The Emotional Resonance of Music During War

Throughout Israeli history, music has been utilized to calm the chaos of war and make sense of tragedy. When words can’t quite get it right, music often can. As we deep-dive into four of Israel’s most famous wartime tunes, we can start to understand why music is just so important to our dear country, especially during dark days such as these.

IDF band, 1984, Ilan Ossendriver, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

From the earliest of times, people have been using music to channel their emotions. Early Mayans used soothing songs to aid with the difficulties of labor and birth, the Vikings sang melodious chants when marching into war to scare their opponents and boost their own morale, ancient Innuits would make use of throat singing to pass down their culture throughout generations. And the People of Israel were no different.

As the biblical story goes, when the People of Israel escaped persecution and slavery in Egypt, they played tambourines and sang songs of joy, led by the biblical figure Miriam and the righteous women around her.

Artist’s depiction of Miriam with her tambourine, Ze’ev Raban, photographed by Zeev Radovan, 1992, Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Song is immensely powerful – this is a belief that was acknowledged way back in the ancient world, and is still recognized today. And one of its uses is during times of war, both in battle, but also for the comfort, assurance and perseverance of those who are suffering and need a certain special ignition of hope. Songs composed during wartime are often unique in their outpouring of emotion and the rawness ascribed to them.

Naomi Shemer is one such example of a singer whose wartime songs captured the hearts of the Israeli nation possibly more than any other composer before her. If any song has the power to symbolize something as terrible as a war, then the song Lu Yehi, more than anything, has come to represent the Yom Kippur War.

Lu Yehi – Performed by Chava Alberstein

 You can also find this song in the National Library of Israel collections


During the first devastating days of that war, Shemer composed a collection of lyrics that expressed her hope and prayers for the Israeli soldiers’ safe return home. At first, she used the melody of the Beatles’ song “Let It Be” (the Hebrew words Lu Yehi are a direct translation of the title) but, influenced by her husband Mordechai Horowitz, Shemer decided to later compose an entirely new tune. “I won’t let you waste this song on a foreign tune. This is a Jewish war, and you should give it a Jewish tune,” said Mordechai. Listening to his advice, Shemer worked on completing her new melody before performing her freshly composed song on Israeli television, where it captivated audiences, and reflected back to them their own feelings in a way that most people couldn’t hope to do alone. The song became something of a national prayer in Israel during that time (more about this here).

Draft of Lu Yehi Naomi Shemer, 1973, the National Library of Israel

When the National Library of Israel was endowed with Naomi Shemer’s personal archives, they included both her handwritten lyrics to Lu Yehi as well as a special little pocket book. This pocket book contained the words of the fourth verse of her song “Jerusalem of Gold”.

Yerushalayim Shel Zahav – Performed by Shuli Natan

 You can also find this song in the National Library of Israel collections


At the beginning of 1967, the Mayor of Jerusalem commissioned a song about Jerusalem from Naomi Shemer. This song, Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, was written for the Israel Song Festival at a time when Jerusalem’s Old City was occupied by Jordan – a difficult period in which Jews could not enter the Old City and worship at their holy sites. It describes the longings of the Jewish people for Jerusalem and their yearning for peace.

Jerusalem of Gold” (Yerushalayim Shel Zahav), Naomi Shemer, 1967, the National Library of Israel

Less than a month after the song’s publication, however, the Six-Day War broke out and the IDF was able to take the Old City. Upon hearing this jubilant news, Naomi Shemer decided in that very moment to add a final verse to her song, celebrating the return of the Jews to their ancient holy sites. Naomi Shemer’s song thus became the unofficial anthem of the Jewish people, and still symbolizes the mood of many Israelis during the Six-Day War.

Naomi Shemer at the piano, the National Library of Israel

Shemer was not the only songwriter to have this effect on the nation, however. As the First Lebanon War raged around him in 1982, esteemed Israeli lyricist Ehud Manor was inspired to write a searing text that dealt with his own emotions following the death of his brother during the War of Attrition. As Manor sat in his living room with his wife watching the daily news play out reels from the battlefield, he broke down in tears and started jotting down words on a scrap of paper. These lyrics would eventually become the song Ein Li Eretz Acheret – “I Have No Other Country”.

