Tel Aviv Under Siege: Who Wrote the Mysterious Letter from the Underground?

An anonymous letter, recently discovered in the National Library archives, offers a glimpe into a time of crisis when the residents of Tel Aviv were prisoners in their own homes.


British soldiers enforcing a curfew in Tel Aviv during the 1940s. Taken by Haim Fein, the Emanuel Harussi Photograph Collection at the National Library

It’s 1945. A rebellion is underway.

The streets of Tel Aviv are nearly empty but they are not quiet. The unnatural churn of steel on asphalt shatters the stillness of night, as tanks roll through residential neighborhoods. Every few blocks, British soldiers position themselves on street corners, armed with machine guns. A curfew has been set. Those who venture outdoors are, at best, arrested. The inhabitants of the first Hebrew city find themselves under the distrusting glare of their supposed protectors.

British armored vehicles patrol down Tel Aviv’s Allenby Street, November, 1945. Photo: The Central Zionist Archives

The reason for this state of affairs? – Riots, deadly ones. Two men lay dead, and dozens of others wounded, after the city had erupted in fury. On November 14th, fifty thousand people came to protest the British government’s decision to keep in place the strict limitations on Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine. The horrors of the Holocaust, the details of which were now becoming clear, were not enough to change that.

There had been high hopes. World War II was now over and ahead of the July 1945 elections in the UK, British Labour Party politicians promised to remove the restrictions on immigration to Palestine. But those promises seemed to evaporate into thin air once the party came to power. Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin put an end to any lingering optimism on November 13th: He stated in Parliament that the restrictions would continue, adding that the vast majority of Holocaust survivors should instead contribute to “rebuilding the prosperity of Europe”. To add insult to injury, Bevin even declared that Britain had never committed itself to the establishment of a Jewish State, only to a National Home for the Jewish people. True perhaps, but it was not what the citizens of Tel Aviv wanted to hear.

British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin announced that restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine would continue, sparking a violent backlash. Photo: UK Government.

Bevin’s statement was the breaking point, but British intentions were clear even before. The Jewish underground organizations, Haganah, Irgun and Lehi, formed the United Resistance Movement in October as a response. Its first act was a massive sabotage operation on the night of November 1st: Over a hundred mines and bombs were set off simultaneously, paralyzing the British railway system throughout Mandatory Palestine, in what became known as “The Night of the Trains”.

The decision by the Haganah, affiliated with the moderate Jewish establishment, to join the Irgun and Lehi in open rebellion against the British was a bold one, but even the moderates had now had enough. “Bevin’s treason completes Hitler’s genocide of the Jewish people, which murdered millions of our brothers!” cried the announcer on Haganah radio ahead of the November 14th protest, as he called on Jews around the world to rise up and take action against British policy.

The huge rally was organized quickly, for the day after Bevin’s statement. Tensions were at a climax and public outcry now reached its peak. The speakers raged against the British, condemning the desertion of Europe’s suffering Jews and the appeasement of Arab leaders who were opposed to further immigration. The organizers called to refrain from provocations, but once the rally had ended, bands of young protesters began to channel their anger into violence.

The riots broke out on Levontin Street and spread quickly to surrounding areas including Allenby Street and Rothschild Boulevard. The youths clashed with soldiers, threw stones at military vehicles and set fire to government buildings. The British soldiers eventually responded with gunfire, killing two youths: Aryeh Basdomsky (21) and Yehoshua Friedman (18). Meyer Levin, a Jewish-American correspondent writing for the New York Post, described what he saw as the “battle of His Majesty’s forces versus the children – yes, literally children – of Israel.”* By 22:00 the city-wide curfew had been announced and by midnight the streets were empty. Those working the late shift at the newspaper bureaus spent the night in their offices, unable to go home.

Wounded children hospitalized after the riots in Tel Aviv, November, 1945. Photo: The Central Zionist Archives.


A British roadblock in Tel Aviv, November, 1945. Photo: The Central Zionist Archives.

This was the setting for the letter.

Recently discovered in the archives of the National Library is a mysterious pamphlet, written during the period described above. The identity of the writer is unknown; the letter is signed only “A Citizen of Tel-Aviv”.

The cover of the small pamphlet, discovered in the archives of the National Library, which contains the anonymous letter.


The first page of the anonymous letter.

It is unclear exactly how it arrived at the library and who donated it. Unusually, it is written in English, and addressed to the British 6th Airborne Division, then stationed in Tel Aviv. The text is a powerful one. It appears below, in full:


To the men of the 6th Airborne Division

I am writing you as a plain citizen of Tel-Aviv to tell you what most of us feel in these days of heartbreak and bitterness. You have been in occupation of our city for nearly a week. You have locked us up in our houses at day and nighttime because a mob of street urchins did things which, when they occur in Liverpool or Glasgow, are handled by the Police within a space of hours, if not minutes. Your tanks are rolling through our streets, your aeroplanes have been droning on our roofs, your rockets have been lighting up our skies. It has been a nice little nerve war against the peaceful citizens of a modern city.

Do you think you have frightened us? There is among the 200,000 Jews of Tel-Aviv not a single family which has not lost some relative in Hitler’s death camps and gas chambers. Do you think that people who have gone through these agonies are going to be frightened by the sight of tanks or the glare of rockets?

I am sure a good many of you hate the whole ugly business. You are not hired soldiers. You are the free citizens of a free country who joined up to fight the worst tyranny on earth. You have done your job and you have done it gallantly. You are now being employed on a very different kind of job. You have been sent to this country, so you have been told, “to fight the Jews”, in other words, to break the resistance of a desperate people against a most horrible betrayal.

It is nearly thirty years since a British Government, with the support of all of the Allied Nations, pledged itself to help the Jews to rebuild their national home in Palestine. To what developments that policy has given rise in this country you can see with your own eyes. It has produced nothing less than a new civilization. A new spirit has revived this ancient land, the evidence of which you see in this town of Tel-Aviv, in the Jewish agricultural settlements, in the new Jerusalem and Haifa, in the Hebrew University and in the innumerable colleges and public institutions, in the new standards of life among both Jews and Arabs. For the first time, after centuries of dispersion and degradation, Jews are again walking erect on the ancient soil of their race. They have only one aim and one desire: to bring over to this country the remnant of the persecuted and tortured Jewries of other lands give them a home among themselves.

The British Government have decided that this shall not be. The Jews, Mr. Bevin says, are to remain in Europe and help “rebuild its civilization”. Never mind that they want to flee as fast as they can from the countries which are covered with the graveyards of their nearest and dearest. Never mind that all Europe is full of their enemies and that six months after the fall of the Nazis Jews are still being killed and persecuted in the countries liberated from the Nazi yoke. Never before have the Jews been so bitterly in need of this National Home and never before have its doors been so effectively bolted in their faces.

No commission of inquiry, such as promised by Mr. Bevin, is needed to establish the fact that the Jewish survivors of the Nazi terror want to shake the dust of blood-stained Europe off their feet and find a refuge and home among their own people in this country. No Commission of Inquiry is needed to prove that Palestine can absorb these survivors better and more speedily than any other country on earth and turn them from wrecks into useful members of society. No man who knows anything about the facts has any doubts that Mr. Bevin’s commission represents nothing but an old bankrupt device to gain time for something to turn up.

We have no illusions of what is in store for us. We know that your aeroplanes and tanks can turn Tel-Aviv, within a few hours, again into the sandy desert which it was before we began to build it thirty years ago. We know that you can turn the whole of Jewish Palestine, our towns and settlements our schools and colleges, into dust. Might is on your side, but yours is no longer a good cause. You are fighting for the Arab Pashas who want to see Palestine reduced again to the condition of desolation and stagnation in which our pioneers found it fifty years ago. You are fighting for the oil magnates who, for the sake of their profits are ready to sacrifice to the Pashas and Effendis all that we have built up in this country with our sweat and tears. What do they care for progress and development? They want you to finish the job that Hitler and Himmler began – to crush the Jews. This prosperous young city which gave refuge to many thousands who would otherwise have died in the Nazi gas chambers – is it to be smashed up by your bombs and tanks? Our agricultural settlements about which so much has been spoken and written and where so many of your comrades found rest and recreation in the darkest hours of the war are they to be turned again into swamps and stony deserts as in the good old days of Arab misrule?

You are armed well enough to carry out that ugly job, though you are likely to meet with the desperate resistance of a people which has no longer anything to lose. But neither your tanks nor your aeroplanes will break our determination to rebuild this country which remains our National Home whatever Mr. Attlee and Mr. Bevin may say. You may smash up all we have built and in the wake of your tanks and batteries the Pasha and the Beduin will re-establish their blighted rule. But that won’t be the end, though it will certainly be the end of British rule and glory in this country. Others will come from the four corners of the earth and will rebuild what you have destroyed. No force on earth can prevent our returning to the land where history has cast our destiny.

Tel-Aviv, November 1945

A Citizen of Tel-Aviv

The final page of the letter

Three more people were killed in riots which broke out again on November 15th. The curfews continued for six nights in a row. Violent clashes carried on throughout the rest of the month across Palestine. By the end of November, fourteen members of the Jewish Yishuv had been killed. The United Resistance Movement lasted less than a year before being disbanded in August, 1946.

Do you recognize the text of the letter above? Did you pick up on any clues that may indicate who the author was? If you have any information that can shed some light on this mystery please contact [email protected]



Ariel Viterbo, of the National Library’s ephemera collection, assisted in the preparation of this article.

*Cited in Giora Goodman’s article “‘Troops were then forced to fire’: British army crowd control in Palestine, November 1945” in the journal Small Wars & Insurgencies (Volume 26, Issue 2, 2015)


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.


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.


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”



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.


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.

Jerusalem’s First Tourist Map

Where did one go to watch a movie in British-Mandate era Jerusalem? Where could you catch a bus? And what were the popular hot spots? Presenting the map that resurrects pre-state Jerusalem...

Not many maps are capable of visually resurrecting a city. The task is even more challenging when that city is Jerusalem, and not only that but Jerusalem as it appeared eighty-eight years ago. Rare are the maps that show us not only a schematic of a street grid, but also depict buildings, cultural and recreational institutions, as well as government structures, in a detailed and aesthetic fashion. Maps that place a picture of life in Jerusalem as it once was before our eyes. Such are the hand drawn Jerusalem maps of Spyro Spiridon.

But who was Spiridon?

Prof. Kobi Cohen-Hatav has traced the course of Spiridon’s life: He was born in Jerusalem in 1894 and, in his later years, served a President of the Greek Orthodox Society in the city. In his twenties, Spiridion studied electrical engineering and civil engineering in Switzerland. During his time there, he was exposed to a new style of modern tourist map that was becoming popular in the country. When he returned to Jerusalem, Spiridon struggled to make a living in his field and decided to focus on something entirely different – he set out to create a map that would express the urban space of Jerusalem in three dimensions.

His map was published in the 1930s. The very first tourist map of Jerusalem, it was originally printed by the Greek Orthodox Church and, later, by the Goldberg Press.

Below are some stellar examples from Spiridon’s map. Please feel free to click on any of the images to enlarge.

Spiridon’s tourist map from the 1930s. Click the map to enlarge.


The “Horva” and “Tiferet Yisrael” synagogues:


Spiridon designed a detailed key which marked the religious affiliations of various buildings in the city:


Neighborhoods that once existed are reconstructed before our very eyes – here are the houses of the Yemenite neighborhood Ezrat Nidahim in Silwan, accompanied of course, by a Star of David symbol:


Here is Djort al-Enab, once a neighborhood of Mizrahi Jews just outside the walls of the Old City, near the present-day location of the artists’ quarter of Hutzot Hayotzer:


The Amireh neighborhood on the outskirts of Rehavia:


Some of the buildings are depicted in impressive detail – Hansen House, once a Leper hospital, is today a cultural center and museum:


The clock tower, which stood until 1934 near the present-day Jerusalem City Hall compound and St. Louis French Hospital:


The luxurious Palace Hotel (today the Waldorf Astoria Hotel stands in its place) opposite the Mamilla Pool, next to the US Consulate:


The Lemel School opposite the Edison Cinema, referred to here as the Opera House:


In the 1945 edition of the map, we see that drawings of buildings continue to occupy a central role. It is interesting to note that the map is east-oriented, an unusual orientation for maps of Jerusalem:

Spiridon’s tourist map from 1945. Click the map to enlarge.


Most of the inscriptions on the 1945 map are in English, except for a few instances where a community-adapted caption was utilized – a small inscription in Russian in the area of the Russian Compound, a few Arabic inscriptions in the Old City and in the eastern parts of the city, Greek inscriptions in the Greek Colony and three Hebrew inscriptions – the Meah Shearim neighborhood, Ben Mimon Street and the Zichron Moshe neighborhood which houses the Edison Cinema Building:


Here we can see the Alliance school, where the Clal Building stands today:


In the center of the city you can see the Egged central bus station, where the “Jaffa Center” light rail station is located today. You can also see the Zion, Eden and Orion Cinemas. Also depicted are the famous cafés of the time – Café Vienna and Café Europe:


Not only do the cinemas in the center of the city center receive special attention, the Regent Cinema in the German Colony also has its place on the map (known today as Smadar Cinema):


In the Talbieh neighborhood there is a drawing of a leper house known as Moravian Home, and we can also spot the consulates of Turkey, Iran, Spain and Greece:


The consulates of Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Switzerland, and Czechoslovakia were located west of the Greek colony in the Katamon neighborhood:


In south Jerusalem, the map extends as far as the Dead Sea and includes the potash factory on its northern shore, King Herod’s desert palace of Herodium, and Government House, the seat of the British High Commissioner which serves today as UN headquarters:


The Hebrew University compound on Mount Scopus features a drawing of Beit Wolfson, home of the National and University Library at the time:


The Citadel and police headquarters in the Old City:


The map shows the names of streets as they were known during the British Mandate:

Julian Road = Kind David Street

Queen Mary = Queen Shlomziyon Street

Mamilla Street = Agron Street, Yitshak Kariv Street

Saint Paulos Street = Shabtai Yisrael Street

Saint Louis Street = Shlomo HaMelekh Street

Geoffrey Mavoyon Street = HaAyin Het Street

Sultan Suleiman = HaTsanhanim Street

Chancellor Street = Strauss Street


Perhaps due to the Greek origin of the author of the map, the area of the Greek Colony is very detailed:

The Greek Club = next to Avner Street

Beit Safafa Road= Emek Rafaim Street

Greek Colony Road = Rachel Imenu Street

Efthimios Road = Yehoshua Bin Nun Street


Information about Spiridon’s life and work is attributed to the work of Prof. Kobi Cohen-Hatav.

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:


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