The Haredi Soldiers Who Served in Israel’s War of Independence

For seven months, Haredi yeshiva students who served in "Gdud Tuvia" (Tuvia’s Battalion) proved that Torah study and IDF service could go hand in hand. Rare documents describe the profound reflections of those who viewed their military service as a sacred mission.

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A group of Haredi recruits during training. Photo: Fred Csasznik, IDF and Defense Establishment Archives

370 out of 900 reported for duty.

These were the enlistment numbers for Haredi Yeshiva students shortly after the establishment of the State of Israel. 270 received medical exemptions. 260 received exemptions on spiritual grounds. The rest, under directives given by leading rabbis, enlisted in the struggle to defend the fledgling state in its War of Independence. This enlistment was the result of an agreement between the yeshivas and the IDF enlistment offices: outstanding students would be exempted, and the conditions of enlistment would allow recruits from the yeshivas to continue studying Torah during their military service.

It was Tuvia Bier, a former Haganah member, who gathered the young Haredi recruits and gave them a home – a new battalion for yeshiva students. Bier was so dedicated to these soldiers that the battalion was later named Gdud Tuvia (Tuvia’s Battalion) after him. For seven months, the yeshiva students worked on setting up and strengthening fortifications in bombarded Jerusalem, simply because there was no time to provide proper training in anything else. They weren’t sent to the front lines because they hadn’t learned to operate firearms and also because of concerns that the world of Torah study would be destroyed if they were to perish in battle.

They worked one-to-two days a week on fortifications and spent the rest of their time studying Torah. They did most of their work at night, both for security reasons and to avoid disrupting their study routines at yeshiva.

The battalion was active for seven months before being disbanded. Many praised it, but many others mocked the focus on fortification work, which they perceived as a means to avoid combat service. People commended the Haredi soldiers’ willingness to sacrifice their lives for the defense of their homeland. Still, some wondered whether the work carried out by the battalion truly justified the disruptions in Torah study.

But what was going through the soldiers’ heads? How did they view their service? Did they believe in the righteousness of the path they had taken?

The Fortress

Like many other military units, the soldiers of Gdud Tuvia produced their own magazine. They called it Hamivtzar (“The Fortress”), since fortifications accounted for the majority of their work. In total, they managed to produce two issues, which were each copied and distributed among the battalion’s soldiers, providing them a platform where they could read, study, and even express themselves. The two issues of Hamivtzar are preserved in the IDF and Defense Establishment Archives, and they offer us insight into what the soldiers were thinking and feeling at the time.

The cover of Issue No. 2 of Hamivtzar (“The Fortress”), 1948. Courtesy of the IDF and Defense Establishment Archives.

The Dilemma

The soldiers from the yeshivas struggled with the question of their enlistment. It is as true today as it was back then. Was it right for them to serve in the army? Is it appropriate for yeshiva students to set aside the study of Torah for the sake of fortifying Jerusalem?

This question was asked in print in Hamivtzar, by a writer who identified himself as “M.S.”:

“Despite all the doubts, despite all the questions burning through every yeshiva student’s mind: Is this even my duty at all? Am I obligated to serve in any role in the war effort beyond my usual role as a yeshiva student, which is no less crucial than any other military role? Moreover, am I allowed to, even momentarily, leave the beit midrash, the spiritual fortress of the Torah of Israel that protects us in every generation?”

One page after this, the answer appears:

“This is the duty of every Jew in general, and our duty as yeshiva students in particular. We are the next link of the golden chain of the Torah of Israel, in action and deed. We are pulling the chariot of the people up a treacherous slope towards the pinnacle of the hoped-for redemption. We are the ones! This is our contemporary duty!”

A group of Haredi recruits during training. Photo: IDF and Defense Establishment Archives

How irreconcilable was this tension?

Throughout all the texts in Hamivtzar, the yeshiva students emphasize that despite the mission they have now undertaken, they will never for a moment forget their primary task – to study the Torah. This is reiterated in the editorial section of the first issue ofHamivtzar.

