The Rebel Woman Who Fell in the Battle of Tel Hai

When asked to help the residents of Kfar Giladi, Devorah Drechler did not hesitate. When instructed to move on to Tel Hai she went gladly—and there she met her death


Portrait of Devorah Drechler from the Schwadron Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Everyone knows how it ended. Today, children in Israeli elementary schools are taught about the iconic Battle of Tel Hai which took place on the 11th of Adar, in the Hebrew year 5680 (March 1st, 1920). They are told of how the settlers held their ground in the famous courtyard of Tel Hai, despite all the hardships. How the dispute over the borderline between the British Mandate in the Land of Israel and the French Mandatory territories in Syria and Lebanon had turned the upper Galilee into a wild, no-man’s land. How the conflict between the French and the troops loyal to the deposed king of Syria created a particularly tense situation in the region. How armed Bedouins surrounded the courtyard of the Tel Hai settlement, demanding to search it for French soldiers. How the Bedouins eventually found a woman holding a gun and tried to take it from her, and how a riot broke out when she refused, marking the start of the great battle.

That woman was Devorah Drechler.

Drechler was born in the Ukraine in 1896. Though hers was the only Jewish family in her village, they nevertheless maintained Jewish traditions and were sympathetic to the “Hibbat Zion” Zionist movement in Russia. In 1913, Devorah arrived in the Land of Israel, to join her sister, Chaya, who had immigrated several years before and married Eliezer Kroll, a member of Hashomer (“The Guard”), the Jewish defense organization. Because of her sister and brother-in-law’s connections, Devorah also joined a group of Hashomer members who settled that year in the northern community of Tel Adash, known today as Tel Adashim.

Drechler quickly integrated into the group.  It was in this setting that she found a sense of purpose and satisfaction, a fulfillment of her dreams and ideas. Like most of the (very few) women in the group, she was assigned jobs that were considered “women’s work”. This entailed cooking, cleaning and laundering, while the men undertook the agricultural work, and in the case of Hashomer — security duty. The pioneers of the Second Aliyah (Zionist immigration wave) were certainly conservative in matters of gender and the local farmers, who had arrived earlier, were also reluctant to allow women to undertake these positions. Nevertheless, Hashomer women were usually capable of riding horses and firing weapons. These were important skills for women left on their own, at home, while their husbands and the rest of the men traveled to other settlements for work or guard duty.

A group of Shomrim (Hashomer guards) at Mesha (Kfar Tavor). At the center is the leader of Hashomer, Israel Shochat. From the Postcards Collection, the National Library of Israel

Drechler and the other young women were dissatisfied with the exclusion of women from matters of security, from secret committee meetings, and by virtue of that from full membership in Hashomer. The protest led to the decision to divide the organization’s women into two groups: active female members, who would have full and equal rights including voting rights in the organization’s meetings, and passive female members who, while being members, could not vote in the meetings or for the council. In the first group were the wives of the organization’s founders, such as Manya Shochat and Rachel Yanait, both of them women of high stature regardless, who had been part of the group for many years. The second group consisted of women who had married male members as well as single women, such as Devorah Drechler.

Zipporah Zaid, among Hashomer’s leaders, demonstrating her horse riding abilities

That was still not good enough. Drechler was one of the women who subsequently led the “women’s revolt” in the Hashomer organization. Ahead of the group’s annual meeting scheduled for the end of 1918, Devorah and two other women published a letter addressed to all members in which they announced that they would not be able to continue working unless their demands for equal and full rights were met. “And as we have been members in daily manual labor for years, so shall we be members in every aspect. There can be no meeting held without us, no secrets hidden from us. And if the male members do not have enough confidence in us for this, they must say so openly. Then we will know where we stand, and we will seek other ways to complete the work that brings us closer to our goal, which is the same as yours.”  At the meeting that followed, it was finally decided to accept all women as equal members in the organization, a decision that remained in effect until the final dissolving of Hashomer about a year and a half later. Although only two meetings were held after that meeting until the organization’s dissolution, researcher Dr. Smadar Sinai says it was still a considerable achievement for the young female members, among them Devorah Drechler.

