Refugees of the Yom Kippur War: The Evacuees of Mevo Hama

The women and children of Kibbutz Mevo Hama in the southern Golan Heights were evacuated with the start of the Yom Kippur War. They didn’t know the true drama was yet to come: A surprising accident en route to safety was just the first of many challenges the kibbutz members had to deal with in the nerve-wracking months before the cease-fire agreements.

The bus driven by Chaim Avni during the Yom Kippur War. Photo: Chaim Avni

On Thursday, October 5, 1973, Chaim “Chaimke” Avni, a member of the Egged transportation cooperative and Kibbutz Mevo Hama, drove bus 018 from Tiberias to the kibbutz located in the southern Golan Heights. Before setting out, around two-thirty in the afternoon, the traffic controller approached him and told him that war would break out the next day, asking him to be at the ready with his bus. The kibbutz itself also started to organize.

This is where the story of Mevo Hama’s Yom Kippur War refugees begins. The evacuation of the kibbutz was ultimately only carried out after the outbreak of hostilities, when one could already see the enormous cloud of dust kicked up by the Syrian tanks and the bombardment of the area the next day. Noga Regev was just seven years old then, but she remembers that Saturday clearly: “We all gathered together, all the children of the kibbutz, around the secretariat building. There was an enormous ruckus there. Many walky-talkies in the background, noise, and chaos. In retrospect, I know that there was a debate whether to evacuate or not, because they promised us we wouldn’t be coming down from the [Golan] heights until Defense Minister Moshe Dayan himself called to tell us to do so. And he didn’t call, obviously. The adults refused to evacuate, but at two in the afternoon, they understood there was no choice. We had to.”

Regev had three brothers: a five-year-old and twin two-year-olds. She remembers that the kibbutz’s loudspeaker system asked the members to go gather their things ahead of evacuation: “I remember that we ran to the children’s homes, and we gathered a few things in a plastic bag and ran to the bus. A pretty short time before this, an exercise was held drilling the evacuation of the whole Golan Heights and we participated. So we knew what to do – we all ran to the buses and the men who stayed outside waved us goodbye. And then the scariest experience I had in the war began.”

At the time, there were only some 1,500-2,000 people living on the Golan Heights, spread among a number of isolated communities. During the War of Attrition, there was constant tension in the area marked by shooting incidents, terrorist infiltrations, and the laying of roadside bombs.

The evacuation was delayed and the dithering of the residents, who didn’t want to leave their homes until they received direct instructions from the Defense Minister, meant they couldn’t take the usual road to the kibbutzim in the Galilee where the evacuees were supposed to be taken. Regev remembers those moments well, even though she didn’t completely understand what was happening. At the same time, Chaimke the driver wondered which road to take. He was ultimately forced to make a far from ideal choice and take the evacuees along a narrow, winding road rather than the main route. One of the vehicle’s wheels quickly came off and the bus was about to fall into the abyss, along with all its passengers. “I remember the cries of the mothers. We all left the bus and pushed. This was a shared effort taken on by people who were experiencing a difficult moment of sheer terror. To this day, I still have unpleasant thoughts when I pass by that road. There was a feeling that the bus would fall off the cliff at any moment,” says Regev.

The inside of the bus driven by Chaim Avni, during the trip evacuating the children and women of Kibbutz Mevo Hama to kibbutzim in the Galilee. Photo: Chaim Avni

In an excited voice, Regev describes how the mothers and children succeeded in helping get the bus back on the road. The ride continued and the bus evacuated them to three kibbutzim – Ein Harod, Afikim, and Dovrat. Regev, her mother, and her brothers were evacuated to Dovrat. “They decided on this distribution because we have family there. This was a pre-arranged plan organized by the kibbutz movement. We arrived in Dovrat and were given a moving reception. They immediately arranged a place for us to sleep. I didn’t really understand what I was doing, but I remember that the residents were pleasant and warm towards us.” Regev’s mother was nevertheless worried and restless: “I remember my mother being very scared and saying there wasn’t enough food for those left in the kibbutz. This greatly worried her.”

Fortunately, none of the settlements in the area were damaged during the fighting. 48 hours later, after the situation was stabilized in the Golan sector, it was decided to allow the men to return to their homes. Towards the end of the war, all the residents of the kibbutz returned. Chaimke, the bus driver, remembers the happy and accident-free trip bringing the Mevo Hama refugees back to their homes, including his own wife and children.

Kibbutz Mevo Hama, 1974. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

But the members of Kibbutz Mevo Hama couldn’t enjoy going back to their old routine. Because of the security situation after the fighting, they found themselves closed down and cut off: “It was half a year of detachment where we were isolated in lockdown,” Regev recalls. “No-one came in and no-one left the kibbutz. We were closed. I couldn’t even go to school. In the children’s home we had an amazing kindergarten teacher named Michal and she took care of us. Thanks to her, we learned all the material on the kibbutz without leaving it. We didn’t leave the kibbutz, we couldn’t get off the heights, but life in the kibbutz itself went on as usual. I remember that one family forgot their daughter’s pacifier when they visited Kibbutz Afikim before, and an army tank went out to get it back.” During this time, Regev’s father was also called up to serve, and her mother dealt with four children, two of them three-year-old twins, alone. “My mother went back to manage her affairs at the kibbutz. We were cared for by the caretakers and at night we all slept in the same shelter.”

During the ongoing lockdown, the adults tried to create as calm and happy an atmosphere as they could by normalizing the situation in various original ways. “A father of a friend was seriously wounded in the war and he returned with casts on both legs,” Regev said. “They brought us dolls and we practiced putting them in a cast. We were given a sort of crash-course using the dolls. They taught us how to deal with people suffering with disability, and they helped my friend learn how to receive her father.”

