This Was the Actual First Zionist Congress

We are often told that “the Jewish state was founded in Basel", the city where the first Zionist Congress convened. However, 15 years earlier, Jews gathered in the city of Focşani, in Romania, to promote the settlement of the Land of Israel. Israel Gilad, a member of the First Aliyah Association and great grandson of the founders of Rosh Pinna and Zikhron Ya'akov, would like to remind our readers of those who came before Herzl…


Participants in the Hovevei Zion conference in Katowice, 1884, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

In 1878, Europe’s great powers convened at the Congress of Berlin to divide up the spoils of Russia and Romania’s victory over the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War. Romania and Bulgaria afterward declared independence, pledging to grant citizenship to all residents. Leading this effort were British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and French Minister of Justice Adolf Crémieux. Disraeli was a descendant of a Jewish family that had converted to Christianity, and Crémieux was himself a Jew.

Romania did everything it could to thwart this move. It now enforced laws legislated years earlier that discriminated against the country’s Jews and ruined their livelihoods. The laws had not been implemented previously. These actions, which worsened the already harsh reality of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, also spurred Jews to support the idea of a ​​return to the Land of Israel, a notion that began to spread among the Jews of the region.

In late 1880, David Gordon, the editor of the Jewish newspaper Hamagid, published an article analyzing the efforts to organize settlement associations for the Land of Israel. His conclusion was that small organizations or individuals would fail in their goal of “establishing a large agricultural settlement for our people in the land of our ancestors.” He believed that a strong central body, similar to French Jewry’s “Alliance” organization, which would oversee the organization and settlement, should be established.

Portrait of David Gordon, editor of Hamagid, the Abraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

The renewed Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel had only two colonies at the time, Gei Oni (later to evolve into Rosh Pinna) and Petah Tikva, which were established in 1878 with the aim of creating an agricultural settlement that would provide a living for its residents. Gei Oni’s residents had to abandon their settlement due to agricultural failure, while the people of Petah Tikva suffered from a very severe bout of malarial fever. By early 1880, the founders of both colonies were forced to return to Safed and Jerusalem where they survived on halukkah funds (charity collected from Jewish communities in Europe and distributed to the Jewish residents living in the Land of Israel).

Gordon’s idea was simple: the basis for organizing would be local associations that would purchase land in Palestine; each colony would appoint a certain number of peasant families (up to 150 households, as per the sultan’s permission) to work it, with the settlers making their living from agriculture. Gordon believed that a large number of colonies would eventually lead to the recognition of the Land of Israel as the homeland and state of the Jewish people.

On March 13, 1881, the Russian Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by a terrorist group. Among its members was a Jewish woman. Pogroms against Russian Jews ensued and continued for about three years. The pogroms, known among Jews as the “Storms in the South”, motivated groups in Russia to organize for immigration to Palestine. The Jews of Romania, realizing that the events in Russia would soon spread, ramped up membership in Zionist associations as well.


The Focşani Congress, the Beginning of Settlement, “Hibat Zion” and the Zionist Organization

I would claim that the Zionist movement was founded on December 30, 1881 (according to the Julian calendar), in Focşani, in Romania, at the actual “first Zionist congress”, which was attended by 51 delegates from 32 settlement organizations who met in the town’s Jewish school. The conference lasted two days, during which five members were elected to serve as the “Central Committee for the Settlement of the Land of Israel and Syria”. Samuel Pineles, a Zionist activist from Romania, was elected committee chair and secretary. Pineles, a wise and skillful organizer, ran the conference with a deft hand, knowing when to act decisively and when to be flexible, depending on the circumstance.

Portrait of Samuel Pineles, the Abraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

The movement founded at the Focşani Congress, which would later be renamed Hovevei Zion (“Lovers of Zion”) or Hibat Zion (“Love of Zion”), set as its goal: “the solution to the problem of Romanian Jewry by immediate immigration to the Land of Israel, agricultural settlement and independent work on the part of the settlers.” In his Hebrew book The Torch Was Lit in Romania (Ha-Avuka Hudleka Be-Rumanyah), Moshe Schaerf writes that the Focşani Congress “was a new phenomenon in Jewish history.”

And thus the central committee for the first Jewish settlement movement in the Land of Israel came into being. It financed and managed the establishment of two colonies: Zikhron Ya’akov, which it managed fully, and Rosh Pinna to which it only provided assistance.

The committee sent about 120 families (over 600 people) to Ottoman Palestine on four voyages, which brought more than half of the first wave of settlers. The first Zionist pioneer group to arrive was a group from the city of Moineşti, which bought the land at Gei Oni on which they established Rosh Pinna.

Samuel Pineles led the Zionist movement in Romania until his death in 1928, with the exception of about five years during which he turned his attention to personal business matters.

Unfortunately, in the spring of 1883, the Central Committee for the Settlement of the Land of Israel and Syria went bankrupt. In late September of that year, the committee transferred the assets of the colony it had founded, Zikhron Ya’akov, to the patronage of Baron Edmund James de Rothschild.

