The Father of Hebrew Cinema and His Lost Film

Ya'acov Ben-Dov is considered the founder of silent cinema in Israel. This is the story of the few remaining segments of his legendary first film, Judea Liberated.


On a Tuesday afternoon in early December 1917, the second night of Hanukkah in the Hebrew year 5678, General Edmund Allenby entered the old city of Jerusalem, and the British conquest of the Land of Israel began. This was also the moment, according to the late cinema scholar Ya’akov Gross, that ushered in the age of Hebrew cinema. The Jerusalemite photographer Ya’acov Ben-Dov stood at the Jaffa Gate with his silent film camera, documenting the historic events. The segment was incorporated into a film Ben-Dov produced that year: the first Hebrew motion-picture, titled ‘Judea Liberated’ (Yehuda Ha’meshukhreret). The film’s production was an arduous process, and its fate afterwards is a rather open-ended story of many twists and turns… Let’s start at the beginning.

Ya’acov Ben-Dov was born in Ukraine. He attended the Academy of the Arts in Kiev and was already making a living as a photographer by then. He immigrated to Israel and was one of the first students to attend the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts. He later became the head of the school’s photography department. As early as 1912, Ben-Dov reached out to Arthur Ruppin, the director of the Palestine Office of the Zionist Organization, asking for a loan of 2,500 francs from the national treasury to acquire a “cinematographic machine”, as he called it. Ben-Dov stressed that his films would serve the cause of “important propaganda.”

Though his efforts were futile, a few years later Ben-Dov won an award for his devoted service in the Austrian military during WWI – his first silent film camera. It was with this camera that he filmed Allenby in Jerusalem as well as many short scenes filmed all around the young Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine. These scenes made up Ben-Dov’s first silent film, completed in late 1918. The name of the film was “Judea Liberated” and ahead of its release an elegant program was produced listing the scenes in order.


The program produced ahead of the release of “Judea Liberated” featured an outline of the film’s scenes

Several movies were produced in Israel even before “Judea Liberated” was completed, yet Ben-Dov was the first to successfully persist in his work for years, earning him the title ‘the pioneer of silent film in Israel’. However, the movie was damned even before its release. The production did not receive any support from the national institutions as Ben-Dov had hoped. Though it was eventually bought by theatres, and most likely screened, the film was not commercially successful. One of the film’s few copies stood at the heart of an ongoing trial involving Yehiel Weizmann (brother of Chaim Weizmann’s, Israel’s first president, and father of Ezer Weizmann, Israel’s seventh president). This copy made its way to London, South Africa, and its tracks were eventually lost in the United States in the 1930s. Only a few scenes survived and were fortunately incorporated into other films created by Ben-Dov.

The scenes, which were tracked down and identified by film researcher Ya’akov Gross, are all held at the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive and include the following:

  • Allenby’s historic entry to Jerusalem, and a reception held in honor of the British general in the summer of 1918.
  • One scene depicts the reception held in Jerusalem for the Zionist Commission chaired by Chaim Weizmann. The commission was formed following the Balfour Declaration and visited Israel in April 1918. The full movie, its quality outstanding, shows the members of the commission touring the Western Wall and other sites.
  • In another scene, thousands of Muslim pilgrims gather at the Temple Mount (the al Aqsa Mosque compound) before the traditional Nabi Musa procession. The pilgrims would travel from Jerusalem to a site in the Judean desert where, according to tradition, Moses is buried. In the film’s program, the scene is titled ‘The Sacred Space’.
  • The Hebrew University cornerstone-laying ceremony attended by Chaim Weizmann, July 24th, 1918
  • An assortment of scenes from the last part of the film, recording life in Jewish colonies in Israel, including Rishon LeZion, Ness Ziona and Gedera

The scenes were edited by Ya’akov Gross, who integrated them into a short biographical film about Ben-Dov. Watch the scenes here:

Click here to watch the full movie, produced in cooperation with the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive.

Though somewhat defeated, Ben-Dov was not disheartened and pursued his efforts to produce movies in Mandatory Palestine. He and a partner established the Menorah Film Company. His second movie, the first film to be produced by the company, was titled ‘The Land of Israel Liberated’ (Eretz Yisrael Hameshukhreret) and was more highly regarded. Ben-Dov created at least thirty films, both through Menorah as well as later on with the support of the Jewish National Fund and Keren HaYesod. Most of these, like “Judea Liberated”, were lost.


“By Popular Demand!” A poster promoting a special screening for children of the Menorah film – ‘The Land of Israel Liberated”

And yet in the late 1920s Ben-Dov’s star began to fade. The sound revolution in filmmaking and technological advancements left this pioneer cinematographer behind. The JNF and Keren HaYesod opted not to purchase his films, and he eventually sold his film library to the producer Baruch Agadati who freely incorporated Ben-Dov’s materials into his movies. And so, just like his first film, the memory of Ben-Dov’s work in silent film cinema was lost; only years later would it again be widely recognized.



Nathan Gross and Yaacov Gross, The Hebrew Film: The History of the Silent Film and Cinema in Israel [Hebrew], Jerusalem: authors’ edition, 1991

Hillel Tryster, Israel Before Israel: Silent Cinema in the Holy Land, Jerusalem, Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive, 1995

The videos in this article are courtesy of the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive.

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When the Mayor of Jerusalem Begged the British: Let Me Surrender!

With the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Jerusalem, the mayor's delegation set out to surrender to the British. Over and over, the mayor attempted to hand over his surrender, but his efforts were met with confusion and rejection.

General Allenby near the Jaffa Gate, the general would dismount his horse and enter the city on foot. Photo: Eric Matson, GPO

One of the highlights of the British campaign to take the Land of Israel was more of a symbolic victory than a military triumph – the conquest of Jerusalem. The rapid advance of the British Army through the Sinai, into Gaza, and then to the outskirts of Jerusalem showed the Ottoman Empire that the military situation was all but lost. Ottoman forces in the city received an order from the high command: total withdrawal from Jerusalem was to be carried out on the 9th of December, 1917.

As Turkish troops retreated from the city in droves, Mayor Hussein al-Husayni organized an official surrender mission. The mayor passed through the city’s American Colony on foot, searching for a photographer to document the historic event. When the mayor came across the Colony photographer, Lewis Larsson, he called out to him, “I’m going to hand the city over to the English, bring the camera!” On the way, they stopped at the Italian hospital, removed a white sheet from one of the beds, and tied it to a broomstick. The white flag of surrender was prepared!

Now that everything was ready for a traditional ceremony of surrender, the only question left was – who should they actually surrender to?

Around five o’clock in the morning, the mayor’s delegation happened upon two British cooks. These men had been sent to procure eggs from a village outside of Jerusalem the previous evening, and had lost their way back to the British encampment. The mayor and his companions hastened to surrender to the two flabbergasted sergeants and presented to them, as representatives of the mighty British army, the official decree and white flag of surrender.

This unusual situation became all the more strange when the two sergeants came to their senses and refused to accept the surrender. They asked the dignitaries to postpone the affair for a few hours and to join them while they went to look for their commander. Jerusalem’s surrender to its new imperial overlords was put on hold.

As the cooks made their way to the camp, two more sergeants from a British scout patrol suddenly appeared, armed with rifles and demanding, at gunpoint, that the members of the delegation identify themselves. The mayor kept his cool and tried, for the second time, to surrender to two minor representatives of the great British military. The sergeants refused the delegation once again, demanding that they wait until their commander arrived. However, being proper English gentlemen, they did agree to have their picture taken with the city’s honorable dignitaries.

The mayor’s delegation with the two scouts who refused to accept their surrender, from the Library of Congress archives

Several hours later, a Colonel Watson arrived and was presented to the mayor and his party. Watson considered himself to be of sufficient rank and status, and he agreed to accept the dignitary’s letter of surrender. At the end of the hurried ceremony, the colonel turned to the photographer and asked him, “Where can I have a cup of tea?” From there, the group continued to Shaare Zedek Hospital to celebrate the city’s surrender over tea and biscuits.

The next day Larsson the photographer brought the pictures of Watson’s formal ceremony to Major General John Shea’s headquarters. Recognizing the importance of the historical occasion, Larsson asked the general about the proper way to transfer the photographs to London. “What pictures?” the general asked in incredulity. “Are you referring to the photographs from the ceremony in which I read the manifesto on the steps of the Tower of David?”