Regev remembers the kibbutz bomb shelter as a happy place, and she still recalls the songs she learned: “The adults did everything to make us happy. They succeeded.” The commitment, quick organization, support, and even the maintenance of routine and optimism, all had a major impact. Regev claims that in those days, it was an internal kibbutz alternative to a non-functioning state system. She doesn’t even remember the lockdown as a trauma or even as imprisonment, but as a new experience that included sleeping together with her mother and father in the shelter, everyone together.

The Kibbutz Mevo Hama dining hall. Photo: Michael Yaakovson. Source: Wikipedia

“It was simply a shared task,” Regev summarized. “It may be hard today to understand but we had no choice then but to charge ahead. Even when a wheel falls off, even when you need to push back a bus from teetering off a cliff, leave home, or spend long months in lockdown on the kibbutz. We didn’t know where we were heading. We certainly didn’t know the scope of the damage. If we heard or saw explosions somewhere, we accepted it as part of the situation because that’s all we knew. It’s hard to contain all this mess, but our parents, who created a haven and safe space for us within the chaos, kept us together and functioning. They deserve all the credit for that.”


Growing Up Overnight: The Teenagers of the Yom Kippur War

“We realized our world would not go back to the way it had been.” With everyone fit to serve urgently called up, these young teenagers were left behind. They ran farms, treated the wounded, and even carried the dead out of hospitals. Here, the youngsters of the Yom Kippur War share stories they will remember forever. The satisfaction, the experiences, even the love that bloomed—as well as the sights they will never forget

Danny Yardeni, 12th-grader from Kibbutz Beit Hashita, standing in for agricultural workers who were called up to fight during the Yom Kippur War, 1973, Beit Hashita Archives. This item is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The Yom Kippur War broke out unexpectedly; within hours, the streets were deserted. Naturally, the war greatly affected those who fought in it, but it also impacted those who were left behind to worry about their loved ones on the frontlines.

The teenage boys and girls found themselves in between: too young to serve in the army yet old enough to understand the enormity of the events. Israel’s economy had to face the sudden disappearance of many workers who were called to the front. In response, the teenagers stepped up. Some came to the aid of businesses, industries, or agriculture. Others volunteered wherever working hands were needed, even where young people ought not to be, such as hospital mortuaries. Many experienced things they would never be able to forget and were forced to mature instantly. Some carry the scars to these days; for others, the war brought love into their lives.

Volunteers distributing mail during the Yom Kippur War. This item is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The farms: saving the flowers

During the war, young people helped their parents as much as they could in every area of the economy. The need was especially felt in agriculture: the crops and animals could not be left unattended. Yossi Rozhani was sixteen when the war broke out and his father was called up. The family farm near Jerusalem, where Yossi was at school, kept dairy cows and chickens, among other animals. Yossi had been helping since childhood but was now left more or less alone in charge of the entire farm, his daily routine including two rounds of milking, three feedings, and more. Non-stop. Smiling, Yossi remembers how he worried that his friends in the city, who were volunteering packing military rations, would think he was shirking responsibility. He says that the experience awarded him a sense of achievement and confidence in his abilities. Even though he has long since pursued a different career, he still keeps the farm going to this day.

The situation in the agricultural school at Pardes Hanna was similar. Ilana Eisenstadt recalls that her brother, aged only seventeen, spent three months managing a dairy farm with 300 heads of cattle on his own, including birthing, veterinary care, and of course, daily milking and feeding.

Not too far away, at the Noam School in Pardes Hanna, Avi Deskel was in 10th grade. His B’nei Akiva (religious youth movement) group was approached by the sister of a soldier who asked for help: the soldier (later discovered to have been taken prisoner) had kept a flower farm at a nearby moshav. Avi remembers that the farm grew roses which needed urgent harvesting before all the work invested in them would be wasted. The B’nei Akiva members walked to the moshav every morning to help pick the flowers, pack them, and do whatever else was needed. This gave them a sense of purpose. Avi’s experiences as a teenager affected him profoundly—to this day, he is still preoccupied with the war and gives lectures about it. Likely, it also contributed to his becoming a lecturer in political science, including teaching courses on the war.

Schoolboy volunteering on a farm during the Yom Kippur War. This item is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The kibbutzim: “Alone on the tractors, we could cry”

The young people of the kibbutzim undertook an important role in preserving the harvest. Amotz Zertal from Kibbutz Ein Shemer was only thirteen then. That year, he was assigned to work on the avocado plantation. The war got him to show courage and conviction he did not know he possessed.

“That Sunday morning several volunteers stood helpless by the kibbutz dining hall,” he recalls. “I wasted no time in going to the board on which hung the keys to the kibbutz’s vehicles, grabbing the keys to the truck, driving to the dining hall, collecting the workers, and heading for the avocado plantation. Same thing the next day, but as soon as I got to the road, a patrol car appeared. The policeman motioned for me to pull over, and I was already imagining myself behind bars in prison. I was a thirteen-year-old with a truck full of workers! To my amazement, the policeman said, ‘Kiddo, when you turn left, you need to signal left, not right. Now, off you go to work.’ And so, I kept driving the laborers to the plantation every day.”

Amotz Zertal, then and now (with his mother). From the family’s albums

Zohar Rozen from Kibbutz Sarid was fifteen then. He wrote down his memories of the war. These were his impressions from a community suddenly deprived of its men:

“Throughout the night, buses and jeeps came to fetch the men. The next morning saw the village orphaned, uprooted, silent as though empty. All of a sudden, it was us, a few old men, and the women left to manage the kibbutz. As if by magic, the youths suddenly matured, the elders rejuvenated, their muscles stretching, the women went out busily taking up jobs, and as quickly as everything had emptied, it was refilled. We older teens headed to the fields to take over the cotton-picking, plowing, and harvesting shifts. It felt as though we had been given a temporary, magical toy—the tractor—which would surely soon be taken away. There, in the fields, the peaceful routine reigned. There were no sirens and no fear.

