Lawrence of Arabia or Lawrence of Zion?

The story of the archaeologist turned British intelligence officer: Is it possible that this iconic pro-Arab figure eventually became a Zionist? And what organization was likely responsible for his change of heart?

"Lawrence of Arabia", portrayed by Peter O'Toole in the 1963 film

It was around the time of the First World War. The waning Ottoman Empire still ruled over the Land of Israel, but the British were already waiting in the wings in Egypt. In this article, we will discuss the British officer and archaeologist whose name is the stuff of legend and mystery. The life of this important historical figure was documented in an Oscar-winning film, his image was immortalized on the cover of a Beatles album and even Winston Churchill hailed his autobiography as ranking “with the greatest books ever written in the English language”.

You must have guessed by now who it is.

Here in Israel, this individual’s deeds are less familiar, probably because he is generally considered a pro-Arab figure. But, as we have been taught, one must always choose a side—good or bad, them or us. Because whosever supports Arab independence cannot possibly support Jewish nationalism simultaneously. Right?

I am of course referring to none other than Thomas Edward Lawrence, who most of us know as “Lawrence of Arabia”, leader of the Arab Revolt, hero of the classic Hollywood film, the man whose face appeared on the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album and who began his autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom with a cryptic poem dedicated to someone with the initials S.A.

Movie poster for Lawrence of Arabia, 1963


In addition to the above, Lawrence was also an archaeologist. In 1911, while participating in archaeological excavations in northern Syria, the 23-year-old Lawrence even wrote a diary documenting his travels in the area, which was later published. He would refuse a knighthood from the King of England because he felt betrayed by the British government. His premature death at age 46 in a mysterious motorcycle accident practically guaranteed his stardom and cemented his legacy to this day.

So who was Lawrence of Arabia?

T.E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia”


Let’s start from the beginning, Thomas Edward Lawrence was born in 1888 in Wales. His father, Sir Thomas Chapman, was a minor nobleman, and his mother, Sarah Junner, was the family governess. Chapman left his wife and family for Junner, and together they wandered from place to place. These events taught Lawrence the importance of keeping secrets from an early age. He had to keep the story of his birth under wraps in order to avoid the shame and social repercussions of being born out of wedlock. Later, this illegitimate son managed to break the glass ceiling of the British class system and enter Buckingham Palace through the front door.

Lawrence graduated with honors from Oxford where he majored in history. He arrived in the Middle East for the first time in 1910 to join the British Museum’s archaeological excavations at Carchemish. There he met the archaeologists Leonard Woolley (whom we will return to later) and David Hogarth, who was impressed with the young man. During Lawrence’s stay in the region, he learned the Arabic language as well as Arab customs and culture. These skills came in handy later and helped him acquire the legendary name by which he is known in popular culture.

With the outbreak of World War I, Lawrence was drafted into the British Army. Given the rank of major, he began working as an intelligence officer. In 1916, he was attached to the Arab Bureau in Cairo, where he again crossed paths with David Hogarth. Hogarth’s predecessor as head of the bureau was Mark Sykes – the very same Mark Sykes responsible for the Sykes-Picot agreement that would divide the territories of the former Ottoman Empire between Great Britain and France.

At the time, the British had been working to mobilize Arab support for the war effort. Toward that end, they hoped to recruit the Arab Hashemite faction led by Hussein Bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, to their side. Eventually, an understanding was reached with the Hashemites who, for their help, were promised control over the entire area south of Turkey—a vast Arab kingdom that would stretch from the Arabian Peninsula to the region of Syria (including the Land of Israel).

Lawrence had played a key role in formulating this agreement with the Hashemites. But he had been kept in the dark about the Sykes-Picot agreement, and felt betrayed when he learned of its contradictory terms. In his anger, he revealed its contents to the Hashemites. This secret move by the British was the first breaking point for Lawrence with the empire he himself represented. He became distrustful, among other things because he saw the duplicity as a betrayal of British values.

