Invited by Zionists: Egyptian Teachers in Mandatory Palestine

In 1926, more than 100 Egyptian teachers and officials visited Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem and elsewhere. What did they think of Jewish education and how did the local Arab population receive them?

A touring car on the Ramallah-Jerusalem Road, mid-1920s. This photo is part of the Israel Archive Network 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

“Long live King Fuad! Long live Palestine!”

The cries rang out in the spring air of Tel Aviv, as the Chief Rabbi and Zionist dignitaries looked on. The gathering concluded with both the Egyptian national anthem and “Hatikva”.

It marked the beginning of a whirlwind 1926 Zionistic tour of British Mandate Palestine, on which more than 100 Egyptian educators and officials visited Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem and elsewhere.

The group had been personally invited by Chaim Weizmann, the legendary scientist and leader of the Zionist movement who would become the State of Israel’s first president. Just a few weeks earlier, Weizmann had joined a delegation of Jewish teachers visiting Egypt under the auspices of the Zionist Executive, with the support of the Egyptian Consul in Palestine and the Egyptian government, which had interceded to issue entrance visas for the group of about 80. The visitors from the Land of Israel had been warmly welcomed by local Jewish organizations, as well as Egyptian officials, provided with accommodations, celebratory banquets, kosher food, discounted rail fares and programming during their stay – including visits to schools, museums and even Al Azhar University, the prestigious center for Islamic learning founded in the 10th century.

Jewish tourists in Egypt, 1920s. This photo is part of the Israel Archive Network 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 following month, it was the Zionists’ turn to host their Egyptian counterparts.

The first stop after the welcoming ceremony? The Herzliya Gymnasium, the very first Hebrew high school. The delegation visited educational institutions across the land, from kindergartens to the Bezalel art academy, agricultural schools and, of course, the newly established Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Interest and motivation to meet and host the group was high:

“Jewish councils and other bodies came forward eagerly with offers to entertain the visitors from Egypt, whose programme was crowded with concerts and receptions, the most significant of which was a banquet in their honor given by the Department of Education of the Palestine Zionist Executive before their return home.”

In a speech he gave shortly after the visit, Weizmann recalled the message he had conveyed to the Egyptians:

“Our way, as I told the Egyptian teachers, is the way of peace. It is narrow, difficult and unpaved. There is no false heroism on it and no false pathos, but it rests, so I believe, on the historic tradition of the Jewish people.

When the nations of the world understand that this is our goal, they will approve it and facilitate our work. Should there, however, be a doubt in the public opinion of the world as to whether we go along this way, they will not believe in our work.”

Though the Egyptian group toured Jaffa, Jericho and other majority Arab areas, the reception they received from their Palestinian Arab brethren seems to have been a bit colder than that received from their official hosts.

In fact, to a large extent, they were boycotted and treated as traitors for having responded favorably to the Zionist invitation.

In Acre, for example, Toufic Mejdaliani, the editor of a local humorous publication, criticized Zionism and “reproached the teachers with having neglected the Arabs.” The Egyptian visitors told Mejdaliani “that they were not interested in politics and that the purpose of their visit was a scientific one.”

In a message to the editor of the Jerusalem-based Arab newspaper Mir’at Al-Sharq, the teachers stated:

“We fail to understand the reason for which you boycott us and attack us in your papers. The matter is simple. The Jewish teachers visited us and we welcomed them as required by hospitality. They invited us to visit them and we accepted the invitation, believing that science has neither religion, nor fatherland. If the Jews are your enemies, they are not ours… In boycotting us, you have done more harm to yourselves than to us… Why did you not profit by the valuable opportunity of acquainting us with your cause? Do you think all the world regards the Zionist question as you do?”

According to the teachers, though, the reception by fellow Arabs was not just counterintuitive, but also hurtful:

“You have wounded us deeply by your campaign against us. We shall never forget that in certain towns they would not give us water. We never expected an Arab country to act in this way.”

It was important for the teachers to stress that they had covered their own travel expenses (as opposed to accepting gifts from the Zionists), and would have loved to meet with more Palestinian Arabs if only they would have been welcomed and invited. Nonetheless, despite the hurt and disrespect they experienced during their visit, the Egyptians’ message ultimately took a dramatic and conciliatory change of course:

“… we forgive you because we regard your attitude as dictated by patriotism. The Jews wished to separate us from our brothers… They wished us to emphasize the ability of Zionism, but they were disappointed.”

The delegation’s official report and some accounts of the visit published back in Egypt, however, seem to tell a bit of a different story.

One teacher was particularly taken by the Jewish kindergartens, admiring the teachers’ “good will and patience”, the tidiness of the classrooms, and “specially charmed by the music lessons.”