Ehud Manor on the radio, 1969, IPPA Staff Photographer and Shalom Bar Tal, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

When the song was released in 1986, it emerged as a profound musical testament that resonated with the collective sentiments of a nation grappling with the tragedies of war. Against the backdrop of the challenges and strife around them, the melody not only encapsulated the turbulent emotions of Israelis at the time, but his insightful lyrics echoed the collective atmosphere of the war. Ein Li Eretz Acheret became a significant cultural touchstone, being voted Israel’s favorite song time and time again. Later chosen as the Song of the State of Israel by the Yediot Ahronoth newspaper. The song has been given different political interpretations but it actually offers a musical narrative that goes beyond political boundaries and has thus been recycled multiple times throughout Israel’s recent history to articulate the intricate emotions woven into the fabric of a society which continuously finds itself facing conflicts.

“I have no other country. Although my land is burning, my veins, my soul with an aching body and with a hungry heart, here is my home. I will not be silent. For my country has changed her face. I will not give up on her, I shall remind her and sing into her ears, until she opens her eyes.”

Ein Li Eretz Acheret – Performed by Gali Atari

 You can also find this song in the National Library of Israel collections


Even more recently, during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, as hope for a brighter future seemed so far off for so many Israelis, a song that had been released a few months earlier suddenly hit home in a new way: Ayeka. After becoming a Breslov Hasid, Shalom “Shuly” Rand was expected to spend the rest of his life learning Torah and walking in the traditional Hasidic path set out for him. But, being an introspective and thoughtful man with a rebellious streak, this was not the route he chose. While staying true to his religious beliefs and practices, and fathering seven children, he also became an actor and began composing and singing music.

Ayeka – Performed by Shuly Rand

 You can also find this song in the National Library of Israel collections


Arguably his most well-known song is a prayer that came straight from his heart. As a man who had lived through dark days as well as the good ones experienced by all Israelis, he writes of his faith being challenged. Confused and lonely, he turned to the heavens with a question, or even a plea – ayeka?! – “where are you?!” Rand communicates his feelings candidly in this song, with vulnerability and perhaps a touch of rage, as he turns to G-d and questions how the Master of the Universe could allow so much suffering and heartbreak in the world that He created.

When Operation Cast Lead shook the people of Israel just a few months after the song’s release, many Israelis recalled Rand’s lyrics and felt their own feelings echoed in his song, understanding that this man’s confusion and his struggles with faith were also their own during the distress that lay all around them. Rand expresses his longing to understand how to cope in difficult times, as well as the bigger frustration which comes with knowing that he may never have answers to these questions. It was a sentiment that so many ordinary people could align with during the conflict which arose that same year, and lots of Israelis considered it an apt reflection of the times they were living through.

“Oh G-d almighty, openly speaking, sometimes I have no desire to be in Your world. Where can I hide from You? What will I claim, how will I justify myself, what shall I say? Merciful and gracious G-d, before You is a Jew, hanging by a hair-thin thread, fighting the sadness, the despair that gnaws like a worm. The happiness had fled from me and so did my sanity. Voices from the past whisper to me to stop, but I keep on rowing in the dark, asking and wishing, where are You?!”

 IDF band, 1984, Ilan Ossendriver, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

And now, as Israel has been at war since the unimaginably dreadful events of October 7, we see this same musical phenomenon playing out once again. If you look today at the top Israeli music charts, you may notice that the songs being listened to in Israel right now reflect the war that we are experiencing. Many of the most popular songs in the country at the moment were written to express the national mood of mourning, of helplessness at the situation we find ourselves in, but also of hope for a brighter future.

 IDF band, 1969, Shalom Bar Tal, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Songs do more than just entertain us. They provide us with guidance in times of hardship, they provide us with companionship in knowing that others feel how we feel, and they provide us with words for feelings that we can’t quite express alone. Listen to the lyrics of the songs mentioned in this article, and many of the most listened-to songs in Israel right now and see if you feel the same way. The chances are that you, like so many others, will find a friend in these words and melodies.

 IDF band, 1969, Shalom Bar Tal, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Nir Oz Will Blossom Again: The Story of a Legendary Kibbutz Gardener

In the early days, members of Kibbutz Nir Oz suffered from terrible sandstorms that made it difficult to move, see and even eat. Ran Pauker, the kibbutz’s legendary landscaper, was called to solve the problem, and along the way, Nir Oz became a green, ecological gem. When asked about the future of the kibbutz that suffered a fatal blow on October 7 - he says the vegetation will be restored within a year, as for the community: “We’ll have to wait and see”

Ran Pauker, who has worked as Kibbutz Nir Oz’s gardener and landscaper for decades, next to the sign at the entrance to “Green Spot,” the kibbutz’s botanical garden that specializes in vegetation requiring little irrigation. Photo from a private album.

