The Hebrew Women of His Majesty’s Armed Forces

During WWII, Hebrew women lined up to volunteer for the British Army. Posters from the period offer a fascinating glimpse of this unique chapter in Zionist history, as well as the history of feminism in Israel

"Join us, dear sister!" – A poster encouraging women to enlist in the British Army, the Shamir Brothers Collection at the National Library of Israel

Mess Halls: If you like order and cleanliness and are prepared for any job – choose this service and set the spirit of the soldiers, in both training and active duty.

The above quote is taken from a 1940s military volunteer form for Hebrew women. The style certainly appears outdated or even offensive by today’s standards, but this was how Jewish women in Mandatory Palestine were called upon to join the British Army. It wasn’t all about “order and cleanliness”, of course – thousands of women enlisted and served in a variety of combat support roles. Some were stationed in Israel while others were deployed to different bases in the Middle East and even Europe, where they served in the fields of medicine, munitions, transport and more.

Below is a Hebrew quote from Isaiah 52:1: “Put on thy beautiful garments”. The Shamir Brothers Collection at the National Library of Israel

Undoubtedly, the idea of Jewish women serving in the British army was considered unusual. The British themselves certainly weren’t thrilled about it and among the Yishuv (the Jewish community in the Land of Israel), many were also opposed.

Pictures and posters from this period (many of which can be found in the National Library collections) offer an interesting view of a highly important chapter in our history, and, some may argue, of the history of feminism in Israel as well.


“Announcing the recruitment of women for military service – Enlist!” The Shamir Brothers Collection at the National Library of Israel

In mid-1941, representatives of women’s organizations such as WIZO, the Council of Working Women (known today as NA’AMAT) and Hadassah, requested that the British Army open its women’s branch, the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service), to Jewish volunteers from Mandatory Palestine.

The Yishuv considered itself part of the Allied struggle against the Nazis; from the beginning of the war, women were called to enlist alongside men and serve in the army, despite certain objections from religious parties.

The Jewish Agency joined the request put forth to the British and in October of 1941 permission to draft 5,000 women – 2,000 of them immediately – was granted.

“Sign up for the ATS and the WAFS [Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron]… at the Jewish Agency’s enlistment offices” The Shamir Brothers Collection at the National Library of Israel

In December of that year an official announcement was published. Numerous ads were posted in newspapers and on notice boards encouraging women to drop everything and volunteer. The Jewish Agency itself operated many of the enlistment centers and was at the forefront of this initiative. The following excerpt was published in Hebrew in the Davar daily:

Since the beginning of the war, the Hebrew woman has demanded her right to join the battle against the enemy. This demand has been accepted. Women must now fulfill their duty. Since the beginning of our resurrection in this land, women have stood side by side with men in building our country’s foundation. In every effort. Sacrifice and success were the lot of women just as they were the lot of men. Now women are allowed to contribute, in uniform, to the Yishuv’s war effort. The honor and privilege of volunteering in the army is now hers as well.


“You can shorten the road – To Victory…Join the ATS” The Shamir Brothers Collection at the National Library of Israel

In January 1942 the first class of 60 women designated to become officers and NCOs was recruited and trained at the Sarafand army base.

A Hebrew anthem was written for the female recruits. In June of 1942 the national institutions announced that military service would be mandatory for all women between the ages of 20-30 who did not have children. Due to religious objections however, not all of the eligible women were actually enlisted in the ATS.

Throughout the course of the war, a total of 3,500 Hebrew women were recruited to the ATS, in addition to 700 women who served in the WAAF, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Female soldiers served as drivers and nurses and filled various administrative and munitions roles.

During the Second Battle of El Alamein, Jewish drivers from the ATS brought badly needed troops and weapons to the front, an effort which helped block the Nazi advance toward Mandatory Palestine.

The Yishuv benefited a great deal from all of this. Many of the female volunteers later joined the various Jewish underground organizations. Their service had enabled them to acquire professional knowledge and expertise in an array of military fields, a fact which contributed immensely to these groups’ struggles against the British themselves as well as to Israeli efforts during the War of Independence.

Historically speaking, this episode provided a significant boost to the status of women in the Yishuv, as they proved they could contribute no less than their male peers.

In the underground movements, many women took on active roles in actual combat, and were not limited to support duties, though this policy was changed with the formation of the Israel Defense Forces in 1948. With the IDF taking shape during the War of Independence, many ATS alumni joined the ranks of the new Israeli army in command roles. IDF policy has since gone through many evolutions and today, thousands of Israeli female soldiers serve in active duty combat roles.


