Jerusalem During the War of Independence—Now in Color!
The blockade of Jerusalem began during the first few days of the War of Independence, spreading from the Old City's Jewish Quarter to the rest of Jerusalem. These color photos from 1948 show us what life was like in the city that was cut off from the rest of the country…
Going down to fetch water from the reservoirs during the blockade of Jerusalem. Photo: Moshe Marlin Levin, from the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel
It was the early days of Israel’s War of Independence, and Jerusalem was under blockade. The city had been placed under siege many times before. First came the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, followed by the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Muslims, the Crusaders, the Ottomans, and that’s not even a complete list . Yet, this time, things were a bit different. For example, Jerusalem by this time had finally grown beyond the walls of the Old City. Another difference was the existence of the camera.
At first, it was just the Old City’s Jewish Quarter that was cut off from the rest of the city, but very soon, the Arab forces realized that all of Jewish Jerusalem was entirely dependent on the road to Tel Aviv and the coastal plain remaining open – this was the only route for bringing in critical food and supplies. In fact, a November 30th, 1947 attack on a bus traveling from Netanya to Jerusalem is often seen as the opening shot that set off the War of Independence. Later, the situation grew more severe when Jordan’s British-trained Arab Legion force took command of the campaign, following Israel’s declaration of statehood in May 1948. In late May, following a siege of several months, the Jewish Quarter in the Old City finally surrendered to the Jordanian forces, while the blockade of the road leading to Jerusalem remained in place. The convoys that struggled to reach the city (and also the nearby Etzion Bloc), the Israeli military operations which aimed to lift the blockade, the Battle of the Castel and the construction of the alternative “Burma Road” route to the coast—all these remain symbols of the War of Independence to this day.
As fate would have it, a man by the name of Moshe (Marlin) Levin was living in the city during the blockade period of 1947/48. Levin, born and raised in the United States, arrived in Mandatory Palestine with his wife in 1947. He quickly got a job as an assistant editor at the Palestine Post (which eventually became the Jerusalem Post), and later became the newspaper’s Jerusalem correspondent. During the War of Independence, he covered the war for the United Press news agency. Later, he founded and managed the offices of Time-Life Magazine in Israel, and worked there until he retired in the 1990s.
While the battles raged for control of the city and its access roads, Jerusalem’s Jewish residents—numbering nearly one hundred thousand at the time—got on with their daily lives. At least they attempted to keep up some semblance of routine. After all, they had to continue making a living. Levin’s camera gives us an extraordinary glimpse into those moments—and in color!
Most of Levin’s photos from the siege are personal ones: in them, you can see his wife Batya (Betty), and their friends Gershon and Ethel Agron, going about their daily activities during the war. Gershon Agron was the editor-in-chief of the Palestine Post where Levin worked, and later the mayor of Jerusalem. Even someone like Agron had to find ways to make ends meet during the blockade.
For example, in one of the photos, Betty Levin is seen walking with the couple’s housekeeper to fetch water in jugs and buckets—the regular water supply was cut off and people had to ration clean water. Another picture shows the three women carrying home a large water tank, one of many photos in the collection which feature Jerusalem’s residents carrying water in jugs. Water tanks were also installed on roofs in order to collect and store rainwater.
During the blockade, water shortages were a serious problem, and one picture shows Betty Levin exchanging half a loaf of bread with a monk in return for water. Food was also scarce, and in another photo, Levin holds up a bag of food rations she received. And what were the cooking conditions like during this time? Moshe Levin photographed his wife preparing food on an improvised stove in their backyard.
The food allotment was not always enough: Moshe Levin also documented people scavenging for food in trashcans, or a beggar sitting on a street corner asking for help from passers-by.
And in the midst of all this, daily life continued. Moshe Levin also documented the mundane, whether it was during a period of ceasefire or at other times. He photographed children playing in the street, his wife walking down Jaffa Street, and even nuns walking with parasols on King George Street. Despite everything, life went on.
All the photos in the article are from the archive of Moshe (Marlin) Levin, part of the Meitar Collection at the National Library of Israel. Moshe Levin’s archive has recently been cataloged, and many more photos are available for viewing on the National Library of Israel website.
It was a dark night. The force descended the slope and approached their objective. They had already caught a glimpse of the operation’s target, the A’Ziv (Achziv) Bridge —but just as they spotted it, they too were detected and immediately fired upon. An incoming bullet apparently set off the explosives they were carrying to blow up the target. The result was dire: 14 Palmach fighters were killed.
About forty people, including a female soldier named Zahara Levitov, took part in the failed strike. It was just one of eleven similar actions carried out on what became known as the “Night of the Bridges”, an operation by the Haganah’s elite Palmach force which targeted strategic bridges and transportation routes used by the British Mandate authorities. Zahara sustained an eye injury in the explosion, but she managed to reach the nearby Kibbutz Matzuva. There, disguised as one of the children, she hid from the British forces in the children’s dormitory. The caregiver at the scene told the police they could not see her because she had a dangerous illness. The ruse worked, and although her injury was substantial, the British did not arrest her.
Zahara was not even 19 years old when she took part in the daring “Night of the Bridges” operation. She was born in Tel Aviv in 1927, the youngest of three siblings. She spent her early childhood in Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim, before returning with her family to Tel Aviv at the age of nine. While studying at the New High School in Tel Aviv, Zahara joined the Haganah and began her underground activities.
In the second year of Zahara’s service in the Palmach, she became a squad commander, teaching trainees at Ein Harod. There she also fell in love with Shmuel (Shmulik) Kaufman. Their romance became the basis of Devorah Omer’s best-selling book Until Death Do Us Part (Leʹehov Ad Mavet). The book is based, among other things, on the many letters they wrote to each other, which showed the young couple’s flair for writing. Shmulik, who was considered gifted, had planned to travel to the United States with Zahara in 1947. He was to study economics and she would study medicine.
Shmulik’s Palmach commanders tried to persuade him to stay in Israel due to the tense security situation, but in the end, after meeting with Yigal Alon, the head of the Palmach, Shmulik obtained his release permit. He asked Zahara to leave for Jerusalem right away, but she insisted they stay at the kibbutz for a few more days and organize a farewell party. Two days later, Shmulik was asked to help in grenade training at a neighboring kibbutz. A defective grenade exploded and Shmulik, not yet twenty, was killed, along with two other trainees.
After several months, the broken-hearted Zahara traveled to the United States to begin medical school. She excelled in her studies and received a letter of recommendation that allowed her to transfer to Columbia University in New York. All the while, she continued writing letters to her beloved Shmulik, who was no longer among the living.
The news from Israel, and in particular the news about the fall of the Convoy of 35 during the War of Independence, many of whose members were friends and acquaintances, shocked Zahara. She left her studies and signed up for a pilot’s course that was being organized in California—she was one of only two women in the course. She completed it with distinction and returned to Israel as a licensed pilot. Her squadron was stationed at Tel Aviv’s Sde Dov airfield and she was soon appointed deputy commander. She embarked on long solo flights to keep in touch with isolated settlements whose only access was by air. She even set out on her first leave vacation by plane. Zahara flew to Jerusalem to meet with Shmulik’s father in order to prepare a memorial book about her beloved. She was scheduled to fly back to Tel Aviv on August 3rd, 1948, with pilot Emanuel Rothstein, but a malfunction caused the plane to crash in Jerusalem’s Valley of the Cross, killing both pilots. Zahara was just twenty years old.
At the time, the sisters Ruth and Reuma Schwartz (who would go on to marry Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman, respectively) were at their parents’ house in the Rehavia neighborhood, situated on the slopes of the valley. Ruth saw the plane crash from the kitchen window and she hurried with Reuma to the scene. In an interview with the newspaper Israel Hayom, she told about what she saw: “We arrived at the site and what I saw I will never forget. It was terrible. The two bodies were intact and lying next to the broken plane. Zahara was so beautiful. I do not remember him, but she—her black hair fell around her face. She had on a red shirt and a green skirt and she was lying there—whole, but still. What could we do? We opened the back doors of the car and loaded the bodies into the car with the feet sticking out and made our way up to the road. An ambulance took them from there.”
The tragic story of the young Zahara and Shmulik has been immortalized in a number of Hebrew books and plays. In the early years of the State of Israel, her story was a source of inspiration, and many girls were named after her. Zahara’s mother used to send a sweater to mothers who had named their daughter Zahara after her own. Over the years, the Israeli Air Force has also contributed to her commemoration as an iconic figure in Israeli history. Today, after many years of women not being able to serve as Air Force pilots in Israel, this possibility is now open to them once again.
Who Opposed Eichmann’s Execution?
