In 1954, Yehudit Galili arrived in Morocco as part of a Jewish Agency mission. She set up a kindergarten, an "Ulpan" for teaching Hebrew, and a network of contacts within Casablanca’s Jewish community. One day she discovered a group of strangers in the building that housed her kindergarten and was surprised to hear them speaking Hebrew. This is the true story of how a kindergarten teacher became a spy for the Jewish underground in Morocco.
Imagine the following scenario: You are sent to a foreign country with the mission of opening a Hebrew kindergarten for the children of the local Jewish community. One bright morning, you suddenly discover that your kindergarten has become a training ground for the Mossad as well as a branch of the local Jewish underground. This is not the plot of a spy novel, but a true story, and the description you’ve just read is only the tip of the iceberg. In her book Shlihut Goralit (“Fateful Mission”) published in late 2022, Yehudit (Galili) Yehezkeli recounts the parts of her story that have been approved for publication, including many of her incredible experiences in Morocco.
In 1954, Yehudit Galili was sent to Morocco on behalf of the Culture and Education Department of the Jewish Agency. Her mission was simple: to start an Israeli-Hebrew kindergarten in Morocco and to teach Hebrew in an Ulpan (lit. “studio”, the common Israeli term for a Hebrew school). At the time, Yehudit was working as a teacher at the Hartuv transit camp for new immigrants (a ma’abara) which she had helped establish. One day, while waiting for the train home to Jerusalem, a friend told her that the Jewish Agency was looking for teachers for a mission to Morocco. Yehudit, who could not point out Casablanca on a map, didn’t think twice and applied for the job. After passing the interview and the rest of the admissions process, she found herself at only 24 years old, on her way to Morocco as an official representative of the Jewish Agency.
Yehudit Galili was born in Tiberias in 1930 and grew up in the small town of Nesher. During her childhood she was a member of Zionist youth movements, and as a young adult she trained as a squad commander in the Palmach (the Haganah’s elite fighting force). Yehudit took part in military operations and was even wounded in the battle for Haifa during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. In May 1948 she joined the Harel Brigade where she escorted and trained convoys.
The Mission: Establish a Zionist Kindergarten in Morocco
Yehudit’s mission, at least in the beginning, was the essence of Zionist outreach activity at that time: to arouse interest in Israel among Moroccan Jews, particularly the middle and upper classes who had distanced themselves from the Zionist idea and the State of Israel. Moroccan Jewry was the largest of the Jewish communities in the Islamic countries. The educated and affluent Jews sent their children to French educational institutions rather than to Zionist schools such as Alliance and similar establishments. A large part of this population, which was concentrated in Casablanca (where Yehudit was sent), did not even consider the idea of immigrating to the State of Israel. At that time, Morocco was still a “protectorate” of the French colonial regime—which was about to come to an end. Despite a number of violent incidents (such as the pogroms in the cities of Oujda and Jerada after the declaration of Israel’s independence), the Jews of Morocco had a relatively comfortable life under the French regime. However, the State of Israel was aware that this situation might not last for long—and sent emissaries to bring Moroccan Jews closer to the Zionist cause, just in case.
In her first year there, Yehudit worked to set up a Hebrew kindergarten in Casablanca as well as an Ulpan for Hebrew language instruction. She conducted the kindergarten entirely in Hebrew, with the help of her assistant Zippora, a local Jewish girl who spoke Hebrew. The kindergarten followed the same format and curriculum as the Hebrew kindergartens in Israel. The children were provided with transportation to and from the kindergarten, and Zionist organizations in Israel and the Joint Distribution Committee donated the equipment. The kindergarten was housed in a fancy villa in the French quarter in Casablanca, and included an apartment for Yehudit. Besides running the kindergarten and Ulpan, Yehudit also forged connections with the parents of the children, which would prove very useful later on, when some of the parents were recruited into the Misgeret (“framework”)—the code-name for the Jewish underground in Morocco. As early as 1954, representatives of the Israeli security service were sent to Morocco, headed by Col. Shlomo Havilio, to assess the situation of the Jews in the country. Morocco was moving towards independence, and the Jews—whose status had improved during the French colonial period—had to prepare for the impending changes. This, in fact, had been one of the reasons behind Yehudit’s original mission, since encouraging immigration was one of the official ways Israel chose to deal with the situation.