“I’ll just finish trimming the garden and call you right back,” Ran Pauker, the 86-year-old evacuee from Kibbutz Nir Oz, answered when I called to speak with him about his life’s work. It seems you can’t take the gardener out of the garden, even when he’s far away from home. Pauker and his wife Carmelit have been evacuated to Kibbutz HaSolelim in the Lower Galilee. Both were members of the first pioneering Hashomer Hatza’ir groups that founded Kibbutz Nir Oz in the 1950s. The couple was forced to leave their home behind after the awful attack on October 7. They happened to be staying with their daughter in Sderot that Saturday, and so were saved.

Like many kibbutzim that were established along Israel’s borders, Kibbutz Nir Oz also faced many challenges throughout its history. If you had gone there in the 1950s and looked around, you would have seen wilderness and sand stretching from one end of the horizon to the other.

Kibbutz Nir Oz, around 1960. Photo: Ran Pauker, from the Kibbutz Nir Oz archives


‘Nir Oz’, a New Kibbutz Near Nirim” – a report from Herut, September 30, 1955

“When we settled here, there were unbearable sandstorms in the area. I couldn’t see a few meters in front of me,” Pauker says. “I remember one sandstorm when we needed to eat in the kitchen storeroom because … the dining hall had filled with sand and dust. The storeroom was small, so we ate in shifts.”

Looking back, Pauker may have been exactly the solution that the sand-swept kibbutz needed. Upon his arrival there, although he hadn’t planned on doing so, he took it upon himself to manage Kibbutz Nir Oz’s landscaping and be responsible for all the plants and vegetation in the public sphere. On a bus from Tel Aviv to the kibbutz, he bumped into an old friend, Meir Lavi (Mayor), who was the kibbutz secretary at the time, and told him, “Ran, we don’t have a gardener. You’re the son of a gardener, you’re a graduate of Kadoorie [a well-known Israeli agricultural school], you’re done being a farm coordinator and you have no job right now. Come work as a gardener for two or three months until we can find someone else.”

Pauker agreed. “They say nothing’s more permanent than the temporary. They’re right. I’ve been a gardener ever since.”

Cover of a book published in 2015 to mark 60 years of Kibbutz Nir Oz. The photo features a well-known Hebrew slogan coined by Meir Ya’ari that has accompanied the kibbutz throughout its history and which can be translated as: “We are not road-weary, rather we are trailblazers


A sign hanging on the Nir Oz silo following the October 7 attacks, featuring the same slogan that appears on the cover of the book above. Photo: Moshe Yolovich.

The sandstorms made him realize that his role was much more important than he thought. It wouldn’t only change his life but would also turn him into a guru of green, economical, and ecological planning.

At the start of his journey, Pauker faced a challenge that was two-fold: How could he make life bearable in the hot, dusty desert while also saving money and water, as the expenses were costing the young kibbutz a fortune? Industrious as he was, Pauker figured out how: He carefully and cleverly planned his tree plantings and deliberately chose vegetation that was suitable for desert conditions. The green that dominates Kibbutz Nir Oz became its hallmark, and even after the October 7 tragedy, the plants still stand alongside the destroyed, burnt homes. Pauker says his secret is a combination of patience, a willingness to learn from mistakes, constant attention to conditions, and finding the right plants for the terrain.

One of the impressive Ficus trees that are spread throughout Nir Oz. Photo: Ran Pauker.
A list of contributors to the book published by the kibbutz’s founders to mark its 60th anniversary. A number of these people were abducted on October 7. Some have been released, and we are waiting anxiously for the rest to come home.

Over the years, Pauker saw that his work methods offered additional advantages: By saving money, time and labor resources, he was able to work in a more ecological fashion, better suited to a planet that is gradually becoming warmer. His ideas and developments turned Nir Oz into a role model for cultivating natural space in a way that allows for a pleasant and comfortable life, but that also takes ecological and economic concerns into account:

“I realized that if I didn’t gather the clippings [from the lawn mower] and if I used a recycler lawn mower [which leaves what was mowed on the field], I’d save on sweeping expenses and fuel. I’d also be leaving minerals in the ground and wouldn’t need fertilizer. We brought in plants that are highly resistant to dryness; we created drainage collection basins throughout the relatively flat kibbutz, and we used water from the air conditioners to water the plants. This paid off financially and environmentally.”

