The Bedouin from the Galilee Who Tied His Fate to the Jewish State

Amos Yarkoni was a fierce warrior and a decorated officer. He made major contributions to Israel's security, was loved by his commanders and admired by his soldiers. The course of his life could have been completely different had he decided to fight the Jewish settlers instead of joining them.

Amos Yarkoni receiving the Alon Prize, 1985. Photo: Ilan Ossendriver, the Dan Hadani Collection at the National Library of Israel

The day before he was set to be executed, Amos Yarkoni and two of his comrades, all three bound and chained, managed to escape from the deep pit in which they had been thrown by the Arab gang that captured them. Yarkoni, who was then still known as Abd el-Majid Hidr, a member of the Bedouin al-Mazarib tribe, had been expelled from his community as a traitor, and ordered to sign a letter admitting he had assisted the Zionist enemy. When he failed to comply, he was sentenced to death. It was the late 1930s, the period of the British Mandate in the Land of Israel, and Abd el-Majid Hidr had begun to forge courageous friendships with people from Nahalal, a moshav – a cooperative Jewish farming community – located near his village, Na’ura.

He met his friends from Nahalal when he was a teenager. He was a shepherd, and they guarded Nahalal’s fields. The occasional quarrels and daily friction turned into friendships over time, and when Hidr realized that the hostilities of local Arab gangs were directed not only at his Jewish friends, but also at other Arab families, he decided to begin cooperating with the people of Nahalal.

In 1947, he was 26 years old and working as a messenger at the oil refineries outside the city of Haifa, when he witnessed a massacre perpetrated by Arab workers on their Jewish peers, in which 39 Jewish workers were killed and 51 were wounded. This had happened shortly after an Irgun grenade attack had killed 6 Arab workers. Realizing then how waves of incitement led to the unnecessary killing of innocent people, he made his decision: “I saw then that the Jews are a small people in need of help, and I have it in my blood—when I see people fighting, I always come to the aid of the weak,” he told Maariv.

Amos Yarkoni, Maariv, July 13, 1984

He contacted his friend Oded Yanai from Nahalal, who enlisted him in the IDF Minorities Unit, which was established in late 1948. A year later, after completing a military training course, he became the Israeli army’s first Bedouin squadron commander. By the age of 33 he had become an IDF officer, determined to take part in the defense of the State of Israel.

Shaken by yet another violent incident, Abd el-Majid Hidr decided to deepen his ties with the Jewish people: a series of murders and revenge killings among the Bedouin and Druze communities was what led him to change his name, and from that point he became “Amos Yarkoni.” He chose the name Yarkoni as it includes the Hebrew root Y-R-K (ירק), which is associated with the color green. The word hidr or khidr has a similar association in Arabic.

Yarkoni was a decorated officer, who made an invaluable contribution to the defense of Israel’s security. His tracking skills made him famous among his peers and commanders, who were happy to share stories and anecdotes about his abilities: “I accompanied Amos on one of the chases. I couldn’t figure out how he was able to spot the tracks of some infiltrators who escaped with a few cows. He saw I was curious and said to me: ‘Look at the nibbled grass. The cows they took ate some along the way.’  I thought I had learned something. An hour later I said to him: ‘Here, here is where the cow ate.’ Amos laughed, and said: ‘Don’t you know that a cow isn’t going to eat those bitter weeds?’” recalled Maj. Gen. Rechavam Zeevi in an article about Yarkoni. In addition to Zeevi, Yarkoni also counted Moshe Dayan among his close friends.

During his army service, Yarkoni was injured several times in confrontations with infiltrators. He suffered a severe injury to his leg and even lost his left hand. Yarkoni established special tracking units while serving alongside Israel’s elite special forces, and toward the end of his service commanded “Shaked,” an independent unit tasked with locating, stopping and capturing infiltrators, spies, intelligence personnel and Arab guerillas along the borders of Egypt and Jordan. Yarkoni was decorated with the Medal of Distinguished Service and received three citations for bravery. In 1969, he retired from the IDF with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

At his farewell to the unit, he said: “I led the best of Jewish youth.  I enjoyed watching them grow up at my side and I tried my best to be honest and decent toward them. I saw myself as a liaison between Arabs and Jews in my relationship with these young men. I told them: Guys, you have to learn Arabic. This border will not remain forever.”

