Red Boots, Red Berets: The Story of the Paratroopers Brigade

The last words written by paratrooper Eitan Naveh, who leapt out of the trenches to protect his friends at Ammunition Hill, were: "We won't embarrass the firm." His pride in serving with the paratroopers became part of his identity. This is the story of the brigade known for its red boots, crimson berets, and the fact that it produced no less than ten IDF Chiefs of Staff.

צילום דובר צהל832

Picture: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, Paratroopers Brigade website

“Dear friends! On the sea, on land, in the air, during war and peace, we have but one goal. Each and every one of us must stand his ground – regardless of our specific roles. I will remember you always because that is what will give me strength.” Paratrooper Hannah Senesh wrote these words to members of Kibbutz Sdot Yam on her flight from Italy to Yugoslavia, while on a mission from which she’d never return. Her heroism earned her a place of honor in the pantheon of Israeli national heroes. Israel’s history overflows with stories of heroism about paratrooping fighters – both men and women – from before the State of Israel was even born and right up to this very day.

Hannah Senesh sitting in a garden in Budapest, Hungary. This photo is part of the Archive Network Israel project and is available as part of a collaboration between Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi, the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage, and the National Library of Israel.

Senesh was part of the first group of paratroopers of the Hebrew Yishuv (the Jewish community in pre-state Israel) who bravely took on an almost impossible task – to help their brothers and sisters in Nazi Europe. In the early 1940s, the Jews in the Land of Israel were gripped with terror and worry for their families and all of European Jewry. Rumors about the systematic extermination of Jews had become proven facts by 1942, and many residents of what was still Mandatory Palestine lost contact with their loved ones.

In response to the actions of the Nazis and those assisting them, global and local Zionist leadership as well as the Jews of the Yishuv sought to establish military forces that could be sent to help their fellow Jews caught in the European inferno. This was the background for the formation of the Palmach organization – discussed in detail in our article on the Nahal Brigade – as well as the Jewish paratroopers’ unit, the “Yishuv paratroopers”. Over 200 young men and women came to apply, but less than half made it past the initial tests. Ultimately, about 37 Zionist, Jewish paratroopers were trained by the British Army and sent on a variety of missions such as gathering intelligence and information about Nazi forces and their allies.

Twelve of the Yishuv‘s paratroopers who were sent into Europe were captured by enemy forces, and of those twelve, seven were murdered. The fallen paratroopers became symbols of the Zionist struggle and were commemorated in different ways. The most famous among them is of course Hannah Senesh, along with other heroes such as Enzo Sereni and Haviva Reik.

In the early days of Israeli statehood, in the middle of the War of Independence, a new paratrooper force was once again established in the Land of Israel. This time, however, it was within the framework of the Israel Defense Forces. In those years, the paratroopers had a reputation for being the most experienced soldiers in the army and were sent on the most daring combat missions, equipped with the exciting new Israeli weapon known as the “Uzi” and led by the legendary brigade commander, Ariel Sharon.

It may surprise you to read that despite their name, despite the fact that the IDF parachuting school was established back in 1949, and despite the parachuting course that all paratroopers (and even some parachute packers in the early 1950s) were required to complete – despite all of this – the paratroopers have only engaged in two operational parachute jump missions to this day, and both were part of the Sinai Campaign back in the 1950s.

On October 29, 1956, 16 Dakota aircraft appeared in the skies over Sinai, out of which jumped 395 Israeli paratroopers. This was their first operational jump – it was the first operational parachute jump in the history of the IDF, for that matter – and with that the Sinai Campaign was launched. Only a few days after they landed near the area of the Mitla Pass, additional paratroopers took part in another operational parachute mission in the Al-Tur area. “While still in the air,” said Uri Getz, a commando soldier who had participated in the parachute mission at Al-Tur, “we saw the Egyptian forces fleeing from us. After we landed, no battle unfolded there, and the next day we got back on the IDF Dakota planes that had landed in At-Tur and finished our mission without casualties.”

Paratroopers after landing near Mitla. Photograph: Avraham Vered. From the Paratroopers Brigade website.

But even when it’s soldiers weren’t jumping out of planes, the Paratroopers Brigade has always held a central and important role in the defense of Israel, one which it continues to hold to this day.

Ammunition Hill and the Old City

A monument in memory of the paratroopers who fell while defending Ammunition Hill, Jerusalem. From the Ofra Katzir Collection at Beit Barchihu. This photo is part of the Archive Network Israel project and is available as part of a collaboration between Yad Yitzhak Ben Avi, the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage, and the National Library of Israel.

At two, two thirty in the morning

We entered through the rubble

To the field of fire and mines

At Ammunition Hill.

Opposite fortified bunkers

One hundred and twenty mortars

A hundred and something men

At Ammunition Hill.

