An Egyptian Soldier’s Diary From the Yom Kippur War

Naji Ali, an Egyptian sergeant, documented a total of five days during the fateful Middle East conflict of 1973, leaving a chilling record of the war's brutality and the treatment of captured Israeli soldiers. The historic document recently surfaced in the collections of the National Library of Israel

The notebook the Egyptian soldier carried with him during the Yom Kippur War was used for a purpose other than the one his commanders had intended.

The booklet was originally meant to be used for logging the test results of Soviet “Sagger” missiles transferred to Egypt in preparation for the next military confrontation with Israel. One page of the notebook in question was indeed used for this original purpose, from which we learn that the missile examined by this particular soldier was found to be in good working order. But when the fighting broke out on October 6th, 1973, the notebook was repurposed into a personal diary, and on its cover the soldier inscribed the Arabic word for “Memoir”.

We don’t know the soldier’s full name. The diary only mentions the name “Naji Ali”. Other than that, the author offers very few personal details besides being a “health sergeant” of the Third Army’s Seventh Division. In other words, he likely served as a medic.

“For eternal memory from the battlefront in Suez. Health Sergeant Naji Ali, unit 741”

Shalufa, located on the west bank of the Suez Canal, north of the city of Suez and south of Ismailia, was known as a frequent and bloody point of conflict in the history of Israeli-Egyptian warfare, stretching back to the Sinai Campaign of 1956. The war broke out on a Saturday, at midday, Yom Kippur, 1973. On that first day of war, Naji Ali crossed the Suez Canal and was among the Egyptian forces that moved into the Sinai Peninsula via Shalufa. The documentation from this fateful day, in which Naji Ali describes his first encounter with IDF soldiers and the transfer of equipment from the Shalufa camp to the east bank of the canal is perhaps the most difficult section of the text. Apparently, the events described happened at the Lituf military outpost, an Israeli position on the eastern bank of the canal.

The surprise attack was a success and the Egyptian army not only took the frontline outpost, but also captured Israeli prisoners of war. The callous reporting of the cruel treatment of the captives is shocking to read:

October 6th, 1973, Saturday at 2:00 PM, Shalufa military camp:

We flew in Egyptian planes over Sinai and after destroying the strong positions, we drove amphibious vehicles, landing on positions on the coast and started crossing with our vehicles. The crossing was quiet and without any particular issues. A while later, a civilian position next to us was attacked. The enemy flag was lowered. We captured an Israeli soldier and he surrendered and raised his hands. We did not shoot him because it was pointless. We beat him instead with our boots until he was dead. Then we moved all the equipment like ammunition, tanks, food and drink to our forces that had already crossed.

This is the most chilling passage in this short diary, and it appears right at the beginning. The documentation shows that at this stage the Egyptians did not try to transfer the prisoners to detention, but intended to get rid of them quickly and without wasting their ammunition.

Once the attacking forces were stationed in the area, the author listed the supplies delivered to them: food, ammunition, and artillery. The Egyptian wounded were treated by a colleague named Hassan.

The chilling account of the first day of the war]

 

Although Naji Ali called his diary a “memoir,” his tone on the second day of the war was propagandist. Reading his words, one can imagine listening to a Radio Cairo broadcast of the war:

The fighting continues for the second day.

The forces are constantly advancing with incredible victories, shooting down some of the enemy planes and tanks.

Except for one position that retaliated strongly and aggressively and caused a limited number of casualties, but we took care of them quickly.

The outpost attacked vigorously and despite our forces’ attempts to stop it, it continued to attack but failed to fend off our offensive. That day we managed to lower the enemy flag and hoisted our Egyptian flag on the soil of Sinai on the eastern bank of the canal. Praise God.

Documentation of the third day of the war once again demonstrates the intensity of the Egyptian soldiers’ hatred of the Israeli enemy. This time, captured IDF soldiers narrowly escape death:

8/10/1973 – Monday

We managed to cross the canal again; we moved some of the equipment and ammunition.

With God’s help, we managed to permanently silence position 149 [the same outpost that had resisted aggressively the day before, apparently a reference to the Lituf outpost].

So the whole area is more or less calm except for the aerial shelling.

When we silenced it [position 149, apparently] our forces captured the area around the position.

We were given a signal to go to the shore and bring three enemy prisoners. We beat them, aggressively. The soldiers surrounded them and wanted to drink their blood. But the leaders [the officers] prevented this in order to question them and extract information.

The signature of an officer with the rank of major (not Naji Ali) appears next to the results of the test of the Russian missile at the end of the diary

 

The fourth and fifth days of the war are documented in the Egyptian soldier’s diary without any particular incident of note. Once the “strong position” was subdued, Naji Ali’s unit concentrated on preparing the equipment and supplies for further combat and military advances into the interior of the Sinai Peninsula. The equipment included a bottle of Coca-Cola collected from the occupied Israeli outpost:

9/10/1973 – Tuesday [day four of the war]

In the morning at 6:00 we ate breakfast [written here: “over four Israeli planes” – likely referring to planes that crashed, C.M.] and then I moved to the eastern bank. I went to the strong position and brought back a fork, a Coca-Cola bottle, and two other items [unclear]. And the day ended peacefully.

The diary concludes with documentation of the fifth day of the war. This was Wednesday, October 10, 1973. Naji Ali noted that he showered for the first time in ten days. He ended his diary thus:

I loaded ammunition and weapons in the afternoon. I went back and was amazed to discover five more cars loaded with ammunition. I passed them safely. The day is over.

Documentation of day five, which concludes the diary

 

Due to the diary’s brevity, we were able to follow the entire course of documentation up until the abrupt ending on the fifth day of the war. The Yom Kippur War would last for two more weeks, with the momentum swinging in Israel’s favor on October 15th, when the IDF managed to cross the Suez Canal and establish a bridgehead on the western bank.

What does the diary’s sudden end say about the fate its author, Naji Ali? Did he lose his diary during the fighting? Was he killed in combat? We simply do not know.

A Haredi Holocaust Hero in the Congo

"I am happy and proud that our mission is spreading the idea of loving one another, loving humanity, without paying attention to skin color."

Dr. David Sompolinsky with children in Congo-Léopoldville, 1960 (Courtesy: The Sompolinsky Family)

“According to the newspaper and the radio, the Congo is now the epicenter of global unrest, a powder keg. And here I am some 30 days in the Congo. The land is quiet, pleasant, smiling.”

Sometime in the summer of 1960, Dr. David Sompolinsky — an ultra-Orthodox Jew throughout his long life — scribbled these words onto Air France stationery, part of a 12-page handwritten report on his time in the fledgling African nation.

Nearly two decades had passed since Sompolinsky had risked his life in a very different environment, working valiantly to save hundreds of fellow Danish Jews from the Nazis. In his book October ’43, devout Christian Danish resistance fighter Aage Bertelsen — who worked closely with Sompolinsky rescuing Danish Jews — recalled David’s vast knowledge of halakha, which he kept “conscientiously and rigidly… even more than other orthodox Jews,” as well as his striking, selfless courage:

“Incessantly, day and night, literally, David was busy helping, completely disregarding his own dangerous situation… He was on the go everywhere, and everywhere he looked up Jews and helped them out, always bubbling with activity, yet always well balanced, cheerful, but also cunning and level-headed.”

After the war, David returned to Denmark, where he finished his studies prior to moving to Israel in 1951. It was in his new home that he would soon become a respected expert in microbiology and take part in an epic mission to Africa.

 

Developing nations

In the summer of 1960 there were two newly established neighboring countries, both known as “The Republic of the Congo.”  To avoid confusion, the Belgian Congo was referred to as “Congo-Léopoldville,” and the French Congo as “Congo-Brazzaville”.

Only 12 years old itself, Israel was still a developing country at the time. The Sompolinsky family, like many others, did not even have a refrigerator in their home. Nevertheless, the young state — driven by Jewish humanitarian values and practical diplomatic concerns — dispatched the mission and numerous others like it in those early years. Israel had, in fact, boasted one of the largest delegations at Congo-Léopoldville’s official independence festivities on June 30, 1960, which included then-Minister of Finance Levi Eshkol.

