The Story of Israel’s First Shelter for Battered Women

“We didn’t think we were making history. All we wanted was to work on behalf of women”: The story of the first shelter for battered women in Israel, established in Haifa in 1977, and the women who founded it

Israel’s first shelter for battered women in Haifa. Photo: Courtesy of the Haifa Women’s Coalition Feminist Archive

Among the first was Tzilla, who came to us straight from the hospital, the eye she’d almost lost still bandaged. Tamar who came with four small babies. Sarah, a kibbutznik whose husband had tried to kill her. Carmella, with twenty stitches in her scalp, ominously certain she would never escape her husband’s death threats. Shula, mother of five, who pulled up her sweater to show us her chest and back covered with knife wounds and cigarette burns.

All these women came because they were sure that the next beating would be their last. They came because they feared death and because there was no place else to go. This apartment in Haifa, they all said, was their last stop. No, we said, you will move on from here to live again. We were right about most of the women . We were wrong about Carmella.

– From Exile in the Promised Land: A Memoir, by Marcia Freedman


“Doyou want to open a shelter for battered women?” Marcia Freedman asked her friend Judy Hill.

It was shortly after Marcia had failed in her bid for re-election to the Knesset, this time as a member of the Women’s Party in Israel.

Her question would change the course of everything related to the treatment of battered women in Israel. Five women—Marcia Freedman, Judy Hill, Joyce Livingstone, Cholit Bat-Edit and Barbara Swirski—turned that “question” into a reality. Though none of them were born in Israel, all were pioneers of Israel’s women’s movement. Search high and low and you won’t find a single photograph of these women together. “We never thought we were making history, so we didn’t see the point of taking a picture together,” says Barbara Swirski, who was one of the founders of the shelter and ran it in its early years. “All we wanted was to work on behalf of women.”

Marcia Freedman. January 1974. Photo: Yaakov Saar, GPO

Like many great things, it started from humble beginnings: a group of women, with the help of dozens of other feminist activists, began by renting an apartment in the Hadar HaCarmel neighborhood in the northern Israeli city of Haifa to be used as a shelter. The location was kept a secret for obvious reasons, and everything in it was either donated or improvised. The furniture was donated by local residents and collected in a small truck.

The shelter was actually a five-room residential apartment. It wasn’t much, but even long journeys begin with one small step. Almost the entire staff of the new shelter agreed to work on a volunteer basis: a lawyer, a doctor, a gynecologist, all worked for free or for a nominal fee. The shelter opened in the fall of 1977. For the first time in Israeli history, abused and battered women who until then had nowhere to turn, finally had a place to go.

“Rape? Physical Abuse? Call 04-660281” Haaretz reports on the new shelter. November 4, 1977. Click to read.

Since there was no precedent in Israel for this type of shelter, in order to determine the rules for its use, the team of women had to look at similar projects already operating in other countries. For example, they determined that a stay in the shelter could last for up to three months, men were not allowed access, and each resident would receive legal, personal and medical assistance while there, enabling her to start out on a new path at the end of her stay.

“In the end, all we wanted was to help women suffering from abuse,” Swirski said in a conversation with us. “We read the professional literature on the subject. We learned about the shelters set up in England and the Netherlands. Then we had to learn on our own what to do and what not to do.”

Following the shelter’s opening on November 3rd, 1977, the founders launched a “hotline” for women seeking assistance. At first, the flow of women seeking shelter was very limited, but an article in Yedioth Ahronoth on February 3rd, 1978, just a few months after the shelter opened, changed everything. Suddenly the phone was ringing off the hook. Women would simply show up at the entrance, and in the months following the article’s publication, more than a hundred women applied for shelter.

“Battered Women”, by Orly Azulay. The article that was published on February 3rd, 1978. Courtesy of Yedioth Ahronoth

“Once the article in Yedioth came out, the shelter never closed,” Swirski says. “The first women to come to the shelter were actually the stronger ones for whom the shelter was a lifeline. They simply saved themselves. Women from other parts of society only came at a later stage.”

The change was rapid and unequivocal. The founders described it in a special report issued after the first six months:

Within two weeks, the woman calms down. She starts eating and sleeping. After a month in the shelter, she is usually ready to help the newer arrivals in their various tasks. She begins to think about work and the future. She is no longer a helpless victim facing an omnipotent man, but a stronger woman, and not frightened.