Seal of the city of Focşani, Romania, site of the congress. Photo: Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Kfar Tavor Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

During Sukkot 1882, Baron Rothschild met Rabbi Mohilever, who was accompanied by Rabbi Zadoc Kahn, the Chief Rabbi of French Jewry. The Baron agreed to Rabbi Mohilever’s request to found a settlement in Palestine and later offered an economic safety net for most of the first wave settlements, which had fallen into bankruptcy. The Baron’s philanthropy prevented the settlements’ collapse which, had it indeed happened, could have led to a great crisis of faith regarding the Zionist goal.

In November 1884, the Katowice Conference convened and officially established the “Hibat Zion” movement and with it, the movement’s leadership passed from Romanian to Russian Jewry.

We must admit that as a movement, Hibat Zion was a failure in terms of its ability to motivate pioneers and settle them in the Land of Israel. The movement operated in “bursts” that were primarily reactions to pogroms and institutionalized antisemitism. When Theodor Herzl appeared on the scene, the movement’s leadership in Eastern Europe was happy to pass the baton of the entire Zionist movement to him.

In August 1897, the “First Zionist Congress” convened in Basel—but as stated at the outset, I reject this official title. If one begins the counting at the Focşani Congress, the Basel congress in 1897 was the seventh gathering.

Herzl was an exceptionally talented journalist, and the revered leader of the Zionist movement who even financed its activity from his own pocket. He founded the World Zionist Organization at the Basel Congress and built an impressive administrative apparatus compared to those that preceded it. Nevertheless, the Zionist Organization’s practical achievements in its early years were minor at best.  In the first few years, membership in the movement dwindled, political Zionism could boast few accomplishments, and the organization’s settlement activity in the Land of Israel was negligible until about 1910.

Participants in the “Hovevei Zion” conference in Odessa, 1890, Bitmuna, the Lancet Collection. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The Zionist Organization’s settlement activity followed Herzl’s “no charter, no aliyah,” concept, and therefore in those first years settlement amounted to nothing. The first settlement established under the auspices of the Zionist Organization was Degania in 1909. Only in the late 1930s did the Zionist Organization become the main settlement movement and even then it only established kibbutzim and moshavim (communal and cooperative agricultural settlements).


The Collapse and Rescue of Settlement in the Land of Israel

Baron Rothschild’s agreement to sponsor settlement in the Land of Israel and save it from collapse should not be forgotten. The founding fathers of Jewish settlement in Ottoman Palestine however paid the price by losing their independence and becoming day laborers for the Baron. I believe that the time has come for us to acknowledge our indebtedness to those early pioneers and give them their due.

David Ben-Gurion recognized Baron Edmund de Rothschild as the only one entitled to a place of honor in the Zionist story for doing more for the settlement of the Land of Israel than any other person or body. By this, Ben-Gurion minimized the actions and hard work of the organizations and pioneers active from 1882 to 1897, that preceded Herzl’s World Zionist Organization.

All this started a hundred and twenty-five years ago when the Congress in Basel was called the “First Zionist Congress” even though its full name was “The First World Zionist Congress.” The Congress in Basel was in fact the seventh of its kind. To this day, most Jews are unfamiliar with the first congresses of the Central Comittee for the Settlement of the Land of Israel and Syria. I have published my findings here in the hope that historians will one day correct this historical oversight in the common Zionist narrative.



Further Reading (in Hebrew):

ישראל קלויזנר, “חיבת ציון ברומניה”, הספרייה הציונית על-ידי הנהלת ההסתדרות הציונית, ירושלים תשי”ח

משה שרף, “האבוקה הודלקה ברומניה”, הספרייה הציונית, ירושלים תשמ”ו

גצל קרסל, אבי הישוב : הברון אדמונד דה רוטשילד ופעלו: דברי פתיחה – דוד בן גוריון, מגן, חיפה 1954

When Shimon Peres Fantasized of an Israeli Colony in South America

In the late 1950s, relations between Israel and France were blossoming, thanks in large part to the young Director General of the Ministry of Defense, Shimon Peres. Among various collaborations, Peres raised an unusual idea: Why not settle tens of thousands of Israelis in French Guiana, a remote South American colony? Who was in favor? Who wasn't? And what did David Ben-Gurion think of it?


Shimon Peres against the background of a map of Guiana. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, National Library

Is it hot outside? Are temperatures soaring? In Israel, this description fits roughly nine months of the year. But what if the government were to give you give a plane ticket and an offer to live in a more tropical climate? Would you take it?  And what if the specific location being suggested was the territory in South America known as French Guiana? Because, for a moment in Israeli history, the possibility that a group of Israelis might move there permanently was seriously considered.

