest impact on the Israeli Air Force as one of its founders, rising to become IAF commander from 1958 to 1966. He commanded the Ramat David Air Force Base in the Jezreel Valley, which later was named for him.

Many credit Weizman with laying the groundwork for Israel’s lightning-quick destruction of most of the Egyptian Air Force while its planes were still on the ground in the opening hours of the Six-Day War.

“Weizman will always be identified with the Israeli Air Force from its inception through its astonishing victory in the Six-Day War and its contribution to current times, having supremacy in the skies,” said Tel Aviv resident Jeffrey Weiss, who co-authored a 2022 book on the nascent IAF.

990040474790205171
Weizman pictured in the Spitfire he flew during Israel’s War of Independence. Photo: the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Shomer said Weizman explained to him that he shifted to flying while serving in Africa in the mid-1940s with Great Britain’s Royal Air Force. As a truck driver in the RAF, Weizman nearly was killed by a bomb dropped from a RAF plane.

“That’s when I decided to become a pilot,” Shomer said Weizman told him.

In later years, Weizman regularly got together with other IAF commanders. It was inconceivable for a gathering to take place if Weizman — who’d nicknamed himself “The Duke” early on as a pilot — couldn’t make it, Shomer said.

During the War of Independence, Weizman was one of only two native Israeli pilots in the 101st Squadron, Israel’s only fighter squadron then, and “was beloved by the men who flew with him,” nearly all of them Americans, Canadians, South Africans and Britons, said Weiss.

997009327310505171
Weizman with his family during his time in the Air Force. Photo by Boris Karmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Weiss related Reuma Weizman’s telling him that she first met her future husband when he was driving a car bearing a 101st Squadron logo — a car another pilot had stolen in a prank typical for the group.

“He was a fun-loving guy, rowdy,” Weiss said.

But Weizman was all-business in matters of security and diplomacy. He became a key figure in the negotiations leading to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty in 1979. He was Defense Minister then, and as a speaker of Arabic he developed a strong bond with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

22965 001 15
President Ezer Weizman with Anwar Sadat’s niece and nephew during their visit to Israel on the 16th anniversary of the late Egyptian President’s historic address to the Knesset, 1993. Photo by Zeev Ackerman, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

By that point, Weizman was in the midst of a two-decade stint in Knesset and served as a minister in governments of the right and then the left as his political leanings evolved. (Accepting financial gifts late in his political career came to light years later and led Weizman to resign as president.)

Arriving at Beit Hanasi (“The President’s House”), the Weizmans strove to hire people of diverse backgrounds to reflect Israel’s multiethnic population, and did so “for meaningful jobs,” said Ziona Rosental, who worked there for 37 years.

“They were a special couple,” she said.

President Ezer Weizman in the cockpit of an Israeli Air Force helicopter, 1993. Photo by Zeev Ackerman, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

In an interview for this article, Shomer related several stories about Weizman’s empathy as President, like helping to arrange for dental work for a gardener at Beit Hanasi and dedicating scores of Torah scrolls to the memories of fallen soldiers.

One story was less consequential but revelatory. It involved the Weizmans’ state visit to London in 1997. He was seated at a state dinner next to the Queen Mother, whose daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, was the evening’s hostess.

Something about the discomfort of the Queen Mother, age 96, registered with Weizman. He summoned a waiter and asked that another chair be brought over for her.

The request was carried out. Several people clapped.

Said Shomer: “He was very human.”

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

The Riddle of the Baal Shem Tov

No one knows when or where he was born, but on the festival of Shavuot we mark the passing of the Baal Shem Tov, one of the most influential figures in the Jewish world of the past few centuries. Was "The Besht" a real person or just a Hasidic legend? How has this enigmatic figure influenced generations of followers? How did he foresee his own death? Dr. Chaim Neria, curator of our Judaica Collection, offers insight on the life of this fascinating person.

The Baal Shem Tov, the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

According to legend, when the Baal Shem Tov was just starting out, he arrived in a Jewish town. Early in the morning, he stood with his cart, met a Jew on his way to the synagogue, started talking to him, and told him a story. The Jew enjoyed the story and stayed to hear another one. In the meantime, more Jews passed by, saw what was happening, listened to the story being told, and they too stayed to hear yet another story. This kept happening until all the Jews of the town stood there listening to the Baal Shem Tov and his stories.

The stern Rabbi of the town was very strict about praying on time. The Rabbi arrived at the synagogue waiting for a minyan (a quorum of ten required for prayers), but no one showed up. He waited for half an hour, then an hour, until he realized there would be no minyan that day. Annoyed, the Rabbi prayed on his own and then went to find out why no one else in the town had shown up to pray that day.

That’s when the Rabbi understood that a Jewish traveler was standing in the center of the town and telling stories, keeping everyone from arriving on time to pray. The Rabbi instructed his assistant to go bring that man to him so he could be punished for stopping the prayers from happening that morning. A few minutes later, the Baal Shem Tov went to see the Rabbi, who asked him why he had stopped everyone from coming to pray. The Baal Shem Tov answered, “Honorable Rabbi, I truly deserve to be punished for preventing the public from praying, but before you punish me, let me tell you a story.”

And so, the Baal Shem Tov told the town’s Rabbi story after story, until that Rabbi took it upon himself to be among the Baal Shem Tov’s greatest disciples. The Hasidim say that this Rabbi was called Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polonne, known for being a great student of the Baal Shem Tov and one of the first great Hasidim.

The Hasidic movement’s extraordinary story-telling abilities contributed quite a bit to the confusion surrounding the enigmatic and wonderous character of its founder, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer – the Baal Shem Tov (“Master of the Good Name”) – who has kept generations of historians and researchers occupied. Simon Dubnow, a pioneer in the critical study of Hasidism, wrote the following in the opening section of his book The History of Hasidism:

“Out of the fog, the historical image of the creator of Hasidism emerges and becomes visible to us…a thick mask, woven into the imagination of his contemporaries and later generations, hides the true image of the Baal Shem Tov from our eyes until it almost seems to us as if this person never existed, but was rather a metaphor, a fictitious name for whatever may have caused a religious movement to shake the world of Judaism.”

Dubnow himself never doubted the Baal Shem Tov’s existence, but a lack of factual information overshadowed Hasidic research for decades. To this day we can’t say with certainty where or when he was born. We don’t know anything about his parents or his teachers. His entire childhood is shrouded in mystery. Eliezer Steinman wrote that it was “as if a loyal hand had gone to the trouble of obscuring his footprints.”

It was only when he began his public activity, in the 1730s, that he began to be revealed little by little, but by then he was already appearing in the full extent of his stature. By this point he was meeting with Kabbalists, and had students, admirers, men and women, Jews and Gentiles, thinkers and simple folk clustered around him. He was particularly known as the “Baal Shem,” a healer and miracle worker.

Dubnow, Gershom Scholem, and many scholars of Hasidism assessed with certainty that the Baal Shem Tov was not merely a legend – after all, his students mentioned him and taught Torah in his name, we have the siddur (prayer book) that he used, and we know exactly where he is buried. Still, several other scholars did began raising doubts about whether this person had ever truly existed. Isn’t it possible that different legends about different figures merged to tell one story? Is it possible that a person whose whole life was one of miracles and wonders truly walked this earth? Maybe there truly was such a person, but his students created a legend surrounding him after his death.

Professor Moshe Rosman is a skilled professional historian, who also benefited from a bit of luck. At the beginning of his academic career, he decided to focus not on the theology of the Baal Shem Tov, but on his life. He tried to avoid writing an intellectual biography about the man and instead rummaged through archives that offer an understanding of what Jewish life in that period may have looked like.

Rosman made a very important discovery at the beginning of his career, in the 1990s.  The 1740-1760 tax records of the town of Medzhybizh in Ukraine – the town where the Baal Shem Tov lived – which are kept in the Czartoryski Library in Krakow, contain references to a “Kabbalist” or “Baal Shem, Doctor” who lived in a house owned by the Jewish community and was exempt from paying taxes.

Appearing alongside this “Baal Shem” in the tax records are many familiar figures from the book In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov. All of this indicates that not only did the Baal Shem Tov exist, but that he was already known as the Baal Shem Tov, a healer, “doctor”, and even a “Kabbalist” in his lifetime. The tax records also show that the Baal Shem Tov wasn’t necessarily an anti-establishment figure – as later generations tended to portray him – but rather someone whose community recognized his uniqueness and showed its appreciation by providing him with a home, and a tax exemption from the authorities.

As of 1760, the Baal Shem Tov no longer appeared on any tax records, indicating that he likely passed around this time.

The Baal Shem Tov continues to serve as an enigmatic, wonderous, legendary figure. To this day, there are differences of opinion about when he was born, but there is a consensus that he died during the festival of Shavuot in the year 1760. But just as the life of the Baal Shem Tov was full of riddles and legends, so is everything surrounding his passing.

In a story that appears in In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov, the Baal Shem Tov’s death seems to be controlled by the Baal Shem Tov himself. He knows the timing, he feels the struggle, and to him, death is simply a transition from one type of existence to another:

“First, the Baal Shem Tov gave his students a sign: when both clocks in his house stopped, it would mean that he had passed on from this earth.

And then, when the Baal Shem Tov returned from the bathroom and washed his hands, the large clock stopped. And the people and students surrounding him tried to hide it from him so that he wouldn’t see that it had stopped.

The Baal Shem Tov said to them: ‘I know the clock has stopped, and I am not worried, for I know with certainty that when I leave through this door, I will immediately enter another.’

The Hasidic tale continues:

The Baal Shem Tov sat on a bed and asked for his students to stand around it. He shared Torah lessons with them. The Baal Shem Tov said that there was a pillar used to ascend from the lower Garden of Eden to the higher Garden of Eden, which exists in every world. And that pillar exists in every person at all times.

Slowly, his voice grew weaker until his students could no longer understand the words and letters coming out of his mouth. He told them to cover him with a sheet, and he began to tremble and shake, just as he used to do when praying.

Then, he rested a bit and his body relaxed, and they all saw that the smaller clock had stopped as well.

Rabbi Leib Kessler, who was there, later testified that he had seen the Baal Shem Tov’s soul depart his body as a pale-blue colored flame.”

In the Hebrew song Kol Mi She’At (“Everything You Are”) which he wrote as a farewell to his mother Naomi Shemer, Ariel Horowitz describes clock hands moving like a pair of scissors, counting time backward.  The hands on the clock are like a pair of scissorsClose to touching the thread of your lifeAnd it’s impossible to catch in a glimpseEverything you are Horiwitz’s song doesn’t describe a big clock and a small clock, but rather clock hands moving like scissors, cutting through time and cutting off the thread of life.

Perhaps it was like the Baal Shem Tov himself said: “The pillar on which you ascend from the lower Garden of Eden to the higher Garden of Eden…exists in every person at all times,” and it is impossible to grasp the enigma of a person – “everything you are” – in a glimpse. 

For the Hasidim, the fact that the Baal Shem Tov died during Shavuot symbolizes more than anything his status and how his soul was deeply connected to the giving of the Torah. The Baal Shem Tov’s image is interwoven with that of other Jewish leaders who were also deeply connected to Shavuot, including Moses, who received the Torah, and King David, from whose descendants the Messiah is to come and who also died on Shavuot, according to Jewish tradition. The Baal Shem Tov’s passing on Shavuot symbolizes that he was a link in the long chain spreading the teachings of the Torah outward and thus bringing redemption closer.