That Other Time They Almost Declared a Jewish State (and No One Noticed)

In July 1943, in the midst of World War II, notable members of the "yishuv" gathered in secret in a Tel Aviv suburb, to proclaim the establishment of a Jewish government in the Land of Israel

Seated from left to right: Prof. Joseph Klausner, Abraham Krinitzi, Israel Rosov, and Dr. Abraham Weinschal

Few people are aware that the declaration of independence of the State of Israel on May 14th, 1948, (the fifth day of the month of Iyar in the year 5708, according to the Hebrew calendar) was preceded by another, almost clandestine ceremony, in which the establishment of a Jewish government in the Land of Israel was proclaimed. In many ways, that forgotten ceremony represented a last hurrah for the Zionist movement’s old guard.

“[British police] detectives were tracing our every move the entire day,” recalled Abraham Krinitzi, one of the organizers of the proclamation ceremony, in his memoir. Krinitzi, head of the local council, and later a legendary mayor of Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv, had some experience with the British police. They had even called the settlement he headed “the incubator of terrorism,” because of its involvement in sheltering members of the underground. The day Krinitzi recounts was July 25th, 1943 – the day “The People’s Congregation” was set to convene in Ramat Gan.

The People’s Congregation will open at 11 am sharp…” – A Hebrew announcement published on the morning of the event in the HaMashkif newspaper

By the summer of 1943, news of the annihilation of European Jewry had begun to reach the country, and many in the Jewish community felt a sense of helplessness in the face of it. Alongside the call from Jewish leaders for cooperation with the British in their war against their mutual Nazi enemy, the underground organizations, the Haganah and the Irgun, announced a pause in the struggle against the British. The Lehi, another group which had split off from the Irgun, was then at a low point following the murder of its leader, Avraham “Yair” Stern, and the jailing of his successors.  The fact that many Jews enlisted in the British army and assisted in the war effort did not dull the sense of rage and powerlessness the Jews in Mandatory Palestine felt about the closing of the country’s gates to Jewish immigration and the negative stance of the British government toward any manifestation of independence.

Given this situation, a group of veteran Zionists of Jewish-Russian background who had been sidelined from positions of leadership around two decades earlier, decided to take action. The Zionist movement’s “changing of the guard” had left no room for the founding generation. They increasingly saw themselves pushed aside, not to mention taken aback by the struggle between the socialists and revisionists. Most of the members of this group naturally tended toward the right of the political map and identified more with a firm and independent approach in relation to the British Mandate.

Their idea was simple, even if not completely rooted in reality: The Jews of Palestine would establish a united front that was independent of the institutions of the Jewish Agency, which they perceived as weak and ineffectual. Based on relative political power, the parties would elect representatives who together would constitute a 120-member Hebrew parliament. Given the state of war in which Britain found itself, and in consideration of the loyalty demonstrated by the Jewish yishuv (the Jewish population in Mandatory Palestine), they believed Britain would recognize the independence of the Jewish authority to be established in Palestine and grant it limited independence, under its protection.

Krinitzi wrote in his memoirs, but not before he made a point of noting his own role as one of the idea’s initiators, that “the living spirit behind this was Dr. Avraham Weinschal.” Weinschal, a respected lawyer from Haifa, a friend of Jabotinsky’s and one of the founders of the revisionist movement in Palestine, made sure to include his likeminded ally and colorful figure Dr. Wolfgang von Weisl in this endeavor. The doctor, who had served as an officer in the Austrian army and bore a noble title, was, in addition, a respected journalist and welcome guest at the courts of Arab princes, who showed high regard for his vast knowledge of Islamic culture.

Von Weisl’s bold and daring nature suited the plan that was beginning to take shape. Perhaps more than it was meant to rebel against British rule, the plan was intended to defy the existing Zionist leadership and constitute a kind of “revolt of the elders.” Van Weisl needed help preparing for action and forging contacts with various groups, and for this task, he chose the young Uri Avnery, then barely twenty years old, who would go on to become a famous figure in the realm of Israeli journalism, activism and politics.

 

“The delegates in attendance”

In his memoir titled Optimistic, Avnery recounts meeting with Von Weisl and the latter’s failure to achieve the broad coalition for the establishment of a “government in exile.” Skepticism, along with partisan divisions, apparently prevented the great rebellion from being carried out to its full extent. Also, the close surveillance of the British forced Von Weisel to temper the plan of action.

Weinschal, Von Weisl and their friends decided to hold a large public meeting in which a “Jewish Government in Exile” would be declared. Krinitzi volunteered to host the gathering in Ramat Gan, in the auditorium of the Ohel Shem high school, today the Yahalom High School. The name of that select gathering— “The People’s Congregation” — from which the government was elected, showed the desire to achieve a broad consensus as well as the desire to not arouse the anger of the British,  by avoiding words like “government” or “parliament.”

The proclamation began with a symbolic act intended to show the loyalty of the Jewish yishuv: in the Great Synagogue of Ramat Gan, Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Toledano held a memorial service to commemorate those of the community who had died while serving in the British Army. Immediately afterwards, hundreds of the invitees walked from the synagogue to the school building, where the assembly was officially opened. Seated on the dais were the members of the directorate, Prof. Joseph Klausner, Israel Rosov, Avraham Weinschal, and Abraham Krinitzi, among others. Von Weisl’s name was absent from the directorate and from the list of participants. Was the decision to moderate the demands of that “temporary government” what caused him to leave?

Years later, Avnery, who was likely the youngest participant at that event, did not recall an extraordinary historical event. The long, pathos-filled speeches delivered by members of the directorate and other veteran public activists turned the historic proclamation of a Jewish government into yet another toothless public gathering. In the slim pamphlet of the collected speeches delivered that day, the anonymous publisher took care to note whether a speech was received with “sustained applause” or “thunderous sustained applause”. From the perspective of the young Avnery who found himself in a strange event organized by the “elders of the generation,” he remembered it as a particularly lackluster affair.

A Proclamation to the Hebrew People in Zion and the Diaspora” summarizing “the decisions unanimously agreed by The People’s Congregation“, which consisted mainly of proposals for further action to be taken later…

The text of the telegram sent at the end of that day to British Prime Minister Churchill, to US President Roosevelt, and to the Prime Minister of South Africa, reinforces the sense of a missed opportunity, the result of a lack of political daring. “The People’s Congregation that gathered in Ramat Gan,” the telegram says, “draws the attention of nations united in their fight for the freedom of the world’s peoples, to the severe violation of the rights of the Hebrew People, caused by the lack of recognition of the People of Israel as an ally, fighting party and equal partner with the other united nations.” Only towards the end of the telegram is the explicit demand made: “Basic justice demands recognizing the right of the Jewish People to be represented by a temporary Jewish government to share in the war and in peace building and to secure its future as a free nation in its homeland.”

Avraham Krinitzi was forced to admit that the historic conference ended only with proposals for action and the election of representatives, and no practical significance. However, the fact that British censorship prevented the event from being publicized in the press did not, he said, prevent the leaking of the news of its having taken place. Krinitzi mockingly refers to the blackout imposed on this “ideological terror” as the British called it, concluding: “Indeed, there are also those for whom an idea is terrorism, and perhaps not one of its less dangerous forms. It sows the seeds in hearts, in minds. And I know from experience: He who plants the seed is destined to see it grow.”

 

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The Last Voice – The Story of Hadassah Lempel

A chilling letter found in the National Library archives tells the story of Hadassah Lempel, whose voice was the last one heard during one of the fatal Battles of Latrun in 1948

“They said she was pretty. That she had big, sad eyes. That she was on her own. Her name was Hadassah Lempel. A new immigrant. Hers was the last voice heard from the unit that breached the courtyard of the Latrun police station on the night of May 30th–31st, 1948. She and the rest of the force were engulfed in flames. Some told about a woman’s bloodcurdling cries from inside the inferno amid a hail of gunfire and the desperate screams of the wounded. And there were the enemy’s stories of a girl wearing a radio headset in the armored vehicle filled with dead and wounded, screaming to the legionnaires to surrender. Her mother and sister who arrived in the country after her, were four months too late. A small photograph and a memorial over a communal grave were all that she left them.”

Article by Menahem Talmi, Maariv, May 27th,1988; click on the image to read the full article (Hebrew)

In 1988, a few months after the publication of her book The Teheran Operation, Israeli author Devorah Omer read these heartbreaking words about Hadassah Lempel. The Hadassah in the article was also one of the characters in her book. Hadassah had been one of the Teheran Children, a group of approximately 800 children of families that had escaped or were exiled to the Soviet Union from Poland during World War II, and who finally reached Mandatory Palestine in 1943, after a long and arduous journey that crossed through Iran.

Hadassah was just 14 years old when she arrived in the Land of Israel, and it was only here that she finally became Hadassah – before that she had been known as Helena or Helinka. She moved from one kibbutz to another until she was eventually drafted into the Palmach, the elite fighting force of the Haganah organization, one of the precursors of today’s Israel Defense Forces. Hadassah was soon assigned to escort convoys bound for Jerusalem.

The supply convoys to Jerusalem left Tel Aviv along the only road connecting Jerusalem with the coastal plains, which passed through the area of Latrun. Due to its strategic importance, the British had established a police station there to control the road. On May 14th, 1948, as the British were set to leave the country, the establishment of the new Jewish state in the Land of Israel was declared in Tel Aviv. That night, the British vacated the Latrun police station, enabling the Jordanian Arab Legion to take control of it. The first battle for the liberation of Latrun, a bloody affair which ultimately ended in failure, took place ten days later on the night of May 24th–25th. The second attempt took place on the night of May 30th–31st. A unit was sent to breach the police station. The mission’s signal operator was Hadassah Lempel.

Hadassah Lempel (second from the left) with her friends; the group escorted convoys to Jerusalem during the snowy winter of 1948; from left to right: Shimon Meizel, Hadassah Lempel, Varda Shulek, Yossi Ziv, Yehoshua and Nehemia; from a photo album belonging to Lia (Tahun) Offenbach; click to enlarge

Devorah Omer, who always conducted thorough research before beginning any book, discovered new details about Hadassah Lempel while reading the article by Israeli author, journalist and Palmach veteran Menahem Talmi, which is quoted above. She read of “a woman’s bloodcurdling cries from inside the infernoamidst the hail of gunfire, explosions and screaming wounded. She read about a girl with a radio headset sitting inside a damaged armored vehicle filled with wounded men, shouting to the Arab Legion soldiers in the police building that their end was near and they had better run before it was too late.

In the article, Talmi wrote that Hadassah’s voice, emanating from the command vehicle which stood at the head of the force, was the last sound to come from inside the firestorm at the Latrun police station. It was the last report to reach the brigade headquarters about the failed attack, about the brutal battle and the many casualties. In her final moments, she reported that the force commander, Yaki, and his deputy, had both been injured. Hadassah received the order to retreat and Yaki was able to instruct all who were still capable to save themselves. After that, her voice fell quiet. Yet Talmi wrote, “Her voice continued to resonate with those who heard, or those who learned of it from word of mouth. And there were some who asked, with pent-up rage, why a girl had been sent to the front line, why had she been placed with the force making the breach, and whether equality between the sexes, between male and female soldiers, was essential in such  cases.”

Even though her book about the Tehran children had been published, Omer was eager to hear more about Hadassah Lempel, so she wrote to Menahem Talmi, asking him to tell her everything he knew. She received a letter from him in response with a chilling description of Lempel’s final moments. From the letter, she discovered one more thing that Talmi did not mention in his article. He revealed that he himself had heard her voice coming across the hand-radio in the midst of the battle:

Dear Devorah,

I received your letter in connection with the article about Hadassah Lempel z”l. You knew her, as you write, from Givat Brenner [a kibbutz in central Israel], and then she served as one of the characters in your book about the Tehran Children. I didn’t know her and I never saw her. But I knew her voice and it has haunted me for years. I did not take part in the battles for Latrun, but at the time I was at one of the posts above Sha’ar Hagai [a location on the road to Jerusalem] and on my two-way radio, which was the same as the ones in the armored vehicles that went to breach the police station at Latrun, I listened to what transpired in the Ayalon Valley.