When General Shea heard about the events of the previous day from the photographer who had documented them, he was furious at Colonel Watson, who had accepted the surrender of the city on behalf of General Edmund Allenby. He ordered the photographer to destroy the pictures of Watson’s “unofficial” ceremony. He insisted that the “real ceremony of surrender” was the one that had taken place on the steps of the Tower of David.

Two days after Mayor al-Husayni’s surrender, the commander of the British Empire’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force, the officer now in charge of the entire region, arrived in Jerusalem. At the entrance to Jaffa Gate, General Edmund Henry Hynman Allenby descended from his horse and entered the city on foot, lest he be seen as a patronizing and cruel conqueror, looking down at the inhabitants from atop his steed.

General Allenby near the Jaffa Gate, the general would dismount his horse and enter the city on foot. Photo: Eric Matson, GPO

Allenby abruptly nullified all previous surrender ceremonies and demanded that a third (or fourth, depending on how one counts) surrender ceremony be organized. Mayor al-Husayni was not present at this final ceremony on the pretext that he had contracted pneumonia on the day of the long surrender, two days prior.

General Allenby accompanied by officers from the armies of three nations (the United States, France, and Italy) entered Jerusalem via the Jaffa Gate. The Prizker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Thus, in the absence of the mayor, the official ceremony of surrender was held in the city of Jerusalem. It was attended by General Allenby, leaders of the city’s various communities, and several thousand residents who came to see their new rulers. A few weeks later, Mayor Hussein al-Husayni died of pneumonia.

The ceremony of Jerusalem’s surrender to General Allenby. The Prizker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


The quotations above are taken from the article – The Battle over the Photographs of Surrender by Dov Gavish, published in the book Jerusalem 5678, 1917/8: Destruction, Miracle and Redemption (Hebrew)

‘הקרב על תצלומי הכניעה מאת דב גביש, ‘ירושלים תרע”ח, 1917/8: חורבן נס וגאולה



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Unicorns in the Holy Land?

Is it possible that the unicorn, that graceful and noble mythological creature, in fact originates from the Land of Israel?


For thousands of years, unicorns have intrigued the human soul. Generations of writers have described a large beast with a single horn, its features varying from one account to the next. Great myths were attributed to it and are still a part of today’s popular culture. Unicorns didn’t always appear as we imagine them today – a white horse bearing a large horn. At times it resembled more the image of a goat, donkey or even a combination of different animals, sometimes there were no horses involved at all. Depictions of unicorns come from all over the world; Chinese figurines can be found, for example, in the shape of single-horned dragons. Stories about unicorns were told everywhere, though somehow, the beasts were always said to come from a far away place.

Could it be that the myth of the unicorn originally emerged here, in Israel? That is one assumption. Ancient descriptions point to locations such as the Indus Valley in India; others claim that the beast’s depictions are based on the African rhinoceros or Narwhals from the Arctic Ocean. In addition, a common theory ties the stories of unicorns to an animal whose natural habitat is the Negev desert in Southern Israel, its name appearing for the first time in the Bible – the re’em. We know it today as the oryx.

A white oryx (re’em) in Israel’s Arava desert. Photo: Shlomi Chetrit

The re’em/oryx, is a type of large antelope; there are several different species of oryx living around Africa and the Middle East. The kind found in Israel and the surrounding Arab countries is the white oryx, or the Arabian oryx, its coat mostly white, with two long, straight horns on its head.

Wait a minute – two horns? Here we are, discussing an elusive, mysterious creature whose name clearly suggests a single, majestic horn, and now you tell me we’re dealing with a plain old antelope?

Bear with us for a moment please…

It may be that the confusion surrounding the re’em and its identification with the unicorn first appeared due to a translation issue: Ancient translations of the Bible into Greek (the Septuagint) and Latin (the Vulgate) interpreted the Hebrew word re’em as ‘unicorn’ (monoceros/unicornis). The re’em is mentioned in many verses in the Bible; it was associated with virtues of strength and power; it is also one of the symbols of the Tribe of Ephraim. Some Hebrew sources, however, have suggested that the Tahash mentioned in the Bible, often translated as “badger”, was in fact the unicorn we have in mind.

