Rare Album: The Machine Gun Squadron Soldier Documents the Conquest of the Land of Israel

We have an original copy of the 20th Machine Gun Squadron soldier's journal from the First World War.

While founding the 20th Machine Gun Squadron on July 4, 1917, its commanders found themselves dealing with an unexpected obstacle: only 30 of the squadron’s 121 soldiers had been trained to operate the latest weapons. The other soldiers had never been stationed in such a unit.

The impending battle to conquer the Land of Israel left no time for unnecessary delays, and a new order received several days before gave the soldiers of the new squadron a glimpse into the tremendous challenge that awaited them. On August 12, a month after its establishment, the squadron set out for the new military front: The Land of Israel.

The story of the squadron was documented in the book “Through Palestine with the 20th Machine Gun Squadron”, ​which was handed out to members of the unit after the war. One of the soldiers decided to stick photographs he took during the squadron’s trek through the Land of Israel.

Most likely the photographer, and original owner of the book. His identity is unknown.

The fascinating story of the squadron as documented through the eyes of one of its soldiers is preserved in the National Library.

View the full book here

The Original Cover of “Through Palestine with the 20th Machine Gun Squadron”

Under the fierce sun, with aching shoulders, and constant fear of depletion of the daily water ration, the squadron’s warriors spent 18 days traversing the Sinai desert. They took advantage of their stay in the British camp to continue the drills – they spent half a day practicing operating the weapons which were new to most of them, and the second half of the day – on horse riding.

Members of the Squadron. Besides the few drawings in the book, the Library’s copy contained photographs in the first few pages
The Women of Jerusalem by the Western Wall
Some of the drawings that accompany the book

 The soldiers encountered their first battle as a squadron seven miles south of the city of Be’er Sheba. With reinforcements on their left and the Australian units on their right, the solders of the machine gun squadron attacked the terrifying trenches the Ottomans had dug in the road leading to the city: the attackers and defenders fought the entire morning and afternoon.

The dust that flew in all directions inhibited both sides from seeing more than a few meters in front of them. After several hours of fighting, the soldiers discovered, to their utter dismay, that the Ottomans had retreated to the city. The order arrived at four in the afternoon: attack Be’er Sheba, which also proved to be deserted of enemy troops.

The Road to Jericho
A drawing by one of the squadron members
A soldier photographs “Native Women”

 “Be’er Sheba”, the soldiers wrote in the squadron book, “was extremely disappointing. It is barely a village in the way Europeans understand the term – a place one can buy cigarettes and something to eat; there was nothing to be found, and the only buildings in it which were not wooden huts were deserted.” When the soldiers toured around the area they were unimpressed by the arid desert which surrounded them, and by the lack of traversable roads.

The soldiers also reached Gaza after the Ottomans retreated from the city – This is not mentioned anywhere in the book, but it’s likely that the soldiers didn’t take part in the hard battles to conquer Gaza. Despite the short distance from Be’er Sheba, they encountered a different type of settlement – roadside villages, populated by farmers who worked their lands. As they approached they discovered a horrifying sight: dirt and refuse, men resting while the women did the hard work. The soldiers found nothing positive to say about this city either.

A map of the route the squadron took in the Land of Israel

The soldiers continued from Gaza to Ramallah, from Ramallah to the Arab village of Qezaze, from there they followed the train tracks to Jerusalem. The enemy soldiers predicted this path of advance and dug trenches along the way. The fierce battles led to a series of casualties. The squadron’s commanders decided to retreat and re-organize in the Jaffa area. On their way to Jaffa, the soldiers came across Rehovot for the first time.

Rehovot reminded the soldiers of the life they had left behind in Britain.  The soldiers met the Zionist settlers and bought sacks full of juicy Jaffa oranges from them. Anyone who did not have enough money with them bartered for the preserved meat they received from the squadron. The meeting with the Jewish settlers excited the soldiers, who regarded them as the beginning of the rebuilding of the Jewish nation.

Caves close to the Red Sea

After a short rest, the soldiers advanced on Jerusalem once again. The Ottoman defenders were aware of the importance of the holy city: they sent most of the forces stationed in the Land of Israel to defend the road to Jerusalem. With every additional meter the soldiers of the Machine Gun Squadron managed to capture from the enemy, the warriors’ focal effort was to station the terrifying artillery machines at the highest place in the battle zone. They took advantage of every gain they managed to achieve: coverage from other units, use of snipers, silent advance at night or – when there was no other option – firing burning fire on the enemy to force them to flee from the position they had taken up.

