The Final Days of the Jewish Community in Gaza

Documents recently discovered in the Archives Department of the National Library of Israel shed new light on the forgotten Hebrew community of Gaza, as well as the Jews who lived in and visited the city even after the community no longer officially existed

The Gaza beach, 1924. This photograph is part of the Archive Network Israel project and is made available as part of a collaboration between the Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi Institute, the Israeli Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

The third decade of the 20th century was the last decade of existence for the old Jewish community of Gaza.

By this point the community had dwindled down to only a handful of people, but in the past, it had included prominent figures such as Nathan of Gaza, a well-known follower of Sabbatai Zevi, and Rabbi Israel Najara, author of the liturgical poem Ya Ribon Olam,

In a letter from 1926, discovered in the archive of Moshe David Gaon, a scholar of Eastern Jewry and author of the monumental work Yehudei HaMizrach Be’Eretz Yisrael (“Jews of the East in the Land of Israel”), which is kept at the National Library, Mr. Dromi, secretary of the Hebrew community council in Gaza, provided Gaon with details on the state of the community. Dromi noted that it had its own elected council, and numbered 51 people, Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike, in contrast to the period before the war, when there were close to a hundred Jews in Gaza.

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From the Moshe David Gaon Archive, which is in the process of being cataloged and is made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington

During the 1929 riots, the Jews of Gaza were forced to flee the city, and that was the official end of the community, but does that mean that there was no longer a Jewish presence in Gaza?

The Gaza community has seen ups and downs over the years, and during the first half of the 19th century it ceased to exist, apparently due to the invasion of Muhammad Ali, the de facto ruler of Egypt at the time. During the second half of the 19th century, the city’s Jewish community was renewed at the initiative of Klonymus Ze’ev Wissotzky, founder of the Wissotzky Tea Company, and Hacham Nissim Elkayam, a Torah scholar and merchant born in Morocco. The Jews of the city were mainly Sephardim who were familiar with the Arabic language and culture.

They came from various places, mainly from Jaffa, but also from Aleppo, Hebron and even from Europe. The majority of them worked in trade, especially of barley and colocynth, a bitter fruit with medicinal properties that grows around Gaza and is also known as “vine of Sodom” or “wild gourd”. Due to their extensive trade relations with the local Bedouin tribes, some of the city’s Jews lived for several months of the year near the tribes, outside the city, and even adopted some of their habits. For example, Jewish men used to ride horses and wear a sash with a dagger and a gun. The Jews of Gaza were also involved in banking, and a branch of the Anglo-Palestine Bank opened in the city. In his memoir, the bank’s manager, Abraham Elmaliah, describes how the bank’s management traveled by train from Jaffa to Gaza to be there on the day it opened, and along the way they were greeted with songs and blessings by farmers from the Jewish colonies (moshavot) as well as the Jews of Gaza themselves. The bank was highly respected in the city, its manager Elmaliah was always accompanied by two Kavass guards, a symbol of honored status.

Due to its isolation from other communities, the Gaza community was generally a cohesive and unified collective. Former community members recalled different families celebrating Sukkot and Passover together. Typically, several Jewish families would share a single living compound, with each compound having a dedicated room intended to accommodate Jews who were spending the night in the city, on their way from Cairo to the Land of Israel.

The Moshe David Gaon Archive includes evidence of the solidarity felt among members of the community. Among other things, the archive includes letters from the heads of the community to the Chief Sephardic Rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Franco, the Rishon LeZion, with requests to support the members of the community in preparation for the Passover holiday.

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A letter from the Jewish community in Gaza to Chief Rabbi Franco, 1912. From the Moshe David Gaon Archive, which is in the process of being cataloged thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington

Jewish religious life was also quite developed in the city. There was a rabbi who also served as a teacher, kosher slaughterhouses, a ritual bath, and a Jewish cemetery. Although it wasn’t a large community, it had three synagogues, one for each extended family. At the initiative of one of the dignitaries of the community, Nissim Elkayam, who was influenced by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a Hebrew school was established in Gaza at the beginning of the 20th century. Two teachers sent from Jerusalem taught there. Rabbi Nissim Ohana served as the rabbi of the community for part of the time. He later served as a rabbi in New York, Egypt, Malta and Haifa. During his stay in Gaza, Rabbi Ohana wrote a book, in collaboration with the Mufti (Muslim Leader) of Gaza, Sheikh Abdullah al-Alami, entitled Know What You Will Answer Epicurus: Clear Answers from the Bible Itself. The purpose of the book was to provide Jews and Muslims with replies that could be used to counter the efforts of Christian missionaries, who ran a hospital in the city at the time.

World War I was a severe setback for the Jewish community of Gaza. Most of the city’s Jews had foreign citizenship and were therefore expelled from the country by the Ottoman government. While a number of families had local citizenship and could remain in the city, they were required to enlist in the Ottoman army or, alternatively, pay a high ransom. As a result, the Jewish community effectively ceased to exist for several years, until after the war. Once the fighting was over and the land had been conquered by the British Army (which established a military cemetery in the city with several Jewish graves), the Jews slowly began to return to Gaza, but the Arab nationalist awakening damaged the close neighborly relations that had existed in the past between Jews and Arabs. Among other things, many Arabs refused to rent houses to Jews, and since part of Gaza was destroyed during the war, Jews had difficulty finding homes in the city. The Jewish community also suffered a lack of support from the national institutions, which no longer saw any value in Jews living in the heart of Arab cities, preferring instead to focus on developing new agricultural communities.

