Life on the Border

For the community of Nahal Oz on the Israel-Gaza border, the events of the past few days have had a shocking, shattering effect. For decades, life in this region was often calm, restful and full of the wonders of nature, despite the ever-present dangers. The people of the border region are strong and resilient, and will prevail through this challenging time, as they have done so many times before.

Working the fields in Nahal Oz, 1950s, Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

For decades, the Israel-Gaza border has been something of a paradox.

Kibbutz Nahal Oz communal dining room, 1969, Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The events of the past few days have had a shocking, shattering effect. Until recently, however, when you walked through the many small Israeli communities that populate this region, you couldn’t help but wonder at the idyllic, peaceful atmosphere that often prevails in a part of the world that is also known to be so volatile.

Friends stop for a chat in Nahal Oz, 1969, Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

For Israelis who live in the kibbutz of Nahal Oz, life has the ability to be calm, restful and full of the wonders of nature. Like many kibbutzim, Nahal Oz is known for its warm communal lifestyle: members share many of their responsibilities and some resources, which fosters a tight-knit community, and the kibbutz prioritizes a deep concern for their cultural and social activities.

Brussels sprout harvest in Nahal Oz, 1970, IPPA staff photographer, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Jewish and national holidays are celebrated with joy, as children take a central role in the festivities. For each new season, the kibbutz is decorated accordingly and excitement is palpable in the air, as teenagers rush around hanging garlands and creating baskets of seasonal food for the kibbutz members.

Member of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, 1950s, Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Kibbutz living today is a mix of the old and the new. While kids grow up with Instagram and Snapchat and still beg their parents for the latest Nike trainers, there remains an emphasis on simple living and natural pleasures. Food is fresher, water is usually unfiltered, and less money is spent on material luxuries such as designer clothing or fancy events.

Nahal Oz kibbutz member tending to the chickens, 1950s, Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Weddings in Nahal Oz often consist of outdoor ceremonies and a party planned by the communal efforts of the kibbutz members, days off are spent outdoors at least as frequently as they are spent indoors, and tree-climbing and bare-footed walks in the fields are as common today as they were when the kibbutz was first established.

Babies born in Nahal Oz, 1950s, Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The kibbutz was founded in 1951 by Nahal soldiers, right on the border with the Gaza Strip. It became a civilian community just two years later. Nahal Oz was the first kibbutz to be established by the Nahal program, which combined IDF military service with community building and agriculture. Due to its success, many other kibbutzim followed suit in the years afterwards.

Working the land in Nahal Oz, 1950s, Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Established on the principles of collective agriculture and communal living, which are characteristic of old kibbutzim across Israel, Nahal Oz was a pioneer in the area, which was arid and dry, and even 70 years ago, kibbutznikim in this small community were proving to the rest of the world that life can thrive in this difficult region.

Working the land in Nahal Oz, 1950s, Boris Carmi, Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

While kibbutz life has changed drastically in the last 50 years, some things remain the same including communal meals, celebrations, and educational programs. For many, the appeal of kibbutz living comes from the opportunity to work the land of Israel, creating beautiful ties with the earth and fulfilling a deep-seated and long-standing Zionist dream.

Working the fields in Nahal Oz, 1950s, Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Of course, now members of the kibbutz can also work in many other fields. They need not eat in the shared dining room, and they have their own individualized personal belongings and homes, but it is these changes which were necessary to make life in Nahal Oz sustainable for the 21st century, and for many people, these updates to kibbutz guidelines have only made it a more complete haven.

Member of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, 1950s, Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

That being said, Kibbutz Nahal Oz still has a very strong agricultural tradition. Members of the community have been successful in cultivating crops, such as potatoes, carrots, wheat and other vegetables.

Woman reads to kibbutz children gathered in a bomb shelter in Nahal Oz, 1967, Boris Carmi, Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

But farming doesn’t bring in the income that it once did, and life in Israel can be expensive, even for a kibbutznik. So eventually in addition to agriculture, the kibbutz started to engage in other ventures, specifically thriving in tourism-related activities. Nahal Oz opened its doors to those interested in experiencing communal living and learning about Israeli kibbutz history and culture, in doing so creating a large secondary financial venture but also enlightening those who wished to learn about the community, and helping to promote their work.

Nahal Oz kibbutz member, 1950s, Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

But life isn’t always easy for the residents of Nahal Oz. While the picture just painted may sound like a modern-day Garden of Eden, the stability and peace of the kibbutz is often under threat.

This is because of Nahal Oz’s proximity to Hamas-run Gaza.

Kids helping out on Kibbutz Nahal Oz, 1967, Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Throughout its history, the kibbutz has been subjected to many rocket attacks and infiltrations from terrorist militants in Gaza. In 2014, the kibbutz faced one of its biggest calamities as tunnels from Gaza were dug by terrorists seeking to infiltrate Israeli communities and harm and kill their residents.

Member of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, 1950s, Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Since then, the kibbutz has fluctuated between being a peaceful natural paradise and being the target for barbaric acts of terrorism.

Working the fields in Nahal Oz, 1967, Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

But despite these monumental security challenges, the residents of Nahal Oz have shown, and continue to show, remarkable resilience. They have continued to live and work in the kibbutz, enduring periods of extreme difficulty while maintaining a strong sense of community.

Nahal Oz kibbutz children in a bomb shelter 1967, Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Nahal Oz was among the many border communities that came under violent attack on Saturday, October 7, 2023. This barbaric attack resulted in many innocent Israelis being murdered and wounded, with people taken hostage as well. We at the National Library of Israel are sending strength to the members of Nahal Oz and all the residents of the border region who need our hopes and prayers right now.

Member of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, 1950s, Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

We know that they are strong, resilient, and capable, and will prevail through this challenging time as they have done so many times before.

Friends spending time together in Nahal Oz, 1967, Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel    

This article is part of our special series: “Life on the Border: A Tribute to the Communities of the Gaza Border Region”

Click here to see all of the articles and stories

The Ballad of Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion

She was “just a girl from Milwaukee” when he was already the famous “Ben-Gurion.” He was a few steps ahead of her throughout their public and political careers. Still, Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion formed a delicate and meaningful friendship, which ended suddenly due to an ugly political scandal. After years of detachment, towards the end of his life, Ben-Gurion tried to reconcile with her. Did it work?

Golda and Ben-Gurion, by Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The lunch hall in Kibbutz Revivim was filled with Golda Meir’s relatives and friends. The organizers of this event, which Golda refused to allow to be too big or showy, invited “a number of people, each of which went some way with you”, to show thanks to the Prime Minister who made their kibbutz her second home, as well as to mark 50 years since her immigration to the Land of Israel.

Among the participants was someone who made the long trip from Tel Aviv, despite his advanced age and weakening health. They were once very close friends, but a black cat seemed to have crossed their path in the last decade, and they’d hardly spoken since then. The “Old Man” stood out among those gathered with the smallness of his stature and the strands of white hair adorning his head. It was David Ben-Gurion.

The leader of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel during the British Mandate, the State of Israel’s first Prime Minister, the man who declared the state and who didn’t hesitate to make fateful decisions – was at the end of his life a widower, sick and a little lonely. He came to show respects to his old friend and reconcile with her.

Ben-Gurion at the celebration of Golda Meir’s 50th anniversary of immigrating to the Land of Israel, Kibbutz Revivim. Courtesy of the Golda Meir Institute

Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion first met in 1917 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was a socialist and Zionist, full of youth and passion, and he was an exile from the Land of Israel who had come to the States after the Turks expelled anyone prominently tied to the Zionist movement. His visit to Milwaukee lasted just one day, but it was a very significant day for the local Jewish residents, to whom the Zionist youths from Palestine must have seemed like messengers from another world.

The first meeting between them was one-sided – Ben-Gurion didn’t really “meet” Golda that day, as she was part of the broader audience that came to hear him, but she was deeply impressed by the man who seemed to have an aura of endless confidence about him.

Their second meeting was in Tel Aviv. Golda arrived in the country in July 1921, along with her new husband and sister, at the end of a trip full of travails that seemed like it came out of a popular adventure book.

Ben-Gurion returned to the Land of Israel in August of that year, after years of exile and without Paula and the kids, who remained behind in London. He lived in a rented room on Lilienblum Street, where a group of young Zionist leaders would gather from time to time to hear what he had to say. On one of these occasions, Golda was also invited, having spent a number of years as a Po’alei Zion (“Workers of Zion”) activist in America. She was now starting to make her political and professional way in this new land, and didn’t even have a command of Hebrew, yet.

“I understood very little of what he said,” Golda later said of their first encounter in the Land of Israel, “but I was very impressed by this persona, and how people listened to him.”

Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion at the congress of the socialist International, 1928. Courtesy of the Golda Meir Institute

From here on out, their political careers would develop separately, but they crossed paths again at many points and often met professionally.

In 1920, Ben-Gurion was among the founders of the general workers’ union known as the Histadrut and was appointed its general secretary in 1921. Even at this early point, he already stood out as the most prominent leader among the Jewish pioneers of the Second Aliyah (the immigration wave of 1904-1914).

In those years, Golda was a member of the Ahdut Ha’Avoda (“Labor Unity”) party – later to become part of Mapai (a Hebrew acronym standing for “Workers’ Party of the Land of Israel”). She began to stand out among Zionist women’s organizations, first as a member of the “female workers’ council” and then as secretary of the council. She later took many trips to engage in fundraising and diplomacy in Britain, serving as a delegate at the global conference of the Zionist women’s organization WIZO as well as the 16th World Zionist Conference.