Thus, on December 8, 1917, despite the defective roads, the constant lack of water and Ottoman and German opposition along the way, the soldiers of the Machine Gun Squadron, together with Allenby’s other forces, managed to open the road to Jerusalem.

Jaffa Gate
Damascus Gate
Bedouin Riders

More than four hundred years of Ottoman rule in the Holy Land came to an end a day later, with the surrender of the city of Jerusalem. The date was merely symbolic, as most of northern Israel was still under Ottoman rule, which disintegrated in the following months.

“How wondrous,” declared the emotional soldiers who finally beheld the city of Jerusalem. The holy city was freed on the eve of the festival of Hanukah, and as the Ottomans fled from Jerusalem, the Jews celebrated the historical victory of the Maccabees over the ancient Greek conquers.

The squadron lost 3 commanders and 67 soldiers during the conquest of the Land of Israel.


Forget Google Maps! To Get Out of Egypt, These Are the Maps You Need!

The National Library is in possession of many antique, rare and illustrated maps tracing the epic journey of the People of Israel through the wilderness.

A map of the Exodus from Egypt, 1712

If it so happens that in the future, we find ourselves in need of executing another Exodus from Egypt, the good news is: we will be prepared! We shall have a map! In fact, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library has an assortment of old, rare and imaginatively illustrated maps which trace the mythical and defining journey of the People of Israel through the desert.

Since there is no accurate record of the points along the route of the Israelite Exodus, the maps can only show an approximate or imagined one. The path they traversed in the desert is not the only thing the maps show – many are accompanied by illustrations in which the artists offered their versions and interpretations of various aspects of the biblical story. The maps in our collection do not strive for geographic accuracy but rather emphasize the religious narrative. Therefore, the maps incorporate detailed depictions of figures and events to illustrate and enliven the well-known Exodus story.

Out of Egypt by Way of London


With the development of print, publishers began to attach maps to copies of the printed bible. These were often descriptive maps of the Garden of Eden, the Promised Land and its division among the tribes, Jesus’ wanderings, and of course the Exodus from Egypt.

This map of the Exodus, was added to the Book of Numbers in a bible published by Richard Harrison (London, 1562). The map shows the route the Israelites followed through the wilderness, including 42 various stops along the way. Along the route we see the Israelites crossing the Red Sea with the Egyptians in chariots and on horses chasing after them, the Israelites battling the Amalekites, gathering the manna from Heaven, dancing around the Golden Calf at the foot of Mount Sinai during the revelation of the name of God – indicated with Hebrew letters (י-ה-ו-ה), and Moses with the copper snake. On the left we see the Nile delta and the land of Goshen, and in the upper right are Moab and various other ancient and biblical cities, including Kadesh Barnea, Jericho and Hebron.

A Special Map for the Amsterdam Haggadah


Less than one hundred and fifty years later, in 1695, Abraham Bar Yaakov, a Protestant priest from Germany who converted to Judaism and worked as an engraver in Amsterdam created a map for the Amsterdam Haggadah.  This is, in fact, not only a map of the Exodus, but a map of the entire Promised Land, of which only the right half is dedicated to the Exodus. The route of the Exodus includes a number of small illustrations which depict the falling of the manna, Mount Sinai and the revelation of the name of God, and the altar with the twelve precious stones east of Jericho. There is also a key listing the places where the Israelites stopped along the way.

In creating the map for the Amsterdam Haggadah, Abraham Bar Yaakov was influenced by other contemporary maps made by Christians, and of course his own familiarity with Christianity and knowledge of Latin was useful. There is a striking similarity between his map and a map prepared by Hondius Jansson who himself used a map made in 1633 by Christian van Adrichom as a model. One can see that the route of the Exodus from Egypt, the tiny illustrations, and even the storm-tossed ship in the sea and the figure of Jonah being thrown from it, are all derived from that map.