But before we delve more deeply into that story, here is some general background information for your convenience: French Guiana is situated in the northeastern part of the South American continent, on the Atlantic coast, most of which is covered by dense rainforest. Next to it, in the general region known as “The Guianas”, are the Co-operative Republic of Guyana (formerly British Guiana), the Republic of Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana), as well as certain provinces in southern Venezuela and northern Brazil. Unlike Guyana and Suriname, both of which are independent countries, French Guiana is, as its name suggests, a French overseas territory, which still belongs to France and whose residents vote in French elections. And yes, it is part of the European Union and the local currency is the Euro. For years, French Guiana served as a French penal colony. Off its coast is Devil’s Island, where Alfred Dreyfus was famously imprisoned until his exoneration on charges of espionage. Today, French Guiana serves as the main launch site of the European Space Agency, from where it launches its satellites and other space-related missions.

Map of the area of French Guiana, ca. 1780. The Eran Laor Cartographic Collection, the National Library of Israel

And what do Israel and this distant land across the Atlantic Ocean have to do with each other? The connection was the brainchild of Shimon Peres, who was the energetic young Director General of the Ministry of Defense back in 1959. Peres had been the driver, architect and maintainer of the strategic alliance between Israel and France since 1955. Guiana, as noted, was and is still part of France. “Among the French delegations that came to Israel there was a representative from Guiana,” writes Michael Bar-Zohar, in his acclaimed biography of Peres. “The representative from Guiana was deeply impressed by Israel and said to Peres, ‘If we had ties with Israel instead of France, our situation would be different’,” writes Bar-Zohar.

A young Shimon Peres in his office. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

When Shimon Peres heard about this remote and underpopulated land of vast jungles replete with as yet undiscovered treasures, he decided that this was the perfect place to demonstrate the wonders of the Jewish mind and what it could accomplish. He turned to his friend Jacques Soustelle who was the French Minister of the Colonies. “Do you need Guiana?” he asked. Peres proposed that Israel lease the colony for a period of 30 to 40 years and relocate tens of thousands of Jews there who would help develop the region. Alternatively, Peres sought to establish a joint company with France for the development of Guiana, which the Israeli envoys would work on behalf of. Peres wasn’t just dreaming; he wanted Israel to have a stake in Europe’s Common Market, established two years earlier, of which Guiana was a part.

When Soustelle didn’t reject the idea outright, Peres charged ahead. He persuaded Hillel Dan, a director of the Israeli construction and civil engineering company Solel Boneh and the Histadrut labor union, and they organized a seven-person mission to tour French Guiana. The delegation returned with a detailed report and even a short film that was made during their visit.

A newspaper report on one of the visits of the French Minister of the Colonies Jacques Soustelle to Israel, Al Hamishmar, August 6, 1957

At the same time, Peres approached Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who didn’t stop the delegation in its tracks but wasn’t too enthusiastic about the idea either. “They’re dreaming of resettling a Jewish majority (say 40,000 Jews) and establishing a Hebrew state as an Israeli colony,” he wrote in his journal. “Won’t this be at Israel’s expense?” he wondered. “And who’s to say that the Jews in Guiana will want to remain connected to Israel? I advised Shimon not to go too far in his talks with Soustelle, but instead to speak about joint enterprises . . . when the members of the delegation return I will finally find out how desolate the land is and the truth about whether there is room for settlement.”

A young Shimon Peres, photo: Boris Carmi, from the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

This was in fact not the first time the idea of settling Jews in the region had come up. In the 17th century, Sephardi Jews arrived from the Netherlands and established a community called Jodensavanne (“Jewish Savanna”) in the area that is today Suriname. In 1939, (after the Arab Revolt ended and the year the final White Paper was issued) the idea was raised to settle Jews in British Guiana instead of Palestine. After World War II there were also calls to settle the Jews of Europe in French Guiana or the surrounding region, because of the difficulties involved in settling all of the refugees in Palestine.

Document concerning a plan to settle Jews in British Guiana in the late 1930s, the National Library of Israel collections

Returning to our story, unfortunately, we were unable to locate either the report or the film of the delegation from their tour in French Guiana. If any readers have any information about these, we would love to hear from you. However, according to the evidence, the film was shown to members of the Israeli government and the reactions were harsh. Pinchas Sapir told Peres, “This is a disaster, colonialism, imperialism, it will cause a Holocaust in Africa and resistance in South America. Golda won’t let this happen, over her dead body. The ‘Old Man’ [Ben-Gurion] assured her that as long as she is Foreign Minister, this matter will not come to pass.”

Ben-Gurion was also convinced that one state was enough for the Jews. Although Peres accepted the Prime Minister’s decision, it seems that he carried the feeling of a missed opportunity with him for some time. “The French were ready to give us Guiana,” Michael Bar Zohar quotes Peres as saying in his book, adding that “in his diary, on various occasions, he recorded the benefits Israel could have reaped if only it had Guiana in its hands.”

What do you think? Would it have been a good idea if Israel had established a colony in South America? What would have happened if the idea had come to pass? Could this at least be a springboard for an alternative-history/fantasy book series? Let us know!

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.