The trial of Adolf Eichmann had a profound effect on Holocaust discourse in the young State of Israel. During the trial, a heated debate raged within Israeli society over the appropriate punishment for the senior SS officer…
What is the punishment for absolute evil? What is the proper response to war crimes? Is it necessary to avenge inconceivable murders or does criminal punishment serve a different purpose? These are some of the enduring questions of jurisprudence, but exactly 60 years ago, they were being debated in Israel. The country’s political leaders and public intellectuals, along with leading figures from across the Jewish world, were all preoccupied with one question: what is the appropriate punishment for the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, one of the key figures in the effort to exterminate the Jews of Europe.
A concise summary of previous events: In May 1960, the Mossad abducted Eichmann from his home in Buenos Aires and brought him to Israel to stand trial. The trial, which began in April 1961, was a milestone in the history of Holocaust remembrance and consciousness in Israel, and it is considered to have significantly influenced the treatment of Holocaust survivors living in the country. Prosecutor Gideon Hausner’s opening speech, the dramatic testimonies of personalities like writer Yehiel De-Nur (Ka-Tzetnik) and Zivia Lubetkin, the documents and public discourse the trial evoked, left lasting impressions. The videotaped trial was covered by many international journalists, among them Hannah Arendt, as well as Israeli poets Nathan Alterman and Haim Gouri.
At the end of the year, the trial concluded with Eichmann being sentenced to death. His appeal was denied, as was his request for a presidential pardon. The execution was finally carried out at two minutes before midnight on May 31st, 1962. Throughout this period between the sentencing and the execution, a heated public debate raged on the morality of the punishment. While there was widespread support for the death penalty for the senior SS figure, there were also many prominent figures who opposed it. An examination of materials preserved in the National Library of Israel’s Archives Department as well as the Historical Jewish Press collection offers us a view of these dissenting opinions.
Eichmann’s case attracted worldwide attention, and Jews living in the Diaspora expressed their views on the issue. A review of the newspapers reveals that world Jewry—and world citizenry in general—also saw fit to make their voices heard, and some certainly opposed the death penalty, even for a man who had committed crimes of the magnitude of Eichmann’s. A letter from New York, preserved in the archive of Samuel Hugo Bergmann, then director of the National Library of Israel, is one example of several expressions of protest from around the world. The sender addressed the letter to “all true Jews in the United States, Britain, the State of Israel, and people of good will everywhere.” On a blue sheet of paper, at the bottom of which is typed three times, the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” the writer claims that the death penalty is an act of vengeance and does not accord with Judaism. He concludes by asking his readers to work to change the decision.
One of the most famous examples of world Jewry’s resistance is that of Nelly Sachs, who was herself a Holocaust survivor, and later a Nobel Prize-winning author (1966). Sachs sent then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion a letter in which she asked for the death sentence to be changed to another punishment. She writes in the letter, which is preserved in the State Archives, “Israel is blessed with the words of Abraham: ‘Perhaps ten righteous people will be found there [in Sodom]?’ And I myself know such righteous people, who risked their lives and often even paid the price just to save [others]. These righteous people also worked in the time of Hitler, and the undersigned is one of their survivors. Please do not allow a death sentence for Eichmann. The righteous also worked in Germany, and if only for them there should be a measure of grace.” She ended her letter with a poem she wrote, which begins with the words:
So lonely is Man
where melancholy shows in dawn’s face.
The east turns red with the rooster’s cry
At the same time, the most pronounced opposition to Eichmann’s death penalty came from a group of intellectuals in Israel. Among the prominent members were the philosopher Prof. Martin Buber, the scholar of Kabbalah Gershom Scholem, and members of the Department of Philosophy at the Hebrew University, Samuel Hugo Bergmann mentioned above, and Nathan Rotenstreich, among others. Even the poet Leah Goldberg was among those involved. Their opposition stemmed mainly from moral grounds and a fundamental opposition to the death penalty. They did not seek to protect Eichmann or diminish the severity of his actions. They sought, they said, to prevent the Jewish people from committing what appeared to them to be a moral injustice. Beyond that, some feared that the execution would provide a basis for the assertion that this would atone for the Nazis’ sins and silence claims of the Jewish people against its murderers and executioners.