“Our role so far has been fortification works, and indeed it is not an easy task. We require significant activity and heightened dedication, and at times, even significant risk, to fulfill this duty… However, precisely because of the importance and value of this task, we must not forget the essence, that the task imposed upon us should never lead us to neglect our primary role, which is the study and observance of the commandments of the Torah.”

The answer to the dilemma is not definitive. Some of the writers viewed their military service as a mission, even a necessary step in the redemption of Israel. Others were content with doing what needed to be done under the circumstances. Some of them fulfilled their missions mainly because “the rabbis instructed it.”

We’ll conclude this chapter with some moving words written by a certain “Mordechai”, under the title Sh’ma Yisrael [“Hear Ye, O Israel”], who viewed IDF service not only as a temporary necessity but as a true mission.

“Students of Torah, dwellers of the beit midrash, oarsmen in the sea of Talmud, a tribe of priests whose generous spirit led them to take part in our liberation struggle, these are the anointed priests who must bring the word of God into the Israeli military camp. You are soldiers of Hashem, you must raise your voice on high, to restore the pure faith in the Eternal One of Israel who will not disappoint. For your eyes have seen what He has done for us when we stood few against many – many soldiers and many weapons – and we saw His greatness and wonders, it is upon you to illuminate with the light of your Torah the hearts of our soldiers who dedicate their lives for the sanctity of the nation and homeland.”

What Next?

On the surface, the pilot program of Gdud Tuvia seems to have been a failure. Ever since, those opposed to the enlistment of Haredi Jews in the IDF have had the upper hand. Even today, decades later, the debate over the enlistment of yeshiva students remains heated and volatile. Just as it was back then.

But did the project truly fail? To a large extent, the ideas of Gdud Tuvia have served as the foundation for the Hesder Yeshiva-military service programs and IDF units like Netzah Yehuda that are operational today. Perhaps the battalion’s principles can still be implemented in one form or another in future programs as well. “Dad didn’t grasp the enormity of the historical moment in real time; he simply did what he did because he thought it was the right thing to do,” recounts Kobi Bier, son of Tuvia, the commander of the yeshiva student battalion. “I think with a bit of goodwill, we can resolve the intense debate over the enlistment of Haredi Jews by using this model. We can set a certain percentage of outstanding Torah students, grant them exemptions, and we can find suitable solutions for the rest. I understand the concerns, but just as we saw with Gdud Tuvia, solutions can always be found. There’s no need to fear this.”

Tuvia Bier, commander of the yeshiva student battalion

Further Reading (Hebrew):

ההסדרניקים של תש”ח by Aharon Kornfeld

The Hope or the Glory? Herman Wouk Writes About the State of Israel

The award-winning Jewish-American author lived a secular life in his early years and claimed that one of the greatest influences on his life and work was the US Navy. What made him spend years writing a pair of thick novels telling the story of people whose culture was far removed from the one he grew up on, and for whom he had quite a bit of criticism to offer?


Herman Wouk visits Israel, 1972. From the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

“Don’t begin in 1948. This story is a hundred years old.”

When Herman Wouk, the award-winning Jewish American author, sat down to write a historical novel centered around the history of the young Jewish state, he consulted with his Israeli friends, who had personally experienced the events he wanted to write about. Some were leading Israeli military and political figures, others were unknowns whom the world would come to recognize and who he’d randomly mentioned now and then, including one young fellow by the name of Ilan Ramon. People were generally pessimistic about the book’s chances of success. They felt the story was too complex; it wasn’t simply a war story, but rather something no one else in the world could truly understand; the time frame was too broad because it was impossible to understand anything that happened here without going into way more history than can fit into one book.