Yoram Tehar-Lev

The book The Paratroopers in Jerusalem [Hebrew], which tells the story of the Six-Day War in Jerusalem and which was written in collaboration with Mota Gur, commander of the 55th Paratroopers Reserve Brigade, includes the following passage: “During the Independence Day celebrations of 1967, the first reports arrived of Egyptian armies entering Sinai. Slowly but surely, the home front was emptied. The only ones left at home were women, children and… paratroopers! Irritated phone calls from the unit’s soldiers, ‘Nu, when do we go in?’ But everyone knew: if they hadn’t called up the paratroopers, they weren’t thinking it was serious.”

Frustration mounted among the paratroopers for weeks, before the outbreak of war, a time known in Israel as “the waiting period”. The young country, which had enjoyed a decade of relative quiet without major conflict, watched with bated breath as the huge armies of its neighboring enemies were deployed along its borders. While the public and the army felt an increasing need to take preventive action, Levi Eshkol’s government hesitated to give the order for a preemptive attack. After sustained public pressure and continued provocations and aggression on the part of the Egyptian and Syrian militaries, on June 5, 1967, the government announced the outbreak of the war that would change Israel forever.

On that day, the paratroopers no longer sat at home in nerve-racking anticipation. They fought fiercely against the Arab armies on three fronts. The most famous arena was the city of Jerusalem; following a series of difficult battles, the eastern half of the city was liberated from the Jordanians and reunited with the western half as one city under Israeli sovereignty.

“On June 5, the big day arrived. The war had begun. The excitement was great, take a moment to write home. Will it be my last letter? The hours pass, great news comes from the battlefield. At 14:30 the order comes. We are going to Jerusalem!!!” read Aharai (“follow my lead”), the paratrooper magazine edited by Shimon Gra. “Jerusalem is a city at war; civil defense personnel are running all over and ambulances are evacuating the wounded. The residents welcome us; they’ve opened their homes, delicacies have been served, a sense of joy and relief burst forth when they saw the paratroopers.”

On the eve of the war, King Hussein of Jordan was still hesitating about whether to order his army to attack Israel. However, after being deceived into thinking that the Egyptians were winning their battles in Sinai, he decided to order his army to take over the UN building in the southern part of the city (The Armon HaNatziv or “Commissioner’s Palace”, near the neighborhood of the same name) and join the war against the Jewish State. Taken by surprise, Israel initially took a cautious approach – designating Ammunition Hill in the northern part of the city as one of the first objectives to conquer, rather than going straight for the Old City. The hill, which overlooks Mount Scopus, was transformed into a military bunker during the British Mandate period and served as the ammunition depot for the police training school. During the War of Independence, the hill was conquered by the Jordanians and remained under their control until 1967. The Jordanians fortified Ammunition Hill and turned it into an observation post that cut Mount Scopus off from western Jerusalem.

The Paratroopers’ 55th Reserve Brigade, under the command of Mota Gur, was called up to go to Jerusalem. The hill was well-fortified and booby-trapped, surrounded by three large communication trenches that were protected with concrete, Jerusalem stone and other fortifications. Mota Gur’s paratroopers were tasked with conquering the hill. The plan to penetrate the fort was to enter through the communication trenches, with each platoon entering from a different trench.

Trenches and bunkers at Ammunition Hill. The three trenches were narrow and fortified and made it very difficult for the soldiers to reach the bunker. This photo is part of the Archive Network Israel project and is available as part of a collaboration between Yad Yitzhak Ben Avi, the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage, and the National Library of Israel.

However, in practice, under cover of darkness and with the prevailing chaos on the battlefield, the soldiers were unable to act according to the original plan. The communication trenches were very narrow and the soldiers – laden with equipment and weapons – were unable to move freely inside. They certainly couldn’t watch each other’s backs and cover each other effectively. As a result, the squad commanders decided to position soldiers with machine guns outside the trenches who would provide backup and cover the soldiers inside the trenches.

The first to get out of the trenches was Eitan Naveh, from Moshav Moledet, a member of the Nahal settlement outpost in Almagor and a paratrooper. He met his wife Shalva in the Nahal outpost, and their first son Doron was born in Moshav Moledet. On June 5, Eitan was still being hosted in the home of Jerusalem residents in the Beit HaKerem neighborhood. He spent time playing with their son, who was the same age as his own son, Doron.

In his final letter, he wrote to his wife: “We are about to leave. We paratroopers are ready for any order given to us and are waiting for the decisive moment,” before adding a common Israeli phrase – “We will not embarrass the firm.”

The late Eitan Naveh and his son Doron. Eitan is commemorated in the song “Ammunition Hill” written by Yoram Tehar-Lev who fought by his side.

