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 In his unpublished manuscript “The Final Revision of My Life in Art,” Cohen wrote: “…because it is so horrible between us I will go and stop Egypt’s bullet.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/


If you like this article, try these:

The Man Who Would Be King: Delusions of (Royal) Grandeur in Mandatory Palestine

The Secret Nazi Documents Captured in a British Commando Raid

When Buchenwald Was Liberated: A First Glimpse of the Holocaust

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.

Banned by the British: Caricatures of the 1929 Palestine Riots

Meet the artist who risked time in prison by drawing the massacre of the Jews in the Land of Israel in 1929.

A human skull, bearing a threatening grimace, crudely drawn, in an almost childish fashion. Next to it rests a bloody knife. Spurts of blood that have fallen from the blade form puddles and stains on a black background, bringing to mind prehistoric cave drawings. It is unclear if this grotesque scene which we have been forced to witness has come to its end or if it is still unfolding before our eyes. “The blood is still fresh…” the viewer likely concludes, like a line from an old cop show.

Click on the image to enlarge

Nachum Gutman’s roaming artist’s hand was not known for its subtlety. Reality was the raw material which this Hebrew painter, known for his depictions of villages, kibbutzim and cities, sought to mold into visual art. With the release of his first book, In the Land of Lobengulu King of Zulu, in 1939, it began to inspire his writing as well.

Sometimes Gutman chose to represent reality directly, with the painting serving as a clear reflection of that which it was intended to portray. Other times, when the events were too chaotic to capture in a single painting, or too brutal to depict directly, Gutman would turn to satire, exaggerating those things which the heart and mind refused to absorb. This was the case with The Palestine Disturbances – News and Telegrams in Illustrations produced and published by Gutman in 1929 along with Nachum Eitan and Saadia Shoshani. The booklet served as a record of the murderous riots which became known in the Jewish Yishuv as the 1929 Massacres.

He was warned not to do it, that the British overlords would not be fond of the idea and that they would like the final product even less. He was told the drawings would speak for themselves if he would only agree to remove their English captions. His friends warned him that the long arm of the censor would reach him as well.

Gutman actually had some previous experience in preserving the dignity of authority figures. When he was only fifteen he painted a large portrait of Djemal Pasha at the urging of Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor Tel Aviv, to honor the visit of the Ottoman ruler of Greater Syria (a region which at the time included the Land of Israel).

When the riots began more than a decade later Gutman was already married and in his early thirties. Four years earlier he had returned from a period in Europe to settle in Tel Aviv with his wife Dora Yafeh.

Dorah and Nachum Gutman. Photograph from the book “The Hunter of Colors”, by Leah Naor, Yad Ben Zvi Publishing

The five years he had spent abroad (mainly in Vienna, Berlin and Paris) left their mark. The once shy youth, who had previously been popular mainly among associates of his father, the writer S. Ben-Zion, had now matured and developed his abilities and talents, becoming a well-known artist in his own right.

The first of the hostilities began in mid-August 1929, with an assault by an Arab mob on the Western Wall plaza following incitement by the Supreme Muslim Council. Jewish worshippers were expelled from the site and their Torah scrolls were set on fire. In the days that followed the floodgates of hatred and violence were opened. By the end of the week of riots, 67 Jews lay dead in Hebron and dozens of others had been killed in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Safed, Hulda and Be’er Tuvia.

The prevailing feeling among members of the young and vulnerable Jewish Yishuv was that the British government, which the Jews had been told to respect and protect, had not responded in kind. The Jews felt that that the British, for all their strength and might, had barely raised a finger to stop the riots – even after Jewish blood had begun to flow in the streets.

Without being asked to do so, Nachum Gutman began to formulate a response befitting his strong feelings about the events. In simple black ink he drew the riots – those that he saw and those that he read about, in rage and desperation, in the British Mandate press.

Click on the image to enlarge

He drew the acts of wild incitement that took place without interference.

Click on the image to enlarge

He drew the murders that were committed, with no justice for the perpetrators (the British judges were usually portrayed as turning a blind eye and in a few cases even expressing support for the crimes).

Click on the image to enlarge


Click on the image to enlarge

He drew the Arab police reporting to their British officers: “All quiet, Sir!”

Click on the image to enlarge

He drew the hypocrisy contained in official British statements, among them a leaflet with a proclamation issued in Hebrew, English and Arabic by the High Commissioner John Chancellor that was dropped from Royal Air Force planes.

Click on the image to enlarge
Click on the image to enlarge

When Gutman had finished the eighteen drawings that made up the booklet, he showed them to his wife Dora who looked at them doubtfully.

“You will never find a publisher who will agree to print these drawings. They’ll offend the Brits!” she told him.

Gutman knew this. “No Hebrew newspaper will dare to print a caricature offending the British authorities. They’ll shut down the paper immediately!”

Gutman knew that as well. He explained to his wife that ordinarily, he would prefer to paint beautiful, serene pictures of the Land of Israel, but not now. “Look what they’ve forced me to draw!” he told her.

Gutman gathered up the drawings and took them to Herzl Street in Tel Aviv. He laid them out on the sidewalk and waited. A crowd of emotional, stunned onlookers soon formed around them. The first to offer a response was the writer Avigdor Hameiri. He was hypnotized by a drawing depicting the looting of the city of Safed. All he was able to say was: “And in the paper they wrote: The Jews of Safed are in security in Government house. The city is quiet”.

Gutman quickly wrote the sentence down just below the drawing.

Click on the image to enlarge

Before long, Avraham Shlonsky and Uri Zvi Greenberg, both of them well-known poets in the Jewish Yishuv, also appeared on Herzl Street. Together with Gutman, they wrote provocative captions for each of the drawings, most of them based on real news items taken, almost without editing, from the press.

Only one drawing was added to the collection following the impromptu street exhibition. It received the caption: “The saviors of England’s honor.” This was also the only drawing not to include any hint of irony. Gutman had drawn a group of Oxfordian students who were in the country during the time of the riots and who had come to the defense of the Jewish victims.

Click on the image to enlarge

Emerging from the crowd that had gathered around the caricatures, Nachum Eitan approached Gutman and asked him a question which had not yet received an answer: “Where will you print the drawings?”

Eitan offered himself up as a publisher and his friend Saadia Shoshani as a printer (“I know him well. He’s brave. He’ll agree, surely.”). After two days of hard work the booklet was published – about half of the time it took for the British police to ban it. Before long though, an order was issued prohibiting any selling or viewing of the booklet.

Only the intervention of Mayor Dizengoff and other dignitaries of the Yishuv saved Gutman and his partners from facing prosecution. Shoshani’s printing press, which was shut down after the publishing of the pamphlet, reopened after he explicitly promised not to print it again. Shoshani passed the printing clichés on to Eliezer Levin-Epstein, the owner of a famous Warsaw-based printing press, where they were also translated into Yiddish. Thanks to the translation, the booklet achieved great success throughout the Jewish world. The drawings themselves were also printed separately in the international Jewish press.

Nachum Gutman’s free hand forced us to take a long hard look directly at the riots, which later historians, as well as those who experienced them, labeled as “the opening shot of the Arab-Jewish conflict”, a struggle we are still living with today.

This article is based on Leah Naor’s wonderful biography of Nachum Gutman, “The Hunter of Colors”, published in 2012 by Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi Publishing.

Pictures courtesy of the Nachum Gutman Museum of Art.

How Israel Advertized Aliyah in 1948

In 1948, Israel sought to encourage Aliyah to Israel by promoting a strong work ethic, Jewish identity, and showcasing that the newcomers would not be alone.

Tenacity and determination were always part of the story of Aliyah but once the State of Israel was established, the narrative had to change as well. No longer was it about fighting against the British who quashed Aliyah. It quickly became about the pioneering Olim who would become part of the Israeli collective.

In 1948, the newly minted State of Israel was recovering from war while absorbing an influx of refugees from Europe and working to make sure every citizen was provided with what they needed on a day to day basis.

During this time, the fledgling state began encouraging immigration to Israel from English speaking countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and South Africa. Previously, immigration to the Land of Israel had been about circumventing the British Mandate’s cap on Jewish immigration while escaping the horrors of Europe after the Holocaust all before the creation of the State of Israel.  Now it was about drawing in a different demographic that would keep the Jewish State going.  In order to accomplish their goals, they published an informational pamphlet with the goal of inspiring people to make the move.

Cover of the Pamphlet

The pamphlet titled, “Aliyah Olim” (Immigration Immigrants) boasted that “In 1948 we had 125,000. In 1949 we shall have 250,000,” referring to their goal number of new immigrants.

The pamphlet contained various and sundry propaganda images and slogans, telling the new Olim that the Jewish State needs hard working hands to help build a country and boasted that every third Jewish citizen in Israel is a newcomer.

Images From the Pamphlet

Have things changed all that much since 1948 when it comes to advertising Aliyah?