He concluded that the older schoolchildren were “symbols of love for study,” was struck by the fact that the very recently revived Hebrew language already had terms for modern concepts, “while teachers in Egyptian high schools… complain of the limited terminology of the Arabic vocabulary…”

The official Egyptian Ministry of Education report of the visit, which came out a few months later, noted numerous features of the Hebrew educational system worthy of praise, including the academic and mental rigor, the tidiness of the classrooms, the attention paid to diction, and the importance placed on physical fitness.

Students in Petach Tikva’s Pica School, 1926. This photo is part of the Israel Archive Network project and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Oded Yarkoni Historical Archives of Petach Tikva, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The revival of Hebrew was also seen as something to admire, as was the fact that the educational system was extremely economical – providing high quality education at a most reasonable cost.

Summing up the trip in an interview to the Zionist newspaper The Palestine Bulletin, the Egyptian undersecretary for education, who headed the delegation, declared:

“We came here as colleagues of the Hebrew educational workers. We appreciate education at so high a standard that we think that nations should spend every penny on education… While it is early yet to speak of exchange of professors and students, we should do everything to strengthen cultural bounds between both countries in all other possible ways.”

Before the educators even returned home, Chaim Weizmann and other Zionist leaders were already visiting Emir Abdullah at his palace in Amman. There, over lunch, they discussed the Jewish teachers’ visit to Egypt, and the Egyptian teachers’ visit to Mandatory Palestine, emphasizing the importance of such connections, and even suggesting that the newly established Hebrew University of Jerusalem and its collection of Arabic texts (now part of the National Library of Israel), should be utilized by scholars from across the Arab world.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

How Did Jews Flee to Israel From the Arab World?

A look at some of the brave souls who risked their lives to reach Israel before and just after the state's founding...

A new immigrant from Morocco in Jerusalem, ca. 1950 (Photo: Werner Braun). This photo is part of the Israel Archive Network 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

It’s an incongruous sight: a WWII plane marooned among the trees at the Atlit Museum of Clandestine Immigration near Haifa.

But this latest addition to the army camp where illegal immigrants were detained during the British Mandate is no ordinary plane. It took years to be tracked down – and it was finally found in Alaska.

The plane, a Commando C-46,  is a replica of that which was used for Operation Michaelberg – a 1947 mission to transport 150 illegal immigrants to British Mandate Palestine from Iraq and Italy.

A Commando C-46 with immigrants from Iraq near a bonfire-marked landing strip in the Galilee during Operation Michaelberg, 1947 (Photo: Nadav Mann, BITMUNA). From the collection of Yitzhak Altuvia, part of the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

It was the first time that a civil aircraft was used to transport illegal immigrants from the Muslim world.

Before the establishment of the State of Israel, most clandestine arrivals to Mandatory Palestine came from European countries, yet hundreds of thousands of Jews also risked life and limb to flee Arab and Muslim states.

Illegal immigration before 1948 was known as “Aliyah Bet,” short for “Aliyah Bilti Legalit“, which literally means “illegal immigration”. It was run by Mossad LeAliyah Bet, a section of the Palmach, the elite fighting force of the Haganah, and was funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Aliyah Bet was mainly by sea in defiance of quotas imposed by the British White paper of 1939.

In the post-war years preceding the creation of the State of Israel, some 100,000 immigrants arrived. It is claimed that as many as a third came from Arab or Muslim countries. After Israel was established this task fell to the Mossad, Israel’s secret service.

Once founded, Israel could fling open its gates and accept all Jews who wanted to come. There followed some of the greatest  migrations in history by land, sea and air: 650,000 Jews arrived from Arab countries – 90 percent of the communities of Libya, Iraq and Yemen, a third of the Jews of Morocco.

But the window to leave soon closed. Arab countries would not allow their Jews out – they were hostages to the conflict. This was the case for six years in Morocco, until the 1970s in Iraq and Egypt and until the 1990s in Yemen and Syria.


The Mandate Period

Ironically, during WWII around 4,000 Yemenite Jews came as legal immigrants, because there were not enough European Jews to fill the quota of legal immigration permits set by the ruling British.

In 1944, it became Zionist policy to encourage immigration from Arab countries: the so-called “One Million Plan”. As Arab antisemitism rose, the plight of Jews became more desperate. But while the British were in charge, the only way into Palestine was to try to run the shipping blockade – or employ an overland smuggling route.

Zionism in French-ruled North Africa became very active in 1943 but emigration did not become legal until 1949. Local Zionist youth groups set up an underground network with the help of smugglers. Almost 1,000 Jews passed through Tanas, a secret camp in Algeria, and boarded Haganah ships bound for Palestine.

