Jews in Keffiyehs? – The Headdress That Became a Symbol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Adopting the Keffiyeh as a Means of Integration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Political Nuances of the Keffiyeh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Keffiyeh in the 21st Century

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

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

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

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


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


Israel, 1948: Vidal Sassoon in Combat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sometimes I wonder.”


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

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

An Egyptian Soldier’s Diary From the Yom Kippur War

Naji Ali, an Egyptian sergeant, documented a total of five days during the fateful Middle East conflict of 1973, leaving a chilling record of the war's brutality and the treatment of captured Israeli soldiers. The historic document recently surfaced in the collections of the National Library of Israel

The notebook the Egyptian soldier carried with him during the Yom Kippur War was used for a purpose other than the one his commanders had intended.

The booklet was originally meant to be used for logging the test results of Soviet “Sagger” missiles transferred to Egypt in preparation for the next military confrontation with Israel. One page of the notebook in question was indeed used for this original purpose, from which we learn that the missile examined by this particular soldier was found to be in good working order. But when the fighting broke out on October 6th, 1973, the notebook was repurposed into a personal diary, and on its cover the soldier inscribed the Arabic word for “Memoir”.

We don’t know the soldier’s full name. The diary only mentions the name “Naji Ali”. Other than that, the author offers very few personal details besides being a “health sergeant” of the Third Army’s Seventh Division. In other words, he likely served as a medic.

“For eternal memory from the battlefront in Suez. Health Sergeant Naji Ali, unit 741”

Shalufa, located on the west bank of the Suez Canal, north of the city of Suez and south of Ismailia, was known as a frequent and bloody point of conflict in the history of Israeli-Egyptian warfare, stretching back to the Sinai Campaign of 1956. The war broke out on a Saturday, at midday, Yom Kippur, 1973. On that first day of war, Naji Ali crossed the Suez Canal and was among the Egyptian forces that moved into the Sinai Peninsula via Shalufa. The documentation from this fateful day, in which Naji Ali describes his first encounter with IDF soldiers and the transfer of equipment from the Shalufa camp to the east bank of the canal is perhaps the most difficult section of the text. Apparently, the events described happened at the Lituf military outpost, an Israeli position on the eastern bank of the canal.

The surprise attack was a success and the Egyptian army not only took the frontline outpost, but also captured Israeli prisoners of war. The callous reporting of the cruel treatment of the captives is shocking to read:

October 6th, 1973, Saturday at 2:00 PM, Shalufa military camp:

We flew in Egyptian planes over Sinai and after destroying the strong positions, we drove amphibious vehicles, landing on positions on the coast and started crossing with our vehicles. The crossing was quiet and without any particular issues. A while later, a civilian position next to us was attacked. The enemy flag was lowered. We captured an Israeli soldier and he surrendered and raised his hands. We did not shoot him because it was pointless. We beat him instead with our boots until he was dead. Then we moved all the equipment like ammunition, tanks, food and drink to our forces that had already crossed.

This is the most chilling passage in this short diary, and it appears right at the beginning. The documentation shows that at this stage the Egyptians did not try to transfer the prisoners to detention, but intended to get rid of them quickly and without wasting their ammunition.

Once the attacking forces were stationed in the area, the author listed the supplies delivered to them: food, ammunition, and artillery. The Egyptian wounded were treated by a colleague named Hassan.

The chilling account of the first day of the war]


Although Naji Ali called his diary a “memoir,” his tone on the second day of the war was propagandist. Reading his words, one can imagine listening to a Radio Cairo broadcast of the war:

The fighting continues for the second day.

The forces are constantly advancing with incredible victories, shooting down some of the enemy planes and tanks.

Except for one position that retaliated strongly and aggressively and caused a limited number of casualties, but we took care of them quickly.

The outpost attacked vigorously and despite our forces’ attempts to stop it, it continued to attack but failed to fend off our offensive. That day we managed to lower the enemy flag and hoisted our Egyptian flag on the soil of Sinai on the eastern bank of the canal. Praise God.

Documentation of the third day of the war once again demonstrates the intensity of the Egyptian soldiers’ hatred of the Israeli enemy. This time, captured IDF soldiers narrowly escape death:

8/10/1973 – Monday

We managed to cross the canal again; we moved some of the equipment and ammunition.

With God’s help, we managed to permanently silence position 149 [the same outpost that had resisted aggressively the day before, apparently a reference to the Lituf outpost].

So the whole area is more or less calm except for the aerial shelling.

When we silenced it [position 149, apparently] our forces captured the area around the position.

We were given a signal to go to the shore and bring three enemy prisoners. We beat them, aggressively. The soldiers surrounded them and wanted to drink their blood. But the leaders [the officers] prevented this in order to question them and extract information.

