Rare Pictures: When the Haganah Trained on the Beaches of Tel Aviv

The Haganah's Camp Yona was located in northern Tel Aviv, on a site occupied by a luxurious hotel today; this was the location for a string of historic events, from the murder of Arlosoroff, to the shelling of the Altalena


Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, courtesy of the Israel State Archives

In the archives of Benno Rothenberg, one of the most prominent photographers active during the early years of the State of Israel, is a series of pictures showing members of the Haganah military organization training at Camp Yona. The photo archive was recently scanned and is now preserved at the National Library of Israel, courtesy of the Meitar Collection. These photos of the men and women of the Haganah running, jumping, crawling, undergoing briefings or simply posing – together and individually – can today be viewed on the National Library website. The training drills took place in the “Old North” area of Tel Aviv, close to where the Hilton Hotel and Independence Park (Gan Ha’atzmaut) stand today. I became curious about the story of this camp, which not only hosted the Haganah training sessions, but also witnessed several notable affairs in Zionist history.

Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, courtesy of the Israel State Archives

It wasn’t always the Haganah doing its training at Camp Yona. The camp came under the organization’s control in late 1947, when the British army withdrew from the area in December of that year. The Haganah quickly seized the vacated former British bases in Tel Aviv, which of course included the Sarona compound (which serves as the IDF’s central headquarters today – the “Kirya” base), as well as Camp Yona. Three days after the withdrawal, Yona Rasin, a Haganah commander, was killed on his way to Jerusalem. His comrades promptly named the vacated military base after him.

Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, courtesy of the Israel State Archives


Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, courtesy of the Israel State Archives

What happened before all that? In the early 20th century, the area served as a Muslim cemetery. The people of Jaffa, located further south on the coast, were suffering from a cholera epidemic and had to bury their dead far from the city (for the same reason, the Jewish cemetery on Trumpeldor Street was established at that time). In 1942, during World War II, the British set up a resort on the cliff for Royal Air Force pilots. Why here of all places? For the same reasons people wish to visit Tel Aviv today. The camp was located near the beach, in a town full of cafes, cultural events, festivities and of course – alcohol. British soldiers from all over the Middle East came to the stay at the resort for rest and recreation.

Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, courtesy of the Israel State Archives

At the foot of the camp positioned on a kurkar cliff, lay the strip of sand known today as the Hilton Beach, named for the hotel which looms overhead. It was here that Sima and Haim Arlosoroff took a stroll along the water on the Friday night of June 16th, 1933, after leaving a café just to the south, where the Dan Hotel can be seen today. There, they spotted two strangers who had been following them for some time, when one of them pulled out a gun and shot Arlosoroff, then the head of the Jewish Agency’s political department, something akin to the Zionist movement’s foreign minister. The murder shook the Jewish community of Mandatory Palestine and fingers were pointed at members of the Revisionist movement.

Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, courtesy of the Israel State Archives

Let’s fast forward a few years – 15 years, to be exact – to June, 1948. Off the coast of Tel Aviv, the ship known as Altalena ran aground after fleeing from Kfar Vitkin beach further north, where the confrontation with IDF forces had begun. In the ship’s hull was a load of weapons ordered by the Irgun for its soldiers. The IDF was ordered to stop the ship, using artillery fire. Where were the cannons that shelled the ship deployed? That’s right, at Camp Yona on the kurkar ridge. Another anecdote is that Abraham Stavsky, one of the Betar youth movement members accused of murdering Arlosoroff, was killed on the Altalena during the conflict.

Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, courtesy of the Israel State Archives


Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, courtesy of the Israel State Archives

By sheer coincidence, two key events in the bitter struggle between the Jewish community’s left-wing and right-wing camps occurred near the Haganah base which no longer exists. What else transpired at the historic location? New Haganah battalions were established at Camp Yona and it was here that numerous new recruits were first indoctrinated into the Haganah when the War of Independence broke out. Camp Yona was also used by the IDF’s medical corps in its early days. In addition, the Israeli army’s physical training and combat fitness training facilities, as well as the Physical Education School, were located at the camp until they were moved to the Wingate Institute in the 1950s.

Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, courtesy of the Israel State Archives

During that decade and the next, a bitter dispute ensued between the Israeli government and the Tel Aviv municipality, which sought to evacuate the camp and build a large public park in its place. Ahead of Israel’s first Independence Day, half of Camp Yona was cleared away and in April 1949 the construction of Independence Park began. It was not until the early 1960s that the IDF cleared the entire area and the park was finally completed. The Hilton hotel was built on part of the land, where it stands to this day.

The photos in this article and other photos of the men and women of the Haganah at Camp Yona can be found here. If you recognize yourself or your relatives in these photos, please let us know in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.

Many thanks to Peleg Levy and Modi Snir of the Toldot Yisrael project, for providing information that assisted in the writing of this article. Thank you as well to Dr. Nir Mann for his research.


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WEIZAC and GOLEM: The Start-Up Nation’s Earliest Computers

Today, almost all of us carry a smartphone and own a PC or laptop at home, but the earliest computing devices couldn't exactly fit in your pocket…

WEIZAC in action in the 1950s

The fact that you’re probably reading this article on your laptop, or even more likely – on your smartphone device – seems so trivial, that most of us don’t even stop to consider how wonderful this is. Generation Z was born into a reality in which texts are read from a screen, and if you want to turn a page – all you have to do is “swipe”. They’re hardly aware of the fact that until recently, in order to “browse”, you actually had to lick the tip of your finger with your tongue, and physically turn the page!

Even for earlier generations, it often seems that touchscreen computers and smartphones have been with us all along, despite the fact that Apple only launched its first iPhone in 2007.

Although computers have existed in human history for a comparatively short time, they have already changed our whole way of thinking, as well as our day-to-day routines.

Surprisingly (or not), one of the world’s pioneering devices in the field of electronic computing was made here in Israel: the “WEIZAC” – the first electronic computer in Israel and one of the first computers in the world! WEIZAC was an acronym for “Weizmann Automatic Computer.”

The WEIZAC started operating in 1955, a mere 7 years after the State of Israel declared its independence, and paved the way for the technological and entrepreneurial culture that Israel is known for to this day.

The man behind WEIZAC was Professor Chaim Leib Pekeris, a pioneer of computer science in Israel, and an Israel Prize laureate in physics, who was born nearly 112 years ago, on June 15th, 1908. Pekeris was a mathematician, a geophysicist, and the founder of the Department of Applied Mathematics at the Weizmann Institute of Science. He passed away on February 24th, 1993.

For six years, WEIZAC was the only operational computer in Israel. A quick search of the National Library of Israel’s JPress-Historical Jewish Press website, reveals newspaper headlines from the period, which informed the public of the activation of a powerful “electronic brain”. It turns out that the State of Israel was already a “start-up nation”, as early as the 1950s! WEIZAC was one of the earliest large-scale stored-program electronic computers in the world, following on the heels of the IAS device built earlier at Princeton University. It was used, among other things, to study global changes in tide, as well as earthquake behavior and numerical analysis. Although WEIZAC was the size of a wall closet, it was more advanced than its older brother from Princeton, with four times the memory, as one of the newspapers proclaimed. It seems that even then, Israelis were good at taking existing inventions and improving on them.


“‘Electronic Brain’ Activated at Weizmann Institute – ‘Memory’ is four times as powerful as that of the brain at Princeton University”Hatzofe, October 24th, 1955


WEIZAC, the first electronic computer in Israel, built at the Department of Applied Mathematics at the Weizmann Institute of Science (from Wikipedia)


Later on, as is usually the case with technological evolution, the WEIZAC was superseded by GOLEM, a new series of computers (we swear we didn’t make that up) which continued to serve the research needs of the Weizmann Institute and other Israeli research institutes. In 2006, the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) declared WEIZAC “a milestone in the history of electrical engineering and computing”, and awarded the “WEIZAC Medal” to the team who built it.


“Preparations in Rehovot for the Presentation of ‘Golem B'”, Maariv, December 30th, 1963


Chaim Pekeris won quite a few awards and received recognition for his work and contribution to science in Israel and around the world. Among other things, he was awarded the Weizmann Prize for Exact Sciences in 1958, and in 1965, he won the Rothschild Award. In 1974, Columbia University awarded him the Vetlesen Prize and in 1980, he won the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. In the same year, he was also awarded the Israel Prize for Physics. A search of his name on the National Library website allows us a glimpse into the wider circles of Pekeris’ life: his prominence in the scientific community on the one hand, and his involvement and relationships with intellectuals from varied fields (S.Y. Agnon, Gershom Scholem…) on the other.


Chaim Pekeris (in the middle) with author S.Y. Agnon, at a ceremony granting Agnon honorary membership on behalf of the Weizmann Institute of Science


The State of Israel can be proud of its position at the forefront of global technological innovation. Thanks to this legacy which stretches back decades and is based on the contributions and work of people like Chaim Pekeris and many others, our country has come to be known across the world as a start-up nation.


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How Israel Overcame the Polio Epidemic of the 1950s

How Israel Overcame the Polio Epidemic of the 1950s

In 1953, Dr. Jonas Edward Salk announced the encouraging results of his experiments with a new drug in the battle against polio, but he would soon meet resistance…

Children afflicted with polio are treated at the Tzrifin army base during a visit by Hadassah representatives and Israeli police officers, 1954, the Eddie Hirschbein Collection

In 1921, during a family vacation, Franklin Delano Roosevelt began developing alarming medical symptoms. At first, the 39-year-old attorney began suffering from debilitating back pains. After that, he experienced nausea and uncontrollable tremors, as well as a burning fever. He was bedridden for weeks. From day to day, he felt he was gradually losing the ability to move his feet. The doctor called to the scene provided a diagnosis that would accompany Roosevelt for the rest of his life: a severe case of polio, a disease that ravaged the entire East Coast of the United States during that fatal summer.

Although the future President of the United States was perhaps the most famous victim of polio in history, this disease had been plaguing humanity for thousands of years. First identified in 1789, it wasn’t until the twentieth century – when repeated polio outbreaks claimed thousands of victims – that a Jewish-American physician named Jonas Salk managed to develop the first-ever vaccine for the devastating virus.

Salk’s Vaccine Is Revealed

In 1953, Dr. Jonas Edward Salk published a radio-advertisement announcing the encouraging results of his experiments with a new drug, which he hoped could soon be developed into an effective vaccine for polio.

But after publishing his results, Salk’s work was met with derision and ridicule. His idea of injecting the “killed” polio virus (as opposed to simply weakened strains) into the bodies of children and adults initially seemed too bold – it was believed to be impossible to implement. Many doctors and researchers were quick to declare that the tailor’s son from Manhattan was nothing but an over-enthusiastic young scientist at best, a charlatan and crook at worst.

Salk chose to ignore the criticism. He felt that he couldn’t convey the significance of the vaccine using the conventional method – publishing his results in academic papers in order to convince the scientific community of the validity of his theories. Instead, Salk worked six days a week, 16 hours a day, to put his theories into practice. As he neared the breakthrough he’d hoped for, he searched for funding for the clinical trials that would prove his daring theory.


Dr. Jonas Edward Salk working to find a polio vaccine, photo from the 1950s

Although two of his employees in the lab resigned in protest at the “feverish and unreasonable pace” of the experiments, Salk was intent on beginning tests on human patients as quickly as possible. By the end of 1953, more than 7,000 children had received the vaccine. The experiment was beyond successful. After another two million children were vaccinated in one of the largest clinical trials in history, Salk was given permission to inform the American public that he had found a way to overcome the horrible disease. He added that he and his lab were giving up all patent rights – the vaccine they had been working on for years would remain in the public domain.