But that didn’t bother Herman Wouk. He had already won a Pulitzer Prize for a book that all his friends and acquaintances in the US Army warned him not to write (The Caine Mutiny, 1952), and he had managed to get a 2,000-page historical saga about World War II onto the bestseller lists. Besides, unlike most Jewish-American writers of that generation, he felt he was a Jew first of all, before anything else. He was also an ardent Zionist. In fact, by the time he wrote his books about Israel in the early 1990s, Wouk’s views on Zionism were already considered quite naïve and even somewhat childish in Israel itself.

He simply wanted to tell this story. A story of hope and glory.

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Herman Wouk, author of The Caine Mutiny, speaking with D. Ben-Gurion after a festive performance at Habima on Monday” – Davar, May 15, 1955, the Historical Jewish Press collection at the National Library of Israel

Herman Wouk was born during World War I to a traditional Jewish family that immigrated from Russia to the Bronx, NY. As a young man, he was a typical American for all intents and purposes, far removed from any national or religious awareness. But then, his mother’s father, Mendel Leib Levine, fled Russia and joined the New York Wouks. He made his young grandson study Gemara with him and became one of the two most influential factors in Wouk’s life (the other being the US Navy).

Herman Wouk was an incredibly talented young man. As a 16-year-old, he got accepted to Columbia University, where he edited the university’s comedy magazine Jester and wrote several plays that were performed by students. He received his first degree before he was even 20 years old. When he graduated, he worked as a radio host, while simultaneously writing a play – The Man in the Trench Coat – which was not a resounding success.

And then came World War II.

Wouk enlisted in the navy and left the Jewish community of New York behind. He served as an officer aboard a minesweeper in the Atlantic Ocean, saw close friends wounded and killed, and spent long days sailing on the high seas, reflecting and writing.

When the ship docked at a port for repairs, he met Betty Brown. The young officer made quite an impression on the beautiful redhead who ran the office at the port, and she in turn captured his heart. Since Brown was a Protestant (albeit not a particularly devout one) and he was Jewish, it seemed likely to be a short-lived war romance. He returned to sea, with a photo of Betty as a keepsake, and she stayed on dry land, dreaming of the handsome officer she could not marry. While he was off fighting the Japanese and writing his second book between shifts on board the ship, she began to study Judaism. When she managed to contact him, she let him know that she was interested in converting.

The newspapers in Israel were often occupied with gossip about the famous author’s wife. The headline of this article reads: “Betty Became Sarah-Batya; The wife of author Herman Wouk, currently in Israel, is a convert” – Maariv, July 18, 1962, the Historical Jewish Press collection at the National Library of Israel

Upon his release from the navy in 1945, they got married, despite his father’s reservations. The future looked bright. Betty Wouk supported her husband’s literary career. They spent long evenings together with him reading her the latest chapters he had written, and she would offer comments and corrections. She sometimes erased whole sections that had taken him weeks to write, “but she was always, always right,” Wouk used to say.

Despite the efforts, and even though the book he had written aboard the minesweeper (City Boy)was praised by critics, his first two books didn’t sell well. While he was writing The Caine Mutiny, his loving wife warned him that this was it – if this book wasn’t a success, he’d need to find himself a new job. He had a family to feed, after all.

Luckily, The Caine Mutiny was a smash hit. It was selected for prestigious book clubs, earned its author the Pulitzer Prize, was translated into many languages, made into a Broadway play and even became a Hollywood movie starring Humphrey Bogart.

Herman Wouk was now a household name, and his status and livelihood as a respected writer was guaranteed. In the following years, he wrote various books, many of which focused on the identity complexes of the Jewish elite in the United States. These books met with varying degrees of success. Throughout this time, Judaism occupied an increasing share of his thoughts.

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Left to right: Hebrew editions of City Boy (1963) and Youngblood Hawke (1967), both were published years after the English originals. Herman Wouk’s books often dealt with American Jewry, alongside other topics.

In 1971, after many years spent working and researching, The Winds of War, the first book in a sprawling epic about World War II, was published. “It was a prologue to what I really wanted to write about,” he said once in an interview, although this was seemingly the longest prologue in the history of literature, with over a thousand pages telling the tale of the Henry family, who are swept up in the storm that was the Second World War.