Devorah Drechler, from Kovetz Hashomer, Labor Archive Publishers, 1937/8

The struggle for equal rights during those years was not just the concern of the women of Hashomer and Tel Adash. In the settlements and kibbutzim set up at that time, women fought for their right to take part in the “prestigious” agricultural work in the fields, and we mention here as well, the struggle of Miriam Bratz, “The First Mother” of Kibbutz Degania, whose story will be told in due course.

Devorah did not shy away from difficult tasks, as can be seen in her struggle for equality in her organization. During World War I, despite the fear imposed by the Turkish regime, she made daily visits to Hashomer’s prisoners in Nazareth, bringing them food and information. She also did not hesitate when the group sent her as reinforcement to Kfar Giladi, or from there to help defend the Tel Hai settlement: “On the front you go where they send you, no questions asked,” she was quoted as saying by fellow member Pinhas Schneerson, who assumed command of Tel Hai after the fatal wounding of Joseph Trumpeldor.

Portrait of Sarah Chizik, the second woman killed in the battle of Tel Hai, from the Schwadron Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

This was how Drechler came to be at Tel Hai and how she found herself assigned to a defensive position on the top floor of the courtyard’s main building. The fact that she carried a gun at such a tense and critical moment is indicative of her ability to use it if needed and the level of trust her friends placed in her. In that top floor room with Drechler was another woman — Sarah Chizik. According to the story, their bodies were found in an embrace, alongside the three other members of the group who were killed in the room. Both were exemplars of women who fought for their rights and did their part, whether toiling under the hard sun or fighting on the battlefield.



Thank you to Dr. Smadar Sinai for her assistance in the preparation of this article.



Further reading:

“Women and Gender in ‘Hashomer’: The First Defence. Organization in Eretz-Israel 1907–1939”, (Hebrew) Smadar Sinai, Ramat Gan, 2013

“The Book of Hashomer: The Words of Members”, (Hebrew), Dvir Press. 1957


Is This What the First Temple Looked Like?

A beautiful book featuring a special dedication from Baron Edmond de Rothschild walks us through the corridors of the Temple in Jerusalem


In the municipality storeroom of the northern Israeli town of Rosh Pina, a unique book sat undisturbed for years, its ornate illustrations and French text ignored by all. It would still be lying there, had the town’s former archivist, Hanna Chopin, not come across it one day. Once she began leafing through the pages, Chopin instantly knew she had a very special book in her hands.

One copy of the rare book is kept in the Louvre in Paris, another is preserved in the Rothschild family vaults, while yet another can be found here in the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel. Two more copies  can be found in the towns of Rosh Pina and Zichron Ya’akov in Israel.

The rare books were given as gifts to the Jewish settlements of Rosh Pina and Zichron Ya’akov by Baron Edmond de Rothschild in the late 19th century. It is unknown whether there were additional copies donated to other Jewish agricultural settlements established by the Baron. Here we shall tell the story of the copy that is currently in the Rosh Pina archive. The book contains the following dedication: ‘Dedicated to the Rosh Pina colony by Sir Baron Edmond de Rothschild, Paris, September 21st, 1898.’ It is unclear exactly why the gifts were sent or for what occasion. In fact, we know very little at all about these books. We can tell you, however, that after Ms. Chopin found the Rosh Pina copy in its deteriorated state, the book underwent restoration at the National Library laboratory in 2013, with assistance provided by the Prime Minister’s Office. It was later transferred back to the Rosh Pina archive, where it remains to this day.

What is so special about this book that makes it important to restore and preserve? Well first of all, as a general rule, if Baron Rothschild gives you a gift, it’s probably a good idea to keep it in good shape and even display it proudly, just in case he decides to stop by. Secondly, as previously mentioned, this is a unique work, one of only a handful which exist worldwide. Lastly, the book contains vivid illustrations of the most significant architectural structure in Jewish history: The Temple.