Yarkoni with his son Adwan. Maariv, May 4, 1976

Yarkoni lived with his family in the southern desert city of Beer Sheva, with his children attending the local schools.  When his son wanted to volunteer for a naval commando unit and to enlist in the IDF officers’ training course, he encountered hesitation and reservations despite his father’s legacy. Eventually the youth overheard a phone call between his commanders, with one noting “his father was an IDF battalion commander, and it’s fine from a security standpoint”. Hurt and offended, Yarkoni’s son refused to join the officers’ course, even after Yarkoni demanded—and received—an apology for the incident. Another son was not called up for compulsory service until Yarkoni insisted.

Despite the difficulties and discrimination his family experienced after his retirement from military service, Yarkoni continue to strive for reconciliation and coexistence among all the country’s citizens. When he died in 1991, at the request of Rechavam Zeevi, Yarkoni was buried at the Kiryat Shaul military cemetery in Tel Aviv.

Gershom Scholem’s Mishna Comes Home

About a year after the renowned scholar's Talmud set finally found its way home, his Mishna has too...

A few years ago, after a number of unexpected wanderings, Gershom Scholem’s Talmud set finally came home to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. Now, following a somewhat less dramatic though still interesting saga, his set of the Mishna has come home, as well.

When Scholem came to the Land of Israel from Berlin in 1923, he typed up a list of all of the books that he brought with him (more than 1,700!). The list can be found in his archive at the National Library.

His Mishna set appears as numbers 10 and 11 in the category of “Hebraische Literatur” (“Hebrew Literature”). Numbers 2-6 indicate that the Babylonian Talmud he brought was not a complete set from a single publisher, and it seems that he did the same with his Mishna, bringing three volumes (though he didn’t indicate which) from an edition published in Amsterdam in 1685 and one volume, Seder Kedoshim, printed in Fürth in 1814.

He came with only four of the six total Orders of the Mishna.

From there the story becomes less clear.

Shortly after he passed away in 1982, most of his personal library came to the National Library, where it remains largely in the same order as it was in his apartment.

Yet, for years, his Mishna was not to be found in the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library. In its place stood another set from the Library’s collections.

It seems that after he passed away, his Mishna – along with other books – remained with his wife Fania in their home.

A few months ago, I was contacted by someone at Midreshet Beer, a women’s seminary in Yerucham, who asked an intriguing question.

She told me that the seminary had recently received a number of donated books and among them was a Mishna set with the ex libris of Gershom Scholem. She asked if we would we like to have it.

Of course I said, “Yes,” and inquired further.

Gershom Scholem’s ex libris

It turned out that the set had belonged to a couple who had lived on Kibbutz Saad in the Western Negev. After they passed away, their children decided to donate many of the books they found in their home to the seminary.

I spoke with the couple’s daughter who had no idea how her parents had gotten the set. She didn’t think that they had had any connection to the Scholems, though it certainly seems possible that perhaps they knew Fania and received the books from her.

Or maybe the volumes had other stops along the way…

In any case, the set, published in Fürth in 1814, is complete (six volumes) and in outstanding condition, though it is clear that not all of the volumes were used by the same people…

I believe that when Scholem got to Jerusalem he sold the three older, more valuable Amsterdam volumes that he had brought with him and purchased the volumes he needed to complete his Fürth set.

He probably even had some leftover change to buy a few more books about Kabbalah…

Many thanks to the staff at Midreshet Beer for contacting us and donating this set to the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library, as well as to Meirav Bigman at the National Library, who helped make the connection.

Gershom Scholem’s Mishna set, after returning hom

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.