I heard her voice, the clear, subdued voice of a girl caught in the midst of the awful and hopeless battle. I heard her reports, without knowing exactly where she was. But I understood the situation she was in. Her speech and voice were bone chilling. It was clear that she was already speaking from the inevitable abyss and it was like needles piercing your flesh. The news she reported over the airwaves was grim. Despite her desperate state, her voice did not betray her. And you’re sitting far away, not physically involved, in a relatively safe place, listening to the voice of some anonymous girl sent into the heart of the battle, not knowing who she is, unable to help her, hoping that something will happen and she’ll be extricated from it. But no such thing took place.

Her voice faded. I still heard those who were in contact with her on the two-way radio calling her repeatedly – but there was no answer. I understood what they understood.

For years, the voice of this anonymous signal operator haunted me. For years, this situation haunted me: the experience of listening to the death of a human being over the airwaves.

Ahead of the fortieth anniversary [of Israel’s independence] I decided to write about this anonymous voice. I traced the footprints. It turned out that the writers of the history of the Battles of Latrun mentioned her here and there. I located her sister, collected the material, sifted through it, wrote – and the reactions started pouring in. Lots of comments – from regular people and from those who were with her at different points, some who have memories, some photos, some letters. What is interesting and encouraging: Even in this weary and cynical age, there is still great sympathy and identification with the heritage of the past and with those who gave their lives so that such a legacy continues to exist.

Regards,

Menahem Talmi

[June 5th, 1988]

Talmi’s letter to Omer from June 5th, 1988, from the Devorah Omer Archive at the National Library of Israel; click here to enlarge

In addition to the chilling description of the battle, which also appeared in the article, Talmi’s letter to Omer contains a personal element. More than anything else, what stood out was the difficult experience of a soldier’s helplessness (in this case Talmi’s) in not being able to aid his comrade.

In the letter to Omer, especially in the last paragraph, Talmi also addressed the meaning of “memory,” expanding on it as a motive and purpose. He wrote: “For years, the voice of this anonymous signal operator haunted me” and “[a]head of the fortieth anniversary [of Israel’s independence] I decided to write about this anonymous voice.”

The agony of personal memory that remained for Talmi, that dreadful personal experience of being a soldier out of harm’s way while your fellow comrades-in-arms are on the front line, and maybe even the urge to atone for his inability to help in real-time, led him to write about Lempel to keep her memory alive.

*

In the failed attempt to breach the Latrun police fortress in Operation Ben Nun II, Hadassah was killed along with another 30 fighters. Lempel’s mother and sister, who survived the horrors of the Holocaust and arrived in Israel about three months after her death, did not find her. Only a few weeks later did one of her friends leave them a message that 19-year-old Hadassah had been killed in battle. A year after her death, she was buried on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, in a mass grave along with other fallen soldiers of Latrun.

Hadassah Lempel, Jerusalem, 1948; from the album of Lia (Tahun) Offenbach

Dedicated to the memory of Hadassah Lempel, z”l

And to the memory of Menahem Talmi, who passed away in March, 2018

Many thanks to David Lang of the National Library’s Archives Department for his assistance in the preparation of this article.

 

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When Israelis Stood in Line for Rations

Lines, food shortages and powdered eggs. The coronavirus crisis recalls the early days of the State of Israel, when a policy of austerity was put in place

Israelis stand in line to receive food rations, photo: Hans Pinn, GPO

The word “austerity” has become quite commonplace over the past 15 years or so, especially in the financial press. It made its great resurgence during the global economic crisis of 2008 as well as the European debt crisis that followed. The Hebrew word for austerity – tzena – carries somewhat different connotations for many Israelis. Some of our readers may have heard of the “Tzena Era” during the State of Israel’s early years, but aside from a few strange references in local cult films, what do we really know about this period? We poked through the National Library archives to bring you some of the sights – and flavors – of austerity-era Israel.