The shelter in Haifa, 1978, photo: Yossi Rot, Yedioth Aharonoth

Not everything went smoothly, and not all the women were able to break the cycle of violence and begin a new life, but “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire,” says Swirski, quoting the familiar saying. “There was one woman who had recovered in the shelter and was well on her way out of her difficult reality. We became very close. About two years ago, she contacted me through Facebook Messenger. I went to meet her and saw that she was doing well, raising her children. One had been a baby in a crib when she was at the shelter. She has a steady partner, but she was not ready to remarry. We spent a few hours together. What a joy!”

Six months after the establishment of the first shelter, a second opened in Herzliya. In 1981, a third shelter was established in Jerusalem, and at the end of that year, a fourth was opened in Ashdod. Over the years, many other shelters have been established and even received organizational and governmental “support,” but the first shelter in Haifa was the one that broke new ground in protecting victims of domestic violence. “It’s a great thing to do something that has not been done before,” Swirski says. “Seeing a woman come in hunched over and then to see her leave with her back straight, getting on with her life—it’s a great feeling when that happens! You change the world!”

Barbara Swirski, Spring, 2021

“Actually,” Swirski concludes with a sober look at the present, “nothing has changed.” “What’s really changed? There are more institutions, more solutions, more options. The phenomenon hasn’t disappeared and probably never will. Unfortunately, Israel is in competition with the United States and is becoming increasingly violent in all areas, not just in the home.”


Many thanks to Hannah Safran of the Haifa Women’s Coalition for her assistance in preparing this article.

The article is dedicated to the memory of all victims of violence against women in Israel.



Further Reading

Exile in the Promised Land: A Memoir, by Marcia Freedman

Daughters of Eve, Daughters of Lilith, by Barbara Swirski

Don’t Wanna Be Nice Girls: The Struggle for Suffrage and the New Feminism in Israel, by Hannah Safran

A Vanishing World: What Will Become of the Yung Yiddish Museum?

The “Yung Yiddish" museum, tucked away inside a massive bus station, is something in between a library and an underground club. Its collections have survived two world wars in Europe. Whether they can survive the disparaging attitude in Israel remains to be seen.


The Yung Yiddish museum in the Tel Aviv New Central Bus Station. Photo: Amit Naor

“May your journey be as smooth as ice!” I imagined the fellow I bumped into on my way to the New Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv shout after me. With a tilt of the head and one eye closed, the huge station, with its eclectic mix of stores, hawkers, passers-by and a general ramshackle atmosphere, could perhaps pass for a bustling Polish shtetl from the early twentieth century. That kind of chilly greeting is exactly what one would expect to hear in such a shtetl, if one had bumped into a young fellow rushing to the market to sell his eggs.

With this thought in mind, I entered the bus station’s hulking edifice. I was there to visit a place known as “Yung Yiddish”, hidden somewhere on the fifth floor, in the abandoned artists’ complex. The institution styles itself as “A Lively Yiddish Museum”. The reason for my visit was the impending threat to its future, with plans being prepared for clearing out the entire building. While working on this article we were informed that, for the time being, the bus station structure had been saved from demolition, but the pressure to evacuate the tenants was still on. The media attention surrounding the building’s fate and the threat of eviction has led the association’s directors and the museum to consider relocating in any case.

Mendy Cahan, founder of the Yung Yiddish Association and the living spirit behind the museum, arrives a little late to our meeting. He pours me some Turkish coffee and tells me about this somewhat unconventional location for a museum-cum-archive-cum-Yiddish club. “We feel comfortable in the central station. Sure, there are some problems related to whether it’s going to shut down or not, but we would not have been able to function anywhere else. We have financial constraints and our work is based entirely on volunteering.”

Cahan with a theater costume and posters at the Yung Yiddish museum. Photo: Amit Naor

Beyond material concerns, do you feel that your presence at the central bus station has any added meaning?

Being in the central bus station also gives us a cultural context. We, after all, represent a culture in distress, like many other of the central bus station’s tenants [the station is home to dozens of businesses run by immigrants living in Tel Aviv’s southern neighborhoods – Ed.]. We also love the polyphonic surroundings. It’s a bit like the West End in London or Second Avenue. This is a port. There is a lot of traffic and immigrants here. And yet, it’s in the middle of Tel Aviv. Yiddish is also like that: something central and huge that has somehow been left crumpled on the sidelines.

Do you like being here?

Definitely. I love this place. We can reach all kinds of audiences this way. Although there are people who are less likely to come here because of the fact that it’s here, on the other hand a lot of young people come by, eclectic, special types who wouldn’t have found us anywhere else.

Will you be sad to leave?

There’s not really anywhere to go.  No one’s waiting to receive us. Our location is also important in terms of the ability to bring books from all over the country. This is a collection project that has expanded beyond its dimensions and become a cultural and research center.

Any thoughts about what will happen when everything has to be vacated? Where will you go?

There are plenty of thoughts. Thoughts and worries. Right now, there is no direction because we have nothing. We have no money. We can barely even afford this place. I can’t imagine what it would mean to move to Rothschild Boulevard and calculate how much the property tax will cost us there. On the other hand, all the talk about the possibility of vacating the station in recent weeks has made me realize that we are sustaining a very, very big project. We have grown over time and stretched out into different directions. We do events, collect books and also try to catalog and sort, as well as do projects and exhibitions. There are a lot of things to do and we constantly feel a little behind and unable to keep up. Because we’re always busy, it’s difficult for us to stop for a moment and find solutions. We may need outside help from the establishment for that.

And there’s no support? How about the Tel Aviv Municipality or the Ministry of Culture?

There’s nothing. The municipality only sends bills. We are a volunteer non-profit, no one receives a salary; there isn’t even a paid manager. Even taking care of the bureaucracy required for that kind of funding is difficult; even filling out a form and knowing which office to contact, and sending the form in on time—that’s already complicated for us.

The central space of the Yung Yiddish museum. Photo: Amit Naor


The Wide World of Yiddish

Cahan came to Israel in 1980 and began studying at the Hebrew University. He studied philosophy, literature and other subjects in the humanities, until he decided to join the university’s Yiddish department. “Then the wide world of Yiddish opened up to me, in all its breadth and depth. I discovered how special this language is; how alive and connected it is to European cultures and also thriving in its own right. On the other hand, I thought to myself, here we are in the State of Israel and there is not even a whiff of this anywhere in the public space. I saw that there were no Yiddish books in stores, so I decided to collect them myself. I took up the responsibility.”

He started the book collection on his own, in the early 1990s. “At first it was in my house. I remember sitting in the sealed-off room [a protective measure meant to protect from potential chemical missile attacks during the first Gulf War – Ed.] with all the Yiddish materials around me. Then we moved to another place in Jerusalem, and slowly the collection grew. I collected fragments of dreams and memories.”

When you started, were you only thinking of collecting books, or were you already planning for a wider collection?

I collected everything. Anything that was in Yiddish. A book, a newspaper, anything printed. I also realized from the beginning that I wanted other people to be excited about it. I realized that I was collecting books, but that I also wanted to construct a huge tower made out of them – so that others would notice them. So very quickly, I took part in the Jerusalem International Book Fair.

Tens of thousands of books inside a relatively small space. Photo: Amit Naor

Did you set any guidelines for this collection process?

The only guideline was to be open to everything. I thought to myself: There’s the Bund, there’s Beit Sholem Aleichem, there’s the Kultur Lige, there’s YIVO [all of these are Yiddish cultural institutions – A.N.] There are all of these islands with their own traditions; each organization has its own respective emphasis and specialization. Then it happens, for example, that in one place they don’t want to store Hasidic melodies, and in another place they aren’t interested in housing something else. But we live in a postmodern, eclectic world, so I wanted to collect everything. And we don’t just collect, we also broadcast the collection outwards. From the first moment, I wanted people to take books, to come and talk to each other. The idea was to connect everyone.

Cahan is a native of Antwerp, Belgium, where he grew up speaking Yiddish. “Antwerp is an interesting Jewish city. The pre-war local Jewish community hardly survived the Holocaust. The Jewish population after World War II was composed of many Holocaust survivors who came from Poland and Moldavia. There are about 20,000 Jewish residents with 30 different synagogues. That’s why the Jewish community in Antwerp speaks Yiddish.”

A Rosh Hashanah greeting card in Yiddish. Photo courtesy of the Yung Yiddish Association

And you never felt any tension between European culture and Yiddish culture? Was Yiddish culture perhaps looked down upon?