In 1930, Mapai was founded as a merger of smaller parties, becoming the political home for both Golda and Ben-Gurion from this point forward. Ben-Gurion was head of the movement, while Golda placed 20th in the third election to the Assembly of Representatives, the local Jewish internal parliament, which sufficed for her to become a member of the assembly.

Over time, Golda turned from an admirer observing the movement’s undisputed leader from a distance to an inseparable part of the Zionist leadership’s inner circle. Beyond her official work, she also developed close ties with Ben-Gurion and his political partners (including long, complex romantic affairs with David Remez and Zalman Shazar).

Sitting in the same row. Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion at the maiden trip of Israel Railways. From the Ben-Gurion House Archive, BTBG-AL-011

Only towards the end of her life, when she was already a former Prime Minister and Ben-Gurion had passed away, did Golda Meir tell of the deep emotional connection she formed with him already in those early years. Before this, they had been regarded as having a professional relationship of two people sharing the same political causes.

When she spoke of young Ben-Gurion in an interview she gave journalist Yaron London in 1974, her voice took on an uncharacteristic softness.

She tells of a Ben-Gurion who was a little different than his popular persona, as only those closest to him experienced the contrasts in the personality of the “Old Man.” He was in fact a charismatic speaker who suffered from social anxiety: on stage, at public speeches, he always seemed fearless and inspiringly confident in his path, but among his close circle or when he had to speak with someone privately – things were entirely different. He was surprisingly shy; in one-on-one meetings, his words would get tangled up when he needed to have them flow freely.

For instance, he was very close to Rachel Yanait and Yitzhak Ben Zvi, but he personally told Golda that shortly after he arrived in the country, he went on a long walk with Rachel Yanait during which he made not a sound. As he later admitted – “I didn’t know how to speak then, or what one is supposed to talk about.”

When he was offered to become Chairman of the Jewish Agency, he thought he might have to go to the British High Commissioner and speak with him, and he shared his dilemmas with Golda: “How do I talk to him? What do I say to him”?

Golda did not consider this a mark against his leadership – perhaps even the opposite.

“It’s character. He needed to overcome it, and he did. There was no-one who spoke with him and left feeling, ‘Nu, so I’ve met another random person…’”

Golda told of how Ben-Gurion wasn’t one for idle chit-chat:

“Ben-Gurion was generally a man who didn’t need people around him. Every one of us could sit with friends and talk about all sorts of things – even without a purpose, just to chat. Ben-Gurion was never a part of that. Everyone knew – with Ben-Gurion you don’t chat, you talk to the point. About things that must be spoken of.”

She heeded this unwritten rule: In the many decades of her acquaintance with Ben-Gurion, it never occurred to her to go to his house for a casual sit-down. If she had – it would have come off as odd, and he would immediately ask what happened.

Except once. One Saturday afternoon in Autumn, 1947, Golda received a strange phone call. Ben-Gurion was on the line, asking her to come to him – without a specific purpose. When she arrived, she found him on the second floor, which she had never been invited to before. It was a huge room with the walls covered in books, and Ben-Gurion was pacing back and forth, restless. He told her things which would have shaken many at that point in time, before the State of Israel had even been born: “Golda, I’m not sleeping at night, I don’t know what will be with us. There will be a war, that is clear, I know what we have, but I don’t know what will be, how we’ll handle it.”

“I don’t have contempt for those who are afraid,” he continued, “Here, [Zionist leader Yosef] Sprinzak is afraid, but he has the courage to say he’s afraid. Sometimes there’s a lot of courage in saying you’re afraid. And even Sprinzak doesn’t yet know how much we need to be afraid.”

It was the first time she had the feeling that he could not cope with the crucial dilemmas all by himself, and that he needed someone to whom he could pour out his heart and present his concerns. She was that person for him.

At this rare opportunity, he let her enter a place almost no-one got a glimpse of

This soft side of Ben-Gurion was something Golda Meir also witnessed after the state was established. During the War of Independence, she would enter the room and see him sign letters to bereaved parents. This was not the Ben-Gurion people knew – the decider, the man who was always strongly opinionated, the one who didn’t give a damn. Here, he gave a damn. A lot. And he let her see that.

These anecdotes tell us not only of Ben-Gurion’s private, inner world, but also the place Golda had in that world. Despite this, and although they marched together towards common causes for many years, Golda couldn’t see herself as his equal. “Who was I? I was a girl from Milwaukee, and he? He was Ben-Gurion.”

