The First Woman to Sign Israel’s Declaration of Independence

Rachel Cohen-Kagan was one of the most prominent activists for the advancement of women's rights in the young State of Israel. Her efforts led to her being among the signatories of the Declaration of Independence


Rachel Cohen-Kagan at the declaration of the new state. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, from the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In recent times, elections have been a frequent topic of discussion here in Israel, yet only occasionally does the important issue of women’s representation in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, make the headlines. On Election Day, broadcasters busily analyze election forecasts to determine, among many other things, what the number of women will be in the new Knesset, but the issue typically gets pushed to the side fairly quickly.

It turns out that the matter of female representation has been a key concern of Israel’s elected representatives—and especially of the elected women representatives—since the very first days of statehood. One person who stood out for her activities on the matter was Rachel Cohen-Kagan, one of the early champions of Israeli feminism. Throughout her years in the Knesset, she fought hard for women’s equality and rights.

Rachel Cohen-Kagan

Cohen-Kagan was born in the city of Odessa in 1888 to the Lubarski family. She studied mathematics at the University of Odessa, and then married Dr. Noah Cohen, a medical doctor from Tashkent. In 1919, they were among the new immigrant passengers on the Ruslan, a famous ship whose voyage marked the traditional beginning of the Third Aliyah, a major wave of Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel. She eventually joined WIZO and became active in the Zionist women’s organization until she was chosen as its chairperson following the death of Henrietta Szold.

Woman!…Apart from you yourself, no party will protect the special interests of the woman and child, the housewife, the new immigrant…” – A WIZO party election poster in Hebrew for the Constituent Assembly in 1949. The Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel

Cohen-Kagan was the WIZO representative on the National Committee (the executive branch of the pre-state Assembly of Representatives) where she was in charge of the Social Welfare department, and when the People’s Council was established, Cohen-Kagan was WIZO’s representative there as well. As a member of the People’s Council, she was one of the 37 signatories to the State of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, and one of only two women to sign it. In fact, she was the first woman to sign the Declaration, before her colleague Golda Meir (Meyerson), since the signing was in alphabetical order, and the Hebrew letter כ (kaf) comes before מ (mem). Cohen-Kagan described her feelings during the historic event: “When a person feels that a dream becomes a reality and their heart fills with joy, they can scale the rooftops. To this day, I find it difficult to put into words what I felt on that day. My language abilities, specifically, and human language in general, fall short. I think it can only be properly expressed through music and art.”

Rachel Cohen-Kagan signs Israel’s Declaration of Independence. David Ben-Gurion sits to her right behind a set of microphones, while Moshe Sharett is to her left. Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In the run-up to the First Knesset elections, or the “Constituent Assembly” as it was then called, WIZO merged with the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Erez Israel in order to run as the first and only all-women party. Even prior to the elections, Cohen-Kagan raised the issue of women’s representation in parliament. She was interviewed by Haaretz in December 1948 (a few weeks before the January elections), but the interview was buried in the women’s section of the paper – “La’isha velabayit” (“For Women and the Home”).  In the interview, titled “Women Needed for our Constituent Council,” Cohen-Kagan said: “To be honest, being the only woman in parliament is not pleasant; it’s even hard! . . . The very fact implies difficulties. Just as it would be rough for a man if he were the only one in an all-women parliament.” Later she added, “…to this day the male public views the appearance of a woman at the parliamentary gates as a very special phenomenon. In this respect, a good degree of maturity is still lacking on the part of men. They simply have a hard time forgetting that I am a woman…”

A WIZO Party election poster for Constituent Assembly in 1949, the Ephemera Collection, the National Library of Israel

Cohen-Kagan, who believed that women bring a unique perspective, saw women’s representation in the Knesset as a necessary component for the running of the state: “It is important and imperative that the women’s point of view be given greater prominence. Just as a man and a woman’s viewpoints integrate in the private household and everything is conducted through the merging of the two approaches for the sake of harmony and good will, it should be the same in the running of the state. In this way, the woman’s viewpoint will be expressed and realized in all general matters, and especially in those in which a woman’s participation is essential, because she is the one who looks out for the needs of daily life.” Cohen-Kagan believed there were certain issues in which the women’s viewpoint was especially significant: “Most important here are questions of welfare, social security for children and the elderly and the problem of education in general. I have no doubt that with the influence of women’s participation in the life of the state, there would be greater concern for all the weak and disadvantaged in our country, a more humane approach to their problems, and without doubt, their situation would improve.”

Women Needed for our Constituent Council” – A segment of the Hebrew interview with Rachel Cohen-Kagan in the December 21st, 1948 issue of Haaretz. You can find the complete interview here.

