Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Napoleon: The Meeting That Never Was

In 1799, after a perilous journey, Rabbi Nachman arrived in the Land of Israel just in time to witness its conquest by Napoleon. Only by a miracle did R. Nachman escape Napoleon’s siege on Acre. So why did he make the French general the hero of one of his best-known stories?

The statue of Napoleon atop Napoleon’s Hill in Acre, the site where he stationed his cannons. Photo: Almog, Wikipedia

On Sunday, January 16, 1810, Rabbi Nachman related to his followers the story of the Ba’al Tefillah – “The Master of Prayer”, one of his best known and most enigmatic tales. The story follows the deeds of an anonymous tzaddik who attracts a growing number of people to the “purpose of the whole world,” which is to serve God in prayer, song and praise.

Word of the Master of Prayer’s efforts to “steal” people away from their normal lives and into the service of God had begun to spread. In order to continue his work, the tzaddik was forced to assume different guises, “with one person he would be a pauper; with another a merchant; while with others he would have different disguises.” Even when conversing with the people he was trying to bring to his side, he did not always reveal his true purpose. He knew exactly how to sway each person individually. For example, he could determine a poor person might need to be dressed in royal robes while a rich person “needed to wear torn, humble clothing.” This was how the mysterious tzaddik spent his days, until he heard of “a land that possessed great wealth”, where everyone was rich.

The Land of Wealth turned out to be a huge challenge for the tzaddik. He wanted to bring its inhabitants to repent, but he soon discovered that they were not interested in his religion for they had their own – the religion of money, which ranks everyone according to their wealth. If this wealth was devoid of any theological dimension, the Master of Prayer might have been able to overcome its destructive power. But when money is the religion, even the poorest of the poor—who are considered beasts according to this doctrine—believe in it with all their hearts. The truly rich are compared to heavenly stars, and the richest of all are worshipped by the rest, as if they were divine beings. To avoid being tainted by other, poorer people, the residents of the Land of Wealth even removed themselves to a remote location surrounded by high mountains.

The Master of Prayer fails utterly in his attempts to convert the people of the Land of Wealth from their religion, and to add insult to injury, they arrest him and put him in prison. But before he can be sentenced, a Mighty Warrior and his army arrive at the gates of the Land of Wealth. The Warrior presents his demands – the same demands he has presented to countless other lands he has conquered: surrender and avoid destruction. The ultimatum strikes fear into the hearts of the people of the Land of Wealth. They wish to surrender to avoid their own demise but they are afraid for they know that the Mighty Warrior is not interested in money but in control, which in their religion makes him a heretic. They try and fail to seek help from a country richer than their own, and they are at a loss of what to do next.

After failing completely in his mission, the Master of Prayer suddenly remembers that he might actually know this Mighty Warrior who is lying in wait outside the walls of the land. Brought before the ministers, he tells them that he himself was once “with a king, who had a mighty warrior who was lost. If that warrior is this Mighty Warrior, then I know him.” Only now, with the people of the Land of Wealth in mortal fear of conquest and destruction, was the Master of Prayer able to begin to sway them.

The story does not end there, but in order to understand its finale and guess the identity of that unnamed hero, we must go back even further in time, a full ten years earlier—to the journey of the real Rabbi Nachman to the Land of Israel. We will learn whom he encountered there (and whom he did not) and why he saw this journey as the defining moment of his life, for it was then that he went from being just another community leader, albeit with a noble family pedigree but nothing more, to a Ba’al Tefillah and a true tzaddik. In other words, this is the story of how Rabbi Nachman became the celebrated figure who continues to draw new adherents even two hundred years after his premature death.

Sippurei Maasiyot LeRabbi Bachman MeBratslav (“Stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav”), Berlin, 1922

Rabbi Nachman’s Great Journey

Like so many big decisions in Rabbi Nachman’s life, the decision to journey to the Land of Israel seemed to come out of nowhere. In fact, it came from a sudden inner calling that he never bothered to explain fully.

As a young child, Nachman developed his unique way of approaching God intuitively. On harsh winter nights, he was said to visit the grave of his great-grandfather, the Besht, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, or he might go off by himself into the woods, or even shut himself in the Besht’s study and refuse to come out until the holy books began to “speak” to him. Outwardly, he would feign ignorance, but inwardly he burned with faith and religious zeal. He composed his own prayers and even secretly gave his meager allowance to a teacher in return for extra lessons. It is quite possible that the stories that have come down to us about Nachman the boy are exaggerated, but it is clear from them that he was a fervently religious young man with a searing belief in himself, who was simultaneously racked with self-doubt concerning his own ability to realize his destiny.

In 1798, at the age of 26, Rabbi Nachman announced his intention to embark on the dangerous and arduous journey to the Land of Israel. He provided a number of justifications before and after the journey, the main one being his desire to visit the grave of his grandfather, Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka, whom he had lost touch with.

The idea of pilgrimage to the Land of Israel was not an invention of Rabbi Nachman’s, not even a re-invention. His great grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, had undertaken just such a journey but was forced to turn back when he reached Constantinople. Other rabbis and Hasidim took the same journey and, unlike the Besht, many had completed it. Nevertheless, the journey surprised and worried the young Rabbi Nachman’s disciples. His wife tried to dissuade him from embarking on this dangerous trip and sent one of their daughters to convince him to give up on the idea. This was Rabbi Nachman’s answer to his daughter:

You will go to your in-laws. Someone will take in your older sister as a maidservant, a nienke. Someone will have pity on your younger sister and will take her in. And your mother can become a cook. I will sell the entire contents of the house to pay for the journey.

Rabbi Nachman’s insistence surprised many, for two additional reasons: First, by that time, Hasidic rabbis had already developed a theological justification for not undertaking the physical journey to the Land of Israel. They claimed that stepping foot in a synagogue in the Diaspora is equivalent to setting foot on the soil of the Land of Israel, encompassing all of its virtues. Secondly, there was the small matter of the war raging in Egypt and Palestine between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Ottoman Empire.


The French Giant Sets Out to Conquer the East

It’s not unusual nowadays to see an advertisement claiming a product to be “revolutionary,” but, it was the French Revolution that epitomized the new meaning of the term “revolution” – a radical, rapid and root-deep disconnection of the present from the past. This disconnection is present in many of Rabbi Nachman’s stories where kings—who, before the revolution, were believed to be all-powerful, ruling by divine grace—are shuffled as in a deck of cards. He who was small becomes great, and he who was great is shunted aside and discarded. More broadly, the world is generally depicted as being in turmoil, and so it also remains at the end of many of Rabbi Nachman’s tales.

Napoleon Bonaparte was perhaps the archetype of the small minor player who becomes the star of the show. Born in Corsica, Napoleon belonged to the unlanded lower aristocracy, but thanks to his great military prowess and political cunning, he rose from obscurity to become a celebrated general of the French Revolution. The 28-year-old Napoleon sealed his fame during his military campaign in Italy in which he succeeded in doing the impossible: in a matter of twelve months, he snatched Italy from the clutches of the Austrian Empire, which had ruled over it for hundreds of years.

Napoleon’s next foray was the conquest of Egypt, which he completed in 1798. After capturing Cairo from the ruling Mamluk dynasty, news spread of the Ottoman army (which was being backed by the British), making its way from Asia Minor through the Land of Israel. This spurred Napoleon to quickly set off for the conquest of Palestine.

Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa, Antoine-Jean Gros, 1804

Back to Rabbi Nachman. Convinced of his righteousness, the 26-year-old rabbi and leader, informed by “the heavens” of his first destination, left his hometown of Medzhybizh for the city of Kamenitz. The secret journey to Kamenitz remains shrouded in mystery. Yet, this visit served as both a symbolic beginning and miniature version of the internal and physical journey he had to endure in order to be able to enter the Land of Israel. It was a journey of a righteous person descending into the world of impurity, struggling with what he finds there and emerging pure and unscathed. It seems that only this paradigm can explain the rest of Rabbi Nachman’s (very strange) actions on his way to and in the Land of Israel.

Rabbi Nachman and his childhood friend Rabbi Shimon set out on their journey on May 4, 1798. They traveled by wagon from the town of Medvedka to Nikolayev and from there sailed down the Dnieper to Odessa. From Odessa, they took a ship to Constantinople. On board the ship, Rabbi Nachman began composing texts that he refused to show to his companion—the first known examples of secret texts he would continue to write throughout his life and which he ordered to have burned after his death.

In Constantinople, Rabbi Nachman began exhibiting strange behavior. He would walk about barefoot and without a belt or hat. He would leave the inn in a dressing gown, run around the market and laugh aloud. He befriended boys in the streets and would act out war games with them in which “one would be called France (referring to Napoleon) and one by another name.”

When they were about to leave for Palestine, news came of Napoleon’s invasion of the Holy Land. At first, the Jewish community in Constantinople prohibited Jews to travel there. But news of the increasing danger only enhanced Rabbi Nachman’s resolve, come what may. He told Rabbi Shimon not to accompany him on the dangerous journey, but his friend refused to leave his side. A few days later, when an elderly and respected sage insisted on returning home to Jerusalem, the Jewish community relented and approved the journey. And so, Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Shimon set sail aboard a ship bound for the port of Jaffa.

The voyage was not easy. When a storm threatened to sink the ship, all the passengers shouted “everyone to God,” except for Rabbi Nachman who “sat there in silence.” He convinced the others to emulate him and trust God through silence, saying: “If you are silent, the sea above you will be silent as well.” And so it was, according to Rabbi Natan, Rabbi Nachman’s biographer and scribe, who wrote of this event many decades later.

Upon arriving in Jaffa, the port authorities suspected Rabbi Nachman of being a French spy and he was not allowed to disembark. Eventually, Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Shimon managed to get off the ship at the next stop, which was Haifa, where they arrived on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.

Rabbi Nachman’s spiritual elation quickly turned to depression almost as soon as he stepped foot on the holy soil. The young rabbi turned inward and expressed a desire to return home at once. He agreed to stay only after the pleas of Rabbi Shimon and the Hasidim of Safed and Tiberias.

Rabbi Nachman eventually remained in the Land of Israel for a total of three and a half months, but his spirits remained low the entire time he was there. In Tiberias, he and Rabbi Shimon were well received by Rabbi Abraham Kalisker and his followers. This meeting left a deep impression on him and upon his return home, he established the Bratslav community according to the model of this revered rabbi. Some speculate that the description of the exemplary Hasidic community at the beginning of the Ba’al Tefillah story is based on that community in Tiberias. Encouraged by the meeting with Kalisker, Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Shimon stayed in Tiberias for two months. From there they would take short trips to holy places in the Galilee where the sages of the Zohar had lived and worked.

Rabbi Nachman’s departure from the country was postponed several times. The news of the occupation of the coastal strip by Napoleon’s army, and particularly the threat to the port city of Acre finally convinced him that he could no longer delay his leaving. Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Shimon arrived in Acre on March 15, and immediately encountered a large stream of residents fleeing the city. Two days later, they managed to board a Turkish ship. Napoleon’s siege of Acre began on March 19, two days after their departure.

Rabbi Nachman’s composure, which he was able to maintain throughout all the tribulations, completely fell apart at this point. In the ensuing commotion, unable to speak the local languages, they mistakenly boarded a warship. It was only by the mercy of the ship’s cook, who provided them with small portions of food each day, that they survived the long journey to Europe.

This time too, a storm threatened to sink the ship and as water entered the vessel’s lower decks, the two had to stand on top of pieces of furniture to keep from drowning. They were certain that they would be sold into slavery the moment the ship docked, but upon arrival in Rhodes, the local Jewish community agreed to ransom them for a considerable sum—owing in large part to Rabbi Nachman’s distinguished family pedigree. From Rhodes they sailed on to Constantinople, where they encountered more difficulties, before an eventful voyage to Galați during which most of the passengers drowned in yet another storm. They finally arrived home in early summer, 1799.

What is the point of all of this? We hope you won’t be disappointed if we tell you that we don’t have a clear answer. Throughout the remainder of his life, Rabbi Nachman would often bring up his journey to the Land of Israel. He demanded that every remnant of his teachings from before the journey be destroyed, and he repeatedly claimed that whenever he felt his spirit fail, the only thing that revived it was what he had experienced and seen in the Land of Israel.

We can, however, offer you a certain hint: though the siege of Acre convinced Rabbi Nachman that he must flee the country as soon as possible, throughout the journey, he never saw himself as a random victim of circumstance or ongoing war. Rather, he felt that his time in the country was imbued with spiritual meaning and purpose. Rabbi Nachman later recalled a number of dreams he had had in the Land of Israel. In at least two of these dreams the Ottoman Sultan appeared before him. The Rabbi told of the great compassion he felt towards the Sultan because he—the Sultan—was one of the only people in the world who still knew their original name – Ishmael (a clear allusion to Islam). He mysteriously added that he attempted to give the Sultan a piece of advice which he seemed to have already known.

Portrait of Sultan Salim III, ruler of the Ottoman Empire during the time of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt and the Land of Israel, by Konstantin Kapıdağlı

Perhaps herein is a key to Rabbi Nachman’s view of his own journey and the tumultuous historic events that shook the known world: Perhaps he, of all people, being nothing more than a simple rabbi, had something of value to offer – thanks to faith in God, his willingness to sacrifice everything in order to set off for the Land of Israel, the internal and physical hardships he overcame, from childhood and right up to his return home – perhaps he, of all people, had something important to say and a unique way of influencing events. It is fitting, then, that we end this article where we began, with the story of the “Master of Prayer”.

After the tzaddik tells the ministers of the Land of Wealth that he might be acquainted with the Mighty Warrior, he reveals to them the way he himself managed to secretly enter the heavily fortified land. When he and the Mighty Warrior were in the old king’s court, the tzaddik said, they studied the map of the world inscribed on the king’s palm. Thus, they came to know all of the world’s paths—the familiar and the hidden. Although this is not explicitly stated, Rabbi Nachman used Kabbalistic symbols to imply that the old king was none other than God.

And indeed, when the Master of Prayer and the Mighty Warrior meet, they recognize each other immediately and fall into each other’s arms: both had served in the court of the ancient king, and were separated only when a great storm broke out in the world. This fascinating story reaches its happy conclusion (perhaps too happy – it all works out and everyone comes together). But what is important for our purposes is that in Rabbi Nachman’s view, it is the Mighty Warrior, the greatest conqueror of all, seemingly bent on destroying the world, who turns out to be a lost servant of God who conquers all the lands only to hand them over to the rule of God.

Did Rabbi Nachman miss an encounter with this Mighty Warrior by a matter of just two days when he fled the siege imposed by Napoleon’s army on Acre? According to this interpretation, which others have already proposed before us, the meeting between the great Jewish mystic and thinker and the military commander and ruler who shaped the face of Europe never happened. But Rabbi Nachman’s literary imagination could not resist the temptation of bringing himself and Napoleon together.

What a fascinating picture this is: a historic meeting between Rabbi Nachman and Napoleon Bonaparte—two young men, neither of them even thirty years old—and already, each in his own way, had begun to reshape the world.


An extra bonus for our readers:

Only two historical sources provide us a glimpse of Rabbi Nachman’s spiritual journey to the Land of Israel. Both are by the hand of Rabbi Nachman’s disciple and scribe Rabbi Natan, who recorded both accounts decades after the journey, and after Rabbi Nachman’s death in 1811 at the age of 38.

This is not the case with Napoleon Bonaparte’s military campaign in Egypt and the Land of Israel. At the National Library of Israel alone there are more than two hundred documents relating to this historical episode. We have even dedicated an entire website to it!


Further Reading:

The Revealed and Hidden Writings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav: His Worlds of Revelation and Rectification, Zvi Mark, translated by Yaacov David Shulman, De Gruyter Oldenbourg

Tormented Master: A Life of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, Arthur Green, University of Alabama Press

Napoleon: A Political Life, Steven Englund, Scribner

When the Irgun Decided to Be Judge, Jury and Executioner

Kadia Mizrahi and Leon Mashiach were executed after being sentenced to death by drumhead court martials organized by the Irgun | Their death sentences on the alleged charge of treason were delivered by a self-sanctioned, non-transparent body, lacking any oversight | Delving into the details of the cases reveals a violent and controversial procedure in which military organizations permitted themselves to execute people without conclusive evidence | A look back at a darker side of the pre-state era

Members of the Irgun patrolling on the border of Jaffa, 1948. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

On a March morning in 1947, residents of Mandatory Palestine – the Land of Israel – awoke to find a new announcement from an “Irgun Tribunal” heralding a double execution carried out by its members. These were frenzied days when the Jewish settlement was battling the British Mandate government and its attempts to prevent Jewish immigration. The Irgun and Lehi underground organizations saw the British as their greatest enemy, and anyone suspected of collaboration, even if that person was a Jew, became a potential enemy in their eyes.

The statement released that morning announced the execution of two Jews — Kadia Mizrahi of Rehovot and Leon Mashiach of Petah Tikva — on the charge of informing to the British. These were two more names in a long list, but a thorough examination of the announcement can teach us quite a bit about the phenomenon as a whole.

Irgun poster announcing the executions of Kadia Mizrahi and Leon Mashiach (Hebrew). This item is part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible via the collaboration of the Etzel Collection, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

Executions within the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine were not a new occurrence. The first political assassination was that of Jacob Israël de Haan in 1924, and dozens more Jews were sentenced to death by various organizations on charges of treason, passing on information and collaboration with the Arabs or the British, before the State of Israel’s establishment in May of 1948.

The phenomenon is sometimes attributed only to the Lehi and Irgun, with the thinking being that their hardline positions led them to commit such violent acts, but in fact, the Haganah also assassinated Jews for similar reasons on several occasions. The difference was that the Haganah carried out its executions “quietly,” whereas the Irgun and Lehi chose to publicly announce theirs. Throughout most of the 1940s, the majority of the executions of Jews on these and other charges were indeed carried out by the Irgun and Lehi, while the Haganah during this period attempted to maintain a policy of cooperation with the British, as World War II and the Holocaust were both underway.

And for the slanderers/informers let there be no hope, traitors to their people” – an Irgun poster that made reference to the execution of informers. This item is part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible via the collaboration of the Etzel Collection, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The announcement distributed in March 1947 begins with a description of Kadia Mizrahi’s guilt: “A whore who is corrupt to the core, a traitor to her people, a servant of the enemy, a professional informant who betrayed Jewish citizens, even her own son, to the British secret police.” It goes on to say how conclusive evidence was presented to the court (whose members remain unknown to this day) and that after Mizrahi had been warned about her behavior on previous occasions, she was executed.

Kadia was born in Israel to a Yemenite immigrant family. Her fate was sealed early on in life when she haphazardly married a youth her family did not approve of. The marriage was annulled, but from that day forward, she was an outcast. She was later married to Avraham Shriqi (whose name was Hebraized to Mizrahi) and became a homemaker, while also earning some money working in the homes of wealthier families in the area. The couple had five children. In 1945, Kadia did the unthinkable at the time by asking the Rabbinical Court for a divorce from her husband. Her request was eventually granted, along with a plot of land in the Marmurek area (Rehovot).

Following her divorce, Kadia lived alone after her ex-husband gained custody of the children in order to avoid paying child support. She adopted a lifestyle that was frowned upon by just about everyone aside from herself. She enjoyed dressing in nice clothes, dancing, sitting in cafes and smoking cigarettes. Around this time, the Jewish establishment in Mandatory Palestine began recruiting women to entertain British soldiers and show them a good time, as a way to win them over to the Zionist cause. Kadia signed up.

It should be noted that the women were not recruited to have sexual relations with the soldiers. Nevertheless, many among the Jewish community were skeptical of the tactic. The national institutions wanted the girls to dance with the foreign soldiers, host them and advocate for Jewish interests in the Land of Israel, but others feared assimilation. The “Committee to Protect the Honor of Jewish Daughters” was established to combat this “plague”. At one point, Kadia was recruited to work for the local branch of the British police. She started in maintenance and cleaning, advancing to the position of Arabic-English interpreter, before finally becoming a police officer/warden working with local women.

She and other women were occasionally followed by Irgun agents who suspected them of passing on information to the British, but Kadia was dismissive of these tactics. According to various sources, one night, after an Irgun attack on the Qastina airbase, the fighters returning from the operation stopped by her house to rest and change clothes, but Kadia wouldn’t let them in. Her refusal was to have dire consequences.

“Kadia Mizrahi, Police Officer From Rehovot, Murdered…she was sent threatening letters warning her ‘not to be too chatty and to refrain from informing'” – news item published in HaBoker, March 10, 1947

As a woman at that time, Kadia was already at a disadvantage. Her extroverted behavior, association with the British, the fact that she was divorced, lived alone and made no excuses for whom she associated with, all made her an easy target. She suffered various harassments, including masked men who tried to break into her home as well as malicious rumors that were spread about her. Finally, when the British imposed martial law in March 1947, she was accused of informing and passing on the names of Hebrew fighters.

The language of the announcement detailing her execution clearly displays the opinions of the Irgun about her chosen lifestyle, indicating that this was among their considerations when making the final decision on her fate. After receiving several threats, Kadia went to the British police but they refused to help her. Finally, one night, armed and masked members of the Irgun broke into her home and shot her eight times in her bed. She was 42 years old when she died. Her children engraved on her tombstone: “Murdered as a result of unjustified hatred and false accusations”.

The case of Leon Mashiach, who was executed around the same time, was slightly different, though his fate was similar. Originally from Bulgaria, the 29 year-old Mashiach was a newly discharged soldier and recently divorced. His accusers used the same language as they did for Kadia: “a traitor to his people and an informer.”

The Irgun tribunal published that Leon Mashiach confessed to his deeds and even signed a statement proving his guilt: “I, the undersigned, hereby declare of my own free will that I had contact with the detective Sergeant MacLachlan of Petah Tikva. I gave him two training locations, one in the synagogue near the flour mill […] and the other in a kindergarten in Mahane Yehuda […] I devised a plan to capture the weapons trainees […].” Below it, he signed his name, the date, his year of birth and other details. His statement was not published along with the poster and was only found many years later in various archives.

After admitting his guilt, Mashiach asked to commit suicide as an “honorable solution” and to protect his son’s reputation. His request was denied, but according to the tribunal’s declaration, the Irgun assured him that “the disgrace of the traitorous father will not taint the son, who will grow up to be a loyal son to his country and homeland.” According to a news item published after the murder, his body was found blindfolded, after “rumor spread that he was involved in passing information to the police.”

“I, the undersigned, hereby declare of my own free will that I had contact with the detective Sergeant MacLachlan of Petah Tikva” – Leon Mashiach’s “confession”. This item is part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible via the collaboration of the Etzel Collection, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

We don’t know the conditions under which Leon Mashiach’s “confession” was obtained, or what, if any, chance he was given to prove his innocence. It is possible that the confession was forced in order to “sanction” the execution, but it is also possible that he was indeed an informant and, once caught, chose to confess. The language of the confession — two exact locations, the name of the officer he was in contact with, and what they planned to do — may attest to its authenticity, but it is also possible that the statement was dictated to him.

The description of events, among other things the wording – “the court denied the request”, creates the illusion of an orderly judicial process. However, it is equally possible that everything happened quickly, and that the orderly procedure was nothing more than a short conversation before the execution. It is interesting that in this case, the “evidence” was presented in the form of a confession, while in the case of Kadia Mizrahi, there was no evidence at all besides “her lifestyle”, which had no real connection to the acts she was accused of perpetrating. The short news item about Mashiach’s execution was published in the newspaper HaTsofe, where the headline called it a “murder”, although the article itself was not critical of the act. Mashiach was buried in Petah Tikva. Meanwhile, the Leon Mashiach file in the archive of the Jabotinsky Institute remains confidential and is kept in a safe.

Screenshot of the confidential file, the Jabotinsky Institute Archive

The poster published by the Irgun concludes with a general paragraph that is both a warning and a threat promising a similar fate to anyone who cooperates with or passes information to the British. The public methods used by the Irgun and Lehi provoked widespread criticism from within the Jewish community, while the Haganah were relatively shielded from public outcry because they were more discreet about the murders they committed.

In Jerusalem, a body calling itself the “Thou Shalt Not Kill League” was established, which tried to combat acts of violence aimed at Arabs and Jews alike. In the many leaflets it distributed around the country it called the perpetrators of the violence “terrorists.” After Kadia Mizrahi’s murder, the league distributed a leaflet that mentioned her name and raised the question of the legitimacy of the drumhead court-martials and criticized their decisions. “Who is the court? […] What are their names so that we may know?” The murder of women in particular shocked the community. In another poster the league called to “Lend us a hand, join us and together […] we will burn the scourge of terrorism from our midst”. Despite the public protest, the murders continued, right up to the outbreak of Israel’s War of Independence.

“…we will burn the scourge of terrorism from our midst…” – A poster produced by the Thou Shalt Not Kill League, the Jabotinsky Institute, 1947

The main problem with the executions, apart from the violence and the use of the death penalty as a solution, is that to this day it is not known what acts the “guilty” were actually responsible for. Aside from the important question of whether collaborators indeed deserved to die, the secrecy in which the organizations conducted their “trials” leaves no possibility of critically examining their actions. Was Kadia Mizrahi executed because she really was an informant for the British, or did false rumors and accusations, along with her lifestyle and the presence of trigger-happy executioners lead to her death? Did Leon Mashiach actually confess to his actions, or was his a forced confession, extracted in order to justify his execution?

We will never know since the “Irgun Tribunal” was conducted in the form of a drumhead court martial. The murdered were not allowed an orderly proceeding with a prosecutor and a proper defense and this issue remains unaddressed to this day. With the establishment of the State of Israel, this practice was repeated only once: the execution of the officer Meir Tobianski who, innocent of any crime, was murdered at the hands of a drumhead court organized by veterans of the Haganah. This case was investigated in depth, and we can only hope that the State of Israel learned its lesson.

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).


The Ugly Duckling Is Set Free

The story of how a fighter in the Palmach, a Jewish underground organization from the pre-state era, managed to translate a popular children's classic while incarcerated in Jerusalem’s central prison…

Tuvia Hadani with an illustration from his translation of “The Ugly Duckling”

I’m holding this tiny booklet wrapped in a plain, orange book cover, and reading the words written in fastidious circular Hebrew handwriting, in the right corner of the title page:

“Just before school,

kind Hagit!

Accept from afar,

a humble gift”.

Underneath, the title reads:

“The Ugly Duckling.

By Andersen.

Jerusalem P., 15 Elul, 5704.”



Who is Hagit? Who was responsible for this mysterious handwritten translation of a classic children’s fairytale? What is “Jerusalem P.” (ב”ס ירושלים)? And exactly how “afar” was the booklet sent from?

The origins of this story stretch back eighty years, to the day when a British military court sentenced Tuvia Hadani to five years in prison for possession of illegal arms.


Life Imprisonment for Possession of Bullets” – An article describing Tuvia Hadani’s (Hodansky) trial, during which he was sentenced to five years in prison, Haaretz, September 6, 1942.

It was the same day that newspaper headlines ran with the news that the British were finally successful in stopping the Germans in North Africa, and it was easy to overlook the meager caption in the page before the last: “Life Imprisonment for Possession of Bullets”.

The article described the verdict from the trial of several Palmach members that were caught “near a path leading to Givat Brenner”, and in possession of weapons that could only have been taken from British army bases or warehouses. The Palmach was the elite fighting unit of the Haganah, the largest Jewish underground organization during the British Mandate period in the Land of Israel. One of the defendants, as noted in the caption, was sentenced to life imprisonment. The others were sentenced to “lesser” prison sentences of five to seven years.

When one of the accused, Tuvia Hodansky, raised his hands and surrendered to the British soldiers together with his friends, he probably wasn’t thinking about graceful swans, ugly ducklings or European fairytales altogether. It was much more likely that he was pondering the sentence that awaited him and the family he would be forced to leave behind. There was nothing beautiful or whimsical about this moment – his life was about to change and not in a good way.

Tuvia (or Teddy, as his friends and family called him) was born in Leipzig, Germany, a few years prior to World War I. After becoming infatuated with Zionism, he joined one of the Zionist youth movements, left his family and made Aliyah (immigrated) to Israel.

The year was 1932, a year before the rise of the Nazis to power. Together with other recently arrived “Yekkes” (German Jews), he became a member of Kibbutz Givat Brenner, which at the time was a poor kibbutz, with land too meagre to support all its inhabitants. Since Teddy had been a carpenter’s apprentice in Germany with some expertise in the field, he and his friends established a carpentry shop, that would subsequently become a famous factory, known across Israel.

Tuvia Hadani at a Bikkurim ceremony (first-fruits offering) at Kibbutz Givat Brenner. From the Hanan Bahir collection. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

But all of this productive work was put to a halt after about a decade. During World War II, Teddy voluntarily enlisted in the Palmach, along with many youths from the kibbutzim and other Jewish agricultural settlements. Before he had even had a chance to gain experience and establish a reputation in the organization, he was caught with other Palmach members smuggling weapons. The mission’s details had been leaked to British military personnel, who were waiting for them at the designated place and time.

Following his sentence, he arrived at the prison, where he was to share a cell, some moldy mattresses and a bucket with several other underground prisoners.

The prison cell in Jerusalem’s central prison, illustrated by Tuvia Hadani

It was not a quiet place. He had no desk, peace of mind or any source of inspiration. But still, when he wasn’t performing tasks for the prison administration, he sat and diligently worked on his project, a meticulous and delicate translation of the children’s fairytale, with its ironic title, considering his situation – “The Ugly Duckling”.

Did he identify with the duckling and see himself, and his own life story, when he wrote about the poor bird’s suffering and isolation?

“He got up and ran away. As he left the huge lake far behind, he came upon a small pond. He hid in the dark among the trees and waited for the break of dawn.”

Aside the beautiful and meticulously handwritten Hebrew words, he added sweet and graceful illustrations for children.

He dedicated his creation to Hagit, the daughter of Uri Steinberg, who was arrested together with him but had been given a shorter sentence.

The first pages of the illustrated manuscript

His final product was not a professional or polished Hebrew translation by any means. It included a number of grammatical errors, which were very common at the time in the immigrant society of the early State of Israel. When I read it, I could almost hear my grandmother’s voice reading it to me, with Hebrew enunciation that we would laugh at as children: using the long “oo” vowel sound instead of the long “o”, or “sh” instead of “s”.

Was the inadequacy of the translation the reason it never got commercially published? Or was it the reality of war and conflict with the British that prevented a resourceless Palmach fighter from promoting his work?

Whatever the reason, the children of the young country never got to enjoy this creation. It was only in the latter part of the 1950s, that they were able to read a Hebrew version of “The Ugly Duckling” (translated by Malka Fishkin, Yizre’ela Publishing).

Following his release from prison, Teddy returned to the kibbutz, where he managed the famous carpentry shop. Later on, being something of an intellectual, he returned to his studies in order to complete his formal education, while also working to facilitate further Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel.

Since then, there have been numerous published Hebrew translations of Hans Christian Andersen’s literature, and particularly of “The Ugly Duckling” classic. It was only posthumously, in Teddy’s memory, that members of Kibbutz Givat Brenner finally published his “Booklet” (as Amos Rudner, who had edited several of Naomi Shemer’s writings and produced the publication of this creation, called it).

When it was finally published, Hagit was a much older woman, perhaps even a mother of adult children, and so the publishers dedicated the work to all of Givat Brenner’s children.

Tuvia never got to enjoy seeing the letters of his booklet in print, letters that he managed to handwrite in erratic conditions, on the bare, cold prison floor. He never saw his delicate illustrations brought to life in color either.

He did get to see the country that he had only dreamt of back in Germany, and for which he fought for from the moment he arrived. The country that grew up and shifted from a young, feeble duckling, lacking any grace, into a beautiful and splendid swan, walking proudly and confidently among its peers, the other swans of the world.

“But when we look through this booklet, when we read it, or when we listen to our parents read it to us, we see before our eyes a proud Hebrew prisoner writing and illustrating for us, on the prison floor, translating Andersen’s story about the ugly duckling, even as he remains certain that all of his friends, his fellow prisoners, are nothing but swans dressed in ugly duckling clothes, imprisoned in a duckling pen, who are destined yet to sail and fly away as swans.”

(Amos Rudner, in the introduction to the translation)