On the night of the battle, it was Eitan who rushed out of the trenches. He provided cover for his fellow fighters while running through the battle zone clearing the way in front of him, until he was shot and killed. It was a few days after his 23rd birthday. Eitan was posthumously granted the Medal of Valor, the highest of the IDF’s commendations, for his fierce bravery in battle.

When the paratroopers reached the central bunker, they discovered that it was difficult to penetrate its fortified walls. Hours later, with the remaining IDF force numbering only seven soldiers in total, they finally managed to blow up the bunker and end the battle with a decisive victory for Israel.

36 paratroopers were killed in the battles at Ammunition Hill and 15 soldiers received commendations.

The heroic battle of Ammunition Hill, and the many casualties suffered by the paratroopers in the city, are combined in Israeli national memory with the moment when the Western Wall was returned to the Jewish People. On June 7, the paratroopers conquered the Mount of Olives. From there, the capture of the Old City and its various quarters happened relatively quickly. The military campaign to take all of Jerusalem, which wasn’t even pre-planned, became one of the most intense and deadliest fronts of the Six-Day War, with over 180 Israeli soldiers killed and many more injured. The 28th of Iyar (June 7, 1967), the day the paratroopers conquered the Western Wall, would become a national holiday, “Jerusalem Day”, marking the reunification of the city.

Rabbi Goren blows the shofar in front of the Western Wall. “I, Major-General Shlomo Goren, Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, have come to this place in order to stay here forever!” Photo: David Rubinger. From the National Photo Archive.

Of course, no article about the paratroopers during the Six-Day War can be complete without this picture:

Photo: David Rubinger, National Photo Archive.

The photo, taken by David Rubinger, features three Israeli soldiers: Zion Karasenti (left), Yitzhak Yifat (center), and Haim Oshri (right), and in the back, Haim Cohen. “The Crying Paratroopers” became one of the most famous photos of the era. It was published in The New York Times a few days after the end of the war, as well as in Life magazine, among other publications.

A poster from 1971: “The brave go to the paratroopers – Tel-Aviv’s Parachute Demonstration”. Design: Kerman-Kerman Design, from the Tel Aviv-Yafo Archives, Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality.

The legacy of the paratroopers is entwined with the history of the IDF and its senior leadership. Ten Israeli Chiefs of Staff came up through the ranks of the Paratroopers Brigade, including Mota Gor, Moshe Levy, Dan Shomron, Moshe ‘Bogi’ Ya’alon, Benny Gantz, Aviv Kochavi and Hertzi Halevi. The paratroopers have long been perceived as the elite fighters of the IDF, from the moment the brigade was founded. The Efea, Pathan and Tsefa battalions (named after types of snakes), as well as the elite paratrooper commando unit, all set a standard of combat and command that has inspired the best of the IDF’s commanders for decades.

During Hamas’ surprise attack and massacre on October 7, the paratrooper commandos and the 890th battalion fought to liberate Kibbutz Be’eri and Kibbutz Kfar Aza. During the battles that lasted for about two days, the soldiers cleared the kibbutzim of terrorists and freed families who had been holed up in shelters for many long hours. During these battles, the brigade lost 16 of its soldiers.

Benny Gantz, with his paratrooper beret and parachute wings during his tenure as Chief of Staff, and the then President of the State of Israel Reuven Rivlin, photo: Haim Zach, from the IDF website.

The legacy of Israel’s paratroopers, which has its roots in the pre-state era, lives on and remains as relevant as ever. Their contribution to Israel’s security continues to make a difference, even as we write these words.

Paratroopers: IDF’s Spokesperson’s Unit

Hidden Weapons, Explosives and Tunnels: The IDF’s Combat Engineers

No unit in the IDF can get very far without combat engineering personnel. However, these soldiers don't always get the credit they deserve for their critical contribution to Israel's defense. This is the story of the Combat Engineering Corps – the brave and careful soldiers charged with dismantling all types of obstacles that stand in the army's way.

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One of the developments of the IDF Combat Engineering Corps, the "Nochri", which can be attached to the front of any vehicle, with the purpose of detonating any mine and thus protecting the vehicle and those inside. Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.

In the early days of the State of Israel, Hillel El-Dag (originally Oldak) worked as an engineer for the Solel Boneh company in the construction of the Ramla bypass road, between Hulda and Masmiya in central Israel. One morning, when El-Dag arrived at the work site, he was surprised to find that his tractors had disappeared. Concerned at this turn of affairs, El-Dag rushed to neighboring Kibbutz Na’an, in the hope that someone there might know what happened to the expensive tractors. There, resting on the grass, he met a group of soldiers, including Givati ​​Brigade Deputy Commander Meir’ke Davidson. After El-Dag introduced himself and asked whether they knew what had happened to his tractors, the deputy commander turned to him with a question of his own:

“Are you an engineer?” he asked immediately.

“Yes,” I answered

“Very well, consider yourself enlisted. We need an engineer for Givati [the IDF brigade].”

(from the book History of the Engineering Corps [Hebrew])

Among the many things that the young, new army required upon its establishment, there was an urgent need for experienced and professional engineering personnel. Finding suitable people was no simple matter, and the Israeli army searched for them under every nook, cranny… and tractor. As it turned out, Col. (Res.) El-Dag remained in the Engineering Corps, advanced up the chain of command, and eventually even served as Chief Engineering Officer between 1958 and 1964.

Engineering soldiers on a mine detection mission around the time of the Six-Day War, 1967. From the book History of the Engineering Corps by Ami Shamir, p. 65.

Engineering since the dawn of history

The first known fortifications in the world can actually be found within the borders of the Land of Israel; they were built in Jericho in the seventh millennium BCE. Engineering has been necessary in every place and in every period as a means of both defense and attack. Our ancestors used engineering to figure out how best to impose an effective siege, and how to defend against a siege that was imposed on them. The renewed Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel needed solutions to protect itself from hostile activity by local Arabs and their allies. The laws of the British Mandate forbade Jews from carrying weapons, so the engineers from the Jewish underground organizations established hidden caches of weapons in kibbutzim and border communities (such a hiding place was called a slik in Hebrew). These arms caches proved essential ahead of the establishment of the State of Israel.

The first engineers to seriously dedicate themselves to the issue of how to properly protect the Jewish communities of Mandatory Palestine joined together in 1934, when the technical department of the Haganah was established. They were occupied with planning and constructing fortifications for the border settlements and within cities that had mixed Jewish-Arab populations, with the bulk of their efforts focused on establishing the “Tower and Stockade” settlements in the years 1936-1939. This was a large-scale engineering-military-settlement operation to capture strategic points throughout the country on which settlements could be established. The Haganah’s technical department played a critical role in planning the complex operation, in a way that would be effective, applicable, and safe. All the materials were prepared ahead of time. Along with a wooden tower, a barrier was built to surround the settlement. This barrier was made of two parallel wooden walls with gravel filling the gap between them. These fortifications would typically be erected within a single day.  This is how the kibbutzim Nir David, Hanita, Sha’ar HaGolan, Dan, Dafna and a total of over 50 settlements were established.

Constructing a wall around a “Tower and Stockade” settlement, late 1930s-early 1940s. This photograph is part of the Archive Network Israel project and is available as part of a collaboration between Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi, the Ministry of Heritage, and the National Library of Israel.

The first missions which were carried out by the underground organizations and which required advanced military-engineering knowledge took place shortly before the War of Independence. They included the Palmach’s bombing of strategic bridges on the “Night of the Bridges” in June 1946, and the Irgun’s bombing of a wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Many who would later become IDF engineers gained their experience within the British Army’s Jewish Brigade. Among them was Emmanuel Shahar, who would become the first commander of the Combat Engineering Corps upon the establishment of the Israel Defense Forces.

Two tents and an old building housed the first IDF engineering school in the Jalil area – today’s Glilot, just north of Tel Aviv, which was established a few months after the beginning of the War of Independence to quickly train people in the engineering professions. Conditions were not promising, to say the least. Studies were initially offered in two languages: Hebrew and Yiddish. The few instructors were often borrowed by the fighting forces. In the small school that housed 30 students in total, there were hardly any explosives, let alone written material.

An article about the first military engineering school, published in the Davar Newspaper on August 23, 1978

During one training session dedicated to explosives, a trainee lit a delay fuse that was attached to a bomb. The trainee was gripped with fear and was unable to throw the explosive away quickly enough. Due to this moment of hesitation, peoples’ lives were suddenly in danger. Luckily, the instructor, Yossi Ben Hurin, jumped on the trainee and managed to quickly throw the explosive away from the area. The trainee was unharmed, but Ben Hurin was injured by shrapnel. This accident inspired the immortal slogan that accompanies the IDF’s Combat Engineering Corps to this day, coined by Eliezer Meron, the school’s first commander: “A sapper makes a mistake only once in his life.”

Since it was very difficult to obtain proper engineering equipment, the majority was improvised in the field. The corps members used resourcefulness, ingenuity, and whatever the British left behind, as well as equipment from large construction companies, contractors, kibbutzim, or private individuals. The shortage of mines led to the invention of dummy mines, and later also to the use of dummy tanks and dummy cannons that were activated remotely. These “fake” mines and tanks were convincing enough to require enemy forces to expend resources on removing the perceived threat. Such inventions helped the IDF cope with its own equipment shortages.

A soldier from the Combat Engineering Corps lays a line of mines during an IDF exercise in the south. Photo: Yaacov Sa’ar, Government Press Office.

Improvisation is the name of the game

The Combat Engineering Corps has not always received the recognition it deserves, even though its importance on the battlefield is enormous. On the morning of May 15th, the day after the declaration of the State of Israel, there was serious concern over a coordinated invasion by seven armies into Israel’s territory, casting a shadow over the leaders of the new state. Major General Yochanan Ratner, head of the IDF’s Planning Directorate, entered the room and said:

“The key to stopping the seven armies is in the hands of the Engineering Corps.”

The engineering personnel promised to do everything in their power to prevent Israel from needing to face seven fronts at once. Blowing up bridges over the Jordan River was one of the first and most critical actions taken by the Combat Engineering Corps at that time, as it helped prevent the Jordanian army from invading the settlements in the Jordan Valley and Beit She’an Valley. On the southern front, mines were effective in holding back the Egyptian army.

Later, breaking through Burma Road to besieged Jerusalem, the Engineering Corps played a critical role in paving the way to the capital. Equipment shortages meant that the soldiers sometimes had to work with their bare hands. The operation was completed at the very last moment, just before the first temporary truce between Israel and the Arab countries came into effect. On a part of the road, between Givat Shaul and Motza, the engineers even made use of some physical features of an ancient Roman road which passed through the area. Breaking through to the city with this road offered a lifeline for the blockaded residents of Jerusalem and a tremendous morale boost for the Jewish population which was fighting for its life.

The members of the Engineering Corps created roads wherever they were needed. The harsh battles and the pressing deadlines sometimes demanded unbelievable ingenuity, like on the eve of Operation Horev, when military forces needed to get from Be’er Sheva to Gaza, but their path was blocked: Heavy rain from late-December 1948 had turned the desert’s loess soil into muddy quicksand. For four days and nights, the crews of the Engineering Corps worked on preparing a road for safe passage of the battalions. They used whatever they could find – nets, cans, cypress trunks, and even coats spread along the road – to ensure that the wheels of the heavy trucks wouldn’t get stuck in the mud. All this was done in order to enable the IDF forces to pass through and reach their destination. At the end of the operation, Yigal Alon, who had commanded the southern front, sent a letter of appreciation to the commander of the Engineering Corps for his men’s hard work and dedication. Since that day, the Engineering Corps has always worked closely with the initial breakthrough force in every war and major operation the IDF has undertaken. No commander wants to enter unfamiliar territory without an engineering team close by to help pave the way and clear any possible threats.

A floating bridge over the Suez Canal, erected during the Yom Kippur War. Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. This photograph is part of the Archive Network Israel project and is available as part of a collaboration between the Bet Hashita Archive, the Ministry of Heritage, and the National Library of Israel.

Saluting the mines

Much is often left unsaid about the IDF’s Combat Engineering Corps. Many are simply unaware of the incredible responsibilities these soldiers undertake, as well as the changing nature of their roles, and their critical contribution to the war effort in all of the country’s major conflicts. Engineering personnel are at the forefront of any major military force. No infantry or armored division commander is willing to move without them. Their professionalism and experience in breaking through roads and eliminating risks are irreplaceable.

This is a small and professional corps, whose various units are always busy – in times of war as well as times of relative quiet. Their areas of responsibility include, among others, explosives, mining and clearing mines, breaking through obstacles, blocking roads, preparing fortifications, building and demolishing bridges, and operating heavy engineering equipment. The corps includes three regular battalions: Asaf, Lahav and Machatz, and the special unit Yahalom (the elite engineering unit used for special operations).

Forces from the IDF’s Combat Engineering Corps engaged in operational activity in Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield, aimed at destroying terror infrastructure in the Palestinian Authority. Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit

The challenges facing the Engineering Corps are constantly changing. During the Yom Kippur War, it was tasked with facilitating the Suez Canal crossing. When the IDF was operating in Lebanon, its engineers had to cope with a massive amount of improvised explosive devices. More recently, the Engineering Corps have been focused on providing advanced solutions for uncovering and demolishing tunnels.

On October 7, reservists from the Engineering Corps were called up to serve, and they have been working tirelessly in all the sectors ever since, especially in providing unique engineering solutions for the units operating in the Gaza Strip.

A soldier from the Engineering Corps in northern Israel, October 2023. Photo: vlad_krivchansky

Soldiers from the Engineering Corps are combat warriors in every sense of the word, who are highly specialized in the following spheres:

“You need to be a soldier who uses your head all the time: where is the smartest place to plant a mine, a charge or a demolition block?” Matan, a reservist in the Combat Engineering Corps, explains. “You have to understand that the Engineering Corps maintains such a high level of operational preparedness, and the changes and adjustments are so frequent that if I need to miss one drill in the reserves, it is immediately noticeable and I need to work twice as hard during the next drill to maintain my level of competence.”

Along with the obvious risks, he says, serving in the Engineering Corps has clear advantages: “The risk in our work is so high that it creates friends for life. We have to trust each other a thousand percent.” These conditions mean that combat engineering soldiers must heavily consider the risks they face every time they are called on to dismantle a charge. As an engineering officer who identified himself as Ori said in an interview in 1969: “To this day, I salute every mine before I approach it.”

From the book Sof Maslul Palchan Baz: August 2011 Combat Engineering: “No place is too far, even if there is no road, we will pave it…”

The Final Days of the Jewish Community in Gaza

Documents recently discovered in the Archives Department of the National Library of Israel shed new light on the forgotten Hebrew community of Gaza, as well as the Jews who lived in and visited the city even after the community no longer officially existed

The Gaza beach, 1924. This photograph is part of the Archive Network Israel project and is made available as part of a collaboration between the Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi Institute, the Israeli Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

The third decade of the 20th century was the last decade of existence for the old Jewish community of Gaza.

By this point the community had dwindled down to only a handful of people, but in the past, it had included prominent figures such as Nathan of Gaza, a well-known follower of Sabbatai Zevi, and Rabbi Israel Najara, author of the liturgical poem Ya Ribon Olam,

In a letter from 1926, discovered in the archive of Moshe David Gaon, a scholar of Eastern Jewry and author of the monumental work Yehudei HaMizrach Be’Eretz Yisrael (“Jews of the East in the Land of Israel”), which is kept at the National Library, Mr. Dromi, secretary of the Hebrew community council in Gaza, provided Gaon with details on the state of the community. Dromi noted that it had its own elected council, and numbered 51 people, Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike, in contrast to the period before the war, when there were close to a hundred Jews in Gaza.

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From the Moshe David Gaon Archive, which is in the process of being cataloged and is made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington

During the 1929 riots, the Jews of Gaza were forced to flee the city, and that was the official end of the community, but does that mean that there was no longer a Jewish presence in Gaza?

The Gaza community has seen ups and downs over the years, and during the first half of the 19th century it ceased to exist, apparently due to the invasion of Muhammad Ali, the de facto ruler of Egypt at the time. During the second half of the 19th century, the city’s Jewish community was renewed at the initiative of Klonymus Ze’ev Wissotzky, founder of the Wissotzky Tea Company, and Hacham Nissim Elkayam, a Torah scholar and merchant born in Morocco. The Jews of the city were mainly Sephardim who were familiar with the Arabic language and culture.

They came from various places, mainly from Jaffa, but also from Aleppo, Hebron and even from Europe. The majority of them worked in trade, especially of barley and colocynth, a bitter fruit with medicinal properties that grows around Gaza and is also known as “vine of Sodom” or “wild gourd”. Due to their extensive trade relations with the local Bedouin tribes, some of the city’s Jews lived for several months of the year near the tribes, outside the city, and even adopted some of their habits. For example, Jewish men used to ride horses and wear a sash with a dagger and a gun. The Jews of Gaza were also involved in banking, and a branch of the Anglo-Palestine Bank opened in the city. In his memoir, the bank’s manager, Abraham Elmaliah, describes how the bank’s management traveled by train from Jaffa to Gaza to be there on the day it opened, and along the way they were greeted with songs and blessings by farmers from the Jewish colonies (moshavot) as well as the Jews of Gaza themselves. The bank was highly respected in the city, its manager Elmaliah was always accompanied by two Kavass guards, a symbol of honored status.

Due to its isolation from other communities, the Gaza community was generally a cohesive and unified collective. Former community members recalled different families celebrating Sukkot and Passover together. Typically, several Jewish families would share a single living compound, with each compound having a dedicated room intended to accommodate Jews who were spending the night in the city, on their way from Cairo to the Land of Israel.

The Moshe David Gaon Archive includes evidence of the solidarity felt among members of the community. Among other things, the archive includes letters from the heads of the community to the Chief Sephardic Rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Franco, the Rishon LeZion, with requests to support the members of the community in preparation for the Passover holiday.

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A letter from the Jewish community in Gaza to Chief Rabbi Franco, 1912. From the Moshe David Gaon Archive, which is in the process of being cataloged thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington

Jewish religious life was also quite developed in the city. There was a rabbi who also served as a teacher, kosher slaughterhouses, a ritual bath, and a Jewish cemetery. Although it wasn’t a large community, it had three synagogues, one for each extended family. At the initiative of one of the dignitaries of the community, Nissim Elkayam, who was influenced by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a Hebrew school was established in Gaza at the beginning of the 20th century. Two teachers sent from Jerusalem taught there. Rabbi Nissim Ohana served as the rabbi of the community for part of the time. He later served as a rabbi in New York, Egypt, Malta and Haifa. During his stay in Gaza, Rabbi Ohana wrote a book, in collaboration with the Mufti (Muslim Leader) of Gaza, Sheikh Abdullah al-Alami, entitled Know What You Will Answer Epicurus: Clear Answers from the Bible Itself. The purpose of the book was to provide Jews and Muslims with replies that could be used to counter the efforts of Christian missionaries, who ran a hospital in the city at the time.