This was just the news the young state of Israel was waiting for.


The Israeli Vaccine

The news regarding the polio vaccine soon reached Israel and caused much excitement among its concerned citizens. In the summer of 1950, there was a severe outbreak of polio in Israel. Over one thousand children were hospitalized. Many suffered from paralysis, which was one of the most frightening symptoms of the disease. Parents ordered their children to stay at home, summer-camps were shut down, and the Ministry of Health forbade children under the age of ten (the most at-risk age group) from entering various recreational venues and places of business.




Children afflicted with polio are treated at the Tzrifin army base during a visit by Hadassah representatives and Israeli police officers, 1954, the Eddie Hirschbein Collection

At first, the Israeli government tried to buy the vaccine directly from the US, but public outcry prevented it. Many parents claimed it made no sense for the US government to sell vaccines to foreign countries when not all American children had been vaccinated. Therefore, Dr. Natan Goldblum was appointed to produce the vaccine locally in Israel, based on Salk’s methodology. Together with Prof. Tamar Gottlieb, the two doctors recruited a team and set up their laboratory in Jaffa.



Working to produce the polio vaccine in the Yaffa Goldblum lab, November 1956, the Eddie Hirschbein Collection

One year later, the vaccine was ready, and by January 1957, the mass-scale vaccination of Israel’s population was underway.

Mass-scale vaccination underway in Israel, the Eddie Hirschbein Collection

More often than not, when invited on honorary visits abroad, Dr. Salk declined. But when he was invited to Israel in 1959 for an official visit, he agreed and explained that the reason for his consent was his deep affection for the people and state of Israel. The doctor added that “what is being done in Israel is both profound and exalted. And I think the Israelis understand this, because they are the ones carrying out a revolution in the lives of the Jewish people.” In Israel, the good doctor was greeted with the respect and honor worthy of heads of state. He met with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, from whom he received a certificate of appreciation on behalf of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.

David Ben-Gurion presenting Dr. Jonas Salk with a certificate of appreciation, Jerusalem, 1959, photo: Fritz Cohen


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The Epidemic That Brought Jews Back to Jerusalem

Fleeing a Galilean plague, a handful of the Vilna Gaon's students rewrote the holy city's history

The 'Vilna Gaon Map' is believed to be a copy of a map drawn by the Gaon, which was illustrated by his students shortly after his death around 1800. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

A century ago, the Spanish Plague killed tens of millions of people globally.

A century before that, communities throughout the eastern Mediterranean were devastated by a bubonic plague outbreak, which reached the ancient Galilean city of Safed in 1812, quickly decimating its population.

Just a few years prior, three waves totaling some five hundred followers of the Vilna Gaon – one of Jewish history’s intellectual and spiritual giants – had come to the Land of Israel from White Russia, fulfilling their leader’s own dream a decade after his death. It was a significant demographic boost to the relatively small and overwhelmingly Sephardi Jewish community already in what was then Ottoman Palestine.

An illustration of the Vilna Gaon. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, National Library of Israel archives

Nearly a full century before Herzl, some consider the arrival of the Vilna Gaon’s students to be a watershed event in the history of modern Zionism.

The failure of the last major group of Ashkenazi Jews that tried to establish itself in the Land of Israel was the main reason why this group had to settle for the slightly less holy city of Safed, instead of Jerusalem.  At the end of the 1600s, a group led by Polish Jew “Judah the Pious” had set out to establish a community in Jerusalem. Arriving in 1700, the community was soon unable to support itself, nor pay off its growing debts. Ashkenazi Jews were banned from living in the holy city. Those already there either moved out or lived in disguise, dressing like their Sephardic brethren. Not particularly interested in the differences between a Litvak and a Hassid or any other intra-religious distinctions for that matter, the local authorities held all Ashkenazim accountable for the debts owed.