An illustration of a unicorn in the 14th century Duke of Sussex Bible, held in the British Library

Yet it could be that the link between the re’em and the mythical unicorn is based on actual sightings. The Holy Land was always a desired destination for pilgrims and tourists who came to walk the paths traveled by Jesus of Nazareth. Some of the travelers, among them various monks and artists, described their arduous journeys in vivid detail, including accounts of the region’s geography, as well as its flora and fauna. Some of these accounts, primarily from the early modern period, contain depictions, occasionally illustrated, of a mysterious unicorn.

An illustration of a unicorn, Gershom Bar Eliezer Pentateuch, 14th century. The Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford

For example, in one of the first books (as opposed to manuscripts) containing an account of a journey to the Holy Land, composed by the German traveler Bernhard von Breydenbach, we find an illustration of various animals he spotted during his travels. The book was written between 1484-1486. Von Breydenbach traveled from Venice to Jaffa, making his way to Jerusalem before later heading south to the Sinai desert. The illustration shows a number of exotic animals including a camel, a crocodile, a goat, a salamander and – a unicorn. Von Breydenbach wrote that he got a brief glimpse of one in Sinai. Could this have been the re’em, whose natural habitat is the Negev and the surrounding desert areas?

An illustration from Bernard von Breydenbach’s book, 15th century. The Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

Felix Fabri, a Dominican friar who traveled to the Land of Israel around the same time, also left a detailed description of a unicorn. Fabri’s sighting also occurred in the Sinai desert, with the friar describing a noble animal, with an energy like no other, its horn over one meter long. He quoted locals who told him it was nearly impossible to hunt the unicorn, though he noted that earlier writers expressed the belief that the wild beast could be tamed by the hand of a virgin.

During the 16th century, the Franciscan friar Noe Bianco made his own pilgrimage and, naturally, wrote a travel journal describing his journey. He too retraced the pilgrims’ path mentioned above, beginning in Venice before traveling to Jerusalem and then Mount Sinai. In his book we find an engraving similar to the one in Von Breydenbach’s book, depicting exotic animals spotted along the way. The engraving features an illustration of a baboon next to a unicorn, which in this case resembles a large goat.

An image from Noe Bianco’s book, Viaggio da Venetia al Santo Sepolcro, et al monte Sina, 16th century

What might explain these sightings? According to one theory, the re’em‘s long, straight horns may appear as a single horn if the animal is viewed from the side. A viewer who is only able to get a quick glimpse from such an angle might mistake the oryx for a large horse with a single horn. Nonetheless, the locals who hunted the beast were clearly aware it possessed two horns. Therefore, another theory suggests that the stories are based on re’ems who lost one of their horns at some point, as these protrusions never grow back.

What, then, were the unicorns that appeared in the records of travelers to the Land Israel? Were they indeed the large, noble re’ems, who nonchalantly chewed the leaves of desert shrubs as they stared at the excited onlookers? Did the travelers truly encounter mythical horses who surrendered to the touch of a young virgin? Or are these all figments of imagination and campfire legends? We will probably never know. Luckily, we can still search for unicorns today: If you wish to relive the experiences of these early European pilgrims, make your way south to the Arava desert; there you will find, at the Yotvata Hai-Bar Nature Reserve, approximately 200 oryxes who have been reintroduced to nature as part of a local reacclimation project. We prefer to call them ‘unicorns’.


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100 Years of Ford and the Jews – From Antisemitism to Zionism

Henry Ford was one of the most notorious American antisemites of the 20th century. His grandson, however, was an ardent Zionist. A collection of rare photos from Henry II's little-known visit to Israel appears here for the first time.

Henry Ford II (center, looking towards the camera) examines one of his models at the Ford plant in Northern Israel, February 1972. Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In 1919, Henry Ford bought a small local newspaper operating at a loss.

In the coming years, The Dearborn Independent would liberally cite and elaborate upon “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, blaming the international Jewish conspiracy for war, poverty, Bolshevism and even “Jewish Jazz-Moron Music”. The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem – a sort of “greatest hits” of antisemitic articles published in the paper – was released soon thereafter as a four-volume set, distributed in Ford dealerships across the United States and translated into German.  Interestingly, the American edition does not mention Ford’s name, while it appears prominently on the best-selling German one.

