When the Egyptians Bombed Tel Aviv

Despite its somewhat hedonistic and detached image, the city of Tel Aviv faced its share of difficulties during the War of Independence. So what does Leonard Bernstein have to do with all this?


The Tel Aviv central bus station after the attack by the Egyptians. The Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium collection, Bitmuna

If you’ve read The Other Side of the Coin (Hebrew) by Uri Avnery, you may recall the stories of a sense of bitterness which spread among Israeli soldiers in 1948. This feeling stemmed from the impression that while the soldiers were risking their lives at the various fronts, the citizens of Tel Aviv were going about their merry lives in the bustling Jewish metropolis on the Mediterranean coast. Avnery, a journalist turned activist/politician who would eventually become an icon of the Israeli left, described his feelings in blunt detail from his time on home leave. While this narrative concerning the Tel Aviv “bubble” and its reputation for hedonism remains somewhat relevant to this day, the truth is the city suffered its share of hardships during the most difficult of Israel’s wars. In the spring and summer of 1948, Tel Aviv was bombed repeatedly by the Egyptian Air Force.

The Palestine Post, May 20th, 1948

And this is where the camera suddenly freezes and our record screeches to a halt. Let’s rewind a bit and get some background: The War of Independence was already underway. Only two days after the State of Israel declared its independence, Egyptian warplanes appeared in the skies over the first Hebrew city. On May 18th, 1948, the Tel Aviv central bus station was bombed in the deadliest attack carried out by the Egyptians. These bombing runs lasted for about a month on a nearly daily basis, until June 11th. Sirens went off incessantly. An additional round of bombings began in July 1948. Simultaneously, in early June, Egyptian ships reached the waters off Tel Aviv and began shelling the city. Later on, Egyptian planes would continue to exploit the vulnerability of the nearly non-existent Israeli Air Force, conducting sorties over central Israel.

Upon hearing the sirens…pedestrians must evacuate the streets and gather in the lower floors of nearby buildings…” A poster published by the Tel Aviv municipality with guidelines in case of an attack. The Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel


Another part of this story begins some time earlier, in the days of the British Mandate, when the acclaimed conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein first arrived in the Land of Israel in April 1947. This was the first time he played with the local Philharmonic Orchestra, and the maestro was immediately captivated by the charm of the small Jewish Yishuv.

It appeared Bernstein not only fell in love with the new country which was struggling to survive; he would also make a considerable contribution to the war effort. On a 60-day tour which included no less than 40 shows, Bernstein performed several times for soldiers scattered in different corners of the land. Some of you may have heard of Leonard Cohen’s special performances for Israeli soldiers fighting in the Yom Kippur war, but it turns out he was not the first famous Jewish “Leonard” to do so.

Leonard Bernstein and the Philharmonic Orchestra perform for soldiers in Be’er Sheva, November 1948. Photo credit: Hugo Mendelson, GPO


The lack of a significant Israeli Air Force affected Bernstein’s concerts with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra in the Tel Aviv area. David Sidorsky, who was then an overseas volunteer with the IDF and who would later become a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, described one of the concerts he attended. He told of how everyone who was present at the concert – including the orchestra musicians and Bernstein himself – was evacuated to a nearby bomb shelter after an Egyptian plane was identified flying over Tel Aviv.



When the plane had left the area, Bernstein continued conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6. The incident repeated itself 10 or 12 times, according to Sidorsky. Every time a plane flew overhead, a siren went off and everyone headed to the shelter. Every time the ‘all-clear’ signal was given, the crowd reentered the hall and Bernstein and the musicians continued the performance. “He was determined to complete the Sixth Symphony!” said Sidorsky.



Indeed, this wasn’t the only time Bernstein’s concerts coincided with Egyptian attacks. We found evidence of at least one other concert interrupted by Egyptian planes – and there may have been more. In another incident, a crisis almost arose at a concert held in Be’er Sheva for a few thousand soldiers. The large gathering raised the Egyptians’ suspicions and they even planned to divert forces to the area, out of concern that Israel was planning an offensive in the Negev region. Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first President later commented on the Egyptian reaction: “After all, who would make time for a Mozart concerto in the middle of a war?” In fact, the IDF actually did carry out an attack on a different area of the Negev at the same time, with Bernstein’s concert serving as a diversion.

“The Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein in Be’er Sheva” Davar, November 26th, 1948


An estimated 150 people were killed in the attacks on Tel Aviv. Though the city’s suffering was somewhat forgotten within the context of the ongoing war, Tel Aviv’s perseverance and ability to withstand enemy attacks contributed greatly to the Israeli victory in the war. After all, this was the location of headquarters for the IDF and the various underground organizations as well as the institutions of the young state. The war could not have been won, without the homefront doing its part.