During the first full decade of the state’s existence, the Israeli government installed an economic policy of austerity – tzena. However, when used today, the term usually refers only to the first few years during which the policy was implemented, when its influence was extremely noticeable. Although the policy included economic measures in many different fields, the most memorable aspect today was the rationing of food. Prices of food products were regulated and monitored, and citizens were allowed to purchase only limited amounts of food, which they received in exchange for coupons.

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“Do not pay more than the stated price” – An example of the monthly (December) food menu which citizens of Israel were entitled to purchase – “White sugar, Oil, Margarine, Farm eggs…” – The Historical Poster Collection at the National Library of Israel

In fact, rationing expanded to products beyond food, such as furniture and clothing. Israeli companies, such as “Lodjia” and “Ata” produced clothes that were distributed in exchange for rationing coupons, and set the tone for the little country’s fashion trends during the 1950s.

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Trying on clothes during the tzena period, photo: Beno Rothenberg, Meitar Collection

And now for a paragraph on extenuating circumstances: at the time, the Israeli government was not the only government in the world that decided on a regime of austerity or rationing, which there were several justifications for. Firstly, Israel was still recovering from the grueling 1948 War of Independence (during which foods products were also distributed and restricted). Secondly, and this was perhaps the most important issue, the government was extremely concerned that without rationing, the state wouldn’t be able to provide food and clothing to all the new immigrants, who were arriving in large waves at the time – most of them without any property whatsoever. Moreover, the government wished to reduce the cost of living through rationing, in order to prevent large economic gaps in society.

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A display of products that all citizens were entitled to, photo: Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection

 

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“Rationing ensures food for everyone” – a government propaganda poster promoting austerity, the Historical Poster Collection at the National Library of Israel

And so, Israeli citizens were required to take their food coupons, calculate points, and report to the grocery store where they were registered. They received oil, sugar, margarine and rice, and indulged in meat maybe once a week and fish maybe twice a month. Occasionally they received eggs, chocolate, 100 grams of cheese, or dried fruit. Due to the situation, there were often shortages, and costumers were not always able to receive the food products they desired. The frugal selection forced citizens to be creative when cooking their meals, and there were those who came to their aid: the cooking guru of the era, Lillian Kornfeld, produced a cookbook. The WIZO organization put together an exhibition in which “austerity dishes” were displayed. The government, for its part, tried to convince the people of the wonders of egg powder.

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“Bless my crest! There’s really no difference between a fresh egg and a powdered egg – aside from the price* and the shell!  *Powdered eggs are cheaper. 2 tablespoons of powdered eggs+2 tablespoons of water = 1 egg”, the Historical Poster Collection at the National Library of Israel

 

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“Out of coffee!” – A sign on the door of a coffeehouse in 1949, photo: Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection

Due to the shortage of staple foods, a gray market and black market quickly emerged, alongside the regulated price system. Immigrants who received food coupons would sell these for money in the gray market. Quality products gradually fell into the hands of savvy merchants, who established the black market, where citizens could suddenly obtain eggs and meat, butter and chocolate. The government tried to combat the parallel market that popped up under its nose, and conducted aggressive publicity campaigns attacking it. The authorities also established an enforcement mechanism, which included searches of apartments and personal belongings, in an attempt to eliminate the black market.

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“The scalper is your enemy! The black market is your catastrophe!” – A government propaganda poster targeting the black market, the Historical Poster Collection at the National Library of Israel

 

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A child dressed up in a “black market” costume, during a costume contest in Tel Aviv, 1951; photo: Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection

Gradually, the restrictive rationing policy caused growing resentment among Israeli citizens.  The public slowly accumulated more money than it could spend. Citizens couldn’t use their money as they wished because of the austerity regime. In the summer of 1950, a general strike broke out among merchants, who demanded a change in government policy. Clothing and footwear stores, cafes and restaurants, all closed their doors.

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A man reading a sign announcing a business strike, photo: Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection

The civil resentment quickly spread to the political arena. The “Mapai” ruling party indeed supported the policy, arguing that it was a necessary evil in order to absorb mass immigration, but its political rivals didn’t hesitate to attack the austerity regime. The most prominent party in the struggle against the rations was the General Zionists party. In the 1951 Knesset election, they campaigned under the slogan “Let us live in this country.” The successful campaign positioned the party as Mapai’s main competitor, and won the party 20 seats – it’s greatest achievement in the history of the state.

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Pro-austerity signs in the May 1st parade, 1949; photo: Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection

 

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“No return to rations! No more lines!” – An election poster for the General Zionists party, the Historical Poster Collection at the National Library of Israel

 

The rationing policy was officially abolished in 1959, but even before that, changes were made to the restrictions. Improvement in Israel’s economic situation, civil resistance, unbearable bureaucracy, and the black market that rendered austerity irrelevant, all led to changes in the policy. In 1952, Minister of Finance Eliezer Kaplan, and his replacement, Levi Eshkol, introduced a program called “The New Economic Policy” and took the first step in improving the economic situation of Israel’s citizens. Nevertheless, in retrospect, some say the austerity was a great achievement: Thanks to the unpopular measures, Israel, a young post-war state, managed to develop its economy and absorb millions of immigrants – without starving.

 

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A Digital Geniza: The National Library of Israel Is Collecting in the Age of COVID-19

The National Library of Israel is asking you to send us examples of digital ephemera which convey a sense of the times

An example of digital ephemera, appearing with the kind permission of Pagoda Online Learning, www.pagodaonline.org 

  • Please don’t delete that email from the Rabbi offering to Zoom the Shabbat service straight into your lounge
  • Save the Whatsapp message from the kosher shops assuring customers that there will be enough matzah for Pesach
  • Download your synagogue’s poster offering support for vulnerable people in the community
  • Forward messages from community leaders offering psychological support

These ephemeral digital fragments are documenting Jewish history in real-time. And they are also ephemera –   in ordinary times they might be items such as a synagogue timetable, a kosher restaurant menu, wedding invitation or Jewish film festival poster – items people would not necessarily think to keep, but that will later define our communities and our culture for future generations.

An example of digital ephemera, appearing with the kind permission of Pagoda Online Learning, www.pagodaonline.org

In these extraordinary times, they include a whole range of materials reflecting halachic innovations, new forms of ‘socially distanced’ communal life, educational creativity, Jewish irony and unthinkable situations of mourning our lost ones.   These items deserve to be collected as they will tell a story of resilience, creativity and also tragedy .

A classic example of ephemera – an Israeli ad for Ephedion cough syrup from Assea Labs, the Eri Wallish Collection, the National Library of Israel Ephemera Collection

Fortunately, the National Library of Israel (NLI) is creating  the COVID-19 Jewish ephemera collection, the perfect central repository ‘ a digital time capsule’ for this information.

A “Prayer for the Suppression of the Plague in Bombay” at the Shaar Harahamim Synagogue, October, 1896; the Valmadonna Trust, the National Library of Israel Ephemera Collection

Future students of sociology, anthropology, medical history, Jewish communal life, mass marketing, computer science and rabbinic responsa will be tremendously grateful.   Consider the NLI as a library without borders – with links to Jewish communities, people and libraries wherever they may be, drawing on the cyber revolution to enhance community engagement, digital preservation, open access, and collaborative projects globally.

We all hope that one day soon COVID-19 will be history – help us record this unique and historic time.


Drop your COVID-19 digital ephemera here or email it to
[email protected].

 

See also:

Gesher L’Europa

Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe

 

This article is based on a longer one published on the Times of Israel website, here.