The Sharif Hussein Bin Ali, 1916

General Edmund Allenby sent Lawrence to help the Arabs during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire and together with Ali’s son, Faisal, he commanded a group of several thousand fighters equipped by the British. The campaign that began in the Arabian Peninsula ended with the occupation of Damascus and the entire eastern flank. However, Damascus was part of the territory that France was to receive according to its agreement with Britain. Lawrence knew this, but it did not prevent him from assisting in the conquest of Damascus and supporting Faisal’s claim to be crowned King of Syria. Lawrence was in essence attempting to thwart the Sykes-Picot agreement.


What Did the British Do?

The Arab Revolt was an acclaimed success, and the Hashemite forces were able to conquer Aqaba, helping the British in their conquest of Palestine – the Land of Israel. However, Sharif Hussein’s demand for the establishment of a large Arab kingdom encompassing the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, was rejected outright. The French recaptured Damascus and expelled Faisal, while the British stood by and did nothing. This, for Lawrence, was the second betrayal.

At this point, it is also important to mention the “Nili” underground organization—the spy network in the Hebrew settlement in the Land of Israel that was operating at the same time and in parallel. The underground was in contact with Lawrence’s colleague, the archaeologist Leonard Wooley. Both groups pursued the same goals: cooperation in return for the promise of a state. Nili was providing broad intelligence that greatly contributed to the British effort. What was Lawrence’s view of this?

In the end, the British and French took over most of the territories promised to Sharif Hussein and divided them according to the Sykes-Picot agreement. However, Lawrence and Hussein also had some success: Hussein’s two sons were crowned kings—Abdullah over Jordan (the Hashemite dynasty rules Jordan to this day) and Faisal over Iraq. Lawrence, however, considered the agreement a betrayal by the British, and when he was summoned to Buckingham Palace to receive a knighthood after the war’s end, he made a public show of his disapproval by declining to accept it, a move that infuriated and embarrassed King George V. Nevertheless, when he was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1935, the entire nation paid tribute to him. He has since remained a legend in the eyes of many Britons, his portrait on the cover of the Beatles album being just one example of his iconic status in popular culture

Now for the part that might come as a surprise to many readers. Lawrence of Arabia was not only pro-Arab. He was also supportive of Zionism, though perhaps not from the beginning. Lawrence underwent a change in his opinion about the Jews in the region, likely due in part to his conversations with Wooley who told him of the Jewish aid Britain had received in the war effort, such as the work of the Nili underground.

Towards the end of the war, Lawrence developed different loyalties. Having begun to see His Majesty’s Government as betraying its allies, he transferred his loyalty to the Hashemites. At this time, while rethinking his worldview, Lawrence also underwent a change in his attitude towards the Jews. If before the war he discounted them, now, inspired by Aaron Aaronsohn and his friends in the Nili underground movement, he saw them as brave, wise and courageous. The shift did not end there. Lawrence used his power and influence to change the face of the Middle East.

He organized the meeting between Chaim Weizmann, president of the Zionist Organization, and Prince Faisal, in which the Prince renounced his attachment to the land west of the Jordan River. He convinced Churchill to change the Sykes-Picot agreements so that they left out the Land of Israel. And at the Cairo Conference in 1921, in which the formal implementation of the Balfour Declaration was finally concluded, he demanded that a mandatory territory remain, including a national home for the Jewish people. Lawrence even envisioned the Jews playing an important role in the Middle East. In an interview he gave to a local London Jewish newspaper on the first anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, he said: “Speaking entirely as a non-Jew, I look on the Jews as the natural importers of Western leaven so necessary for countries of the Near East.”

Lawrence also spoke about the establishment of a future Jewish state: “…if a Jewish state is to be created in Palestine, it will have to be done by force of arms and maintained by force of arms amid an overwhelmingly hostile population.’” In this, he and Aaronson shared the same thinking, but it is doubtful whether they ever discussed it together.

Once Lawrence himself realized that the aforementioned arms could be Jewish rather than English weapons, he gradually adopted a more pro-Zionist approach. It is also worth noting that Aaron Aaronsohn had met Lawrence when they both worked for British intelligence. Aaronsohn disliked Lawrence because he thought he was against the Zionist idea, and Lawrence didn’t particularly like Aaronsohn either. Aaronsohn envisioned a new Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, including a Jewish-Armenian-Arab partnership, in which the Armenians would be a mediating factor between the Jews and the Arabs. Aaronsohn saw the importance of an Armenian state mainly in view of the genocide that had been perpetrated against them. He shared his thoughts with Sykes himself. We will never know how Aaronsohn might have reacted to Lawrence’s support for the Zionist cause because he died in a plane crash in 1919 over the La Manche channel on the way to the Paris Peace Conference. His body was never found.

Opinions about Lawrence of Arabia differ depending on how one views history. One thing is certain, Lawrence of Arabia, who was born “a social outcast,” appreciated the loyalty and integrity of smaller nations, and he abhorred duplicity. He believed in his path and worked for the good of the common people. One would assume that these traits developed in reaction to his own pain and shame from being thought inferior simply because of the circumstances of his birth.

Studio photograph of Asia Feinberg dressed up for Purim as Lawrence of Arabia. This item is part of the Israel Archive Network project  and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel


In preparing this article we relied on The Diary Kept by T. E. Lawrence While Travelling in Arabia During 1911 (Hebrew) and Eliezer Livne’s book, Aaron Aaronsohn, His Life and Times (Hebrew).


Banishing the Nazi Darkness: Who Are the Father and Daughter in This 1941 Hanukkah Photo?

Europe was cloaked in darkness during Hanukkah of 1941. With war raging on all fronts, the Jews of British Mandate Palestine did their part in the fight against the Nazis. A picture postcard featuring a Jewish soldier in the British Army and his daughter was meant to warm the hearts of Jewish soldiers serving around the world. But one question remains – who are they?


Postcard of the National Committee for the Jewish Soldier, Hanukkah 1941

The winter of 1941 was a dark one. At the beginning of the previous summer, after completing their conquest of western Europe, the Nazis stormed across eastern Europe to invade the Soviet Union. They were now besieging Leningrad, with fierce battles underway around Moscow. Early December saw another major turning point: the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II.

At the same time as their invasion of the U.S.S.R., the Nazis also began the mass extermination of Europe’s Jews. In Ukraine, Belarus and other countries, Jews were lined up in front of enormous killing pits and executed by the hundreds of thousands. In December, the first extermination camp, Chelmno, was established, and experiments of mass killings using gas vans were carried out. A short time later, the decision would be made to implement the “final solution to the Jewish question“—the total extermination of European Jewry.

Meanwhile, the situation in Mandatory Palestine was also looking bleak. German forces were advancing eastward in North Africa, and there were fears that they would eventually conquer the Land of Israel. In order to fulfill Ben-Gurion’s commitment to “fight the Nazis as if there were no White Paper,” (a reference to Britain’s resistance to Jewish immigration to Palestine) the local Jewish population provided thousands of volunteers who enlisted in the British army. Some of them were captured during fighting in Greece earlier in 1941.

Poster for “Jewish Soldier Day”, 1942, organized by the National Committee for the Jewish Soldier. From the Oded Yarkoni Archive of the History of Petah Tikva
“And what are YOU doing for our soldiers?” Donor Certificate in support of the National Committee for the Jewish Soldier, the National Library of Israel collections, photo: Amit Naor

And so, in the winter of 1941, quite a few young Jews from Mandatory Palestine found themselves on Europe’s frigid soil at the start of the Hanukkah holiday. These were not ideal conditions for celebrating a religious festival, but thanks to the efforts of some hardworking people who devoted themselves to the welfare of the Jewish soldiers scattered around the world, it was made possible. The National Committee for the Jewish Soldier, established at the initiative of Yosef Baratz, worked to meet all the needs of Jewish soldiers serving in the British Army.

The committee contacted the British military authorities to raise awareness of the needs of Jewish soldiers. Its members saw to cultural matters first, sending newspapers in Hebrew, organizing Hebrew theater events, and even arranging Hebrew and English lessons in the various army units. Alongside all this, the committee provided the soldiers with religious items such as bibles, tefillin and prayer books, as well as kiddush cups and candlesticks, so that they could observe the Sabbath. In addition, the committee naturally also sought to provide the soldiers, especially those who had been wounded, with financial assistance.

“For the Soldier”, “For the Soldier’s Family” – A poster listing the various activities and contributions of the National Committee for the Jewish Soldier, the Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel

And so it was that during Hanukkah, in December 1941, the National Committee for the Jewish Soldier attempted to lighten the mood and offer encouragement and aid to the Jewish soldiers fighting the Nazis. Heading the effort was a huge gift drive for the soldiers. Dozens of volunteers including WIZO staffers, schoolgirls and members of the Working Mothers Organization, prepared packages that were sent to soldiers stationed in Mandatory Palestine and abroad. The soldiers in Europe received sweaters and warm woolen socks, as well as cigarettes (hey, it was the 1940s!), candy (yum!) and razors (handy!). Along with the packages, they also received letters and drawings from children back home, as well as the “Soldier’s Almanac,” a small booklet containing a yearly calendar, in addition to historical, cultural and geographical information the committee thought the soldiers should have.

The Soldier’s Almanac, 1941–1942. In addition to a calendar, the booklet included chapters on history and geography, a dictionary of English phrases and other useful information, the National Library of Israel collections, photo: Amit Naor
First aid information from The Soldier’s Almanac. Photo: Amit Naor


The Winter Soldier Will Banish the Darkness

In addition, the committee also issued a special holiday postcard which it sold in kiosks and bookstores, featuring an especially poignant image of a father in a British army uniform lighting the Hanukkah candles while his daughter watches, mesmerized by the flames. Underneath the picture is a line from the Hanukkah hymn Maoz Tzur: “The head of the Benjaminite You lifted/ and the enemy, his name You obliterated.” The contemporary context and the hope for a miracle that would brighten the future of the Jewish people would have been plain to all.

The postcard published by the National Committee for the Jewish Soldier. The postcard was found in the private collection of Yirmiyahu Rimon, the Haifa City Museum
The original photograph by Zoltan Kluger. Courtesy of the Israel State Archives

Little is known about this image. This and two other photographs of the candle lighting were taken by Zoltan Kluger, who was then one of the most prominent photographers in the country. Today, these photos are in the Zoltan Kluger collection in the Israel State Archives. You can see all three here, here and here.

Can you help us identify the mysterious soldier and child and discover what became of them? Photo: Zoltan Kluger. Courtesy of the Israel State Archives

Kluger worked for the KKL-Jewish National Fund and other national institutions on numerous occasions. We don’t know who commissioned the photos from him, but it seems that they were taken in the Land of Israel close to the time the postcard was issued. Apart from the postcard published by the Committee for the Jewish Soldier, the photo also appeared in the 1941–1942 calendar published by Keren Hayesod. Beyond that, we haven’t been able to find out any additional information about the photograph or about the soldier-father and his daughter. We do do not know the identity of the soldier or that of the little girl, we do not know where the soldier was stationed, nor whether or not he survived the war. We also do not know whether Keren Hayesod commissioned the photographs.

Which is why we are turning to you, our readers!  Perhaps one of you recognizes the soldier or the little girl? Perhaps you know what became of them? You might even have a copy of the postcard stored away somewhere. Let us know here in the comments!


Our thanks to the Israel State Archives for its assistance in the preparation of this article.

Chaim Topol and the Giant Shadow of Sallah Shabati

Sallah Shabati, the character that launched Chaim Topol's acting career, also threatened to typecast him as a mere impressionist. But thanks to Topol’s great talent and determination, what could have been an obstacle to a rich and varied career became the role of a lifetime. Topol’s wife Galia and son Omer discuss the role that became the actor’s ticket to the international stage and screen…

Chaim Topol and Esther Greenberg in the film Sallah Shabati. From the Chaim Topol Archive, courtesy of the family and with the cooperation of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and the University of Haifa

Hearing the name Chaim Topol inevitably brings to mind either Sallah Shabati from the film of the same name, or Tevye the Milkman from Fiddler on the Roof. Indeed Sallah, the role that launched Topol’s international career, has largely become synonymous with the well-known actor. It was therefore surprising to learn that it was this very role, which Topol performed so brilliantly, that almost became an obstacle on his path to a theater career. Can you imagine Chaim Topol being overlooked for major acting roles? That unimaginable scenario for Israel’s first international film star did not come to pass for the simple reason that Topol did not believe for a moment that it could, and he also went on to prove why not.

Chaim Topol, circa 1969. From the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Our story begins with a Hebrew article published in Maariv in May 1964, about two weeks before the Israeli premiere of the film Sallah Shabati. The article states that when Topol left the Batzal Yarok (“Green Onion”) performing troupe to set up the Haifa Theater, he was asked what he wanted with theater since the only role he knew how to play was the character of Sallah, a Mizrahi Jewish immigrant, newly arrived in Israel. To this Topol replied, “I’m not worried. . . I’ve already proven to myself and to others that I’m able to go beyond all of this Sallah business.” It sounds absurd, looking back at his great international success, but just imagine how such criticism at the beginning of one’s career can be an obstacle. Topol, it seems, took it all in stride.

“Sallah Shabati was the man who made Chaim Topol (as an actor), who embodied his whole stage presence and who embedded himself in his very bone marrow. But the same Sallah Shabati also threatened to destroy Topol (as an actor), when he moved from the small stage to the theater.” –  From a promotional article for the film Sallah Shabati, Maariv, May 15, 1964

Topol, like many Israeli entertainers of his generation, got his start in the IDF’s performance ensembles and theater troupes.

“Topol fell by accident into the Nahal troupe,” says Galia Topol, his wife of 66 years who herself was part of the second-year class of the Israeli army’s Nahal performing troupe. “He was in the middle of an eight-month Nahal training course. At the time, he and a couple of friends performed together as entertainers and Chaim was the resident comedian. One evening, the first-year Nahal troupe, with Yossi Banai and Yona Atari [famous Israeli performers], came to perform for them, and everyone decided not to laugh for the entire show. And that’s how it was—no one laughed the entire evening. Then the troupe asked Topol and his friends to come on stage and within minutes they had the whole audience rolling on the floor. That’s how Chaim ended up being selected for the Nahal troupe.”

In 1955, Ephraim Kishon, the famous Israeli author, director and satirist, collaborated with the Nahal troupe, composing a skit titled “The New Social Worker”. This was the first appearance of the character Sallah Shabati. It turns out that Topol played a big part in the creation of the skit, even before inhabiting the written character. “The Nahal [troupe] decided to introduce some more serious material,” says Galia. “Chaim thought to turn to Kishon. They didn’t know each other, but before the army, Chaim had been a printer at the Davar newspaper where Kishon worked, and he felt he could approach him.  Kishon wrote the character of Sallah for Chaim. Topol was actually opposed to the serious skit, and he wasn’t alone. We all thought that a serious skit wasn’t right for the troupe. But Kishon insisted and this was the army after all, so that’s what was decided, and we all went along with it.” Galia also participated in the skit, eventually playing the role of the social worker sergeant after Nechama Hendel left the troupe.

The Batzal Yarok (“Green Onion”) troupe in a publicity photo for the Sallah Shabati skit. From left: Chaim Topol, Nechama Hendel, Avraham Mor and Uri Zohar (seated). Photographer unknown, from the Chaim Topol Archive, courtesy of the family and with the cooperation of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and the University of Haifa

Today it’s likely that no one would think to cast the young Ashkenazi Topol as the older Mizrahi Sallah , but one cannot judge a nearly 60-year-old film by today’s standards. When the film came out, Israeli public opinion was firmly behind the idea of a societal melting pot, in the hope that within a generation or two the question of identity would become unimportant. Topol received quite a bit of criticism for portraying a character who at times appeared ridiculous and laughable, but as a professional actor he took the role extremely seriously, approaching it in the spirit of the times. He embodied Sallah regardless of the essential difference between himself the actor and the character.