The bombs left their impressions on the citizens of Tel Aviv. Years later, a child from the neighborhood of Neve Sha’anan, who had witnessed the deadly Egyptian attack on the Tel Aviv central bus station, wrote a piercing Hebrew poem, based on his painful memories: “It was at the age of three / that my youth was lost forever / on the way from preschool to the shelter // planes with their beautiful wings/ flew swiftly above me / leaving me, my face covered in dust.” This child was Hanoch Levin, who would become one of Israel’s greatest playwrights. The poem, ‘It Was at the Age of Three’ , was given a melody composed by Zohar Levy and included in Levin’s classic play ‘Queen of a Bathtub’.


This article was written with the help of the Toldot Yisrael Collection, which records the testimonies of the 1948 generation.


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Football Under the Auspices of His Majesty

When Jewish and Arab teams faced off against footballers from the Royal Air Force...

The King’s Own Royal Regiment v. Hapoel Tel Aviv, November 21st, 1931

During the years of the British Mandate in the Land of Israel (1917-1948), thousands of British citizens including government, police and military personnel found themselves stationed in the region, living alongside its Jewish and Arab residents. Although football, (or soccer, for American readers) was played here before the British conquest, the sport received a significant push under the nation considered to be the birthplace of the game, as all three major population groups participated, each with their own football clubs competing against each other in tournament play. British, Arab and Jewish teams from this period had names such as The Paymasters, Shabab al-‘Arab and Maccabi Tel Aviv.

In 1928, the Eretz Israel Football Association was founded (at the suggestion of Egypt), and one of the conditions for its acceptance into FIFA was the inclusion of all population groups in the country. League matches were held between Arab, Jewish and British teams, and, in principle, if not always in practice, players from the three populations were even selected for an all-star national team that played against teams from other countries.

Common Ground

When thinking about the relations between population groups in  Mandatory Palestine, one tends to get the impression that a state of constant confrontation and conflict existed between Jews and Arabs. A similar image of hostility between the Jews and the British during the Mandate Period also comes to mind, mainly with regard to the struggle of Jewish groups such as the Irgun (Etzel) and Stern Gang (Lechi) against the British authorities, as well as opposition to British treatment of illegal Jewish immigrants (ma’apilim) during this period. Nonetheless, the sporting ties between Jews, Arabs and the British, as manifested in football, suggest that at least in the realm of sport, a single complex reality existed in which cooperation was the rule and not the exception. While national identity remained a key characteristic of sports in Mandatory Palestine, athletic events served as an arena for encounters between diverse communities.

This does not mean that the tension did not affect the relationships between athletes. For example, due to the protests sparked in the Yishuv (the Jewish community in the Land of Israel) following publication of the Passfield White Paper in 1930, games between British and Jewish clubs were halted; and in 1934, in protest against the treatment to which they were subjected, the Arab teams left the Eretz Israel Football Association, establishing a short-lived parallel organization of their own. It must also be noted, though, that crowds were known to extend warm receptions to teams from other population groups. For example, a newspaper report on a game between the Muslim Club of Jaffa and Maccabi Rehovot held at the Rehovot Soccer Field in 1941, stated: “The Arab team was welcomed with friendly enthusiasm by the football fans in Rehovot.” Throughout the Mandate period, the rulings of the Association were made in the spirit of good sportsmanship and without any evident bias in favor of the Jewish teams.

A New Middle East

Football was played not only within the borders of Mandatory Palestine, but also on the international stage. Local Jewish teams were playing against clubs from Arab countries such as Egypt, Lebanon and Syria as early as 1927. No confrontations were reported in newspaper accounts of these games which were still taking place in the early 1940s.

Kicking Around during Wartime

Over time, a process of gradual separation between the Jewish football institutions and  clubs and those of the Arab and British sectors became apparent. This took place mainly during the period of WWII, when relationships with both the Arab and British teams  grew sour.

While games against “foreign” teams naturally came to an end with the departure of most of the forces and government personnel from the region at the end of the war, the decision to cease holding matches between Jewish and Arab teams was a political one taken by the Association.

A Red Card

In the 1942 League Cup games, Maccabi Haifa was scheduled to play against Greece’s Royal Hellenic Army team in the quarter-finals, but the Greeks left Mandatory Palestine prior to the game and Maccabi Haifa was automatically promoted to the next round. One of the three remaining games in the quarter-finals, between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Shabab al-‘Arab, ended with a victory for the Jewish team, which had added to its roster two players slated for conscription. As such an addition was forbidden according to the rules of the Association, Maccabi Tel Aviv was disqualified from tournament play. Nonetheless, it was not the Arab team that benefitted from this disqualification. Maccabi Haifa, which had already been automatically bumped up to the semi-finals, was now automatically placed in the final. Shabab al-‘Arab’s appeal of this decision was rejected by the Association. Following the decision, a conflict ensued between the Arab teams and the Association, leading ultimately to their renouncing membership in 1943 and establishing the Arab Sports Association in May 1944.

The story of football in Mandatory Palestine illustrates how at the personal level, as manifested in athletic encounters, hostile relations did not always prevail between the Arab population and the Jewish Yishuv, and between both of these groups and the ruling British. In the 1930s and 1940s, Jews, Arabs and others continued to meet on the football field, almost through the end of the Mandate Period. During these years, it can be seen how, gradually and unfortunately, football came to function increasingly as a tool for political struggles rather than for cooperation and coexistence.