During the hearing of Eichmann’s appeal in 1962, this group urged the president to commute his sentence to life imprisonment. In Martin Buber’s archives in the National Library, we found a draft of a letter—without the names of the signatories. “We do not ask for his soul,” it says, “because we know that there is no man who deserves less mercy than he. . . . We do not want this hateful person to turn us into the hangman. . . Antisemites around the world wish for us to fall into this trap. For carrying out the death penalty will enable them to claim that the Jewish people have been paid with blood for the blood that was shed [by the Nazis].”
When word spread about the petition’s existence, some supporters of the death sentence protested and others wanted to know why the professors were asking to spare Eichmann’s life. In the archives of Samuel Hugo Bergmann, we also found a letter written by three female students (apparently), as well as the draft of Bergmann’s reply. The students wrote to the professor in July 1961 asking for clarification, “We heard a rumor about a petition regarding the pardon of Adolf Eichmann of which you are among the initiators and signatories . . . We would be grateful if you would also explain to us the reasons that motivated you to take such a step.”
Bergmann explained in his reply that he was opposed to the death penalty in principle, and in particular to the idea that those responsible for the sentencing need not be involved in the execution. He stressed that in his opinion only He who gives life may take it. Bergmann also detailed other issues in his letter: he believed that even though there was no statute of limitations on genocide, the many years that had passed since the acts necessitated further consideration. He argued that the death penalty was a lighter punishment than life imprisonment in Israel (adding that there was no adequate punishment for Eichmann’s actions). Bergmann’s first concern, he stated, was for the soul of the Jewish people, and he explained his thinking that Israel must spread love throughout the world, whereas hanging Eichmann would only serve to perpetuate the cycle of hatred.
Another intellectual who dealt with the subject was the scholar of Kabbalah Gershom Scholem. In his archive, we found a draft of an article published in the journal Amot around 1962, which dealt with the issue of execution. According to the draft, Scholem believed that there was no effective punishment for Eichmann’s actions under any circumstances, and that his hanging might seem an unsuitable “atonement.” Scholem wrote: “There is no question whatsoever that Eichmann deserves the death penalty. I have no doubt about it, I do not seek his acquittal, nor do I discuss the arguments concerning his actions and his responsibility for them. All this belongs to the legal aspects of this trial. My assumption is that in this respect nothing can be argued in his defense, he deserves to die a thousand deaths a day and is unworthy of mercy . . . there is no appropriate punishment in the laws of humane society for Eichmann’s crimes . . . whether he is to be hanged or not, there is no conceivable correlation between his crime and his punishment. Furthermore, there is nothing in his execution that can serve for “the sake of watch and learn”, [as an example] to the antisemites and others who seek to destroy our people . . . carrying out Eichmann’s death sentence is a mistaken ending [emphasis in the original – A.N.]. It distorts the historical meaning of the trial by creating the illusion as if something of this event can be settled by hanging a man or the obliteration of one person. This illusion is extremely dangerous, because it may give rise to the feeling that something has been done to ‘atone’ for something for which there is no atonement.”
As we know, the arguments against Eichmann’s hanging were not accepted. President Yitzhak Ben Zvi rejected the request for clemency. Eichmann’s sentence was not commuted and the execution was carried out. Eichmann’s ashes were scattered in the Mediterranean Sea. This year marks exactly 60 years since the beginning of the trial that drastically changed public perception and discourse concerning the Holocaust in Israel.
Israel’s First Independence Day and “The Parade That Didn’t March”
What Israel's Independence Day looked like before there was an Independence Day
Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel
How is a holiday created out of thin air? Well, one method is legislation.
Israel’s “Independence Day Law” from 1949 set the date for Independence Day as the 5th of the Hebrew month of Iyar, while also allowing for the holiday to be brought forward or delayed in the event that the 5th falls on a Sabbath. Additionally, the law authorizes the Prime Minister to “determine the symbols of Independence Day” and even “to instruct regarding the waving of flags and celebrations”.
The question of how Israeli Independence Day came to be celebrated in the way that we are familiar with today is a complex one, and we may very well deal with that in the future, but for now, we would like to momentarily return to the 5th of Iyar, in the Hebrew year 5709 (1949), only some three weeks after the above law was passed.
Confusion was the order of the day.
To be completely honest, that 5th of Iyar was not exactly the only “First Independence Day” to be celebrated in Israel. It was preceded by “State Day”, held on the 20th of Tammuz (July 27th, 1948) – just a few weeks after the actual declaration of Israel’s independence. This date was chosen as it was the anniversary of Theodor Herzl’s death, with the state authorities seeking to link between Herzl’s vision and the new State of Israel which had just been established. The main event on “State Day” was the first ever military parade conducted by the young IDF.