However, Bar Yaakov also introduced important changes in his map. In the lower right corner is the figure of a nude woman on a crocodile, which in the Middle Ages and early modern period symbolized the continent of Africa. In medieval literature, the crocodile was used to symbolize Egypt. In a sense, Bar Yaakov “converted” Jansson’s older map to create his: he changed the fleet of ships into the barges of King Hiram transporting the cedars of Lebanon for the building of the Temple, and at the lower left, the Promised Land is represented as the Land of Milk and Honey, with a herd of cows and next to it the Hebrew word for “milk” (חלב, chalav) and beehives with the Hebrew word for “honey” (דבש, dvash). The eagle nearby is accompanied by the verse “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and [how] I bore you on eagles’ wings, and I brought you to Me,” stressing the map’s main motif of the Exodus from Egypt.

A Comic Book Version of the Priestly Ritual in the Tabernacle


This map printed in Paris in 1738 by Jacques Francois Brand was also dedicated to the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness. The route and various stops along it are marked in red and around them are a series of illustrations connected to the priestly work in the Tabernacle and its vessels. These pictures were intended to illustrate the worship in the Tabernacle at the encampments along the wilderness journey, and it is possible to identify the following (counter-clockwise): the high priest, the tabernacle and the surrounding camps, the tent of meeting, the ark and the cherubim, the altar, the table of the showbread (Lechem Ha’Panim), the candelabrum (the Menorah), the covered tabernacle (the Mishkan), the high priest performing a sacrifice inside the tabernacle, and an ordinary priest with a sacrificial bull.

And here are several more maps depicting the Exodus from Egypt:


You can view many more maps of all types from the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel, here.


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Celebrating the Exodus from Egypt Behind the Lines of World War I

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A Plea for Assistance in Buying Poor Man’s Bread from 1908


Watch the Incredible Story of the Catalan Mahzor

​The Catalan Mahzor survived the edict of expulsion from Spain, was smuggled out of Nazi Germany to the United States, and eventually found its way to the National Library in Jerusalem.

From the moment the Jewish people entered the annals of history, the Hebrew book accompanied them on their long journey through time and tribulation. One of these books has a most incredible survival story.

In the middle of the 13th century an extraordinary manuscript was scribed and illustrated in Catalonia, Spain. This manuscript was shipped out of Spain along with the expelled Jews, travelling to Italy, then Salonica (which was part of the Ottoman Empire at the time), until it moved over to Germany.


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When the Second World War broke out, the manuscript was smuggled to the United States by Alexander Guttmann – a Jewish scholar – who recieved his visa in 1940. He carried the Mahzor over the borders at great personal risk.


Beyond the great story behind the manuscript, the illuminated content illustrates the uniqueness of the Jewish communities before the edict of expulsion from Spain. It is a Mahzor for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur for use by a cantor. It is an entirely Jewish creation: Poems written by some of the greatest poets in Jewish history and it is singular in being the only Mahzor decorated with micrography – a Jewish art form in which tiny lettering creates decorative geometric shapes. This art appears almost exclusively in bibles and so the use of intricate and breathtaking micrography in a prayer book is considered extremely rare.



When Christians Returned to the Hebrew Bible

​As learned Protestants began to read the Hebrew Bible, and finding in it a template for a new political constitution, they quickly understood that it was not possible to thoroughly study the Book of Books without also learning the rabbinical sources. Despite this important realization, Jewish scholars across Europe also discovered that this phenomenon did not include a forgiving attitude toward Jews.

A portrait of John Seldon by an unknown artist. The painting is in the National Portrait Gallery, London 

​John Seldon (1584–1654) was not known to humble himself before anyone. In 1629, the jurist and member of British parliament was sent to the notorious Tower of London as punishment for having refused to recognize the authority of the king in dissolving the parliament. After four months in the Tower, when the king felt that the stubborn Seldon was ready to have the terms of his imprisonment eased, he permitted Seldon to choose one book with which to pass the time in his cell. Among the many books a seventeenth-century English Protestant lawyer could have chosen, Seldon asked for copies of the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmud.


A portrait of John Seldon by an unknown artist. The painting is in the National Portrait Gallery, London


The Old Testament: A Plan for a Divine Republic

This anecdote illustrates the great theological-political revolution Protestant Europe underwent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in its return to the Bible in the original Hebrew. The return was not only to the Hebrew Bible, but also to its interpretation through the Jewish sources. Important Christian scholars dared to view the “Old Testament” in a new light: no longer was it just a book filled with allegorical hints to the life of Christ who was yet to come or of ancient law from an era long ago that had been replaced by the New Testament.

