Menachem Begin: The Man of a Thousand Faces

What (or who) do Mr. Halperin, Rabbi Sassover, and Dr. Konigshoffer have in common? How the head of the Irgun evaded capture by the British Police, time and again

It was the days of the British Mandate in the Land of Israel. Jewish underground organizations were at the height of their activity against the colonial authorities. Special attention was being paid to the Irgun organization headed by Menachem Begin, which the British considered a terrorist group. Begin and the Irgun were indeed a particularly bothersome thorn in the side of the waning British Empire. The group was responsible for hundreds of rebellious act against the regime, including the breach of the Acre prison and the bombing of the King David Hotel, which resulted in the deaths of dozens of members of the Mandatory administration, among others.

As the Irgun’s leader, Menachem Begin was assigned a place of high priority on the British Secret Intelligence Service wanted list. A bounty for his capture and rewards for information on his whereabouts were offered to the public. Begin was forced into hiding, moving from safe house to safe house, even using disguises and false identities. These were simple ruses but they were successful time and time again. Whenever the British began to close in on him, Begin simply packed up his family and belongings, and disappeared. He would then resurface elsewhere with a different identity.

A Palestine Police announcement from February 1947, offering compensation to anyone who could offer information leading to the arrest of the wanted men on the poster. First from the left in the first row: Menachem Begin. From the Jabotinsky Institute collection
A Palestine Police announcement from February 1947, offering compensation to anyone who could offer information leading to the arrest of the wanted men on the poster. First from the left in the first row: Menachem Begin. From the Jabotinsky Institute collection


The Pole Who Never Left His House

Name: Israel Halperin

Address : #15 Tsirelson St., the Hasidof Neighborhood, Petah Tikva

Profession: Law student

Period of time living under this identity: May, 1944 – February, 1945

Begin on his false identity:

“…our neighbors had not the least suspicion. They found it all natural and understandable. They were told that the Halperin family was a family of refugees from Poland who had been unable to find accommodation in the town. True, the head of the family did not go out to work every day but for this too a plausible explanation was found. We voluntarily told the neighbors that we lived off an allocation frim the refugee aid organization and that I was preparing for the Palestinian law examinations – hence my working at home.”

The house where Menachem Begin lived as Israel Halperin in the Hasidof neighborhood in Petah Tikva. From the Jabotinsky Institute collection. For more photos of the house click here for the Petah Tikva online archive
The house where Menachem Begin lived as Israel Halperin in the Hasidof neighborhood in Petah Tikva. From the Jabotinsky Institute collection. For more photos of the house click here for the Petah Tikva online archive



Please Address Me as “The Honorable Rabbi”

Name: Rabbi Israel Sassover

Address: Corner of Habashan St. and Yehoshua Bin Nun St., Tel Aviv

Profession: “At the end of thirty days I had changed sufficiently to become Israel Sassover, who might have been a modern Rabbi, or a politician in one of the religious parties, or merely a penitent sinner”

Period of time living under this identity: February, 1945 – early 1947

Begin on this identity:

“My beard and the status it conferred on me also imposed certain obligations in my new surroundings. […] I was invited to become a regular participant at prayers in the synagogue […] They received their new neighbor with characteristically benevolent curiosity. They asked me questions which I had to answer. They gave me my regular place, and thenceforward I became one of them. I heard later, in confidence, that if the British had remained in Eretz Israel ten years longer I might possibly have risen to high eminence and been elected second assistant to the third warden of the synagogue. I was quite popular, though I never took part in any political discussions – or perhaps that was the reason.”

Menachem Begin disguised as Rabbi Israel Sassover, with his wife Aliza and their son Benny. Photo: GPO
Menachem Begin disguised as Rabbi Israel Sassover, with his wife Aliza and their son Benny. Photo: GPO

What the neighbors had to say about him:

“I think they came to the conclusion that I was a good-for-nothing who had had a large dowry from his wife. They could hardly have believed me capable of any work. They pitied my wife deeply, especially the women. ‘Poor young thing,’ they said, ‘she must have been forced to marry this loafer, this perpetual student.’ I was certainly not interested in dispelling their illusions.”



The Well-Behaved German 

The forged Dr. Koenigshoffer passport. From the Jabotinsky Institute collection
The forged Dr. Konigshoffer passport. From the Jabotinsky Institute collection

Name: Dr. Jona Konigshoffer

Address: The corner of Rosenbaum St. and Yosef Eliyahu St., Tel Aviv

Profession: Doctor

Nationality: German-Jewish

Period of time living under this identity: January, 1947 – the departure of the British from the Land of Israel

Begin on this identity:

“Quite by a chance a passport had been found in one of the public libraries in the name of Dr. Jona Konigshoffer.  It was rather a long name, but I had the advantage of being purely “Germanic.” It was a name reeking of loyalty and the preservation of law and order. So it was decided to suit me to the passport, or rather, to adapt my new photograph to it.

Bonus Fact:

The local children in the street would laugh at Menachem Begin’s son and make fun of the last name by twisting the meaning with a pun:

‘Konigs-bluffer.’ Begin reflected that “they did not know how serious their cruel joke was.”


All quotations in this article were taken from the book, The Revolt by Menachem Begin, published by Dell, 1978

For further information, visit the Jabotinsky Institute Archive online


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The Man Who Named the First Israeli Car – The Susita

The story of how the first “blue and white” car got its name, and the answer to the age-old question: Do camels really like eating Susitas?

משפחת שוב והסוסיתא השנייה, 1964. צילום: יוסף שוב

The year was 1959. The pioneer Israeli automobile manufacturer, Autocars, decided to announce the arrival of a new Israeli vehicle to the general public. This was no trivial matter – in the midst of very difficult years for the young state, while many automobile companies around the world were boycotting Israel due to pressure from the Arab world, this “blue and white” vehicle was exciting and important news. The big question was: What should this new Israeli car be called?

In order to market the upcoming release of the new automobile, Autocars turned to the public for help and published an ad in the newspapers: “Name the First Israeli Car.” To seal the deal, prize money was offered for the winner of the campaign.

Autocars' announcement of a naming competition for the first Israeli automobile
Autocars’ announcement of a naming competition for the first Israeli automobile

Like many in Israel, Yosef Shuv, a newly married agriculture student from Rehovot, saw the ad in the paper. His stroke of brilliance came to him while sitting (of all places) on the toilet. “One day I went into the bathroom and said to myself, ‘Okay, this is the moment I come up with the name. It’s now or never,'” he recalls, “and I immediately thought of the names of Israeli historical sites. I thought that an Israeli car should be named for an Israeli place. Susita was an ancient city east of the Sea of Galilee, and I immediately realized that it was an extraordinary name. “

An aerial photograph of the Susita archaeological site. Photo: Michael Eisenberg
An aerial photograph of the Susita archaeological site. Photo: Michael Eisenberg

It seems that everyone wanted to be a part of the historic naming of the first Israeli car. No less than 2,355 entries arrived at the Autocars offices in Haifa. And, in the last week of 1959, Shuv was informed that the name he had proposed- “Susita” -was chosen from the thousands of entries. The ancient name incorporates the Hebrew word sus, meaning horse. The city’s name in Greek, Hippos, has the same meaning.

It seems that Shuv was not alone in his moment of brilliance, however. Others had, in fact, proposed the same name. Autocars management therefore held a raffle to decide who would win the actual prize money, and it was here that Shuv’s luck came into play, with his name being selected for the grand prize of 500 Israeli pounds (the currency which preceded the New Israeli Shekel). The prize money was a considerable sum for the newlywed student.

But this was not the end of Yosef Shuv’s relationship with the Susita. When he was informed of his victory, Shuv insisted on seeing the factory for himself to observe how the first Israeli car was manufactured. Later, he fulfilled another dream when – thanks to a large discount from Autocars – he purchased his first Susita.

But alas, Shuv’s Susita didn’t last long and was soon involved in an accident with a flashy Renault. Shuv was unharmed, but his Susita was another story.

The accident involving Shuv's first Susita, 1964. Photographed on Aluf Sadeh Road, Ramat Gan
The accident involving Shuv’s first Susita, 1964. Photographed on Aluf Sadeh Road, Ramat Gan


By now, he was hooked and the new automobile enthusiast used the insurance money to buy his second Susita.

The second Susita. Photographed in 1968 in the courtyard of the Shuv family home in Ganei Am. Sarah Shuv is behind the wheel. Photo: Yosef Shuv
The second Susita. Photographed in 1968 in the courtyard of the Shuv family home in Ganei Am. Sarah Shuv is behind the wheel. Photo: Yosef Shuv

Later on, he would exchange it for a third – this time the station wagon model.

The Shuvs’ third Susita, transporting Gerbera plants, 1972. Photo: Yosef Shuv.
The Shuvs’ third Susita, transporting Gerbera plants, 1972. Photo: Yosef Shuv.


His children fondly remember the trips to school in the beloved Susita. When the family moved to the United States for a year in 1972, Yosef again parted from his Susita, this time for good.

The second Susita. Amos Shuv, Yosef's son, is about a year and a half old in this picture. Photo: Yosef Shuv.
The second Susita. Amos Shuv, Yosef’s son, is about a year and a half old in this picture. Photo: Yosef Shuv.

Aside from naming the Susita, the young student managed to go on to accomplish a few other things in his lifetime. Dr. Ysef Shuv is a world expert and cultivator of Gerbera flowers, and even won the Minister of Agriculture Prize for his work.

Dr. Yosef Shuv at the Ganei Am greenhouse, 1983
Dr. Yosef Shuv at the Ganei Am greenhouse, 1983

Finally, we asked Dr. Shuv the controversial question that has perplexed many when it comes to the legend of the Susita: Was the first Israeli automobile indeed a delicacy for hungry desert-roaming camels? “The myth about camels liking to chew on Susitas is, of course, nonsense,” Shuv answered definitively. As an award-winning agricultural expert, he probably knows what he’s talking about.

The third Susita, a station wagon. Photographed on a family trip to the Elah Valley, 1972. Photo: Yosef Shuv.
The third Susita, a station wagon. Photographed on a family trip to the Elah Valley, 1972. Photo: Yosef Shuv.



Our many thanks to Moran Shuv for her help in preparing this article. You can read the full Hebrew interview Moran held with her father Yosef, here.


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The Brazilian-Israeli Who Was Sent to the Front, Captured, and Returned in a Syrian Uniform

The story of the prisoner of war, Julio Friedman, whose picture was identified by his family as part of the National Library’s 'Naming the Soldiers' project


“This is a picture that we, the family, didn’t know about,” says Clarinia, the sister of Julio Friedman, who appears in the center of the picture. When we told her about the National Library’s ‘Naming the Soldiers’ project in honor of Israel’s 71st Independence Day, we could hear the excitement in her voice. Her voice would break more than once throughout the course of our conversation as she relived those distant, unpleasant days.

Clarinia begins the story in 1970. This was the year she (then married with a child and a second on the way) immigrated to Israel with her brother, Julio. Julio first worked picking bananas (“he was a big, strong man”) while he learned Hebrew in an ulpan, a Hebrew-language school for new immigrants (olim). After he was able to save up a bit of money, he bought a Volkswagen van and used it to drive around a troupe of flamenco dancers he had met. He also found work as a technician at Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).

Julio, Clarinia, and many others who emigrated from Brazil to Israel found it difficult to master the new language of Hebrew. This fact would prove to play a crucial role when Julio joined the IDF.

After two and a half years in Israel, Julio, who was 26 when he immigrated to Israel, was called up to serve a shortened military service that was compulsory for olim – six months of service. He would not, however, even have the opportunity to complete the three-month basic training. Less than two and a half months after his enlistment, the Yom Kippur War broke out. Julio was dispatched to the northern front – the embattled Golan Heights.


Private Julio Friedman
Private Julio Friedman


On the second day of the war, Clarinia felt something was wrong. The day before, she and her friends were baffled by a siren going off on Yom Kippur and what the illogical sentences crackling out of the radio meant. It was not until Golda Meir herself broadcast a dramatic announcement over the airwaves that the members of the Brazilian immigrant community in Herzliya understood that something serious had occurred. Thanks to a neighbor who decoded the Hebrew message by translating it into her mother tongue, Romanian (“Portuguese and Romanian are both Latin languages, so we managed to understand a little”), the members of the small community of Brazilian-Israelis understood that a war had broken out over the High Holiday.

Only several hours after getting her bad feeling, uniformed soldiers knocked on Clarinia’s door. They explained that since Julio had left basic training a few days prior, they thought it was best to return a package that Clarinia had previously sent to her brother. The soldiers did not know to which base Julio had been dispatched. They had only come to return the package out of courtesy. At that very moment, no one in the IDF knew that Julio had already been captured by Syrian forces, and was apparently being taken by his captors to the Syrian capital. Over the next two weeks, he would undergo a series of interrogations and mistreatment. Afterwards, he and other Israeli prisoners of war would be held in the Al-Mezzeh prison, overlooking Damascus

Through a family friend, Clarinia and her husband discovered that Julio’s most likely last known location – or, more precisely, the location of an Israeli soldier of Brazilian origin – was in a bunker in the north of the country. Their attempt to track down the last person to see Julio alive led them to a soldier who was healing from an ear injury at a base in Acre. This was all the information that Clarinia and her husband had to go on. They did not know the name of the soldier or what he looked like. The couple traveled to the base in search of information and answers.

When they arrived, Clarinia and her husband received confirmation that a soldier who was recovering from an ear injury and had been in a bunker in the north was indeed assigned to the base. But, he had received a weekend pass and had already left the base.  The couple spoke with the base commander, but he did not know the name of the soldier in question. The commander only knew that he was of Indian origin and lived in Lod.

Clarinia and her husband tracked down the soldier at the cinema in Lod, and he was able to confirm that the missing Brazilian soldier who was with him and two other soldiers in the bunker was indeed Julio. He explained that the situation in the bunker had been dire. Except for Julio, all of the soldiers in the bunker had been wounded. Supplies were running dangerously low, so Julio volunteered to venture out of the safety of the bunker in search of water. “We heard words in Arabic and we did not know what happened after that,” the soldier explained to Clarinia and her husband. It was only after his return from captivity that Julio told his sister that he thought that the Syrian soldiers he heard were speaking in Hebrew, which led him to approach them for help.

“We informed Julio’s direct superior of what we had learned. Three or four IDF commanders showed up with maps in their hands, to tell us what they thought had happened.” Then, Clarinia repeated a sentence that is burned painfully in her mind to this day, a sentence uttered by one of the commanders. “Do not think too much about it. In the first few days of a war, you do not take prisoners.”

The war that had broken out on October 6, 1973 was officially ended with a ceasefire on October 24. Although the ceasefire had officially gone into effect, Israelis and Syrians would continue to exchange fire along the border into 1974. It was in February, 1974, that US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was able to obtain the full list of Israeli prisoners from the Syrian government. On the night the list was released to the public, another military delegation knocked on Clarinia’s door. “This time, it was a sweet young female soldier who informed us that Julio was on the list of prisoners. Until that moment, we still did not know what had happened to him.” It was only then that Clarinia phoned her mother, who had stayed behind in Brazil, to inform her of her brother’s situation. This was the first time that she had told their mother that anything was wrong.

Kissinger’s list paved the way for the Red Cross to become involved in the conflict, and a connection between the prisoners in Syria and their home country was established. “That’s how we saw him for the first time, in a photo sent by the Red Cross. He very thin, but alive.”


Julio Friedman and other prisoners return from Syrian captivity. June 6, 1974. From the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel
Julio Friedman and other prisoners return from Syrian captivity. June 6, 1974. From the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


The return of the prisoners, which was planned for May, was postponed to June 6, 1974. David Avaky spent the eight months of captivity as Julio’s cellmate. In the conversation we held with David, he told us about the moment the prisoners realized that they were returning to Israel. “We had one jailer who treated us very well…He spoke with us on a human level…One day he came in to visit a wounded soldier and asked him to collect all his personal effects and come with him. We were used to the Syrians taking us away for short periods of time. But, having the soldier take his things with him was something new. Half an hour later, he returned and spoke with us about the history of the region, about Israel and Syria. He told us that all the wounded were being returned to Israel and that he was going on holiday. ‘Inshallah, we will not meet again when I return.’ Indeed, a week later, we returned to Israel. In the days following his visit, we felt the relationship begin to change. But, the biggest change was the day before we were released. They brought us sports clothes and took us out to exercise. Representatives of the Red Cross were there, and they informed any prisoners who were still in the dark about our planned return home. We remained skeptical the entire trip south to the border.”


Julio Friedman, together with other Israelis held in captivity, are hosted by the Jewish community in Switzerland. 1976 (Julio is standing in the back, on the left side of the picture, sporting an impressive mustache)
Julio Friedman, together with other Israelis held in captivity, are hosted by the Jewish community in Switzerland. 1976 (Julio is standing in the back, on the left side of the picture, sporting an impressive mustache)

Clarinia remembered the day that the prisoners returned to Israel. At the welcoming ceremony, the IDF placed the families behind a barrier. In front of the barrier was a platform for Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who were supposed to meet the prisoners first. “As soon as the blue plane with the Red Cross touched down on the tarmac, there was no barrier that could hold us back.”

Among the last of the prisoners to disembark the plane was Julio. He could not walk. When Clarinia finally saw Julio’s smiling face, she saw that he was missing his two front teeth. This was the first sign of the horrors that he had endured. “Were you wounded in the leg?” asked his worried sister. Her brother explained that he was not, but that he had been given shoes three sizes too small. And why was he the only soldier dressed in Syrian army uniform? “I did not believe it. I refused to take off my prison uniform until my feet stood on Israeli soil.”

Julio talked with his sister about his captivity for three days and nights. It was during this release of emotions that he revealed to Clarinia the atrocities he had endured in Syria. After the three days, he never spoke of his captivity again. Julio died in 2008 after a long struggle with cancer, a disease that the IDF later recognized as a result of Julio’s coping with his time in captivity. His two children knew almost nothing of this period of his life. It was only at their father’s shiva that Clarinia told them the story that Julio had revealed during the first three days after his return.

At the end of our conversation with Clarinia, we asked about the man he was. Who was the man who had experienced these terrible things at the hands of his captors? Who was the man who had told her everything over three days and never spoke of it again? He later married, adopted two children, and raised a family. Did his captivity change his character? Clarinia says no. Julio was an easy-going character. He allowed troubles to pass by him, all the while remaining stable and unchanging. “That’s the only way he got through it,” she said, adding that there was one thing Julio was not able to overcome, “Only the noise of keys, that was the only noise that bothered him.”

Julio’s wife, Bella Friedman, identified the picture of her husband returning from captivity in a post that we published. The couple, who first met in the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, met again in Israel in 1974. In February 1975 they married. Bella was also the one who recommended we speak to Clarinia and David Avaki.

•Julio and Bella Friedman
Julio and Bella Friedman


We would like to thank Bella, Clarinia, and David for sharing Julio’s story with us, as well as their own memories, and especially for opening their hearts to us.


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Abraham Shalom Yahuda: The Scholar, the Collector and the Collections

The story of the fascinating figure who established the National Library's collection of Arabic and Islamic works

Abraham Shalom Yahuda in traditional Arabic dress

The Collection, which I began to assemble some 45 years ago, was brought together from all parts of the East. They have mostly been purchased from private scholars and libraries, which belonged to old patrician or scholarly families of Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, Tunis, Fes and other ancient towns of the Islamic world. Some others emanate from private mosques in larger or smaller cities in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Turkey, Persia, Morocco, India and other parts of the East, including the Yemen in South Arabia, Adana and Ankara in Asia Minor. Only a very small part was acquired in Europe from private collections or at auctions.

Abraham Shalom Yehuda


Abraham Shalom Yahuda (1877-1951) was a polymath scholar, public intellectual, and bibliophile. Yahuda was born in Jerusalem to a wealthy and distinguished Jewish family of mixed Sephardic and Ashkenazic ancestry. His father, Rabbi Benjamin Ezekiel Yahuda, was from an illustrious Baghdad family. Yahuda’s mother, Rebecca Bergman, descended on her father’s side from an important rabbinic family originally from Frankfurt, Germany, and from her mother’s side from a noted Iraqi family whose ancestors claimed descent from Yosef Ben-Shoshan, a courtier of Alfonso VIII of Castile (r. 1158-1214).

A bright and precocious student, Yahuda devoted himself to study from an early age, focusing both on rabbinics (including the Hebrew Bible and its exegetical traditions, Talmud, and Jewish law), and arts and sciences. From the age of 15, he began learning European languages and literary Arabic; the Yahuda family spoke Arabic at home. When he was 16, in October 1893, he published his first monograph, Arab Antiquities (in Hebrew), on pre-Islamic Arab history and culture. A little more than a year later, in 1895, he published a scholarly translation of selected classical Arabic poetry, Nobles and Heroes of the Arabs (in Hebrew).

Abraham Shalom Yahuda, 1897, the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


In 1895, Yahuda traveled to Germany to pursue academic studies in Semitics and Oriental Studies in Darmstadt, Frankfurt am Mein, and Nuremburg. He then entered the University of Strasbourg (except for one year at Heidelberg), completing his doctorate in 1904. During this time, Yahuda studied with renowned Orientalists Theodor Nöldeke, his doctoral adviser, and Ignaz Goldziher. Yahuda’s scholarly writings and personal letters suggest that he developed a close relationship with Goldziher and established a friendship with his son Karl that continued throughout Yahuda’s lifetime. After Goldziher’s death in 1921, Yahuda played a key role in securing the acquisition of Goldziher’s private library by the World Zionist Organization for the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem.

In an article dedicated to Goldziher and his library, Yahuda describes this acquisition as critical not only for the development of the Semitic languages department of the nascent Hebrew University, but also for the creation of a shared intellectual space for Arab and Jewish scholars:

And behold, such a library as this, which contains a lovely and amazing treasure of the best of Arabic literature and the finest works of Islam, may indeed become a meeting place for Arab and Jewish scholars alike. There they may sit as brothers in wisdom and friends in scholarship, and the inspiration (Shekhina) of enlightenment will impart upon our neighbors, those closest to us both genealogically and in mindset, the same spirit of tolerance, of munificence, kindheartedness, and generosity in which the Arabs excelled in ancient times, during their rule of East and West and during the most sublime generations of their intellectual achievement and culture.

The arrival of the 6,000 volumes that comprised the “Goldziher Library” in 1924 was, in fact, marked by a cross-denominational celebration that attracted the political and cultural spectrum of elite Jerusalem society, and was hailed as a meeting place for scholars from all religions and communities. The Goldziher collection served as the foundation of the National Library of Israel’s Arabic and Islam collection, which today contains close to half a million volumes.

During his student days in Germany, Yahuda became acquainted with a number of fellow students who became leading figures in the Zionist movement, including Shaul Tchernichovsky, Joseph Klausner, and others. Yahuda participated in the first four Zionist Congresses (1897-1901), and became a follower and confidante of Zionist thinker Max Nordau. Yahuda expressed a keen interest in the revival of the Hebrew language and established Hebrew language classes in Frankfurt. He also expressed an abiding concern for Jewish-Arab relations in the Land of Israel/Palestine and offered his assistance on this matter to Zionist leaders Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann.

Abraham Shalom Yahuda, London, 1910, the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


In 1905, Yahuda completed his doctorate, a pioneering study on the 11th century Andalusian Jewish thinker, Bahya ibn Pakuda. His interest in manuscripts can already be detected at this early stage: his dissertation was devoted to a general study of Ibn Pakuda’s Duties of the Heart and a critical edition of the first chapter. In 1912, he published a critical edition of the entire treatise. Yahuda then began teaching as a lecturer at the Berlin Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Higher Institute for Jewish Studies), a position he held until 1914. In 1915, he was appointed the first-ever professor of Judaic studies at the University of Madrid, where he taught courses on Jewish history and literature and Arab culture. Yahuda developed warm relations with the Spanish king Alfonso XIII (r. 1886-1931), and was an active member of the academic societies both in Madrid and Toledo, as well as in Lisbon. During his time in Spain, Yahuda collected extensive archival material on Jewish history in Spain and published numerous articles on related subjects.

In 1920, Yahuda travelled to Jerusalem after receiving an invitation from the Hebrew University’s founding committee to join the new faculty and teach Bible studies and Arabic language and literature. However, he left Jerusalem just a few months later in early 1921, bitterly disappointed both by the lack of reception to his ideas about a shared Arab-Jewish culture and future and having his university appointment effectively rescinded. Yahuda returned to his residence in London and, in June of that year, married Ethel Judes, originally of South Africa.

During the ensuing twenty years, Yahuda turned his attention to scholarship, public lecturing in England, travelling, and manuscript collecting. His set of monographs — Die Sprache des Pentateuch in ihren Beziehungen zum Aegyptischen (1929); The Language of the Pentateuch in Its Relation to Egyptian (1933); and a popular English edition, The Accuracy of the Bible, (1934) — caused an international debate. Yahuda argued there that the ancient Egyptian language strongly influenced the Egypt-related narratives in the Torah, such as Joseph and the Exodus; this argument presumed that the Torah was composed around the time of the biblical Exodus from Egypt, nearly in line with traditional Jewish chronology. While his thesis was rejected by biblical critics and other Orientalists, Yahuda maintained his position. Throughout this time, he also continued his attempts to aid Jewish communities in Europe and the Middle East and to improve relations between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. His letters express his strong opposition to the intercommunal policies of the Zionist Organization in general, and with those of Chaim Weizmann in particular.

Abraham Shalom Yahuda, Madrid, 1916, the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


In 1942, Yahuda immigrated to the United States and received an appointment as visiting professor at the New School for Social Research in New York. In 1946, he published Hebrew and Arab (in Hebrew, Ever ve-‘Arav), an anthology of scholarly articles and personal recollections that spanned his career. He died in 1951 and was survived by his wife Ethel.

Yahuda was a prolific and wide-ranging intellect who did not shy away from public debate. He published fifteen monographs and scores of scholarly articles in German, Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, English, and French. In addition to the subjects mentioned above, he published extensively on medieval biblical exegesis; Hebrew poetry; Jewish philosophy under Islam; Qur’an and Hadith interpretation; and contemporary political affairs. His personal papers, now housed at the National Library of Israel, reflect the breadth and depth of his intellectual life. It includes correspondence with some of the great European intellectual and cultural minds of his day, such as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, Max Liebermann, Hermann Struck, and John Maynard Keynes, as well as British, Jewish, and Arab leaders in Mandatory Palestine.


Yahuda as Manuscript Collector

Yahuda’s manuscript collecting activities were preceded and augmented by those of his older brother, Isaac Ezekiel Yahuda (1863-1941). Isaac Yahuda was himself a well-respected scholar of Semitic languages and of Islam. He first became a dealer in Oriental manuscripts in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1904. He then took up residence in Cairo in 1906, where, until 1920, he engaged both in scholarship and in selling Islamic books and manuscripts through his store, located near al-Azhar University. Abraham Yahuda, who likely collected manuscripts as a hobby beforehand, began to collect more systematically during the 1920s.

Yahuda’s letters describe his method of carefully selecting manuscripts from the libraries of renowned Islamic scholars and of his continuing search for unique or autograph copies. In a letter to his friend and client, the Irish-American collector Chester Beatty, from July 13, 1928, Yahuda writes:

I have now a nice little collection of very valuable and rare old MSS. by famous authors, which I picked from among three collections I bought at Damascus, The Lebanon and Cairo, and which have again been selected from three old libraries which belonged to famous scholars of the 15th & 16th centuries and remained in the hands of their families up to now.

Yahuda also acquired manuscripts through associates. In another letter to Beatty, dated May 15, 1929, Yahuda describes his ability to cover broad regions of the Islamic world:

I have also succeeded in getting the right men, men of personal authority and knowledge in books to go to Yemen and Irak [sic], and am negotiating with a scholar to persuade him to go to Asia Minor or Morocco. The first result of the Irak excursion is the purchase of two collections coming from two very old libraries in Baghdad and Nedjef [sic] respectively. There are very important books among them, some unique copies as well as some autograph copies of famous authors of the 6th and 7th centuries A.H. and many other books of fundamental importance in different fields of knowledge.

These vignettes echo Yahuda’s more comprehensive description, cited above, of the myriad sources of his collection from across the Islamic world. Throughout his travels, Yahuda developed a singular reputation as a collector both for his profound erudition in the content of the manuscripts and for his uncanny ability to identify valuable material.

An early Qur’an, dated to 905 CE, the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel


The Yahuda Collections
Besides being an avid manuscript collector, Yahuda also sold large parts of his and his brother’s collections to eminent institutions and collectors. Yahuda sold manuscripts to the British Museum for over three decades. His connections with the British Museum also led to other clients. In 1926, Edward Edwards, who purchased 200 manuscripts from Yahuda for the British Museum in the early 1920s, facilitated Yahuda’s sale (on behalf of his brother) of 265 additional manuscripts to the University of Michigan. In addition, Yahuda sold numerous illuminated manuscripts to Chester Beatty. Between 1940 and 1942, he sold his collection of Islamic medical manuscripts to the U.S. Armed Forces Medical Library (now called the National Library of Medicine). And then, in 1942, Yahuda sold the majority of his collection (5,321 manuscripts) to Robert and John Garrett on behalf of Princeton University. The Princeton scholar of Semitic literature, Professor Phillip Hitti, described this collection as “reputedly the largest and most valuable collection of Arabic manuscripts in private possession.”

Taken from the Revision of Ibn al-Haytham’s Book of Optics by Kamal al-Din al-Farisi, dated to 1511 CE, the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel


History of the Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel
Beginning in 1949, Abraham and Ethel Yahuda began planning to move to Israel and explored the possibility of setting up an Arab-Jewish research center in Jerusalem based on Yahuda’s collections. By 1951, Yahuda indicated his interest to house his collection at the Jewish National and University Library. In a letter dated August 9, 1951, only weeks before his death, Yahuda informed the head of the JNUL, Dr. Curt Wormann, that his collection was packed at a warehouse near their home in New Haven and ready for shipping instructions. Following Yahuda’s sudden death, Ethel Yahuda carried on cataloguing the collection in preparation for its transfer to Jerusalem. During a visit to Israel in 1953, she publicly announced her intention to donate the collection to the JNUL at a luncheon in her honor with Hebrew University officials and Israel’s then President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. However, when she died in 1955, she had not yet completed her cataloguing work and, more significantly, had neglected to include a provision for the donation to the Hebrew University JNUL in her will. One of the executors of the estate, Abraham Yahuda’s nephew, objected to the donation. The case was contested in the Connecticut court, and the state Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of the Hebrew University in 1966. The Yahuda Collection finally arrived at the Library in 1967.

A beautiful Iranian manuscript of Layla and Majnun from 1602 CE, the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel


The Yahuda Collection, including his private collection of manuscripts, rare books, scholarly literature, and personal papers, is undoubtedly one of the most valuable and significant bequests ever received by the National Library of Israel (which was known as the Jewish National and University Library [JNUL] of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem from 1925-2011). It comprises some 1,400 manuscripts, including 1,186 manuscripts in the Arabic script (primarily in Arabic, with 350 in Persian and 250 in Ottoman Turkish). The collection dates from the third/ninth through the thirteenth/nineteenth centuries. It includes compositions from Spain and North Africa to Central and South Asia, and encompasses all the major Islamic religious fields, as well as the study of language and literature, and science, medicine, and mathematics.

The collection also includes 240 manuscripts in Hebrew script and fifty manuscripts in Roman script, including a number of beautifully illuminated copies of the Book of Hours. In addition to manuscripts, the Yahuda collection also includes a number of incunabula and many other rare printed editions. Among the more remarkable non-Islamic items is the vast archive of Isaac Newton’s theological writings including 7,500 pages, purchased by Yahuda after they were auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1936. Another unique collection comprises 1,100 documents from the period of Napoleon’s rule in Egypt, some signed by his own hand. Finally, the Collection encompasses Yahuda’s vast archive of approximately 3,000 letters, which provides a clear window into the complex and fascinating life of Yahuda himself.

You can browse through many of the Arabic manuscripts in the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel, here.


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