I read Sartre and Camus in the original language. But studying in the Yiddish Department, I understood the depth of Yiddish and its culture. Even having learned French and German culture, I came to the realization that my culture is something else. It’s both European and something else. I dived into the history of Yiddish, into its power, its multifaceted dimensions.

And yet, in Israel this culture is almost forgotten.

Here, the vacuum surrounding Yiddish called on me to act. There’s a saying in Yiddish, “B’makom she’eyn ish, iz hering oykh a fish” (“Where there is no worthy man, even a herring is a fish.” – A.N.). Yiddish is still significant; people still speak this language. It’s not dead.

Have you felt a change in the attitude toward Yiddish in recent years?

Yes, young people are showing more interest. The creative space of the language has grown. The audience is expanding. There’s more research. It’s considered less exotic. You also see it in the visitors. There are 18-year-old boys who come here to visit or volunteer. There was even a class of fourth graders, ten-year-olds, who came to hear about Yiddish for half an hour. Besides that, there are more Hebrew translations of Yiddish literature. New works as well, not just the classics. And there’s poetry and klezmer bands. Interest in Yiddish is still alive in many forms.

How many Yiddish speakers are there in Israel?

The numbers vary. Some say that there are several hundred thousand Yiddish speakers here. There are about a million in the world. But even those who remain silent in Yiddish are important to me, and there are many of those. People aged 40, 50, and 60 come for tours of the museum. I talk with them a little, sing a little, say a couple of phrases in Yiddish, and suddenly they’re surprised to find out how much they understand. These people interest me as well. You know, Kafka gave only one lecture in his lifetime—a lecture on Yiddish. He said, “You’ll be surprised how much more Yiddish you understand than you think you do.” And he was right.

The jacket cover of a record by comedian Shimon Dzigan. Who else is on the cover? Photo: Amit Naor


A Creative Study House

So what exactly is the Yung Yiddish museum? Until further notice, it’s here, on the fifth floor of the New Central Bus Station. You’re welcome to visit. After you enter through the glass doors, you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into a kind of library-warehouse-pub-theater. Long rows of high shelves, filled to bursting with books, pamphlets and newspapers. There are other items as well. Posters of Yiddish cabaret performances, dresses and other costumes from the Yiddish theater, as well as a corner filled with records, CDs and sheet music. You can find memorial books here too, as Yiddish is the language of the destroyed communities of Eastern European Jewry, along with entertainment magazines, translations of literary masterpieces, science books and pamphlets of Hasidic tales that continue to be published in Yiddish in Israel. In another section are manuscripts by writers and artists. Somewhere among the shelves is a collection of thousands of jokes in Yiddish copied out in long hand—an item that no Yiddish collection would be complete without, naturally. There’s even a board game in Yiddish stashed somewhere in a closet if you feel like playing.

What do you do here besides collect books?

We hold cultural events here. We have sing-alongs, launch parties, holiday celebrations, exhibitions. We did a rave, cabarets, klezmer music performances, Hasidic melody performances, everything. The place is open. We don’t have money, so this is how we get by, by hosting all kinds of events. Besides that, there are a lot of groups that come to the central station for all sorts of reasons, and then the tours pass by here as well. Each visit, I reveal a little about Yiddish culture, the written culture, things that will soon be forgotten.

Books in the Yiddish museum. Photo: Amit Naor

“This place is a theater, a tavern, a synagogue, a study house, a yeshiva,” explains Eli Benedict, who serves as the association’s director—on a volunteer basis, of course. “When I first came here, as a young volunteer, it was a community place, a place of shared creativity and this has vanished. It is reminiscent of the Strashun Library in Vilnius, a glorious library that attracted people from all corners—secular, religious—they all met there. This is a study house for creation.”

And you continue to collect books. How do they get to you?

In most cases, people who want to bring books call us. We hardly look for them on our own anymore. Sometimes places refer people to us, the Yiddish department or a community center or libraries, where people are told “we don’t deal with books like this, go to Yung Yiddish.” Very high quality things come here. There are also collections, manuscripts and archives of intellectuals who want their archives preserved here and not elsewhere.

“Sometimes people call because they saw books on the sidewalk,” Benedict adds. “After you see that a couple of times, you feel as if our culture is going up in smoke. To go outside on Holocaust Memorial Day and see a mountain of Yiddish books dumped somewhere, to see the stamps in the books and realize that these books were saved from Hitler only to be thrown out on a curb in Israel. It leaves an impression on your soul. The Nazis burned books, the gentiles have always burned our books. And here in the Jewish state, books are tossed like so many pebbles in the street. Why did we build a state if not to preserve our culture?”

The entire system is run by the volunteers. Cahan estimates that there are currently dozens, of all ages: high schoolers, soldiers, retirees, all are welcome. “The volunteers did a phenomenal cataloging job here and it’s not done yet. I squeeze every last drop out of them. We have volunteers who got their first taste of Yiddish here and have gone on to study and research it.”

A Yiddish board game called Kfitzat Haderekh (a Kabbalistic concept with connotations of a miraculous leap to a distant location). Photo: Amit Naor

“Our volunteers collect books from all over the country,” says Benedict. “We once managed to stuff 700 books into a Toyota Corolla. We made 12 trips in private cars to transfer books, then we switched to trucks.”

“All the interviews and conversations I’ve had recently made me realize that the museum needs to be institutionalized,” says Cahan. “There also needs to be professional staff here who know what an archive is, and what a library is. Yes, we have good intuitions, but we’ve already grown above and beyond.”

What is your vision for this place?

“Something big, something international. It has to be institutionalized. But it can’t be too tidy,” laughs Cahan. “I want to keep the eclecticism and the ability to do things for free.”

And should it be in Tel Aviv?

“If they give us a place in the periphery, then we’ll go there,” says CEO Benedict. “We will of course also be happy to receive support from the Ministry of Culture. We see the preservation as a national goal. In time, we believe people will understand this collection better, and will give it more respect.”

“We may have to leave for a less central location,” Cahan admits with a smile. “But we want a permanent place. Just so we don’t have to leave town again.”

Before Liberation: Mourning the Holocaust in 1945

As the camps still operated in Europe, a call from Jerusalem to remember the victims and help the survivors was heeded across the globe...

Nearly two months before these men and thousands like them were liberated from the camps, the global Jewish community united to mourn the fate of European Jewry and organize efforts to help the survivors (Photo: George Mallinder / National Archives and Records Administration via United States Holocaust Memorial Museum / Public domain)

In March 1945, the Allied victory was all but palpable, though carnage still raged across Europe. Auschwitz had been liberated at the end of January, yet almost all other major Nazi death camps were still operational.

Germany was desperate and knew defeat was on its way. The Wehrmacht began enlisting 15- and 16-year old boys. The same month saw the last major German offensive of the war, which soon ended in failure. Hitler paid his last visit to the front, promising that “new weapons” were on their way. They never came.

In his last public appearance before going into hiding and later killing himself, the despot awarded medals to members of the Hitler youth.

Shortly after the appearance, Winston Churchill made a brief yet powerfully symbolic crossing of the Rhine.

Winston Churchill steps ashore onto the east bank of the River Rhine, 25 March 1945 (Imperial War Museum / Public domain)

Yet across the Jewish world, the all-but-incalculable toll of the Holocaust was increasingly calculated. Understood. Internalized.

One-third of all Jews in the world had been massacred.

On March 5, a gathering took place at the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem, deemed “the greatest Jewish synod to be held in the Holy City in modern times” by The Palestine Post, which reported that:

“… all the rabbis in Palestine assembled in conclave, from town and settlement, Sephardi religious leaders in their flowing oriental robes, side by side with Hassidic rabbis, among them the heads of the famous Sadagora dynasty, and rabbis from Europe who had found shelter here from Nazi persecution…”

Sitting on the ground and unable to hold back their tears, the esteemed and diverse group of rabbinical leaders recited prayers and read from the Book of Lamentations. They chanted the Mourner’s Kaddish and blew the shofar seven times – a rare, dramatic act in Jewish tradition – before walking together to pray at the Western Wall.

Months prior to the gathering, well before the Red Army reached Auschwitz, Rabbi Hizkiyahu Yosef Mishkovsky drafted a proposal, which he sent to leading figures in the Land of Israel, including prominent rabbinical organizations and the Jewish Agency. Mishkovsky himself was a leader of Polish Jewry who had come to the Land of Israel at the turn of the 20th century, yet remained in close contact with the communities of Poland and Lithuania, often traveling back and forth before the war. He was also a leader of the Jewish Agency’s Rescue Committee, founded in 1942 with the goal of working to save European Jewry during the Holocaust.