Did Topol do anything special to prepare for the role? In one interview he said that the director David Bergman used the Stanislavsky method and that preparing for the role was intense.

“He took his training for the role very seriously. He spent hours in m’aabarot [transit camps for new immigrants to Israel], studying the language, the diction and just listening. He also got the idea for the hat from there and one time he came home especially to look for his beret from his own schooldays. Chaim immersed himself in the character, but he was also certain that it would not be appreciated by the audience, mainly because he thought the sketch was too serious and not suitable for the troupe. But Kishon insisted and it became a hit.”

Topol and the rest of the troupe learned very quickly that they had been wrong, and the audience welcomed Sallah with open arms. “The skit was performed more than 500 times on stage,” recalls Galia. “Already at the general rehearsal, the Nahal commander, the chief education officer and other senior officers sat in the front row, and when the Sallah skit came on they burst out laughing, even before anyone started speaking. As soon as Topol came on stage they started laughing. We looked at them and didn’t understand what was so funny, but they burst out laughing—this was largely Kishon’s genius.”

Poster for the film Sallah Shabati, from the Abraham Deshe (Pashanel) Archive, available in digital format, courtesy of the family and in cooperation with the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and the University of Haifa

But even Kishon himself recognized that Sallah Shabbti’s enormous success was due in no small part to Topol’s genius. When asked about this once, Kishon said that “the secret of its success lay in the perfect union between actor and character, a rare stage phenomenon.”

“There is no doubt that Chaim completely embodied the role as well as grasped Kishon’s critique,” Galia says. “He conveyed it thrillingly on stage. It was that rare connection between Kishon’s ability to provoke sympathetic laughter while revealing the [character’s] soul and Chaim’s acting ability. It was not for nothing that they were friends and partners for many years after.”

Topol continued to collaborate with Kishon, playing the character of Sallah for years. After his army service Topol played Sallah in the sketches “Ziggy and Habuba” and “Cat in the Sack” as part of the Batzal Yarok troupe that he founded with Uri Zohar, another major Israeli talent. In fact, Topol played Sallah Shabati on stage from 1954 to 1960, fleshing him out in form and spirit in five different skits to the delight of theater-goers.

The Batzal Yarok troupe in rehearsals, from right: Galia Topol, Zahrira Harifai, Topol, Eliyahu Barkai and Avraham Mor. Photographer unknown, from the Chaim Topol Archive, courtesy of the family, and with the collaboration of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and the University of Haifa

For Topol, it was time to move on to the next career stop—the repertory theater, and thus, he found himself among the founders of the Haifa Theater, whose establishment was initiated by the mayor at the time, Abba Hushi. “During the Haifa Theater period, there was no Sallah,” says Galia. “Chaim was one of the first to join the troupe and the first thing he did there was The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Yosef Milo, in which he played Petruchio. I remember he had to wear tights and he found it very embarrassing.”


Did these six years in which he played and became identified with Sallah make people think that that was all he could do?

“First of all, Sallah is a multi-layered character, so being identified with him is not a bad thing,” replies Galia. “But I don’t remember anything like that. Maybe people thought that, but Chaim didn’t think so. He knew he was a serious actor and set himself goals and the fact is he was able to achieve them and more.”

Chaim Topol and Uri Zohar during the Batzal Yarok period. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, National Library of Israel

“I don’t think that Sallah eclipsed [Topol] at any point, but there is no doubt that he got under his skin in some sense,” says Omer Topol, Galia and Chaim’s son. “He also definitely brought him home, for example in the mannerism of throwing the backgammon dice,” he says and they both laugh and demonstrate. “It isn’t just idle talk about the connection between an actor and a character, because in this case there definitely was, only in this instance the actor was also much more than that.”