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“Stranger Things” in Jerusalem: Goethe and Goebbels in the Ticho Family Garden

How Else Lasker-Schüler ventured into her own alternate universe in downtown Jerusalem…

“The Banished Poet”, by Else Lasker-Schüler, 1942. The National Library collections

We may imagine the Ticho family garden in its heyday: a serene spot in the midst of a slowly expanding city, pine trees providing a sanctuary of scent and occasional shade; Patients of the famous eye doctor quietly erring across the garden path into the clinic, their companions catching a glimpse of Anna Ticho’s drawings and aquarelles; British Government officials, emigre intellectuals and local artists strolling the grounds while contemplating the state of the Mandate and of the escalating War in Europe.

Or we could delve into Else Lasker-Schüler’s version of this garden. In her play “I and I”, completed in Jerusalem in 1943, the poet conjures up a dystopic alternative to the eye doctor’s “tropical garden”. This “garden of hell” could be described as an early slapstick version of the “Upside-Down” – the parallel universe featured in Netflix’s “Stranger Things”. The writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is able to move between both gardens, while Goebbels, Goering and other figures are confined to the diabolical garden. The rest of the horrific yet humorous cast consists of Faust, Mephisto, Max Reinhardt, the poet herself, a scarecrow, the editor of the Haaretz newspaper, and other historical and fictional characters from the German literary and theatre worlds or from the country’s political and military elite.

Else Lasker-Schüler, February 1919, the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

The play itself was written during Else Lasker-Schüler’s period of forced exile in Jerusalem, after the Swiss Authorities had refused her re-entry to the country in 1939. By 1941, when she began writing “I and I”, she was already seventy years old and a distinguished poet and painter, although now deemed a “degenerate artist” by the Nazi regime. In Jerusalem she would publish her most famous poetry volume, “My Blue Piano”, through the Tarshish Publishing House in 1943. During these years she continued to paint and worked on her third play, which was not staged during her lifetime.

A 1979 production of Lasker-Schüler’s play “I and I” (Ichundich) in Düsseldorf. Photo by Ulli Weiss, Foto Lore Bermbach, the National Library collections.

Her young admirer, the literary scholar and writer Werner Kraft, likewise a refugee from Germany since 1934, settled in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, where he wrote his major studies on Karl Kraus and Rudolf Borchardt. Mostly working from the desk at his home, he wrote a journal chronicling and reflecting upon the fate of German-Jewish refugees amidst the urban and rural communities of the yishuv. His entries on Else Lasker-Schüler from these days include a passage from July 24th, 1941, in which he fittingly depicts the courageous and outrageous imagination of Else Lasker-Schüler, which reaches its creative peak in the play “I and I”: “She speaks of Wolfgang Ephraim Goethe, divides herself into Faust and Mephisto, lets the latter claim to have saved the former from the ‘bourgeoisie’. She lets the devil capitulate in face of this world of Hitlers, has Goebbels copulate with Mrs. Martha Schwertlein, and evokes all the magic of the old, noble Germany. She breaks grammar rules, sometimes writes in verse or in a “platt” everyday language, generates associative rhymes like children or the sick, yet with an overall effect of shattering greatness” (originally quoted in Marbacher Magazin 71, 1975).

A 1979 production of Lasker-Schüler’s play “I and I” (Ichundich) in Düsseldorf. Photo by Ulli Weiss, Foto Lore Bermbach, the National Library collections.

Indeed, the play moves between past and present, Germany and Jerusalem, and even contains a play within a play. It portrays awe-inspiring literary magnets alongside the devils of their day. While Goebbels appears in the play as a diabolical pleb, the Nazi Minister had in fact impacted Else Lasker-Schüler’s personal fate, as she notes in several letters from the 1930s to friends and acquaintances. She names Goebbels as directly responsible for banning her works and inciting violence against her. These letters are scattered among the two main portions of her archive, kept at the National Library in Jerusalem and the German Literary Archive (DLA) in Marbach, Germany. Examples include letters she wrote to Emil Raas and Fritz Strich, which are kept at both archives.

In a long letter to Professor Strich from December 1934, for example, Lasker-Schüler bewails her last days in Berlin before fleeing to Zurich. She speaks particularly of Goebbels who vilified and haunted her on the radio, in newspapers and in pamphlets handed out on the street. She continues to painfully note how she was beaten in public, had stones thrown at her and was encouraged by her landlord to leave, since he no longer felt he could guarantee her safety. Upon arrival in Zurich she had no choice but to sleep six nights on a bench by the lake because none of her acquaintances were in town (letter kept at the DLA). The letter is sealed with a drawing of a female and male figure with a new moon hung above them and relates to brief descriptions of the poet’s recent trip to “The Land of the Hebrews” and the fantastical travel journal she was writing.

The fusion of fact and fiction in the above letter is repeated, albeit in heightened fashion, in “The Land of the Hebrews” and later in “I and I”. In the play, Lasker-Schüler also moves between real and imagined locations, all inhabited by historical and fictional figures from both the past and the present. The sixth act of  “I and I“ takes place in the “eye doctor’s garden” where the “princely poet” – Else Lasker-Schüler herself – converses with a well-read scarecrow who tells her of his past travels with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Hermann’s Dorothea. The poet herself claims not to read much because she disdains the sound of pages turning. Among the many characters evoked and transformed in the play, the scarecrow in the sixth act takes on a unique, transgressive position – he is on the one hand a well-read, cultured figure who in the past accompanied literary giants, yet is now kept at the end of a “tropical garden” with no food at his disposal. This we may read as a reflection of the poet’s state: on her material and intellectual isolation in exile, her banishment into this “tropical garden” of Eretz Israel where tea parties and salon conversations take place, but from where she nonetheless longs for her past life.

“The Banished Poet”, by Else Lasker-Schüler, 1942. The National Library collections

The poet’s state in the world is an ongoing topic in Else Lasker-Schüler’s writing long before her exile, yet the “banishment of the poet” becomes a real and thematic trope in her writings and painting after 1933. The National Library holds many paintings and drawings of Else Lasker-Schüler, one in fact named “The Banished Poet”. It was completed between 1935 and 1942. Lasker-Schüler added the year “1933”, probably for symbolic value, as well as lines from her first poetry volume “Styx” from 1902 from which she frequently quoted to her friend and muse Ernst Simon in Jerusalem during her years there. The painting is both thematically and aesthetically typical of Else Lasker-Schüler during these years, when she was already complaining about pains in her arm but also insisting that she “must paint”. The iconic left profile features flat pencil strokes, with depth and color added by the use of red, blue and yellow crayons.

The appearance is Oriental, of course: apart from the Egyptian profile, the wide clothes and pointy shoes also remind us of the famous 1912 photograph from Berlin in which the poet is dressed as an Oriental prince, a figure that slowly emerges during these years in prose volumes like The Nights of Tino from Baghdad (1907) or The Prince of Thebes (1914).

Else Lasker-Schüler as an Oriental prince, 1912

The melancholic and perhaps even resigned recline of the poet’s figure in the painting preempts a far more confusing and deliberately split personality in “I and I”. Here the poet does not fold in the face of evil that conquers the world, or refrain from confrontation with the Mephistos, Goebbels or Goerings. Her fate and dealings with the world continue the paradigmatic Faustian split in the attempt to confront the forces of good and bad in the world. In the eye doctor’s garden, she glimpses her very own past, as well as Germany’s, in the hollow, hungry figure of the scarecrow. The playwright thus dangles the audience intermittently between metaphysics and history, between poetry and politics, between the hellish garden of Nazi horror and the estate of a renowned Jerusalem eye doctor.


You can find Else Lasker-Schüler’s Archive at the National Library of Israel


This article is part of a series of guest articles written by participants in the archival project “Traces and Treasures of German-Jewish History in Israel”. The project, which was initiated in 2012, is a collaboration between The Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach and the Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow (Leipzig). It is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office.

This project promotes the arrangement and description of archives of German-Jewish scholars, writers, and artists and encourages archive-based research in the fields of Cultural Transfer, the History of Science, the Migration of Knowledge, and the History of Ideas. It offers junior scholars and students the opportunity to combine academic research with archival practice and provide an essential foundation for new cultural and scholarly discussions, by making previously inaccessible personal archives, literary estates, and historical collections available to international research.


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Football Under the Auspices of His Majesty

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

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

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

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

Common Ground

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

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

A New Middle East

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

Kicking Around during Wartime

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

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

A Red Card

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

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

Curated by Yoram E. Shamir and Rotem Kislev

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

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

Photo: from Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letter from Hugo Bergmann to Pesah Hevroni