Jewish immigrants on a boat, Algiers, 1950 (Photo: Nadav Mann, BITMUNA). From the collection of Yani Avidav via Ofer Avidav; part of the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Shmuel Sibon, a teenager from Sefrou, Morocco, spent a month at Tanas, and was one of the few who was not a member of a Zionist group. Food was short. Lice was plentiful. He boarded the Yehuda Halevi ship from the Algerian coast. A voyage which should have taken days lasted three weeks. The ship was surrounded by British destroyers. One holed the ship, and water poured in. The Yehuda Halevi was diverted to Cyprus where Sibon spent nine months. The camp inmates greeted the passengers, asking, “Where are the Africans?” as they expected to see black Jews.

The famous Exodus had 50 North Africans on board – “Africa on the Exodus” – a tiny proportion of the 4,000 passengers. Shlomo Busqiuila was one. There was nothing to eat, he reported.  The best thing for him was that he met his wife on board: Hava, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor.

In Libya, the Jewish Brigade fighting alongside the British did much to inspire the local community to make Aliyah – and 90 percent did so. Until 1949, however,some 1,300 made it to Israel via Italian DP camps. They were survivors of horrific wartime labour camps such as Giado and the 1945 Tripoli pogrom in which 130 Jews had died. Many did not have citizenship. The International Refugee Organisation was unsympathetic and claimed they were not asylum seekers but economic migrants.


Illegal emigration from Morocco

After Israel was declared, emigration from Morocco became legal: waves of Jews headed for the border with Algeria. After  independence in 1956, Morocco introduced a ban. Emigration went underground. At first Tangier, then the Spanish territories of Ceuta and Melilla became important staging posts.

Migrants headed for Gibraltar on commercial lines and then boarded Jewish Agency ships bound for Israel. They were not told when they would be leaving, only the time and place where a vehicle would pick them up. They were given false papers. The smuggling was timed to coincide with pilgrimages to saints’ tombs or Christian celebrations. The police were bribed at exit points. The migrants ran the risk of being arrested and tortured.

A family of new immigrants from Morocco celebrate their first Passover in Israel, ca. 1951 (Keren Hayesod). This photo is part of the Israel Archive Network 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

Jews continued to leave in secret until the Egoz (Pisces) disaster  in January 1961.  The ship was about to do its 13th illegal crossing to Gibraltar. All 42 on board were drowned including the Spanish machine operator. The captain saved himself. The tragedy caused the immigration ban to be lifted.

Between 1961 and 1964, nearly 100,000 Jews left Morocco as part of Operation Yachin, an effort conducted by the Mossad following an agreement between David Ben-Gurion and King Hassan II, whereby the Moroccan government received payment for every Jewish émigré.


Aliyah from the Middle East

In 1942, Aliyah Bet began to send emissaries to Iraq, Syria, Iran and Lebanon. About 9,000 Jews, including 1,300 Syrian Jews, were escorted in daring and complex operations overland to Mandatory Palestine. Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, wife of  Israel’s second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, made it a priority to bring teenage girls from Syria. By 1945, 1,000 young people had made the journey.

Nissim Arkeli gives a graphic description of his escape:

“…the Arab border smugglers sat us on horses and instead of saddles, we sat on several sacks. The road which wound through mountains and hidden wadis was difficult and taxing, with the ever-present life- threatening danger  of falling from the horses and breaking one’s neck on the rocks. We very quickly developed calluses on our bottoms and thighs. By the second night the calluses had become very painful, bloody wounds.”

In November 1947, conditions became critical for Syrian Jews. Riots broke out in Aleppo resulting in most of the population fleeing. Thousands went from Syria to Lebanon, the only Arab country to see its Jewish population increase during this period.

The first illegal immigrants to Mandate Palestine from Iraq arrived on their own after the 1941 massacre known as the Farhud, primarily through Transjordan, a route 1,500 kilometers long. Some walked all the way. The shortest and quickest route was along the oil pipeline. Bedouin smugglers, taxi drivers, even officials of the Royal Jordanian Court acted as guides. The Iraqis and the British tried to thwart Aliyah with military inspections. Migrants could be imprisoned and interrogated.

Zionist activists in Baghdad, 1934. This photo is part of the Israel Archive Network 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

Smugglers charged excessive prices. The Zionist movement was willing to pay exorbitant sums per emigrant. Several hundred left posing as tourists with forged passports.

Avner Shashua was detained when he tried to escape:

“One evening we were called to leave. Bedouin clothes were prepared for us: abayas, akals and keffiyas… we got into the waiting car  with the driver/smuggler… at one of the curves in the road the police were waiting for us… the smuggler was in cahoots with the police. We were taken to a detention centre. We had no beds, no mattresses and no blankets; we grabbed a corner and sat on the floor.”

The Mossad preferred a route through Syria from Mosul to Qamlishi, Aleppo, Damascus or Beirut. From 1943 to 1946, about 5,000 of the 7,500 immigrants from Iraq were smuggled in twos or threes across Israel’s northern border.  Many returned to Iraq, finding it difficult to adjust to their new environment.