Mishkovsky’s proposal recommended organizing a gathering of rabbis to focus on working to salvage what was left of European Jewry, while also grieving for its destruction by means of a seven-day mourning period and a permanent annual day of mourning and fasting.

Perhaps the most influential recipient of Mishkovsky’s proposal was Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of the Land of Israel, who soon thereafter hosted some fifty leading rabbis in his Jerusalem home to further discuss these recommendations.

Letter dated 24 Tevet (9 January 1945) inviting Rabbi Eliyahu Mordechai Wolkowski to a meeting at Rabbi Herzog’s home to discuss “establishing a fast day and days of… lamentations over millions of our brothers…” From the Eliyahu Mordechai Wolkowski Archive, National Library of Israel

The group declared that the Jews of Mandatory Palestine must open their homes to the survivors and that special efforts must be made to locate and save Jewish children hidden away in monasteries across Europe, ensuring that they come to the Land of Israel as soon as possible and, no less important, that they receive traditional Jewish education. Moreover, they declared that a national “Yahrzeit” (memorial day) for the millions of victims must be proclaimed.

This meeting laid the foundation for the March 5th assembly at the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem. It was then that Chief Rabbis Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel and Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, and the others present, called for a week of mourning throughout the Land of Israel, and “wherever these words reach,” to begin on March 8th and culminate with a fast day on March 14. They requested that during the week of mourning the public refrain from activities of leisure and entertainment, and that on the fast day itself, Jewish businesses and transportation would stop, as people dedicated time in synagogue and at home to mourn the victims.

Paralleling the famous words of biblical prophecy, the rabbis’ declaration “went forth from Zion” and – quite remarkably – Jewish communities across the globe adopted it, as did the Jews of Mandatory Palestine, religious and secular alike.

The act of Jewish solidarity was all but unprecedented in the annals of modern history, driven by rabbis who by today’s standards would be considered Religious Zionist and Ultra-Orthodox, yet also being decisively adopted by the secular Zionist establishment and non-Orthodox movements globally.

From the capital of the Soviet Union, the Jewish Community Council of Moscow publicly expressed its observance of the week of mourning and the fast day, going so far as to also notify remaining Jewish communities and organizations across Europe about the initiative. The move in Moscow was hailed as historic and encouraging by Jews outside of communist controlled Eastern Europe.

Headline published in The Sentinel on March 22, 1945; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection. Click the image to read the complete article

The Synagogue Council of America, the umbrella group bridging the three major Jewish movements in the United States, called for all of the country’s Jews to join in the communal mourning.

Survivors in Romania and Greece joined the international initiative.

Many communities throughout the British Empire – from Canada to South Africa to Australia – ignored the objections of their own chief rabbi, Joseph Hertz, one of few major contemporary Jewish leaders to oppose the initiative, and decided to mark the week of mourning with their coreligionists worldwide.

Even Jewish soldiers in the British Army stationed in Tripoli made plans to fast and observe the week of mourning by voluntarily confining themselves to their barracks, while in Mandatory Palestine, Jewish sailors in the Royal Navy attended a memorial service to mark the day.

The British High Commissioner for Palestine and Transjordan himself, Lord Gort, personally received the declaration from the chief rabbis, who also sent it via telegram to Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, imploring them to not only remember the victims but also to allow the survivors to immigrate to the Land of Israel.

Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the Yalta Conference, February 1945 (National Archives and Records Administration / Public domain)

While the “Big Three” were busy overseeing the ongoing war efforts across Europe and in the Pacific, Lord Gort was receptive to the declaration, letting the rabbis know that he would send it along to London. He also ordered that Jewish officials throughout Mandatory Palestine would be released from their duties on the fast day.

In fact, commemoration of the fast day in British Mandatory Palestine was quite extensive, including a stoppage of work and traffic, and a complete “internal curfew” from 9am to 11am.

Jewish police officers and schoolchildren donated money on the day to a rescue fund for Holocaust survivors.

The flags at the Jewish Agency building and the Polish consulate were flown at half-mast.