There is no doubt of Topol’s acting abilities, but it seems that in the first years of his career, Sallah cast a shadow nevertheless. Topol’s personal archive, which was scanned and made available on the National Library of Israel website, also sheds a different light on the subject. In an article published two weeks before the release of the movie Sallah Shabati, Topol remarks that quite a few people raised an eyebrow when he moved to the repertory theater because they thought he was unable to play other characters. Although theater critics were unanimous about Topol’s phenomenal success as Petruchio, it seems that even people who knew Topol’s abilities initially shared this feeling that Chaim was Sallah and nothing else. An excerpt from Ma’ariv written after the opening of The Taming of the Shrew, suggests that even Kishon didn’t see Topol as a serious actor in the beginning. “Imagine Chaim Topol playing the part of an Italian nobleman,” Kishon joked as he tried to demonstrate the concept of absurdist humor to the audience.

Ephraim Kishon was speaking of absurdist humor, and wishing to bring forth a fitting example, he said: ‘Imagine Chaim Topol playing the part of an Italian nobleman‘” – From Maariv, October 10, 1961. Photo: the Chaim Topol Archive, courtesy of the family and with the cooperation of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and the University of Haifa

It seems that the 26-year-old Topol was determined to prove to everyone that he was much more than Sallah. In hindsight, after two Golden Globe Awards, an Oscar nomination, countless plays, including on the stages of the West End and Broadway, one James Bond film, and also the Israel Prize, the Kinor David Prize and a slew of international and other awards, it is clear that Topol certainly succeeded in his mission.


But then, in the early 1960s, after he had already proven himself on the theater stage, the idea of ​​a film came up and essentially brought Topol back together with Sallah. Did Topol want to return to this character again?

“Chaim and Kishon were partners,” Galia says. “It was both of their dreams to expand the five Sallah sketches that had been performed up to that point into a movie,” she says. “Production began when Menachem Golan entered the picture. Chaim as usual was skeptical. Kishon kept telling him that the film was good, but Chaim refused to believe it. However, he was completely committed to it and felt tremendous responsibility for its success. Since at the time he was still an actor with the Haifa Theater, he would finish performing the Brecht play The Caucasian Chalk Circle at night, and go straight to Tel Aviv to film. He would drive like a madman and get to Tel Aviv in under an hour. He would film, then drive back to Haifa to rehearse, put on another show that evening and then sleep for the night, only to do it all over again the next day. While making the film, he appeared in several plays, also in Rashomon and Karnafim.”

Topol and Kishon with the Golden Globe, Maariv, February 19, 1965

Looking back, Topol had nothing to regret about agreeing to reprise the role that has become so identified with him. Sallah Shabati, the first film directed by Ephraim Kishon, was an immediate massive hit, winning the Golden Globe and receiving Israel’s first Oscar nomination. Sallah’s international success was also the springboard for Topol’s own international career. “Chaim was happy when the film received such a warm reception when it came out,” concludes Galia. “Despite the doubts, he was fully committed to Sallah Shabati and gave it his all. His ability to do it all is part of his inner drive. He proved that he can be Sallah, or Petruchio, or Azdak in The Caucasian Chalk Circle.” Topol has proven that he is an actor of diverse abilities and that no role can cast a shadow on his bright star.

When a Grenade Exploded in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament

No one believed it could happen, and even today it is difficult to comprehend how easy it was. In 1957, a man walked into the Knesset, then located in downtown Jerusalem, with a grenade in his pocket. He proceeded to throw it into the assembly hall. David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir were among those injured. The explosion can be heard in a recording found in the National Library of Israel's Sound Archive…

“Doctor! Doctor!” – came the yells from the assembly hall. “Get the doctors! Move! Ambulance!”, others called out. These exclamations took place right after an explosion shook the Knesset assembly hall, the main chamber of Israel’s parliament. Back then it was located at Frumin House, on King George Street, in downtown Jerusalem. A recording found in the National Library of Israel’s Sound Archive documents these moments in history, a recording which originated in the archives of the Knesset itself.

Hear the moment the grenade was thrown into the Knesset’s assembly hall:

It was October 29, 1957. The young State of Israel was approaching its ten-year anniversary. At the time, the country’s parliament held its meetings in a rather ordinary residential building that housed commercial establishments on its ground floor. The building had been renovated to allow the Knesset to convene in the structure. Unlike the current Knesset location, Frumin House was in the center of the city, on a crowded, busy street. Security was handled by two unarmed guards stationed at the entrance.

On that day, 24-year-old Moshe Dwek, simply walked into the Knesset building and obtained permission to sit in the visitors’ gallery, overlooking the assembly hall. He had a hand-grenade in his possession, that no one had been able to detect. At the time, the Members of the Knesset were discussing matters relating to international and security affairs in the assembly hall. Yitzhak Rafael, from the Mafdal (national religious) party, had been addressing the assembly, shortly after 6:00 pm, Dwek tossed the grenade from the gallery into the assembly hall. The explosion was followed by long moments of chaos and confusion, that we can now hear in the recording.

Moshe Dwek is brought to trial. Photograph: Eddie Hirschbein. Courtesy of Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. Collection: Tamar Levy. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The grenade thrown by Dwek landed between the dais and the cabinet table. The explosion injured the Minister of Transportation, Moshe Carmel, and the Minister of Religion, Haim-Moshe Shapira (who, in fact, adopted the name Haim, which means “life” in Hebrew, after he recovered from his severe injury). Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Foreign Minister Golda Meir were both lightly injured by shrapnel.

The United States Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, visits Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion at the Hadassah Hospital. November 4, 1957. Photograph: David Gurfinkel, GPO

Dwek was immediately seized by those that were seated next to him, who had seen him throw the grenade. During his initial interrogation, he sounded confused and scared, and immediately expressed remorse for his actions. It was subsequently revealed that Dwek had sued the Jewish Agency for alleged damages he had suffered, and that his claim was rejected. His response was to threaten the President of the Supreme Court of Israel, and as a result he was sent to a mental hospital. This was apparently his motive for the assassination attempt.

Moshe Dwek in the courthouse. Photograph: Eddie Hirschbein. Courtesy of Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. Collection: Tamar Levy. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Shortly before 9:00 pm that same day, the Knesset again convened in the assembly hall. Yosef Sprinzak, who was the first Speaker of the Knesset, apprised the assembly of the event. His address to the Knesset can also be heard in the recording from the Sound Archive: “At 6:35, a grenade was thrown into this hall, injuring the Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, Minister Moshe Shapira, Foreign Minister Golda Meir, Transportation Minister Moshe Carmel. The Prime Minister is in good condition, his injuries are superficial, caused by shrapnel which hit both of his arms as well as his left leg. He is being treated for these wounds.”

Regarding the man detained by the authorities, Sprinzak stated: “The police arrested the man, his name is Moshe Hacohen Dwek, and the police have reason to believe that he was the one that threw the grenade. The man is under investigation and the police are investigating the motives of the crime” These comments appear in the protocol proceedings from the session at the Knesset.

Moshe Dwek on the defendant’s bench. Photograph: Eddie Hirschbein. Courtesy of Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. Collection: Tamar Levy. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

All those injured eventually recovered. The Prime Minister’s hospitalization resulted in its own tragic story, with a not-so-happy ending. Even though he was claimed by some to be mentally unstable, Dwek was found fit to stand trial and he received a 15-year prison sentence. In 1988, he returned to the public arena for a brief period and founded the Tarshish political party, which ran in the elections that year. The party assumed the Hebrew letters זעמ (meaning “rage” in Hebrew), and demanded equal rights for immigrants from the Arab countries, however it did not reach the minimal electoral threshold when the votes were cast.

The event triggered many changes in the day-to-day functioning of the Knesset. In the visitors’ gallery, secure partitions were installed that separated the gallery and the assembly hall, while security guards were required to meticulously inspect those entering the building and the items they brought with them. In addition, the incident led to the formation of the Knesset Guard in 1958, which to this day is responsible for the protection of the Knesset building and its members.