Experiments with different grass varieties inside a flower-shaped plot in front of the dining hall, which is still there to this day. Photo: Ran Pauker, from the Kibbutz archives.

Ran inherited his love of gardening from his father. He was born in Nahariya to parents who were among the founders of the city. His father also worked as a gardener and garden planner, and even as a child, just four-years-old, Pauker helped his father out at work. His dad gave him a small bucket of lime and sent him off to whitewash the tree trunks.

When he began working on the landscaping for Kibbutz Nir Oz, he asked his father to come help him with the planning. The experienced, German-born gardener offered him orderly, methodical work practices. When Ran was first starting out as head of landscaping, he had a vision and clear plans, and he made sure to document his work so that he’d be able to present his achievements to the community members, and later, to the wider public. Inside the lush, green kibbutz, Ran established a botanical garden named Nekuda Yeruka, or “Green Point”, which has become a plant research center visited by experts and students from all over the world.

And how did he meet his wife, Carmelit? When the two were working together in the rose nursery, of course. They bred different species on the rose bushes, and their collaboration blossomed into love, which led them to a happy marriage and a big, supportive family.

Carmelit Menashe and Ran in Kibbutz Nir Oz’s rose nursery in 1964. Photo from a private album.

On October 10, Pauker was set to celebrate the publication of his autobiography, Sipuro shel Tzabar BeHafrachat HaMidbar (“The Story of a Sabra Who Made the Desert Bloom”). The book covers his significant contributions to the kibbutz as well as to the fields of gardening and environmental studies, as experts still come to the kibbutz to learn from him to this day. Along with all of us, Pauker hopes that one day, when all the hostages including those from the kibbutz are returned home and the community begins rebuilding itself, he’ll be able to celebrate the release of his book.

The back cover of Ran Pauker’s autobiography, set to be published soon.

The botanical garden and the lush greenery of Nir Oz is a success story about making the desert wasteland flourish. When asked about the future, Ran says, “The kibbutz itself is destroyed, the homes are destroyed, but the plants still stand and the irrigation is still working, thanks to Na’amit who is responsible for the landscaping now, and the amazing kibbutz members who have been coming to help. If they’ll let us, we’ll get all the landscaping back the way it was within a year. But the big question is the Nir Oz community; what will the community choose to do and how can we rehabilitate it? As for that, we’ll need to wait and see.”

Lush, green Kibbutz Nir Oz, seen from above, 2019. Photo from the Kibbutz Nir Oz archives


This article is part of our special series: “Life on the Border: A Tribute to the Communities of the Gaza Border Region”

Click here to see all of the articles and stories

Those Who Dream of Givati: The Many Lives of the Purple Brigade

The IDF's Givati Brigade came into being during Israel's War of Independence, even before the Jewish state was officially established. This is the story of one of the Israeli army's leading infantry brigades, and the famous fighting spirit bequeathed to it by its founder, Shimon “Givati” Avidan

Givati soldiers setting out on an ambush, 1948-9. Photo: Museum of the History of Gedera and the Biluim. This item is part of the Israel Archive Network and is made available thanks to the collaboration between the Museum of the History of Gedera and the Biluim, the Ministry of Heritage, and the National Library of Israel

On November 29, 1947, the UN adopted the resolution creating a Jewish state alongside an Arab state in the lands of the British Mandate of Palestine. The Jewish population, collectively known as the Yishuv, as well as Jews around the world, finally had good reason to dance in the streets. In Rome, Jews even celebrated in front the Arch of Titus, with its engraving of the tragedy of the last Jewish exile, two thousand years before.

But as is always the case in Jewish history, happiness became mixed with sadness. Mobs of angry Arabs who resented the UN decision, both in the country and in neighboring lands, did not wait for the celebrations to subside. On the day after the resolution was passed, seven Jews were killed in retaliation.

This was the start of the War of Independence. Fighters and members of all the Jewish underground movements, alongside new immigrants drafted right off the boats docking at Haifa port, got together to begin building and organizing the young army that would soon be fighting five larger ones.

Shimon Avidan was a veteran fighter in the Palmach, a branch of the Haganah which was the Yishuv’s best-trained force. He was commander of the company in which Yitzhak Rabin got his start as a young officer. Avidan was tasked with establishing a trained infantry brigade to protect Jewish settlements from attack. In early December 1947, the 5th Brigade was officially launched and given the name “Givati”, which was Avidan’s underground code name.

Maj. General (Aluf) Yitzhak Sadeh (right) and Shimon Avidan, Givati Brigade commander, 1948. Photo: Nadav Man, Bitmuna, the Yitzak Sadeh Collection. Collection Source: Yoram Sadeh, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The soldiers of this new brigade had no time to celebrate. The situation was dire. Fighting began immediately and once the Arab states invaded in May of 1948, the Jewish Yishuv was under attack from all sides. The 5th Brigade was sent to the most difficult fronts, taking part in some of the most significant battles in the War of Independence, such as Operation Yoav in October 1948, the conquest of Julis, as well as the famous battles for Kibbutz Nitzanim and Kibbutz Negba.


The Battle for Negba


Kibbutz Negba member at work, 1947. Kibbutz buildings visible in the background. Photo: Nadav Man, Bitmuna. Kibbutz Negba – Early Days Collection. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

In 1939, a new kibbutz was founded by settlement groups formed by the Hashomer Hatza’ir movement. At first it was called Givat Ganim. A year later, the name was changed to Negba. At the time, Negba was one of the southernmost Jewish settlements, between Kiryat Gat and Ashkelon. It sits near the border with Gaza, and it was across this border that the Egyptian forces came, reinforced by mercenaries from Sudan and militia fighters representing a new religious-political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Michah Netzer, a soldier in the Givati Brigade’s 54th Battalion, recalled: “North of Negba was Ibdis Hill, on which there was a large outpost belonging to the Egyptian Army. From this hill, on a clear day, you can see across the country, at least as far as the Gederah area. On the night the soldiers of the 53rd Battalion raided Ibdis, they surprised the Egyptians. And despite the surprise, fewer than half the soldiers made it back on foot. There were many wounded and dead. But they succeeded. They succeeded in conquering the hill and also seized a lot of equipment.”

Soldiers of the Givati Brigade’s 51st Battalion seize Egyptian military equipment at the abandoned Ibdis outpost, 1948. Photo: Benno Rothenberg. From: Benno Rothenberg Archive, the Israel State Archives, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

“When we arrived the night after to replace them, we established ourselves on the ground and many volunteers arrived from settlements in the area at lightning speed and began helping us dig communication trenches and defensive positions protected from shells and artillery. That night, Yisrael Galili, who was the Deputy Defense Minister, arrived and he told us – ‘I saw the thin ranks, but the spirit fills in the breaches. That spirit is the spirit of Givati.’ Thanks to that nighttime operation, my platoon suffered fewer losses.”

Yisrael Galili, volunteering to help dig trenches along with civilians and soldiers, 1948. Photo: Aryeh Peck. From the Aryeh Peck Collection, Kibbutz Na’an. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Despite the fighting spirit and overall effort of the Yishuv, the young State of Israel suffered many losses, including soldiers and civilians. Some 6,000 were killed in the war, a full percent of the total Jewish population of the country in 1948.

Ezra Hirschfeld, a soldier in the Givati Brigade’s 54th Battalion, who died at the age of 18. Photo courtesy of the Haganah Heritage Organization website

One of the fallen was Ezra Hirschfeld, who was working as a young journalist for the Al Hamishmar newspaper when he was called to enlist in the Givati Brigade. He was barely 18. During the fighting, he kept a diary describing his feelings as well as the battles themselves. Here’s what he wrote on July 13, 1948:

“I don’t remember any other moment in my life in which I felt the insignificance of man. His incapacity and glaring helplessness. Over there, a kilometer and a half from me some Egyptian artillerist is adjusting the targeting device, coolly calculating the shift in wind, degrees, and distance, and operating the mechanism. Now the firing process begins: a cap is punctured, gunpowder set alight, gasses create pressure, the shell is released. 5 seconds later it will explode into 1000 sharp fragments, each of which alone can bring death, floating in the air. And all that time sit I, Ezra Hirschfeld, a civilized man more or less – ‘the apex of creation’ homo sapiens anyways, bent over in my trench with no influence whatsoever on the flight path of the shell, not even by so much as a millimeter, no ability to evade it, or defend against it, all I can do is bow my head covered in a thin steel helmet and…wait for the shell to explode. Whether this shell falls on my head and tears me into dozens of pieces or explodes at a distance of five meters from me and eliminates my friend without my being harmed at all, or explodes out there in the field without causing harm to anyone, or doesn’t explode at all – all these questions hang in the air, dependent on the wind.”