Emigration was stagnating by 1947. The Zionist movement in Iraq had 2,000 members, but only 50 had made it to Israel.


Operation Michaelberg

Shlomo Hillel was increasingly frustrated. He was a 23-year old Mossad LeAliyah Bet agent who had moved to Israel from Iraq. Operation Michaelberg was conceived when he learned of two veteran American pilots with an itch for adventure and empty pockets who had offered their services.

They flew a C-46 plane to Baghdad with Hillel aboard. The plan was for 50 immigrants to be transported in ten cars past an Iraqi military camp and then climb through a breach in the airport fence. The plane almost took off without the passengers of the tenth car –  but it arrived just in time.

The plan worked perfectly. They landed in a field in the Galilee. A Mossad agent handed the pilots a briefcase of cash. The Haganah ran the operation one more time, bringing back 50 more Iraqis before the outbreak of war made the operation too risky.

Immigrants getting off the plane in the Galilee during Operation Michaelberg, 1947 (Photo: Nadav Mann, BITMUNA). From the collection of Yitzhak Altuvia, part of the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In 1948, Iraq declared war on Israel and ramped up persecution of its Jews. Illegal immigration surged through the south and over the border into Iran. Soon it was running at 1,000 a month. The situation became so embarrassing for the Iraqi government that it decided to allow  emigration for one year only, thinking only hotheads and undesirables would want to leave. As it turned out, 120,000 Jews registered to go.

Shlomo Hillel went back to Iraq to negotiate the airlift. It became known as Operation Babylon or Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.


Aliyah from Yemen

In 1949, Israel made a deal with Alaskan Airways to transport Yemenite Jews from  the British colony of Aden at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Yemenite Jews were in a desperate state. Many had walked through the desert to the Hashad transit camp in Aden. Hundreds died of malnutrition or disease. Ultimately 50,000 Jews were airlifted to Israel during 1949-50 – almost the entire community.

Preparations at the port in Aden to bring Yemenite immigrants to Israel, June 29, 1950 (Photo: Benno Rothenberg). From the Meitar Collection, The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and into the 1990s, the Mossad continued to run clandestine operations– from Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq and Iran. They saved thousands of Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s and 1990s, bringing them to Israel.

With the arrival of the C-46 plane at the Atlit museum, and the inauguration of a  dedicated hall, in some small way clandestine Sephardi immigration takes up its rightful place in Israel’s history. The brave souls who risked their lives to rescue and be rescued from Muslim countries are being remembered after being largely overlooked for so many years.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

The Botched Hit That Sparked the First Lebanon War

The failed attempt on Ambassador Shlomo Argov's life led to one of the most complicated and difficult episodes in Israel's history

Ambassador Shlomo Argov and ruins from the Lebanon War (Argov photo published in Hadashot, July 6, 1984 / Lebanon photo: Emanuel Dudai. From the Dan Hadani Collection, The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel)

The Dorchester Hotel, London — one of the world’s swankiest. Owned for decades by modern-day sultans and Middle Eastern magnates, the Dorchester has been a favorite hangout for countless cultural icons from Hitchcock to Streisand. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, held a legendary stag party there before marrying the future Queen Elizabeth II.

UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his wife Mary with Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and his wife Miriam at The Dorchester, March 1965 (Public domain)

The Dorchester is about as far as it gets from the muddy forests of southern Lebanon, yet that’s where the First Lebanon War started. Kind of.

One night in June of 1982, dozens of diplomats gathered at the Dorchester for an annual gala event. Before midnight, Shlomo Argov—the eloquent, Jerusalem-born, Georgetown and LSE-educated Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom—left the hotel and headed toward his car.

Moments before, in the men’s bathroom of the nearby Hilton Hotel, a meeting had taken place that would change the history of the Middle East. There, Marwan al-Banna took out a brown bag he had retrieved from his car. He revealed a Polish W.Z.63 submachine gun accompanied by two magazines of ammunition and handed them to his comrade, Hussein Sa’id.

Sa’id left around 11:00 p.m. and waited nervously in front of a BMW showroom, popping out as Argov approached his Volvo, shooting him and fleeing the scene.

In The Master Terrorist: The True Story Behind Abu Nidal, journalist Yossi Melman, who covered the failed assassination and subsequent trials, includes a firsthand account of the events recalled by Colin Simpson, the bodyguard assigned to Argov that night:

“He bent down somewhat and was about to enter the car. When he was about to put his head inside, I heard a noise behind me. The ambassador fell to the pavement. I looked down at him and saw what appeared then as an extremely serious wound.”

Simpson chased after Sa’id, shooting him just below the ear but not before being shot at himself, with one of the assailant’s bullets narrowly missing his head. According to Melman, “The police investigators later found that the submachine gun had been set for firing single rounds, otherwise Simpson would probably have been struck several times by the 24 bullets remaining in the magazine.”