In late Summer of 1929, things reached a boiling point. As part of the Arab riots that were now raging throughout the country, there was an attempt to attack members of the Jewish community in Gaza as well. According to press reports at the time, local Jews barricaded themselves in the Jewish hotel near the police building. An Arab mob that attacked them had to retreat after one of the Jews fired a gun and others poured sulfuric acid on one of the Arab intruders (see, for example, an article in Haaretz dated September 1, 1929 and the recollections of Gaza resident Sara Yaffe as quoted in Ma’ariv dated December 9, 1956). With the help of some distinguished Arabs locals who were on friendly terms with the community, along with the British police, the Jews managed to board trucks that took them to the Gaza train station, where they had to wait for the train from Alexandria to Lod, all while the angry mob was still trying to get at them. This was the end of the Jewish community in Gaza.

Although the community in Gaza ceased to exist after the 1929 riots, there were many Jews for whom Gaza was never forgotten. Jewish tourist groups, including some led by geographer Joseph Braslavi, and the “Association of Wanderers in the Land of Israel”, continued to visit the city. In 1934, the Association, of which Moshe David Gaon was a member, published an ad for a trip to the southern part of the country to include Beer Sheva, Ashkelon, and Gaza. Participants were asked to bring food for a day and a half, a jug of water, a Bible, and a map of the area. Among other things, the trip included a visit to the ancient mosque of Gaza, which had a pillar inside with a seven-branched menorah engraved on it.

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From the Moshe David Gaon Archive, which is in the process of being cataloged and is made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington

Documents found in the archives of the entrepreneur Shmuel Zvi Holtzman, which is also kept at the National Library, show that even after the dissolution of the community in Gaza, Jews still lived in the city and dreamed of re-establishing their community. In a letter from 1933, a Jewish agronomist and resident of Gaza named Eliyahu Kapsuto, who was appointed by the Gaza municipality to oversee vegetation in the city, appealed to Holtzman asking him to send grass seeds.

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From the Archive of Shmuel Zvi Holtzman

Holtzman himself had planned to renew Jewish settlement in Gaza. In a draft memorandum that was found in his personal archives, there’s a detailed plan to establish a stock-holding company, “The Land of Israel Company for Planting and Building, Ltd.”, whose purpose was to establish a Jewish farming colony (moshava) near Gaza. The plan was never realized, and we don’t have any further details about it. It is possible that Holtzman abandoned his plan so that he could focus on establishing the Gush Etzion cluster of settlements, which he founded at that time.

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From the Archive of Shmuel Zvi Holtzman

The Moshe David Gaon Archive is in the process of being cataloged and is made accessible at the National Library of Israel, thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel. Arik Kitsis is the archivist in charge of handling the Moshe David Gaon archive.

Nahal: The Story of the Green Brigade

In the early days, Nahal soldiers served as both fearless fighters and hard-working farmers. They brought their determination and camaraderie from the battlefields to the wheat fields of Israel's kibbutzim and moshavim. The Nahal program is even responsible for some of the finest songs written in Hebrew! This is the story of the IDF's green brigade

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Nahal soldiers in Nahal Oz, 1950. Photo by Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

By Reut Gawiser

In the early 1940s, the Jewish community in the Land of Israel, the Yishuv, faced enormous tensions. Its members looked worryingly at the terrible events unfolding in Europe, with the Nazis conquering country after country, advancing in great strides towards the Middle East. Lebanon and Syria became active arenas for the collaborationist Vichy regime, while other countries in the region did not need much persuasion in joining up with the cause of wiping out the Jewish People. The Jews of Mandatory Palestine had only Britain to rely on, but the United Kingdom was already up to its neck in dealing with the European front and the Nazi attacks on the British Isles themselves. It was at this time that the Palmach was founded.

The Palmach, (the word is a Hebrew acronym meaning “strike companies”) was born out of a unification of a number of Jewish military organizations operating in the Land of Israel in those years, with the knowledge and approval of the British Mandatory government. The goal was to train Palmach fighters (including female fighters later on) to fight the Nazi enemy, if and when they tried to conquer the country.

Uzi Narkis (left) and his comrades in the Palmach’s Company A on a trek to Masada, 1944. Source: Uzi Narkis Collection. This item is part of the Archive Network Israel project, and is made accessible thanks to the collaboration of Yad Ben Zvi, the Ministry of Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The Palmach was never forced to put its original training to the test. German forces led by Field Marshall Erwin Romel were stopped by the British Army at El Alamein in Egypt in late 1942 and never reached the Land of Israel. The British thus concluded that there was no longer a need for the Palmach and sought to dismantle it. The Palmach in turn decided instead to go underground and even operate against the British authorities themselves, until the independent State of Israel was declared.

Upon going underground and with the establishment of the Jewish Brigade as part of the British Army, which attracted many Jewish soldiers into its ranks, the Palmach faced a manpower crisis. To overcome it, Labor Zionist leader Yitzhak Tabenkin conceived a novel solution, connecting the Palmach companies to kibbutzim throughout the country: the Palmachniks would work two weeks of every month on a kibbutz, receiving lodgings, food, and weapons in return from the kibbutzim. They would then spend the rest of the month training and taking part in various operations.

This arrangement worked very well, to the point that Palmach leaders thought up another idea – creating “training groups” or gar’inim, groups of young people who trained together while establishing new kibbutzim or helping to stabilize young ones. It was the perfect combination between the spirit of pioneering which beat in the heart of the founding generation and the clear and unavoidable need to protect the Jewish Yishuv. Among the kibbutzim established by these Palmach groups were Erez, Mashavei Sadeh, Yir’on, the aptly named Kibbutz Palmachim, and many more.

A Palmachnik in training working on a lathe at a framing workshop, Kibbutz Givat Chaim, 1942. Source: Yehoshua Levanon Collection. This item is part of the Archive Network Israel project, and is made accessible thanks to the collaboration of Yad Ben Zvi, the Ministry of Heritage and the National Library of Israel

During the War of Independence, the Palmach was an organized fighting force numbering over 2,000 battle-ready soldiers. In fact, the Palmach was the first organization to prepare a reserve force of veteran members, something that eventually evolved into the IDF reserves. Once the war was over and the underground disbanded, the Palmach’s fighters and commanders were integrated into the IDF’s chain of command, including such luminaries as Yitzhak Rabin, Uzi Narkis, Yigal Alon, and many others.

But what would become of the military-agricultural project that the Palmach oversaw, now that the organization was defunct and part of the regular state army? Due to the concerns of kibbutz and youth movement members, a letter was sent to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion asking him to ensure that young soldiers who were assigned to the training groups would maintain the mix of defending the country and working the land, lest the farms be abandoned and left to waste.

A few days later, Ben-Gurion responded: “I confirm the receipt of your letter from the day of 10.8.48 regarding the core settlement groups of the class of 1931,” Ben-Gurion wrote in his distinctive, direct style. “Your aim to preserve the core settlement groups… is fundamentally correct and the Defense Ministry will give military HQ instructions in this regard…”

Letter sent to heads of youth movements and kibbutzim hosting the training groups: “The core settlement groups should not be allowed to disintegrate.” Source: Ben Gurion Heritage Archive, Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel

And so it was. The pre-state Palmach training groups became the training groups of the “Nahal” – a Hebrew acronym standing for Noar Halutzi Lochem – “Pioneering Fighting Youth”. The Nahal program brought together the principles of settlement and defense, a combination which many consider to be the ideal of the native Israeli sabra – a brave fighter who also works the land.

The training period was now replaced with assignment to new Nahal military-agricultural outposts. Core groups of male and female soldiers would be tasked with setting up an outpost, or holding (היאחזות), in a particular location, usually in border areas or regions of strategic importance. The group’s members would lay down the civilian infrastructure and also serve as a military force defending the settlement until it became a kibbutz or moshav capable of absorbing civilian members.

The first Nahal military settlement was Nahal Oz, established opposite Gaza City in 1951, which became a kibbutz two years later. This kibbutz was one of the many communities that came under attack by Hamas on October 7, 2023.

These military-agricultural settlements became a symbol of the Nahal program over the decades, with hundreds of communities being founded in this manner across many different regions. They include kibbutzim within the “Green Line” as well as settlements in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). The people who live in them today can represent opposite ends of the Israeli political spectrum, but for many years they all shared a similar ideology and vision.

Paratrooping Nahal Soldiers and the Heroic Story of Mitla Pass

Alongside its important work in settling the country, Nahal was a military unit for all intents and purposes, whose soldiers gave their all in every military conflict in Israeli history. In the 1950s, the Nahal Parachuted Battalion (whose soldiers came from either the moshavim and kibbutzim or from religious yeshivahs) was attached to the Paratroopers Brigade. For this reason, to this day Nahal soldiers are given the red boots usually associated with IDF paratroopers. Along with the soldiers of the Paratroopers Brigade, they took part in the reprisal raids carried out in response to “fedayeen” terrorist attacks.

In the Sinai Campaign of 1956, the 88th Nahal Battalion, attached to the paratroopers, took part in the Battle of Mitla Pass in Sinai, one of the most famous engagements in IDF history. When the force was dropped near the combat zone, it encountered Egyptian ambushes. The Egyptians used heavy artillery to target a few dozen IDF soldiers stuck in a narrow pass with no room to move their own heavy weapons. They waited for backup for over 24 hours, while doing their best to return fire.

Even today, the Battle of Mitla Pass represents the determination, fighting spirit, and sheer doggedness the IDF is known for. At the time, however, many believed the battle was unnecessary and too costly: 38 Paratroop and Nahal soldiers were killed, one went missing, and over a hundred were wounded.

After the battle, Ariel Sharon, then commander of the Paratroopers Brigade, said the following of the ordeal: “Twenty men in a death trap, crying for help and their commander rushes forward to extract them… There are deeds that are examined not only in the immediate context… but which leave their imprint on the character of the army and its moral superiority for years and future generations to come. Rescuing wounded on the battlefield is such a deed.”

Paratroop Brigade commander Ariel Sharon says farewell to his soldiers just before entering into the Mitla Pass during the Sinai Campaign of 1956. Source: Mordechai Bar-On Collection. This item is part of the Archive Network Israel project, and is made accessible thanks to the collaboration of Yad Ben Zvi, the Ministry of Heritage and the National Library of Israel

Nahal Goes Onstage

What do Arik Einstein, Yossi Banai, and Chaim Topol share with the band Kaveret, Yardenah Arazi, and even Dafna Dekel and Hani Nahmias (really, this list could go on forever)? The answer, of course, is the Nahal Troupe.

Even this achievement can be credited to Nahal’s pre-state forerunner – the Palmach, the first Jewish military organization to establish its own entertainment troupe known as the Cheezbatron or “campfire story ensemble”, whose members eventually became true stars of the Israeli cultural scene – including Shaike Ofir, Arik Lavi, and Naomi Polani. Nahal continued this legacy of song and merriment with its own musical troupe, which would give the young state many of its most beloved performing icons.

Members of the Cheezbatron perform in the Arava desert. Shaike Ophir (left) and Naomi Polani (second from right) included, May 1949. Photo by Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

It was the “Pop Idol” of its time, and many of its stars would become national cultural icons, influencing the Hebrew songbook to this very day. Many units in the IDF had similar troupes, but the Nahal troupe clearly stood above them all.

How?

This, too, can be attributed to the creativity and determination of the Nahal program. The best Israeli poets, composers, and songwriters worked with the troupe over the years, including Naomi Shemer of “Jerusalem of Gold” fame, as well as Chaim Heffer and Dubi Zeltzer.

The Nahal troupe enjoyed popularity and success for several decades, but over time, its significant cultural influence waned, as Israeli society evolved. The troupe closed down in 1993, and although it was reestablished a decade later, it couldn’t rekindle the spark it had lit among Israelis in its glory years.

Nahal Soldiers in Green

The Nahal Will Be Like Any Other Infantry Unit: Will Receive a Green BeretMaariv, June 1988

The 1980s brought a new front to Israel’s wars: Lebanon. After the war which led Prime Minister Menachem Begin to resign and say “I can’t go on any longer,” the IDF once again changed form and new units were established, with older ones undergoing changes. The Nahal battalions were united into a single brigade. In the late 1980s, the Nahal Brigade received the beret it is known for to this day – bright green, inspired by the unit’s agricultural history and connection with the land.

Nahal soldiers after receiving their beret. Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit

A Spearhead Brigade

Nahal soldiers in training. Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit

The soldiers of the Nahal Brigade were frequently placed in hotspots, manning IDF outposts in Lebanon and in Judea and Samaria. The brigade was divided into four battalions: the 931st, 932nd, 50th, and a reconnaissance battalion (Gadsar). In the 1990s, instead of establishing new communities, members of Nahal training groups frequently dedicated a period of their army service to helping educate and assist youth in urban and peripheral areas.

This was not the only innovation brought in by the brigade. Nahal was always characterized by innovative thinking, and this continued into the 1990s.

In 1999, Nahal established the Netzah Yehudah or Nahal Haredi Battalion, the first battalion of its kind, meant only for yeshivah students and Haredim (ultra-orthodox Jews). In this battalion, soldiers can maintain a Haredi lifestyle alongside meaningful military service in a combat unit. The battalion is now attached to the Kfir Brigade, but there is no doubt that the Nahal Brigade played an important role in the battalion’s history.

Another innovation to come out of the Nahal Brigade in the last few decades is the Caracal Battalion.

The caracal is a desert cat can leap to a height of nearly ten feet and will not hesitate to fight larger predators such as hyenas. It is silent and stealthy, but also determined and deadly. It’s therefore easy to understand why this was the name chosen when it was decided in the early 2000s to launch an experiment – a mixed male-female company within the Nahal Brigade. The experiment, as we know today, succeeded.

Additional caracal companies were formed shortly after, with recruits coming from the Nahal training groups. In 2004, the companies were merged into a battalion charged with guarding a sector stretching 80 miles, and the battalion itself was expanded significantly. The battalion’s number, 33, symbolizes the 33 female Palmach soldiers who fell in the War of Independence.

The formation of the battalion did not pass without criticism. Some questioned the capabilities of the female soldiers, who have constituted about 70% of the battalion’s personnel to this day. The following story is the ultimate response to the doubters: In 2014, Capt. Or Ben Yehudah, then a battalion officer, received an urgent call to go and check out a developing incident near the border fence. Three jeeps were charging towards the fence from the Egyptian side. When they reached it, the people in the vehicles emerged and began trying to climb over the fence, equipped with ladders and guns. Other vehicles waiting for the suspicious convoy were spotted on the Israeli side, and the initial assumption was this was a drug smuggling operation, which is typical in the region.

Most smugglers are quick to flee the moment they spot IDF soldiers approaching. But Capt. Ben Yehuda and the two soldiers who were with her, saw that this time was different. In fact, the suspicious figures opened fire on them! The “smugglers” turned out to be 23 Al-Qaeda terrorists armed with rifles and RPGs.

The soldiers fired back and waited for reinforcements. Aviv, one of the two accompanying soldiers, was shot and seriously wounded. Ben Yehuda extracted him under fire and was herself wounded while doing so. The battle lasted for a few more minutes until the terrorists were neutralized thanks to backup forces arriving on site.

Despite her injury, Ben Yehudah refused to evacuate until the incident was over. In recognition of her heroic conduct under fire, Or Ben Yehudah received a medal from the head of IDF Southern Command. Today, Ben Yehudah is a Lieutenant Colonel who serves as commander of the Caracal Battalion (which was recently placed under the Border Defense Corps but which still brings in young recruits from the Nahal Brigade). On October 7, she conducted a 14-hour firefight at Sufa outpost and a number of neighboring civilian communities, during which she and her forces neutralized dozens of Hamas terrorists, saving many lives. Her deputy, Maj. Avraham Hovelashvili, fell in these battles.

Since the days of the Palmach and the War of Independence, Nahal soldiers have proved fearless fighters as well as dedicated farmers who worked the land. Their contribution to the building and defense of this country could fill many more pages in the chronicles of the history of the state. Nahal soldiers brought their determination and camaraderie from the battlefields to the wheat fields of Israel’s kibbutzim and moshavim. Their contribution to shaping the landscapes of the country we love is incredibly significant and wide-ranging.

These days, when it seems nothing is as it was, there is a Hebrew song by Yoram Taharlev, whose words seem like a prayer for better days:

“The Nahal soldiers return, the Nahal soldiers return

To the orchard and the grove, to the coops and the vineyards

The Nahal soldiers return, the Nahal soldiers return

Like everyone

And life returns, and life returns

To its track.”

(Shir Hanahla’im – “The song of the Nahal Soldiers”, by Yoram Taharlev)

Avshalom Feinberg: A Spy With a Poetic Soul

Avshalom Feinberg is known for being among the founders of the "Nili" organization, but as it turns out, even before the Jewish spy ring was established, he was already active in politics and managed to capture the hearts of women, well-known cultural figures and scientists. There is no telling who he could have become were it not for his tragic death at 27

Avshalom Feinberg. This item 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.

Avshalom Feinberg’s name is known primarily for his heroic involvement with Nili, a spy ring which helped British forces conquer the Land of Israel from the Ottoman Turks. One of the organization’s founders, he was the male counterpart in a famous love triangle with Rivka Aaronsohn (who claimed they were engaged to be married) and her sister Sarah (with whom he had a special relationship). Aaron Aaronsohn described him as “a knight without fear and without reproach,” but as you are about to find out, he was much more than that.

Indeed, if fate had taken a different trajectory, and Feinberg, who was quite an impressive man, had never met Aaron Aaronsohn and not become part of Nili, chances are his career would have gone down a different path. He could perhaps even have become President of the State of Israel, or at the very least, a major figure in its cultural milieu.

Feinberg was born in Gedera in 1889, a descendent of a distinguished line of intellectuals from the early-Zionist Bilu movement, a first-generation native of the Land of Israel. He possessed a gift for languages, a sharp mind, a poetic soul, and a rebellious spirit. Avshalom’s father, who had great expectations for his young offspring and intended for him to study law in Constantinople one day, had him learn Arabic and the Quran under a sheikh in Jaffa. The Arab neighbors knew Avshalom by his Arabic name, Salim. Both in these studies and at school, the young man excelled. In 1904, he graduated with distinction from the Alliance School and was granted a scholarship to the Alliance Teachers’ Seminary in Paris.

Avshalom Feinberg, aged approximately fourteen, studio portrait taken in Paris, France. Photo: Photographie Russe (89 Rue de Renner, Paris), REI-YBZ photographer. Avshalom sent this photograph from Paris to his sister Tsila, née Feinberg. This item 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

The years spent in France had a profound impact on Avshalom: enamored with the language and culture, he drank in the ideas of liberty. He joined the intellectual circles of Paris and forged a close friendship with the French philosopher Jacques Maritain and the poet Charles Péguy, who both predicted a great future for him in the realms of French literature and poetry. In addition, their friendship had further-reaching consequences as it sparked new admiration for Jews in France more generally.

Following his time in France, Feinberg went to Switzerland to be treated for a neurological disease from which he was suffering and stayed in the renowned sanatorium of Professor Constantin von Monakow in Zurich. It was there that he met a scientist who would become a central figure in Zionist history. In a letter to his aunt Sonia (from the book Avshalom: Writings and Letters (Hebrew), found in the collections of the National Library of Israel), Avshalom describes a conversation he had with the biochemist Chaim Weizmann, who would later become Israel’s first President. It appears that Weizmann asked Feinberg to become his research assistant:

“And you, listen to me!” – he told me

“Forget America, come to England with me. Have you means?”

 “I do not, but I could get some from my father, or elsewhere.”

“It’s nothing, take them; forget vain arguments, you’ll repay it someday. Property, simple and compound interest, this is what I do myself these days. Do come to England… The choice is yours: Oxford, Cambridge, London, or Manchester. You will be given every possible consideration and opportunity. One year to prepare and four years of study, this is more than you need. Once you are properly equipped, you will be able to go to America or wherever you like, but you must prepare first, you must outfit yourself. Now, do! Promise me. I have been preoccupied with you for a while now. I have taken an interest in you. Now, a stone has fallen off my heart.”

I promised I would give the issue some thought.

The next day, as I was walking him to the station, he asked me in parting to come see him again.

All this took place on the night of the thirtieth of December 1907.

– From the book Avshalom: Writings and Letters (Hebrew), by Avshalom Feinberg (Hebrew), ed. Aaron Amir, published by Haifa Shikmona, 1971, p. 20)

We do not know what happened beyond this meeting; perhaps it was Weizmann that ended up recommending young Avshalom to Aaron Aaronsohn? And what would have happened had he gone to read natural sciences at Oxford? One thing is certain, Avshalom captured the hearts not only of women, but also of cultural figures and scholars.

Once he had returned home, Feinberg took up civic activism and was unafraid to speak his mind publicly. For example, Feinberg was involved in debates between religious and secular groups within the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. In this article in Herut on 5 August, 1910, he is quoted speaking at a conference protesting the Jewish religious ban on farmers working the land during the seventh shmita year. Feinberg hoped the masses would take to the streets, in support of the Jewish farming colonies against the religious authorities:

Avshalom Feinberg of Hadera cries out: “I would not call for war on the rabbis like the previous speakers, but rouse the entire nation[…] They would split Israel into their faction against the faction of youths who wish wholeheartedly to work at reviving the nation. Instead, this assembly ought to decide to call for a greater gathering, of fifty thousand, in Jerusalem…”

Avshalom was not at all religious; he even refused to put on tefillin at his Bar Mitzvah. However, he was well-versed in scripture thanks to his grandfather, who had taught him as a child, and one could argue that Judaism was dear to his heart.

At the age of 22, Avshalom met the agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn, his elder by a mere 13 years. This meeting marked the beginning of the best-known period of Avshalom’s life. Aaronsohn ran a facility for agricultural experiments in Atlit and had another branch in Hadera. Highly impressed by young Feinberg, he first placed the young man in charge of the Hadera branch, and then made him into his own secretary and right-hand man, despite his lack of agronomical knowledge.

During their six years of friendship, until Feinberg’s highly mysterious and bewildering death in the desert in 1917, Avshalom was a member of the Aaronsohn household, and this period is well-attested. Aaronsohn expressed his love and appreciation of Feinberg in the best way available to an agronomist—by naming a new species of onion after him, which he discovered on the foothills of Mt. Hermon: Allium feinbergii. Eventually, Avshalom became one of the founding members of the Land of Israel’s first Jewish underground group. The Nili organization dedicated itself, under Aaronsohn’s leadership, to collecting information on Ottoman forces in the Land of Israel, in the hopes of helping the British Army conquer the region during the First World War. This would indeed come to pass.

Thanks to the wealth of written material young Feinberg left behind, readers have been able to discover surprising little-known facets of his exceptional personality. In a 1911 travel journal he kept while working at the agricultural research station in Atlit, he expressed his connection to nature and spirituality:

“I stood stunned, speechless at the beauty of the plants. All I could think was that I could well understand this way of honoring God.”

Feinberg’s love of nature was evident even at the end of his life. He was killed in the desert when he was merely 27 years old. He disappeared in the sand dunes around Rafah in the Sinai Peninsula—then the Turkish-British frontline—on 20 January 1917. All initial attempts at finding his body met with failure. It was only after the Six-Day War, once the IDF captured the area where he was killed, that his remains were identified thanks to a palm tree that had grown there, apparently from seeds that were in Feinberg’s pocket when he fell.

The palm tree that grew from seeds in Avshalom Feinberg’s pocket, near Rafah. Next to it stands Lt. Col. Shlomo Ben-Elkana with some local Arabs. The skeleton Ben-Elkana found was ultimately identified as belonging to Avshalom Feinberg and transferred in a military ceremony to the cemetery at Mt. Herzl. This item is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) 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

Long before Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain were even born, Avshalom Feinberg could have been considered the first member of the notorious “27 Club”. Feinberg was an artist: a virtuoso of the written word, talented, clever, courageous, and creative. The poetic soul of this secular man who worked tirelessly for the revival of the Jewish nation in the Land of Israel can be observed in many of his writings. We are left to wonder what he could have become and what he could have written and created, had his life not come to such a cruel end, somewhere far off in the desert.

Children of Heroes: The Story of Ma’ale HaHamisha

Is it a good idea to raise children in a place constantly under enemy fire? How much joy can there be for a ten-month-old baby whose father has died for a cause? This is a story of childhood spent in Kibbutz Ma'ale HaHamisha – a story of love, laughter and dedication, alongside constant threat and loss

Yaara, the only surviving offspring of the five murdered men after whom Kibbutz Ma'ale HaHamisha was named. Courtesy of the Ma'ale HaHamisha archives.

“Crowds gathered once again, the same crowds that came to the funeral, but their purpose now was different. Instead of tears of sorrow, their eyes glistened with tears of light and happiness. The joy poured out from their hearts and took hold like a flame, spreading further and further afield. Shoulder to shoulder, hands on each other’s backs, the atmosphere was intoxicating, hands moving, feet pounding the ground in circles. The dance began. Eyes were closed, and the heaviness in our bodies dissipated. Everyone moving together in a circle, everyone trembling, in an ecstatic hora.”

(Description written by Yitzhak, one of the first members of the group, on 20 Tammuz 5699 [July 7, 1939] when the cornerstone was laid)

They didn’t originally call the place Ma’ale HaHamisha (“Ascent of the Five”) because the disaster hadn’t yet happened. They were “just” a group of young pioneers, one of the many from Europe who came to build a new home – for them as individuals and for their nation – in the Land of Israel.

The first core group of pioneers, which called itself BeMa’ale (“in the ascent”), consisted of members of two separate groups of Zionist activists – one from the Vitkinia movement and one from the Gordonia movement – who came together in temporary residences in Kiryat Anavim in the Jerusalem hills, west of the city. They were later joined by people who arrived with the Youth Aliyah organization.

The goal was to establish a new settlement point. The question under debate was whether they should settle in the valley or take on the heroic task of “conquering the mountain” – settling in a strategic elevated position under harsher conditions where it was more difficult to grow crops.

First members of the group at Ma’ale HaHamisha. This photo is preserved in the Ma’ale HaHamisha archives and is available online at the National Library of Israel (IL-MAHM-001-07-063-144)

These were the days of Arab revolt (1936-1939) in Mandatory Palestine, and in the meantime, the group answered the Histadrut’s [the Zionist labor union] call to take over the operation of the stone quarry in Nahalat Yitzhak that had been abandoned by its Arab owners. The work in the stone quarry was difficult and unfamiliar to these group members who had mainly been given agricultural training. The housing conditions were harsh and uncomfortable; they slept in one central hall and had to guard the area in shifts after work. They also worked simultaneously in forestry.

Within this group of pioneers still finding their feet, was a young couple, Yitzhak and Hanna Migdal. During that initial stage characterized by hard manual labor and frequent Arab attacks, with an as yet unclear future, Hanna gave birth to their daughter in the old Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Baby Yaara was the couple’s firstborn, but she was the third child born to the first core group.

Baby Yaara. Photo courtesy of the Ma’ale HaHamisha archives

Despite differences of opinion and the growing pains of those early days, it was clear to all the members that for the sake of the children and their future, they needed to decide where to settle.

In the end, this difficult decision was made for them.

On November 9, 1937, some members of the community went out to pave a road on Har Haruah (“The Mount of Wind”), just south of where the kibbutz is situated today. They arrived during the early hours of the morning with their tools loaded on a donkey, and walked straight into an Arab ambush. They were shot and murdered almost at point blank. The group that arrived right after them got there just in time to see the murderers flee.

Aharon Olishevsky, Aryeh Mordechovitz, Yehoshua Pochovsky, Moshe Bar Giora (Baumgarten), and Yitzhak Migdal – baby Yaara’s father – were brutally murdered.

The members of the small group were beside themselves, but the decision was made. They decided to settle on the mountain, despite the physical and security-related challenges this would pose. They felt they needed to do this to honor those who were murdered in the past and for the sake of their children’s future.

A page in the members’ book where Yitzhak Migdal’s death is noted, somewhat laconically – met, “dead”. Courtesy of the Ma’ale HaHamisha archives.

The Ma’ale HaHamisha archives, which have been operating for many years to preserve every piece of history related to the kibbutz, contain writings from this period, which reveal the feelings of the members and which document the pivotal moments of their pioneering days.

These writings are available digitally to the general public through the National Library website as part of the Archive Network Israel project. The project is a collaboration between the archives of different Israeli communities (such as Ma’ale HaHamisha), the Ministry of Heritage, and the National Library of Israel.

Towards the end of July 1938, the group left their temporary residences at Kiryat Anavim, accompanied by an auxiliary force of Jerusalemites and residents of other nearby towns. They headed uphill to the place where the five were buried and began their ceremony to lay the cornerstone for the new community at the top of the mountain.

The companions helped set up the first lodging arrangements and fortifications, but they ultimately departed, leaving behind the members of the BeMa’ale group, who were carefully chosen to be the first pioneers to prepare the land and buildings for the rest who would follow.

“15 members remained. Around a hard rock, they sat down for their first meal there. Such sublime contentment, such a pleasant feeling came over them when, after such tumult, they could see what they had accomplished with their own hands.

The summer breeze blew and swept away the footprints of the crowd that had been there, noisily blowing around the new shack, surrounding it all around, and when it realized that it could not be subdued, it went off in another direction toward the wilderness.

From this day on, on the high peak, the Ma’ale HaHamisha enterprise will continue to develop, nurtured by a few members who have formed bonds of life and death, eternal bonds, with this place. “

(Yitzhak, Ma’ale HaHamisha, 20 Tammuz, 5669 [July 7, 1939])

“In memory of the “BeMa’ale” members who sanctified the place with their blood” – A report in Davar describing the establishment of Ma’ale HaHamisha, July 22, 1938. From the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

The first group included a few members who “knew a bit about guarding and security.” The group organized itself with military discipline, in the heart of a hostile area prone to Arab attacks. The place didn’t yet have the character of a proper community. Women hadn’t even arrived yet, except for one young lady who filled a medical position.

They prepared the land around them for agricultural harvesting but mainly they focused on construction – everything from homes to fortifications to henhouses, as well as a water line connecting to nearby Kiryat Anavim.