King Baudouin of Belgium reviews Congolese troops after his arrival in the Congo for independence ceremonies, June 1960 (Congopresse / Public domain)

Sompolinsky was asked to join an Israeli delegation being sent to help set up the nascent country’s medical system. Headlines from Léopoldville were troubling. Violence and chaos appeared prevalent. Rumors reached Sompolinsky’s wife, an Auschwitz survivor with nine kids under the age of 14 at home, that cannibals were prevalent in the Congo. And yet David, who had risked his life saving the Jews of Denmark, felt obligated to use his professional expertise to help those in need and fulfill what he saw as his Zionistic civic duty.

And so, one day in July 1960, Mrs. Sompolinsky took her nine small children along to Lod Airport to bid farewell to their father, and he was off to Africa.

 

Surprises in the Congo

The Israelis nearly didn’t make it to their destination. After stopping in neighboring French Congo, the team was informed that it wouldn’t be able to get to Léopoldville because the situation was too unstable. Determined to nonetheless begin their mission as soon as possible, they managed to score rides on two small planes and a helicopter, eventually reaching their destination on July 24, 1960.

What the Israelis found in the Congo surprised them: in some ways better than what they anticipated, and in some ways much worse. In an interview published in the Ma’ariv newspaper shortly after Sompolinsky returned to Israel, he even used the word “holocaust” to describe the medical situation they encountered when they arrived:

“When the Belgians were in the Congo, there were 800 doctors and 50 veterinarians. Now, almost all of them have left the country. Medically this is a holocaust, and yet the Congolese believe that they can overcome anything as long as they are their own masters.”

Many of the estimated 200 hospitals and 80,000 beds were inaccessible due to violence, instability, and other factors. The situation they found was a bizarre paradox of sorts, as the former colony was actually exceedingly well-equipped in some respects, especially compared to Israel at the time.

“Preventative medicine in the Congo is incomparably more developed than in Israel… They have equipment that we in Israel don’t even dream of,” Sompolinsky assessed, recalling one of the hospitals in Léopoldville as “massive,” with an exceptional institute for tropical medicine unlike anything in Israel.

Dr. Sompolinsky teaching bacteriology (Courtesy: The Sompolinsky Family)

With the indigenous population barred from many areas of higher education and training under the oppressive Belgian colonial system, the young country suffered from a gaping vacuum in terms of personnel to operate key areas of the medical system. When he got there, for example, Sompolinsky found that some locals knew how to perform various lab tests but had never been trained in analyzing the results, rendering their efforts all but pointless. By the time he and his team left, the Congolese could run the labs and analyze test results completely independently.

“The Congolese are a marvelous people, warm and full of faith in the future,” Sompolinsky would later report.

Sompolinsky with Congolese children (Courtesy: The Sompolinsky Family)

He and his team had indeed been warmly welcomed. They encountered no cannibals and did not feel particularly threatened as “white” people, which they thought they might. Locals clarified that it was only the Belgians they hated, not all whites. White UN soldiers were actually a common sight in the streets of Léopoldville: The young doctor recalled shocking some Swedish UN personnel when — speaking fluently in their native tongue — he explained what the Israelis were doing in Africa and told them all about life in Israel.

As far as the natives themselves were concerned, Jerusalem and Nazareth were familiar from the Holy Bible, not from any contemporary atlas. Sompolinsky and his colleagues, sporting the symbol of the Jewish state, were in many cases the first to ever inform many of those they encountered that the State of Israel existed.

 

Distance learning

Walking to fulfill his medical mission one Shabbat (when driving is forbidden according to Jewish law), Sompolinsky was stopped by a group of Congolese soldiers “hunting” for whites,  according to the Ma’ariv article:

“At first he was stuck in a quandary, but ultimately decided to act as naturally as possible. He approached the Congolese officer and said ‘mbote‘ to him, meaning ‘hello’. This greeting was enough: Within one minute Dr. Sompolinsky found himself surrounded by Congolese soldiers listening with intent and curiosity to the reason the Israeli delegation had come.”

Though already in 1960 there were some Israelis and other Jews living in the Congo, Sompolinsky was unable to form them into a minyan (prayer quorum of 10 Jewish men), even on Shabbat. Never one to compromise his kashrut standards, Sompolinsky survived largely on papaya and other fruits.

Yet his physical distance from the “comforts” of Jewish communal life and his children did not stop him from working to fulfill the commandment to educate them, as evidenced in the postcards he frequently sent back to his family. He would drop them at the Israeli Embassy simply addressed to: “Mademoiselle Sompolinsky, Rishon Lezion.”

Sompolinsky with the Congolese family that “adopted” him (Courtesy: The Sompolinsky Family)

In the letters, he provides details of his daily life in the Congo, while also clearly trying to model and educate his children from afar. In one, he describes seeing traditional African face scarring, and then goes on to explain to his children how the practice is forbidden according to Jewish law.

On the solemn day of Tisha B’Av, he wrote how his fast had gone quite easily and that in the afternoon he would put on his tallit and tefillin, in accordance with Ashkenazic Jewish tradition. In the same letter, he chronicles some of the many injustices the local Black population had to bear under Belgian rule, his tone clearly reflecting the deep impact that seeing such racism had on him, a devout Jew who narrowly escaped the Nazi genocide.

The only Black person allowed on white buses was the driver.

Bathrooms and kitchens were segregated, with Blacks given far inferior facilities.

Black people who wanted to use the telephone had to submit a special request, including the reason for the call and the name of the intended recipient.

Blacks were expected to greet and bow to any whites they encountered, without ever expecting even the most basic acknowledgment of their existence in return.

In this context, Sompolinsky clearly took pride in the role he was able to play in helping the new masters of the Congo set up a functional medical system following centuries of colonial rule and oppression:

“I have no doubt, and I am happy and proud that our mission is spreading the idea of loving one another, loving humanity, without paying attention to skin color.”

In the letters, he told his wife and kids how much he missed them and beckoned the children not to fight with one another or with their mother. When he came back to Israel, he brought exotic gifts including de-toxined poison arrows, with which generations of Sompolinsky children would play.

Sompolinsky helped start a program to bring Congolese fellows for training at Bar Ilan University, and over the next six decades he would become a prominent figure in the field of microbiology, playing an active role as Israel became a global leader in medical research and practice.

Sompolinsky later in life in his lab (Courtesy: The Sompolinsky Family)

He even launched a few public health crusades of his own, including one to warn his local ultra-Orthodox community about the fatal dangers of smoking.

David Sompolinsky continued working well into his 90s. He passed away in October 2021 at the age of 100.

An extensive obituary appearing on the leading ultra-Orthodox news site B’hadrei Hadarim eulogized Sompolinsky as not only a savior of Danish Jewry and a founding father of Israel’s scientific community, but also as a genius “immersed in the world of Torah, a tremendous scholar who never spoke idle chatter” and who had special relationships with some of the 20th century’s most prominent rabbis, including the Hazon Ish and the Brisker Rov.

Perhaps reflecting hopes for his own children at the time, Sompolinsky had concluded his 1960 report with his belief in “a happy and prosperous future for the Congolese people,” whose youth were “courageous and knowledge-seeking.”

The mission to the Congo was a biographical drop in Sompolinsky’s century-long story, but a tale that was known to many of his estimated 700 living descendants, and one that undoubtedly reflected a man with seemingly boundless dedication to bettering the human experience and remaining full of faith in the future.

 

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.

When Nazi Swastikas Were Paraded in Downtown Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv's Purim parades between 1933 and 1935 evolved from joyous celebrations into full-on protests against Nazi Germany

A mock-up of a canon, adorned with a swastika, and an effigy of a Nazi stormtrooper trampling a Jew, Tel Aviv, 1935. This photograph is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and is accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on January 30th, 1933. The clear and present danger to world Jewry was obvious to many, including here in what was then still Mandatory Palestine.

A month and a half later, on March 13th, Tel Aviv held its annual Purim parade, the “Adloyada”. Among the costumes, colorful displays and general revelry, one cry of protest stood out in the crowd.

This was an exhibit designed by a group of Jewish immigrants from the Caucasus region. It displayed Hitler on horseback, pursuing two Jews as they ran terrified before him. They appeared beaten and bruised. The exhibit was titled, “Hitler in Pursuit and the Land of Israel Remains Locked Shut”. A sign was hung on Hitler’s neck, reading “Death to All Jews”. We were unfortunately unable to find a photograph of this particular exhibit in the archives.

The German Consulate heard of the stunt and sent a sharp letter of rebuke to Tel Aviv Mayor Meir Dizengoff, written in English. The Consul was most perturbed:

“Besides being of opinion that the person of a leading statesman on such an occasion should never be made the object of presentation whatever the intention might have been, I find myself in the necessity to protest most urgently against the tendencious [sic] manner in which Herr Hitler was publicly represented in this special case…I sincerely hope that they will think it right to apologize.”

The letter sent to Mayor Dizengoff, the Tel Aviv Municipality Archives

Dizengoff refused to apologize, responding:

“It is clear that this display is nothing but a spontaneous reaction reflecting a public view that is unwilling to accept the fate of the Jews of Germany. In fact, one wonders why the protest was not even sharper…”

The truth is, there was room to doubt the “spontaneous” nature of the exhibit, as it had been pre-approved by the municipality, which even rewarded the designers with a cash prize.

The Hitler exhibit won sixth place and a cash prize of two Palestine Pounds, according to a Hebrew report in Davar, March 17th, 1933

By 1934, fear of the Nazis was even more grounded in reality. Hitler was consolidating his power, and anti-Jewish measures were on the rise. That year’s Purim parade in Tel Aviv was marked by full-on protests against the Nazis, featuring clear demands to boycott German goods and stand up to the National-Socialist party.

This time around, the main attraction was a massive three-headed, swastika-emblazoned dragon, with an effigy of Hitler mounted on its back.

The “Antisemitism Dragon” featured in the 1934 Purim Parade. The creators drew swastikas all over the creature’s body. Photo: Library of Congress

At the end of the march, the “Antisemitism Dragon” was brought to Dizengoff Square and set on fire. A municipality newspaper, Yedioth Iriyat Tel Aviv, reported that “This was one of the most wonderful sights of the Purim celebrations, and the joyous bonfire-light dancing[…] lasted for many hours”.

By 1935, the gloves were off. The parade had now become a blatant anti-Nazi march through downtown Tel Aviv, purposefully aiming for maximum-shock effect.

A mock canon featuring a Nazi swastika and parade participants in Nazi costumes. This record is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and is accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

One of the parade’s most shocking and prophetic displays was this one:

An effigy of a Nazi stormtrooper trampling a Jew, Tel Aviv, 1935. This record is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and is accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

World War II would begin just a few years later. The fate of European Jewry would be worse than anything the Purim parade participants could have imagined.

 

 

Further Reading:

Tel Aviv’s 1933 Purim Parade Starred This Controversial Hitler Float \ JTA

Menachem Begin Swears Allegiance to the Jewish State

For four years, Menachem Begin was a man underground, in the fullest sense of the word—a commander of an underground force and a wanted man, hiding from the British. After Israel’s declaration of independence, Begin came out of hiding with a historic speech that transformed him into a national political figure.

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Menachem Begin speaking at a Herut Party event. Photo: Beno Rothenberg, from the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel

The events of the 5th of Iyar (May 14th) 1948, the day on which the State of Israel declared its independence, are well known: the reading of the Declaration of Independence by David Ben-Gurion in Tel Aviv, the signing ceremony, and the thousands who danced in the streets, are an integral part of Israeli collective memory. But what happened on the next day, the first full day of the new state’s independence, while perhaps overshadowed by the outbreak of the War of Independence, was of no less historical consequence.