“On Sunday morning, an acquaintance of mine from the kibbutz was called up. Passing by the secretariat office, he saw me turning on the siren and said, smiling, ‘Oh, Zohar, well done. Keep the kibbutz safe, you know how it is, we’ll be back in two weeks.’ He never returned. In those days, we came to the heavy realization of what the war was really like. Our kibbutz is right next to an air force base. We saw a Phantom struggling to land and crashing in the field next to the orchard, we saw that out of each plane formation that left, only one or two would return—and we understood much, much more than we were prepared to say. In our alternative kingdom in the fields, we sat on the tractors, and there, on our own, we could cry sometimes, as it sank in that our world would not return to the way it had been. We never went back to school; we stayed to work and help. They registered it in the archive: the entire Snunit group stayed in 10th grade.” (Snunit – a swallow in Hebrew, the name of their age group on the kibbutz).

Love and war: a gift that ended in marriage

Volunteering during wartime brought about encounters which sometimes sparked romance and even true love. Noni Ziva Levy was a 10th-grader in Nahariya when she and her classmates were asked to prepare gifts for the soldiers. She wrote her name and address on the package, with a heartfelt note. To her surprise, several weeks later the recipient of the gift knocked on her door, saying he had been so touched by the note he wanted to come see the person who had written it. Their correspondence continued and the relationship became closer, until they became a couple and dated for a year and a half.

As for Ora Levy, then sixteen, from Ashkelon, volunteering took her a few steps further—all the way to starting a family. She says:

“As a section leader in the Youth Battalions [Gadna – a program that prepares Israeli youths for army service], I received a large pile of ‘sweet letters to soldiers’ [letter templates containing candy] and was asked to give them out to students at the Arye Tagar School in Ashkelon so they could write a few words to the soldiers on the frontlines. Approximately forty letters came back empty… What could I do? A mission is a mission! I sat down and wrote in them all! A few days later, replies started arriving from the soldiers, ten or so in total. At first, I gladly answered them all, but was left some weeks later writing only to one soldier who sent me long letters without spelling mistakes. I even made him a particularly invested package, attaching a note to each item inside with a blessing, joke, or drawing. On his first leave, the soldier, whose name was Yossi Tzchori, called and asked to meet. He arrived at the central bus station in Ashkelon, this handsome, bearded soldier, and we fell in love immediately. Yossi served in an auxiliary unit to the Golani Brigade, and as it turned out, he was given the leave right after the battle on Mount Hermon. Meeting me gave him the strength to rejoin the fray, and continue his army service in general. We kept writing to each other and seeing each other when we could, and two years later got married and had a wonderful daughter.”

One of the letters Ora Levy sent out during the Yom Kippur War. “The white spots are where sweets were attached by the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers”. From a family album.


Ora Levy as a girl, from a family album

In the hospitals: “Years later, the flashbacks began”

All over the country, young people offered help in a variety of jobs: distributing mail, painting car headlights to darken them, maintaining the blackouts, knitting hats, and much more. Many volunteered where they were most needed: in hospitals. Their experiences there were complex and affected who they grew up to be.

When the war broke out, seventeen-year-old Eli Dror immediately wondered how he could help. Learning of the war bonds, he sold his expensive bicycle and donated the funds to the great loan collected to finance the war effort. Yet he did not stop there. When he and his friends from the Leyada High School in Jerusalem discovered that the Hadassa Ein Karem Hospital needed volunteers, they headed there right away. The girls were employed in wards, and the boys helped transport patients who were flown in by helicopters. Eli recalls:

“We would approach the helicopter as a group of four and carry the wounded out onto a gurney. Then we would rush to the emergency room with everything they had—IV drips, detached limbs, anything. Many patients from the armored forces arrived with heavy burns, and it was crucial for us to be as careful as possible, as even the smallest jolt, a little rock or unevenness on the path would hurt them terribly.

“Sometimes we would accompany them to tests, x-rays, anywhere we could help. Often, they would ask us to let their families know where they were, which we would hasten to do using the telephone installed there. This volunteering experience was extremely significant to me personally, as I felt that I was making a meaningful contribution. I believe that this is why I kept on volunteering for many years as an adult.”

Nearer the front, Sara Ameti Ben Moshe, seventeen, from Tiberias, realized that this work was the only way she could deal with the shocking situation. She recalls her time as a volunteer at Poriya Medical Center:

“We saw the entire Golan Heights aflame, planes crashing. The fear was real; we could not simply sit at home, so a few friends and I looked for something to do. We had no idea what we were getting into. There was nobody to speak to. The personnel were freaking out. I was asked to go round the wards, see who needed water, and wet their lips. That was what I did.

“There was a nurse who had fainted in the burn ward. I came in and did what was asked of me, I do not know how, but I managed to disconnect. One reservist, I remember, was a high school history teacher, and he had had his leg amputated. He was the only one who noticed we were so young, so he tried to make us laugh, lighten the mood a little.

“It was a total breaking point for me to see people rushing about and cars driving on Yom Kippur. Never again did I keep the fast, after the war, but I light a memorial candle every year because of the war. Only years later, the flashbacks began. The smell of burnt meat would throw me back there. I always used to think—who are we in comparison to the wounded soldiers? But really, all of us, the entire generation, carry this with us forever. Some more, some less.”

Sara Ameti Ben Moshe with her friends at the Poriya Medical Center in Tiberias. From a family album

Dorit Ganon Zinger, a Safed native, was only in ninth grade when the students gathered in the schoolyard with the remaining teachers, and the home front protection forces assigned jobs to the students. “I felt I was being conscripted,” she shares. “The older ones were sent to help in the primary school. We helped distribute mail or cleaned and organized equipment at Ziv, the new hospital they had just finished building.”

“Some of the girls, including me, became radio operators, while the boys carried stretchers. We were positioned at the Magen David Adom station in town. Ziv Hospital did not have a helipad yet. The helicopters would land in an open area nearby, and the wounded would be taken to the hospital by ambulance. My job included some things which today seem unthinkable for a fourteen-year-old: I was ordering blood transfusions, sending boys with stretchers to the landing area, and liaising with the pilots.

“Once the new helipad was opened, we were sent to help in the wards. I was assigned to orthopedics. My job was to change sheets, empty bedpans, and do anything else I was asked to do. I especially remember one man whose arms had been amputated, who dictated letters for his girlfriend and family to me. His optimism was infectious, despite his injuries. That entire period was terrible. Looking back, it was like living in a film. I remember, when we went back to normalcy after the war ended, everything was different. We had grown up. I am sure we matured in the blink of an eye.”

Dorit Ganon Zinger, now and as a teen. From family albums

Fifteen-year-olds at Soroka Hospital: “The first patient’s name is stuck in my mind”

Ronen Tuchfeld and Hanoch Ron were fifteen-year-old 10th-graders at Mekif Daled High School in Beer Sheva. Hanoch says that in order to volunteer for some of the tasks, they lied about their age, claiming they were in the 11th grade. This brought them to the Soroka Hospital for a volunteering experience that changed their lives.

Most young people volunteering at Soroka were charged with emergency response to helicopters arriving from the Sinai Peninsula. These were long, twelve-hour shifts. The moment a helicopter landed, they would rush to it, helping transfer the wounded onto a gurney in a quick and organized fashion, then run with them as fast as possible to the improvised emergency room that had popped up at the entrance to the hospital. To this day, Hanoch is unable to forget the first man he accompanied from the helicopter: “His name is stuck in my mind: Zvi Svitovsky. Like many, he was burned all over. To this day, I have no idea what became of him. However much I searched, I did not manage to find him.”

Ronen’s job at Soroka was even more complicated. He worked in the improvised emergency room along with another boy, replacing the orderlies who had for the most part been called to war. “The mess would begin in the afternoon,” he says. “Helicopters and buses were rehauled to carry sitting or lying patients, and each of these buses brought 50–100 wounded men to us. These were difficult sights and lots and lots of work. Everyone needed aid. Hundreds if not thousands of injured soldiers passed through there in those weeks. We would help in small ways: fetch one a glass of water, have a chat with another, keep an eye on their things, cover them well with the blanket so they would not feel exposed. The most important part was letting them feel noticed. The staff were running around like mad. Sometimes we would become attached to one of them and stay close by, creating a special connection.”

Helipad next to the future Soroka Hospital. Photographer: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel.

Ronen and his friend discovered that beyond the exhausting labor and rushing from one patient to another, their job included a much more difficult task which left an indelible mark on their souls. Ronen explains:

“First thing in the morning, we had to take those who had died overnight to Pathology. There, if there was room, we would put the bodies in the refrigerators. When there was no room, the bodies of soldiers who had not made it through the night would be placed on the countless stretchers at the ward entrance. They would be covered with sheets, their feet out, and small tags would be tied to their big toes with their names and ID numbers. Sometimes, the dog tags of dead soldiers who had been brought to the hospital from Sinai at night would be tied to their feet, their boots placed between their legs. And we would stand there staring, unable to understand how death suddenly seemed so near.”

The weeks Ronen spent aiding the wounded and carrying the dead impacted his life: “At the time, I understood none of what was happening to me, and I definitely did not discuss it with anyone. That was not something you did; everyone gave what they could. And so, I went on with my life. I served in the army, started a family, got a job. Only looking back, decades after the war, could I connect the dots and realize the effect that period had on me. I cannot stand the sight of needles: I still look away during vaccinations or blood tests. I was not present at my children’s births, visiting very briefly and leaving, unable to spend a long time at a hospital. That’s trauma.”

Among the many burdens they experienced while volunteering at the hospital, the boys had some beautiful moments as well. Hanoch’s mother was hospitalized at Soroka then. One day he took time to visit her during a break. From the next room, wonderful sounds wafted over: “In one room, where eight beds held wounded soldiers, the band Kaveret were delivering a heartfelt performance. I stood there listening. This is also a moment I have not forgotten.”

Yossi, Amotz, Sara, Dorit, Ronen, and many others were teenagers during the Yom Kippur War. They may not have served on the frontlines, but the war affected them profoundly, much like everyone who stayed on the home front and had to deal with the emergency that had befallen the country. Their story is also part of our shared memory of the war that was.

The Ballad of Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion

She was “just a girl from Milwaukee” when he was already the famous “Ben-Gurion.” He was a few steps ahead of her throughout their public and political careers. Still, Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion formed a delicate and meaningful friendship, which ended suddenly due to an ugly political scandal. After years of detachment, towards the end of his life, Ben-Gurion tried to reconcile with her. Did it work?

Golda and Ben-Gurion, by Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The lunch hall in Kibbutz Revivim was filled with Golda Meir’s relatives and friends. The organizers of this event, which Golda refused to allow to be too big or showy, invited “a number of people, each of which went some way with you”, to show thanks to the Prime Minister who made their kibbutz her second home, as well as to mark 50 years since her immigration to the Land of Israel.

Among the participants was someone who made the long trip from Tel Aviv, despite his advanced age and weakening health. They were once very close friends, but a black cat seemed to have crossed their path in the last decade, and they’d hardly spoken since then. The “Old Man” stood out among those gathered with the smallness of his stature and the strands of white hair adorning his head. It was David Ben-Gurion.

The leader of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel during the British Mandate, the State of Israel’s first Prime Minister, the man who declared the state and who didn’t hesitate to make fateful decisions – was at the end of his life a widower, sick and a little lonely. He came to show respects to his old friend and reconcile with her.

Ben-Gurion at the celebration of Golda Meir’s 50th anniversary of immigrating to the Land of Israel, Kibbutz Revivim. Courtesy of the Golda Meir Institute

Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion first met in 1917 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was a socialist and Zionist, full of youth and passion, and he was an exile from the Land of Israel who had come to the States after the Turks expelled anyone prominently tied to the Zionist movement. His visit to Milwaukee lasted just one day, but it was a very significant day for the local Jewish residents, to whom the Zionist youths from Palestine must have seemed like messengers from another world.

The first meeting between them was one-sided – Ben-Gurion didn’t really “meet” Golda that day, as she was part of the broader audience that came to hear him, but she was deeply impressed by the man who seemed to have an aura of endless confidence about him.

Their second meeting was in Tel Aviv. Golda arrived in the country in July 1921, along with her new husband and sister, at the end of a trip full of travails that seemed like it came out of a popular adventure book.

Ben-Gurion returned to the Land of Israel in August of that year, after years of exile and without Paula and the kids, who remained behind in London. He lived in a rented room on Lilienblum Street, where a group of young Zionist leaders would gather from time to time to hear what he had to say. On one of these occasions, Golda was also invited, having spent a number of years as a Po’alei Zion (“Workers of Zion”) activist in America. She was now starting to make her political and professional way in this new land, and didn’t even have a command of Hebrew, yet.

“I understood very little of what he said,” Golda later said of their first encounter in the Land of Israel, “but I was very impressed by this persona, and how people listened to him.”

Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion at the congress of the socialist International, 1928. Courtesy of the Golda Meir Institute

From here on out, their political careers would develop separately, but they crossed paths again at many points and often met professionally.

In 1920, Ben-Gurion was among the founders of the general workers’ union known as the Histadrut and was appointed its general secretary in 1921. Even at this early point, he already stood out as the most prominent leader among the Jewish pioneers of the Second Aliyah (the immigration wave of 1904-1914).

In those years, Golda was a member of the Ahdut Ha’Avoda (“Labor Unity”) party – later to become part of Mapai (a Hebrew acronym standing for “Workers’ Party of the Land of Israel”). She began to stand out among Zionist women’s organizations, first as a member of the “female workers’ council” and then as secretary of the council. She later took many trips to engage in fundraising and diplomacy in Britain, serving as a delegate at the global conference of the Zionist women’s organization WIZO as well as the 16th World Zionist Conference.

In 1930, Mapai was founded as a merger of smaller parties, becoming the political home for both Golda and Ben-Gurion from this point forward. Ben-Gurion was head of the movement, while Golda placed 20th in the third election to the Assembly of Representatives, the local Jewish internal parliament, which sufficed for her to become a member of the assembly.

Over time, Golda turned from an admirer observing the movement’s undisputed leader from a distance to an inseparable part of the Zionist leadership’s inner circle. Beyond her official work, she also developed close ties with Ben-Gurion and his political partners (including long, complex romantic affairs with David Remez and Zalman Shazar).

Sitting in the same row. Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion at the maiden trip of Israel Railways. From the Ben-Gurion House Archive, BTBG-AL-011

Only towards the end of her life, when she was already a former Prime Minister and Ben-Gurion had passed away, did Golda Meir tell of the deep emotional connection she formed with him already in those early years. Before this, they had been regarded as having a professional relationship of two people sharing the same political causes.

When she spoke of young Ben-Gurion in an interview she gave journalist Yaron London in 1974, her voice took on an uncharacteristic softness.

She tells of a Ben-Gurion who was a little different than his popular persona, as only those closest to him experienced the contrasts in the personality of the “Old Man.” He was in fact a charismatic speaker who suffered from social anxiety: on stage, at public speeches, he always seemed fearless and inspiringly confident in his path, but among his close circle or when he had to speak with someone privately – things were entirely different. He was surprisingly shy; in one-on-one meetings, his words would get tangled up when he needed to have them flow freely.

For instance, he was very close to Rachel Yanait and Yitzhak Ben Zvi, but he personally told Golda that shortly after he arrived in the country, he went on a long walk with Rachel Yanait during which he made not a sound. As he later admitted – “I didn’t know how to speak then, or what one is supposed to talk about.”

When he was offered to become Chairman of the Jewish Agency, he thought he might have to go to the British High Commissioner and speak with him, and he shared his dilemmas with Golda: “How do I talk to him? What do I say to him”?

Golda did not consider this a mark against his leadership – perhaps even the opposite.

“It’s character. He needed to overcome it, and he did. There was no-one who spoke with him and left feeling, ‘Nu, so I’ve met another random person…’”

Golda told of how Ben-Gurion wasn’t one for idle chit-chat:

“Ben-Gurion was generally a man who didn’t need people around him. Every one of us could sit with friends and talk about all sorts of things – even without a purpose, just to chat. Ben-Gurion was never a part of that. Everyone knew – with Ben-Gurion you don’t chat, you talk to the point. About things that must be spoken of.”

She heeded this unwritten rule: In the many decades of her acquaintance with Ben-Gurion, it never occurred to her to go to his house for a casual sit-down. If she had – it would have come off as odd, and he would immediately ask what happened.

Except once. One Saturday afternoon in Autumn, 1947, Golda received a strange phone call. Ben-Gurion was on the line, asking her to come to him – without a specific purpose. When she arrived, she found him on the second floor, which she had never been invited to before. It was a huge room with the walls covered in books, and Ben-Gurion was pacing back and forth, restless. He told her things which would have shaken many at that point in time, before the State of Israel had even been born: “Golda, I’m not sleeping at night, I don’t know what will be with us. There will be a war, that is clear, I know what we have, but I don’t know what will be, how we’ll handle it.”

“I don’t have contempt for those who are afraid,” he continued, “Here, [Zionist leader Yosef] Sprinzak is afraid, but he has the courage to say he’s afraid. Sometimes there’s a lot of courage in saying you’re afraid. And even Sprinzak doesn’t yet know how much we need to be afraid.”

It was the first time she had the feeling that he could not cope with the crucial dilemmas all by himself, and that he needed someone to whom he could pour out his heart and present his concerns. She was that person for him.