War and Remembrance, the second part of the epic, was published seven years later.  The book is dedicated to his and Betty’s eldest son, who had drowned in a swimming pool before he had turned five years old: 

“In memory of Abraham Isaac Wouk. He will destroy death forever.” 

Wouk continued doing what he did best: telling the story of the deadliest conflict in human history through the eyes of ordinary people, thereby turning the war into something personal, and making that personal experience into something universal. But in this book, he also presented the reader with the complexity of his personal worldview: He was an American patriot to the depths of his soul, a modern liberal, a man of the world, and also, perhaps more than anything else, a Jew.

The Winds of War and War and Remembrance have been translated into many languages, made into a television series that won an Emmy and a Golden Globe, and are Wouk’s most important literary legacy. In America, the books immediately garnered praise, lectures at the Library of Congress have been dedicated to them; and people like Henry Kissinger, Robert Caro, and William Safire have written about the great influence the books have had on their lives.

War and Remembrance, the television miniseries that won Emmy Awards and Golden Globes

In the meantime, Wouk’s friendships in the State of Israel, which grew before his eyes, continued to develop. He visited Israel, bought an apartment in Jerusalem, and even received an honorary doctorate from Bar-Ilan University. When his son decided to immigrate to Israel and enlist in the IDF, Wouk started to learn Hebrew.

The National Library of Israel has preserved his correspondence with the famous Israeli author S.Y. Agnon. The letters aren’t very long or complex, since Wouk chose to write to Agnon in Hebrew – in the large handwriting of someone who has just learned to write, using short sentences containing a few spelling errors, unsurprisingly.

In one letter, he told his friend Agnon that he would be visiting Israel for three weeks, that he would be staying at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, and wanted to meet up with him. In a later letter, he thanked Agnon for meeting him and sent his condolences for a death in the immediate family.

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I only wanted to inform you in my broken Hebrew…” – Herman Wouk writes to S.Y. Agnon, asking if the Israeli author would be available to see him during an upcoming visit to Israel. From the S.Y. Agnon Archive at the National Library of Israel

As an American observer from the sidelines, he was extremely moved by the State of Israel. Though such excitement was shared by many of Israel’s own citizens, for them it would typically, and naturally, fade over time.

Wouk decided to write a large-scale historical novel about the revival of the Zionist idea and the establishment of the State of Israel. In The Hope and The Glory – the two books that together created his Israeli epic, he saw a direct continuation of War and Remembrance, which ends with a story about a passionate Zionist who plans to illegally immigrate to Israel to help establish its naval forces.

Wouk’s dedication of The Glory, which was published in 1994, reads as follows:

 To the Israelis

Valorous in War

Generous in Peace

Above All to Those Who Fell

To Save the Land

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Herman Wouk in the 1970s. Photo from the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Those who tried to warn him that the book wouldn’t do well proved to be partially correct. Although it wasn’t a colossal failure, Israeli history it seems – with all its complexity and social nuances – was of less interest to the American public. The book also failed to capture the hearts of Israelis.

Was it the somewhat naïve, overzealous point of view (though the books also contain some criticisms) that the common Israeli reader – who over time had adopted a slightly more cynical view of the Zionist project – couldn’t relate to? Or was it that Wouk had failed to fully capture the true essence of Israeli society and thus the story felt a bit artificial and foreign?

Either way, this was the Israel that Wouk saw on his visits. Full of grandeur, courageous people who could also be arrogant and heartless, a land for whom the bells of history toll on its streets daily. A land that has enabled the revival of the Jewish People after the Holocaust

The dedication of the Hebrew version ends as follows:

“As for all the dangers and problems that I keep up to date with, in the weekend issues of Yedioth Ahronoth, the Jewish saga that has been unfolding for three thousand years is mostly dangers and problems. And yet, here we are – you, Hebrew readers on the front line, and me, the old chronicler and your adoring fan.”

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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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


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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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].