Djemal Pasha’s Revenge on the People of Jerusalem

In the midst of WWI, residents of Jerusalem witnessed a horrific spectacle: the hanging of five local citizens by the Ottoman authorities. A photograph of the scene has since become a Jerusalem legend linking Christians, Jews and Muslims.

This photo was likely taken by photographer Khalil Raad, who arrived at the scene before the bodies were taken down. Some say he later sold the picture at his store, while others claim it was passed to a relative of one of the deceased by a former Ottoman official, the Ben Zvi Institute

In June 1916, Ahmad Djemal Pasha, commander of the Ottoman Fourth Army and ruler of Damascus province, found himself facing a difficult problem: many soldiers had deserted from the ranks, and he was suffering a severe manpower shortage. Following the unsuccessful Ottoman attack on the Suez Canal, the defeated, exhausted and hungry soldiers returned to the Land of Israel. Jerusalem, like many other cities in the Ottoman Empire, filled with deserters, who hoped to escape the attention of the authorities.

Ahmad Djemal Pasah, the Turkish Military Governor in Syria and the Land of Israel. Photo: the Ben Zvi Institute

The military police roamed the city in search of the absentee soldiers, who were called “Farar” (Arabic: فرار). Djemal Pasha, who urgently needed men, sentenced any deserter who would not turn himself in to death, but to no avail. In his cruel rage, he decided to teach the public a lesson. He ordered his men to seize five deserters and execute them in a central location in the city. The unlucky five—two Jews, two Christians and one Muslim—were caught and hanged in an expedited procedure. This is their story.

The Sick Man on the Bosphorus

The Ottoman entry into the First World War led to a severe economic crisis throughout the empire, in the Middle East in particular. Jerusalem was especially hard hit. Local tourism had collapsed and many sources of funding had dried up. A drought severely affected farmers’ crops, and if all of that wasn’t enough, in 1914–1915, the Middle East suffered a devastating locust plague that reached the Holy City as well. Moreover, the forced conscription imposed by the Ottoman regime left many families without a breadwinner, and poverty and hunger were rife. Many of the local men, instead of being sent to combat units, were sent to the “Amaliya,” hard labor battalions in the service of the Ottoman army.

Ottoman soldiers in formation, in the courtyard in front of the Kishla (the police prison) near David’s Citadel, Jerusalem. Photo: the Ben Zvi Institute

The combination of World War I and the economic crisis led to low morale and very high desertion rates among Ottoman soldiers in the Middle East. At the same time, local national movements began to revolt against Ottoman rule and side with the Allied Powers. Cases like the establishment of the Zion Mule Corps that took part in the Battle of Gallipoli and the revolt of Sharif Hussein of Mecca led Djemal Pasha to behave violently toward anything he interpreted as disloyalty or disobedience. Throughout 1915–1916, Ahmad Djemal Pasha committed a series of war crimes and acts, the Armenian Genocide foremost among these, which cemented his status as one of the cruelest figures of the First World War.

The Hanging at the Jaffa Gate

In the middle of 1916, after the hanging and exiling of deserters and “traitors” across the Middle East, Ahmad Djemal Pasha arrived in Jerusalem to deal with the local deserter problem. He announced that he would sentence to death any deserter who did not surrender by the end of June 1916. His promise to pardon all the fugitives if they returned to their units, did not help. In his rage, Djemal Pasha ordered five runaways caught at random to be hung, as an example. The deserters were chosen on the basis of ethnicity—two Jews, two Christian Arabs and one Muslim Arab.

Djemal Pasha sets out for the battle to conquer the Suez Canal, Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem, 1915. Photo: the Ben Zvi Institute

Within a day, five defectors meeting his requirement were captured and hung in Jerusalem’s main square, which at the time was located by the Jaffa Gate. The five were Ibrahim Andelft and Musa Sous, Christian Arabs; Ahmad Alozu, a Muslim; and Moshe Melal and Yosef Amozig, who were Jews. The convicts were granted a final meeting with a cleric, after which they were hanged. Around their necks hung signs stating their alleged crime, and their bodies were left hanging on the gallows until the evening hours, giving Djemal Pasha’s violent message time to sink in.