A view from above – the Temple and the Temple Mount, courtesy of the Rosh Pina archive

The book was written by two French scholars: Charles Chipiez and Georges Perrot. Chipiez was an architect and architectural historian and Perrot an archaeologist. They wrote a number of books together which were dedicated to the history of the ancient world: Assyria, Persia, Egypt, Rome, Greece, and of course – Judah and its surroundings. Most of their findings regarding the Jewish Temple – which they saw as an architectural milestone in the history of the world – were published in a book printed in France in 1889, “Le Temple de Jerusalem et la Maison de Bois-Liban”. Rothschild, who took a special interest in Jerusalem and the Temple, discovered the book when it was put on display at an exhibition in Paris, and immediately purchased a number of copies which made their way to the farming colonies in the Land of Israel which were so dear to him.

Ascent to the Temple, courtesy of the Rosh Pina archive
Views from different angles, courtesy of the Rosh Pina archive

The highlight of the book is its appendix – large, magnificent illustrations of the Temple and the ‘House of the Forest of Lebanon’ built by King Solomon, according to the First Book of Kings. The first chapter of Chipiez and Perrot’s book describes the history of the Temple, the structures that surrounded it and the local topography. In the second chapter, the authors explain which sources were used to reproduce the appearance of the Temple. The third chapter describes the Temple itself according to verses found in the book of Ezekiel, and the fourth and final chapter describes what the authors believed to be the palace of the kings of Judah (the Palace of the Forest of Lebanon) – according to their own knowledge. The authors also included sketches of architectural elements such as pillars, domes and capitals.

The House of the Forest of Lebanon, courtesy of the Rosh Pina archive

Dr. Smadar Sinai, a historian and the director of the Rosh Pina Restoration Association, says that Baron Rothschild had a special and understandable interest in Jerusalem and the Temple. According to Dr. Sinai, this stemmed from his traditional Jewish education, as well as from the growing interest in the scientific study of the Bible during the late 19th century. Other evidence suggests that the Baron sought to build a “hall” on the ruins of the Temple and even obtained plans from architects to integrate modern and ancient elements in the construction of a grand new building. The Turkish Sultan refused, for obvious reasons, to authorize the ambitious project.

The “hall”, inside the Temple, courtesy of the Rosh Pina archive

Did Rothschild really dream to restore the Temple in its original location? Did he intend to disseminate architectural instructions for the construction of the Third Temple? Was he simply fond of the book because of its unique art? For now, we do not know the answers to these questions. But thanks to the Rosh Pina archive and the Archive Network Israel project, we can still enjoy the beautiful book today.

This article was written in collaboration with the Rosh Pina archive and with the help of the archive director, Yehoshafat Pop.


If you liked this article, try these:

Newton’s Temple

The Rescue of One of the World’s Most Beautiful Haggadot

The Man Who Would Be King: Delusions of (Royal) Grandeur in Mandatory Palestine

The Black Hebrew Exodus, 50 Years On

Rare images reveal the group's first days in the Promised Land

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

One day while working at a foundry in Chicago, the man who would become known as Ben Ammi Ben-Israel had a revelation.

“I realized that I was the Messiah,” Ben-Israel later recounted.

In 1967, hundreds of his followers sold all of their belongings and followed him to the Liberian jungle where they built a village for themselves, pursuing a process of spiritual purification after hundreds of years of slavery and racism.

Some ultimately went back to America, while others – largely inspired by the words uttered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. just prior to his assassination – decided to journey on to their own Promised Land, the Land of Israel.

In December 1969, some three dozen members of the community, officially known as the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem and generally referred to as the Black Hebrews, completed their exodus, settling in the Negev Desert. Ben Ammi Ben-Israel stayed behind in Liberia to tie up some lose ends before coming with an additional group and joining his own family and the community in the small town of Dimona in March 1970.  According to Ben-Israel, once he came to Israel he received an additional name:  “Nasi Hashalom”, Hebrew for “The Prince of Peace”.