But back to the other “First Independence Day” – the 5th of Iyar, 5709, which fell on May 4th, 1949. How were people supposed to celebrate Independence Day anyways? No one knew exactly, but a few things could be taken for granted, including folk dancing in the streets (which reminded people of the jubilant spontaneous celebrations after the UN Partition Plan vote in late November, 1947). Plans were made for celebrations in towns and cities across the country, including light displays, flag-waving, concerts by municipal orchestras, torchlight parades and various rallies and marches.
On the eve of the holiday, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion held a special Independence Day speech, published the next day in the papers. Many of the events included a memorial prayer for fallen soldiers, as Israel did not yet have an official day dedicated to remembering them. Ben-Gurion also hosted dignitaries from abroad at a special Independence Day reception held at his office in IDF Headquarters in Tel Aviv.
But there was little doubt about the planned highlight of the day – another military parade by “our victorious army of liberation”, the Israel Defense Forces – what else? Not only one but two parades were planned, in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The Jerusalem parade went ahead without major incident, but the big story of Israel’s first Independence Day was the controversial Tel Aviv parade.
“The Parade That Didn’t March”, screamed the Hebrew headline in Maariv the next morning. The name stuck and it is remembered to this day. At first, everything seemed fine. Representatives from the IDF’s various corps marched down the city’s streets: The navy, the medical corps and veterans of the pre-state Haganah organization all displayed their arms. Jewish and Druze soldiers proudly marched alongside each other. Military jeeps and artillery guns were received with cheers by onlookers while a handful of military aircraft flew overhead – all that the Israeli Air Force had at the time. And of course it wouldn’t be a parade without a marching band!
But by 4 o’clock, when the marchers were due to arrive at the main stage erected on Dizengoff Street to salute the Israeli leadership, the rumors had already begun to spread – the parade had been cancelled! “People stood and cried. Like children,” Wrote Maariv editor Dr. Ezriel Carlebach. The parade could simply not make its way to the main stage on Dizengoff Street because of mass overcrowding at the corner of Allenby and Ben-Yehuda.
Carlebach described the scene: “When they [the crowd] were told for the third time that it [the parade] would not be coming because it could not clear a path from Mugrabi Square to Idelson Street, a stretch of some two hundred meters – they simply did not believe it. It could not be true. OUR army? The army that had reached all the way to Eilat, that could easily have entered Damascus, was now incapable of making it to Ben-Yehuda Street? Ridiculous, idiotic.”
The humongous crowds that showed up to watch the parade had spilled over onto the streets and blocked the path of the marchers. All of the efforts by the police to open the roads ended in miserable failure. Eventually, the organizers were left with little choice but to call off the parade before the crowds slowly dispersed in bitter disappointment. A senior IDF officer present at the scene was quoted in the Herut newspaper, saying “The Israel Defense Forces managed to conquer everything except the streets of Tel Aviv”.
In retrospect, it seems that organizational failures led to the debacle. The authorities apparently did not foresee the sheer quantities that showed up to watch the spectacle. Reports cited crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands – in a country with a population of some 600,000 people. In addition, roads were only blocked off shortly before the event, further contributing to the chaos. The next day, the papers were already reporting that a commission of inquiry would be investigating the reasons for the fiasco.
Following the embarrassment surrounding the Tel Aviv parade, it was decided to hold yet another “State Day” celebration on July 17th, 1949. Another parade was organized, this one on a smaller, more modest scale, in order to make amends and finally complete the unfinished march. This was the last time that Israel’s independence was celebrated on the day of Herzl’s death, and the 5th of Iyar later became solidified as the official Independence Day of the State of Israel. The practice of marking Israel’s Memorial Day on the day before Independence Day began in 1951. This was also the first year of the traditional Independence Day torch lighting ceremony on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem. The Israel Prize ceremony was first held on Independence Day, 1953, and the first International Bible Contest was held on the State of Israel’s tenth birthday in 1958.
Slowly but surely, year after year, Israel’s Independence Day has developed into the national celebration we know today.
All of the photographs displayed here are taken from the Beno Rothenberg Archive, which is part of the Meitar Collection at the National Library of Israel. Rothenberg documented many aspects of Israeli society, culture and life during the first few decades of the state. You can see more examples of his photography here, here and here.