Curated by Yoram E. Shamir and Rotem Kislev

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Pesah Hevroni: Among the great Jewish mathematicians of the twentieth century, inventor and brilliant scholar, native of Jerusalem

The archive of Dr. Pesah Hevroni is not large, but it succinctly and accurately recounts the tragic story of one of the great Jewish mathematicians of the twentieth century, an inventor and brilliant scholar born in Jerusalem, who never quite came into his own

Photo: from Wikipedia

The archive of Dr. Pesah Hevroni is not large, but it succinctly and accurately recounts the tragic story of one of the great Jewish mathematicians of the twentieth century, an inventor and brilliant scholar born in Jerusalem, who never quite came into his own. Its scant folders of letters and documents contain – in addition to an impressive correspondence with the world’s leading mathematicians of the first half of the twentieth century – a concise account of the intellectual world of this scientist and inventor who spent most of his life in Jerusalem.

Pesah Hevroni was born to a Chassidic (Chabad) family in the Mazkeret Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem in 1888. He attended yeshiva at Etz-Hayim and Beit Hamusar and was considered a prodigy in the world of Torah study. However, the life of this bearded, sidelock-sporting, yeshiva boy took a dramatic turn when he discovered a book on cosmography – Shvilei Derakheha – in his grandfather’s library.  Appended to this book was a booklet containing short, illustrated introductions to planary geometry, trigonometry, and other mathematical areas. Intrigued by the discovery, Hevroni set out to learn more about the subject. The first stop in this quest was Beit Hasfarim Midrash Abravanel on Chabashim Street, the earliest iteration of the National Library. He hoped to find more books on mathematics in the library in order to feed the intense curiosity that had awakened in him. However, as Yosef Yoel Rivlin tells us, the road leading to the library was not without its obstacles. He was forbidden to visit this institution, which the extremist factions to which his grandfather, R. Hayim Elazar belonged regarded as profane.

Despite the difficulties he faced, the young yeshiva boy managed to acquire a significant body of mathematical knowledge from books and independent study. The more he learned, the clearer it became to him that he needed to leave the world of Torah study and undertake secular studies, specifically in the sciences, to which he was drawn. Thus, the shy yeshiva boy found his way to the most zealous intellectual in Jerusalem at the time, Eliezer Ben Yehuda. Ben Yehuda, discerning Hevroni’s technical abilities, believed he could find him a place among the students of Boris Schatz, who had just founded the arts and crafts school of Bezalel. Hevroni’s encounters with Ben Yehuda and Schatz led to further encounters with leading figures in education in Palestine at the time, who were immediately impressed by the young man’s exceptional talent. With their help, he finished his high school studies quickly. Then, having cut off his sidelocks and shaved his beard, he was sent to study mathematics at university in Zurich, Switzerland, thanks to the assistance and encouragement of Paul Nathan. In 1914, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, Pesah Hevroni earned the title doctor of mathematics. He was the first native of the old settlement in Palestine to earn this title.  When he informed his teachers in Zurich, who nicknamed him “the Star of the East”, that he intended to return to Jerusalem immediately, they were extremely upset and tried to deter him, but to no avail.

Despite his incisive mathematical genius, Hevroni did not manage to take his place among the faculty of the newly established Hebrew University. An exchange of letters in his archive testifies to the fact that, although he taught at the university from its first day and was actually among the founders of the institute of mathematics, the university administration persistently refused him tenure as a lecturer.  A letter sent to him by Professor Hugo Bergman of the Hebrew University, and a former director of the National Library, was intended to help him achieve his goal of tenure. However, despite a recommendation from Albert Einstein and warm words from Hugo Bergman, this was not to be. A humiliated and rejected Hevroni was forced to pursue his research outside of the only academic center in the country at the time, in conditions of abject poverty.

Hevroni’s archive contains letters from the world’s greatest mathematicians, to whom he sent his articles and studies, many of which were published in various contexts all over the world. Hevroni did not rest on his laurels but participated in founding the Israel Association for Mathematical Research, worked to further science education in the country, and nurtured many students, some of whom became important scholars.

In addition to his mathematical research, Hevroni dabbled in inventing. A letter from the manager of the Mograbi Cinema in Tel Aviv teaches us that Hevroni invented a planetarium that made use of the theater’s projectors. Towards the end of his life Hevroni also became absorbed by the idea of world peace, and even began an essay on the subject, which he entitled “Journal of Peace.” It appears that he never completed this piece, but even the excerpts preserved in his archive, written in fine pencil and beautiful script, bear testimony to the fascinating spirit of this special individual.

Pesah Hevroni passed away on 18 Adar 5723 (1963), on his seventy fifth birthday. Yosef Yoel Rivlin learned from his sister that “even in his final moments, his fingers moved over the bedcovers as if writing mathematical forms and equations, and his lips continued to move….”

Letter from Hugo Bergmann to Pesah Hevroni


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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