The news of the hanging of Jews by the Ottomans spread in the city, and the next day it was also reported in the Ha-Herut Hebrew newspaper, including the last requests of those sentenced to death. Amozig, according to the report, sufficed with drinking a little water before being executed; Melal, on the other hand, asked that the money owed him be collected and paid  to his mother and also demanded that the blindfold that had been placed on him be removed, so that he might walk toward his death with his eyes open. The reporter added that unfortunately the blindfold request was refused as it was contrary to Ottoman law.

The Ha-Herut newspaper reports the hanging in Hebrew and names the deceased, June 30, 1916

The execution of Yosef Amozig was particularly tragic, as he was not a deserter at all. Amozig was born in Morocco and immigrated to Jerusalem with his sister and mother, Hanina. Like his father, Amozig became a tailor and set up a workshop together with a local Muslim in the Old City of Jerusalem. Among his clients were wealthy families such as the Nashashibis, and some say he even made clothes for Djemal Pasha and his entourage. Amozig closed his workshop with the start of the Great War before he was drafted into the army and sent to work as a tailor at a base in Beersheba, the only Ottoman-established city in the Land of Israel.

One day, Amozig’s commander sent him back to Jerusalem to sew some uniforms for him. He had just reopened his workshop and started on the commission when he was spotted by Ottoman army informants who mistook him for a deserter. He was apprehended by the military police and imprisoned. Amozig was beset by difficulties to explain his presence in the city: he was unable to contact his commander in order to clarify his mission, and his military transit permit had disappeared. Amozig’s mother tried desperately to find the permit, but could not. After his arrest, Amozig was placed in “The Kishla”, the local prison near the Tower of David. The permit was not found, and he was forced to meet his end at the gallows.

The Legacy

Esther Harrush, Amozig’s niece, who later married Akiva Azulay, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem, was one of the few who remembered the story, which was known in a few, slightly different versions. Over the years, the Sephardic Jews of Jerusalem retold the story of the hanging of Amozig and Melal until it became a well-known Jerusalem urban legend. One of the details that emerged years after the execution was that the executioner was a Jew named Mordechai Sassoon, who carried out the Ottoman orders with a heavy heart and accompanied the Jewish victims to the last.

Djemal Pasha’s decision to hang five people by religious affiliation was unusual, even compared to the rest of his brutal actions during the war. The randomness of the choice, the expedited sentencing of the victims and the impact on the various communities in the city made the incident a landmark in the history of Jerusalem. Amozig and Melal, martyrs hanged because of their Jewish faith, take their place alongside Naaman Belkind and Yosef Lishansky, members of the Nili organization, who were executed on account of espionage in the same period. To some extent, this story is yet another symbol of Jerusalem’s sacred status to the three monotheistic religions, a place where their believers meet, live and die together.


Further Reading:

Year of the Locust : A Soldier’s Diary and the Erasure of Palestine’s Ottoman Past / Salim Tamari

A Dragon From the Land of Israel?

Stories about dragons usually lead us to dark caves in Europe, but one classic dragon-tale may have its ancient roots right here, in the Land of Israel


Illustration from Musaeum hermeticum reformatum et amplificatum, 1749, the Edelstein Collection, the National Library of Israel

Did you know that at least one dragon can be linked to the ancient Land of Israel? Usually, the mention of dragons evokes scenes of knights in armor and towering castles; in short: European folktales set in European landscapes. The tales generally feature a maiden in distress, a dragon threatening the locals, and a brave knight who comes to the rescue, slays the dragon and saves the maiden as well as the town and its grateful residents. Occasionally, the knight is also rewarded with a great treasure along the way. While there are many such stories in world folklore, one of the most famous in Christian mythology and Western culture is associated with the Land of Israel. Or more precisely, with the city of Lod (Lydda).