Needless to say, a large group of Jews from White Russia would not feel particularly welcome.

In fact, it would take the bubonic plague to get Ashkenazim back into Jerusalem.

With the plague ultimately claiming the lives of some 80% of Safed’s Jewish community, towards the end of 1815 some of the Vilna Gaon’s disciples decided it was time to finally go up to Zion.

Safed in the 19th century. From the Lenkin Family Collection of Photography at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries

The group was led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov, a man who had led efforts to organize and print the Vilna Gaon’s writings following his death in 1797, and who had also led the first wave of immigrants in 1808. Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov, the other leader of the community, would briefly flee to Jerusalem but ultimately choose to stay in Safed. Efforts were made to ensure that Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s group remained small in number and did not syphon off too much funding from the communities’ patrons throughout Europe, many of whom had been cultivated by Rabbi Yisrael as he made fundraising trips across the continent.

According to various legends, the Ashkenazi community in Jerusalem was so small that they did not have a minyan (traditional Jewish prayer quorum of ten adult males), and would either pay a Sephardi Jew to be their tenth man; utilize a legal loophole to count a child holding a Torah scroll as a member of their prayer quorum; or simply count the Torah scroll.

Nonetheless, Rabbi Menachem Mendel and his band were determined to reestablish an Ashkenazi presence in the holy city.

It took about five years, but after sending representatives all the way to Istanbul to negotiate with the Ottoman authorities, Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s men succeeded in securing a royal decree annulling the debts owed by the previous un-related Ashkenazi community, decades earlier. They then successfully focused their efforts on securing additional documents from local and international Islamic and civil authorities that would ultimately allow them to develop the compound which had been abandoned by the previous Ashkenazi community and destroyed by its creditors. Warm relations with some of the Christian and Muslim neighbors certainly did not hurt these efforts.

Letter from R. Yisrael of Shklov asking an emissary to speed up efforts to obtain Turkish approval for rebuilding Jerusalem’s Hurva Synagogue, and not to hesitate to go to Vilna to collect donations for distribution to the community. From the National Library of Israel archives

Rabbi Menachem Mendel and his group thus succeeded in both ridding themselves of the debt left by a community to whom they had no connection, and then achieving official recognition as (in some way) the lawful heirs to the property rights of that very same community!

While visiting Jerusalem in 1837, Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov, the head of the Safed community, received word of a devastating earthquake in the Galilee. His entire city was destroyed, 4,000 members of its Jewish community lost. Perhaps he took it as a sign or else simply had no other options, but Rabbi Yisrael decided to stay in Jerusalem for the last two years of his life. Many refugees from Safed did the same, joining the followers of Rabbi Menachem Mendel and their descendants.

Ultimately, this small contingent of the Vilna Gaon’s disciples laid the foundation for much of the dramatic renewal and expansion of Jewish life in Jerusalem which continues until today.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is one of many notable descendants of these early Zionists. A mysterious and controversial work entitled Kol HaTor (“The Voice of the Turtledove”) was purportedly passed down in the Rivlin family for generations before being published in the 20th century. It includes Kabbalistic teachings attributed to the Vilna Gaon and relating to the Messianic age. In the work, two dates on the Jewish calendar were identified as having exceptional spiritual qualities especially as related to the redemption of the Jewish people. The first was the Fifth of Iyyar, which we now celebrate as Israeli Independence Day. The second was the 27th of Iyyar, the date on which – at the height of the Battle for Jerusalem in 1967 – the decision was made to unify the city under Jewish sovereignty for the first time in two millennia.

Israeli soldiers overlook the newly liberated Western Wall and the Old City of Jerusalem in June 1967 (Photo: Dan Hadani). From the Dan Hadani Archive, part of the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


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 in Europe and beyond.

Thanks to Dr. Zvi Leshem, director of the National Library of Israel’s Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism for his insightful comments.

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