Nir Oz Will Blossom Again: The Story of a Legendary Kibbutz Gardener

In the early days, members of Kibbutz Nir Oz suffered from terrible sandstorms that made it difficult to move, see and even eat. Ran Pauker, the kibbutz’s legendary landscaper, was called to solve the problem, and along the way, Nir Oz became a green, ecological gem. When asked about the future of the kibbutz that suffered a fatal blow on October 7 - he says the vegetation will be restored within a year, as for the community: “We’ll have to wait and see”

Ran Pauker, who has worked as Kibbutz Nir Oz’s gardener and landscaper for decades, next to the sign at the entrance to “Green Spot,” the kibbutz’s botanical garden that specializes in vegetation requiring little irrigation. Photo from a private album.

“I’ll just finish trimming the garden and call you right back,” Ran Pauker, the 86-year-old evacuee from Kibbutz Nir Oz, answered when I called to speak with him about his life’s work. It seems you can’t take the gardener out of the garden, even when he’s far away from home. Pauker and his wife Carmelit have been evacuated to Kibbutz HaSolelim in the Lower Galilee. Both were members of the first pioneering Hashomer Hatza’ir groups that founded Kibbutz Nir Oz in the 1950s. The couple was forced to leave their home behind after the awful attack on October 7. They happened to be staying with their daughter in Sderot that Saturday, and so were saved.

Like many kibbutzim that were established along Israel’s borders, Kibbutz Nir Oz also faced many challenges throughout its history. If you had gone there in the 1950s and looked around, you would have seen wilderness and sand stretching from one end of the horizon to the other.

Kibbutz Nir Oz, around 1960. Photo: Ran Pauker, from the Kibbutz Nir Oz archives


‘Nir Oz’, a New Kibbutz Near Nirim” – a report from Herut, September 30, 1955

“When we settled here, there were unbearable sandstorms in the area. I couldn’t see a few meters in front of me,” Pauker says. “I remember one sandstorm when we needed to eat in the kitchen storeroom because … the dining hall had filled with sand and dust. The storeroom was small, so we ate in shifts.”

Looking back, Pauker may have been exactly the solution that the sand-swept kibbutz needed. Upon his arrival there, although he hadn’t planned on doing so, he took it upon himself to manage Kibbutz Nir Oz’s landscaping and be responsible for all the plants and vegetation in the public sphere. On a bus from Tel Aviv to the kibbutz, he bumped into an old friend, Meir Lavi (Mayor), who was the kibbutz secretary at the time, and told him, “Ran, we don’t have a gardener. You’re the son of a gardener, you’re a graduate of Kadoorie [a well-known Israeli agricultural school], you’re done being a farm coordinator and you have no job right now. Come work as a gardener for two or three months until we can find someone else.”

Pauker agreed. “They say nothing’s more permanent than the temporary. They’re right. I’ve been a gardener ever since.”

Cover of a book published in 2015 to mark 60 years of Kibbutz Nir Oz. The photo features a well-known Hebrew slogan coined by Meir Ya’ari that has accompanied the kibbutz throughout its history and which can be translated as: “We are not road-weary, rather we are trailblazers


A sign hanging on the Nir Oz silo following the October 7 attacks, featuring the same slogan that appears on the cover of the book above. Photo: Moshe Yolovich.

The sandstorms made him realize that his role was much more important than he thought. It wouldn’t only change his life but would also turn him into a guru of green, economical, and ecological planning.

At the start of his journey, Pauker faced a challenge that was two-fold: How could he make life bearable in the hot, dusty desert while also saving money and water, as the expenses were costing the young kibbutz a fortune? Industrious as he was, Pauker figured out how: He carefully and cleverly planned his tree plantings and deliberately chose vegetation that was suitable for desert conditions. The green that dominates Kibbutz Nir Oz became its hallmark, and even after the October 7 tragedy, the plants still stand alongside the destroyed, burnt homes. Pauker says his secret is a combination of patience, a willingness to learn from mistakes, constant attention to conditions, and finding the right plants for the terrain.

One of the impressive Ficus trees that are spread throughout Nir Oz. Photo: Ran Pauker.
A list of contributors to the book published by the kibbutz’s founders to mark its 60th anniversary. A number of these people were abducted on October 7. Some have been released, and we are waiting anxiously for the rest to come home.

Over the years, Pauker saw that his work methods offered additional advantages: By saving money, time and labor resources, he was able to work in a more ecological fashion, better suited to a planet that is gradually becoming warmer. His ideas and developments turned Nir Oz into a role model for cultivating natural space in a way that allows for a pleasant and comfortable life, but that also takes ecological and economic concerns into account:

“I realized that if I didn’t gather the clippings [from the lawn mower] and if I used a recycler lawn mower [which leaves what was mowed on the field], I’d save on sweeping expenses and fuel. I’d also be leaving minerals in the ground and wouldn’t need fertilizer. We brought in plants that are highly resistant to dryness; we created drainage collection basins throughout the relatively flat kibbutz, and we used water from the air conditioners to water the plants. This paid off financially and environmentally.”

Experiments with different grass varieties inside a flower-shaped plot in front of the dining hall, which is still there to this day. Photo: Ran Pauker, from the Kibbutz archives.

Ran inherited his love of gardening from his father. He was born in Nahariya to parents who were among the founders of the city. His father also worked as a gardener and garden planner, and even as a child, just four-years-old, Pauker helped his father out at work. His dad gave him a small bucket of lime and sent him off to whitewash the tree trunks.

When he began working on the landscaping for Kibbutz Nir Oz, he asked his father to come help him with the planning. The experienced, German-born gardener offered him orderly, methodical work practices. When Ran was first starting out as head of landscaping, he had a vision and clear plans, and he made sure to document his work so that he’d be able to present his achievements to the community members, and later, to the wider public. Inside the lush, green kibbutz, Ran established a botanical garden named Nekuda Yeruka, or “Green Point”, which has become a plant research center visited by experts and students from all over the world.

And how did he meet his wife, Carmelit? When the two were working together in the rose nursery, of course. They bred different species on the rose bushes, and their collaboration blossomed into love, which led them to a happy marriage and a big, supportive family.

Carmelit Menashe and Ran in Kibbutz Nir Oz’s rose nursery in 1964. Photo from a private album.

On October 10, Pauker was set to celebrate the publication of his autobiography, Sipuro shel Tzabar BeHafrachat HaMidbar (“The Story of a Sabra Who Made the Desert Bloom”). The book covers his significant contributions to the kibbutz as well as to the fields of gardening and environmental studies, as experts still come to the kibbutz to learn from him to this day. Along with all of us, Pauker hopes that one day, when all the hostages including those from the kibbutz are returned home and the community begins rebuilding itself, he’ll be able to celebrate the release of his book.

The back cover of Ran Pauker’s autobiography, set to be published soon.

The botanical garden and the lush greenery of Nir Oz is a success story about making the desert wasteland flourish. When asked about the future, Ran says, “The kibbutz itself is destroyed, the homes are destroyed, but the plants still stand and the irrigation is still working, thanks to Na’amit who is responsible for the landscaping now, and the amazing kibbutz members who have been coming to help. If they’ll let us, we’ll get all the landscaping back the way it was within a year. But the big question is the Nir Oz community; what will the community choose to do and how can we rehabilitate it? As for that, we’ll need to wait and see.”

Lush, green Kibbutz Nir Oz, seen from above, 2019. Photo from the Kibbutz Nir Oz archives


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

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We Shall Return: The Spirit of Kibbutz Nirim Will Prevail

"We shall return" - these were the words printed in Hebrew on t-shirts made by the survivors of Kibbutz Nirim. These words embody a history of heroism, pioneering, culture and Zionism which should serve as a model for all of us. Kibbutz Nirim, founded in 1946, faced a desperate battle for its very existence just two years afterwards. It survived then and survives now thanks to the unique spirit of its members.

25-year-old Dora Avni, a member of Kibbutz Nirim, cleans her rifle as her two sons, six-year-old Amir and two-year-old Arnon watch her, 1955. Amir was killed at the age of 22 when his tractor hit a mine while he worked in Nirim’s avocado grove. Photo: Moshe Fridan, courtesy of the Government Press Office; the Hebrew words in the lower left corner are "Anachnu Nachzor" (We Shall Return), this logo was designed by Arnon Avni, a graphic artist and member of Kibbutz Nirim

“Three elements came first to Nirim in the desert: the cows, the babies and the library. The cows – a testament to the growth of the farm, the babies – a testament to faith in the future, and the library – a sign and parable of high culture.” (Shula Ram, one of the founders of Kibbutz Nirim, in her introduction to the book The First Fifty Years, 1946-1996 (Hebrew), published in honor of Nirim’s fiftieth anniversary)

Nirim’s beginnings were very modest – just four shacks comprised the first settlement point for Kibbutz Nirim (then Dangur), on land just a few kilometers from its current location. The kibbutz was set up before the State of Israel had even been born, just after Yom Kippur in 1946, as part of the “11 points” plan, when 11 new settlement points were established overnight and under the nose of the British authorities, most of them in the southern Negev region.

Aerial photo of Kibbutz Nirim at the Dangur settlement point, 1946. Unknown photographer. Source: National Photographic Collection, Government Press Office

Nirim is a kibbutz established by Jews born in Israel, or “sabras” (the nickname refers to a desert cactus known to be prickly on the outside but sweet and soft on the interior). They were alumni of the Hashomer Hatza’ir youth movement affiliated with Labor Zionism, who also served in the Palmach, a branch of the Haganah. Later, they were joined by additional groups of immigrants from various countries, but some of that rough and stubborn “sabra-ness” stuck to all the members of the kibbutz’s founding generation, and helped them overcome the many difficulties they encountered over the years.

39 young men and women lived in the small outpost that comprised Kibbutz Nirim at the time, cultivating and protecting it. They worked in agriculture, in difficult conditions where water was brought in wagons and handed out sparingly. Aware of the dangers of residing in a border community, the kibbutz members fortified their location as much as they could, building bunkers and defensive trenches.

Kibbutz Nirim members on their way to work in the fields, 1947. Photo: Zoltan Kruger. Source: National Photographic Collection, Government Press Office

In their difficult and heroic battle during the War of Independence, members of Nirim faced an attack by hundreds of Egyptian soldiers who stormed the simple fence erected around their settlement point in Dangur. Somehow, someway, they managed to stop them. With the few weapons they had, they systematically and intelligently fought in order to create the impression that they represented a far larger force than they actually were. They suffered casualties, but so did the Egyptians, who were apparently stunned by the ferocity of the fighting, which they did not expect from such a small outpost and which led them to flee. 11 of the members of the young kibbutz, almost a third of the male and female fighters, were killed in that attack.

Members of Kibbutz Nirim digging trenches before the War of Independence, 1948. Unknown photographer. Source: National Photographic Collection, Government Press Office

Before the battle, a celebratory sign was hung over the shack serving as Nirim’s dining hall, an expression of the spirit of the times: “It is not the tank that will win, but the human being in it.” After the battle, the destruction left behind was so great that hardly anything remained in Dangur. The entire shack was destroyed. Only the wall and its sign remained standing, a symbol of the spirit of the members of Nirim, who survived that difficult day of battle.

Sign on the wall of the dining room shack, the only one standing at the end of the battle: “It is not the tank that will win, but the human being in it” – left from a celebration of May Day, 1948. Photo courtesy of Dr. Eldad Haruvi of the Palmach Museum
This article from Davar describes the mourning process of the members of Kibbutz Nirim, a year after the battle. The headline quotes the slogan on the sign in the previous photo. May 16, 1949

Hardly a year passed, and the bruised but proud kibbutz published a special commemorative booklet in May, 1949: “Nirim Against the Enemy,” telling the story of the attack on Nirim and its fallen. This booklet is an early example of the cultural activity and spirit that would yet develop and flourish in the kibbutz in the years to come. This booklet includes the first appearance of a unique memorial Yizkor prayer, which would serve Kibbutz Nirim throughout its existence during Israeli Memorial Day services:

“We will remember our comrades – our finest members who saturated the parched ground of the Negev with their blood.  A malicious hand plotted against the little we built, which we planted and sowed, it could not defeat us for before it stood the faces and arms of the builders of the Negev, of the liberators of Jerusalem, brave soldiers – of eleven comrades who swore: They shall not set foot on our land!”

“Nirim Against the Enemy”, published a year after the Battle of Nirim in the War of Independence

In the 1949 memorial booklet, members expressed both mourning over the destruction and the loss along with hope and determination to press on:

“The beautiful Dangur with its red thatched roofs, which we so often took pride in, was destroyed and burned, shack by shack. Everything above was burned, but the Egyptians didn’t penetrate the [settlement] point. Nirim in Dangur was destroyed and another Nirim will be built. In a place close to the place where our comrades fell, we will erect our homes. And there in our new place, we will erect a monument, a dear living witness to our comrades who fell.” (Benny, p. 39)

Members wanted to preserve the memory of their fallen comrades as a living, vital thing, not as a silent monument. The flourishing of the kibbutz was their monument, as they promised in the memorial booklet:

“A year passed. Months passed – and we were not healed. The signs of the disasters that befell us in just one year were etched deep in our hearts. Correct are those who say that everyone carries a small cemetery inside them.

We need a monument bearing witness to the lives that were cut down. We want a home which will preserve their image, with their smile.

We will erect a house of culture. A house of culture which will be for the leisure of a comrade after his work is done. A place of emotional and cultural refreshment – such as they, our comrades who are not with us in this hour, would want it to be.

Not a memorial monument alone, not a silent stone. A house thrumming with life, a house for generations and for our children after us.

And in this house their image will be preserved, everything that was and remains alive in our hearts and all they had will be preserved. For them to be with us day after day, hour after hour, and for the expression of our shared lives to be deeper, more honest.

This needs to be a good, warm and pleasant house of culture, a house which will bind to it the parents, the relatives and friends. This is the project which will be erected in their memory.”

The first decade was also hard on the members of Nirim, who had to deal with innumerable challenges of survival in the impossible conditions of a desolate wilderness, little water, blinding sandstorms, and impassable access roads.

Kibbutz Nirim members opposite a work chart, showing their assignments for the coming day or week, 1955. Photo: Moshe Fridan. Source: National Photographic Collection, Government Press Office
Nirim children taking a walk through the kibbutz’s defensive trenches, at the entrance to the shelter adjacent to the children’s home. Likely early 1960s. Photo: Benno Rothenberg. Source: the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Although life in Nirim was never entirely peaceful when it came to security, the hardships didn’t dampen the spirits of the kibbutz members. They remained proud of their heritage, and lived up to the vision of the kibbutz’s early members. This was expressed in the songs which were a central part of Nirim’s culture.

When the kibbutz decided to print its own song book, the members chose the unequivocal title – This Is How We Sing Here – Nirim 1956-1967. The songs were collected by Orah Chasin, a kibbutz member who eventually departed Nirim, for whom this collection was a sort of farewell gift for those she left behind. It was likely published around 1967, before the Six-Day War, when things were relatively quiet on the kibbutz. The booklet is an example of the unique and wide-ranging culture which developed in Nirim, which strengthened the sense of pride and belonging its residents felt.

Cover of This Is How We Sing Here – Nirim 1956-1967, copy held at the National Library of Israel


The first song appearing in the collection is a local Nirim version of Shir HaShalom – “The Song of Peace” – a song that was well-known throughout the kibbutz movement and which was written by Nirim member Tziki Dinstein during the Sinai Campaign of 1956. The song courageously expressed the striving for a shared, peaceful life with Arab neighbors, which seems like a distant dream now but which was sung innumerable times in Kibbutz Nirim. The opening verse could be translated as:

“See gentlemen, there will be a new order,

There will yet be peace on our border

And we’ll travel to Khan Yunis to see a move flick,

With Abdul Wahab, in spoken Arabic.”

The Lyrics of Shir HaShalom – “The Song of Peace”

The booklet ends with the representative statement:

“You will yet see what kind of kibbutz there will be here in Nirim! The kind that others will come to from other Kibbutzim to learn their lessons [Hebrew: shi’urim – lessons]!!”

Over the years, the kibbutz was considered one of the undisputed pillars of Jewish settlement in the Western Negev and the Gaza border region. A well-known joke in neighboring Kibbutz Nir Oz demonstrates this nicely:

“When you ask a Kibbutz Nir Oz member where he’s from, the answer is ‘next to Nirim’…when we were kids, we tended to make fun of the children of Kibbutz Nirim who thought they were the center of the world; so we said that we are ‘next to Nirim.’ Or in other words: we are next to the center of the world (important, but less so).”

-Hadar Rubin, on her Facebook page

T-shirts printed at Kibbutz Nirim also express this sense of local pride, a pride which even the events of October 7 could not trample. They were all designed by Arnon Avni, an illustrator, graphic artist, and caricaturist and a member of Kibbutz Nirim. On this shirt, the first to be printed, the kibbutz is placed among the largest, most famous cities in the world:

“Paris, New York, London, Nirim.” Photo courtesy of Yinon Hefetz, from Kibbutz Nirim. Design: Arnon Avni

The shirt below, printed to mark the end of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, reads: “Not Giving Up on Nirim.”

Ela Bargil of Kibbutz Nirim, with a shirt reading – “Not Giving Up on Nirim” – printed in Nirim in August 2014 to mark the end of Operation Protective Edge. Design: Arnon Avni. Photo: Arnon Avni

During the October 7 Massacre, five people were killed in Nirim – three kibbutz members and two guests. Four kibbutz members and one guest were also among those kidnapped to Gaza. Now, with 2023 nearing its end and after the tragic events which struck the kibbutz and the whole western Negev region, the strong spirit of Kibbutz Nirim is being felt once more, and a new shirt (not yet printed) now bears the simple message – “We Shall Return.”

Proposed shirt design by Arnon Avni. Regarding the thought process behind the shirt, Avni writes: “…it features an anemone [type of flower] which is a kind of symbol of the whole [Gaza] border region which we are all part of and also two petals which have wilted. Those who choose to see them as drops of blood or a kind of broken heart – will not be missing the point. The words ‘We Shall Return’ are the journey we have begun. They are written in a freestyle which can be seen as a signature, as a guarantee.”

The shirts are a moving testament to the kibbutz members’ sense of belonging to their land and the amazing project they built on it, despite the enormous difficulties. It’s the kind of local pride which strengthens those who remain. It’s perhaps not surprising that Nirim was the first kibbutz to publicly declare that its members have decided to return home as soon as this becomes possible.

We will end with the final lines of that Yizkor memorial prayer from 1949:

 “We will remember them, their nicknames, the times of comfort and pain that they lived through with us. For in all that we will build and erect, their name will yet arise and be remembered. Without words – in the founding of a building, in every dunam of land we sow and reap – for that was the yearning of their soul, in life and in death.”

May the kibbutz recover its former glory in our own day, as well, with the same speed and the same passion that was felt after the War of Independence, a passion to build and grow. May the memory of the murdered serve as fuel for rebuilding, for pioneering activity and cultural creation, things they know so well in Kibbutz Nirim.


In the preparation of this article, we made use of Galia Heller Kramer’s seminar paper:
 יצירה עצמית של חברי קיבוץ נירים בשנות החמישים והשישים [Hebrew].

We would like to thank Kibbutz Nirim members Bar Hefetz and Anat Marla, for their help in preparing this article.


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

Click here to see all of the articles and stories


A Jewish Game of Thrones: The Bloody Tragedy of the Hasmonean Dynasty

We think we know them from the story of Hannukah and its miracles, but the heroic victory of Judah the Maccabee was just the prologue to the broader story of the Hasmonean Kingdom – a story that begins with a single family's dream of an independent Judea, continues with military and political glory papering over deep internal rot, and ends with destruction and the death of a beautiful queen at the hands of her husband

Miriam the Hasmonean on her way to execution, painting by Edward Hopley

“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.” – Frank Herbert

If there is a story where we almost never stop at the right point and almost never reach the (bitter) end, it’s the story of the Hasmoneans.

Every year, on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev, we celebrate the moment of a glorious victory – a victory which seemed almost impossible, a true miracle. But this victory is really just the prelude to the story of the Hasmoneans, as both a family and a historically unique monarchical dynasty in the annals of the Jewish People.

To understand who they were, we would do well to re-examine the familiar Hanukkah story, and look beyond the usual “happily ever after” bit where we usually stop, to see what came after that glorious moment.

The Angel of the Maccabees, by Gustave Dore

It all started with a rebellion. Or perhaps the persecution that preceded it? They were tightly connected.

In the first half of the second century BCE, Jerusalem was ruled by the Seleucids, who we often call “the Greeks” in our Hannukah stories and prayers. Seleucus I was among the generals who inherited parts of Alexander the Great’s sprawling empire. The Seleucid Empire, though smaller than Alexander’s, still stretched from Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Syria, and the Land of Israel, all the way to the Indus River at its height.

Antiochus IV, who ever so humbly called himself Epiphanes (“God Manifest”) and who has been commemorated by kindergarten teachers throughout the Jewish world as “Antiochus the Wicked”, rose to power at a bad time for his kingdom: his father had just suffered a very serious defeat at the hands of a new rising power to the west – Rome. He lost significant parts of his empire to the Romans (and other nations which jumped on the opportunity), and was forced to sign a humiliating surrender agreement which included astronomical reparations.

In the meantime, Jerusalem and the surrounding area of Judea had for centuries, since the famous Edict of Cyrus the Great, enjoyed a degree of religious autonomy, with the Jewish the High Priest presiding over worship at the Temple. The territory had been ruled by a series of empires which toppled one another – the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, the Macedonians, the Ptolemies, and now the Seleucids. But for most of this time, the Jews had a varying measure of religious freedom to maintain their worship in the Temple and the commandments and laws of their faith.

Historians are divided on what led Antiochus to change this arrangement which had worked so well for all his predecessors, but whatever the reason – he decided to intervene in the religious practices in Jerusalem and Judea, outlawing all Jewish rituals and desecrating the Temple.

It is here that the story we all know and love begins, though the degree of accuracy often varies in the telling: Mattathias the priest and his five sons raised the banner of rebellion. Whether the spark was an attempt to force the residents of Modi’in to bring a sacrifice to the Greek gods, or the story of Mattathias’ daughter Hannah, who rebelled against the terrifying decree of “the first night” – either way, battle was joined. Significant portions of the Jewish People gathered round Mattathias and his sons upon hearing the battle cry “Whoever is to God to me” (or something to that effect), sick of the cruel Hellenic oppression and willing to die to return to observing the Torah and its commandments in the open.

Mattathias and the Apostate, by Gustave Dore

Judah the Maccabee, the third of Mattathias’ sons, formed and led the small rebel army – at first, with guerilla actions and later in organized, open battles against the Seleucid army. He went up to Jerusalem with his soldiers and managed to take over large parts of it, most importantly the Temple – which was cleaned and purified. Jewish religious rituals resumed.

This is where the story of the miracle of Hannukah more or less ends – Judah the Maccabee defeated the armies of the Hellenistic empire and relit the Menorah or candelabrum in the Temple. The year was 164 BCE. Since then, every year, and in memory of the victory of the Jewish light over Greek darkness, we celebrate the holiday of Hannukah.

Mattathias, meanwhile, had passed away a year before, and did not get to see his sons’ success.

This event was not only the “happy ending” we celebrate every year, but rather the beginning of the long path to Jewish independent rule in Jerusalem and the Land of Israel – a rule which would ultimately become a monarchy for all intents and purposes and which would end in blood. Plenty of blood.


Season One – The Brothers

To be honest, it was bloody from the beginning.

Peace did not come after Judah’s famous initial victories. The Seleucids were not so quick to give up the lands they had ruled, and although the decrees of Antiochus (which had proven themselves to be a rallying cry for the majority of Jews to join with the Hasmoneans against the Seleucids) were rescinded, the Hellenistic kings continued to send troops to fight the rebels in Judea.

Six years after the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days instead of one, Judah was defeated by the general Bacchides, falling in the Battle of Elasa. His brother Eleazar also perished when he was trampled to death by one of the Seleucid army’s war elephants. For a while, it appeared the original status quo had been restored – the Greek religious persecutions had been undone, but so too, it seemed, had the Hasmonean victory.

The Heroism of Eleazar, by Philip James de Loutherbourg

The Hasmoneans and their supporters, however, were not gripped by despair. The leadership of the rebellion was taken up by another Hasmonean brother – Jonathan, who was a gifted commander and perhaps more importantly – a skilled diplomat. He returned the Hasmoneans to Jerusalem after a series of military victories, while working primarily at the diplomatic level, especially by cleverly exploiting the endless infighting among those claiming the Seleucid crown. He convinced the Seleucid authorities to give him effective control, and in 150 BCE, he received the titles of strategos (general) and “meridarch” (akin to a civil governor).

Jonathan managed to hold these title for seven years before being murdered by a Seleucid ruler – Diodotus Tryphon. He was replaced as leader by Simon – the last brother left alive.

All these stormy events in Judea were accompanied by a family situation which had no equal throughout history: While still alive, Mattathias had been the clear leader of the rebellion, even though his age likely prevented him from participating in the battles themselves. After his death, he left the leadership to his five sons, advising them to follow Judah – who was not the eldest, but whom Mattathias considered the most appropriate one to lead the nation in war.

And they indeed followed Judah, just as they would later follow the brothers who succeeded him.

Scholars question almost every detail about this period, but one thing still remains unequivocally clear – Mattathias’ sons did not fight amongst themselves. The torch kept being passed from one brother to the next as the fight against the Seleucids continued and the brothers died one after the other, with the next one’s leadership never being questioned by his siblings.

Simon, the last of the brothers, was the one who secured full independence for Judea. He didn’t yet call himself a king, but the moment he fully took the reins of civilian control from the Seleucids and the tax burden was lifted (in 140 BCE) is the moment from which we officially begin counting the years of Hasmonean reign.

The First Book of Maccabees (15:1-9) tells of this moment:

“Antiochus, son of King Demetrius, sent a letter from the islands of the sea to Simon, the priest and ethnarch of the Jews, and to all the nation, which read as follows:

“King Antiochus sends greetings to Simon, the high priest and ethnarch, and to the Jewish nation […] I authorize you to coin your own money, as legal tender in your country. Jerusalem and its sanctuary shall be free. All the weapons you have prepared and all the strongholds you have built and now occupy shall remain in your possession. All debts, present or future, due to the royal treasury shall be canceled for you, now and for all time. When we establish our kingdom, we will greatly honor you and your nation and the temple, so that your glory will be manifest in all the earth.”

Simon was a wise and beneficent ruler, chosen by an assembly of the people to be their “leader and high priest forever, until a trustworthy prophet should arise”. He conquered additional cities in the Land of Israel such as Gezer and Jaffa, and even succeeded in taking over the Acra – the fortress of Greeks and Hellenized Jews that had remained a thorn in the side of residents of Jerusalem for so long.

Six years passed in relative quiet since that happy day of independence, until family strife encouraged by the Seleucids brought about tragedy and betrayal. Simon’s father-in-law, Ptolemy son of Abubus, who received control of the city of Jericho and its surroundings while maintaining secret relations with the “current” Antiochus (VII), invited Simon and his sons to a feast at his home, where they were cruelly murdered, as Ptolemy hoped to gain the throne of Judea for himself.

Unfortunately for him, one of Simon’s sons – John Hyrcanus – didn’t attend that bloody feast, surviving his father and becoming the Prince and High Priest in his stead.


Season Two – The Bloody Rule of the First Kings

During the reign of John Hyrcanus, Mattathias’ grandson, the internal rift between the different religious factions deepened. Hyrcanus had begun his rule like his father and uncles before him – as a religious leader and priest ruling by virtue of broad public support. But a number of choices he made and disputes regarding his position (can a High Priest be a military leader engaged in conquest and killing?) pushed his form of rule towards that of an absolute monarchy relying on force-of-arms, little different than what could be seen in the surrounding Hellenistic monarchies. His successors would continue to enhance this trend. Greek culture began to become dominant in the institutions and customs of the ruling class. John (Yochanan) was the first to take a Greek name – Hyrcanus – and after him, this practically became the standard.

Hyrcanus ruled Judea for 31 years, the first Hasmonean ruler to die of natural causes. Before his death, he sought to hand over rule to his wife. But his son, Judah Aristobulus I didn’t like the idea, and when his father died, he simply imprisoned his mother and most of his brothers and declared himself King.

Hasmonean coins. The power to mint coins was an important marker of economic and political independence

The rule of the first King in Judea since the Biblical era was not a model of benevolent government, nor did it leave a significant mark on history. But Aristobulus I did apparently make at least one good decision: He married a woman named Salome (Shlomtziyon) Alexandra. She was the sister of Simon Ben Shetach – one of the greatest of the Pharisees and the president of the Sanhedrin – but she would yet stand out in her own right.

Aristobulus died from an illness just one year after coming to power. Salome Alexandra freed his imprisoned brothers (his mother died in jail), and married the oldest of them, who was still younger than her – Alexander Jannaeus.

Alexander Jannaeus was a king from the very first, with all that entails. He set out on extensive campaigns of conquest and vastly increased the size of his kingdom, taking over the Hellenistic coastal cities, and conquering Gaza and large swathes of the east bank of the Jordan River.

Map of the Land of Israel and the Hasmonean Kingdom following the conquests of Alexander Jannaeus. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel, courtesy of Amir Kahanovitz

According to most testimonies, Jannaeus was a cruel and tyrannical ruler who did not hesitate to use foreign mercenaries to massacre his opponents, of which there were many. He did not heed the mood of the people, and at least two significant rebellions occurred during his reign. During one of these, it is said that over 800 rebels were hung on the city walls, as Jannaeus held a vulgar banquet in front of them. He even wanted to execute his brother-in-law, a leader of the Pharisees, but Salome Alexandra managed to hide her sibling and save his life.

After less than thirty years on the throne, Alexander Jannaeus died in a manner similar to his namesake – from a disease he was stricken with during one of his campaigns. He was succeeded, finally, by a woman. His wife.


Season Three – The Days of the Good Queen Salome

Salome Alexandra was considered by many to be the best monarch of the bunch, certainly when it came to internal affairs. She brought the people, who were largely affiliated with the Pharisee party, back on her side, and her rule excelled in its almost unprecedented economic and political stability.

In her day, for the first time since Judah the Maccabee renewed the rituals of the Temple, the leadership was split up – Salome Alexandra ruled as Queen, but she granted the title of High Priest to her eldest son – Hyrcanus II.

Her second son, Aristobulus II, refused to reconcile with his mother’s reign and his brother’s priesthood. At first, he sufficed with leading the military elite, which set out on a number of campaigns in the name of his mother the Queen, but at the end of her life, when it was clear she was dying and unable to fully manage the kingdom, he gathered a loyal army around him, took control of many fortresses, and declared himself King.

Queen Salome Alexandra (Shlomtziyon), by Guy Bartholomew. Rome, 1751.

The figure of Salome Alexandra, and the fact that she was unable to quell the hostility between her two sons, provided historian Flavius Josephus with the opportunity to take a swipe at all women:

“A woman she was who showed no signs of the weakness of her sex […] and demonstrated by her doings at once, that her mind was fit for action, and that sometimes men themselves show the little understanding they have by the frequent mistakes they make in point of government; for she always preferred the present to futurity, and preferred the power of an imperious dominion above all things, and in comparison of that had no regard to what was good, or what was right. However, she brought the affairs of her house to such an unfortunate condition, that she was the occasion of the taking away that authority from it, and that in no long time afterward, which she had obtained by a vast number of hazards and misfortunes, and this out of a desire of what does not belong to a woman, and all by a compliance in her sentiments with those that bare ill-will to their family, and by leaving the administration destitute of a proper support of great men; and, indeed, her management during her administration while she was alive, was such as filled the palace after her death with calamities and disturbance.”

But even he could not help but admit:

“However […] she preserved the nation in peace. And this is the conclusion of the affairs of, Alexandra.”

Salome Alexandra died at the age of 73, after ruling Judea for 9 years.


Season Four – Brothers at War

Hyrcanus the High Priest, also known as Hyrcanus II, who Josephus (and not only him), described as “weak minded”, didn’t want to fight his brother at first. His mother left Aristobulus’ wife and sons with Hyrcanus to serve as a bargaining chip in the fight for the throne, but he chose not to use them and arrived at an agreement with Aristobulus – he would continue to serve as High Priest and Aristobulus would be King.

A return to sanity, mutual respect between brothers and good old-fashioned family values? Well, not quite.

Over time, Hyrcanus began to develop close ties with a fellow named Antipater the Idumaean. Antipater’s son would become one of the era’s most famous historic figures, but we’ll get to him in a bit. Antipater succeeded in convincing Hyrcanus not to give up the throne, and with the help of the King of the Nabateans, they set out to fight Aristobulus in Jerusalem. The war that broke out between the two brothers was bitter and cruel and was accompanied by the looting of everything dear and holy to the earlier Hasmoneans – by both of the warring sides. Now they didn’t even need a wicked Antiochus to desecrate the Temple and kill priests and sages – they did it themselves.

While this was going on, the Roman general Pompey strolled into town, carrying orders to expand Rome’s territories in the East. Throughout the Hasmonean Kingdom’s history, the Romans had cast a long shadow from the West but had refrained from intervening in Judea’s internal affairs, as its rulers were wise enough to repeatedly sign peace treaties with it.

This was about to change. Both Hyrcanus and Aristobulus now expected Pompey to judge which of the two was more deserving of ruling Judea. They travelled to see him in Damascus, as did a delegation of the Judean people, who came to ask the Roman general take down the entire Hasmonean family – they’d had enough power struggles and corruption.

Was this simple naivete or just a clumsy attempt at political maneuvering?

Either way, Pompey’s response was one of the greatest historical demonstrations of the idiom: “When two are fighting, the third wins”. He quickly seized the opportunity to take over the Judean kingdom himself. He went up to Jerusalem, besieged it, and after just three months and 12,000 dead Jews, he entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Aristobulus II was imprisoned and Hyrcanus II was declared an “Ethnarch” a pathetic puppet ruler on behalf of Rome.

The year was 63 BCE. The Hasmonean Kingdom, the only example of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel since the biblical kingdoms (and for the next 2,000 years), had lost its independence.


Season Five – The Last Hasmonean Queen

It was the end of the Hasmonean Kingdom, but not the end of the dynasty. Like the final season of a tired drama series full of violence and intrigue that refuses to end – the sons and daughters of the Hasmonean family stuck around, continuing to play inseparable roles in the government of the Roman client state.

Meantime, the effective ruler was Antipater – the man who incited Hyrcanus II to go to war for the throne in the first place. Antipater appointed his son, one Herod, as governor of the Galilee. Hyrcanus II and Herod were sworn enemies who didn’t miss an opportunity to humiliate or harm one another. This toxic relationship reached its peak with the poisoning of Antipater by Hyrcanus’ people. Antipater died and in order to “compensate” Herod, Hyrcanus gave him his granddaughter (also Aristobulus’ granddaughter due to marriage within the family) – Miriam the Hasmonean – as a wife.

Miriam, or Mariamne, was apparently a very impressive woman. Josephus described her thus:

“a woman of an excellent character, both for chastity and greatness of soul […] yet had she all that can be said in the beauty of her body, and her majestic appearance in conversation”

At the end of an exhaustingly long era of battles and intrigue, Herod became King of Judea under the Romans. Miriam his wife, who could be Queen herself by right due to her lineage, became the partner of one of the most notorious Jewish rulers in a court full of discord.

Herod is probably the most famous king of this era of Jewish history, but his rule, no matter how glamorous, was subordinate to the central government in Rome and is not considered part of the Hasmonean dynasty. To the contrary, he feared the legacy of the Hasmonean kings, and in order to reduce their influence and reputation, he even slashed Hyrcanus’ ears to make him unfit for the priesthood and executed most of what was left of the royal family, including the mother and brother of his wife Miriam.

His relationship with Miriam, his Hasmonean queen, was a roller coaster of almost mad passion interwoven with mutual accusations – she for his murder of her family, he for her disloyalty.

In the end, he sentenced her to death himself.

“…she went to her death with an unshaken firmness of mind […] and thereby evidently discovered the nobility of her descent to the spectators, even in the last moments of her life.”

Thus did Josephus describe the last moments of the last Hasmonean queen in his classic work, “Antiquities of the Jews”, just a few years after her family’s kingdom had lost its independence, and less than a hundred years before the complete destruction of Judea and the Temple itself.

Mariamne Leaving the Judgment Seat of Herod, by John William Waterhouse

The Hasmonean Kingdom was but a brief flash of Jewish independence in a torn and bloodied land dominated for millennia by empires, kingdoms, and other polities. A land the Jewish People never left and never ceased to dream of. It began with a great hope – the realization of the vision of five faithful brothers who worked together for decades and gave their lives to see it through. It was a kingdom full of Jewish pride which served as a testament to the power of the spirit and a shared fate. Yet it succumbed, soaked in blood, to its own failings and self-destructive acts. The story of the Hasmonean Kingdom offers a historical lesson on everything that can go wrong when a government is tainted with corruption and reliant solely on force.

What Is the Meaning of “Um-Shmum”? David Ben-Gurion vs. the World

What did David Ben-Gurion mean when he shouted “Um-shmum!”, in reference to the United Nations? Did this expression of disdain convey his diplomatic worldview? This is the story of how a controversial phrase entered Israeli national mythology, a strange little historical episode that touches on a much larger question…

Ben-Gurion speaking before the 25th Zionist Congress. Photo from the Ben-Gurion House Archive

On March 25, 1955, a wedding was held at Patish, a moshav near the border with Gaza. All the members of the community were dressed in their holiday best. Kerosene lamps illuminated the improvised dance floor in the backyard of the Kalami family home and cast their light on the young, beautiful faces of the revelers.

But uninvited guests crashed the celebration. A squad of fedayeen terrorists from the Gaza Strip broke up the wedding by throwing grenades in every direction before opening fire on the wedding guests.

19 people were injured. 22-year-old Varda Friedman, who had come to Patish to help out as a social worker, was murdered.

Varda Friedman

When David Ben-Gurion arrived two days later to show support for the moshav, he was shocked to see some of the residents packing up their belongings, clearly preparing to leave their homes that no longer felt safe.

After spending more than a year in retirement from political life, he had come back to serve as Defense Minister. In his own eyes and in the eyes of many Israelis, he was still the leader of the young country, though for the moment, he was no longer Prime Minister.

Ben-Gurion felt responsible for what had happened when facing the newly-arrived immigrants who had settled in Patish. He knew and understood that the state was responsible.

“Look at these Jews,” he said at the time to the journalist Moshe Zak. “They’ve come from Iraq, Kurdistan, North Africa…they’ve come from countries where their blood is worthless, where it’s permissible to abuse them, torture them, beat them, to be cruel towards them. They’ve gotten used to being helpless victims of the gentiles. Here is where we must prove to them that their blood is no longer worthless; that the Jewish people have a state and an army that won’t allow them to be slaughtered again; that their lives and property are worth something. We need to make them stand upright, instill in them the feelings of sovereignty and pride. We need to show them that those who rise up against them will not escape punishment, because they are citizens of a sovereign country that is responsible for their lives and their safety.”

Those who were around Ben-Gurion said that the murder was a watershed moment for him. Was this the straw that broke the “Old Man’s” back? Was it the fact that he himself had spent the last two years living on a kibbutz in southern Israel and better understood what these infiltrations meant for the lives of those who lived there? Or was it Varda Friedman herself – the esteemed sergeant who chose farm work over a military career and didn’t hesitate when she was called on to help the new immigrants in Patish – whose death touched his heart?

Ben-Gurion in the Negev, the southern region of Israel where he believed settlement was critical for the country’s security. Photo from the Ben-Gurion House Archive, IL-BTBG-PH-066

A few days later, in Jerusalem, he worked vigorously to promote a plan that he thought was the only logical solution for the situation: Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip, without taking into account what the superpowers and international organizations might think, including the United Nations. IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan and many members of the Mapai political party mobilized to assist him.

Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, on the other hand, was strongly opposed to the plan.

Sharett, along with most of the government, feared it would attract fierce international criticism. They feared economic sanctions, diplomatic delegitimization of Israel, and diplomatic isolation. They believed that without UN Resolution 181, the State of Israel could never have been established.

Ben-Gurion thought otherwise.

He was never in favor of political isolation. When the “United Nations Special Committee on Palestine” was established in May, 1947, Ben-Gurion appeared before the committee’s members, speaking with historic and national fervor, while still expressing respect and appreciation for the UN.

However, when Israeli interests collided with the national or international interests of the superpowers, he argued that Israelis needed to learn to work for themselves and that no one else would fight for them.

He never sought political isolation but didn’t hesitate to stand his ground when necessary. Pictured: Ben-Gurion surveying the honor guard at the IDF headquarters before U.S. Ambassador James McDonald presents his credentials. Photo from the Ben-Gurion House Archive, IL-BTBG-PH-04

After the murder in Patish, during a meeting of the government on the 29th of the month, Ben-Gurion spoke and explained his theory in great detail. You can understand how Sharett felt about the Defense Minister based on his journal entry that day:

“[Ben-Gurion] spoke for about an hour. To the extent that he rolled out his analysis, the tension around him increased until, when he read out the proposal to expel the Egyptians from the Gaza Strip, this no longer came as a bombshell but rather as a solution to a riddle that most of the people had already guessed. The reasoning was poignant and made a great impression but I was once again startled by his narrow-mindedness – as if he stopped at fixing his eyes on one point only, without seeing the vast territory surrounding it – and his short-sightedness – as if he decided to determine that the operation itself was the final goal and not to delve deeper into the consequences that would come from it.”

David Ben-Gurion with Moshe Sharett. Fundamental debates. Photo from the Ben-Gurion House Archive, IL-BTBG-PH-028

After Ben-Gurion’s speech, a sharp debate developed between Prime Minister Sharett and his Defense Minister. The debate reflected not only their disagreements about the subject being discussed, but also the gap between the worldviews of many parts of the Israeli public: Should the State of Israel, which seemed almost like a helpless baby opposite the various superpowers, simply be grateful to the world in general and to the UN in particular for granting Israel the right to live in and govern this stretch of land, or should it ignore all the background noise and rely only on its own power?

A month later, Ben-Gurion would speak eloquently in front of an IDF parade, and offer an expression of his worldview that would remain with us for years afterwards:

“It is not in the global arena but rather from within that Israel will be strengthened and stand…these are the things that will determine our destiny more than any external factor in the world. Our future is not dependent on what the gentiles will say but rather what the Jews will do!”

Ben-Gurion giving a speech at an IDF parade. Photo from the Ben-Gurion House Archive, IL-BTBG-PH-110

But now, in that long and emotional government meeting, his intense feelings inspired him to coin a new, perhaps less elegant and somewhat more catchy turn of phrase:

“Definitely not!” he exploded at Sharett, who for his part had spoken about the UN’s role in the establishment of the state.

“Only the daring of the Jews established the state, not some decision by that Um-shmum.

In Hebrew, the acronym או”ם used to designate the UN is pronounced um, or more precisely, oom. Therefore, “Um-shmum!” is akin to saying “United Nations-shmoonited nations!” in English.

More than disdain, the expression “Um-shmum” expressed great disappointment with the United Nations. Ben-Gurion had always believed that cooperation between great democracies was the key to prosperity – both in Israel and around the world.

“As a member of the Jewish people I say: With all due respect to the institutions of the United Nations and its members, until Isaiah’s prophecy that ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation’ is fulfilled, and as long as our neighbors plot to destroy us, we won’t have security unless it’s through our own strength…There is no nation more fervent than us in following the principles laid down in the foundation of the UN – but the UN whose success and authority  we wish for is currently only an ideal. And the Security Council acts out of bias and glaring discrimination…in our region, acts of murder and sabotage, robbery and trespassing by our neighbors are becoming more and more frequent, and we must put an end to it – even if no one else wants to or is able to do so.”

Almost 70 years later, Ben-Gurion’s words echo the same question that follows us to this very day. Perhaps it has become even more acute: How are we possibly supposed to best protect the security of our country and its citizens against the backdrop of international diplomatic pressure? Even today, Israel faces bias, discrimination, and antisemitism in international institutions, on university campuses, and on social networks, as we are simultaneously trying to defend ourselves against the immediate threat of our enemy.

The photos that appear throughout this article are from the Ben-Gurion House Archive and are available digitally as part of a collaboration between the archive, the Ministry of Heritage, and the National Library of Israel.