WIZO won one seat, and Rachel Cohen-Kagan entered the first Knesset. During her tenure, she proposed the “Family and Equality of Women” law in 1951, sought to combat violence against women, supported women’s service in the IDF and dealt with other issues to promote the status of women in Israel. In 1951, the Knesset dissolved and the WIZO party never ran again as an independent party. Ten years later, Rachel Cohen-Kagan ran again for the Knesset and was elected as a member of the Liberal Party in 1961. She served as a Knesset member for another four years.


Many thanks to Dr. Sharon Geva who greatly assisted in the preparation of this article. You can find more information about Rachel Cohen-Kagan and the activities of other women in the early days of the State of Israel at the National Library of Israel.


A Reception for the Man in Black: Johnny Cash in Israel

The discovery of a handful of forgotten photos from a 1971 visit led us to take a retrospective look at Johnny Cash's long-term love affair with the Land of Israel, which included five trips to the country

Johnny Cash in conversation with a guest at the reception in his honor in Jerusalem, November, 1971. Photo by IPPA Staff, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


From the top of Sinai
To the Sea of Galilee
Every hill and plain is home
Every place is dear to me

There the breezes tell the stories
Oh, what stories they do tell
Of the mighty things that happened
In the Land of Israel


From “Land of Israel”, by Johnny Cash


A lavish dining room, invitees wearing their finest, a fully-stocked bar and of course, a handful of busy news reporters crowding around the guest of honor – none other than the world’s foremost country music star, the Man in Black himself, Johnny Cash.

The reception for Johnny Cash in Jerusalem, November, 1971. Photos by IPPA Staff, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

These photos, documenting an event which took place in Jerusalem in November, 1971, caught us off-guard. They are part of our Dan Hadani Archive at the National Library of Israel, which includes nearly a million photographs. The pictures had escaped our notice until recently, when our social media manager, who was actually looking for a photo of Israeli pop star Svika Pick, found an image of the local singer showing up to a party being thrown for international superstar Johnny Cash in Jerusalem.

Israeli pop star Svika Pick arrives at the reception for Johnny Cash. Photos by IPPA Staff, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


But what was Cash – an iconic American singer and musician in the midst of a triumphant professional comeback – doing in Israel in 1971?

It turns out this was actually his third visit. He first came in 1966, for a religious pilgrimage, visiting Christian sites across the country. Cash was so impressed that in 1968 he returned, accompanied by his new wife, June Carter Cash. This second trip inspired an entire album, “The Holy Land”, released the next year. The record featured songs with such titles as “Land of Israel, “The Ten Commandments” and “Come to the Wailing Wall”.

“The Holy Land” is a Christian-themed concept album. It includes interludes between the songs featuring audio recorded on-site at various locations across Israel: a market in Nazareth, a hotel in Tiberias on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, as well as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, among other sites. In these spoken-word segments, Johnny and June describe what they see around them in real-time, with surrounding noises and Hebrew chatter clearly audible in the background, along with the occasional tour guide providing explanations of the religious scenery.

“Land of Israel” by Johnny Cash, from his 1969 album, “The Holy Land”:


These early visits clearly had an impact on the singer. Cash’s next album, “Johnny Cash at San Quentin”, a live 1969 recording in front of an audience of prisoners at a notorious California jail, was one of the best-selling of his career. The record includes a segment in which Cash speaks of his experiences in Israel a year earlier, before introducing the song “He Turned the Water into Wine”, which was written “on the way to Tiberias, in the car”.

Johnny Cash recalls his visit to Israel, during his famous concert at San Quentin State Prison:

It wouldn’t be long before Johnny and June returned, for the aforementioned 1971 visit. While the previous trips were more discreet, this time Cash was given the full PR treatment, with Israeli reporters lining up to interview the country music star, and a fancy reception arranged in Jerusalem.


The reception for Johnny Cash in Jerusalem, November, 1971. Photos by IPPA Staff, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The real reason for the trip, however, was the filming of a movie, narrated by Cash, about the life of Jesus.

While taking a break from the set, Cash spoke briefly with reporter Yossi Hersonski of Maariv.

“I feel that the story of the life of Jesus and his words have been twisted many times by people, who sought to use them for their own selfish interests. The film is meant for everybody. Not just Christians necessarily,” Cash told Hersonski.

The singer’s struggles with alcohol and drugs during the 1960s have been well-documented, but by this point in his career he was experiencing a professional and spiritual resurgence.

“In the past I’ve known what it feels like to be a stray dog wandering the streets,” he told the Israeli journalist, “I was lonely, deteriorating mentally and physically. But I never became angry.”

The film, “Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus”, directed by Robert Elfstrom, would eventually be released in 1972. In it, Cash can be seen singing from atop Mt. Arbel in the Galilee, his country-tinged gospel music accompanying a swerving helicopter camera shot of the Jordan River. Though the film did not perform well at the box office, it would eventually become something of a cult hit with evangelical Christian audiences.


The trip also included “a historic meeting” between Johnny Cash (seated, center), his wife June (right), and folk singer Judy Collins (left), who was in Israel to perform a concert. These two major recording artists had never met before. Haaretz, November 19th, 1971.

Cash would return for two more trips to Israel, also involving film projects. During a 1977 visit he even met with Prime Minister Menachem Begin before setting out to film part of a Christmas special that would be broadcast on American television later that year. It seems he also managed to squeeze in an impromptu solo performance at Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem.

He returned again in 1990, to film yet another religiously-inspired movie, “Return to the Promised Land“, released two years later. Not long after, Cash would begin his successful long-term collaboration with producer Rick Rubin, resulting in 1994’s “American Recordings”. This album would spark another career resurgence for the singer, who was 63 at the time.

Still, for all of Cash’s many visits and creative projects, one of Yossi Hersonski’s questions during his short 1971 interview revealed a missed opportunity. The reporter asked Cash if he would agree to play a concert in one of Israel’s prisons…

“I’d be glad to,” the singer answered “but I’m on my own in Israel, and without the band I ain’t worth much…besides, I haven’t been asked…”



By Three Things a Person Is Known

Chava Levine shares a bit of what she learned from working on the personal archive of Professor Dov Noy, who was described as "the world's foremost Jewish folklorist". The archive is now deposited at the National Library of Israel.

Dov Noy as a young man, the Dov Noy Archive at the National Library of Israel

I never met the person whose entire life I archived.

I did see him once, though. An old man, stooped over, indistinguishable from the myriad of old men who haunt the halls of universities the world over. He used to shuffle through the corridors of the Hebrew University, slowly, as if he had done that walk a thousand times before.

“You see that man? That’s Dov Noy.”

Dov Noy (center) with members of his family, the Dov Noy Archive at the National Library of Israel

He had been a legend in his time. A giant of a researcher, a good-looking, charismatic professor whose reputation follows him even now, eight years after his death. As I tell people about my work in the archives of the National Library of Israel, the response is invariably, ‘Ah yes! I met him/studied with him/went to his Open House events. He introduced me to my spouse/helped me get this job/changed the course of my career. He was such a wonderful man.’

Getting to know someone through their archive is not like getting to know someone in real life. I don’t know his favorite color. I don’t know what he liked to eat. I don’t know what the sound of his voice was or even how tall he was.

What I do know is this: I know his handwriting, almost better than I know my own. I know he had a phenomenal memory, and kept in touch with thousands of people around the world. I know that he survived the Holocaust almost by chance, leaving his warm and loving home in Kolomyia (then Poland, now Ukraine) at the young age of 18 to study at the Hebrew University. I know that he met his brother, the only surviving member of his immediate family, in the refugee camps in Cyprus. However, I don’t know how it affected him. I don’t know how he felt. I don’t know if he ever dreamed he was back home and awoke thinking he smelled his grandmother’s chicken soup.

A Hanukkah menorah made in Cyprus in 1948, featuring a dedication to Dov and Ziporah Noy from local school teachers, the Dov Noy Archive at the National Library of Israel

I know that he dedicated his life’s work to collecting folk tales and stories, and his brother Meir devoted his to collecting songs. I know that his memory was truly astounding, and that his own teacher, Stith Thompson, wrote of his intellect that “I think my other students will not object when I say that Dov was one of the most brilliant disciples I have ever had.”[1] I know he had a predilection for collecting (or perhaps a dislike of recycling bins) and his archive includes such curios as Welsh museum pamphlets, wedding invitations from the 1950s, and Dr. Rabbi Max Grunwald’s 1930 Austrian passport.

Thanks to working on this archive, I now know that people used to own carbon-copy notebooks. I learned that a service used to exist which would cut out newspaper clippings for you. I learned of the importance of letters, postcards, and the postal service, and that back in the old days, people really knew how to write.

Dov Noy and friends, the Dov Noy Archive at the National Library of Israel

As we near the end of this project, I am left to ponder at the chasm between knowing someone through their papers, and knowing them as a person – the space between the written word and experienced life. Much has been written on the relationships between objects and people, and I’m sure more is yet to be written. This archive contains Dov Noy’s writings, his research, and his letters. After all this, I ask, can we know a person by their archive? I leave it to you to find out.



[1] Stith Thompson, 1996. A Folklorist’s Progress, quoted in Ben-Amos, D. (2014). Obituary: Dov Noy (1920-2013). The Journal of American Folklore, 127 (506), 467-469.

The Bedouin from the Galilee Who Tied His Fate to the Jewish State

Amos Yarkoni was a fierce warrior and a decorated officer. He made major contributions to Israel's security, was loved by his commanders and admired by his soldiers. The course of his life could have been completely different had he decided to fight the Jewish settlers instead of joining them.