At this rare opportunity, he let her enter a place almost no-one got a glimpse of

This soft side of Ben-Gurion was something Golda Meir also witnessed after the state was established. During the War of Independence, she would enter the room and see him sign letters to bereaved parents. This was not the Ben-Gurion people knew – the decider, the man who was always strongly opinionated, the one who didn’t give a damn. Here, he gave a damn. A lot. And he let her see that.

These anecdotes tell us not only of Ben-Gurion’s private, inner world, but also the place Golda had in that world. Despite this, and although they marched together towards common causes for many years, Golda couldn’t see herself as his equal. “Who was I? I was a girl from Milwaukee, and he? He was Ben-Gurion.”

At Ben-Gurion House in Tel Aviv, which served as the permanent residence of David and Paula Ben-Gurion from the 1930s until they moved to Sde Boker in the Negev Desert, collections of photographs and albums can be found alongside the voluminous books. These tell the story of Ben-Gurion, the leader and the man, and of his widespread contacts around the world. Among these are also unofficial, rare images of him with Golda, where we can see something of their gentle relationship.

The photo albums have been digitized thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Ben-Gurion House Archive, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem, and the National Library of Israel, and can be viewed here.

A close friendship. Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion in conversation. From the Ben-Gurion House Archive, IL-BTBG-PH-161

On May 14, 1948, they both signed the Declaration of Independence. He stood and declared the Jewish state, and she was one of just two Jewish women whose signatures can be found on that important historical document. After the declaration, of all the signatories and those present in the room, Ben-Gurion decided to walk with her to Dizengoff Square to meet the cheering crowd. He spoke to them with restraint, a leader who understood the weight and enormity of the event and who feared what they were about to face. It was Golda, now fluent in Hebrew, who spoke with enthusiasm and passion, doing so with a heavy American accent.

Golda Meir’s signature on the Declaration of Independence

Immediately afterwards, that same day, she left to raise funds in the United States at Ben-Gurion’s request, even though the last thing she wanted was to be away from the country during that eventful period.

She believed in him and his decisions wholeheartedly, and sat as a minister in his (many) governments. Even if they disagreed here and there, she often said that “regarding the major goals, on the path we had to take, he was always right.”

Working together. Ben-Gurion’s government during the Third Knesset. From: President Yitzhak Ben Zvi Collection, IL-INL-YBZ-0125-456

When she traveled abroad, they corresponded; Ben-Gurion found it easier to express his feelings in writing.

“You’re missed here, these days, by all of us, but especially me. Yet it seems to me that the historical struggle being waged in New York and Washington requires your stay in the US”

The unique relationship between the two held until the 1960s, when politics tore them apart in a way Golda could not imagine. “The Lavon Affair” was a complex political crisis which began with the colossal failure of certain intelligence operations in Egypt, and went on to split and divide the Mapai political leadership, eventually leading to the end of Ben-Gurion’s political career.

Golda called it “the miserable, tragic dispute that didn’t have to happen,” but these words do not suffice to describe her great pain over the rift, which she considered to be a personal disaster.

In the Israeli foreign service. Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion with representatives of foreign nations at the Acadia Hotel. From: Ben-Gurion House Archive, BTBG-PH-077

In a soul-baring interview to Yaron London conducted after Ben-Gurion’s death, she was hardly willing to talk about that period, which was terrible for her. “I always understood Ben-Gurion’s motives, but here I didn’t understand anything, beginning to end.”

After decades of close acquaintance and friendship, in which he deeply influenced her political thought and activism, to break away from him and even see him as being in the “enemy camp” was unbearable.

“Ben-Gurion was no ‘vegetarian’ in the partisan war, or in the war for what he thought was the right thing, and neither was I,” she told London with a pained half-smile.

When Ben-Gurion celebrated his 80th birthday, she didn’t come to the event and he was deeply hurt.

But she never stopped appreciating him. At election events in those days, she spoke often of his enormous contributions, even calling him “the greatest Jew of our generation.” Still, reconciliation was difficult and it only happened years later.

In 1970, when she was already Prime Minister, Golda asked Ben-Gurion to represent the Israeli government in Paris along with Zalman Shazar at the public funeral of Charles de Gaulle. But the real gesture of reconciliation came from Ben-Gurion, a year later.

In September 1971, he came to the 50th anniversary celebration of Golda Meir’s arrival in the Land of Israel. Golda was deeply impressed by his very presence, but she also received a gift: a copy he kept of a telegraph she sent him from America for his 75th birthday.

“No dispute that was or yet will be between us,” Golda wrote in that telegraph, “will erase my recognition that I was exceptionally merited to work with a man who was more responsible than anyone else for what we have here.”

Golda Meir at the 50th anniversary of her immigration to the Land of Israel, Kibbutz Revivim

Later at the party, Ben-Gurion got on stage, but had some trouble finding the simple words to express what he felt. So he instead read letters aloud, letters he’d written in the past, either to her or about her.

The first contained words he wrote to [Israeli diplomat] Abba Eban:

“Golda is more important to Israel that a few million dollars, so you should do your best that she not work … and rest a bit during her stay in England.”

The second was a letter he sent her himself, while she was in the US:

“Dear, beloved Golda, I learned your secret. This year you’ve reached the age of 60, although I know you don’t want to celebrate your birthday, since you do not like publicity and personal celebrations. But after all, you cannot prevent me from congratulating you and telling you that which I feel, that your birthday is but a convenient opportunity to reveal some of my appreciation and friendship and love … an exemplary figure, a good friend, both strict and forgiving … I see you, and I am not alone, at your full creative powers, and my most faithful hopes for you that your strength will last many more years, and the trust and appreciation which most of the people in Israel as well as American Jewry feel for you will keep you steady during the difficulties you encounter as does every one of us.


David Ben-Gurion.”

That was all. He finished, and got off stage.

Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion in conversation. From the Ben-Gurion House Archive, IL-BTBG-PH-161

“You wouldn’t say that Ben-Gurion could be sentimental,” she told London a few years later, “but he could be very sentimental.”