At Ben-Gurion House in Tel Aviv, which served as the permanent residence of David and Paula Ben-Gurion from the 1930s until they moved to Sde Boker in the Negev Desert, collections of photographs and albums can be found alongside the voluminous books. These tell the story of Ben-Gurion, the leader and the man, and of his widespread contacts around the world. Among these are also unofficial, rare images of him with Golda, where we can see something of their gentle relationship.

The photo albums have been digitized thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Ben-Gurion House Archive, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem, and the National Library of Israel, and can be viewed here.

A close friendship. Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion in conversation. From the Ben-Gurion House Archive, IL-BTBG-PH-161

On May 14, 1948, they both signed the Declaration of Independence. He stood and declared the Jewish state, and she was one of just two Jewish women whose signatures can be found on that important historical document. After the declaration, of all the signatories and those present in the room, Ben-Gurion decided to walk with her to Dizengoff Square to meet the cheering crowd. He spoke to them with restraint, a leader who understood the weight and enormity of the event and who feared what they were about to face. It was Golda, now fluent in Hebrew, who spoke with enthusiasm and passion, doing so with a heavy American accent.

Golda Meir’s signature on the Declaration of Independence

Immediately afterwards, that same day, she left to raise funds in the United States at Ben-Gurion’s request, even though the last thing she wanted was to be away from the country during that eventful period.

She believed in him and his decisions wholeheartedly, and sat as a minister in his (many) governments. Even if they disagreed here and there, she often said that “regarding the major goals, on the path we had to take, he was always right.”

Working together. Ben-Gurion’s government during the Third Knesset. From: President Yitzhak Ben Zvi Collection, IL-INL-YBZ-0125-456

When she traveled abroad, they corresponded; Ben-Gurion found it easier to express his feelings in writing.

“You’re missed here, these days, by all of us, but especially me. Yet it seems to me that the historical struggle being waged in New York and Washington requires your stay in the US”

The unique relationship between the two held until the 1960s, when politics tore them apart in a way Golda could not imagine. “The Lavon Affair” was a complex political crisis which began with the colossal failure of certain intelligence operations in Egypt, and went on to split and divide the Mapai political leadership, eventually leading to the end of Ben-Gurion’s political career.

Golda called it “the miserable, tragic dispute that didn’t have to happen,” but these words do not suffice to describe her great pain over the rift, which she considered to be a personal disaster.

In the Israeli foreign service. Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion with representatives of foreign nations at the Acadia Hotel. From: Ben-Gurion House Archive, BTBG-PH-077

In a soul-baring interview to Yaron London conducted after Ben-Gurion’s death, she was hardly willing to talk about that period, which was terrible for her. “I always understood Ben-Gurion’s motives, but here I didn’t understand anything, beginning to end.”

After decades of close acquaintance and friendship, in which he deeply influenced her political thought and activism, to break away from him and even see him as being in the “enemy camp” was unbearable.

“Ben-Gurion was no ‘vegetarian’ in the partisan war, or in the war for what he thought was the right thing, and neither was I,” she told London with a pained half-smile.

When Ben-Gurion celebrated his 80th birthday, she didn’t come to the event and he was deeply hurt.

But she never stopped appreciating him. At election events in those days, she spoke often of his enormous contributions, even calling him “the greatest Jew of our generation.” Still, reconciliation was difficult and it only happened years later.

In 1970, when she was already Prime Minister, Golda asked Ben-Gurion to represent the Israeli government in Paris along with Zalman Shazar at the public funeral of Charles de Gaulle. But the real gesture of reconciliation came from Ben-Gurion, a year later.

In September 1971, he came to the 50th anniversary celebration of Golda Meir’s arrival in the Land of Israel. Golda was deeply impressed by his very presence, but she also received a gift: a copy he kept of a telegraph she sent him from America for his 75th birthday.

“No dispute that was or yet will be between us,” Golda wrote in that telegraph, “will erase my recognition that I was exceptionally merited to work with a man who was more responsible than anyone else for what we have here.”

Golda Meir at the 50th anniversary of her immigration to the Land of Israel, Kibbutz Revivim

Later at the party, Ben-Gurion got on stage, but had some trouble finding the simple words to express what he felt. So he instead read letters aloud, letters he’d written in the past, either to her or about her.

The first contained words he wrote to [Israeli diplomat] Abba Eban:

“Golda is more important to Israel that a few million dollars, so you should do your best that she not work … and rest a bit during her stay in England.”

The second was a letter he sent her himself, while she was in the US:

“Dear, beloved Golda, I learned your secret. This year you’ve reached the age of 60, although I know you don’t want to celebrate your birthday, since you do not like publicity and personal celebrations. But after all, you cannot prevent me from congratulating you and telling you that which I feel, that your birthday is but a convenient opportunity to reveal some of my appreciation and friendship and love … an exemplary figure, a good friend, both strict and forgiving … I see you, and I am not alone, at your full creative powers, and my most faithful hopes for you that your strength will last many more years, and the trust and appreciation which most of the people in Israel as well as American Jewry feel for you will keep you steady during the difficulties you encounter as does every one of us.


David Ben-Gurion.”

That was all. He finished, and got off stage.

Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion in conversation. From the Ben-Gurion House Archive, IL-BTBG-PH-161

“You wouldn’t say that Ben-Gurion could be sentimental,” she told London a few years later, “but he could be very sentimental.”

Ten days after Ben-Gurion’s death, Golda spoke before the Knesset in his memory. She was Prime Minister at the time, and the lion’s share of the speech dealt with his public image. But at the end, her tone became more personal, and she spoke of the close friend she’d lost, regained, and lost again, this time for good:

“Honorable [Knesset] Chairman, with your permission and that of the Members of Knesset, I would like to say a few personal words for a minute. It fell in my lot to know Ben-Gurion in 1917, when he and his friend, his good and dear friend Yitzhak Ben Zvi, may his memory be a blessing, came to the United States … and it was my fate during all my years of life in the country, very many of those years, the decisive majority of those years, to work with him … There was much friendship, there was a brief period of bitterness, and I thank God that in recent years, there was an absolute, complete reconciliation. And among all the things etched in my heart in Ben-Gurion’s favor, perhaps among the most significant, was that after the bitter rivalry, we both gained a renewed and wonderful friendship.”

The photos appearing in the article are kept at the Ben-Gurion House Archive, and are made available thanks to the collaborative efforts of the archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

Jerusalem: City of Lepers?

For thousands of years, leprosy was one of the world’s most feared diseases | Jerusalem’s “Hansen House” is known as the city’s legendary leper asylum, but a look back through time reveals a longstanding relationship between the city and the illness | On Jerusalem: city of holiness and leprosy

A man and two boys suffering from leprosy, photographed at the gates of Jerusalem, 1890-1910, Underwood Brothers collection, courtesy of Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi

“Near the rose garden in Jerusalem is a closed institution, where sadness prevails and isolation is everywhere to be found: the leper hospital.”


This was the opening sentence of an article about Hansen House in Jerusalem’s Talbiyah neighborhood, published in the Davar newspaper in November 1951. The building housing this institution was designed by the famous architect Conrad Schick, becoming something of an urban legend and the focus of horror stories told by Jerusalemites for many years. The late Jerusalemite author and scholar Yaakov Yehoshua recalled how the hospital reminded him in his youth of the weekly Torah portions of Tazria and Metzora – both related to leprosy. The connection he made between the cantor’s sad voice in the synagogue, describing the sick leper cursed by God, and the disfigured lepers residing at Hansen House, was a natural one. The hospital terrified residents of adjacent neighborhoods, and to this day, the old timers of the neighborhoods of Katamon and Talbiyah remember how they would look at the building with a mixture of awe and fear.

Though many are familiar with the leper asylum at Hansen House, the institution represents but the latest chapter in the story of Jerusalem’s relationship with the disease. An exploration of the untold story of leprosy in the Holy City reveals of a mysterious and powerful connection between the city and the illness, which was considered to be a divine curse all the way up to the 20th century.

The Jesus Hilfe or Jesus’ Help Asylum in Talbiyah in its early days, with the sign prominently placed at the entrance. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

Leprosy, one of the world’s most notorious diseases, is mentioned already in the Bible. Like other serious skin ailments, it was considered a punishment from heaven, and those afflicted were socially shunned. The disease was caused by a bacteria which caused disfigurations of the skin and changes in the body. Leprosy has been documented for thousands of years, and the description in the Bible would appear to be one of the first documented attempts to cope with a contagious illness of this sort.

The Bible calls for expelling lepers “outside the camp”, and to a great extent, until the 21st century – treatment of lepers in Jerusalem followed suit. The Bible tells us of Uziyahu, King of Judah, who was stricken with leprosy and exiled until his death. When he dwelled in isolation in the “house of separation”, which popular traditions place in the Kidron valley east of the Old City of Jerusalem, did he imagine that an urban leper’s asylum would be built in nearby Silwan more than 2000 years later? Did the patients who collected alms at Zion Gate in the Old City in the 19th century know that the King of Jerusalem himself was a leper centuries before?

The “Lepers’ Village” near Zion Gate, Jerusalem. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia


Sick With Leprosy and Not Recovering? You’re as Good as Dead

“Leprosy” has been used as a general descriptor for a whole range of serious and disfiguring skin diseases throughout history. In 1873, Norwegian researcher Gerhard Armauer Hansen identified the bacteria causing this illness, and it has since been called Hansen’s Disease, after the man who discovered it. The leprosy the Bible speaks of has been proven to not be the disease we know today; historical-linguistic developments led to confusion on the subject. For centuries and millennia, the state of those suffering from leprosy in the Holy City was appalling.

The three powerful religions in the city – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – all considered lepers to be cursed by God, with those not recovering from the disease even considered to be effectively dead. In Judaism, the main fear of the disease was religious, as lepers were considered impure; priests were charged with removing them from the camp or the city so that the spirit of God could dwell among the Children of Israel.

Like Judaism, the other religions – including the religions of the ancient Near East in Babylon and Mesopotamia – viewed lepers as impure beings to be separated from the healthy population. Even in our time, when leprosy is no longer the threat it once was and can be effectively treated, the term “leper” remains to mark out people who are rejected from society. A formal request was once submitted to change the Hebrew term for the disease to destigmatize the people suffering from it.

Letter sent by Prof. Feliz Zagher (Sagher), director of the Hansen Hospital from 1949, requesting the name of the disease be changed. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

Things changed during the Crusader occupation of the Holy Land. In contrast to the treatment of lepers in the Western Christian world, the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem treated them with respect. Upon conquering the city in 1099, the Crusaders came into more direct contact with lepers than they were used to, as leprosy was more prevalent in the Middle East at the time; many Crusaders were even afflicted themselves.

To deal with the lepers without expelling them, a special order was established – the Order of Saint Lazarus, named after the patron saint of lepers mentioned in the Christian Bible. Many knights afflicted with leprosy joined the order, and they were required to bear a noise-maker to announce their arrival in any densely-inhabited area. The knight bearing the noise maker became the symbol of the order, also known for its knights who fought without faceguards, in order to terrify enemies with their disfigured faces. Many of the knights knew they would not live long with the disease, and so preferred to die on the battlefield.

The peak of leprosy’s fame, or notoriety, in the city came with the rise of Jerusalem’s “Leper King”, Baldwin IV, who fought against Saladin in four battles, the last of which required he be carried by his knights to the battlefield. The Domus Leprosorum or “Leper’s Home” in Latin, the order’s center for treatment and prayer, was established outside the northern wall of Jerusalem, where the “French Hospital” stands today.

Symbol of the Order of Saint Lazarus


The Lepers at the Gate

In the modern era, even after it was scientifically proven that the Biblical leprosy and Hansen’s Disease – leprae – are not the same illness, the stigma remained. Lepers were removed from the city and healthy people refused to go near them – due to their serious and clearly visible physical symptoms, among other reasons. They were excommunicated and forced to live in an isolated community, without support beyond collecting alms. The sight of beggars at the city gates became a fixture, only increasing the locals’ disgust. Towards the end of the 19th century, most lepers in Jerusalem lived in a number of shacks next to the Old City walls, between Zion Gate and the Dung Gate. They married among themselves and lived in rickety houses made of stones taken from ruins, mud, and branches. The Ottoman government neglected them.

Lepers outside Hansen House. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

Their condition improved thanks to the churches which became increasingly dominant in the city from the mid-19th century onward. In 1865, the land was visited by a German noblewoman named Auguste von Keffenbrinck-Ascheraden. Her shock at the sight of the scarred and pitiful lepers at the city gates led her to raise money to build a hospital and home for them. To that end, she recruited the aid of the Moravian-German church in an effort which would forever change the fate of lepers in Jerusalem.

Patients at the leper hospital in Jerusalem, late 19th century. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia


From Mamilla to Talbiyah, With a Stop in Silwan

People had only begun to leave the walls of the Old City as the 19th century came to a close, and Jerusalem’s urban heart still lay within their confines. The German countess and the Moravian church chose a nearby location known today as the neighborhood of Mamilla. The structure was established next to its pool, one of the city’s water sources, and away from the main roads to and from Jerusalem.

In 1866, the first leper’s hospital was established, and would eventually become the Lazarist Monastery on Agron Street. It had a number of rooms, which did not fill up that quickly – the Jerusalemite lepers were suspicious of the hospital built by the church; the Jews and Muslims in particular were wary of proselytizing. Still, the hospital staff managed to win their trust over time, and it soon became apparent that the hospital wasn’t big enough for all the city’s lepers.

The first leper’s asylum in the Mamilla neighborhood, which can be seen today on Agron Street. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

In the meantime, the leper neighborhood next to Zion Gate was demolished by the Ottoman authorities between 1873 and 1975. The government had taken note of the church’s efforts to take the lepers under its wing and decided to follow suit, ordering the construction of government homes for lepers next to Bir Ayoub, south of Silwan. The urban hospital was managed under difficult conditions, without regular supervision and handling, and four patients died in its first summer. Despite this, many of the city’s patients, particularly those of Muslim faith, chose at first to go to Dir Ayoub, since the European beds and Christian nurses in the German Mamilla hospital were foreign to them. But the difficult conditions, lack of doctors, and non-separation between those with “lighter” and more “severe” leprosy led many to ultimately seek the aid of the church. This demand led the church to purchase new land southwest of the Old City to establish the Jesus Hilfe or “Jesus’ Help” hospital for lepers, which would later become Hansen House.

Lepers’ homes built in Silwan by the Ottoman government, the Schneller Orphanage Collection, Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi


From the Ottoman Empire to the British Mandate and the State of Israel

The Jesus Hilfe hospital was established in Talbiyah on a large lot, surrounded by walls. Opened in 1887, it operated in various forms until 2002, witnessing the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the rise and fall of the British Mandate, and the coming of the State of Israel. It had room for some 60 patients alongside medical staff and nurses, and was built to be a self-sustaining establishment. Trees and plants were planted around the building and a vegetable garden was set up where the lepers could work, hoe, grow fruits and vegetables and set up a chicken farm. Cedar trees were brought in specially from Lebanon to beautify the courtyard, alongside cypress and other kinds of trees.

Hansen House’s first doctor, Dr. Adalbert Einsler (the father-in-law of architect Conrad Schick) used new methods to treat the patients. They were allowed to receive visitors and take trips around the country, and they were forced to give up begging. The leper asylum went by many names among the Arabs of Jerusalem, including dar al-masaknin (“the house of the pitiable”) and “the Morafi hospital” after the Moravian church. The lepers walking freely around the hospital terrified the city’s residents, who stayed as far away as they could.

Lepers engaging in routine activity at Hansen House, late Ottoman period. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

After the Ottoman defeat in the First World War and the start of the British Mandate, the institution’s working relations shifted away from Germany. The hospital was placed under the supervision of the Mandate’s health department, even receiving a government budget and being placed under the aegis of the British branch of the Moravian church.

In 1919, Palestinian Jerusalem doctor Tawfiq Canaan was appointed chief physician of the institution, a position he held until the ’48 war. With the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jesus Hilfe hospital was purchased from the Moravian church. The State of Israel turned it into a government hospital and called it “Hansen Hospital,” after the man who discovered the disease. Despite the repeated demands of neighboring residents, as well as a number of attempts to move the institution, the hospital operated on site until 2002. It was then abandoned and left in that state for years – only contributing to its mysterious image. Today it serves as a cultural center and museum.

Sign for the government hospital known as Hansen House, after it was transferred to Israeli government control after the ’48 war. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

Today, leprosy isn’t the terrifying disease it once was, and effective treatment in the early stages does much to prevent it. The national – and only – center in Israel for treating lepers is in Jerusalem, located on Strauss Street in the center of town. Leprosy ceases to be contagious after initial treatment, removing the need for isolation of patients. The infection rate is very low, and some 95% of the population is naturally immune. But the once-ominous disease left its marks on Jerusalem, just like the scars it once left on the human body, reminding us of days long past.


Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin: The Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem and the Ottoman Empire

Helping merchants in the markets of Jerusalem, saving the Samaritans of Nablus, and corresponding with Jewish communities around the world - the archive of Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin tells the story of one of the 19th century's most fascinating Jewish figures…

Illustration purportedly of Rabbi Gagin and his signature

One of the most moving treasures in the National Library of Israel is not a book, an ancient document or manuscript. Rather, it’s a stick.

More precisely, we are referring to a wooden staff consisting of two parts connected with a screw, measuring slightly over four feet and three inches long, with an ivory knob fastened at one end. It was sent to Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin by the Ottoman Sultan in 1842, when he was appointed to the position of “Rishon LeZion” – chief rabbi of the Jews of the Land of Israel. The Sultan would present such a staff to those in official positions as a mark of his patronage, with the item intended for use at public events and ceremonies.

Staff of the Rishon LeZion, Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin

For hundreds of years, under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, the “Hakham Bashi” was the title given to the chief rabbi of the Jews of the entire empire. The Hakham Bashi served as the Jewish community’s official representative before the government. The title of Rishon LeZion was given to the leader of the Jews of the Land Israel. Rabbi Gagin was the first to hold both positions at the same time.

Official appointment of Rabbi Gagin as Rishon LeZion. The tughra, the official seal of the Sultan, appears at the top.

Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin was born in Istanbul, or as it was then called by Jews – Kushta, almost 240 years ago, in 1787. Immigrating to Jerusalem as a child, he was drawn to the revered Beit El yeshiva in the Old City that had been founded 50 years before his birth and where a select few were allowed to devote themselves to the study of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah. In addition to promoting Torah study, the Beit El yeshiva also fostered communal support. Students had to sign a contract pledging to love and to help one another in times of sorrow and of joy, and to refrain from bearing grudges. At that time, Beit El was the only institution in Jerusalem permitted to independently send emissaries abroad to raise funds among Jewish communities in the diaspora.

Fundraising letter of the Beit El Yeshiva

Rabbi Gagin grew up in the Beit El yeshiva. He became a rabbi, ruled on matters of Jewish law, was proficient in Kabbalah, and eventually assumed the role of head of the yeshiva. At the age of 55, married and the father of a son, he was given the titles of Hakham Bashi and Rishon LeZion. In the collections of the National Library of Israel are hundreds of items, documents and correspondence from his 8-year tenure. From his seat in the Old City of Jerusalem, Rabbi Gagin conducted extensive correspondence with dozens of communities in the Land of Israel and beyond. Tiberias, Haifa, Ramla, Safed, Acre, Beirut, Aleppo, Syria, Egypt, Yugoslavia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Bulgaria, Vienna and London are just some of the Jewish communities Rabbi Gagin was in contact with and assisted in countless matters. Gagin sent halakhic responses to questions that required his ruling, signed court documents such as wills, endowments and inheritances, and even rent contracts. He was in contact with very wealthy families and with communal leaders and religious court judges in many different locations, but he also personally raised funds for young bridegrooms, resolved inheritance disputes, helped establish an orphanage and even testified on behalf of a man who had come to Jerusalem from Damascus and was accused of various libels.

Transfer of a debt from Damascus to Jerusalem


Fundraising for a bridegroom


Inheritance dispute


Testimony on behalf of a resident of Damascus who had come to Jerusalem

While engaged in these activities, Rabbi Gagin continued to write essays on Torah, sermons and books which are also kept at the Library. Two of the books relate to his term in office: Sefer HaTakanot VehaHaskamot (“The Book of Regulations and Agreements”), which included the customs of Jerusalem, and is believed to be one of the first books printed in the city; and Chaim M’Yerushalayim, a book which includes a selection of sermons delivered by Rabbi Gagin while serving in his esteemed roles. Both books, which deal with communal matters, shed light on contemporary historical issues and life in Jerusalem 200 years ago, including for example the debate among Jerusalem’s rabbis about the distribution of the charity funds (haluka) collected abroad on behalf of the Holy Land’s Jewish residents.

An interesting case which illustrates the multifaceted nature of Rabbi Gagin’s work is the approbation he gave to the Samaritan community. According to Islamic practice, only “people of the book” (the ahl al-kitab), generally understood to include Jews and Christians, have the right to protection under Islamic law. Islamic religious scholars ruled that Samaritans were not of the Jewish religion and were therefore unprotected. The Samaritan community of Nablus appealed to Rabbi Gagin to help them escape the dire fate of their coreligionists living in Damascus who had nearly been wiped out due to Muslim persecution. Rabbi Gagin sent a letter in which he wrote: “The Samaritan people are an offshoot of the Children of Israel who acknowledge the truth of the Torah”. The Islamic authorities, recognizing Rabbi Gagin’s personal signature and status, accepted the document and the Samaritans duly received the government’s protection.

Signature of Rabbi Gagin

Rabbi Gagin died on 20 Iyar תר”ח, 1848, at the age of 61, and was buried in Jerusalem, on the Mount of Olives. His son Shalom Moshe Chai Gagin also served as head of the Beit El yeshiva, and was also an emissary and travelled abroad on its behalf. He named his own son Chaim Abraham after his father.

Sixty years after Rabbi Gagin’s death, the rabbis of Jerusalem signed a declaration which they presented to the Ottoman authorities. The statement reads: “We, the undersigned sages and rabbis of the Sephardi community in Jerusalem, do hereby inform and testify… that the role of Rishon LeZion has no affiliation to the role of Hakham Bashi and there is no connection between the two, as these are two distinct and separate positions. And therefore the Hakham Bashi will not be referred to by the title Rishon LeZion and the Rishon LeZion will not be referred to by the title Hakham Bashi. And to this we have signed our names… Jerusalem, Sivan התרס”ט (1909).”

The statement signed by the rabbis of Jerusalem, including Rabbi Gagin’s grandson, also named Chaim Abraham

Among the names of the 26 rabbis who signed the declaration is that of Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin, the grandson of Rabbi Gagin. He surely knew that his grandfather, for whom he was named, had served at the same time as both Hakham Bashi and Rishon LeZion. It seems that the years when these two roles could be held by the same person were not long lasting. Few had managed to follow in Rabbi Gagin’s footsteps and hold the staff at both ends.



The archive of Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin is in the process of being cataloged and will be made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.