These scholars, called Hebraists, “summoned” the great Jewish sages of history to provide them with answers to the many questions provoked by reading the Bible in Hebrew. Many learned Protestants therefore began to translate key works of rabbinic literature, and so, for the first time in history, the Mishna, Talmud (the Babylonian and Jerusalem versions), Midrash, Zohar, the works of Maimonides, and many other of the treasures of the Jewish bookshelf were being systematically translated into various European languages including Latin, English, and German.

The Hebrew Bible was perceived by some scholars as the template for a perfect and divinely-driven political constitution. They viewed the Respublica Hebraeorum (as the political and religious order of Ancient Israel was called) to have been the perfect republic, which superseded in every aspect both the Roman republic and the Greek city-states of antiquity. But how to restore this perfect republic? The Hebrew Bible itself was fragmentary and contained quite a few contradictions.

This undertaking succeeded to shake the great truths of Western civilization: the division of property, the divine right of kings and the place of religious tolerance in an age of state sponsored religion. New ways of looking at the world were opened up before Europe.

However, contrary to expectation, this unprecedented interest in the Hebrew Bible and rabbinical interpretations did not encourage a forgiving approach to flesh and blood Jews (at least not at first). The belief was that one could not learn Talmud without the help of a Jewish teacher who was well-versed in the ancient tongue. This led to the rise of the professional Hebrew teacher across Protestant Europe with the posts being filled mostly by Jewish converts to Christianity.  The few openly-practicing Jews who taught the ancient language quickly learned what their Christian neighbors thought of them.

Such was the story of Jacob Barnet.


“Jacob the Jew”

With the arrival of the young Jew by the name of Jacob Barnet to the shores of England in 1610, quite a few Protestant scholars vied to take him under their wing. Barnet was indeed catch: an educated, courteous Jew from Italy, fluent in Latin and in Talmud.

In 1613, he met Isaac Casaubon, a recognized theologian and lecturer from Oxford. The two developed a deep friendship over their shared study of the Jewish texts in the sacred tongue.


Notes in Hebrew and in Latin written by Isaac Casaubon. The notes were from the joint study of Casaubon and Barnet. From the book by Anthony Grafton and Johanna Weinberg


Casaubon missed no opportunity to publicly praise Barnet, whether it was to professors at Oxford, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or even the king of England himself, King James I.

Gradually, Barnet began to feel the pressure being put on him to convert. His many acquaintances very much liked the possibility that a learned Jew of his caliber should recognize the truth of the Christian doctrine (in its Anglo-Protestant variation). Barnet struggled. He felt that such a move would surely distance himself from his family, and he also failed to see in what aspect the Christian religion was preferable to Judaism. Yet, he did eventually succumb to the pressure and agree to convert.

Jacob the Jew declared: “the blinders have been lifted from my eyes,” by which he meant the erroneous teachings of the rabbis which he had so diligently studied (and which the scholars around him had wanted to understand completely). His conversion ceremony attracted all the nobles of the realm, including the monarch himself foremost among them.


Portrait of King James I, 1605, attributed to John de Critz


His could not keep to his decision for long, and on the day of the conversion Barnet fled the city. He was arrested a few hours later and sent to prison. Professors and priests from Oxford used the opportunity to preach the Christian doctrine to the prisoner in his cell in an attempt to persuade him to change his mind and once again abandon the faith of his forefathers. If he did not, they made clear to him, he would be burned at the stake.

It was at this point that Casaubon intervened on behalf of his friend, who many times before he had affectionately referred to as “my rabbi.” He composed two letters to the authorities at Oxford, in which he asked that Barnet’s terms of imprisonment be eased and that his life be spared. To appeal to them, he used the common anti-Semitic language against his friend denouncing him as a “cunning and malicious Jew,” though he stressed that Barnet was entitled to repent his decision to convert in part because he was so entrenched in the world of Talmud that his mind was filled with the superstitious beliefs and lies disseminated in its pages. Casaubon’s words eventually reached the king who commanded that Barnet be expelled to France.


Isaac Casaubon by an unknown artist. The painting is in the National Portrait Gallery, London


Only with the execution of King James I’s son, Charles I, during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, were Jews at last allowed to return, and to live in public, as Jews in the kingdom (which had since become a republic).