After working for a year, Yehudit took a few days off. When she returned, the situation in the country had significantly worsened. The State of Israel assessed that Morocco would adopt the anti-Israel position taken by other Arab countries and feared for the lives of the nearly 200,000 Moroccan Jews remaining in the country. The Mossad sped up the establishment of the Jewish underground in Morocco, and various cells began forming secretly throughout the country, one of them right inside Yehudit Galili’s kindergarten. November 16, 1955, the day the King of Morocco returned to his country, was a turning point for Yehudit. The underground at that time was trying to find a cover story by blending in among the Jewish Agency workers who had “official” permits to be in the country, while also attempting to recruit locals into its ranks. When Yehudit returned from her short vacation, she discovered that the villa that housed her kindergarten had also been recruited for this purpose.
Yehudit Galili Alias “Nora”
“While walking upstairs to my room, I heard strange voices coming from the second floor […] At first, I thought about getting out quickly, but what I heard sounded like Hebrew and I calmed down. I was shocked to find strangers, but I think they were more frightened than I was… Their presence in Morocco was supposed to be top secret. They had come to Morocco under cover and no one knew of their existence, and suddenly an Israeli woman had found them out…” Yehudit Galili recalls in her memoir about her first meeting with members of the Jewish underground in Morocco. Shlomo Yehezkeli, the leader of the cell and later Yehudit’s husband, was the first to get a grip of himself. He asked her to sit down and after briefly introducing himself he started to interrogate her. “At first, I politely answered all the questions but then my patience ran out. Angrily, I said ‘What’s with all these questions? Who are you? Who authorized you to enter the kindergarten? I live here and this is my kindergarten!’” Yehudit writes about the meeting. Her assertive outburst served to diffuse the tension and by the end of the encounter she found herself recruited into the Jewish underground in Morocco. She agreed to join, despite having little idea what this was all about, after discovering that the members of the underground already knew everything about her without her telling them anything.
It was during this same meeting that the secret agents decided to set up shop in the kindergarten building in Casablanca, which is how it became the temporary headquarters of the Jewish underground in Morocco. The basement was turned into a slick – a hiding place for the underground’s weapons. Later it was also used for training members in how to take apart and reassemble weapons, as well as for secret meetings in which new recruits were sworn in. Mossad personnel posed as Jewish Agency emissaries, and thus the well-known Zionist organization became deeply involved in the Mossad’s activities. Yehudit, as a “certified” Agency worker with papers, became an asset for the underground. Her role as a kindergarten teacher enabled her to be in contact with locals without raising any suspicions. She was in touch with parents of the children in the kindergarten and students in the Ulpan and could listen to their conversations and assess their mindset. Most importantly, her position was ideal for finding potential recruits. Yehudit was trained in using invisible ink, preparing hiding places and various methods for gathering materials and information. She was even given an alias – “Nora”. Yehudit also acted as a courier and liaison between different groups, and eventually began to forge passports for Jews wanting to escape from Morocco.
A Kindergarten and an Underground HQ: How Did It Work?
How did this strange combination of kindergarten and Jewish underground headquarters function day to day? Let’s consider the case of Carmela and Yona—two Mossad agents—who arrived in Morocco with their young daughter Orly and settled in Casablanca. Carmela and Yona arrived under cover as Jewish Agency emissaries. Orly enrolled in Yehudit’s kindergarten, which provided a perfect cover for conversations between Yehudit and the couple. In the mornings, when Carmela brought her daughter to kindergarten, she would leave confidential packages and letters with Yehudit who in her role as courier would deliver them. Yona, who was Shlomo Yehezkeli’s deputy, was involved in gathering and hiding weapons as well as training recruits in how to use them. He was also an expert in creating special envelopes to hide secret messages. When he came to the kindergarten, he would be busy devising hiding places for weapons and secret storage spaces for messages within the villa grounds. For example, he built a secret compartment inside the pot of a large plant placed near the villa’s entrance where messages could be stored.
In early June 1956, the Moroccan authorities decided to limit Zionist activity in the country. Yehudit’s kindergarten continued to operate at full capacity and serve as the center for the underground’s work until it finally was closed down. After this, the Jewish underground operated from other locations. Yehudit continued her work in the Mazagan immigrant camp near Casablanca until she was forced to leave the country. She would continue her underground work on behalf of Moroccan Jewry from Marseille.
Yehudit married the commander of the underground in Morocco Shlomo Yehezkeli, whom she met for the first time on that fateful day in the kindergarten. The couple relocated to Paris, where they continued to engage in security, intelligence and public work on behalf of Israel from 1960 to 1964. Later they also took up official posts in Africa before eventually returning to Israel where they raised their three children. In Israel, Yehudit was involved in education, teaching and writing, as well as painting, sculpting, and filmmaking. She published nine books and dozens of articles, as well as numerous exhibitions and even three films. She has won many awards over the course of her life. Her latest book, Shlihut Goralit (Hebrew), about her mission in Morocco, served as the source for this article. The book is available to read online.
The photos in this article are part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible through the collaborative efforts of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel