When the Head of Iran’s Nuclear Program Turned to the Israelis for Help

In the early 1960s, a team of Israeli experts was dispatched on an urgent mission to Iran, to help rebuild an earthquake-ravaged region.

Over 12,000 people were killed when an earthquake which hit Iran's Ghazvan region in September, 1962

Over 12,000 people were killed when an earthquake hit Iran's Ghazvin region in September, 1962

As head of the vaguely named “Plan Organization of Iran”, Safi Asfia was the man in charge of the nation’s early nuclear ambitions. It was on his door that Akbar Etemad, popularly known as the father of Iran’s nuclear program, knocked when he wanted the Shah’s blessing to jumpstart the program in 1965. At age 23, Asfia had become the youngest professor at Tehran University, instructing in both mathematics and geology. His responsibilities as head of the Plan Organization were quite extensive, as it was tasked with overseeing all of Iran’s development projects. It was in this capacity that Asfia signed off on an agreement with TAHAL (Water Planning) Ltd., an Israeli government corporation known for developing some of the 20th century’s most ambitious water supply and irrigation systems.

 

Akbar Etemad, popularly known as the father of Iran's nuclear program
Akbar Etemad was popularly known as the father of Iran’s nuclear program, but even he needed the approval of Safi Asfia, head of the vaguely named “Plan Organization of Iran”.

In September 1962, a massive earthquake hit the Ghazvin region (also spelled Qazvin) of Northwestern Iran. Hundreds of villages were devastated, some completely destroyed. Thousands were killed and injured, tens of thousands immediately became homeless. Impromptu local rescue efforts began immediately, followed by aid from Tehran and abroad.

Within a few months, Asfia’s Plan Organization approached Tel Aviv-based TAHAL requesting comprehensive collaboration to rebuild and strategically plan the entire region. The work would serve as a model for planning and modernizing efforts throughout the whole of Iran. An official publication produced by the Plan Organization of Iran and TAHAL (Water Planning) Ltd. – Iran Branch details their intimate relationship, which now seems an almost unfathomable not-too-distant reality.

The National Library of Israel in Jerusalem holds a copy of this rare document, a two-volume work produced in English and Persian entitled Ghazvin Area Development Project Reconnaissance Report. The report includes a copy of the official letter sent from Israeli team leader Arie “Lova” Eliav to Safi Asfia, as well as extensive survey data, detailed illustrations and a six year plan for developing the Ghazvin Area.

 

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This rare Iranian government document describes a joint project with the Israeli company TAHAL to rebuild and modernize the Ghazvin region. This copy is now kept at the National Library of Israel.

According to the report, as part of the initial recovery phase, “The Government of Israel sent a team of architects and technicians who, working under the authority of the Iranian Ministry of Agriculture, planned and rebuilt the totally destroyed village of Khuznin.” While this and other improvised projects moved forward, “[T]he Government of Iran decided to make the severely damaged Ghazvin Area the subject of complete re-planning, with the object of raising its level of production and the standard of living of its inhabitants.”

On January 6, 1963, Safi Asfia signed a contract in Tehran with TAHAL’s representative there. Within days, the TAHAL team was on the ground in Iran. Led by Eliav, the team included Ephraim Shilo, noted agriculturalist and religious Zionist activist, as well as other leading academics and practitioners – from among the young Jewish state’s best and brightest.

TAHAL would oversee two other Israeli teams and work in close collaboration with the Iranian government and other international aid workers, including those sent through the auspices of the United Nations.

 

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An official letter, included in the report, sent by the Israeli team leader Arie Eliav to Safi Asfia, head of the vaguely named “Plan Organization of Iran”

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After addressing immediate and urgent needs, the Israeli team was tasked with four primary objectives: 1) carrying out a general survey of the Ghazvin Area in order to best plan its future development; 2) preparing a plan for the entire earthquake zone, including new villages and detailed plans for construction to begin within six months’ time; 3) introducing new crops and setting up demonstration plots to instruct the locals in improved agricultural practices; 4) training Iranian engineers, “one of the most important aspects of the work” according to the Iranian-Israeli contract.

Only in retrospect does a high level Iranian official bringing Israeli experts in to train Iranian engineers seem in any way remarkable. Historically speaking, collaboration was commonplace: Israel, of course, had quite a close (if not controversial) relationship with the Shah’s regime.

Even so, brief details of Israeli-Iranian cooperation and comradery included in an otherwise dry planning report is somewhat remarkable, especially given today’s geo-political climate:

“Since the Israeli team worked and lived in Ghazvin and all its activities were connected there, it was natural for the Iranian personnel in training to join them and live and work with them in Ghazvin… It is gratifying to note the close comradely relations which developed between the Iranians and the Israelis as a result of working and living together, joint trips and discussion of the work, and the attitude of mutual appreciation which grew up between the teams and the trainees and staff through working together on a joint project.”

In the spring of 1963, at the request of the Iranian Independent Irrigation Corporation (Bongah Abiari), which was also involved in the work, the Israeli team even offered a special course in geology for select students from Tehran University. Dozens of Israelis and Iranians lived, worked, learned and even trekked together.

Warm words beyond basic requisite courtesies are also found in the report: “It is wished to stress the fact that while the Israeli engineers endeavored to impart knowledge to their Iranian colleagues, they themselves also learned much from, and were greatly assisted by, the Iranians. There is no doubt today that without their devoted work, both in the field and in the office, the Israeli teams would not have attained the results they did…”

A full list of the Iranian engineers appears in the report (including one Khalil Khamenei), as does a listing of the senior Israeli, Iranian, and international officials involved in the efforts.

Warm Israeli-Iranian relations, including other collaborative planning and development work, continued until the Revolution of 1979.

Safi Asfia was arrested by the new regime and languished in prison for five years where he reportedly passed the time by teaching French to other inmates, studying Italian, molecular biology and computer science, and tinkering with watches and electronics. One story tells of a blind-folded Asfia even offering to help fix a judge’s tape recorder, which had broken mid-interrogation.  He lived in Iran until his death in 2008.

 

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Arye “Lova” Eliav was the leader of the Israeli TAHAL team in Iran. He later became a politician and served as a Knesset member for many years. Eliav passed away in 2010.

Arie Eliav, who had led a similar Israeli aid mission to Morocco in 1960, headed another one to Nicaragua in 1972. He worked for decades encouraging immigration to Israel, promoting a peace agreement with the Palestinians, and settling the Negev. Eliav served three terms in the Knesset, served as Chairman of the Israeli Labor Party and was a one-time presidential candidate. In 1988, he received the prestigious Israel Prize for his life-long contribution to Israeli society. He passed away in Tel Aviv in 2010, just two years after Safi Asfia.

In the fall of 2017, nearly 55 years to the day after the Ghazvin quake, a major earthquake hit Iran once more, with tremors felt as far away as Tel Aviv and Haifa. The Israeli government offered humanitarian assistance. It was declined.




When Leonard Cohen Met Ariel Sharon in the Sinai Desert

The story of how the Jewish-Canadian singer-songwriter ended up singing for soldiers and crossing the Suez Canal with the IDF during one of Israel's most desperate hours...

Leonard Cohen performs for Israeli soldiers during the Yom Kippur War. Photo by Uri Dan, the Farkash Gallery Collection, all rights reserved.

“I am in my myth home but I have no proof and I cannot debate and I am in no danger of believing myself … Speaking no Hebrew I enjoy my legitimate silence.”

This was how Leonard Cohen, the Jewish-Canadian singer-songwriter and poet, described his arrival in Israel in the fall of 1973, shortly before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. At the time, Cohen was staying on the Greek island of Hydra with his girlfriend Suzanne Elrod and their son Adam. Their relationship was experiencing some turmoil and it was an unhappy period for him.

Cohen’s abrupt decision to book a flight to Israel may have been partly inspired by rising tensions between the Jewish state and its neighbors, but it appears there were other reasons as well. In his unpublished manuscript “The Final Revision of My Life in Art,” Cohen wrote: “…because it is so horrible between us I will go and stop Egypt’s bullet. Trumpets and a curtain of razor blades.”

Cohen didn’t know anyone in Israel. A married couple on the flight offered him to stay with relatives of theirs in Herzliya, a suburb of Tel Aviv. According to his biographer Ira Nadel, Cohen had a string of short affairs with several women during this period, with the singer often spending his evenings wandering the streets of Tel Aviv in a rather lonely state of existence.

One day, after the war had broken out, a group of Israeli musicians including singers Oshik Levi, Matti Caspi and Ilana Rovina, were sitting in Tel Aviv’s popular Pinati Café when Levi spotted a man who looked just like Leonard Cohen sitting alone in the corner. When Levi approached Cohen and confirmed it was indeed him, the local singer asked the international celebrity what he was doing in Israel. Cohen answered that he was looking to volunteer on a kibbutz so that he could help tend to the harvest while the locals went off to war.

The Israeli musicians explained to Cohen that it was not harvest time, adding that they were about to head down to the Sinai desert to entertain the troops who were desperately trying to fend off the surprise Egyptian attack. They offered Cohen to join their group. The visitor was hesitant, offering a string of excuses: He was a pacifist, he had no guitar, his songs were sad and hardly morale-boosting, but all of these were brushed aside and Cohen eventually agreed to join the band.

From left to right: Ilana Rovina, Matti Caspi and Leonard Cohen. Photo by Uri Dan, the Farkash Gallery Collection, all rights reserved.

The singer was popular in Israel even though only a year earlier he had publicly voiced pro-Arab political views. He told the “Davar” newspaper: “I am joining my brothers fighting in the desert. I don’t care if their war is just or not. I know only that war is cruel, that it leaves bones, blood and ugly stains on the holy soil.” Explaining the apparent shift in his political position, Cohen said: “A Jew remains a Jew. Now it’s war and there’s no need for explanations. My name is Cohen, no?”

Cohen spoke of his experiences in Sinai with the Israeli musicians in an interview given a year later to Robin Pike of Zigzag magazine: “We would just drop into little places, like a rocket site and they would shine their flashlights at us and we would sing a few songs. Or they would give us a jeep and we would go down the road towards the front and wherever we saw a few soldiers waiting for a helicopter or something like that we would sing a few songs. And maybe back at the airbase we would do a little concert, maybe with amplifiers. It was very informal, and you know, very intense.”

Matti Caspi, one of Israel’s most popular musicians, would accompany Cohen, who was just one of a chain of performers, on classical guitar. He also acted as Cohen’s translator, whenever the singer would offer a few words to his audiences of weary battle-worn soldiers. In an Army Radio recording, Cohen can be heard introducing his popular hit “Suzanne”: “These songs are too quiet for the desert. They belong in a room with a woman and something to drink. Where I hope you’ll all be very soon”.

Caspi recalls some of their experiences on his website, telling of how Cohen’s famous song “Lover, Lover, Lover” came together during their early performances: “He actually wrote the lyrics and melody onstage during a show for some soldiers, and from show to show he would improve on it”

And may the spirit of this song

May it rise up pure and free

May it be a shield for you

A shield against the enemy

– Final verse of “Lover, Lover, Lover”, by Leonard Cohen

 

 

Caspi also tells of the following experience: “I can remember a surreal image of us next to the landing strip at the airport at Rapidim. We saw a Hercules plane land, and dozens of soldiers poured out of it. They were ordered to sit down on the runway and then I accompanied Leonard Cohen as he sang “Bird on the Wire.” When the song was over, they were ordered onto trucks heading down to the Suez Canal. Right after that another Hercules landed and the scene repeated itself: They sat down on the runway, Leonard Cohen sang the same song and immediately afterwards they got on the trucks heading to the canal.”

 

Photo by Uri Dan, the Farkash Gallery Collection, all rights reserved.

Cohen and Caspi spent the whole day like this, as truckload after truckload of soldiers were treated to a brief performance by an international superstar in the most unlikely of locations. After evening fell the musicians themselves boarded the last of the trucks and headed west. They crossed the Suez Canal, arriving in the enclave on the Egyptian side that had been captured by IDF soldiers under the command of Major General Ariel Sharon, the controversial officer who would eventually become prime minister of Israel decades later. Caspi added: “We found ourselves helping to carry injured soldiers to waiting helicopters. These were the same soldiers we had performed for only a few hours earlier”.

Cohen’s ambivalence towards the war is clear in his recollections of his meeting with Sharon – “I am introduced to a great general, ‘The Lion of the Desert.’ Under my breath I ask him, ‘How dare you?’ He does not repent. We drink some cognac sitting on the sand in the shade of a tank. I want his job.”

Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon, a controversial Israeli war hero and later prime minister, met Cohen during his time in Sinai. The singer had mixed feelings about the general. Photo by Uri Dan, the Farkash Gallery Collection, all rights reserved.

The singer’s experiences during the Yom Kippur War were a major source of inspiration for his next album, “New Skin for the Old Ceremony,” released in August, 1974. In addition to “Lover, Lover, Lover,” the album also included songs with such titles as “Field Commander Cohen,” “There is a War,” and “Who by Fire,” a song famously based on the Yom Kippur prayer “Unetanneh Tokef.”

 

 

Cohen told Robin Pike about the emotional impact the war had on him:”…you get caught up in the thing. And the desert is beautiful and you think your life is meaningful for a moment or two. And war is wonderful. They’ll never stamp it out. It’s one of the few times people can act their best. It’s so economical in terms of gesture and motion, every single gesture is precise, every effort is at its maximum. Nobody goofs off. Everybody is responsible for his brother. The sense of community and kinship and brotherhood, devotion. There are opportunities to feel things that you simply cannot feel in modern city life.”

Leonard Cohen would continue to visit and perform in Israel throughout the rest of his life. He passed away in November of 2016.

 

You can read more about Leonard Cohen’s life and experiences during the Yom Kippur War in Ira Nadel’s biography, “Various Positions – A Life of Leonard Cohen,” available at the National Library of Israel.

 

You can find the original photos that appear above at the Farkash Gallery:  https://farkash-gallery.com/

 

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Who Are These Unknown Soldiers?

Nathan Fendrich, a Jewish-American photojournalist, happened to be in Israel when the Yom Kippur War broke out. He grabbed his camera and headed for the front. But who are the soldiers who appear in his photographs? Can you help identify them?

Shortly before Yom Kippur this year the National Library of Israel received a personal collection of photographs belonging to Nathan Fendrich, an 84 year old Jewish resident of Eugene, Oregon. This rich and important collection includes hundreds of touching photos taken by Fendrich 45 years ago, when he coincidentally found himself in the midst of a war

At the age of 39, Nathan Fendrich arrived in Israel in 1973 to photograph an archaeological dig at Tel Qasile, but after only a week in the country the Yom Kippur War suddenly broke out. Armed with his camera and press card, Fendrich began documenting the fighting within 24 hours, on both the northern and southern fronts – in the Golan Heights and in the Sinai desert.

His photos captured the difficult battles, the crossing of the Suez Canal, the air strikes and the ground skirmishes, and the collection even includes some pictures of prisoners of war and casualties. But the most striking elements in the photographs are the soldiers themselves – young and old, active duty and reservists – all allowed themselves to be photographed, during fierce battles as well as in periods of rest, in meetings with the high command and in moments of casual comradery.

These photographs join hundreds of important archives and collections preserved at the National Library, including millions of pictures which document the history and society of the State of Israel and the land of Israel going back over one hundred years.

Nathan Fendrich, like many other artists – writers, academics, poets, composers and photographers – donated his collection on his own initiative, without requesting payment, knowing the photographs would reach millions of viewers in Israel and around the world on the National Library’s website.

“The intense experience of the Yom Kippur War, which I had the privilege of documenting with my camera, influenced the course of my entire life to this very day” says Fendrich from his home in Oregon. “All these years I’ve spoken about the war to various audiences in the United States, but I always hoped that the pictures in which I captured IDF soldiers during battle, and that were sitting in my house here on the west coast, would be preserved in an Israeli institution that could ensure they received public exposure in Israel and around the world using 21st century technologies. The National Library is the most professional and suitable institution for this purpose, and I was therefore very happy to be given the chance to transfer my collection to the library and thus return it to its natural home in Israel, where it will be preserved for generations.”

Nathan Fendrich (right) receives medical treatment during the war

The National Library has begun to upload and allow access to this moving collection on its website, and we now turn to you – the soldiers and relatives of soldiers who appear in these photographs – to help us identify those who are pictured and to tell us about the battles, fronts, events and situations that are captured in these fragments of history.

We have put up an initial handful of these photographs here. Can you spot yourselves in the pictures? Can you identify one of your friends in these photos and offer us some information? Any clue you may have can help! Please write the information in the comment section below this article, or you can also contact our Archives department at archives@nli.org.il. Please remember to mention which number photograph you are referring to. You can enlarge any photograph and examine it in greater detail by clicking on it.

If you think you know someone who can help us with relevant information feel free to share this article with them.

 

The photographs:

 

 

Photograph number 1
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The Peacenik Who Flew His Plane into Enemy Territory

The story of the rogue Israeli pilot, failed politician and hamburger-joint owner Abie Nathan, who decided to "hop over" to Egypt in the interests of promoting peace.

Abie Nathan and Peace 1, October 1965, the Dan Hadani Collection

Even before he embarked on the journey that would come to define his life, Abie Nathan could boast a remarkable life story: The former Israeli Air Force pilot had been born in Iran in 1927. He cheated his way into serving in the Indian military when he was only sixteen. He fought in Israel’s war of Independence and later worked as a commercial pilot for the national airline company, EL Al. By the late 1950s he had changed course completely: The aviator had become a restauranteur. His popular “California” diner had helped to introduce that most American of delicacies, the hamburger, to young, hip Tel Avivians.

 

Abie Nathan and “Peace 1”. October 2nd, 1965. Dan Hadani Collection

Nathan soon became a fixture of the Tel Aviv nightlife scene thanks to his restaurant and its central location at the corner of Dizengoff and Frishman, but he never forgot his first love: flying. From time to time he would spontaneously jet off to some random location in the world in his private plane without making prior arrangements. Abie Nathan was that kind of guy.

In 1965, with the Israeli elections approaching, the customers at Abie’s restaurant would often be disturbed by raucous arguments over the political climate and the lack of any diplomatic progress between Israel and its neighboring Arab countries. “If they refuse to come to us”, Abie asked a friend of his one day, “why should we not go to them?”

“Would you be ready to go yourself?” one of his customers asked provocatively. Nathan replied that he would, but his challenger was persistent: “So why don’t you run for a place in the Knesset in the elections?”

Abie was not deterred. Instead of taking a step back, he was now intrigued by the idea. Not only would he run for the Knesset, he told his listeners, but if he were elected he would fly “personally to Egypt to see (Egyptian President Gamal Abdel) Nasser, not as a citizen but as a member of the Knesset.”

Approaching the fifth decade of his life as a man of wealth and stature, Nathan decided to dedicate his entire being to a new initiative: peace between the two great enemy nations – Israel and Egypt.

This was an unconventional cause to take up, considering the venomous, hate-filled rhetoric that Nasser would direct time and again towards Israel and many of Nathan’s friends felt he was making a terrible mistake that could seriously damage his reputation by putting himself up for election. Nathan though, was more than a little stubborn.

Abie Nathan and “Peace 1”. October 2nd, 1965. Dan Hadani Collection

Conventional politics were not his forte, however. In the November election, his party, “Nes” (Miracle), received only 2,500 votes, a fraction of the amount needed to get a seat in the Knesset. Despite this failure, Nathan still felt he needed some measure of broad public support to carry out his bold mission. He prepared a petition and declared that if he could get a hundred thousand signatures he would fly to Egypt on his own and demand a meeting with President Nasser. He hung up posters, handed out hundreds of flyers, and took out ads in the paper. A buzz was generated and it even managed to reach the halls of power in Cairo. The Egyptian regime, however, was not impressed. The authorities there let it be known through the government controlled press that Abie’s plane would be shot down the minute it crossed the border.

The petition Abie Nathan asked Israelis to sign to show support for his flight. February 12th, 1966, Dan Hadani Collection

The plan was not popular in Israel at this stage either. Nathan was labelled a “fool” and a “weirdo.” More than a few people came to his diner to shout insults at him, but also to sneak a peek at his Stearman aircraft parked not far away, which Abie had recently painted white with the name “Peace 1” written in English, Hebrew and Arabic on the side.

 

Abie Nathan during a press conference several days before his historic flight to Egypt. February 12th, 1966, Dan Hadani Collection
 
“Peace 1”, ready for takeoff. February 12th, 1966, Dan Hadani Collection

Few believed that the Tel Aviv playboy would be true to his word. Only one photographer showed up on the chosen date of February 28th, 1966 at the tiny airfield in Herzliya. It was only after Nathan had taken off for Egypt that the ground crew realized the event was not just a staged photo opportunity.

The day after the flight, the Associated Press reported that “Peace 1” had crashed en route to its destination. This mistake was apparently caused by Abie’s radar-evading flight pattern. “I must admit that as a pilot, I’m usually quite cautious and don’t take unnecessary risks,” he wrote in his memoirs, “but the urge to avoid detection was what pushed me to fly the way I did.” At first he turned sharply towards the sea, “nearly grazing the rooftops” of Tel Aviv.

Air Force planes were scrambled to convince him to turn back, but as he had no radio on board, Nathan had no way of communicating to them that he was determined to push on towards his destination. Within a few hours he reached the Egyptian city of Port Said in the Sinai Peninsula. Noticing his rapidly decreasing fuel levels, he decided to land at the local airfield. Once on the ground, it took Nathan some time before he was able to convince the stunned air traffic controllers that the man facing them had indeed just taken off from Tel Aviv. And no, they had not heard about the Israeli pilot who had promised to meet with Nasser.

The governor of the city had heard of him though: He notified Nathan that the Israeli press had rushed to report his death, and that after consultation with the authorities in Cairo, it had been decided to refuel his plane and send him on his way back to Israel. “If anybody asks, we will deny you were ever here, and you will be able avoid legal troubles in Israel” he promised.

Facing the failure of his elaborate plans, Nathan was not giving up so soon. Now, all he wanted was to spend a night in the land of the enemy. He attempted all manner of tricks to buy some time. At first he said he was hungry. Once he had consumed the meal prepared by his hosts, he made his way slowly back to the airfield, making sure to stall for time whenever possible. Once there, he slowly and clearly explained to the ground crews that it was much too late in the day to fly black to Israel.

In the control tower, Nathan played a few rounds of cards with the bored air traffic controllers as they all waited for further orders from above. After he had won all their money, he welcomed back the city governor who had returned for a visit. The two then drove into the city to purchase some pajamas so that Abie could spend the night. The owner of a local store was called back from home, to reopen specially for Nathan. As the shop’s first ever Israeli customer, he was provided with a handful of souvenirs to show people back home. In the morning, Abie was on his way back to Tel Aviv.

The news of Abie Nathan’s return became the talk of the town in Israel, and thousands gathered to welcome him back. The crowd picked him up and carried him around the airfield, singing songs of praise and spraying their hero with champagne. A police car had also arrived on the scene, but after being detained for a short series of questions, Nathan was released on bail.

Beyond this excited reception, Nathan’s historic flight had little actual impact. Little more than a year later, the Six Day War broke out, and the enemy territory that Nathan had landed in, at great personal risk, came under Israeli control. It was only well after the Yom Kippur War that both Israel and Egypt decided the time had come to find a solution to the conflict between them.

One contribution can be chalked up to the brave pilot who would go on to attempt to meet Nasser two more times: By strength of personality and deed, Abie Nathan was able to define and, to some degree, even invent a new type of figure in the Middle East – that of a celebrity willing to drop everything and invest all of his energy and talents, in the cause of peace.