The signature of an officer with the rank of major (not Naji Ali) appears next to the results of the test of the Russian missile at the end of the diary


The fourth and fifth days of the war are documented in the Egyptian soldier’s diary without any particular incident of note. Once the “strong position” was subdued, Naji Ali’s unit concentrated on preparing the equipment and supplies for further combat and military advances into the interior of the Sinai Peninsula. The equipment included a bottle of Coca-Cola collected from the occupied Israeli outpost:

9/10/1973 – Tuesday [day four of the war]

In the morning at 6:00 we ate breakfast [written here: “over four Israeli planes” – likely referring to planes that crashed, C.M.] and then I moved to the eastern bank. I went to the strong position and brought back a fork, a Coca-Cola bottle, and two other items [unclear]. And the day ended peacefully.

The diary concludes with documentation of the fifth day of the war. This was Wednesday, October 10, 1973. Naji Ali noted that he showered for the first time in ten days. He ended his diary thus:

I loaded ammunition and weapons in the afternoon. I went back and was amazed to discover five more cars loaded with ammunition. I passed them safely. The day is over.

Documentation of day five, which concludes the diary


Due to the diary’s brevity, we were able to follow the entire course of documentation up until the abrupt ending on the fifth day of the war. The Yom Kippur War would last for two more weeks, with the momentum swinging in Israel’s favor on October 15th, when the IDF managed to cross the Suez Canal and establish a bridgehead on the western bank.

What does the diary’s sudden end say about the fate its author, Naji Ali? Did he lose his diary during the fighting? Was he killed in combat? We simply do not know.

The Yemenite Jews Who Arrived in the Holy Land in 1881

Shortly before what is known as "The First Aliyah”, a group of Jews from Yemen arrived in the Land of Israel. Several dozen Yemenite families had embarked on a long and arduous journey to settle in Jerusalem. Once there, they encountered hostility, arrogance, and deprivation on the part of their fellow Jews. Where did they turn and who came to their aid?


Houses in the village of Shiloah, the Haim Berger Collection, from the Bitmuna Collection, the National Library of Israel

When did “The First Aliyah” – the first major wave of Zionist immigration to the Land of Israel – begin? If you answer by recounting the pogroms in Russia in 1881 and the pioneers of the Bilu movement, you may be mistaken. There were various reasons that led historians to label this wave of immigrants from Europe as “The First Aliyah”, when in fact Jews had been immigrating to the region in a steady trickle before then, from different parts of the globe. Several months before the Eastern European Jews landed in the port of Jaffa to expand and revitalize the local Jewish community, another group of Jews had arrived, but to much less historical fanfare. These were Yemenite Jews, most of them from the city of Sana’a, who had set out on an arduous journey to the Land of Israel shortly after the festival of Shavuot, in May 1881.

What led them to take this step? The reasons are not entirely clear, but apparently, a contributing factor was the Ottoman governor of Yemen’s issuing of an immigration permit. The first few arrived in August 1881. In the following months, and throughout 1882, more immigrants arrived from Yemen, about 200 people in all. In comparison, the Bilu pioneers that landed a few months later numbered only a few dozen. The Hebrew name given to this wave of Yemenite immigrants, E’eleh BeTamar, means, “I will climb up into the palm tree”. It is taken from a verse in the Song of Songs (7:9), and also derives from an anagram of the Hebrew year 5642 – תרמ”ב (corresponding to 1881-1882 and pronounced tarmab in Hebrew).

Two Yemenite immigrants, a man and a child, in the village of Shiloah. Courtesy of the estate of Zeev Aleksandrowicz, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, at the National Library of Israel

The Jewish community in the Land of Israel at the time, the Yishuv, consisted of both new arrivals and long-time residents who had been around for generations. Immigrant newcomers had just established the farming community of Petah Tikva, another at Rosh Pina had recently been abandoned, to be re-established the following year, and studies were underway in the Jewish agricultural school at Mikveh Israel.  Yet the majority of Jews in the Land of Israel resided in the four holy cities: Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias and Safed. These people were known collectively as the “Old Yishuv.”

The new immigrants from Yemen had their sights set on only one place – Zion, Jerusalem. Their journey had been long and difficult, with few friendly and welcoming faces along the way. They had to pass through rough terrain, traveling through Egypt and India, until they finally reached the Holy Land. Even those who had left Yemen with means arrived in the Land of Israel with their pockets empty.

Two Yemenite immigrants in the village of Shiloah. Courtesy of the estate of Zeev Aleksandrowicz, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, at the National Library of Israel

Once in the Land of Israel, they made their way to Jerusalem. But when they reached the city, these Jews from a distant land, dressed in their unique garb, or what was left of it, were met with hostility. The Yemenite Jews not only looked very different from the Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews already living there, they followed different traditions, which made it difficult for them to integrate into the Jewish population. What’s more, some of the locals even called into question the new immigrants’ Judaism. This was somewhat ironic, considering Jews were living in Yemen well before Europe’s Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities even coalesced into existence.