Even the major cities largely observed the somber day, as reported in The Palestine Post:

“A quiet self-discipline prevailed all through Jewish Palestine yesterday, the day of fast and voluntary curfew which ended the week of mourning for European Jewry… Jewish residential sections of Jerusalem and Haifa were deserted, and even children kept indoors… The usually crowded and bustling streets of Tel Aviv were hushed and in the evening shop windows were dark…”

There had been previous calls for international days of Jewish solidarity and fasting, including a declaration by Rabbis Herzog and Uziel, not long after the outbreak of the war. Yet nothing before (nor probably since) seemed to compare to the response elicited by the March 1945 initiative – which transcended virtually all boundaries and distinctions within the global Jewish community.

Perhaps the pain at the time was so raw and so real that Jews around the world – regardless of nationality or level of religious observance – were simply waiting for some sort of call to collective bereavement.

Some two months before the last camp was liberated, and six decades before the United Nations designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, that call came from Zion.

Many thanks to Rabbi Shmuel Katz, leading scholar of the Israeli Rabbinate, for his assistance and expertise.

This article has been published 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.

The Forgotten Holidays of David Ben-Gurion

"Ingathering of the Exiles Day" - intended to make immigrant soldiers feel welcome - was one of a number of 'festivals' that helped form the national ethos...

David Ben-Gurion with soldiers at Sarafend, 1949. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein, all rights reserved to Pri-Or PhotoHouse; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

The State of Israel lacked many things during its first year of existence – peace and prosperity, food, economic stability, housing and basic infrastructure to name just a few.

National holidays, on the other hand, were plentiful!

Not holidays in the traditional celebratory sense; but rather holidays that were intentionally designed, declared and commemorated in order to achieve important national objectives under the complex circumstances and realities of the nascent Jewish state.

At the behest of David Ben-Gurion, these holidays were all imbued with deep symbolism – both timeless and timely.

David Ben-Gurion, 1949. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein, all rights reserved to Pri-Or PhotoHouse; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Symbolically and literally, the holidays largely centered around the army, which was responsible not only for defense, but also for immigrant absorption, educating the masses and instilling Zionist values.

As Israel’s prime minister and minister of defense, Ben-Gurion directly oversaw and commanded the army, paying particular attention to its role as a tremendously formative player in the country’s society and culture.

During the very first temporary ceasefire during the 1948 war, just a month after the official establishment of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the first such holiday, “Swearing in Day”, was celebrated throughout the country’s military bases and beyond.

“Heads of the Nation on Swearing in Day”. From the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Then came “State Day” on the anniversary of Theodor Herzl’s death, which featured Israel’s first official military parade.

During the festival of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles), the country celebrated “Settlement Day”, emphasizing the army’s role in helping to fulfill the Zionist mission and dream of settling the land.

Then, during Hanukkah, which took place at the end of December 1948 and into January 1949, “Ingathering of the Exiles Day” was celebrated, emphasizing the importance of another central Israeli value: immigration.

The day’s name is decidedly more natural in Hebrew: “Yom Kibbutz Galuyot” – a clear reference to traditional Jewish texts describing the almost magical messianic period in which Jews will finally return to the Land of the Israel from the four corners of the earth. In one famous line from the Talmud, for example, Rabbi Yochanan claims that the day of the ingathering of the exiles is even greater than the day on which the heavens and the earth were created (Pesachim 88).

In some ways, the massive immigration to Israel during that time was truly no less than miraculous. Some 100,000 new arrivals had come over the course of just a few months.

Immigrants in Pardes Hanna, 1948. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein, all rights reserved to Pri-Or PhotoHouse; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

While the ideal of immigration was certainly an important value to emphasize and instill, the point of the day was also very practical.  The absorption of all of these immigrants was hardly going smoothly, especially in the army where successful absorption in the context of conflict could literally mean the difference between life and death.

With about a third of all combat soldiers in Israel’s War of Independence being fresh immigrants, their acceptance was critical to the success of the entire effort, yet in many cases those who had been born in Mandatory Palestine or had immigrated even just a few years prior looked down on the more recent immigrants in their midst.

They often had little empathy or compassion for the recently arrived Holocaust survivors, many of whom had actually enlisted while still in displaced persons camps in Europe. Immigrants from the Arab world were often considered inferior and barbaric due to the dramatic differences in culture and language.

Immigrants from North Africa, 1949. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein, all rights reserved to Pri-Or PhotoHouse; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Moreover, for diplomatic reasons Israel had largely refrained from emphasizing the fact that many of its soldiers had come from overseas.