Argov was less fortunate. A bullet went through his brain. He was comatose for months and would be paralyzed for the rest of his life, spending decades bedridden, primarily in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital.

Ambassador Victor Harel, who worked closely with Argov, remembered him as a “diplomatic giant,” a seventh-generation Jerusalemite who continued fighting after being injured in Israel’s War of Independence, going on to become one of the foreign service’s most valued assets. Argov was reportedly handpicked for the London post by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, despite the fact that the two belonged to adversarial political camps. Such a decision, shortly after Begin’s historic rise to power after decades in the political wilderness, indicated the trust and respect Argov had earned as a man whose service to his country superseded his personal political ideology.

Retaliation and terrorists

Within hours of the assassination attempt, an emergency Israeli cabinet meeting concluded with a decision to hit 11 PLO targets in Lebanon, two of them in Beirut. In the meeting, Begin very clearly emphasized the urgency of action. According to military historian Shimon Golan, author of the most comprehensive work to date detailing the high-level decision-making processes during the war, Begin determined that “Israel could not wait to receive a report from Scotland Yard [regarding the terrorists’ organizational affiliation]; it had to strike without delay, the very same day, at the center of international terror in Lebanon …”

IDF Chief of Staff Rafael “Raful” Eitan recommended the initial targets to hit. Begin accepted the recommendations and emphasized that Israel had to be careful to avoid civilian casualties, while being ready for the inevitable response, including PLO attacks on Israeli civilians.

According to accounts culled from official sources and documentation, including those relayed by Golan and Melman, no major pushback, arguments, or heated discussions took place in the meeting that morning. Interestingly, even though then-Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon is largely credited with designing and pushing the plans for the Lebanon War, he was in Romania at the time and was not even present at this most critical juncture.

Retaliatory rockets came shortly after the initial air strikes, and the Israeli leadership’s discourse shifted from how to respond to deciding on the most advantageous time to launch a ground operation. The ensuing war, known as Operation Peace for the Galilee or the First Lebanon War, led, among other things, to the decimation of PLO forces in Lebanon and their expulsion to Tunis.

Beirut Airport after it was captured by Israeli forces, June 21, 1982. (Photo: Dan Hadani). From the Dan Hadani Collection, part of the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Yet the PLO had nothing to do with the attack on Ambassador Shlomo Argov. The day after the assassination attempt, Shin Bet chief Avraham Shalom had already reported to the Israeli leadership that the perpetrators likely belonged to the so-called Abu Nidal Organization (ANO), a rival Palestinian terrorist faction bent on taking down the PLO.

Raful Eitan famously quipped: “Abu Nidal, Abu Shmidal. We have to strike at the PLO!”

Founded by Sabri Khalil al-Banna, the Jaffa-born scion to one of Mandatory Palestine’s richest families better known as “Abu Nidal,” the ANO committed dozens of hijackings, murders, assassinations, and other terrorist attacks around the world beginning in the 1970s, largely at the whim of its tempestuous founder. Though the ANO did target Israeli and Jewish people and sites, most of their attacks were against Palestinians or other Arabs, particularly diplomats, journalists, and various public figures.

“He didn’t believe in religion or Ba’athism or Marxism or anything else,” an acquaintance of Abu Nidal’s once told Patrick Seale, author of a biography on the terrorist. “The gun was his ideology and his ideology was the gun.”

This photo of Abu Nidal and a North Korean military officer is believed to have been taken in North Korea. It was published in a Lebanese newspaper in 1974, and republished in the September 11, 1986 edition of the Israeli newspaper Hadashot. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Questions and conspiracies

For nearly a year prior to the assassination attempt, the Israel-Lebanon border had been overwhelmingly quiet following a U.S.-brokered agreement between Israel and the PLO. Yet the latter continued perpetrating attacks against Israel and Israeli targets internationally. Israel’s political and defense establishment generally agreed that Lebanon could not continue to serve as the PLO’s home base, and, in fact, detailed plans for the invasion, known as “Operation Oranim,” were ready long before the failed assassination and subsequent ground incursion, which was overwhelmingly approved by all parties in the Knesset except for one.

IDF soldiers on their way to Lebanon, June 6, 1982 (Photo: Yosi Elmakis). From the Dan Hadani Collection, part of the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The exact reason Abu Nidal chose to attack Argov in London on that night in June 1982 remains elusive, but many theories have been suggested, including one peddled largely by Abu Nidal’s Palestinian enemies that he himself worked for the Mossad and ordered the assassination attempt in order to give Israel a justification for attacking the PLO in Lebanon.

In a rare interview, Abu Nidal was once asked by Der Spiegel why he ordered the attack, especially in light of the fact that it ultimately — and somewhat predictably — led to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. In characteristically paranoid fashion, the terrorist leader responded:

“The Zionist ambassador in London was one of the heads and founders of the Israeli secret service, the Mossad. We attacked the ambassador when he had just been assigned a major role by the Mossad in Europe. Our fighters acted scrupulously in terms of my strict orders not to harm any other ambassador.”

He admitted that at the time, “Any blind man could see the Zionist plans to invade Lebanon,” though he categorically denied the role the assassination attempt played in instigating the war: “… in my eyes, it has not been proven and it is not true that the attack on the life of the ambassador was the spark that ignited the war.”

While the explanation that Abu Nidal was himself an Israeli puppet is almost certainly the invention of his political rivals, the motives behind the argument are probably not so far from the truth. According to many, including Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari, veteran Israeli journalists and co-authors of Israel’s Lebanon War, the hit was ordered by Abu Nidal in close coordination with Iraqi authorities in order to serve a number of strategic objectives.

First, they knew the assassination would likely lead to a significant Israeli attack on the PLO in Lebanon—something undoubtedly to Abu Nidal’s liking and benefit. Iraq also had a clear interest in Israel attacking Lebanon, not least because it would weaken or at least divert Syrian forces away from the Iraqi border.

In The Master Terrorist, Melman dubs the Iraqi scenario “extremely credible.” He adds that the Iraqis, then facing internal strife and mired in the long and bloody Iran-Iraq War—which they were losing—had another interest in provoking the Israeli attack:

“If the Israelis would indeed invade, Iraq could request a cease-fire or declare one unilaterally, while appealing to the need for Muslim and Arab solidarity against the Zionist enemy.”

Iraq did just that, announcing: “We believe in the urgent need to direct all our energy and resources to a confrontation with the Zionist aggression against the Arab world, the Palestinian people, and Lebanon.”

Unfortunately for Saddam Hussein, no one — including the Iranians — paid much attention to the proposal.

The Aftermath

Though the would-be assassination certainly served some of Abu Nidal’s interests, he couldn’t have known in advance what the impact would be on his own organization and particularly its activities in London.

The attackers, including Abu Nidal’s cousin, Marwan al-Banna, were quickly apprehended, and later tried and convicted. During the investigations, some details about the planning and implementation of the attack came to light. The explicit order to carry out the attack that night did not come down until the afternoon of the same day, when Na’if Rosan, one of the assailants, answered a public telephone outside his apartment in the Kensington neighborhood of London and was given instructions by one “Comrade al-Sayf.” Rosan instructed al-Banna and Hussein Sa’id to meet him at the Hilton Hotel, where he told them that Argov, who at that point was still mingling at the Dorchester, was their target that night. He gave the gun to Sa’id, who carried out the attack while Rosan and al-Banna loitered nearby.

All three were apprehended within hours.

The police found a list of some 300 names in al-Banna’s hostel room—most of them Israeli and British Jewish figures and organizations, including Chief Rabbi of Great Britain Sir Immanuel Jakobovits; the chairman of the board of the Jewish Chronicle; and a local Chabad school, including the license plate numbers of the vehicles used to transport its students. The addresses of the Jordanian, Moroccan, Saudi, Egyptian, Kuwaiti, and UAE embassies were also on the list.

Embassy of Saudi Arabia in London (Photo: Prebano66 / CC BY-SA 2.0)

According to an interrogation transcript cited by Melman, when asked about the purpose of the list and related information, al-Banna explained, “We wanted to strip the mask from these institutions and places. We know that many of them are actually fronts for the Mossad, the Israeli secret service, or are potential centers for Israeli intelligence. We only wanted to reveal their true identity and publish it, so as to warn the Arabs away from these people and places …”

Regarding the presence of Arab diplomatic and other institutions on the list, al-Banna said, “There are many groups that are ostensibly on our side but are in reality against us, such as Saudi Arabia.”

The prosecutor in the case, who referred to the trial as “the Baghdad connection,” admitted that many questions remained, yet asserted that “we have managed to open a window—even if only a small one—into the secret world of this terrorist secret organization.”

The arrests and sentencings essentially marked the end of any major ANO activities on British soil, though the organization continued to sow terror and target primarily Jordanian, Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, and other institutions and figures worldwide for another decade or so. In 1984, Abu Nidal even tried to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Amman.

Nonetheless, the aftermath of the Argov assassination attempt certainly had significant implications for Abu Nidal’s activities in the U.K. and internationally, which had nothing to do with the conflict in Lebanon and which will never be fully understood.

From a circumstantial historical perspective, it seems quite clear that sooner or later there would have been a Lebanon War even had Shlomo Argov never been shot. Perhaps that’s why the failed assassination’s historic role as the spark that ignited the war has largely been ignored over the past four decades.

