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.

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.

 

 

When Israel Conquered Gaza for the First Time

During the conflict known as the Sinai Campaign, the State of Israel conquered the Gaza Strip. Military documents and rare color photographs reveal what this brief period of Israeli control of Gaza looked like - back in 1956

“Life in the city is very tumultuous. The streets are full of people, most of the stores are open. Lively commerce is taking place in the markets. The appearance of the residents is happier and seems to have reconciled itself with the occupation. They try to come talk with the Israeli soldiers and civilians. In the refugee camps, Israeli citizens are received with commotion and are immediately surrounded by masses of children and adults. The faces of the refugees have a very kind appearance. The camps excel in their cleanliness. The elderly among the refugees are interested in the wellbeing of their friends [across the border].”

(Report in the Davar newspaper, November 29, 1956, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel)

“Tonight our forces will break into the Gaza Strip.” This was the news given to IDF soldiers on November 1, 1956. After almost a decade of hostile activity from the Strip which led to the deaths of hundreds of Israelis, Israel was now taking the initiative. The Sinai Campaign, or “Operation Kadesh” as it is sometimes called, was a war initiated by Israel in the face of increasing cross-border terrorist actions by Palestinian groups known as the fedayeen. Once and for all, Israel hoped to put an end to the threat posed to the Israeli communities along the Gaza border. During the war, Israel succeeded – with French and British support – in taking over enormous tracts of land, including the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip.

הפקודה על כיבוש עזה. 1 בנובמבר 1956
“Tonight our forces will break into the Gaza Strip! Gaza – A living limb that has been torn from the body of the State of Israel. A fist raised before the state, a base for Egypt’s murderous emissaries […] And facing it – Nahal Oz, Be’eri, Kissufim, Nirim – a chain of flowering settlements facing a hostile border.” The order to occupy Gaza. November 1, 1956

The IDF occupied Gaza relatively easily, and the Strip, then controlled by Egypt, capitulated within three days.

הארץ, 4 בנובמבר, 1956
“Gaza’s Request of Surrender” Haaretz, November 4, 1956, the Historical Jewish Press Collection. Gaza’s Egyptian governor General Mohammed Fuad asked the Israeli commander to “accept my unconditional surrender”

Life in Gaza City in those days was beautifully documented in a series of rare color photographs taken by American Jewish photographer and journalist Moshe (Marlin) Levin, who documented daily life in the city under Israeli military rule.

Taking a picture of a camel, 1956. The Moshe Marlin Levin Archive, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

 

Street salesman in Gaza, 1956. The Moshe Marlin Levin Archive, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

 

Gaza, 1956. The Moshe Marlin Levin Archive, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

 

Flying over Gaza. The Moshe Marlin Levin Archive, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

 

White donkeys on a Gaza street. The Moshe Marlin Levin Archive, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The truth, which the State of Israel did not know back in November 1956, was that it would only control the Gaza Strip for a brief period. Israel’s military successes and territorial gains created a sense of euphoria in the country, and the occupation of the region was referred to as the “liberation of Gaza” – hinting that there was little intent to give up the newly-conquered territory. It’s worth remembering that there had been a long-standing Jewish presence in the Gaza Strip which only ended in the 1929 riots, such that the conquering of Gaza was seen by many as a return to a part of the ancient Jewish homeland, rather than an occupation of a foreign territory.

“The joy of the conquerors of Gaza after the surrender and the cessation of gunfire”, Davar, November 5, 1956

Upon occupying the Strip, Israel imposed military rule and quickly began taking practical steps to establish Israeli control.

This can be seen in a series of orders which established martial law over the territory: the city’s judicial and administrative powers were transferred to the army.

מנשר לתושבי עזה. נובמבר, 1956
“All governmental, administrative and judicial authority over the region of Gaza and its residents is from now invested in me and will be executed by those acting on my orders or by those I have appointed to do so […] – Lt. Col. Haim Gaon, IDF commander in the Gaza region” – An IDF notice to the residents of Gaza. November, 1956

Israeli currency became legal tender in the Strip.

A notice issued by the IDF announcing Israeli currency would now be accepted in Gaza. November, 1956

Steps were also taken to restore “routine” to the occupied territory. Thus, alongside a curfew imposed on residents of Gaza during the night hours, an order was issued to open the stores in the daytime to allow continued trade.

A military order requiring business owners in Gaza to open their shops during regular business hours. November, 1956

And this is a rare picture of the home of the military governor in Gaza, complete with an Israeli flag.

Home of the Israeli military governor in Gaza. The Moshe Marlin Levin Archive, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Today we know that the period of Israeli control of Gaza in 1956 was very temporary. Israel quickly discovered that its partners in the Sinai Campaign – Britain and France – were no longer among the world’s true superpowers. Pressure from the USSR and especially the United States, was placed on Israel to withdraw its forces. On March 8, 1957, just four months after Gaza capitulated, IDF forces left the Strip in a long column of armored vehicles, and control was returned to Egypt.

Until the next war.

Refugees in Their Own Land: The Children of Yad Mordechai Leave Their Homes

After spending long hours hiding in their safe rooms, with the local civilian security team and members of the Border Guard bravely fighting armed terrorists seeking to break into the kibbutz, the residents of Yad Mordechai were evacuated from their homes until further notice. Many might describe this as a “once in a lifetime” experience – but for some kibbutz veterans, this was not the first time they left their home behind without knowing when, or if, they would ever return.

Children next to a "butterfly" armored car, of the sort used to evacuate Yad Mordechai's children

“A daughter has been born to us, a new instance of life, culture in the heart of desolation” – these words marked the big day for the community of Miztpeh HaYam towards the end of December 1943, the day they struck root in the lands of their kibbutz. Their settlement would soon receive a new name: Yad Mordechai, after Mordechai Anielewicz, leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the Nazis.

They had started out as two separate settlement groups in training in Poland in the early 1930s. Upon arriving in the Land of Israel, they settled a tiny plot of land on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea near the city of Netanya. This site gave the group its first name, “Mitzpeh HaYam” literally meaning “overlooking the sea” or “sea observation point.”

But now that they had finally received the lands for their permanent home, far to the south – a great hope could be felt among the smiles and handshakes – the hope that here, now, the exhausting journey was at an end. They were home.

Children in the first years of the kibbutz. Source: Kibbutz Yad Mordechai Archive, IL-YMOR-001-70-028-005

Did any of them fear for the future? Could they envision what they were about to build, what they were risking, what they were about to lose?

Here’s what a kibbutz member back then wrote about those early years, in a document preserved in the Yad Mordechai Archive for future generations:

“We were raised on the great pioneering, volunteering movement, envisioning the rebuilding of Israel and the liberation of the working man. As those faithful to this vision and its realization, we founded our settlement at the end of 1943, which grew and flourished within a few years within a sea of hatred from the Arab villages around [us]. We knew that the question of security would be one of the most serious for us, for we sat on the main highway – the main road between Jaffa, Gaza, and Egypt.”

(Yitzhak Waldman, Yad Mordechai, 1950)

But neither the weighty question of security nor the unceasing harassment of nearby Arabs prevented them from establishing a model settlement and community. In the first few years, significant efforts were made to ensure good, neighborly relations with nearby Arab villages.

A “mukhtar” or local village leader was appointed for the kibbutz, who was tasked among other things with maintaining official ties with the surrounding villages. The kibbutz doctor provided medical care to neighboring Arabs. The small local school taught mandatory Arabic classes.

Children on the farm, 1950s. Source: Kibbutz Yad Mordechai Archive, IL-YMOR-001-70-028-004

Upon hearing the news of the approval of the UN Partition Plan, the kibbutz members understood their fears were realized – Yad Mordechai would be included in the Arab state, not the Jewish one. The security situation deteriorated. The kibbutz, entirely surrounded by Arab settlements, was effectively cut off from the main Jewish settlement concentrations. The only way to reach it or leave it was with armed convoys organized by the Negev Brigade of the Palmach.

In early April 1948, when it was clear to everyone that there was tough fighting ahead no matter what, the kibbutz members sought to evacuate the children. Negev Brigade command opposed this move, arguing that an early evacuation would unnecessarily burden the civilian home front and harm troop morale.

So, the children remained in the kibbutz, where they were exposed to Egyptian bombardments and where they made friends with the young Palmach fighters who came to reinforce local defenses, under the command of Gershon Dubenboim.

Palmach platoon under the command of Gershon Dubenboim, 1948. Photo: Kibbutz Yad Mordechai Archive, IL-YMOR-001-70-006-008

It was only in mid-May, after Israeli independence had been declared and after intelligence came in of an imminent, large-scale attack by the Egyptian Army, that a decision was taken to carry out the evacuation.

During the night between the 18th and 19th of May, the children were pulled from their beds, wrapped in blankets, and led via trenches to the eucalyptus grove that served as an assembly area for the evacuees. There, “Butterfly” armored cars were waiting to take them to safety.

The parents who weren’t on guard duty at their defensive positions accompanied their children and tried to put on a happy face and fill them with courage. But the hugs that were a little too strong and the tears of the fathers told the real story of how they felt. They didn’t know if they’d ever see their kids again.

Palmach members and kibbutzniks. The women stayed to fight alongside the men. Photo: Kibbutz Yad Mordechai Archive. IL-YMOR-001-70-006-008

Most of the mothers remained on the kibbutz. The women were an inseparable part of the defensive plan, and the decision of the members was to stay and fight as families, knowing that this could mean their children could lose both their parents. Among those who stayed behind was a pregnant woman who was responsible for the young calves in the dairy. She would survive and later gave birth to a healthy baby.

The trip away from the kibbutz was long, exhausting, and mostly – cramped. Children were packed into armored vehicles which drove at a nerve-rackingly slow pace along dirt roads, and which tried as much as possible to avoid Arab villages and stay off the easily targeted main road.

In the morning, when they reached Kibbutz Gvar’am, a siren went off. This was the siren announcing the beginning of the Egyptian attack on Yad Mordechai. Had the departure been delayed for even a few hours, it would not have been possible to leave the kibbutz.

From Gvar’am, they headed to Kibbutz Ruhama, and then split up. Some remained in Ruhama for a day or two and others continued north to Kibbutz Gan Shmuel near Haifa. A few days passed until everyone was united, temporarily, in the original settlement site of the group that founded Yad Mordechai – Mitzpeh HaYam, on the coast near Netanya.

They were later joined by the remaining adults after the kibbutz fell to the Egyptians. 26 soldiers were killed in the battle for Yad Mordechai and around 40 wounded. The soldiers left when they realized that reinforcements were not coming. They announced their decision to retreat despite being told by brigade command and the state leadership not to do so without approval. The ammunition was running out, the wounded were in bad shape, and they knew that they would not be able to repel another attack, no matter how willing they were to die for the cause.

The wounded were extracted in armored vehicles loaned to them by the Palmach platoon led by Gershon Dubenboim – who had also overseen the evacuation of the children. As for the rest, anyone who could stand up and walk did so, taking the trek along long dirt roads strewn with mines and crawling with enemy fighters.

Exhausted and mournful, they arrived at Mitzpeh HaYam to see their children. But not all of the children were able to reunite with their parents. “Know that anyone who doesn’t get off the bus, anyone who hasn’t made it, is a hero,” the care workers told the children while trying to hold back tears.

“The children didn’t understand that the father who fell would not return. ‘When will daddy’s wound heal?’ ‘What does that mean he fell?’ ‘What does that mean he’s gone?’ ‘He has to come because he’s a hero.’ We heard from the young ones many things like this. Their little brains did not internalize the fact of death and loss.”

(Yitzhak Waldman, 1950)

After this, the members of Yad Mordechai went into exile, which lasted a long time.

First, they split up the children: the older kids went to Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, while the babies and the mothers resided in Kibbutz Ma’abarot.

The people at Gan Shmuel tried to get the children back on something resembling a routine. A school was established, and a new teacher was assigned instead of the previous one who was wounded in battle. They quickly grew to love their new teacher, but the Gan Shmuel children didn’t always welcome the newcomers and often picked on them.

School. Playground scuffles between children. A wartime routine.

Later, they all moved to the Ali Kassem farm, where they began rebuilding the agricultural facilities and maintained a new kibbutz routine.

The 55th Battalion of the IDF’s Givati Brigade establishes itself in Yad Mordechai after liberating it in battle, 1948. Photo: Kibbutz Yad Mordechai Archive. IL-YMOR-001-70-006-005

Kibbutz Yad Mordechai was liberated during Operation Yoav. The soldiers of the Givati Brigade’s 55th Battalion entered the kibbutz on November 5 after the withdrawal of the Egyptian Army.

Upon hearing of the liberation, the kibbutz members set out. They had to see what was left of their beloved home. Most of them made the last leg of the journey on foot.

But the sight of their ruined homes and destroyed farms shocked them. They made a decision – they wouldn’t bring the children back to this. They would rebuild the farms, and only then, once the place again began to resemble a happy home, would they bring back the women and the children.

Kibbutz members assemble upon returning to the kibbutz after its liberation. The shell-torn homes are visible in the background. Photo: Kibbutz Yad Mordechai Archive. IL-YMOR-001-70-006-001

In a shared effort, not just physical but also emotional, they rebuilt the kibbutz, making it even more beautiful than it was before.

The children returned – to houses with new red roofs, accommodating almost everyone from before the war, except for the fallen, who were buried on the northern hill.

75 years later, everything turned upside down once again. The events of October 7, even if they didn’t physically harm the kibbutz members, shocked them to the very core of their soul. Every one of them has friends, relatives and loved ones from neighboring communities who will never come home again. The kibbutz members are clearly feeling the aftershocks of that great upheaval, and the future of the kibbutz is once again filled with questions waiting for answers.

Pictures appearing in this article are kept at the Kibbutz Yad Mordechai Archive and are made available thanks to the collaboration between the archive, the Ministry of Heritage and the National Library of Israel

 

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