Amos Yarkoni receiving the Alon Prize, 1985. Photo: Ilan Ossendriver, the Dan Hadani Collection at the National Library of Israel

The day before he was set to be executed, Amos Yarkoni and two of his comrades, all three bound and chained, managed to escape from the deep pit in which they had been thrown by the Arab gang that captured them. Yarkoni, who was then still known as Abd el-Majid Hidr, a member of the Bedouin al-Mazarib tribe, had been expelled from his community as a traitor, and ordered to sign a letter admitting he had assisted the Zionist enemy. When he failed to comply, he was sentenced to death. It was the late 1930s, the period of the British Mandate in the Land of Israel, and Abd el-Majid Hidr had begun to forge courageous friendships with people from Nahalal, a moshav – a cooperative Jewish farming community – located near his village, Na’ura.

He met his friends from Nahalal when he was a teenager. He was a shepherd, and they guarded Nahalal’s fields. The occasional quarrels and daily friction turned into friendships over time, and when Hidr realized that the hostilities of local Arab gangs were directed not only at his Jewish friends, but also at other Arab families, he decided to begin cooperating with the people of Nahalal.

In 1947, he was 26 years old and working as a messenger at the oil refineries outside the city of Haifa, when he witnessed a massacre perpetrated by Arab workers on their Jewish peers, in which 39 Jewish workers were killed and 51 were wounded. This had happened shortly after an Irgun grenade attack had killed 6 Arab workers. Realizing then how waves of incitement led to the unnecessary killing of innocent people, he made his decision: “I saw then that the Jews are a small people in need of help, and I have it in my blood—when I see people fighting, I always come to the aid of the weak,” he told Maariv.

Amos Yarkoni, Maariv, July 13, 1984

He contacted his friend Oded Yanai from Nahalal, who enlisted him in the IDF Minorities Unit, which was established in late 1948. A year later, after completing a military training course, he became the Israeli army’s first Bedouin squadron commander. By the age of 33 he had become an IDF officer, determined to take part in the defense of the State of Israel.

Shaken by yet another violent incident, Abd el-Majid Hidr decided to deepen his ties with the Jewish people: a series of murders and revenge killings among the Bedouin and Druze communities was what led him to change his name, and from that point he became “Amos Yarkoni.” He chose the name Yarkoni as it includes the Hebrew root Y-R-K (ירק), which is associated with the color green. The word hidr or khidr has a similar association in Arabic.

Yarkoni was a decorated officer, who made an invaluable contribution to the defense of Israel’s security. His tracking skills made him famous among his peers and commanders, who were happy to share stories and anecdotes about his abilities: “I accompanied Amos on one of the chases. I couldn’t figure out how he was able to spot the tracks of some infiltrators who escaped with a few cows. He saw I was curious and said to me: ‘Look at the nibbled grass. The cows they took ate some along the way.’  I thought I had learned something. An hour later I said to him: ‘Here, here is where the cow ate.’ Amos laughed, and said: ‘Don’t you know that a cow isn’t going to eat those bitter weeds?’” recalled Maj. Gen. Rechavam Zeevi in an article about Yarkoni. In addition to Zeevi, Yarkoni also counted Moshe Dayan among his close friends.

During his army service, Yarkoni was injured several times in confrontations with infiltrators. He suffered a severe injury to his leg and even lost his left hand. Yarkoni established special tracking units while serving alongside Israel’s elite special forces, and toward the end of his service commanded “Shaked,” an independent unit tasked with locating, stopping and capturing infiltrators, spies, intelligence personnel and Arab guerillas along the borders of Egypt and Jordan. Yarkoni was decorated with the Medal of Distinguished Service and received three citations for bravery. In 1969, he retired from the IDF with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

At his farewell to the unit, he said: “I led the best of Jewish youth.  I enjoyed watching them grow up at my side and I tried my best to be honest and decent toward them. I saw myself as a liaison between Arabs and Jews in my relationship with these young men. I told them: Guys, you have to learn Arabic. This border will not remain forever.”

Yarkoni with his son Adwan. Maariv, May 4, 1976

Yarkoni lived with his family in the southern desert city of Beer Sheva, with his children attending the local schools.  When his son wanted to volunteer for a naval commando unit and to enlist in the IDF officers’ training course, he encountered hesitation and reservations despite his father’s legacy. Eventually the youth overheard a phone call between his commanders, with one noting “his father was an IDF battalion commander, and it’s fine from a security standpoint”. Hurt and offended, Yarkoni’s son refused to join the officers’ course, even after Yarkoni demanded—and received—an apology for the incident. Another son was not called up for compulsory service until Yarkoni insisted.

Despite the difficulties and discrimination his family experienced after his retirement from military service, Yarkoni continue to strive for reconciliation and coexistence among all the country’s citizens. When he died in 1991, at the request of Rechavam Zeevi, Yarkoni was buried at the Kiryat Shaul military cemetery in Tel Aviv.