“Just as they finished the first two [Jewish] agency houses, the children came up, along with their parents. How joyful the toddlers were, who also made the ascent. Their vision of Aliyah [immigration, ascent] was realized and manifested in a deep, childlike joy. And who among us can accurately express the feelings of children; and it is not easy for children, but they are pioneers. And so, step by step, the place was conquered, and it submitted to humans, the masters of nature and the creators of culture.”

(Leah, Ma’ale HaHamisha)

The first children of Ma’ale HaHamisha. This photo is preserved in the Ma’ale HaHamisha archives and is available online at the National Library of Israel ( IL-MAHM-001-07-063-055)

With the arrival of the children, the community transitioned from a semi-military outpost to a home, a place where the members could start families and raise future generations.

One might assume that children growing up next to combat positions, with their parents and all the other adults around them constantly busy with their daily tasks – toiling and working the difficult land while also taking on long and demanding guard duty shifts – would have to accept not being the primary focus of attention.

The opposite actually proved true; the children were a source of joy and hope for all the members – not just their parents or caretakers.

This is how Tzila Cohen-Rotblit described the first day in nursery school for Dalia, the kibbutz’s first newborn:

“This is an important event in our internal lives: Dalia is leaving [baby] care and moving over to nursery school. A new, more interesting, but also more difficult chapter is beginning for her… Despite our best wishes, we are unable to arrange for a nursery school here… At this moment, with the great changes in Dalinka’s young and tender life, we wish for ourselves, that this firstborn daughter won’t disappoint our hopes that we have placed in her, that she may grow and merit praise and renown.”

When Yaara was born to Hannah and the late Yitzhak, the nannies carefully monitored her development and growth. In a journal that was ahead of its time, predating contemporary baby wellness clinics’ records, her weight, what she ate, and any childhood illnesses she suffered were recorded in neat and meticulous handwriting.

Tracking baby Yaara’s development, courtesy of the Ma’ale HaHamisha archives

By the time she had grown a bit, a nursery school was set up in the kibbutz itself, and Yaara didn’t need to leave her natural environment every day like her older friend Dalia had. The teacher, Bedna, loved the children dearly, and they loved her back.

Their lives were full of songs and stories and they had dolls, games, books and an almost normal routine, just like any child anywhere in the world. It was as if they didn’t live on an exposed mountain opposite enemies who’d take every opportunity to break into their homes and murder them. As if a few dozen meters from the nursery school there wasn’t a guard post equipped with submachine guns and grenades. As if they had never heard the sounds of shells exploding or heavy bursts of gunfire while they were singing their morning songs.

They were almost like typical children, complaining about showers that were too cold, annoying things the adults demanded of them like taking off their shoes when coming inside (paved roads and sidewalks were nowhere to be found, and depending on the season, the shoes could be full of mud or dust), and the long 2-3 kilometer walk to school.

But was this cloak of normalcy enough to cover up the fact that Yaara’s father wasn’t waiting for her every evening at home? That Dalia, Gideon, Eitana and Gila’s parents left home every night for guard duty?

Parents and children on the kibbutz, 1938. This photo is preserved in the Ma’ale HaHamisha archives and is available online at the National Library (IL-MAHM-001-07-063-040)

On November 29, 1947, the parents and nannies tried to choose between maintaining normal routine and recognizing the magnitude of what was happening: The children weren’t allowed to stay up, but were promised that they’d be woken up with the results of the vote on the United Nations Partition Plan. In the end, they were dragged out of their beds to take part in the festivities in the kibbutz’s dining room, when it was announced that the UN had approved the decision to establish a Jewish state alongside an Arab one.

But the jubilation didn’t last long. Their surroundings began to become more and more dangerous. Some men from the Palmach (the elite Haganah fighting force) had come to stay at the kibbutz and assist in defending and training the members for the war that was now underway. The children observed their training and lifestyle with curiosity, and occasionally they’d hear from the nursery schoolteachers that this one had been killed or that one had been injured.

School was cancelled and the children now helped fill sandbags, practiced what to do during episodes of shelling (there was no safe room; usually they just lay down between the bed and the wall in their rooms) and mostly tried not to bother the preoccupied adults.

Children helping at the cow shed, 1946. This photo is preserved in the Ma’ale HaHamisha archives and is available online at the National Library ( IL-MAHM-001-07-013-006)

After the fall of Gush Etzion, the kibbutz received a warning to expect an attack by enemy forces who were no longer tied down in the fighting there. This was just around the time when construction of the first shelter was finished. One night in early May, when heavy shelling began, the children were moved into the shelter, which still contained remnants of construction materials.

“In the shelter, I dressed the children and managed to give them breakfast,” kibbutz member Edna Wexler explained:

“We hadn’t yet managed to organize the children inside the shelter when the order suddenly came to evacuate the place immediately. I have no idea where they came from but the Palmach guys suddenly appeared inside the shelter. They removed the mothers who had arrived so as to streamline the evacuation and speed it up. They didn’t let the mothers intervene and look for their children, but instead put one of the little children in each of the girls’ arms and ordered them to run towards Kiryat Anavim. The older kids ran after us themselves.”

In Kiryat Anavim, buses were already waiting to evacuate them to Jerusalem – first to homes in the Katamon neighborhood and then to the Ratisbonne Monastery, where they remained until the end of the war.

After the war, they returned. And to this day, they fill the lawns, orchards, and pathways of the kibbutz with the sounds of laughter and life.