On July 28, 1948, Ezra was seriously injured on the battlefield, dying a few hours later. He was 18 years old.

A report on the death of Ezra Hirschfeld, a soldier and reporter for Al Hamishmar newspaper. Hatzofe, August 2, 1948

After 1948: Samson’s Foxes in the Field


Givati soldiers in training. Photo: Tzvi Redlich Collection. This item is part of the Israel Archive Network and is made available thanks to the collaboration between Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi, the Ministry of Heritage, and the National Library of Israel

Despite the heavy loss of life, Israel succeeded in defeating the five armies that besieged it by the end of the War of Independence and even expanded its borders beyond the territory assigned it in the UN Partition Plan. In October 1948, Israel succeeded in conquering the southern Negev region from the Egyptian Army in Operation Yoav, after it had been cut off from the rest of the country, thus securing a significant military advantage for the remainder of the war.

Following the 1948 conflict, the Givati Brigade continued to serve as a significant force within the IDF. Its character was changed slightly and its activity, as a jeep patrol unit among other things, was expanded after the war. The brigade’s name was also changed and the unit now became known as Samson’s Foxes. This name was coined by Abba Kovner, then the brigade’s education and cultural officer.

“The soldiers of Givati are the successors of Samson”, Kovner wrote, making reference to the biblical hero who perished when he collapsed the Temple of Dagon upon himself and his captors, declaring: “Let me die with the Philistines”. Kovner continued – “And just as the Egyptians of today are not just the successors of the ancient Egyptians, but also the successors of the Philistines, so are the Givati soldiers the descendants of David and Samson and they must fight an uncompromising war against them and the company of jeeps at their head must be called ‘Samson’s Foxes.’”

But over the years the brigade was significantly pared down. A major change came in the mid-1980s. As part of the lessons learned from the First Lebanon War, Givati was reestablished as the brigade with the purple berets we know today.

In this second incarnation, especially since the early 1990s, Givati stood out as a unique infantry brigade, specializing in the Gaza Strip region. In the late 1990s, its popularity reached a peak thanks to the Israeli TV drama Tironut (“Basic Training”), which was a huge hit and which told the story of soldiers in a Givati Battalion.

The Givati anthem became well-known in Israel as a result of the TV show. In one famous scene, the trainees are asked by their sergeant to sing the song, with one of the soldiers changing the lyrics at whim and, of course, being punished for it. The anthem was written by Amos Etinger and put to music by Effi Netzer:

“At the sight of the sun rising, the sunsets of spring

I heard the voice of the spirit

A spirit which wanders about

A spirit we call Givati

Those who dreamed of Givati, those who breathed Givati

Those who walked the paths along with us…”

As opposed to the first version of the Givati Brigade, the second incarnation did not come about under emergency conditions stemming from the various pressures of war. Rather, this reformation was based on strategic thinking – the Givati Brigade was designated as a special infantry unit trained to carry out the most sensitive tasks. Since its original establishment, Givati’s soldiers and commanders have been known for their courage and bravery, as those who always take part in the most difficult and significant battles and operations.

From the War of Independence to the current war in Gaza, for seventy-five years, one thing has continued to accompany the Givati Brigade – that unique spirit which makes up for the lack in numbers, the spirit of Givati.

We Shall Return: The Spirit of Kibbutz Nirim Will Prevail

"We shall return" - these were the words printed in Hebrew on t-shirts made by the survivors of Kibbutz Nirim. These words embody a history of heroism, pioneering, culture and Zionism which should serve as a model for all of us. Kibbutz Nirim, founded in 1946, faced a desperate battle for its very existence just two years afterwards. It survived then and survives now thanks to the unique spirit of its members.

