Those Who Dream of Givati: The Many Lives of the Purple Brigade

The IDF's Givati Brigade came into being during Israel's War of Independence, even before the Jewish state was officially established. This is the story of one of the Israeli army's leading infantry brigades, and the famous fighting spirit bequeathed to it by its founder, Shimon “Givati” Avidan

Givati soldiers setting out on an ambush, 1948-9. Photo: Museum of the History of Gedera and the Biluim. This item is part of the Israel Archive Network and is made available thanks to the collaboration between the Museum of the History of Gedera and the Biluim, the Ministry of Heritage, and the National Library of Israel

On November 29, 1947, the UN adopted the resolution creating a Jewish state alongside an Arab state in the lands of the British Mandate of Palestine. The Jewish population, collectively known as the Yishuv, as well as Jews around the world, finally had good reason to dance in the streets. In Rome, Jews even celebrated in front the Arch of Titus, with its engraving of the tragedy of the last Jewish exile, two thousand years before.

But as is always the case in Jewish history, happiness became mixed with sadness. Mobs of angry Arabs who resented the UN decision, both in the country and in neighboring lands, did not wait for the celebrations to subside. On the day after the resolution was passed, seven Jews were killed in retaliation.

This was the start of the War of Independence. Fighters and members of all the Jewish underground movements, alongside new immigrants drafted right off the boats docking at Haifa port, got together to begin building and organizing the young army that would soon be fighting five larger ones.

Shimon Avidan was a veteran fighter in the Palmach, a branch of the Haganah which was the Yishuv’s best-trained force. He was commander of the company in which Yitzhak Rabin got his start as a young officer. Avidan was tasked with establishing a trained infantry brigade to protect Jewish settlements from attack. In early December 1947, the 5th Brigade was officially launched and given the name “Givati”, which was Avidan’s underground code name.

Maj. General (Aluf) Yitzhak Sadeh (right) and Shimon Avidan, Givati Brigade commander, 1948. Photo: Nadav Man, Bitmuna, the Yitzak Sadeh Collection. Collection Source: Yoram Sadeh, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The soldiers of this new brigade had no time to celebrate. The situation was dire. Fighting began immediately and once the Arab states invaded in May of 1948, the Jewish Yishuv was under attack from all sides. The 5th Brigade was sent to the most difficult fronts, taking part in some of the most significant battles in the War of Independence, such as Operation Yoav in October 1948, the conquest of Julis, as well as the famous battles for Kibbutz Nitzanim and Kibbutz Negba.


The Battle for Negba


Kibbutz Negba member at work, 1947. Kibbutz buildings visible in the background. Photo: Nadav Man, Bitmuna. Kibbutz Negba – Early Days Collection. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

In 1939, a new kibbutz was founded by settlement groups formed by the Hashomer Hatza’ir movement. At first it was called Givat Ganim. A year later, the name was changed to Negba. At the time, Negba was one of the southernmost Jewish settlements, between Kiryat Gat and Ashkelon. It sits near the border with Gaza, and it was across this border that the Egyptian forces came, reinforced by mercenaries from Sudan and militia fighters representing a new religious-political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Michah Netzer, a soldier in the Givati Brigade’s 54th Battalion, recalled: “North of Negba was Ibdis Hill, on which there was a large outpost belonging to the Egyptian Army. From this hill, on a clear day, you can see across the country, at least as far as the Gederah area. On the night the soldiers of the 53rd Battalion raided Ibdis, they surprised the Egyptians. And despite the surprise, fewer than half the soldiers made it back on foot. There were many wounded and dead. But they succeeded. They succeeded in conquering the hill and also seized a lot of equipment.”

Soldiers of the Givati Brigade’s 51st Battalion seize Egyptian military equipment at the abandoned Ibdis outpost, 1948. Photo: Benno Rothenberg. From: Benno Rothenberg Archive, the Israel State Archives, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

“When we arrived the night after to replace them, we established ourselves on the ground and many volunteers arrived from settlements in the area at lightning speed and began helping us dig communication trenches and defensive positions protected from shells and artillery. That night, Yisrael Galili, who was the Deputy Defense Minister, arrived and he told us – ‘I saw the thin ranks, but the spirit fills in the breaches. That spirit is the spirit of Givati.’ Thanks to that nighttime operation, my platoon suffered fewer losses.”

Yisrael Galili, volunteering to help dig trenches along with civilians and soldiers, 1948. Photo: Aryeh Peck. From the Aryeh Peck Collection, Kibbutz Na’an. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Despite the fighting spirit and overall effort of the Yishuv, the young State of Israel suffered many losses, including soldiers and civilians. Some 6,000 were killed in the war, a full percent of the total Jewish population of the country in 1948.

Ezra Hirschfeld, a soldier in the Givati Brigade’s 54th Battalion, who died at the age of 18. Photo courtesy of the Haganah Heritage Organization website

One of the fallen was Ezra Hirschfeld, who was working as a young journalist for the Al Hamishmar newspaper when he was called to enlist in the Givati Brigade. He was barely 18. During the fighting, he kept a diary describing his feelings as well as the battles themselves. Here’s what he wrote on July 13, 1948:

“I don’t remember any other moment in my life in which I felt the insignificance of man. His incapacity and glaring helplessness. Over there, a kilometer and a half from me some Egyptian artillerist is adjusting the targeting device, coolly calculating the shift in wind, degrees, and distance, and operating the mechanism. Now the firing process begins: a cap is punctured, gunpowder set alight, gasses create pressure, the shell is released. 5 seconds later it will explode into 1000 sharp fragments, each of which alone can bring death, floating in the air. And all that time sit I, Ezra Hirschfeld, a civilized man more or less – ‘the apex of creation’ homo sapiens anyways, bent over in my trench with no influence whatsoever on the flight path of the shell, not even by so much as a millimeter, no ability to evade it, or defend against it, all I can do is bow my head covered in a thin steel helmet and…wait for the shell to explode. Whether this shell falls on my head and tears me into dozens of pieces or explodes at a distance of five meters from me and eliminates my friend without my being harmed at all, or explodes out there in the field without causing harm to anyone, or doesn’t explode at all – all these questions hang in the air, dependent on the wind.”

On July 28, 1948, Ezra was seriously injured on the battlefield, dying a few hours later. He was 18 years old.

A report on the death of Ezra Hirschfeld, a soldier and reporter for Al Hamishmar newspaper. Hatzofe, August 2, 1948

After 1948: Samson’s Foxes in the Field


Givati soldiers in training. Photo: Tzvi Redlich Collection. This item is part of the Israel Archive Network and is made available thanks to the collaboration between Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi, the Ministry of Heritage, and the National Library of Israel

Despite the heavy loss of life, Israel succeeded in defeating the five armies that besieged it by the end of the War of Independence and even expanded its borders beyond the territory assigned it in the UN Partition Plan. In October 1948, Israel succeeded in conquering the southern Negev region from the Egyptian Army in Operation Yoav, after it had been cut off from the rest of the country, thus securing a significant military advantage for the remainder of the war.

Following the 1948 conflict, the Givati Brigade continued to serve as a significant force within the IDF. Its character was changed slightly and its activity, as a jeep patrol unit among other things, was expanded after the war. The brigade’s name was also changed and the unit now became known as Samson’s Foxes. This name was coined by Abba Kovner, then the brigade’s education and cultural officer.

“The soldiers of Givati are the successors of Samson”, Kovner wrote, making reference to the biblical hero who perished when he collapsed the Temple of Dagon upon himself and his captors, declaring: “Let me die with the Philistines”. Kovner continued – “And just as the Egyptians of today are not just the successors of the ancient Egyptians, but also the successors of the Philistines, so are the Givati soldiers the descendants of David and Samson and they must fight an uncompromising war against them and the company of jeeps at their head must be called ‘Samson’s Foxes.’”

But over the years the brigade was significantly pared down. A major change came in the mid-1980s. As part of the lessons learned from the First Lebanon War, Givati was reestablished as the brigade with the purple berets we know today.

In this second incarnation, especially since the early 1990s, Givati stood out as a unique infantry brigade, specializing in the Gaza Strip region. In the late 1990s, its popularity reached a peak thanks to the Israeli TV drama Tironut (“Basic Training”), which was a huge hit and which told the story of soldiers in a Givati Battalion.

The Givati anthem became well-known in Israel as a result of the TV show. In one famous scene, the trainees are asked by their sergeant to sing the song, with one of the soldiers changing the lyrics at whim and, of course, being punished for it. The anthem was written by Amos Etinger and put to music by Effi Netzer:

“At the sight of the sun rising, the sunsets of spring

I heard the voice of the spirit

A spirit which wanders about

A spirit we call Givati

Those who dreamed of Givati, those who breathed Givati

Those who walked the paths along with us…”

As opposed to the first version of the Givati Brigade, the second incarnation did not come about under emergency conditions stemming from the various pressures of war. Rather, this reformation was based on strategic thinking – the Givati Brigade was designated as a special infantry unit trained to carry out the most sensitive tasks. Since its original establishment, Givati’s soldiers and commanders have been known for their courage and bravery, as those who always take part in the most difficult and significant battles and operations.

From the War of Independence to the current war in Gaza, for seventy-five years, one thing has continued to accompany the Givati Brigade – that unique spirit which makes up for the lack in numbers, the spirit of Givati.

A Jewish Game of Thrones: The Bloody Tragedy of the Hasmonean Dynasty

We think we know them from the story of Hannukah and its miracles, but the heroic victory of Judah the Maccabee was just the prologue to the broader story of the Hasmonean Kingdom – a story that begins with a single family's dream of an independent Judea, continues with military and political glory papering over deep internal rot, and ends with destruction and the death of a beautiful queen at the hands of her husband

Miriam the Hasmonean on her way to execution, painting by Edward Hopley

“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.” – Frank Herbert

If there is a story where we almost never stop at the right point and almost never reach the (bitter) end, it’s the story of the Hasmoneans.

Every year, on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev, we celebrate the moment of a glorious victory – a victory which seemed almost impossible, a true miracle. But this victory is really just the prelude to the story of the Hasmoneans, as both a family and a historically unique monarchical dynasty in the annals of the Jewish People.

To understand who they were, we would do well to re-examine the familiar Hanukkah story, and look beyond the usual “happily ever after” bit where we usually stop, to see what came after that glorious moment.

The Angel of the Maccabees, by Gustave Dore

It all started with a rebellion. Or perhaps the persecution that preceded it? They were tightly connected.

In the first half of the second century BCE, Jerusalem was ruled by the Seleucids, who we often call “the Greeks” in our Hannukah stories and prayers. Seleucus I was among the generals who inherited parts of Alexander the Great’s sprawling empire. The Seleucid Empire, though smaller than Alexander’s, still stretched from Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Syria, and the Land of Israel, all the way to the Indus River at its height.

Antiochus IV, who ever so humbly called himself Epiphanes (“God Manifest”) and who has been commemorated by kindergarten teachers throughout the Jewish world as “Antiochus the Wicked”, rose to power at a bad time for his kingdom: his father had just suffered a very serious defeat at the hands of a new rising power to the west – Rome. He lost significant parts of his empire to the Romans (and other nations which jumped on the opportunity), and was forced to sign a humiliating surrender agreement which included astronomical reparations.

In the meantime, Jerusalem and the surrounding area of Judea had for centuries, since the famous Edict of Cyrus the Great, enjoyed a degree of religious autonomy, with the Jewish the High Priest presiding over worship at the Temple. The territory had been ruled by a series of empires which toppled one another – the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, the Macedonians, the Ptolemies, and now the Seleucids. But for most of this time, the Jews had a varying measure of religious freedom to maintain their worship in the Temple and the commandments and laws of their faith.

Historians are divided on what led Antiochus to change this arrangement which had worked so well for all his predecessors, but whatever the reason – he decided to intervene in the religious practices in Jerusalem and Judea, outlawing all Jewish rituals and desecrating the Temple.

It is here that the story we all know and love begins, though the degree of accuracy often varies in the telling: Mattathias the priest and his five sons raised the banner of rebellion. Whether the spark was an attempt to force the residents of Modi’in to bring a sacrifice to the Greek gods, or the story of Mattathias’ daughter Hannah, who rebelled against the terrifying decree of “the first night” – either way, battle was joined. Significant portions of the Jewish People gathered round Mattathias and his sons upon hearing the battle cry “Whoever is to God to me” (or something to that effect), sick of the cruel Hellenic oppression and willing to die to return to observing the Torah and its commandments in the open.

Mattathias and the Apostate, by Gustave Dore

Judah the Maccabee, the third of Mattathias’ sons, formed and led the small rebel army – at first, with guerilla actions and later in organized, open battles against the Seleucid army. He went up to Jerusalem with his soldiers and managed to take over large parts of it, most importantly the Temple – which was cleaned and purified. Jewish religious rituals resumed.

This is where the story of the miracle of Hannukah more or less ends – Judah the Maccabee defeated the armies of the Hellenistic empire and relit the Menorah or candelabrum in the Temple. The year was 164 BCE. Since then, every year, and in memory of the victory of the Jewish light over Greek darkness, we celebrate the holiday of Hannukah.

Mattathias, meanwhile, had passed away a year before, and did not get to see his sons’ success.

This event was not only the “happy ending” we celebrate every year, but rather the beginning of the long path to Jewish independent rule in Jerusalem and the Land of Israel – a rule which would ultimately become a monarchy for all intents and purposes and which would end in blood. Plenty of blood.


Season One – The Brothers

To be honest, it was bloody from the beginning.

Peace did not come after Judah’s famous initial victories. The Seleucids were not so quick to give up the lands they had ruled, and although the decrees of Antiochus (which had proven themselves to be a rallying cry for the majority of Jews to join with the Hasmoneans against the Seleucids) were rescinded, the Hellenistic kings continued to send troops to fight the rebels in Judea.

Six years after the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days instead of one, Judah was defeated by the general Bacchides, falling in the Battle of Elasa. His brother Eleazar also perished when he was trampled to death by one of the Seleucid army’s war elephants. For a while, it appeared the original status quo had been restored – the Greek religious persecutions had been undone, but so too, it seemed, had the Hasmonean victory.

The Heroism of Eleazar, by Philip James de Loutherbourg

The Hasmoneans and their supporters, however, were not gripped by despair. The leadership of the rebellion was taken up by another Hasmonean brother – Jonathan, who was a gifted commander and perhaps more importantly – a skilled diplomat. He returned the Hasmoneans to Jerusalem after a series of military victories, while working primarily at the diplomatic level, especially by cleverly exploiting the endless infighting among those claiming the Seleucid crown. He convinced the Seleucid authorities to give him effective control, and in 150 BCE, he received the titles of strategos (general) and “meridarch” (akin to a civil governor).

Jonathan managed to hold these title for seven years before being murdered by a Seleucid ruler – Diodotus Tryphon. He was replaced as leader by Simon – the last brother left alive.

All these stormy events in Judea were accompanied by a family situation which had no equal throughout history: While still alive, Mattathias had been the clear leader of the rebellion, even though his age likely prevented him from participating in the battles themselves. After his death, he left the leadership to his five sons, advising them to follow Judah – who was not the eldest, but whom Mattathias considered the most appropriate one to lead the nation in war.

And they indeed followed Judah, just as they would later follow the brothers who succeeded him.

Scholars question almost every detail about this period, but one thing still remains unequivocally clear – Mattathias’ sons did not fight amongst themselves. The torch kept being passed from one brother to the next as the fight against the Seleucids continued and the brothers died one after the other, with the next one’s leadership never being questioned by his siblings.

Simon, the last of the brothers, was the one who secured full independence for Judea. He didn’t yet call himself a king, but the moment he fully took the reins of civilian control from the Seleucids and the tax burden was lifted (in 140 BCE) is the moment from which we officially begin counting the years of Hasmonean reign.

The First Book of Maccabees (15:1-9) tells of this moment:

“Antiochus, son of King Demetrius, sent a letter from the islands of the sea to Simon, the priest and ethnarch of the Jews, and to all the nation, which read as follows:

“King Antiochus sends greetings to Simon, the high priest and ethnarch, and to the Jewish nation […] I authorize you to coin your own money, as legal tender in your country. Jerusalem and its sanctuary shall be free. All the weapons you have prepared and all the strongholds you have built and now occupy shall remain in your possession. All debts, present or future, due to the royal treasury shall be canceled for you, now and for all time. When we establish our kingdom, we will greatly honor you and your nation and the temple, so that your glory will be manifest in all the earth.”

Simon was a wise and beneficent ruler, chosen by an assembly of the people to be their “leader and high priest forever, until a trustworthy prophet should arise”. He conquered additional cities in the Land of Israel such as Gezer and Jaffa, and even succeeded in taking over the Acra – the fortress of Greeks and Hellenized Jews that had remained a thorn in the side of residents of Jerusalem for so long.

Six years passed in relative quiet since that happy day of independence, until family strife encouraged by the Seleucids brought about tragedy and betrayal. Simon’s father-in-law, Ptolemy son of Abubus, who received control of the city of Jericho and its surroundings while maintaining secret relations with the “current” Antiochus (VII), invited Simon and his sons to a feast at his home, where they were cruelly murdered, as Ptolemy hoped to gain the throne of Judea for himself.

Unfortunately for him, one of Simon’s sons – John Hyrcanus – didn’t attend that bloody feast, surviving his father and becoming the Prince and High Priest in his stead.


Season Two – The Bloody Rule of the First Kings

During the reign of John Hyrcanus, Mattathias’ grandson, the internal rift between the different religious factions deepened. Hyrcanus had begun his rule like his father and uncles before him – as a religious leader and priest ruling by virtue of broad public support. But a number of choices he made and disputes regarding his position (can a High Priest be a military leader engaged in conquest and killing?) pushed his form of rule towards that of an absolute monarchy relying on force-of-arms, little different than what could be seen in the surrounding Hellenistic monarchies. His successors would continue to enhance this trend. Greek culture began to become dominant in the institutions and customs of the ruling class. John (Yochanan) was the first to take a Greek name – Hyrcanus – and after him, this practically became the standard.

Hyrcanus ruled Judea for 31 years, the first Hasmonean ruler to die of natural causes. Before his death, he sought to hand over rule to his wife. But his son, Judah Aristobulus I didn’t like the idea, and when his father died, he simply imprisoned his mother and most of his brothers and declared himself King.

Hasmonean coins. The power to mint coins was an important marker of economic and political independence

The rule of the first King in Judea since the Biblical era was not a model of benevolent government, nor did it leave a significant mark on history. But Aristobulus I did apparently make at least one good decision: He married a woman named Salome (Shlomtziyon) Alexandra. She was the sister of Simon Ben Shetach – one of the greatest of the Pharisees and the president of the Sanhedrin – but she would yet stand out in her own right.

Aristobulus died from an illness just one year after coming to power. Salome Alexandra freed his imprisoned brothers (his mother died in jail), and married the oldest of them, who was still younger than her – Alexander Jannaeus.

Alexander Jannaeus was a king from the very first, with all that entails. He set out on extensive campaigns of conquest and vastly increased the size of his kingdom, taking over the Hellenistic coastal cities, and conquering Gaza and large swathes of the east bank of the Jordan River.

Map of the Land of Israel and the Hasmonean Kingdom following the conquests of Alexander Jannaeus. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel, courtesy of Amir Kahanovitz

According to most testimonies, Jannaeus was a cruel and tyrannical ruler who did not hesitate to use foreign mercenaries to massacre his opponents, of which there were many. He did not heed the mood of the people, and at least two significant rebellions occurred during his reign. During one of these, it is said that over 800 rebels were hung on the city walls, as Jannaeus held a vulgar banquet in front of them. He even wanted to execute his brother-in-law, a leader of the Pharisees, but Salome Alexandra managed to hide her sibling and save his life.

After less than thirty years on the throne, Alexander Jannaeus died in a manner similar to his namesake – from a disease he was stricken with during one of his campaigns. He was succeeded, finally, by a woman. His wife.


Season Three – The Days of the Good Queen Salome

Salome Alexandra was considered by many to be the best monarch of the bunch, certainly when it came to internal affairs. She brought the people, who were largely affiliated with the Pharisee party, back on her side, and her rule excelled in its almost unprecedented economic and political stability.

In her day, for the first time since Judah the Maccabee renewed the rituals of the Temple, the leadership was split up – Salome Alexandra ruled as Queen, but she granted the title of High Priest to her eldest son – Hyrcanus II.

Her second son, Aristobulus II, refused to reconcile with his mother’s reign and his brother’s priesthood. At first, he sufficed with leading the military elite, which set out on a number of campaigns in the name of his mother the Queen, but at the end of her life, when it was clear she was dying and unable to fully manage the kingdom, he gathered a loyal army around him, took control of many fortresses, and declared himself King.

Queen Salome Alexandra (Shlomtziyon), by Guy Bartholomew. Rome, 1751.

The figure of Salome Alexandra, and the fact that she was unable to quell the hostility between her two sons, provided historian Flavius Josephus with the opportunity to take a swipe at all women:

“A woman she was who showed no signs of the weakness of her sex […] and demonstrated by her doings at once, that her mind was fit for action, and that sometimes men themselves show the little understanding they have by the frequent mistakes they make in point of government; for she always preferred the present to futurity, and preferred the power of an imperious dominion above all things, and in comparison of that had no regard to what was good, or what was right. However, she brought the affairs of her house to such an unfortunate condition, that she was the occasion of the taking away that authority from it, and that in no long time afterward, which she had obtained by a vast number of hazards and misfortunes, and this out of a desire of what does not belong to a woman, and all by a compliance in her sentiments with those that bare ill-will to their family, and by leaving the administration destitute of a proper support of great men; and, indeed, her management during her administration while she was alive, was such as filled the palace after her death with calamities and disturbance.”

But even he could not help but admit:

“However […] she preserved the nation in peace. And this is the conclusion of the affairs of, Alexandra.”

Salome Alexandra died at the age of 73, after ruling Judea for 9 years.


Season Four – Brothers at War

Hyrcanus the High Priest, also known as Hyrcanus II, who Josephus (and not only him), described as “weak minded”, didn’t want to fight his brother at first. His mother left Aristobulus’ wife and sons with Hyrcanus to serve as a bargaining chip in the fight for the throne, but he chose not to use them and arrived at an agreement with Aristobulus – he would continue to serve as High Priest and Aristobulus would be King.

A return to sanity, mutual respect between brothers and good old-fashioned family values? Well, not quite.

Over time, Hyrcanus began to develop close ties with a fellow named Antipater the Idumaean. Antipater’s son would become one of the era’s most famous historic figures, but we’ll get to him in a bit. Antipater succeeded in convincing Hyrcanus not to give up the throne, and with the help of the King of the Nabateans, they set out to fight Aristobulus in Jerusalem. The war that broke out between the two brothers was bitter and cruel and was accompanied by the looting of everything dear and holy to the earlier Hasmoneans – by both of the warring sides. Now they didn’t even need a wicked Antiochus to desecrate the Temple and kill priests and sages – they did it themselves.

While this was going on, the Roman general Pompey strolled into town, carrying orders to expand Rome’s territories in the East. Throughout the Hasmonean Kingdom’s history, the Romans had cast a long shadow from the West but had refrained from intervening in Judea’s internal affairs, as its rulers were wise enough to repeatedly sign peace treaties with it.

This was about to change. Both Hyrcanus and Aristobulus now expected Pompey to judge which of the two was more deserving of ruling Judea. They travelled to see him in Damascus, as did a delegation of the Judean people, who came to ask the Roman general take down the entire Hasmonean family – they’d had enough power struggles and corruption.

Was this simple naivete or just a clumsy attempt at political maneuvering?

Either way, Pompey’s response was one of the greatest historical demonstrations of the idiom: “When two are fighting, the third wins”. He quickly seized the opportunity to take over the Judean kingdom himself. He went up to Jerusalem, besieged it, and after just three months and 12,000 dead Jews, he entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Aristobulus II was imprisoned and Hyrcanus II was declared an “Ethnarch” a pathetic puppet ruler on behalf of Rome.

The year was 63 BCE. The Hasmonean Kingdom, the only example of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel since the biblical kingdoms (and for the next 2,000 years), had lost its independence.


Season Five – The Last Hasmonean Queen

It was the end of the Hasmonean Kingdom, but not the end of the dynasty. Like the final season of a tired drama series full of violence and intrigue that refuses to end – the sons and daughters of the Hasmonean family stuck around, continuing to play inseparable roles in the government of the Roman client state.

Meantime, the effective ruler was Antipater – the man who incited Hyrcanus II to go to war for the throne in the first place. Antipater appointed his son, one Herod, as governor of the Galilee. Hyrcanus II and Herod were sworn enemies who didn’t miss an opportunity to humiliate or harm one another. This toxic relationship reached its peak with the poisoning of Antipater by Hyrcanus’ people. Antipater died and in order to “compensate” Herod, Hyrcanus gave him his granddaughter (also Aristobulus’ granddaughter due to marriage within the family) – Miriam the Hasmonean – as a wife.

Miriam, or Mariamne, was apparently a very impressive woman. Josephus described her thus:

“a woman of an excellent character, both for chastity and greatness of soul […] yet had she all that can be said in the beauty of her body, and her majestic appearance in conversation”

At the end of an exhaustingly long era of battles and intrigue, Herod became King of Judea under the Romans. Miriam his wife, who could be Queen herself by right due to her lineage, became the partner of one of the most notorious Jewish rulers in a court full of discord.

Herod is probably the most famous king of this era of Jewish history, but his rule, no matter how glamorous, was subordinate to the central government in Rome and is not considered part of the Hasmonean dynasty. To the contrary, he feared the legacy of the Hasmonean kings, and in order to reduce their influence and reputation, he even slashed Hyrcanus’ ears to make him unfit for the priesthood and executed most of what was left of the royal family, including the mother and brother of his wife Miriam.

His relationship with Miriam, his Hasmonean queen, was a roller coaster of almost mad passion interwoven with mutual accusations – she for his murder of her family, he for her disloyalty.

In the end, he sentenced her to death himself.

“…she went to her death with an unshaken firmness of mind […] and thereby evidently discovered the nobility of her descent to the spectators, even in the last moments of her life.”

Thus did Josephus describe the last moments of the last Hasmonean queen in his classic work, “Antiquities of the Jews”, just a few years after her family’s kingdom had lost its independence, and less than a hundred years before the complete destruction of Judea and the Temple itself.

Mariamne Leaving the Judgment Seat of Herod, by John William Waterhouse

The Hasmonean Kingdom was but a brief flash of Jewish independence in a torn and bloodied land dominated for millennia by empires, kingdoms, and other polities. A land the Jewish People never left and never ceased to dream of. It began with a great hope – the realization of the vision of five faithful brothers who worked together for decades and gave their lives to see it through. It was a kingdom full of Jewish pride which served as a testament to the power of the spirit and a shared fate. Yet it succumbed, soaked in blood, to its own failings and self-destructive acts. The story of the Hasmonean Kingdom offers a historical lesson on everything that can go wrong when a government is tainted with corruption and reliant solely on force.

What Is the Meaning of “Um-Shmum”? David Ben-Gurion vs. the World

What did David Ben-Gurion mean when he shouted “Um-shmum!”, in reference to the United Nations? Did this expression of disdain convey his diplomatic worldview? This is the story of how a controversial phrase entered Israeli national mythology, a strange little historical episode that touches on a much larger question…

Ben-Gurion speaking before the 25th Zionist Congress. Photo from the Ben-Gurion House Archive

On March 25, 1955, a wedding was held at Patish, a moshav near the border with Gaza. All the members of the community were dressed in their holiday best. Kerosene lamps illuminated the improvised dance floor in the backyard of the Kalami family home and cast their light on the young, beautiful faces of the revelers.

But uninvited guests crashed the celebration. A squad of fedayeen terrorists from the Gaza Strip broke up the wedding by throwing grenades in every direction before opening fire on the wedding guests.

19 people were injured. 22-year-old Varda Friedman, who had come to Patish to help out as a social worker, was murdered.

Varda Friedman

When David Ben-Gurion arrived two days later to show support for the moshav, he was shocked to see some of the residents packing up their belongings, clearly preparing to leave their homes that no longer felt safe.

After spending more than a year in retirement from political life, he had come back to serve as Defense Minister. In his own eyes and in the eyes of many Israelis, he was still the leader of the young country, though for the moment, he was no longer Prime Minister.

Ben-Gurion felt responsible for what had happened when facing the newly-arrived immigrants who had settled in Patish. He knew and understood that the state was responsible.

“Look at these Jews,” he said at the time to the journalist Moshe Zak. “They’ve come from Iraq, Kurdistan, North Africa…they’ve come from countries where their blood is worthless, where it’s permissible to abuse them, torture them, beat them, to be cruel towards them. They’ve gotten used to being helpless victims of the gentiles. Here is where we must prove to them that their blood is no longer worthless; that the Jewish people have a state and an army that won’t allow them to be slaughtered again; that their lives and property are worth something. We need to make them stand upright, instill in them the feelings of sovereignty and pride. We need to show them that those who rise up against them will not escape punishment, because they are citizens of a sovereign country that is responsible for their lives and their safety.”

Those who were around Ben-Gurion said that the murder was a watershed moment for him. Was this the straw that broke the “Old Man’s” back? Was it the fact that he himself had spent the last two years living on a kibbutz in southern Israel and better understood what these infiltrations meant for the lives of those who lived there? Or was it Varda Friedman herself – the esteemed sergeant who chose farm work over a military career and didn’t hesitate when she was called on to help the new immigrants in Patish – whose death touched his heart?

Ben-Gurion in the Negev, the southern region of Israel where he believed settlement was critical for the country’s security. Photo from the Ben-Gurion House Archive, IL-BTBG-PH-066

A few days later, in Jerusalem, he worked vigorously to promote a plan that he thought was the only logical solution for the situation: Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip, without taking into account what the superpowers and international organizations might think, including the United Nations. IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan and many members of the Mapai political party mobilized to assist him.

Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, on the other hand, was strongly opposed to the plan.

Sharett, along with most of the government, feared it would attract fierce international criticism. They feared economic sanctions, diplomatic delegitimization of Israel, and diplomatic isolation. They believed that without UN Resolution 181, the State of Israel could never have been established.

Ben-Gurion thought otherwise.

He was never in favor of political isolation. When the “United Nations Special Committee on Palestine” was established in May, 1947, Ben-Gurion appeared before the committee’s members, speaking with historic and national fervor, while still expressing respect and appreciation for the UN.

However, when Israeli interests collided with the national or international interests of the superpowers, he argued that Israelis needed to learn to work for themselves and that no one else would fight for them.

He never sought political isolation but didn’t hesitate to stand his ground when necessary. Pictured: Ben-Gurion surveying the honor guard at the IDF headquarters before U.S. Ambassador James McDonald presents his credentials. Photo from the Ben-Gurion House Archive, IL-BTBG-PH-04

After the murder in Patish, during a meeting of the government on the 29th of the month, Ben-Gurion spoke and explained his theory in great detail. You can understand how Sharett felt about the Defense Minister based on his journal entry that day:

“[Ben-Gurion] spoke for about an hour. To the extent that he rolled out his analysis, the tension around him increased until, when he read out the proposal to expel the Egyptians from the Gaza Strip, this no longer came as a bombshell but rather as a solution to a riddle that most of the people had already guessed. The reasoning was poignant and made a great impression but I was once again startled by his narrow-mindedness – as if he stopped at fixing his eyes on one point only, without seeing the vast territory surrounding it – and his short-sightedness – as if he decided to determine that the operation itself was the final goal and not to delve deeper into the consequences that would come from it.”

David Ben-Gurion with Moshe Sharett. Fundamental debates. Photo from the Ben-Gurion House Archive, IL-BTBG-PH-028

After Ben-Gurion’s speech, a sharp debate developed between Prime Minister Sharett and his Defense Minister. The debate reflected not only their disagreements about the subject being discussed, but also the gap between the worldviews of many parts of the Israeli public: Should the State of Israel, which seemed almost like a helpless baby opposite the various superpowers, simply be grateful to the world in general and to the UN in particular for granting Israel the right to live in and govern this stretch of land, or should it ignore all the background noise and rely only on its own power?

A month later, Ben-Gurion would speak eloquently in front of an IDF parade, and offer an expression of his worldview that would remain with us for years afterwards:

“It is not in the global arena but rather from within that Israel will be strengthened and stand…these are the things that will determine our destiny more than any external factor in the world. Our future is not dependent on what the gentiles will say but rather what the Jews will do!”

Ben-Gurion giving a speech at an IDF parade. Photo from the Ben-Gurion House Archive, IL-BTBG-PH-110

But now, in that long and emotional government meeting, his intense feelings inspired him to coin a new, perhaps less elegant and somewhat more catchy turn of phrase:

“Definitely not!” he exploded at Sharett, who for his part had spoken about the UN’s role in the establishment of the state.

“Only the daring of the Jews established the state, not some decision by that Um-shmum.

In Hebrew, the acronym או”ם used to designate the UN is pronounced um, or more precisely, oom. Therefore, “Um-shmum!” is akin to saying “United Nations-shmoonited nations!” in English.

More than disdain, the expression “Um-shmum” expressed great disappointment with the United Nations. Ben-Gurion had always believed that cooperation between great democracies was the key to prosperity – both in Israel and around the world.

“As a member of the Jewish people I say: With all due respect to the institutions of the United Nations and its members, until Isaiah’s prophecy that ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation’ is fulfilled, and as long as our neighbors plot to destroy us, we won’t have security unless it’s through our own strength…There is no nation more fervent than us in following the principles laid down in the foundation of the UN – but the UN whose success and authority  we wish for is currently only an ideal. And the Security Council acts out of bias and glaring discrimination…in our region, acts of murder and sabotage, robbery and trespassing by our neighbors are becoming more and more frequent, and we must put an end to it – even if no one else wants to or is able to do so.”

Almost 70 years later, Ben-Gurion’s words echo the same question that follows us to this very day. Perhaps it has become even more acute: How are we possibly supposed to best protect the security of our country and its citizens against the backdrop of international diplomatic pressure? Even today, Israel faces bias, discrimination, and antisemitism in international institutions, on university campuses, and on social networks, as we are simultaneously trying to defend ourselves against the immediate threat of our enemy.

The photos that appear throughout this article are from the Ben-Gurion House Archive and are available digitally as part of a collaboration between the archive, the Ministry of Heritage, and the National Library of Israel.

The Man Who’s Been Documenting the People of Ofakim Since October 7

Nadav Mishali founded the cinematheque in the southern Israeli city of Ofakim. His personal story is bound up with that of the city itself and its brave and exceptional residents. Mishali has now taken on an even bigger mission – to document the stories of hardship and heroism that took place in Ofakim on Saturday, October 7, 2023

Nadav MIshali next to a sign at the entrance to the city of Ofakim that reads “Ofakim: City of Heroes. We will Remember and Prevail”, 2023. Photo: Lior Pingale

By Yael Ingel

On October 7, Nadav Mishali wasn’t actually in Ofakim, the southern Israeli which is his home. Instead, he was visiting family who live in central Israel. Two days after the most terrible Saturday we have ever known, he returned to help his hometown and its people.

A few days later, he was approached by Tal Biliya, a good friend of his from his high school days. Tal lost his brother on that awful day. He knew that Nadav was very familiar with Ofakim and that he was a filmmaker, so he said to him: “Go out and film what’s happening here. People have stories to tell. People need to know what happened here!” This appeal, which came straight from the heart of a bereaved brother, gave Nadav the push he needed to get up and do something – to do his part to preserve the history and the tragedy of this southern city.

Nadav Mishali at the entrance to Ofakim, 2023. Photo: Lior Pingale

Over the years, Ofakim had been relatively peaceful, aside from occasional rocket fire which is common in this region. The city is situated about 19 kilometers from the Gaza Strip and had never experienced terrorist infiltrations, unlike some of the communities located closer to the Gaza Strip. On that dark Saturday, Ofakim suffered the worst day in its history. Around 50 of the city’s residents were murdered, including civilians and members of the security forces. The shock was enormous, as was the heartbreak. Now, a few weeks later, more and more people can be seen on the streets as they attempt to resume their daily routine. The attempts to pick up the broken pieces and go back to normal can be felt throughout the city, and civil servants and other local functionaries have mobilized to respond to the residents’ needs.

Hanging out for the evening in Ofakim, 1972. Photo: Aliza Orbach, the Aliza Orbach Archive, the National Library of Israel


A report marking the tenth anniversary of the establishment of Ofakim. Al HaMishmar, June 27, 1966, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

Nadav, who serves as the director of the Ofakim Cinematheque, took it upon himself to do the sacred work of producing video documentation of the stories that unfolded in his hometown on October 7. With the help of Miriam Toizer, a social activist and Yad L’Banim volunteer, he has been recording the difficult testimonies of the events that took place in this quiet city that was taken by surprise and subjected to brutal attack on the morning of the Simchat Torah holiday.

The first account Nadav recorded was that of the Biliya family, the family of his friend Tal whose brother Ariel was murdered that Saturday. Nadav spoke with them while they were still sitting shiva – mourning their terrible loss. Ariel was 28 years old. He was murdered while trying to protect ten members of his family, including his wife and their two young children. He made sure to get everyone out through the window in his parents’ home where they were all gathered, over to the small balcony that holds the home’s solar water heater. Their lives were all saved but Ariel was not able to escape the terrorists in time.

The late Ariel Biliya. Photo from a family album.

At first Nadav was dissuaded by the enormity of it all. “Who am I to point a camera at these people while they’re in mourning, during these difficult moments? I felt like I was pulling out a weapon when I took the camera out of my bag in front of the bereaved families.” He quickly noticed the effect that the camera had on the people around him. “Ariel’s wife started speaking to me, telling me what had happened, and she suddenly got up from her chair to show me the window they had all escaped from. She started to reenact everything that happened, totally spontaneously, without having planned it out, without me asking her to. That’s when I remembered the power of film.”

That same day, Nadav also interviewed Michal Biliya, Ariel’s mother, in whose home they all hid and where he was murdered. The Biliya family’s home is burned and completely destroyed from the battle that took place there, but when Nadav asked Michal if she’d be willing to go back, she answered, “Of course! It’s my home!” Nadav says that he has gotten the same response from other interviews as well; Ofakim residents aren’t willing to leave and in fact they feel even more connected to their city ever since the terrible events that took place there.

Nadav documenting a story in Ofakim. Photo: Miriam Toizer

That first interview encouraged Nadav to continue documenting the families of those who were murdered, especially once he saw how valuable this documentation was. “I quickly understood that the camera wasn’t something threatening but rather comforting, and I do everything I can to make it transparent so that the person sitting across from me sees me, speaks to me. I’ve realized for example that it’s best if the camera isn’t standing on a tripod; that seems too threatening. But if it’s in my hands, it’s more humane.”

Ofakim kindergarteners in the early 1960s (estimate). Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Even before he started this special project, Nadav (37) was a known figure in the cultural life of Ofakim and had influenced it a great deal. He was born in Ofakim to parents who had emigrated from Morocco, and was raised in a traditional but open-minded home. Nadav chose to attend a religious school and later joined a yeshiva, but when he enlisted in the IDF, he decided he’d no longer wear a kippah, though he remained faithful to his beliefs.

During his student days, he decided to make a film about an old movie theater that had operated in Ofakim during the 1970s and 1980s. He cherishes childhood memories of visiting the old “Cinema Merchavim” theater and it was a painful moment for him when the establishment went out of business in the 1990s and became an abandoned ruin. When Mishali moved back to Ofakim, he started working on a plan to reintroduce film culture and its accompanying discourse into the city.

Nadav knows that having a movie theater in Ofakim is no trivial matter, explaining that in a city with such a hometown feel, a movie theater has special significance. “It’s something that opens up your mind as well as your heart.” He laughed while telling us about the seemingly conservative city, that allows its own residents, living and working inside it, to change the community from within.

This place where everyone knows everyone is unique in that it has always enabled its residents to initiate, invent, and impact the reality around them. Instead of living and working in central Israel, Nadav chose to live in the city where he was born, and to affect change there. In addition to being a creative artist, he has also become a social activist and entrepreneur. He has undertaken his life’s work in Ofakim: his cinematheque has been in operation since 2016.

 The theater can hold up to 90 people, who come to watch movies from the past and present. The Ofakim Cinematheque also serves as a cultural center that hosts lectures, meetings, and cultural events with artists from all over Israel. At first, the cinematheque was treated as a bit of an oddity, something that seemed out of place, but now, the locals can’t even imagine the city without it.

A May 2023 pre-screening ahead of the national premiere of the film “Let the Party Begin”, starring Aki Avni (left) and Galit Hershkovitz (right). Avni had the idea to hold this special screening in Ofakim due to the tense security situation, as a tribute to the citizens of the south and a way to show solidarity with them. Photo: Ofakim Cinematheque PR team

During the first few weeks of the war, the cinematheque moved its screenings to various shelters, schools and gardens, but once it became possible, the films returned to the theater, which has its own bomb shelter, in order to provide a sense of normalcy. The movies being shown are meticulously selected, with the main goal being to empower and encourage anyone who has made the decision to leave home and go see a movie.

A packed audience at the Ofakim Cinematheque. Photo: Nadav Mishali

“The community in Ofakim is amazing. The people are amazing. I know all of them and of course that helps me to enter their homes or go to their memorial services or tombstone unveilings. The heroism that we saw here takes different forms. I’ve seen nobility and enormous soul in every story.” Nadav views his project as an opportunity to reveal a city whose people are often invisible to external eyes.

One Ofakim resident who has received a lot of publicity is Rachel Edri, whose home was taken over by terrorists on October 7. She offered these Hamas jihadists cookies and drinks as well as medical care, thus buying time for security forces to organize a rescue operation that saved her and her husband’s lives. Nadav says: “Rachel’s story is obviously amazing and represents Ofakim and its sense of hospitality, but I interviewed everyone who was willing, not only bereaved families but also people who were injured or who bore witness. I made it my goal to interview all of them. Including people who didn’t do something we might consider heroic. I wanted to interview everyone who is invisible to the media.”

Ofakim, 1972. Photo: Aliza Orbach, the Aliza Orbach Archive, the National Library of Israel


Visting towns in the southern part of the country – Ofakim and Sderot, 1984. Photo from the Dan Hadani Archives, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

One of the many interviews he recorded was with the family of the late Aharon Paresh, a Sergeant Major in the IDF’s Technology and Maintenance Corps, who served on the Re’im Base near his home in Ofakim and was called up to report for duty there on that awful morning. He engaged in combat with one of the terrorists before he was murdered. His wife spoke with Nadav about the deep sense of loneliness that has remained with her ever since.

Another interview that remains deeply etched in Nadav’s heart was with the family of the late Aharon Haimov. “Aharon was a senior medic with the Magen David Adom ambulatory service. He was a Haredi man who generally didn’t work on Shabbat, but he was called up that day and of course he didn’t hesitate to head out towards Kibbutz Urim,” Nadav says. “He hadn’t even made it past the city’s western exit when the terrorists got to him and shot him, he was killed on the spot. When I spoke with his wife, I heard about what a special personality he was, and what a huge gap he left behind. She held a picture of him, and you could feel the love with which she spoke of him.”

Nadav interviewing people in Ofakim. Photo: Dana Arielli

The testimonies that Nadav Mishali is documenting in Ofakim, along with other projects aimed at documenting the testimony of those who were in the Western Negev region on that horrible day of October 7, are being collected for safekeeping at the National Library of Israel.

The Library which, among other things, is dedicated to the preservation of the cultural heritage of the Jewish People and the State of Israel, has established “Bearing Witness” – a project dedicated to documenting the events, testimonies and aftermath of October 7, 2023.


For further information and inquiries about collecting testimony, click here.

To help support the documentation team in Ofakim, which is working on a completely voluntary basis, please call Nadav at 054-5887669 or email him at [email protected]

This article is part of our special series: “Life on the Border: A Tribute to the Communities of the Gaza Border Region”. Click here to see all of the articles and stories.