Ten days after Ben-Gurion’s death, Golda spoke before the Knesset in his memory. She was Prime Minister at the time, and the lion’s share of the speech dealt with his public image. But at the end, her tone became more personal, and she spoke of the close friend she’d lost, regained, and lost again, this time for good:

“Honorable [Knesset] Chairman, with your permission and that of the Members of Knesset, I would like to say a few personal words for a minute. It fell in my lot to know Ben-Gurion in 1917, when he and his friend, his good and dear friend Yitzhak Ben Zvi, may his memory be a blessing, came to the United States … and it was my fate during all my years of life in the country, very many of those years, the decisive majority of those years, to work with him … There was much friendship, there was a brief period of bitterness, and I thank God that in recent years, there was an absolute, complete reconciliation. And among all the things etched in my heart in Ben-Gurion’s favor, perhaps among the most significant, was that after the bitter rivalry, we both gained a renewed and wonderful friendship.”

The photos appearing in the article are kept at the Ben-Gurion House Archive, and are made available thanks to the collaborative efforts of the archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

Jerusalem: City of Lepers?

For thousands of years, leprosy was one of the world’s most feared diseases | Jerusalem’s “Hansen House” is known as the city’s legendary leper asylum, but a look back through time reveals a longstanding relationship between the city and the illness | On Jerusalem: city of holiness and leprosy

A man and two boys suffering from leprosy, photographed at the gates of Jerusalem, 1890-1910, Underwood Brothers collection, courtesy of Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi

“Near the rose garden in Jerusalem is a closed institution, where sadness prevails and isolation is everywhere to be found: the leper hospital.”


This was the opening sentence of an article about Hansen House in Jerusalem’s Talbiyah neighborhood, published in the Davar newspaper in November 1951. The building housing this institution was designed by the famous architect Conrad Schick, becoming something of an urban legend and the focus of horror stories told by Jerusalemites for many years. The late Jerusalemite author and scholar Yaakov Yehoshua recalled how the hospital reminded him in his youth of the weekly Torah portions of Tazria and Metzora – both related to leprosy. The connection he made between the cantor’s sad voice in the synagogue, describing the sick leper cursed by God, and the disfigured lepers residing at Hansen House, was a natural one. The hospital terrified residents of adjacent neighborhoods, and to this day, the old timers of the neighborhoods of Katamon and Talbiyah remember how they would look at the building with a mixture of awe and fear.

Though many are familiar with the leper asylum at Hansen House, the institution represents but the latest chapter in the story of Jerusalem’s relationship with the disease. An exploration of the untold story of leprosy in the Holy City reveals of a mysterious and powerful connection between the city and the illness, which was considered to be a divine curse all the way up to the 20th century.

The Jesus Hilfe or Jesus’ Help Asylum in Talbiyah in its early days, with the sign prominently placed at the entrance. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

Leprosy, one of the world’s most notorious diseases, is mentioned already in the Bible. Like other serious skin ailments, it was considered a punishment from heaven, and those afflicted were socially shunned. The disease was caused by a bacteria which caused disfigurations of the skin and changes in the body. Leprosy has been documented for thousands of years, and the description in the Bible would appear to be one of the first documented attempts to cope with a contagious illness of this sort.

The Bible calls for expelling lepers “outside the camp”, and to a great extent, until the 21st century – treatment of lepers in Jerusalem followed suit. The Bible tells us of Uziyahu, King of Judah, who was stricken with leprosy and exiled until his death. When he dwelled in isolation in the “house of separation”, which popular traditions place in the Kidron valley east of the Old City of Jerusalem, did he imagine that an urban leper’s asylum would be built in nearby Silwan more than 2000 years later? Did the patients who collected alms at Zion Gate in the Old City in the 19th century know that the King of Jerusalem himself was a leper centuries before?

The “Lepers’ Village” near Zion Gate, Jerusalem. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia


Sick With Leprosy and Not Recovering? You’re as Good as Dead

“Leprosy” has been used as a general descriptor for a whole range of serious and disfiguring skin diseases throughout history. In 1873, Norwegian researcher Gerhard Armauer Hansen identified the bacteria causing this illness, and it has since been called Hansen’s Disease, after the man who discovered it. The leprosy the Bible speaks of has been proven to not be the disease we know today; historical-linguistic developments led to confusion on the subject. For centuries and millennia, the state of those suffering from leprosy in the Holy City was appalling.

The three powerful religions in the city – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – all considered lepers to be cursed by God, with those not recovering from the disease even considered to be effectively dead. In Judaism, the main fear of the disease was religious, as lepers were considered impure; priests were charged with removing them from the camp or the city so that the spirit of God could dwell among the Children of Israel.

Like Judaism, the other religions – including the religions of the ancient Near East in Babylon and Mesopotamia – viewed lepers as impure beings to be separated from the healthy population. Even in our time, when leprosy is no longer the threat it once was and can be effectively treated, the term “leper” remains to mark out people who are rejected from society. A formal request was once submitted to change the Hebrew term for the disease to destigmatize the people suffering from it.

Letter sent by Prof. Feliz Zagher (Sagher), director of the Hansen Hospital from 1949, requesting the name of the disease be changed. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

Things changed during the Crusader occupation of the Holy Land. In contrast to the treatment of lepers in the Western Christian world, the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem treated them with respect. Upon conquering the city in 1099, the Crusaders came into more direct contact with lepers than they were used to, as leprosy was more prevalent in the Middle East at the time; many Crusaders were even afflicted themselves.

To deal with the lepers without expelling them, a special order was established – the Order of Saint Lazarus, named after the patron saint of lepers mentioned in the Christian Bible. Many knights afflicted with leprosy joined the order, and they were required to bear a noise-maker to announce their arrival in any densely-inhabited area. The knight bearing the noise maker became the symbol of the order, also known for its knights who fought without faceguards, in order to terrify enemies with their disfigured faces. Many of the knights knew they would not live long with the disease, and so preferred to die on the battlefield.

The peak of leprosy’s fame, or notoriety, in the city came with the rise of Jerusalem’s “Leper King”, Baldwin IV, who fought against Saladin in four battles, the last of which required he be carried by his knights to the battlefield. The Domus Leprosorum or “Leper’s Home” in Latin, the order’s center for treatment and prayer, was established outside the northern wall of Jerusalem, where the “French Hospital” stands today.

Symbol of the Order of Saint Lazarus


The Lepers at the Gate

In the modern era, even after it was scientifically proven that the Biblical leprosy and Hansen’s Disease – leprae – are not the same illness, the stigma remained. Lepers were removed from the city and healthy people refused to go near them – due to their serious and clearly visible physical symptoms, among other reasons. They were excommunicated and forced to live in an isolated community, without support beyond collecting alms. The sight of beggars at the city gates became a fixture, only increasing the locals’ disgust. Towards the end of the 19th century, most lepers in Jerusalem lived in a number of shacks next to the Old City walls, between Zion Gate and the Dung Gate. They married among themselves and lived in rickety houses made of stones taken from ruins, mud, and branches. The Ottoman government neglected them.

Lepers outside Hansen House. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

Their condition improved thanks to the churches which became increasingly dominant in the city from the mid-19th century onward. In 1865, the land was visited by a German noblewoman named Auguste von Keffenbrinck-Ascheraden. Her shock at the sight of the scarred and pitiful lepers at the city gates led her to raise money to build a hospital and home for them. To that end, she recruited the aid of the Moravian-German church in an effort which would forever change the fate of lepers in Jerusalem.

Patients at the leper hospital in Jerusalem, late 19th century. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia


From Mamilla to Talbiyah, With a Stop in Silwan

People had only begun to leave the walls of the Old City as the 19th century came to a close, and Jerusalem’s urban heart still lay within their confines. The German countess and the Moravian church chose a nearby location known today as the neighborhood of Mamilla. The structure was established next to its pool, one of the city’s water sources, and away from the main roads to and from Jerusalem.

In 1866, the first leper’s hospital was established, and would eventually become the Lazarist Monastery on Agron Street. It had a number of rooms, which did not fill up that quickly – the Jerusalemite lepers were suspicious of the hospital built by the church; the Jews and Muslims in particular were wary of proselytizing. Still, the hospital staff managed to win their trust over time, and it soon became apparent that the hospital wasn’t big enough for all the city’s lepers.

The first leper’s asylum in the Mamilla neighborhood, which can be seen today on Agron Street. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

In the meantime, the leper neighborhood next to Zion Gate was demolished by the Ottoman authorities between 1873 and 1975. The government had taken note of the church’s efforts to take the lepers under its wing and decided to follow suit, ordering the construction of government homes for lepers next to Bir Ayoub, south of Silwan. The urban hospital was managed under difficult conditions, without regular supervision and handling, and four patients died in its first summer. Despite this, many of the city’s patients, particularly those of Muslim faith, chose at first to go to Dir Ayoub, since the European beds and Christian nurses in the German Mamilla hospital were foreign to them. But the difficult conditions, lack of doctors, and non-separation between those with “lighter” and more “severe” leprosy led many to ultimately seek the aid of the church. This demand led the church to purchase new land southwest of the Old City to establish the Jesus Hilfe or “Jesus’ Help” hospital for lepers, which would later become Hansen House.

Lepers’ homes built in Silwan by the Ottoman government, the Schneller Orphanage Collection, Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi


From the Ottoman Empire to the British Mandate and the State of Israel

The Jesus Hilfe hospital was established in Talbiyah on a large lot, surrounded by walls. Opened in 1887, it operated in various forms until 2002, witnessing the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the rise and fall of the British Mandate, and the coming of the State of Israel. It had room for some 60 patients alongside medical staff and nurses, and was built to be a self-sustaining establishment. Trees and plants were planted around the building and a vegetable garden was set up where the lepers could work, hoe, grow fruits and vegetables and set up a chicken farm. Cedar trees were brought in specially from Lebanon to beautify the courtyard, alongside cypress and other kinds of trees.

Hansen House’s first doctor, Dr. Adalbert Einsler (the father-in-law of architect Conrad Schick) used new methods to treat the patients. They were allowed to receive visitors and take trips around the country, and they were forced to give up begging. The leper asylum went by many names among the Arabs of Jerusalem, including dar al-masaknin (“the house of the pitiable”) and “the Morafi hospital” after the Moravian church. The lepers walking freely around the hospital terrified the city’s residents, who stayed as far away as they could.

Lepers engaging in routine activity at Hansen House, late Ottoman period. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

After the Ottoman defeat in the First World War and the start of the British Mandate, the institution’s working relations shifted away from Germany. The hospital was placed under the supervision of the Mandate’s health department, even receiving a government budget and being placed under the aegis of the British branch of the Moravian church.

In 1919, Palestinian Jerusalem doctor Tawfiq Canaan was appointed chief physician of the institution, a position he held until the ’48 war. With the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jesus Hilfe hospital was purchased from the Moravian church. The State of Israel turned it into a government hospital and called it “Hansen Hospital,” after the man who discovered the disease. Despite the repeated demands of neighboring residents, as well as a number of attempts to move the institution, the hospital operated on site until 2002. It was then abandoned and left in that state for years – only contributing to its mysterious image. Today it serves as a cultural center and museum.

Sign for the government hospital known as Hansen House, after it was transferred to Israeli government control after the ’48 war. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

Today, leprosy isn’t the terrifying disease it once was, and effective treatment in the early stages does much to prevent it. The national – and only – center in Israel for treating lepers is in Jerusalem, located on Strauss Street in the center of town. Leprosy ceases to be contagious after initial treatment, removing the need for isolation of patients. The infection rate is very low, and some 95% of the population is naturally immune. But the once-ominous disease left its marks on Jerusalem, just like the scars it once left on the human body, reminding us of days long past.