World War I was a severe setback for the Jewish community of Gaza. Most of the city’s Jews had foreign citizenship and were therefore expelled from the country by the Ottoman government. While a number of families had local citizenship and could remain in the city, they were required to enlist in the Ottoman army or, alternatively, pay a high ransom. As a result, the Jewish community effectively ceased to exist for several years, until after the war. Once the fighting was over and the land had been conquered by the British Army (which established a military cemetery in the city with several Jewish graves), the Jews slowly began to return to Gaza, but the Arab nationalist awakening damaged the close neighborly relations that had existed in the past between Jews and Arabs. Among other things, many Arabs refused to rent houses to Jews, and since part of Gaza was destroyed during the war, Jews had difficulty finding homes in the city. The Jewish community also suffered a lack of support from the national institutions, which no longer saw any value in Jews living in the heart of Arab cities, preferring instead to focus on developing new agricultural communities.

In late Summer of 1929, things reached a boiling point. As part of the Arab riots that were now raging throughout the country, there was an attempt to attack members of the Jewish community in Gaza as well. According to press reports at the time, local Jews barricaded themselves in the Jewish hotel near the police building. An Arab mob that attacked them had to retreat after one of the Jews fired a gun and others poured sulfuric acid on one of the Arab intruders (see, for example, an article in Haaretz dated September 1, 1929 and the recollections of Gaza resident Sara Yaffe as quoted in Ma’ariv dated December 9, 1956). With the help of some distinguished Arabs locals who were on friendly terms with the community, along with the British police, the Jews managed to board trucks that took them to the Gaza train station, where they had to wait for the train from Alexandria to Lod, all while the angry mob was still trying to get at them. This was the end of the Jewish community in Gaza.

Although the community in Gaza ceased to exist after the 1929 riots, there were many Jews for whom Gaza was never forgotten. Jewish tourist groups, including some led by geographer Joseph Braslavi, and the “Association of Wanderers in the Land of Israel”, continued to visit the city. In 1934, the Association, of which Moshe David Gaon was a member, published an ad for a trip to the southern part of the country to include Beer Sheva, Ashkelon, and Gaza. Participants were asked to bring food for a day and a half, a jug of water, a Bible, and a map of the area. Among other things, the trip included a visit to the ancient mosque of Gaza, which had a pillar inside with a seven-branched menorah engraved on it.

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From the Moshe David Gaon Archive, which is in the process of being cataloged and is made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington

Documents found in the archives of the entrepreneur Shmuel Zvi Holtzman, which is also kept at the National Library, show that even after the dissolution of the community in Gaza, Jews still lived in the city and dreamed of re-establishing their community. In a letter from 1933, a Jewish agronomist and resident of Gaza named Eliyahu Kapsuto, who was appointed by the Gaza municipality to oversee vegetation in the city, appealed to Holtzman asking him to send grass seeds.

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From the Archive of Shmuel Zvi Holtzman

Holtzman himself had planned to renew Jewish settlement in Gaza. In a draft memorandum that was found in his personal archives, there’s a detailed plan to establish a stock-holding company, “The Land of Israel Company for Planting and Building, Ltd.”, whose purpose was to establish a Jewish farming colony (moshava) near Gaza. The plan was never realized, and we don’t have any further details about it. It is possible that Holtzman abandoned his plan so that he could focus on establishing the Gush Etzion cluster of settlements, which he founded at that time.

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From the Archive of Shmuel Zvi Holtzman

The Moshe David Gaon Archive is in the process of being cataloged and is made accessible at the National Library of Israel, thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel. Arik Kitsis is the archivist in charge of handling the Moshe David Gaon archive.

In the Very Heart of Gaza: Soldiers Sing a Prayer for the Hostages’ Release

A prayer dedicated to “our brethren… who remain in distress and captivity”, has accompanied the Jewish nation since the ninth century. It was sung during WWI, at Hasidic music festivals, and just recently at a spontaneous gathering of soldiers in a darkened house in Gaza, after they had lost two of their beloved commanders

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By Daniel Lipson

“Our brethren, the entire House of Israel who remain in distress and captivity, whether on sea or on land, may God have compassion on them, and bring them from distress to relief, from darkness to light, from servitude to redemption, at this moment, speedily, very soon; and let us say Amen”

The fighting in Jebaliya was difficult that week. On Thursday, December 26, 2023, the Nahal Brigade’s 931st Battalion lost its beloved company commander, Major Shai Shimriz, as well as his good friend Captain Shauli Greenglick. Other soldiers were wounded.

