How France Nearly Snatched Half of Jerusalem From Britain Over Lunch

If not for a crucial lunchtime intervention by General Edmund Allenby, who apparently had his mouth full, half of Jerusalem could have come under French control. In fact, had Allenby remained silent, there might never have been a British Mandate in Palestine, not to mention a State of Israel…

It could have all been very, very different, if things had actually gone to plan…

In late 1917, Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, received urgent orders. He was to immediately put aside his work in helping to stir up the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks, and join General Edmund Allenby in Palestine.

It was the late stages of the Great War – within days Jerusalem would fall to the conquering British Army, after nearly three grueling years of fighting against the Ottomans and their Imperial German allies in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign.

General Allenby rides at the head of the procession down Jaffa Street. He would dismount upon entering the Old City through Jaffa Gate. This photo appears on a souvenir postcard found in the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

 

This was a landmark event in history – the Holy City was changing hands. The international press, who had paid little attention to the Palestine Campaign until now, were caught up in the excitement. After all, General Allenby had succeeded where even Richard the Lionheart had failed.

Comparisons to Richard the Lionheart and thoughts on the “Zionistic Dream”…The Jewish News of Northern California reports on Allenby’s capture of Jerusalem, December 21, 1917

 

Lawrence managed to secure an invitation to the highly anticipated handover ceremony on December 11. He was lacking the proper attire for such an event, needing to borrow a clean uniform and a brass hat, but he entered the Old City through Jaffa Gate, several steps behind Allenby who strode on foot as a mark of respect. Lawrence was present as the general announced to the dignitaries gathered in front of the Tower of David that the city was now officially under martial law. Though he wrote little else about the ceremony, Lawrence noted that, “for me it was the supreme moment of the war”.

The ceremony outside the gatehouse of Jerusalem’s Tower of David, December 11, 1917. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

 

Allenby speaks to the gathered dignitaries. His declaration of martial law signaled the beginning of British rule in Jerusalem. This photo is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

 

In his classic book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the Englishman did however elaborate further on a peculiar exchange that unfolded in the immediate aftermath of the ceremony, over a fairly impressive lunch (by military standards) in the quaint, nearby village of Ein Karem.

The aides pushed about, and from great baskets drew a lunch, varied, elaborate and succulent. On us fell a short space of quiet, to be shattered by Monsieur Picot, the French political representative […], who said in his fluting voice: ‘And tomorrow, my dear general. I will take the necessary steps to set up civil government in this town.’

[…] a silence followed, as when they opened the seventh seal in heaven. Salad, chicken mayonnaise and foie gras sandwiches hung in our wet mouths unmunched, while we turned to Allenby and gaped. Even he seemed for the moment at a loss. We began to fear that the idol might betray a frailty. But his face grew red: he swallowed, his chin coming forward (in the way we loved), whilst he said, grimly, ‘In the military zone the only authority is that of the Commander-in-Chief – myself.’

Picot protested further, but was cut short by Allenby, who made clear that the civil government would only be established when he saw fit.

It seems that François Georges-Picot was under the impression that France and Britain would share administrative authorities in Jerusalem, now that the city had fallen to the Allied Powers. Allenby was clearly having none of it.

T.E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia”, photographed by Lowell Thomas in 1919. Lawrence was present at both the ceremony at Jaffa Gate, as well as the lunchtime diplomatic incident

 

It’s possible that the exchange was even worse than Lawrence described. Another eyewitness, a French officer by the name of Louis Massignon who was part of Picot’s delegation, later wrote that “Allenby threatened Picot harshly with arrest if he interfered”. The British general, nicknamed “The Bull”, stood 6 foot 2 and was known for his unpredictable temper and imposing appearance.

General Allenby, “The Bull”, depicted in a sketch from 1917

 

The truth was that Picot had a point. The French diplomat, along with his British counterpart Mark Sykes, had been one of the chief formulators of the famous “Sykes-Picot Agreement”.

François Georges-Picot was appointed France’s High Commissioner in Palestine and Syria in 1917, but never held any effective authority in Palestine due to Allenby’s objections

 

According to the terms of this secret agreement signed in January 1916, Jerusalem and most of what had been Ottoman Palestine was to come under international administration with the conclusion of the war. Until then, according to Picot, all conquered sections of Palestine were meant to be ruled by a joint Anglo-French administration.

At this stage however, the British had other ideas. After all, they had fought and bled in this region for years. There were major setbacks along the way, including two military defeats at Gaza. They would suffer over 60,000 battle casualties with nearly 17,000 killed over the course of the campaign (it’s worth noting that much of the rank and file came from the far reaches of the British Empire, including India, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand). The French contribution in Palestine was minimal in comparison. The British had no intention of now ceding control of the great prize because of a confidential agreement that was not even public knowledge.

With Allenby’s declaration of martial law, any serious talk of joint or international administration was put off indefinitely. British martial law effectively remained in place until the summer of 1920, when a civil administration was finally established, under the British Mandate, with no French or international involvement.

A Hebrew Hanukkah greeting card from 1917 celebrating the “Liberation of Jerusalem”. It features Allenby in colonial attire, soldiers from the Jewish Legion and a depiction of Mattathias, the Jewish priest credited with helping to spark the Maccabean Revolt. This item is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

 

The brief and rather informal diplomatic tussle described above by Lawrence may very well have changed the course of Middle Eastern history. What would an Anglo-French Jerusalem have looked like? One can only imagine…

If not for General Allenby’s verbal resistance, raised as he chewed on his fois gras sandwich, there might never have been a British Mandate in Palestine. If an international administration had indeed been established in Palestine as per the terms of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, would the State of Israel have ever come into existence? Arguably not.

The name of Edmund Allenby (who was later raised to the rank of Field Marshal and given the title “Viscount of Megiddo and of Felixstowe in the County of Suffolk”) today graces countless streets, bridges, parks and city squares across Israel. These honors celebrate the officer’s considerable military exploits, but his lunchtime stand against French intervention may have been just as crucial.

 

 

 

Further Reading:

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T.E. Lawrence, Dell Publishing, 1926

The Fantasy of an International Jerusalem, by Martin Kramer, Mosaic Magazine, 2017

Jews in Keffiyehs? – The Headdress That Became a Symbol

Nowadays, people identify the keffiyeh as the unequivocal symbol of the Palestinian national movement. However, going back a few decades, we find documentation of senior members of the Zionist movement wearing the traditional headdress as well as members of the Palmach and even soldiers in the IDF. What changed along the way?

Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion on a tour of the Negev with Yitzhak Rabin as a young officer. May, 1949. Photo: Government Press Office

Imagine for a moment the following scene: a man bearing a moustache and holding a shepherd’s crook stands silently as he stares straight ahead. On his head he wears a keffiyeh, a traditional Arabian headdress, while around him a herd of sheep graze quietly. Trees, rocks and clumps of grass dot the tranquil landscape. An idyllic image of a native Canaanite shepherd…

At this stage, the dream-like atmosphere is abruptly shattered when we notice a large camera positioned across from the man in the keffiyeh, and behind it a professional photographer. On closer inspection we see that the sheep, rocks, and blue sky are in fact a painted backdrop. The “shepherd” is actually a European-born Jew answering to the name of Zvi. Setting down his crook and taking off the keffiyeh, Zvi leaves the darkened studio and walks out into the sunny streets of early-20th-century Tel Aviv, dressed in his ordinary day-to-day urban clothes. To understand why Zvi would choose to dress-up like a shepherd and what he hoped to achieve by doing so, we must look to the history of the keffiyeh – an item of clothing that to this day arouses a whole range of emotions across different groups of people living in this land.

Aminadav Altschuler, a leading figure in Jewish land purchases in the Negev, wearing a keffiyeh while planting a tree on Tu B’Shvat in the desert near Beit Eshel. This item is part of Israel Archive Network (IAN) and has been made available thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

Today, this traditional headdress is a popular, political, and class symbol, particularly the black-and-white version that has become a definitive Palestinian national symbol. In retrospect, however, at the beginning of the previous century, the situation was different. From the early 20th century until the 1950s, even after the establishment of the state of Israel, senior members of the Zionist movement, as well as many other Jews, were documented wearing the keffiyeh. One of the most famous examples is the photograph of the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann wearing an elaborate keffiyeh in his meeting with the Hashemite Prince Faisal in 1918.

The Emir Faisal (on the right) and Chaim Weizmann (on the left) in keffiyehs, in the city of Ma’an in Jordan, 1918

Alongside Weizmann, members of Zionist military organizations such as the Palmach, HaShomer, and even soldiers in the IDF wrapped themselves in this particular item of clothing. In the first few decades of the 20th century, the Jewish immigrants of the First and Second Aliyah would often have studio portraits of themselves taken while dressed in full Arab costume, complete with a resplendent keffiyeh.

Studio portrait of Rachel Slutzki, among the founders of the cooperative agricultural settlement Nahalal (on the right wearing male garb and holding a rifle) and her cousin Liza Slutzki in a woman’s “Bedouin” dress holding a clay jar. This item is part of Israel Archive Network (IAN) and has been made available thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

 

Yitzhak Shmilovsky, a young Jew, wearing a keffiyeh and agal—the keffiyeh is actually a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, repurposed here as a keffiyeh. This item is part of Israel Archive Network (IAN) and has been made available thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

The keffiyeh was also worn by Jewish schoolchildren and members of youth movements in the Land of Israel. How then, did the keffiyeh come to be viewed as an anti-Zionist symbol?

 

Adopting the Keffiyeh as a Means of Integration

The Zionist movement, as a fundamentally European movement, was naturally influenced by many typical, contemporary European intellectual trends, among them Orientalism. With the arrival of waves of immigration to the Land of Israel (then Ottoman controlled Palestine), the European Jewish immigrants found themselves to be very different from the local inhabitants. Many saw the Arab peasants that prevailed in Palestine-Israel at the end of the period of Ottoman rule, as the successors of the ancient Jews who had lived in the Kingdom of Israel before the exile. The Jewish community of Peki’in that had been living in the Land of Israel for centuries also served as a model for an indigenous, “authentic” way of life. Embracing this view, many of the new immigrants sought to imitate the lifestyle of the locals. The visual culture produced in the Land of Israel during the early days of the Zionist movement demonstrates the attempt to fashion the “New Jew” in the Land of Israel.

Schoolchildren at Ein Ganim, dressed in white and wearing keffiyehs. The school building is visible in the background. This item is part of Israel Archive Network (IAN) and has been made available thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

Abraham Soskin’s photography studio in Tel Aviv, one of the first Jewish-owned photography studios in the country, is a good example of this. Among the services that Soskin offered his customers was a portrait photograph displaying them in full local peasant or Bedouin dress. Soskin’s photos capture the Zionist movement’s zeitgeist at the beginning of the 20th century, which sought to transform the diaspora Jew into a “New Jew,” while appropriating an ancient national identity they perceived as the authentic Jewish identity. These images show how Westerners viewed and tried to emulate the locals. This perception persisted into the Third Aliyah, with Zionist Jews seeking to become like the indigenous inhabitants and imitating them in many ways.

Yitzhak Hoz, a member of the Hashomer organization, pictured in a studio portrait by Abraham Soskin. Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Ada Tamir Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Another notable example is the dress adopted by members of the Hashomer organization, most of whom were Ashkenazi Jews, but who wore keffiyehs and abayas in an attempt to resemble the country’s Bedouin residents.

Members of the Hashomer organization, two of whom are wearing keffiyehs, while others are wearing the Turkish kalpak and fez. Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Ben-Zion Israeli Collection. Collection source: Aharon Israeli, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

It is important to distinguish between European-colonial orientalism, exemplified by Europeans photographing themselves dressed in indigenous attire out of a sense of paternalism and cultural appropriation, and the early Zionist immigrants who adopted local dress and wore the keffiyeh out of the desire for closeness and a sense of belonging to the place. The latter aspired to shape their image in the spirit of the ancient, historical Jews, whose legacy they believed they were continuing. This sentiment is also visible in the artwork produced by the early 20th-century Jewish artists who studied at the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, who imagined the “New Jew” through an orientalist lens.

The pioneers, members of agricultural settlements, youth movements, and even military organizations such as the Haganah, Palmach, Irgun, and Lehi, also tried to promote their perception of the figure of the New Jew. Along with the return to the Land of Israel and the return to working the land, the keffiyeh was a clear visual expression of this. The familiar item of clothing, which was customary in the Arabian Peninsula even before the advent of Islam, was meant to protect the head and face from sand and dust, to shield those laboring in the fields from the summer sun and the winter winds. The keffiyeh has three familiar, traditional styles: the white keffiyeh is popular today in the Gulf States and among the Bedouin, but is also found in the region of Iraq; the red-and-white keffiyeh, which is very common in Jordan, but can also be found in other places; and the black-and-white keffiyeh, which is today identified with the Palestinians.

Israeli soldiers in a Jordanian jeep with a framed photograph of Jordan’s King Hussein in a keffiyeh on the front fender, in Jerusalem after the conquest of the city in 1967. The Meitar Collection, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

As the Zionist enterprise developed, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict grew, the Zionist Jews’ attempt to imitate the locals waned. In his book Pre-Israeli Orientalism: A Photographic Portrait, which reviews the phenomenon of studio photography in peasant and Bedouin clothes among Jews in the Land of Israel, Dor Guez points to the violent events of 1929 as a turning point in the Jewish attitude and the end of their desire to emulate the locals: “The naïve Orientalist perception of the first aliyot was shattered . . . and with it their passion to ‘Easternize’ themselves as the indigenous people.” Towards the end of the 1930s and the eruption of the “Arab Revolt,” when the Palestinian national consciousness was also largely shaped, the keffiyeh became a national-Palestinian symbol, replacing the Ottoman fez hat or tarboosh. The keffiyeh’s identification as a political symbol began to enter local consciousness, as did a process at the end of which the keffiyeh became a symbol holding an ideology completely opposite to Zionism.

 

The Political Nuances of the Keffiyeh

After the events of 1929 and the Arab uprising, the popularity of the keffiyeh began to decline and Jewish attempts to emulate the locals became less common, but throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the keffiyeh could still spotted in Israel, including around the necks of Jewish Israeli politicians and military personnel. One well-known image shows David Ben-Gurion during a patrol in the midst of the 1948 war, wearing a white keffiyeh around his neck, alongside young officers Yitzhak Rabin and Yigal Alon.

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, with a keffiyeh tied around his neck, during a tour in the Negev with a group of officers including Yitzhak Rabin and Yigal Alon. May, 1949. Photo: Government Press Office

Another famous photograph from that war, known as “The Girl with the Gun,” shows communications officer Ziva Arbel leaning against a tree, with a holster and gun around her waist and a keffiyeh tied like a kerchief on her head, shortly after the battle of Barfiliya.

“The Girl with the Gun”, wearing a keffiyeh; Ziva Arbel, communications officer in the Yiftah Brigade’s 3rd battalion, in Ben Shemen Forest after the capture of the village of Barfiliya. July, 1948. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

These two photos, along with many others, show how in the late 1940s the keffiyeh was still a strong symbol of the Zionist ethos, despite its significance in Palestinian political identity that had begun a decade earlier. Boris Carmi, known as Israel’s “first military photographer,” documented IDF soldiers wearing keffiyehs in 1958.

Keffiyehs and “Tembel” hats: 1958 IDF military parade, soldiers in keffiyehs at a tent encampment, 1958. The Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The shift in consciousness that led to the Jews’ near complete abandonment of the keffiyeh only began towards the end of the 1960s. Behind this change was the key figure of Yasser Arafat.

Yasser Arafat on a visit to Gaza, wearing the keffiyeh that became one of his signature features. July, 1994. The Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The 1967 war and the great defeat of the Arab states led to the rise of the Fatah movement headed by Arafat, who presented himself as a leader who spoke on behalf of the Palestinian people. One of the most prominent features of his appearance besides his perennial “battle dress” and gun was the black and white keffiyeh. He began wearing it as early as 1956 when he first traveled to Europe as a member of the Palestinian student delegation from Egypt. From then on, he made sure to be seen wearing it, and thus, it became one of the Palestinian leader’s most identifiable signs. Arafat was even nicknamed abu al hata: (“hata” being the local Arabic word for keffiyeh). In his biography of Arafat, author Danny Rubinstein describes how the Fatah leader made sure to drape the keffiyeh in a particular way that gave it a pointed edge, supposedly creating the outline of the Holy Land. Arafat’s appearance strengthened the keffiyeh’s political status, and already in the first intifada, Palestinians were seen wearing it in their confrontations with the Israeli security forces.

Supporters of Arafat in Rafah in the Gaza Strip. The keffiyeh’s symbolism is clear. July, 1994. The Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In the 1990s, the status of the keffiyeh as an “anti-Zionist” symbol finally solidified, when a picture of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin wearing a keffiyeh was published by far-right activists, as a way to demonstrate his supposed “betrayal” in signing the Oslo Accords.  Since then, caricatures and images of various politicians in keffiyehs have been circulated to illustrate similar messages.

A poster criticizing former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, edited to show him wearing a keffiyeh. The Hebrew text reads: “The Liar – Elections Now!”, the Poster Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Keffiyeh in the 21st Century

The 20th century ended with the polarization of the keffiyeh, so that at the beginning of the 21st century, public opinion in the country regarding this headdress had completely shifted from what it had been a century earlier. The keffiyeh had played a role during the various attempts to begin the peace process over the years. Apart from the Oslo Accords and the familiar image of Arafat alongside Rabin in a keffiyeh, an incident at the 1991 Madrid conference also sparked controversy, when the Palestinian representative Saeb Erekat wore a keffiyeh around his neck, thus angering those present, particularly the Israeli delegation. In less than 50 years, the Israeli attitude towards the head covering had completed a 180 degree turn – though Ben-Gurion had willingly wrapped himself in a keffiyeh back in 1948, by the 1990s, it was considered a threatening and unwelcome sign.

Interestingly, the Abraham Accords signed in 2020 have led to a kind of “Israeli renaissance” regarding the keffiyeh.  Israeli tourists visiting the Gulf countries and Morocco have been photographed happily wearing the head covering in its white, Gulf States version as part of the local tourist experience. Once the Palestinian-political context is out of the picture, it seems that Israeli Jews are ready to return to wearing the familiar Arab headdress.

Over the years, there have also been attempts to create a “Jewish kaffiyeh,” somewhat reminiscent of the “sudra,” the Jewish head covering that was once common in Arab countries. At the same time, the Palestinians have continued to ensure the keffiyeh remains their representative symbol, including through popular culture, music, television, the internet, and social media. Singer Muhammad Assaf even won the popular singing contest “Arab Idol” in 2013, with his song “Wave the Keffiyeh,” whose words glorify the headdress as a Palestinian national symbol.

Looking back, the history of the keffiyeh seems to be inseparable from the history of the region and the struggles over the character of the Holy Land; yet, hopefully one day, this symbol and the significance that it holds for both peoples, will become less charged.

 

Thanks to Eli Osheroff for helping in the preparation of this article.  

 

A Farewell Letter From the Besieged Jewish Quarter

“Remember me in happiness”: The last testament of Esther Cailingold, a soldier and teacher who fell in the battle for the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem's Old City during Israel's War of Independence

“I have lived my life fully if briefly, and I think this is the best way—’short and sweet.’ Very sweet it has been here in our own land.”

 

She lay on the floor, along with the rest of the wounded, in the second story of the Armenian monastery. She was burning up with a fever and in unbearable agony. There was no morphine left. Someone offered her a cigarette. She raised her hand towards it, but stopped. “No,” she whispered. “The Sabbath.” Those were her last words. She died not long after, just twenty-two years old at the time of her passing.

Knowing that her end might be near, she wrote a moving letter to her parents in London that was later found under her pillow. A final letter, from the hell that was “the besieged Jewish Quarter, 1948.” The full text is included below.

 

A footpath in Rehavia

A few years ago, a Jerusalem Municipality committee convened to decide on the names of streets and squares in the city. One of the names commemorated, 70 years after the fact, was that of the soldier and teacher Esther Cailingold, who took part in the defense of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem during the War of Independence. A small footpath in the Rehavia neighborhood, leading to the school where she was a teacher, was named after her.

The beginning of Esther’s life does not at all reflect its dramatic end. She was born in London to religious, Zionist parents. As a young woman, Esther excelled in her studies at university.

Esther as a bridesmaid, at the age of three

 

However, her Zionist upbringing and news of the horrors of the Holocaust that was filtering through at the time caused her to change paths and immigrate to Mandatory Palestine in 1946.

 

Running barefoot across rooftops, dodging bullets…

She sought her future in the Land of Israel as an English teacher, and found it at the Evelina de Rothschild School in Jerusalem. In late 1947, she joined the Haganah, the largest of the Jewish military organizations in Mandatory Palestine. At first, she continued to teach, but soon enough, as what would come to be known as Israel’s War of Independence unfolded, she became a full-time soldier. A few months later, when she heard of the plight of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City, she asked to join the defenders of the besieged Quarter.

There were about 1,700 people living in the Jewish Quarter at the time, most of them without military training – ultra-Orthodox men, women, children and the elderly, whose defense was in the hands of roughly 150 fighters, armed with insufficient weapons. So long as the country was still under British control, the fighters could only enter the quarter disguised as regular civilians, and so Esther arrived under the guise of a teacher. At first, she served as a signal liaison between various Haganah positions, providing food, drink and ammunition for the fighters.

Esther as the company cook

With the departure of the British in mid-May, Arab attacks on the Jewish Quarter intensified. Esther was lightly wounded, but she was bandaged up and quickly returned to her post. She often ran along the rooftops, dodging bullets that whizzed by to reach the various Haganah positions.

 

“It was Saturday night. The people of Jerusalem sat in their homes. They cheered and celebrated the Declaration of Independence in haste and restraint, certain in the knowledge that war was imminent, and here it was already showing its first signs. The Arab attack cut short the festivities, and continued for the rest of the week.  But now, it is the Sabbath and Jerusalem’s Jews sit in their homes, distraught. At this hour, the city’s streets have gone quiet. And its guardians do not rest.”

(A column written by Esther and published in the Hebrew newspaper Hatsofeh, 15 years after her death.)

She was given a rifle and became a fighter

On May 16, the Arab attack began on the Jewish Quarter, and within a day managed to seize about a third of it. On May 19, a Palmach (the elite fighting force of the Haganah) unit was able to breach the Quarter, but soon had to withdraw due to the exhaustion of the fighters. Their replacements, lacking any military training, were also unable to help.

That same day, Jordan’s Arab Legion force, commanded by British officers, invaded the Old City and began shelling the Jewish Quarter. The defenders of the Jewish Quarter fought Arab canons, mortars, and machine guns with pistols, rifles, and scarcely any ammunition. That day, Esther Cailingold was given a rifle and she became a fighter.

Esther at shooting practice with her Sten gun

Then, on May 26, Arab forces blew up a building just as Esther was entering it, shattering her spine.  She was evacuated to the clinic in the Jewish Quarter, but with no medical supplies, and the facilities in poor condition, there was nothing they could do for her. Slowly dying, she was able to remain conscious, speaking and praying with those near her.

“It is difficult to count all of the acts of heroism… one young woman, named Esther, lay wounded in the hospital and vanished. Later it became known that she had taken up a rifle and gone out to shoot at the enemy, until she was wounded and killed by a bullet to the back.”

(A witness’ account of Esther’s bravery, published in Hebrew in the Davar newspaper, June 1, 1948, click here for the full article)

 

In Motza, near Jerusalem

 

A letter found under a pillow

Meanwhile, the members of the Legion continued to blow up the houses of the Jewish Quarter, one by one, until it finally fell and the inhabitants surrendered. The wounded, including Esther, were evacuated to the nearby Armenian monastery. It was a Saturday, May 29, 1948. Esther Cailingold lay on the floor, on the second story of the monastery, along with the rest of the wounded. She was burning up with a fever and in unbearable agony. There was no morphine left. Someone offered her a cigarette. She raised her hand towards it, but then stopped.

“A year after the heroic death of my daughter Esther. May the LORD avenge her death.  His delicate and sweet daughter [who was] loved by all. She was modest in her deeds. She was deeply religious and went often to pray in the Hasidic synagogues…

Arriving in the last convoy to the Old City, she said, ‘I am happy to be near the Western Wall!’ There she was slightly wounded, but she refused to accept help and continued. On the day of the surrender, she was fatally wounded, on the eve of Shabbat Beḥukotai [“By my decrees,” the 33rd weekly Torah portion], she asked for a prayer book and with the help of her friend Shulamit, she prayed minḥa  [the afternoon prayer] and Kabbalat Shabbat [prayers welcoming the Sabbath recited on Friday evening], and at six o’clock in the morning on the holy Sabbath, she died.”

(The eulogy recited by Esther’s father a year after her death. Published in Hebrew in Hatsofeh, May 29, 1949. Click here for the full obituary in Hebrew)

“No,” she whispered. “The Sabbath.” Those were her last words. She died around five in the afternoon, just twenty-two years old at the time of her death. She was buried first in the Sheikh Bader cemetery and two years later, her remains were reinterred in the military cemetery on Mount Herzl.

 

Here is the text of her final letter, written in Hebrew and found under her pillow, which she had written six days earlier:

Dear Mummy and Daddy, and Everybody,

If you get this at all, it will be, I suppose, typical of all my hurried, messy letters. I am writing it to beg of you: Make an effort to accept everything that has happened to me, accept it with the meaning that I intended and understand that I have no regrets. We have had a bitter fight and we have experienced Gehenom [“hell” ed.] – but it has been worthwhile because I am completely convinced that the end will see a Jewish state and the realization of our longings.

I shall be only one of many who fell in sacrifice. I had an urge to write this because one in particular was killed today who meant a great deal to me. Because of the sorrow I felt, I want you to take it differently – to remember that we were soldiers and had the greatest and noblest cause to fight for. God is with us, I know, in His Holy City, and I am proud and ready to pay the price it may cost me.

Don’t think I have taken ‘unnecessary risks.’ There is no other choice when human resources are short. I hope you may have a chance of meeting any of my co-fighters who survive if I do not, and that you will be pleased and not sad about how they talk of me. Please, please, do not be sadder than you can help. I have lived my life fully if briefly, and I think this is the best way — ‘short and sweet.’ Very sweet it has been here in our own land. I hope you shall enjoy from Mimi [Esther’s sister] and Asher [Mimi’s husband] the satisfaction you missed in me. Let it be without regrets, and then I too shall be happy. I am thinking of you all, every single one of you in the family, and am full of pleasure at the thought that you will, one day, very soon I hope, come and enjoy the fruits of that for which we are fighting.

Much, much love, be happy and remember me in happiness.

Shalom and le’hitraot,

Your loving Esther

 

The commander of the Jewish Quarter, Moshe Rusnak, wrote to her parents, recommending that Esther be awarded a citation of merit. This never came to pass. 74 years later, at least a small path in Rehavia is now named after her.

May her memory be a blessing.

 

Epilogue (written by Esther’s nephew, Eli Tor-Paz):

Esther’s father Moshe found it hard to go on with life after her death. He died in London in 1967. After his death, her mother, Hannah immigrated to Israel and lived in Haifa and then Jerusalem until her death in 1992. Esther’s sister, Miriam, and her brother [Asher] immigrated to Israel in the 1950s and have lived in Jerusalem ever since.

 

 

The photos of Esther which appear above are taken from the Hebrew book, מלונדון לירושלים : סיפורה של לוחמת בהגנה

(“From London to Jerusalem: The Story of a Female Fighter in the Haganah”)

 

This article is based on a Facebook post by Benny Landek, originally written in Hebrew, which you can find here.

 

Further Reading:

The Story of Esther Cailingold

An Encounter with Esther Cailingold – Heroine of Jerusalem

Israel, 1948: Vidal Sassoon in Combat

Not long before becoming the world's most famous hairstylist and building a business empire, Sassoon fought for Israeli independence. He lost friends, gained confidence, went weeks without a shower, and literally never learned the Hebrew word for 'retreat'...

A well-coifed Vidal Sassoon poses for a photo while in Israel, 1948 (Original photo: Toldot Yisrael via the Sassoon Family / Colorization: MyHeritage)

“As I left the hall, I knew that I would not be cutting hair for quite some time.”

April 1948. Vidal Sassoon, a poor 20-year-old Jew who had been learning how to cut women’s hair by day and literally fighting fascists on the streets of London by night, had just been clandestinely recruited to battle for Israel’s independence.

He would soon find himself in Paris and then aboard a dodgy Dakota aircraft, eventually landing outside Haifa after stops in Rome and Athens. Grouped with other English-speaking volunteers in the Palmach, the elite combat force that would later be integrated into the Israel Defense Forces, Vidal and his comrades were sent to the Negev where they lived in stark huts and went weeks without changing clothes or showering, let alone doing their hair.

Like many other foreign volunteers, Vidal’s Hebrew was sparse.

In a rare 2010 interview conducted as part of Toldot Yisrael, an oral history project focused on Israel’s founding generation, he recalled:

“They never taught us the word ‘retreat’ in Hebrew.”

“All orders were given in Hebrew, which none of us understood, though we soon learned the hard way to recognize the sounds,” he elaborated in his first memoir, Sorry I Kept You Waiting, Madam. In fact, the gap in his linguistic knowledge almost got Sassoon killed when an Egyptian armored car sped towards him, “blazing away with its machine gun,” its bullets “tickling the sand all around us”:

“… nobody had told us how to say ‘Run like mad’ in that ancient tongue. Maybe they thought we would never hear it…”

Sassoon and his friends scurried up the nearest hill, racing for cover alongside their sabra brothers-in-arms. One of the faster soldiers, Sassoon would have caught up without any issue, if not for an unexpected and embarrassing turn of events…

“I would have made it easily, had I not been hit – by a very personal crisis. My belt burst!

…My plants flopped around my ankles. I fell flat on my face. By the time I got the sand out of my mouth and my pants at the correct military level, my comrades were fifty yards ahead, scrambling up that hill in a cloud of dust. Sten gun in one hand, decency held high with the other, I took off after them…”

In a later memoir, Vidal: The Autobiography, Sassoon recounted:

“News of my exploit got around, and for about a month soldiers that I didn’t even know would look at me and start laughing. The embarrassment stayed with me, but there’s no doubt it was a memorable lesson in self-preservation…”

Yet the war was, of course, not all fun and games.

Sassoon and 41 fellow soldiers took a strategic hill from Egyptian forces in a daring early morning assault, the success of which he called “a bloody miracle” – and one which cost a heavy price. Seven soldiers were killed taking “Hill 18”, while numerous other left the battlefield on stretchers.

A funeral in the Negev for fallen Palmach soldiers, 1948. The photo appears in an historic album available online as part of a collaboration between the Palmach Photo Gallery, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel
Tending to Palmach casualties in the Negev, 1948. The photo appears in an historic album available online as part of a collaboration between the Palmach Photo Gallery, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

“I wasn’t touched. I was also one of the lucky ones. But the casualties were very high,” he later recalled of his service fighting in and around the Gaza Strip as part of the strategically imperative Operation Yoav.

The soon-to-be legendary hairdresser’s most harrowing experiences during the war was seeing one of his friends get killed as he ran towards Vidal with some rations.

“Half his head came away. A sniper caught him. I think it’s the only time that I really got out of sorts… I went to the end of the trench and just vomited,” he recounted in the 2010 interview.

Vidal remembered the first shower he took on a kibbutz after leaving the battlefield quite vividly, calling it “one of the greatest luxuries I have ever known.”

“The water cascaded down on us, streaking away the filth of days and washing away some of the grimmer memories, too.”

Though somewhat striking in contrast, perhaps it’s no wonder that the name “Vidal Sassoon” would become synonymous with ubiquitous shower-centric commercials, soaps, shampoos and other products.

“I came back from Israel with so much more confidence… It gave me the inspiration to go on and do other things,” he recalled in his Toldot Yisrael interview.

Within just a few short years of his “luxurious” shower in the Negev, the poor Jewish kid from London became the world’s most famous hairstylist, a universal symbol of popular culture, his name gracing salons, academies, and beauty products across the planet.

Already by the mid-1960s he was a global cultural icon, recognized and referenced even in faraway Israel. Israeli hairdressers would boast that their cuts were “like at Vidal’s”. Some of them had even gone to London to learn from the master himself, though most just went to his academies or simply mimicked the styles he created and popularized.

Yet it wasn’t until after the publication of his first memoir in 1968, and the expansion of his business empire in the years that followed, that Sassoon’s participation in Israel’s fight for independence became more widely known.

In 1970, David Carmeli, Sassoon’s commander in the Palmach who had since became a respected expert in water and agricultural engineering at the prestigious Technion, was flown to London to surprise Vidal on an episode of the show “This is Your Life”.

A few years later, Carmeli was brought to New York to speak at a special event celebrating the “first annual Beauty Hall of Fame award dinner of the American Jewish Congress” – an honor so specific that it seems to have been created solely for Vidal Sassoon, who was apparently the “annual” award’s only ever recipient.

Published in The Sentinel on December 25, 1975; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection
Published in the Bnai Brith Messenger on December 12 1975; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

For the rest of his life, Vidal Sassoon built an empire of style and philanthropy – vocally and financially supporting many Jewish and Zionist including the Hebrew University and its Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism. He believed that global antisemitism could only be defeated through education of the young and a “very powerful Israel which upholds the dignity of Jews everywhere.”

“Israel gave us dignity. Israel means our very life’s blood. We can’t have any race or people decide our destiny,” he said at a 1981 fashion show to raise money for Israel Bonds.

More than thirty years earlier, matters at home had required Vidal to leave Israel for London after his step-father had a heart attack and his beloved mother – who had encouraged him to go and fight – needed her son at home to help support her.

Shortly before Vidal returned to England, the fiancée of the man he had seen killed in action told him:

“This is your home, Vidal. This is your country. It’s not enough just to fight for it. That’s pointless, in fact, if you don’t stay to help build it.”

“Was she right?” Vidal questioned two decades later.

“Sometimes I wonder.”

 

Many thanks to the Toldot Yisrael team for their assistance preparing this article. Their complete interview with Vidal Sassoon is available here. Toldot Yisrael is an initiative dedicated to documenting the testimonies of the State of Israel’s founding generation. The collection is now deposited at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.

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.