Citizens of the Hebrew Homeland, Soldiers of Israel, Hebrew Youth, Sisters and Brothers in Zion!

After many years of underground warfare, years of persecution and moral and physical suffering, the rebels against the oppressors stand before you, with a blessing of thanks on their lips and a prayer in their hearts. The blessing is the age-old blessing with which our fathers and our forefathers have always greeted Holy Days. It was with this blessing that they used to taste any fruit for the first time in the season. Today is truly a holiday, a Holy Day, and a new fruit is visible before our very eyes…

We therefore can say with full heart and soul on this first day of our liberation from the British occupier: Blessed is He who has sustained us and enabled us to have reached this time.

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Begin’s speech, delivered on May 15th, 1948. Note the rhetoric and the repetition of the messages. The first break concludes with the Shehecheyanu blessing.

Since February 1944, and the publication of his first proclamation as commander of the Irgun (the right-wing Jewish paramilitary organization whose policy was based on the Revisionist Zionism of Ze’ev Jabotinsky), Menachem Begin had been underground, in every sense of the word. Not only was he in command of an underground movement (since December 1943), but he was also forced to hide from the British after calling for an all-out war on British Mandate rule. Begin remained in hiding up until the first full day of Israel’s independence. Then, on the evening of Saturday, May 15th, Begin gave a special speech on an underground radio station. With this speech, he not only emerged from the underground, but dismantled it altogether. Well, except for the Jerusalem faction, but that’s another story… This step was of immense importance given the political situation, with the outbreak of the War of Independence and the demonstrated lack of cooperation, if not outright hostility, that prevailed among the Irgun, the Lehi, the Haganah, and the Palmach – the various Jewish military organizations.

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Begin’s hideout in Petach Tikva, one of the many safe houses he used during his period in hiding. From the Oded Yarkoni Historical Archive of Petach Tikva, available via the Israel Archives Network of the National Library of Israel and the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage

With the end of the mandate that expired on May 15th, 1948, the days leading up to the British withdrawal from the Land of Israel were full of uncertainty. Even the date of the declaration of the state was in doubt, since the United States had sent a clear message calling for a ceasefire as well as talks on the nature of the future governing of the region. Inside the territories of the designated state, doubt was also cast on the strength of Jewish military power in the face of the Arab states’ threats of invasion and the already burgeoning war in other parts of the country. The need for a single, regular, and orderly army that would be subject to the new interim government was obvious, but first, the situation with the underground paramilitary forces of the Irgun and the Lehi had to be resolved. Unfortunately, relations between the commanders of these underground groups and the leaders of the mainstream Jewish political organizations were problematic, and the years-long intense hatred between the different factions had infiltrated into the ranks. All of which raised concerns about the ability to establish a functioning army in such a short time and under so much pressure, even though the military infrastructure in the form the Haganah, which was strongly associated with the ruling elite of that period, was at the ready.

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Begin in Paris, apparently in December 1948. From right to left: Ben Zion Shmuel Chomski, Menachem Begin (seated in the middle), and Eli Ferstein, a commander in the Irgun. Photo courtesy of the Ben Zvi Institute, available via the Israel Archives Network of the National Library of Israel and the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage

Begin began the speech on the underground’s Kol Haherut radio as the commander of the Irgun, but ended it as the leader of the opposition, at least temporarily. As befitting the moment and in light of the war, he chose the path of the common good of the people—he backed the government, called for unity, and swore allegiance to the state.

Knowing the move might weaken him politically, but understanding the magnitude of the hour, and in view of the real threat to the newly established state, Begin chose to do what was in its best interest. However, he also felt it was his duty to acknowledge the work of the underground movement: “It took generations of wandering from one land of slaughter to another country of pogroms . . . the toil of generations of pioneers and builders, the uprising of rebels, the crushers of enemies, people sent to the gallows, and wanderers over deserts and across seas—for us to reach where we are today.”

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Justice prevails in the State of Israel, according to Begin. From Begin’s speech on May 15th, 1948

Begin, known even back then for his dramatic speaking style, began with a pathos-filled description of the state of affairs in the newly founded State of Israel. In the second part of the speech, he spoke of the brains and the brawn that would be required to win. In the third part of the speech, he outlined the foundations of Israel’s future foreign policy, including absorption of widespread immigration. Begin did not sidestep the difficulties but confidently sketched the new state’s ability to address them. The next part of the speech was devoted to the justice to which the state should aspire.

And within our Homeland, justice shall be the supreme ruler, the ruler over all rulers. There must be no tyranny. The Ministers and officials must be the servants of the nation and not their masters. There must be no exploitation. There must be no man within our country—be he citizen or foreigner—compelled to go hungry, to want for a roof over his head or to lack elementary education. ‘Remember you were strangers in the land of Egypt’—this supreme rule must continually light our way in our relations with the strangers within our gates. ‘Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue’ will be the guiding principle in our relations amongst ourselves.

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Declaring the dismantling of the underground. From Begin’s speech on May 15th, 1948

After laying the foundation, Begin came to the real purpose of his speech—dismantling the Irgun inside the borders of the new state (with the exception of Jerusalem). Begin announced the acceptance of one state and one army under the authority of the Hebrew law—the concept of the rule of law, as befitting a democracy.

It is for these goals and principles, and in the framework of democracy, that the Herut Movement will struggle, arising out of the underground and fashioned by the fighting family, a movement made up of all circles, all exiles, all streams around the flag of the Irgun. The Irgun Zvai Leumi is leaving the underground inside the boundaries of the Hebrew independent state. We went underground, we arose in the underground, under a rule of oppression in order to strike at oppression and to overthrow it. And right well have we struck. Now, for the time being, we have a Hebrew rule in part of our homeland. And as in this part there will be Hebrew Law—and that is the only rightful law in this country—there is no need for a Hebrew underground. 

The reward for the willingness to head into battle, in Begin’s eyes, was the existence of an upright and secure Jewish state, where Jewish children could grow up in an independent country of their own, as in the days of yore. He concluded his speech with a personal prayer, seen below.

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The prayer concluding Begin’s speech on May 15th, 1948, and at the bottom of the page—is that a shopping list?

God, Lord of Israel, protect your soldiers. Grant blessing to their sword that is renewing the covenant that was made between your chosen people and your chosen land. Arise O Lion of Judea for our people, for our land. On to battle. Forward to victory.

 

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Begin delivering a speech, in the 1960s. Photo: Boris Carmi, from the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel

Two weeks after the declaration of independence, Begin announced that he had signed an unofficial agreement with Ben-Gurion, and referred to the Israel Defense Forces as “the united forces.” The IDF was established on May 31st, 1948, and on June 1st, 1948, Begin signed an agreement with Yisrael Galili, a representative of the provisional government, which began the disbanding of the Irgun and its integration into the IDF. The agreement stipulated that the Irgun’s operations would cease to operate “as a military brigade in the State of Israel and in the territory of the Government of Israel.” As mentioned, the Irgun preserved its independent status in the blockaded city of Jerusalem because it was not part of the State of Israel at the time and the agreement referred only to state territory.

Begin’s historic speech dismantling the underground and calling for loyalty to the state and its army, was an important step, albeit a preliminary and mainly declarative one. Begin of course meant every word of his speech, but the actual implementation was much more difficult and complicated. Begin’s speech marked the beginning of a new chapter in his life as a political leader, who, eventually, after twenty-nine years in the opposition, would became the first Likud Prime Minister.

The speech was not only broadcast on the Irgun’s Kol Haherut radio, but was also disseminated in print, in a small pamphlet distributed to the fighters. A copy of “The Speech of the Supreme Commander of the Irgun to the People in Zion” is preserved at the National Library of Israel. While it is unclear how this particular copy entered the collection, it was apparently a very personal one: at the end is a handwritten list of items that includes a lamp, coat, shirt, books, and papers. We do not know its purpose, but perhaps the writer was hoping to buy these items or pack them away, maybe to furnish a new apartment, after finally leaving the underground, and coming out of hiding.