The pointed event was also, of course, very quickly overshadowed by the war itself and its immediate and long-term ramifications, including thousands of deaths and lives disrupted and ruined.

Though overwhelmingly popular at first, the war would ultimately leave Israeli troops in Lebanon for nearly 20 years, create a vacuum that has since been filled by Hezbollah, and spark the most significant antiwar movement in Israel’s history. Some of that sentiment was magnified and parlayed by Begin’s political enemies, yet the fact remains that the popular movements against the war and in favor of conscientious objection to military service had never been seen in Israel at that scale. The conflict splintered the country and, according to many, has severely tarnished trust in elected and military officials ever since.

Israeli reserve combat soldiers demonstrating against the occupation of Lebanon, July 1984 (Photo: Yoni Salinger). From the Dan Hadani Collection, part of the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

About a year after the assassination attempt and the outbreak of the war, Argov himself—physically paralyzed but intellectually astute—publicly expressed his personal thoughts on the war for the first time, dictating a short letter to a close friend. Mourning the tremendous loss of life, and contrasting the war with the existentially imperative Six-Day War 15 years earlier, Argov presented a critique of Israel’s political and military leadership, while diplomatically refraining from naming names.

Had the war’s planners thought more about its potential consequences beforehand, Argov argued, “they would have saved the lives of hundreds of our best sons.”

From the hospital bed where he would languish for the next two decades, Argov argued:

“We are a nation short in human resources. We do not have the ability to run experiments in the hope that one of them comes out all right. Even if one of them does succeed—what’s the good of amputated arms and legs?”

Lamenting the fact that during its short history Israel constantly and justifiably had to live by the sword due to the choices of its neighbors, Argov emphasized the eternal desire for peace, which for Israel “more than any other nation is not a slogan void of content, but rather life’s foremost essence and a truth.”

Argov’s role in the outbreak of the Lebanon War was not determinative. Yet in retrospect, there was perhaps no more appropriate trigger to this tragic and confounding conflict than the “wrong” terrorist group botching a hit on a man who bridged a toxic political divide at a time when few others did.


A version of this article was originally published in Tablet MagazineIt appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

An Eternal Love Song: 10 Classic Israeli Hits Inspired by the “Song of Songs”

A tour through the Bella and Harry Wexner Libraries of Sound and Song - Legacy Heritage Foundation at the National Library of Israel reveals the biblical Song of Songs is ever-present in contemporary Israeli music

Shoshana Damari and Yehoram Gaon (the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection) and a Tu B’Av celebration in Hadera, early 20th century (Sonia Kolodany, the Khan Hadera Archive and Museum, colorization by MyHeritage)

Love is in the air, the hot, muggy air. This year, the August heat, the full moon, and the Perseids meteor shower will coincide to create love – or something close to it – on Tu B’Av eve.

Tu B’Av – for those unfamiliar with this minor Jewish holiday with clearly pagan roots – falls on the eve of the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av, when the moon is full. During the Second Temple period, the date marked the beginning of the grape harvest. According to tradition, on that date, unmarried young women would go dance in the vineyards, dressed in white, to eventually be joined by the young men – hopefully in the bonds of matrimony.

The early kibbutz movement revived Tu B’Av as a day for celebrating the grape harvest, and a day for weddings. The modern State of Israel brought Tu B’Av back to what it probably always was – a good excuse to party all midsummer night long. However, given its history, Tu B’Av deserves a proper romantic playlist featuring 10 favorites. And where better to start if not with the Songs of Songs?


Search the National Library of Israel’s music collection using the category “love songs” and you’ll get a long and detailed list of sub-categories, like “suffering” and “unrequited” (the most common of this genre in any language, place, or time), but there are also “courtship”, “dreams”, “hope” – and the “fifteenth of Av”.

Most prominent under the sub-category “fifteenth of Av” is a recording of Kol Dodi (“The voice of my beloved”), as performed by its composer, Israel Prize laureate Sara Levi-Tanai, choreographer and founder of the Inbal Dance Theater. The Library’s recording is from the 1950s but the most famous version by far of this love song, which takes its lyrics from the Song of Songs, was performed by Shoshana Damari, whose archive is housed at the National Library of Israel.

Shoshana Damari sings Kol Dodi 


Another melody penned by Levi-Tanai with lyrics from the Song of Songs was El Ginat Egoz, (“To the Walnut Garden”). The NLI music archive notes, “Written and choreographed straightaway as a folk dance in 1947, the song’s success gave birth to an entire genre of slow-tempo Yemenite-inspired dance-songs with the same hallmarks: lyrics taken from or in the spirit of the Song of Songs, structured in two short parts of two or four bars each, a melody based on a single motif with Eastern musical elements, and a 2/4 or 4/4 beat time signature, based on the Yemenite dance step.”