There are many versions of the story of Saint George and the Dragon, a classic dragon tale, with some even contradicting each other. It begins with a man named Geórgios (George), born to a Christian family of Greek descent. His father was from the Cappadocia region of modern-day Turkey, and his mother was born in Lod in the Land of Israel, then known as the Roman province of Syria Palaestina. George’s father died when his son was still in his teens, and so the youth and his mother returned to Lod, where he grew up, until he joined the Roman army. Saint George met his end, as did many Christian saints, when he was beheaded by the Romans, who persecuted him for his Christian faith.

Saint George Slaying the Dragon, Raphael, c. 1506

The legend of Saint George and the Dragon first appeared much later, in the 11th century. Various versions of the story situate the battle with the dragon in Libya or Turkey. But we don’t mind believing the version that places the events in Lod, which is traditionally Saint George’s final resting place. According to the tale, a fearsome dragon terrorizing the region demanded gifts and offerings from the locals as appeasement. According to some accounts, the dragon lived in a lake or swamp, and had the power to poison the water sources. Its hunger was insatiable, and every day the villagers provided it with two sheep. When they had exhausted the supply of farm animals, they turned to human offerings. This continued until one day, the beloved local princess was chosen as the dragon’s next victim. Although her father the king offered all his riches and gold, no one agreed to take her place, quite understandably.

Here is where our hero George enters the story, passing by on his white horse by chance, and armed with his trusty lance which he named “Ascalon”, after the city known as Ashkelon in modern-day Israel. The doomed princess tried to persuade him to flee, but George vowed to stay by her side. When the dragon appeared, he stabbed it with the lance, mortally wounding the great beast. George asked the princess for her sash, which he then used to loop around the dragon’s neck. The dragon was tamed as soon as the sash touched its scales. The princess and the gallant knight then proceeded to march it through the city streets.

A dragon biting its tail, from Musaeum hermeticum reformatum et amplificatum, 1749, the Edelstein Collection, the National Library of Israel
Fire-breathing dragon from Elementa Chemiae, by Johannis Conradi Barchusen, the Edelstein Collection, the National Library of Israel

At this point in the story, the various versions cast George’s character in slightly different lights. According to one version he agreed to kill the dragon on condition that the city’s inhabitants convert to Christianity, which they did. Another tells that he killed the dragon, and then distributed the money he received from the king to the poor. The stunned peasants converted to Christianity. In any case, the miraculous story, alongside George’s military career, made him a very popular figure in Christendom as well as a patron saint of soldiers, archers and cavalry, and an ideal exemplar of the myth of the Christian knight.

He is also the patron saint of England (whose flag bears “The Cross of Saint George”), Georgia, Ethiopia, Lithuania, Greece, the Palestinian Authority, the provinces of Catalonia and Aragon in Spain, the cities of Moscow and Istanbul and many other places. The city of Lod has also commemorated his name, naturally. According to tradition, George’s decapitated head was brought to the city, where it is buried in the Church of St. George the Dragon Slayer. Every year on November 16 (according to the Gregorian calendar), a feast is held in the city of Lod to commemorate the transfer and burial of his head there.

Detail from a round World Map, 1543. Dragons roam the coast of Libya. Libya was one of the possible locations of the story of Saint George and the Dragon. From La mer des hystoires, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection, the National Library of Israel]
A sea dragon swims off the coast of the Land of Israel. Map dated 1536, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection, the National Library of Israel

And if, on your next visit to Lod, you fail to find any dragons, do not despair! You can find some here at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. We have included a few different specimens from the Library’s holdings throughout this article: dragons that appear on antique maps, dragons in old scientific texts, in illustrated manuscripts and even a three-headed dragon from a book of alchemical secrets. And this is just a small sampling of the many dragons hiding here among the stacks and shelves. Browse through the National Library catalog to find more!

Illustration of “The Three Heads of the Dragon,” symbolizing three metals which when fused together, according to one alchemical theory, create the Philosopher’s Stone. From “The Crowning of Nature”, a 17th century English manuscript by Johann Conrad Barchusen, the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel