When Shimon Peres Fantasized of an Israeli Colony in South America

In the late 1950s, relations between Israel and France were blossoming, thanks in large part to the young Director General of the Ministry of Defense, Shimon Peres. Among various collaborations, Peres raised an unusual idea: Why not settle tens of thousands of Israelis in French Guiana, a remote South American colony? Who was in favor? Who wasn't? And what did David Ben-Gurion think of it?


Shimon Peres against the background of a map of Guiana. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, National Library

Is it hot outside? Are temperatures soaring? In Israel, this description fits roughly nine months of the year. But what if the government were to give you give a plane ticket and an offer to live in a more tropical climate? Would you take it?  And what if the specific location being suggested was the territory in South America known as French Guiana? Because, for a moment in Israeli history, the possibility that a group of Israelis might move there permanently was seriously considered.

But before we delve more deeply into that story, here is some general background information for your convenience: French Guiana is situated in the northeastern part of the South American continent, on the Atlantic coast, most of which is covered by dense rainforest. Next to it, in the general region known as “The Guianas”, are the Co-operative Republic of Guyana (formerly British Guiana), the Republic of Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana), as well as certain provinces in southern Venezuela and northern Brazil. Unlike Guyana and Suriname, both of which are independent countries, French Guiana is, as its name suggests, a French overseas territory, which still belongs to France and whose residents vote in French elections. And yes, it is part of the European Union and the local currency is the Euro. For years, French Guiana served as a French penal colony. Off its coast is Devil’s Island, where Alfred Dreyfus was famously imprisoned until his exoneration on charges of espionage. Today, French Guiana serves as the main launch site of the European Space Agency, from where it launches its satellites and other space-related missions.

Map of the area of French Guiana, ca. 1780. The Eran Laor Cartographic Collection, the National Library of Israel

And what do Israel and this distant land across the Atlantic Ocean have to do with each other? The connection was the brainchild of Shimon Peres, who was the energetic young Director General of the Ministry of Defense back in 1959. Peres had been the driver, architect and maintainer of the strategic alliance between Israel and France since 1955. Guiana, as noted, was and is still part of France. “Among the French delegations that came to Israel there was a representative from Guiana,” writes Michael Bar-Zohar, in his acclaimed biography of Peres. “The representative from Guiana was deeply impressed by Israel and said to Peres, ‘If we had ties with Israel instead of France, our situation would be different’,” writes Bar-Zohar.

A young Shimon Peres in his office. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

When Shimon Peres heard about this remote and underpopulated land of vast jungles replete with as yet undiscovered treasures, he decided that this was the perfect place to demonstrate the wonders of the Jewish mind and what it could accomplish. He turned to his friend Jacques Soustelle who was the French Minister of the Colonies. “Do you need Guiana?” he asked. Peres proposed that Israel lease the colony for a period of 30 to 40 years and relocate tens of thousands of Jews there who would help develop the region. Alternatively, Peres sought to establish a joint company with France for the development of Guiana, which the Israeli envoys would work on behalf of. Peres wasn’t just dreaming; he wanted Israel to have a stake in Europe’s Common Market, established two years earlier, of which Guiana was a part.

When Soustelle didn’t reject the idea outright, Peres charged ahead. He persuaded Hillel Dan, a director of the Israeli construction and civil engineering company Solel Boneh and the Histadrut labor union, and they organized a seven-person mission to tour French Guiana. The delegation returned with a detailed report and even a short film that was made during their visit.

A newspaper report on one of the visits of the French Minister of the Colonies Jacques Soustelle to Israel, Al Hamishmar, August 6, 1957

At the same time, Peres approached Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who didn’t stop the delegation in its tracks but wasn’t too enthusiastic about the idea either. “They’re dreaming of resettling a Jewish majority (say 40,000 Jews) and establishing a Hebrew state as an Israeli colony,” he wrote in his journal. “Won’t this be at Israel’s expense?” he wondered. “And who’s to say that the Jews in Guiana will want to remain connected to Israel? I advised Shimon not to go too far in his talks with Soustelle, but instead to speak about joint enterprises . . . when the members of the delegation return I will finally find out how desolate the land is and the truth about whether there is room for settlement.”

A young Shimon Peres, photo: Boris Carmi, from the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

This was in fact not the first time the idea of settling Jews in the region had come up. In the 17th century, Sephardi Jews arrived from the Netherlands and established a community called Jodensavanne (“Jewish Savanna”) in the area that is today Suriname. In 1939, (after the Arab Revolt ended and the year the final White Paper was issued) the idea was raised to settle Jews in British Guiana instead of Palestine. After World War II there were also calls to settle the Jews of Europe in French Guiana or the surrounding region, because of the difficulties involved in settling all of the refugees in Palestine.

Document concerning a plan to settle Jews in British Guiana in the late 1930s, the National Library of Israel collections

Returning to our story, unfortunately, we were unable to locate either the report or the film of the delegation from their tour in French Guiana. If any readers have any information about these, we would love to hear from you. However, according to the evidence, the film was shown to members of the Israeli government and the reactions were harsh. Pinchas Sapir told Peres, “This is a disaster, colonialism, imperialism, it will cause a Holocaust in Africa and resistance in South America. Golda won’t let this happen, over her dead body. The ‘Old Man’ [Ben-Gurion] assured her that as long as she is Foreign Minister, this matter will not come to pass.”

Ben-Gurion was also convinced that one state was enough for the Jews. Although Peres accepted the Prime Minister’s decision, it seems that he carried the feeling of a missed opportunity with him for some time. “The French were ready to give us Guiana,” Michael Bar Zohar quotes Peres as saying in his book, adding that “in his diary, on various occasions, he recorded the benefits Israel could have reaped if only it had Guiana in its hands.”

What do you think? Would it have been a good idea if Israel had established a colony in South America? What would have happened if the idea had come to pass? Could this at least be a springboard for an alternative-history/fantasy book series? Let us know!

The Botched Hit That Sparked the First Lebanon War

The failed attempt on Ambassador Shlomo Argov's life led to one of the most complicated and difficult episodes in Israel's history

Ambassador Shlomo Argov and ruins from the Lebanon War (Argov photo published in Hadashot, July 6, 1984 / Lebanon photo: Emanuel Dudai. From the Dan Hadani Collection, The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel)

The Dorchester Hotel, London — one of the world’s swankiest. Owned for decades by modern-day sultans and Middle Eastern magnates, the Dorchester has been a favorite hangout for countless cultural icons from Hitchcock to Streisand. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, held a legendary stag party there before marrying the future Queen Elizabeth II.

UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his wife Mary with Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and his wife Miriam at The Dorchester, March 1965 (Public domain)

The Dorchester is about as far as it gets from the muddy forests of southern Lebanon, yet that’s where the First Lebanon War started. Kind of.

One night in June of 1982, dozens of diplomats gathered at the Dorchester for an annual gala event. Before midnight, Shlomo Argov—the eloquent, Jerusalem-born, Georgetown and LSE-educated Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom—left the hotel and headed toward his car.

Moments before, in the men’s bathroom of the nearby Hilton Hotel, a meeting had taken place that would change the history of the Middle East. There, Marwan al-Banna took out a brown bag he had retrieved from his car. He revealed a Polish W.Z.63 submachine gun accompanied by two magazines of ammunition and handed them to his comrade, Hussein Sa’id.

Sa’id left around 11:00 p.m. and waited nervously in front of a BMW showroom, popping out as Argov approached his Volvo, shooting him and fleeing the scene.

In The Master Terrorist: The True Story Behind Abu Nidal, journalist Yossi Melman, who covered the failed assassination and subsequent trials, includes a firsthand account of the events recalled by Colin Simpson, the bodyguard assigned to Argov that night:

“He bent down somewhat and was about to enter the car. When he was about to put his head inside, I heard a noise behind me. The ambassador fell to the pavement. I looked down at him and saw what appeared then as an extremely serious wound.”

Simpson chased after Sa’id, shooting him just below the ear but not before being shot at himself, with one of the assailant’s bullets narrowly missing his head. According to Melman, “The police investigators later found that the submachine gun had been set for firing single rounds, otherwise Simpson would probably have been struck several times by the 24 bullets remaining in the magazine.”

Argov was less fortunate. A bullet went through his brain. He was comatose for months and would be paralyzed for the rest of his life, spending decades bedridden, primarily in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital.

Ambassador Victor Harel, who worked closely with Argov, remembered him as a “diplomatic giant,” a seventh-generation Jerusalemite who continued fighting after being injured in Israel’s War of Independence, going on to become one of the foreign service’s most valued assets. Argov was reportedly handpicked for the London post by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, despite the fact that the two belonged to adversarial political camps. Such a decision, shortly after Begin’s historic rise to power after decades in the political wilderness, indicated the trust and respect Argov had earned as a man whose service to his country superseded his personal political ideology.

Retaliation and terrorists

Within hours of the assassination attempt, an emergency Israeli cabinet meeting concluded with a decision to hit 11 PLO targets in Lebanon, two of them in Beirut. In the meeting, Begin very clearly emphasized the urgency of action. According to military historian Shimon Golan, author of the most comprehensive work to date detailing the high-level decision-making processes during the war, Begin determined that “Israel could not wait to receive a report from Scotland Yard [regarding the terrorists’ organizational affiliation]; it had to strike without delay, the very same day, at the center of international terror in Lebanon …”

IDF Chief of Staff Rafael “Raful” Eitan recommended the initial targets to hit. Begin accepted the recommendations and emphasized that Israel had to be careful to avoid civilian casualties, while being ready for the inevitable response, including PLO attacks on Israeli civilians.

According to accounts culled from official sources and documentation, including those relayed by Golan and Melman, no major pushback, arguments, or heated discussions took place in the meeting that morning. Interestingly, even though then-Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon is largely credited with designing and pushing the plans for the Lebanon War, he was in Romania at the time and was not even present at this most critical juncture.

Retaliatory rockets came shortly after the initial air strikes, and the Israeli leadership’s discourse shifted from how to respond to deciding on the most advantageous time to launch a ground operation. The ensuing war, known as Operation Peace for the Galilee or the First Lebanon War, led, among other things, to the decimation of PLO forces in Lebanon and their expulsion to Tunis.

Beirut Airport after it was captured by Israeli forces, June 21, 1982. (Photo: Dan Hadani). From the Dan Hadani Collection, part of the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Yet the PLO had nothing to do with the attack on Ambassador Shlomo Argov. The day after the assassination attempt, Shin Bet chief Avraham Shalom had already reported to the Israeli leadership that the perpetrators likely belonged to the so-called Abu Nidal Organization (ANO), a rival Palestinian terrorist faction bent on taking down the PLO.

Raful Eitan famously quipped: “Abu Nidal, Abu Shmidal. We have to strike at the PLO!”

Founded by Sabri Khalil al-Banna, the Jaffa-born scion to one of Mandatory Palestine’s richest families better known as “Abu Nidal,” the ANO committed dozens of hijackings, murders, assassinations, and other terrorist attacks around the world beginning in the 1970s, largely at the whim of its tempestuous founder. Though the ANO did target Israeli and Jewish people and sites, most of their attacks were against Palestinians or other Arabs, particularly diplomats, journalists, and various public figures.

“He didn’t believe in religion or Ba’athism or Marxism or anything else,” an acquaintance of Abu Nidal’s once told Patrick Seale, author of a biography on the terrorist. “The gun was his ideology and his ideology was the gun.”

This photo of Abu Nidal and a North Korean military officer is believed to have been taken in North Korea. It was published in a Lebanese newspaper in 1974, and republished in the September 11, 1986 edition of the Israeli newspaper Hadashot. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Questions and conspiracies

For nearly a year prior to the assassination attempt, the Israel-Lebanon border had been overwhelmingly quiet following a U.S.-brokered agreement between Israel and the PLO. Yet the latter continued perpetrating attacks against Israel and Israeli targets internationally. Israel’s political and defense establishment generally agreed that Lebanon could not continue to serve as the PLO’s home base, and, in fact, detailed plans for the invasion, known as “Operation Oranim,” were ready long before the failed assassination and subsequent ground incursion, which was overwhelmingly approved by all parties in the Knesset except for one.

IDF soldiers on their way to Lebanon, June 6, 1982 (Photo: Yosi Elmakis). From the Dan Hadani Collection, part of the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The exact reason Abu Nidal chose to attack Argov in London on that night in June 1982 remains elusive, but many theories have been suggested, including one peddled largely by Abu Nidal’s Palestinian enemies that he himself worked for the Mossad and ordered the assassination attempt in order to give Israel a justification for attacking the PLO in Lebanon.

In a rare interview, Abu Nidal was once asked by Der Spiegel why he ordered the attack, especially in light of the fact that it ultimately — and somewhat predictably — led to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. In characteristically paranoid fashion, the terrorist leader responded:

“The Zionist ambassador in London was one of the heads and founders of the Israeli secret service, the Mossad. We attacked the ambassador when he had just been assigned a major role by the Mossad in Europe. Our fighters acted scrupulously in terms of my strict orders not to harm any other ambassador.”

He admitted that at the time, “Any blind man could see the Zionist plans to invade Lebanon,” though he categorically denied the role the assassination attempt played in instigating the war: “… in my eyes, it has not been proven and it is not true that the attack on the life of the ambassador was the spark that ignited the war.”

While the explanation that Abu Nidal was himself an Israeli puppet is almost certainly the invention of his political rivals, the motives behind the argument are probably not so far from the truth. According to many, including Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari, veteran Israeli journalists and co-authors of Israel’s Lebanon War, the hit was ordered by Abu Nidal in close coordination with Iraqi authorities in order to serve a number of strategic objectives.

First, they knew the assassination would likely lead to a significant Israeli attack on the PLO in Lebanon—something undoubtedly to Abu Nidal’s liking and benefit. Iraq also had a clear interest in Israel attacking Lebanon, not least because it would weaken or at least divert Syrian forces away from the Iraqi border.

In The Master Terrorist, Melman dubs the Iraqi scenario “extremely credible.” He adds that the Iraqis, then facing internal strife and mired in the long and bloody Iran-Iraq War—which they were losing—had another interest in provoking the Israeli attack:

“If the Israelis would indeed invade, Iraq could request a cease-fire or declare one unilaterally, while appealing to the need for Muslim and Arab solidarity against the Zionist enemy.”

Iraq did just that, announcing: “We believe in the urgent need to direct all our energy and resources to a confrontation with the Zionist aggression against the Arab world, the Palestinian people, and Lebanon.”

Unfortunately for Saddam Hussein, no one — including the Iranians — paid much attention to the proposal.

The Aftermath

Though the would-be assassination certainly served some of Abu Nidal’s interests, he couldn’t have known in advance what the impact would be on his own organization and particularly its activities in London.

The attackers, including Abu Nidal’s cousin, Marwan al-Banna, were quickly apprehended, and later tried and convicted. During the investigations, some details about the planning and implementation of the attack came to light. The explicit order to carry out the attack that night did not come down until the afternoon of the same day, when Na’if Rosan, one of the assailants, answered a public telephone outside his apartment in the Kensington neighborhood of London and was given instructions by one “Comrade al-Sayf.” Rosan instructed al-Banna and Hussein Sa’id to meet him at the Hilton Hotel, where he told them that Argov, who at that point was still mingling at the Dorchester, was their target that night. He gave the gun to Sa’id, who carried out the attack while Rosan and al-Banna loitered nearby.

All three were apprehended within hours.

The police found a list of some 300 names in al-Banna’s hostel room—most of them Israeli and British Jewish figures and organizations, including Chief Rabbi of Great Britain Sir Immanuel Jakobovits; the chairman of the board of the Jewish Chronicle; and a local Chabad school, including the license plate numbers of the vehicles used to transport its students. The addresses of the Jordanian, Moroccan, Saudi, Egyptian, Kuwaiti, and UAE embassies were also on the list.

Embassy of Saudi Arabia in London (Photo: Prebano66 / CC BY-SA 2.0)

According to an interrogation transcript cited by Melman, when asked about the purpose of the list and related information, al-Banna explained, “We wanted to strip the mask from these institutions and places. We know that many of them are actually fronts for the Mossad, the Israeli secret service, or are potential centers for Israeli intelligence. We only wanted to reveal their true identity and publish it, so as to warn the Arabs away from these people and places …”

Regarding the presence of Arab diplomatic and other institutions on the list, al-Banna said, “There are many groups that are ostensibly on our side but are in reality against us, such as Saudi Arabia.”

The prosecutor in the case, who referred to the trial as “the Baghdad connection,” admitted that many questions remained, yet asserted that “we have managed to open a window—even if only a small one—into the secret world of this terrorist secret organization.”

The arrests and sentencings essentially marked the end of any major ANO activities on British soil, though the organization continued to sow terror and target primarily Jordanian, Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, and other institutions and figures worldwide for another decade or so. In 1984, Abu Nidal even tried to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Amman.

Nonetheless, the aftermath of the Argov assassination attempt certainly had significant implications for Abu Nidal’s activities in the U.K. and internationally, which had nothing to do with the conflict in Lebanon and which will never be fully understood.

From a circumstantial historical perspective, it seems quite clear that sooner or later there would have been a Lebanon War even had Shlomo Argov never been shot. Perhaps that’s why the failed assassination’s historic role as the spark that ignited the war has largely been ignored over the past four decades.

The pointed event was also, of course, very quickly overshadowed by the war itself and its immediate and long-term ramifications, including thousands of deaths and lives disrupted and ruined.

Though overwhelmingly popular at first, the war would ultimately leave Israeli troops in Lebanon for nearly 20 years, create a vacuum that has since been filled by Hezbollah, and spark the most significant antiwar movement in Israel’s history. Some of that sentiment was magnified and parlayed by Begin’s political enemies, yet the fact remains that the popular movements against the war and in favor of conscientious objection to military service had never been seen in Israel at that scale. The conflict splintered the country and, according to many, has severely tarnished trust in elected and military officials ever since.

Israeli reserve combat soldiers demonstrating against the occupation of Lebanon, July 1984 (Photo: Yoni Salinger). From the Dan Hadani Collection, part of the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

About a year after the assassination attempt and the outbreak of the war, Argov himself—physically paralyzed but intellectually astute—publicly expressed his personal thoughts on the war for the first time, dictating a short letter to a close friend. Mourning the tremendous loss of life, and contrasting the war with the existentially imperative Six-Day War 15 years earlier, Argov presented a critique of Israel’s political and military leadership, while diplomatically refraining from naming names.

Had the war’s planners thought more about its potential consequences beforehand, Argov argued, “they would have saved the lives of hundreds of our best sons.”

From the hospital bed where he would languish for the next two decades, Argov argued:

“We are a nation short in human resources. We do not have the ability to run experiments in the hope that one of them comes out all right. Even if one of them does succeed—what’s the good of amputated arms and legs?”

Lamenting the fact that during its short history Israel constantly and justifiably had to live by the sword due to the choices of its neighbors, Argov emphasized the eternal desire for peace, which for Israel “more than any other nation is not a slogan void of content, but rather life’s foremost essence and a truth.”

Argov’s role in the outbreak of the Lebanon War was not determinative. Yet in retrospect, there was perhaps no more appropriate trigger to this tragic and confounding conflict than the “wrong” terrorist group botching a hit on a man who bridged a toxic political divide at a time when few others did.


A version of this article was originally published in Tablet MagazineIt appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

An Eternal Love Song: 10 Classic Israeli Hits Inspired by the “Song of Songs”

A tour through the Bella and Harry Wexner Libraries of Sound and Song - Legacy Heritage Foundation at the National Library of Israel reveals the biblical Song of Songs is ever-present in contemporary Israeli music

Shoshana Damari and Yehoram Gaon (the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection) and a Tu B’Av celebration in Hadera, early 20th century (Sonia Kolodany, the Khan Hadera Archive and Museum, colorization by MyHeritage)

Love is in the air, the hot, muggy air. This year, the August heat, the full moon, and the Perseids meteor shower will coincide to create love – or something close to it – on Tu B’Av eve.

Tu B’Av – for those unfamiliar with this minor Jewish holiday with clearly pagan roots – falls on the eve of the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av, when the moon is full. During the Second Temple period, the date marked the beginning of the grape harvest. According to tradition, on that date, unmarried young women would go dance in the vineyards, dressed in white, to eventually be joined by the young men – hopefully in the bonds of matrimony.

The early kibbutz movement revived Tu B’Av as a day for celebrating the grape harvest, and a day for weddings. The modern State of Israel brought Tu B’Av back to what it probably always was – a good excuse to party all midsummer night long. However, given its history, Tu B’Av deserves a proper romantic playlist featuring 10 favorites. And where better to start if not with the Songs of Songs?


Search the National Library of Israel’s music collection using the category “love songs” and you’ll get a long and detailed list of sub-categories, like “suffering” and “unrequited” (the most common of this genre in any language, place, or time), but there are also “courtship”, “dreams”, “hope” – and the “fifteenth of Av”.

Most prominent under the sub-category “fifteenth of Av” is a recording of Kol Dodi (“The voice of my beloved”), as performed by its composer, Israel Prize laureate Sara Levi-Tanai, choreographer and founder of the Inbal Dance Theater. The Library’s recording is from the 1950s but the most famous version by far of this love song, which takes its lyrics from the Song of Songs, was performed by Shoshana Damari, whose archive is housed at the National Library of Israel.

Shoshana Damari sings Kol Dodi 


Another melody penned by Levi-Tanai with lyrics from the Song of Songs was El Ginat Egoz, (“To the Walnut Garden”). The NLI music archive notes, “Written and choreographed straightaway as a folk dance in 1947, the song’s success gave birth to an entire genre of slow-tempo Yemenite-inspired dance-songs with the same hallmarks: lyrics taken from or in the spirit of the Song of Songs, structured in two short parts of two or four bars each, a melody based on a single motif with Eastern musical elements, and a 2/4 or 4/4 beat time signature, based on the Yemenite dance step.”


The Song of Songs also figures in the song Yesh Li Gan (“I Have a Garden”). First penned by Hayim Nahman Bialik in 1908 as poem of longing as spoken by an unnamed woman for her beloved David, who may or may not return to her garden, the text is similar in style to the biblical text. The melody from the 1930s, (mistakenly attributed as a Syrian folk song, but later rightly credited to the famous Egyptian singer-composer Sheikh Muhammad ‘Abd al-Rahim al-Maslub), was adapted by singer, songwriter, musicologist, and actor Bracha Tzfira. The Library’s collection also includes a performance by singer Nechama Hendel, recorded at the Kol Yisrael (Voice of Israel) public radio studios in 1961.


Another recording from 1961: Keshoshana ben HaHohim (“Like a Rose Among Thorns”). Composed by Yosef Hadar – one of the most important Israeli composers of the 1950s and early 1960s – the song was complemented by choreography by Yankele Levy, one of Israeli folk dance’s founding fathers. With romantic verses from the Song of Songs (Like a rose among thorns / So is my beloved among the young women / Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest / So is my beloved among the young men), Keshoshana ben HaHohim has become a couples folk dance standard.

Dance demonstration of Keshoshana ben HaHohim


The song Dodi Li, whose lyric also comes verbatim from the Song of Songs, (I am my beloved’s / and my beloved is mine), was originally set to music in 1948 by musician-composer Nira Chen. It became a popular folk dance in the 1950s, with the song performed by singers like Naomi Tzuri and groups like Lahakat HaUzim (also known as Lahakat HaHalutzim). Sometime in the late 1960s, however, the new generation of Israeli artists apparently felt the need to bring sexy back and allow the Song of Songs’ simmering passion to rise. Check out this hip version by jazz vocalist Rimona Francis.


No list of Israeli love songs would be complete without Erev shel Shoshanim (“Evening of Roses”). Composed by the aforementioned Yosef Hadar with lyrics by the poet Moshe Dor, which again borrowed imagery from the Song of Songs, it was first recorded in 1955 by singer Miriam Avigal and then in 1957 by Yaffa Yarkoni. But the song gained international fame with a version by singing duo HaDudaim. Following the Six-Day War, Erev shel Shoshanim became a hit throughout Europe, recorded in countless versions till today.

Yaffa Yarkoni sings Erev shel Shoshanim


The dark-skinned female in the Judeo-Spanish song Morena, Morenica, a traditional Ladino cancionero with roots in old Spanish poetry, was perhaps inspired by the Song of Songs verse, “I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem”. For centuries, this verse had been set to music; in modern Israel it was adopted by composers like Daniela Dor (pseudonym of Hungarian-born Barbara Kaufman), who wrote the song Schora Ani u Na’ava for the unusual four-octave vocal range belonging to Eritrean-born Yemenite-Israeli singer Hanna Ahroni.

Hanna Ahroni sings Schora Ani u Na’ava


Another song in Ladino, Avre Tu Puerta Cerrada (“Open Your Closed Door”), is among the most-loved and much-performed of the romancas – the Judeo-Spanish variation of traditional Spanish ballads of the Middle Ages. Doors, windows, and garden gates, whether open or closed, were frequent symbols in medieval Iberian poetry and song, and the lyric, from the would-be lover’s point of view, is an expression of deep desire.

The Library catalogue lists at least 40 other recordings, including those from a series of radio broadcasts in Ladino launched in 1954 by musicologist Yitzhak Isaac Levy, head of the Kol Yisrael ethnographic department. While these recorded performances – like this one from 1958 – represent an important resource for researchers, they are also hugely enjoyable, such as this swinging version by pop star – and Israel’s first Eurovision entrant (in 1973) – Ilanit.

However, perhaps the best-known version was recorded by Yehoram Gaon, in a 1969 album that broke Ladino music through to mainstream Israeli popular culture.

Yehoram Gaon sings Avre Tu Puerta Cerrada

9 and 10

As the Mizrahi music genre began slowly gaining legitimacy within the Israeli music establishment, the “I am black and beautiful” verse – but with a far different melody – won first place in the 1977 Israel Oriental Song Festival. Sung by Shimi Tavori, the song Schora Ani u Na’ava started a winning streak that ended only in 1982 when Tavori opted out of the contest. This allowed the now-legendary Zohar Argov to step in, and win with the now-iconic – and Song of Songs-adjacent – HaPerach beGani (“The Flower in My Garden”).

Zohar Argov sings HaPerach beGani   

There are hundreds more songs of romance, passion and longing to be found in the Bella and Harry Wexner Libraries of Sound and Song – Legacy Heritage Foundation at the National Library of Israel. These recordings span decades, and a multiplicity of languages – Arabic, English, French, Greek, Russian, Yiddish, and more – plus the universal language of love (or something close to it).


The Suicide of the Man Who Loved David Ben-Gurion

“My life’s work has been to serve you”: The tragic death of Nehemiah Argov, David Ben-Gurion’s trusted aide…

David Ben-Gurion and his military secretary, Nehemiah Argov. This image is part of Archive Network Israel and is made available through the collaboration of the Ben-Gurion Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

“My very dear Ben-Gurion,

My life’s work has been to serve you.

I believe with complete faith that the Jewish people would not have achieved independence, nor would it have reached its position in the world without your amazing character.”

So ends our story.

And so began the farewell letter written by Nehemiah Argov, David Ben-Gurion’s military secretary, to the man he admired. The letter is dated November 2, 1957, but several days would go by before Ben-Gurion would read the letter addressed to him.

Let’s rewind a bit. Our story begins four days earlier, on October 29, 1957. On that day, Moshe Dweck, suffering from a mental illness, tossed a hand grenade from the stands into the plenum of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, which was then at Frumin House on King George Street in Jerusalem. Four ministers were injured in the incident, as well as Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion who was hit by shrapnel and rushed to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.


Headline in the newspaper Haboker, October 30, 1957:”Grenade Tossed in the Knesset – Ben-Gurion and 4 Ministers Injured”

Although Ben-Gurion was only slightly wounded, his loyal military secretary Nehemiah Argov was very worried by the “Old Man’s” condition, and for several days did not leave the Prime Minister’s bedside. And so he wrote in a letter to a friend:

“The ‘Old Man’ will remain in the hospital for a few more days, with injuries to his leg and hand. The shrapnel from his leg will only be removed tomorrow. He is in good condition, and there are no concerns. However, it is hard to see this lion lying in bed . . . this lion’s place is not in a hospital bed!”

Four days after the grenade attack on the Knesset, on Saturday, November 2, Argov was driving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to visit the “Old Man,” when he was distracted for an instant, losing control of the wheel and hitting a cyclist named David Kadosh. He placed the injured man in his car and sped to the hospital. Doctors initially feared that Kadosh would not survive the accident.

Argov was broken by the event and felt that he could not live with his actions. Believing that it was his fault that a life had been taken, he chose to end his own with a gunshot to his temple. He left two letters behind. One letter to his friends and family, and one letter to David Ben-Gurion.


David Ben-Gurion and his military secretary Nehemiah Argov, Bitmuna. The Edgar Hirschbein Collection. Collection source: Tamar Levy. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In the letter to his friends he wrote:

“Today, the car I was driving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem hit the cyclist David Kadosh. I am afraid that he won’t make it. David Kadosh has a wife and four children. I cannot forgive myself for the injury I have caused to this family. Even if David Kadosh does survive, who knows if he will be able to continue to care for his sacred family?”

In the letter he asked to leave his money to the victim of the accident and at the end he wrote:

“I imagine I have some friends who will be sorry for what I am going to do. I beg them not to be angry with me for doing what I did. I am not worthy of being mourned.”


The item published in Haboker, November 4, 1957


In his farewell to Ben-Gurion, he wrote:

“I was happy during the ten years that I had the privilege of serving you. I don’t know by whose right I had the privilege to serve you.”

He signed the letter “Your loving admirer, Nehemiah.”

The conclusion of Nehemiah Argov’s letter to David Ben-Gurion, Israel State Archives

But Ben-Gurion did not read the letter on November 2. Nor the next day either.

The doctors at Hadassah feared that the news of Argov’s death would worsen Ben-Gurion’s condition, as the Prime Minister was still recovering from the events of the grenade incident.

In an unprecedented move, the daily Israeli newspapers did something that had never been done before: they printed several special issues of their respective papers without the report of Argov’s death. The censored copies were brought to Hadassah hospital, and David Ben-Gurion, who would read the newspapers every day, remained in the dark about the tragedy.

We tried our best to locate the special issues at the National Library of Israel and in the archives of the daily newspapers, but unfortunately no copies were preserved.


“Last night, everything was done to keep this news from the Prime Minister who is at hospital, recuperating from his injuries sustained when a grenade was thrown in the Knesset […] ‘Maariv’ will also print special editions, which will not include this article concerning the Argov affair. Mr. Ben-Gurion is receiving these amended editions today…” – Item published in Maariv, November 4, 1957

Ben-Gurion was given the difficult news the next day. As expected, he was shocked and heartbroken. Two weeks later, on the speaker’s podium in the Knesset, he said:

“The thing that set Nehemiah apart is that he had one exceptional quality, and that is devotion and loyalty. Nehemiah was a man of the highest dedication . . . Nehemiah was endowed with a precious and rare gift from God—the great gift of love. This was a flame that burned in Nehemiah continuously and by which he was consumed, with love and agony.

Please permit me to stand here alone, in silence, for a short moment in his memory.”

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion napping on the grass during a lunch break on a tour ahead of the Sinai Campaign (1956). Behind Ben-Gurion is his military secretary Col. Nehemiah Argov (reading a newspaper). This image is part of Archive Network Israel and is made available through the collaboration of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The cyclist David Kadosh, the victim of the accident, eventually made a complete recovery. With the weight of Argov’s suicide on his shoulders, he also sent a letter to David Ben-Gurion, written from his hospital bed:

“Forgive me and accept my condolences for the great tragedy that has taken your great aide from you, the noble, honest and gentle soul, the late Nehemiah Argov.”


The letter sent by David Kadosh to David Ben-Gurion, the Ben-Gurion Archive

Further Reading

David Ben-Gurion: A Biography – by Michael Bar-Zohar

Nehemiah Argov (Hebrew)