The suspicion and doubt also had practical implications. The Old Yishuv in Jerusalem was organized according to community networks, called kollels, which facilitated financial support for the city’s Jewish residents. The Yemenite Jews’ incompatibility with the familiar ethnic patterns caused the community’s administrators to refuse to accept them into the existing kollels and, as a result, they did not receive their share of the charity funds that supported the city’s Jews during this period. In practical terms, this also meant that the recent Jewish arrivals from Yemen were forbidden from settling within the walls of the Old City.

Destitute and looked upon as foreigners, the Yemenite Jewish immigrants had no choice but to seek housing elsewhere. Still, they did not relinquish their dream of settling in Jerusalem. As a first step, they built simple huts outside the Old City’s walls and slept outdoors, under the open sky. Some Yemenite immigrants even slept in caves, barns, and other makeshift shelters in the vicinity of the walled city.

Homes in the village of Shiloah in late the 19th century. Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Degani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel
The village of Shiloah in the late 19th century. Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Degani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The immigrants did not wait for handouts or for someone else to rescue them. The young people among them immediately went to look for work among the city’s Arab contractors. They did not shy away from manual labor such as mixing mortar, portering, carrying heavy stones for building, or road paving. The older immigrants engaged in handicrafts such as carpentry or pottery repair. However, these jobs were not enough to support the entire community, and the issue of housing was still in need of a solution.

The Yemenite immigrants also continued in their attempts to join one of the kollels in the city in order to receive the distribution money to which they were entitled. Surprisingly, there were periods when the group was part of the Ashkenazi kollel. Eventually, however, they joined the Sephardi kollel, whose members spoke Hebrew and Arabic using a pronunciation that made it easier for the Yemenite Jews to communicate, as opposed to the Ashkenazi Jews whose pronunciation was significantly different. Years later, the Yemenite Jews established their own independent community, in part because of the condescending attitudes of their fellow Jews, who did not allocate them a fair share of the charity funds arriving from abroad.

Yemenite boys playing in the streets of the village of Shiloah. Courtesy of the estate of Zeev Aleksandrowicz, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, at the National Library of Israel

Refused housing inside the city proper, the Yemenite Jews hoped to settle down as nearby as possible. Their salvation came from an unexpected source. Israel Dov Frumkin, the editor of the Havatzelet newspaper, ardently campaigned on behalf of the Yemenite immigrants. He wrote about their dismal situation in his paper, and contacted the philanthropist Boaz Ben Yonatan Mizrahi, who eventually donated half of the land he owned on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, near the Kidron River, to the immigrants from Yemen. The new tenants called it the village of Shiloah, after the famous Pool of Shiloah (or Siloam) fed by the Gihon Spring.

The proximity to the Old City and the Temple Mount—only a quarter of an hour’s walk—as well as the nearby water sources and open farmland contributed to the Yemenite Jews’ decision to settle there. But they were not alone. The village of Silwan, most of whose residents are Arab, exists to this day. Locals testified that neighborly relations were very good to begin with, and the Jewish and Arab residents would visit and take part in each other’s festivities. According to these testimonies, the Arabs even learned to sing Yemenite wedding songs.

A Yemenite immigrant boy with a lamb in the village of Shiloah. Courtesy of the estate of Zeev Aleksandrowicz, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The settlement grew slowly, reaching 150 families at its peak. The expansion stopped when the intensifying Jewish-Arab conflict in other parts of the country reached the village. During the Arab riots of 1929, traveling the roads to Shiloah became dangerous for the village’s Jewish residents, with several violent incidents taking place in the area. With tensions mounting, the village Mukhtar, Hajj Muhammad Ruslan, interceded on behalf of the Jewish residents, confronting the violent instigators. In order not to escalate the situation, the Jewish residents even refused the Haganah’s offer to send fighters to protect them. Ultimately, the Mukhtar could not fend off the rioters. The Jews of Shiloah left their belongings with their Arab neighbors and moved temporarily into the Old City, where they lived like refugees. After calm was restored, the Jews returned to the village, and the story of the Mukhtar coming to their aid became etched in their memory.

Nevertheless, neighborly relations could not survive the intensifying conflict. The Great Arab Revolt of 1936–1939 finally ended the Jewish settlement in the village of Shiloah. The Arab boycott of Jewish products and the closure of the Dung Gate by the authorities cut the village off from the city – a devastating economic blow. There was also increasing harassment by Arab gangs who came from Hebron and Nablus, in addition to looting and even cases of murder. Slowly, more and more families left until in August 1938, exactly 57 years after the first immigrants from Sana’a, Yemen, arrived in Jerusalem, the last of Shiloah’s Jewish residents was evacuated.

This article includes photos from the collection of photographer Zeev Aleksandrowicz. You can find many more photos taken by Aleksandrowicz in Shiloah, along with other photos from the area on the National Library Israel website, here.

Thanks to Dr. Rachel Yedid, director of the “E’eleh BeTamar” association for their help in preparing this article.