The Song of Songs also figures in the song Yesh Li Gan (“I Have a Garden”). First penned by Hayim Nahman Bialik in 1908 as poem of longing as spoken by an unnamed woman for her beloved David, who may or may not return to her garden, the text is similar in style to the biblical text. The melody from the 1930s, (mistakenly attributed as a Syrian folk song, but later rightly credited to the famous Egyptian singer-composer Sheikh Muhammad ‘Abd al-Rahim al-Maslub), was adapted by singer, songwriter, musicologist, and actor Bracha Tzfira. The Library’s collection also includes a performance by singer Nechama Hendel, recorded at the Kol Yisrael (Voice of Israel) public radio studios in 1961.


Another recording from 1961: Keshoshana ben HaHohim (“Like a Rose Among Thorns”). Composed by Yosef Hadar – one of the most important Israeli composers of the 1950s and early 1960s – the song was complemented by choreography by Yankele Levy, one of Israeli folk dance’s founding fathers. With romantic verses from the Song of Songs (Like a rose among thorns / So is my beloved among the young women / Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest / So is my beloved among the young men), Keshoshana ben HaHohim has become a couples folk dance standard.

Dance demonstration of Keshoshana ben HaHohim


The song Dodi Li, whose lyric also comes verbatim from the Song of Songs, (I am my beloved’s / and my beloved is mine), was originally set to music in 1948 by musician-composer Nira Chen. It became a popular folk dance in the 1950s, with the song performed by singers like Naomi Tzuri and groups like Lahakat HaUzim (also known as Lahakat HaHalutzim). Sometime in the late 1960s, however, the new generation of Israeli artists apparently felt the need to bring sexy back and allow the Song of Songs’ simmering passion to rise. Check out this hip version by jazz vocalist Rimona Francis.


No list of Israeli love songs would be complete without Erev shel Shoshanim (“Evening of Roses”). Composed by the aforementioned Yosef Hadar with lyrics by the poet Moshe Dor, which again borrowed imagery from the Song of Songs, it was first recorded in 1955 by singer Miriam Avigal and then in 1957 by Yaffa Yarkoni. But the song gained international fame with a version by singing duo HaDudaim. Following the Six-Day War, Erev shel Shoshanim became a hit throughout Europe, recorded in countless versions till today.

Yaffa Yarkoni sings Erev shel Shoshanim


The dark-skinned female in the Judeo-Spanish song Morena, Morenica, a traditional Ladino cancionero with roots in old Spanish poetry, was perhaps inspired by the Song of Songs verse, “I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem”. For centuries, this verse had been set to music; in modern Israel it was adopted by composers like Daniela Dor (pseudonym of Hungarian-born Barbara Kaufman), who wrote the song Schora Ani u Na’ava for the unusual four-octave vocal range belonging to Eritrean-born Yemenite-Israeli singer Hanna Ahroni.

Hanna Ahroni sings Schora Ani u Na’ava


Another song in Ladino, Avre Tu Puerta Cerrada (“Open Your Closed Door”), is among the most-loved and much-performed of the romancas – the Judeo-Spanish variation of traditional Spanish ballads of the Middle Ages. Doors, windows, and garden gates, whether open or closed, were frequent symbols in medieval Iberian poetry and song, and the lyric, from the would-be lover’s point of view, is an expression of deep desire.

The Library catalogue lists at least 40 other recordings, including those from a series of radio broadcasts in Ladino launched in 1954 by musicologist Yitzhak Isaac Levy, head of the Kol Yisrael ethnographic department. While these recorded performances – like this one from 1958 – represent an important resource for researchers, they are also hugely enjoyable, such as this swinging version by pop star – and Israel’s first Eurovision entrant (in 1973) – Ilanit.

However, perhaps the best-known version was recorded by Yehoram Gaon, in a 1969 album that broke Ladino music through to mainstream Israeli popular culture.

Yehoram Gaon sings Avre Tu Puerta Cerrada

9 and 10

As the Mizrahi music genre began slowly gaining legitimacy within the Israeli music establishment, the “I am black and beautiful” verse – but with a far different melody – won first place in the 1977 Israel Oriental Song Festival. Sung by Shimi Tavori, the song Schora Ani u Na’ava started a winning streak that ended only in 1982 when Tavori opted out of the contest. This allowed the now-legendary Zohar Argov to step in, and win with the now-iconic – and Song of Songs-adjacent – HaPerach beGani (“The Flower in My Garden”).

Zohar Argov sings HaPerach beGani   

There are hundreds more songs of romance, passion and longing to be found in the Bella and Harry Wexner Libraries of Sound and Song – Legacy Heritage Foundation at the National Library of Israel. These recordings span decades, and a multiplicity of languages – Arabic, English, French, Greek, Russian, Yiddish, and more – plus the universal language of love (or something close to it).