Four days later, at the end of yet another exhausting day of action against Hamas terrorists, soldiers of the rifle company’s 2nd platoon gathered in one of the houses in the neighborhood.

The soldiers, students of the Shirat Moshe hesder yeshiva and the Hakotel yeshivah in the Old City of Jerusalem, took out what snacks and candy they had left and sat in the dark (electricity is cut off in most of the Gaza Strip) for an improvised Melaveh Malkah – the meal traditionally eaten after the conclusion of Shabbat

In the dark, cramped house, they shared Torah lessons and sang as they always had, in better times back in their yeshivahs. One of the songs, which has become particularly relevant and moving in recent times, was Acheinu Kol Beit Yisrael (“Our Brethren, the entire House of Israel”) – a prayer for the release of the captives and the hostages.

Hashta Ba’agala Ubizman Kariv – Venomar Amen

The tune for the song was composed by Abie Rothenberg, one of the great Hasidic composers of the twentieth century, at some point in the late eighties. The song, which Rothenberg originally sung himself, was produced as part of a tape entitled Lev VeNefesh (“Heart and Soul”) in 1990. On his 1997 album, Bitchu Be-Hashem (“Trust in God”), singer Dedi Graucher released a new version of the song. Graucher passed away last September.

The song has since become an incredibly popular hit and has been reworked in many different ways, one of the most recent and most listened to being Lior Narkis’ version from October 2023.

The prayer itself is recited in Ashkenazi communities immediately after the Torah reading on Mondays and Thursdays. First the four Yehi ratzon (“May it be His will”) requests are said, followed by Acheinu. Members of Sephardi Jewish communities recite the Yehi ratzon requests as part of the Shabbat blessing of the new month when it falls in that coming week, but without the added Acheinu segment,

The Acheinu prayer originated in the siddur of Rav Amram Gaon. In the ninth century CE, and at the request of the Jewish community of Spain, Rav Amram Gaon of Babylon sent the order of prayers in an edited and organized form for the community’s use. In the siddur, Rav Amram Gaon addresses the saying of Yehi ratzon and Acheinu as part of the Torah reading on the Monday and Thursday of every week, and also on the first of the Hebrew month. The formula there differs slightly from our current version.

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The Acheinu prayer, Sephardic Jewish manuscript, 14-15th century, the British Library

In the Machzor Vitry, an important 12th century book on Jewish law and prayer customs, Acheinu appears in the afternoon Mincha prayer on Shabbat. Professor Aharon Kellerman noted in his article on the development of the custom that printed Ashkenazi siddurim first contained the Acheinu prayer in the Krakow edition of 1578. In 1646, it appeared in a siddur printed in Amsterdam.

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The Acheinu prayer in an Amsterdam siddur, an almost identical version to the one we are familiar with today

The first Sephardic siddur which printed the Yehi ratzon prayers was published in Istanbul in 1739 in the portion containing the prayer for Shabbat when it falls on the first of the month. In this siddur, like all Sephardi siddurs to this day, the Acheinu prayer does not appear.

When a Prayer Becomes Popular Music

For generations, Jews would often be taken captive, by pirates, brigands and others, and sometimes had to be ransomed for huge sums. Jewish communities worked hard to fulfill the commandment of redeeming captives and sometimes managed to return their brothers and sisters to their families. Yet in some cases, there was no trace of the captives and those who had abducted them, and all that remained was to pray for their well-being. The words of the Acheinu prayer have remained painfully relevant over the ages, while also containing a consoling message, and it is therefore only natural that they be turned into a song. One of the first musical compositions for the Acheinu prayer that we know of is a piece of chazannut (Jewish cantorial singing) by the famous Jewish cantor Yossele Rosenblatt (1882-1933). Two years after his arrival in the US from Europe, the First World War broke out. The war and the suffering of his Jewish brethren affected him and his art. In this period, he put Acheinu and other prayers to music, wishing to express the pain of the Jewish People. This song, along with his other songs, excited the masses who flocked to his concerts – first in New York, then throughout the United States and Europe.

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Advertisement in The Forward for Yossele Rosenblatt’s performance, March 7, 1929, where he sang Acheinu among other prayers

The prayer has since been put to music a few more times, as both pieces for cantors and general Hasidic songs. One of these versions was heard at the Ninth Hasidic Song Festival in 1977, performed by a young singer by the name of Riki Gal, who would later go on achieve fame as an Israeli pop star.

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On a personal note: Sitting amongst the shadows of that darkened house in Gaza was also my own son, a squad commander in the Nahal Brigade. He and his soldiers certainly thought of the relevance of the words, and the reasons why this song has become one of the symbols of the war, after the abduction of some 240 Israelis on October 7.

We all pray that “God have mercy on them,” and may we merit their returning home soon along with the soldiers who give their lives for the People of Israel – hashta ba’agala ibizman kariv (“speedily, very soon”).