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

The rare photographs appearing here were taken in January 1970, just a few weeks after the community was established in Dimona, and prior to the arrival of the group’s charismatic leader. The images are part of the Dan Hadani Archive, from the National Library of Israel’s Pritzker Family National Photography Collection.

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

The Israeli authorities did not know how to handle the Prince of Peace and his followers, self-proclaimed descendants of the lost tribes of Israel who appeared to practice some form of Judaism, yet also had customs and a belief system all their own. In an unprecedented move, the government granted the African Hebrew Israelites tourist visas, yet also afforded them all of the benefits to which immigrants are entitled, including education, public housing, employment assistance and full medical coverage.

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

One early report tells of the curiosity and warmth exhibited by Dimona’s Indian and North African Jewish residents towards their new neighbors. According to another report about the Black Hebrews, “Anyone who comes in contact with them is full of praise: hard-working people, pleasant, put together, clean. Great citizens.”

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

Nonetheless, their arrival was also accompanied by significant suspicion and even antipathy, largely driven by their unusual origins and practices. When Meir Kahane moved to Israel in 1971, his first public appearance was in Dimona, where he accused the group of insulting the honor of the Jewish people. African Hebrew Israelites who came in smaller groups throughout the 1970s and 1980s were deported. Upon landing in the country in 1977, three community members even tore up their tickets and American passports in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent deportation. At one point, a high-ranking Egyptian official somewhat ironically offered to settle the African Hebrew Israelites in his country, then still officially at war with the Jewish state.

Nonetheless, Ben Ammi Ben-Israel had no intention of continuing his community’s exodus on to Egypt or anywhere else for that matter. He urged his flock to be patient. After enduring inner city Chicago and the jungles of Liberia, certainly a little perseverance could best the bureaucratic and cultural challenges they faced in Israel, as well.

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

Sure enough, in 1990, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of the Ultra-Orthodox Shas party established guidelines that would ultimately ensure that the vast majority of the community be allowed to stay in Israel permanently.

While Ben Ammi Ben-Israel passed away in 2014, his teachings live on in the “Village of Peace” urban kibbutz in Dimona, where most African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem still live. Over the years, the strictly vegan community has thrived and become increasingly integrated into Israeli society and culture. They have opened a number of successful vegan restaurants, as well as factories for both vegan foods and natural fiber clothing. Many serve in the IDF, wearing special boots made from synthetic materials so as not to violate their religious prohibition against wearing leather.

Most members of the community today were born in Israel, yet the influence of 1960s Black America lives on in the cadence of the English they speak, as well as in the music and dance for which they have become legendary. Community members twice represented Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest: 1999’s “Yom Huledet/Happy Birthday” by Eden, and 2006’s “Together We Are One” by Eddie Butler.

Though it took some time, it now seems hard to deny that the vision Ben Ammi Ben-Israel expressed in a newspaper interview shortly after arriving in Israel half a century ago has largely been fulfilled, “We only really want one thing: that you will understand that we love the Land, want to be good citizens, to be the friends of all people.”

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge


If you liked this article, try these:

What Did Martin Buber and His Friends Write to President Johnson about Martin Luther King Jr.?

Gandhi’s 1939 Rosh Hashanah Greeting to the Jewish People

100 Years of Ford and the Jews – From Anti-Semitism to Zionism


The Story of the First Hebrew Animated Film

Even the creators of the short animated film “The Adventures of Gadi ben Susi” didn’t think it was any good

A young Yemenite-Jewish boy wanders the streets of Tel Aviv. He tries his hand at a string of jobs, but doesn’t last long at any of them. He looks for love and finds it, but only after many trials and tribulations, including floating above 1930s Tel Aviv while clutching hold of a cluster of balloons, for example. This is the basic plot of “The Adventures of Gadi ben Susi,” considered to be the first Hebrew animated film ever made.

The original Gadi ben Susi, you may recall, was one of the twelve spies Moses sent into the Land of Canaan ahead of the entry of the Israelites. He was a representative of the tribe of Manasseh, and this was the only time his name appeared in the Bible. Those familiar with the story will remember that, with the exception of Kalev ben Yefune and Joshua ben Nun, all the spies were considered sinners because they spoke critically of the land. This then is the possible allusion contained within the name of the star of our film. Was there any special intent in selecting this biblical name or was it just a random choice? We’ll let our readers decide.

Young Gadi, as noted, was apparently a newly-arrived immigrant who, based on his hair and clothes, was born in Yemen. According to the captions, his immigration to the Land of Israel transformed him into a new man and now, the time had come, after having studied Torah, for Gadi to find work. Setting out to roam the streets of little Tel Aviv, he hears a cry for help, but like Don Quixote, he misjudges the situation and ends up in trouble with the police. Next, he tries his hand at selling ice cream and roasted almonds, against a backdrop featuring iconic Tel Aviv buildings of the day, such as the famous Herzliya Gymnasia high school.

The iconic Herzliya Gymnasia high school building, as featured in the film

The style is entirely dream-like and surrealist: limbs can suddenly stretch to outrageous lengths, Gadi is swallowed up by an ice cream truck, and his future lover is able to save him from a deep well with the help of an especially flexible palm tree and, of course, the power of love. The plot is rather lacking and the characters are two-dimensional, but a twist lies in wait. We won’t give away the ending, however.

Gadi soars over Tel Aviv while clutching a bunch of balloons

A few technical details about the film: it is silent and contains no soundtrack whatsoever. The plot is advanced with the help of slides containing narrative text and dialogue.  The drawings are in black and white. It is eight minutes long and was produced in 1931. For the sake of comparison, we should bear in mind that four years earlier, another black and white animated film starring a famous mouse had captured the world’s imagination. Alas, this was not the fate of our Gadi, whose own creators would end up making fun of him.

The film was produced by the Agadati brothers, Baruch and Yitzhak, who were among the founders of the Hebrew film industry in Israel. They hired the talented poet Avigdor Hameiri to write whimsical rhymes for the project, and the artist and cartoonist Arye Navon, who was put in charge of animation. Much can be written about all of them, beginning with the fact that all three arrived in Mandatory Palestine on the famous ship Ruslan. However, we will focus here on the illustrator, whom we can safely call the first Hebrew animator in the Land of Israel.

Arye Navon, the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

Arye Navon was born in Ukraine and as mentioned, arrived in Palestine in 1919 with his family. He and two of his brothers, three out of a family of five siblings, became artists. Over the course of his long career, he drew caricatures for the Do’ar HaYom newspaper, as well as for Davar. In addition, he illustrated books by major authors and poets, painted portraits, designed scenery for the theater and created comic strips.

In his autobiography Bekav u-bekhtav (“In Line and Script”), published shortly before his death, Navon concisely described the process of the making of the animated film (he even mistakenly called the character “Yossi ben Gadi”): “For around ten days I sat in [Agadati’s] studio and drew many pictures. Agadati, together with his brother Yitzhak, photographed the drawings on the animation table, which was quite primitively constructed. The electric lamps that lit the illustrations were placed on top of a special structure. Yitzhak would climb to the top and adjust the light from there. Another problem was that the light attracted flies, which would land on the drawings. In the screen test, these photogenic flies looked like elephants . . . it was a pretty awful film. Walt Disney did it much better. At any rate, it was the first animated film in the country.”

Returning once again to our Gadi, this “pretty awful” film did not leave much of an impression on the Israeli film industry, and its single claim to fame is that it was indeed “the first.” It played for only a week before it disappeared into oblivion. Luckily, it can still be viewed today thanks to the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive.


If you liked this article, try these:

The Father of Hebrew Cinema and His Lost Film

Meet Queen Esther – Israel’s First Beauty Queen

Rare Images: When the Land of Israel Shook in 1927