By Hanukkah of that first year, the circumstances and needs were ripe for the new state and army to make efforts encouraging the acceptance and appreciation of its new immigrants, especially those fighting on the front.

“Ingathering of the Exiles Day” was largely born out of the realization of this need, and in fact, the immigrant soldiers were the focus of the holiday.

It was not incidentally scheduled to take place on Hanukkah, the most militarily heroic festival on the Jewish calendar.

“Ingathering of the Exiles Day” ceremonies and special events took place in communities across the country and were held on virtually every IDF base, as immigrant soldiers were invited to share their stories, and special materials were distributed in Hebrew, as well as their native languages.

A leaflet with poetry verses and some illustrations distributed by the IDF for the first “Ingathering of the Exiles Day”, 1949. From the National Library of Israel collections

At the official national ceremony, Ben-Gurion compared the diplomatic and military difficulties faced by the young country to the internal struggle of successful immigrant absorption.

The connection between the global Jewish people had never been stronger, he said, calling the immigrant soldiers, a “clear living manifestation” of that connection and pointing out that they had come from 50 countries across the world, from all ethnicities, tribes and socio-economic backgrounds.

“The connection between the nation and the Diaspora doesn’t recognize in our army distinctions between East and West. There are soldiers from the West, and there are from the East, Habash [Ethiopia], Burma, India and China. From East and from West all as one came to the army of liberation.”

Civilian institutions were also called upon to participate, with the goal of making every immigrant feel at home in their modern-ancient homeland.

At large ceremonies throughout the country, the nation’s leaders called upon the general public to invite immigrant soldiers to family Hanukkah parties, and – as possible – even to stay overnight in their homes.

This official IDF poster for the first “Ingathering of the Exiles Day”, conveys all of this spirit simply, yet powerfully:

Poster for “Ingathering of the Exiles Day”, January 1949 (Design: Yohanan Simon / IDF Culture Service). From the National Library of Israel Ephemera Collection. Click image to enlarge

Designed by artist Yohanan Simon, the poster depicts the new army and state as the center of gravity for Jews dispersed around the globe, featuring the words:

“And they will be brought to us from East to West, a great army to help the nation…”

Reverberating with prophetic Biblical connotations, the line comes from Hebrew poet laureate Hayim Nahman Bialik’s poem “LaMitnadvim Ba’Am” (“To the Volunteers Among the People”), a work known for its allegorical Maccabee references.

The poem, written by Bialik in Odessa in 1899, quickly became popular in the Zionist movement, with its stirring Hanukkah-infused call for national renewal, unity and settlement of the Land of Israel.

It was put to music by a number of different composers in the early 20th century, recorded and sung at Zionist gatherings and events.

All of the poster’s elements – quite intentionally assembled – formed a message aimed at Israel’s citizens, especially its new immigrants.

Over the next year, 300,000 additional new arrivals would come from across the globe, and Israel’s second “Ingathering of the Exiles Day” would become known by another name: “The Day of the Million”, in celebration of the Jewish population surpassing one million people.

Celebrations that year took place across Israel and the Jewish world: from Los Angeles to Yemen, Romania to Libya, Australia and elsewhere, including aboard ships on their way to bring the next million new arrivals.

This ad for an “Ingathering of the Exiles” / “Day of the Million” celebration appeared in the Australian Jewish News on December 16, 1949; available as part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Two flights of immigrants from Yemen arrived at the airport and spirits were generally high at their welcoming party, though at least one report compared the festivities to “The Parade That Didn’t March”, as chaos reigned, with crowds of people squeezed together shouting, and government clerks “fighting like lions by the buffet to get a plate of food…”

A true familial homecoming!

Other reports, however, related a more civilized, if not heartwarming affair. A chapter from the Book of Ezekiel and poems by Natan Alterman and David Shimoni were recited, the Police Band played and Hanukkah candles were lit.

After thousands of years of exile, these immigrants were being welcomed home to ancient and modern words hearkening the “Return to Zion”.

Though the “Day of the Million” and the other Israeli holidays of 1948-1949 may be long forgotten, they all helped form the foundation of a national narrative and ethos upon which the young State of Israel could build, despite all that was lacking during those difficult early years.


A version of this article was originally published in Tablet Magazine. It 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.

Thanks to Dr. Hezi Amiur, curator of the Israel Collection at the National Library of Israel, for his expertise and assistance.