Less than a half-century after The Dearborn Independent shut down following a libel suit, Henry Ford II was in the State of Israel visiting a Ford plant in the Galilee. If the elder Henry Ford’s antisemitism is legendary, his grandson’s Zionism and support of Jewish causes is certainly less well-known.

Click on the photos to enlarge

Henry Ford II is shown around the Ford plant in Northern Israel, February 1972. Photos by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In September 1945, just a few weeks after his 28th birthday and the official surrender of the Japanese, Ford II became the dynamic new president of the automotive giant. Known as “Hank the Deuce”, the young executive led the company for the last two years of his grandfather’s life and then for the decades that followed.

Shortly after Israeli independence, Hank the Deuce oversaw a trade deal that would see a major shipment of automotive parts to help alleviate the young state’s transportation crisis.

The next year, Hank the Deuce personally presented Israel’s first president with a Ford Lincoln Cosmopolitan. Reportedly the only other recipient of that specific model was U.S. President Harry Truman. A $50,000 contribution from Hank the Deuce in 1950 made him the top donor to the United Jewish Appeal’s first ever Christian Committee Campaign for Israel.

Photos by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Around the time of the Six Day War in 1967, Hank the Deuce nonchalantly gave his good friend, the Jewish businessman and philanthropist Max Fisher, a warm personal note with a $100,000 check inside for the Israeli Emergency Fund.

Shortly thereafter, Hank the Deuce fulfilled his promise to have a Ford assembly plant in Israel and maintain business dealings with the Jewish State, refusing to give in to boycott threats despite extensive and lucrative interests across the Arab world. The Arab boycott took effect and cars began rolling out of the plant in Nazareth, at which point Hank the Deuce reportedly said, “Nobody’s gonna tell me what to do.”

Photos by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

He later elaborated on the decision, “It was just pragmatic business procedure… I don’t mind saying I was influenced in part by the fact that the company still suffers from a resentment against the antisemitism of the distant past. We want to overcome that. But the main thing is that here we had a dealer who wanted to open up an agency to sell our products – hell, let him do it.”

The first Ford Escorts – with tires, batteries and paint “Made in Israel” – came off the Nazareth production line in the spring of 1968. A newspaper article reported the initial output: three vehicles per day, with plans to expand to eight!

Photos by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In October 1971, a festive celebration marked the plant’s 15,000th Escort.  The next year, the plant began assembling a new four-door model, the Escort 1300, and Hank the Deuce came for a visit. A collection of rare photos of that visit from the Dan Hadani Archive, part of the National Library of Israel’s Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, are presented here for the first time.

As exports to Africa grew in the 1970s, Ford Transits, trucks, and buses were also assembled in Nazareth.

In 1975, amid reports that Ford would finally cave into the boycott pressure, he said, “We are going to continue doing business in Israel, and if we can do business in an Arab country, all the better. So we can do business on both sides… I assume that no one would seriously wish us, in a kind of reverse-boycott fashion, to abstain from doing business in Arab countries simply because of our dealings with Israel.”

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The prime minister of Israel at the time of Henry Ford II’s historic 1972 visit to Israel was the Russian-born American-raised labor Zionist Golda Meir and the Ford plant in Nazareth was located just a short distance from Har Megiddo – known as “Armageddon” in English – the site of the Final Battle described in the Book of Revelation.

Some fifty years earlier, a Dearborn Independent article entitled “Will Jewish Zionism Bring Armageddon?”, had decried the “overwhelmingly predominant Bolshevik element” in the modern Zionist movement, the fact that the “Jewish government of Palestine is very much like that of Russia—mostly foreign”, and the misguided “Christian friends of the Jews” who supported the Zionist project. Interestingly, while The Dearborn Independent was unequivocally antisemitic, it also seems to contain a sort of perverse, couched respect for Zionism – at the least in its religious, messianic form; though certainly not the secular, socialist variety that largely characterized the Zionist movement at the time.

Henry Ford the grandfather once said, “Of all the follies the elder generation falls victim to this is the most foolish, namely, the constant criticism of the younger element who will not be and cannot be like ourselves because we and they are different tribes produced of different elements in the great spirit of Time.”

Bill Ford, current executive chairman of the Ford Motor Company and Henry Ford’s great-grandson, visited Israel in 2019 to inaugurate the new Ford Research Center in Tel Aviv.


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