25-year-old Dora Avni, a member of Kibbutz Nirim, cleans her rifle as her two sons, six-year-old Amir and two-year-old Arnon watch her, 1955. Amir was killed at the age of 22 when his tractor hit a mine while he worked in Nirim’s avocado grove. Photo: Moshe Fridan, courtesy of the Government Press Office; the Hebrew words in the lower left corner are "Anachnu Nachzor" (We Shall Return), this logo was designed by Arnon Avni, a graphic artist and member of Kibbutz Nirim

“Three elements came first to Nirim in the desert: the cows, the babies and the library. The cows – a testament to the growth of the farm, the babies – a testament to faith in the future, and the library – a sign and parable of high culture.” (Shula Ram, one of the founders of Kibbutz Nirim, in her introduction to the book The First Fifty Years, 1946-1996 (Hebrew), published in honor of Nirim’s fiftieth anniversary)

Nirim’s beginnings were very modest – just four shacks comprised the first settlement point for Kibbutz Nirim (then Dangur), on land just a few kilometers from its current location. The kibbutz was set up before the State of Israel had even been born, just after Yom Kippur in 1946, as part of the “11 points” plan, when 11 new settlement points were established overnight and under the nose of the British authorities, most of them in the southern Negev region.

Aerial photo of Kibbutz Nirim at the Dangur settlement point, 1946. Unknown photographer. Source: National Photographic Collection, Government Press Office

Nirim is a kibbutz established by Jews born in Israel, or “sabras” (the nickname refers to a desert cactus known to be prickly on the outside but sweet and soft on the interior). They were alumni of the Hashomer Hatza’ir youth movement affiliated with Labor Zionism, who also served in the Palmach, a branch of the Haganah. Later, they were joined by additional groups of immigrants from various countries, but some of that rough and stubborn “sabra-ness” stuck to all the members of the kibbutz’s founding generation, and helped them overcome the many difficulties they encountered over the years.

39 young men and women lived in the small outpost that comprised Kibbutz Nirim at the time, cultivating and protecting it. They worked in agriculture, in difficult conditions where water was brought in wagons and handed out sparingly. Aware of the dangers of residing in a border community, the kibbutz members fortified their location as much as they could, building bunkers and defensive trenches.

Kibbutz Nirim members on their way to work in the fields, 1947. Photo: Zoltan Kruger. Source: National Photographic Collection, Government Press Office

In their difficult and heroic battle during the War of Independence, members of Nirim faced an attack by hundreds of Egyptian soldiers who stormed the simple fence erected around their settlement point in Dangur. Somehow, someway, they managed to stop them. With the few weapons they had, they systematically and intelligently fought in order to create the impression that they represented a far larger force than they actually were. They suffered casualties, but so did the Egyptians, who were apparently stunned by the ferocity of the fighting, which they did not expect from such a small outpost and which led them to flee. 11 of the members of the young kibbutz, almost a third of the male and female fighters, were killed in that attack.

Members of Kibbutz Nirim digging trenches before the War of Independence, 1948. Unknown photographer. Source: National Photographic Collection, Government Press Office

Before the battle, a celebratory sign was hung over the shack serving as Nirim’s dining hall, an expression of the spirit of the times: “It is not the tank that will win, but the human being in it.” After the battle, the destruction left behind was so great that hardly anything remained in Dangur. The entire shack was destroyed. Only the wall and its sign remained standing, a symbol of the spirit of the members of Nirim, who survived that difficult day of battle.

Sign on the wall of the dining room shack, the only one standing at the end of the battle: “It is not the tank that will win, but the human being in it” – left from a celebration of May Day, 1948. Photo courtesy of Dr. Eldad Haruvi of the Palmach Museum
This article from Davar describes the mourning process of the members of Kibbutz Nirim, a year after the battle. The headline quotes the slogan on the sign in the previous photo. May 16, 1949

Hardly a year passed, and the bruised but proud kibbutz published a special commemorative booklet in May, 1949: “Nirim Against the Enemy,” telling the story of the attack on Nirim and its fallen. This booklet is an early example of the cultural activity and spirit that would yet develop and flourish in the kibbutz in the years to come. This booklet includes the first appearance of a unique memorial Yizkor prayer, which would serve Kibbutz Nirim throughout its existence during Israeli Memorial Day services:

“We will remember our comrades – our finest members who saturated the parched ground of the Negev with their blood.  A malicious hand plotted against the little we built, which we planted and sowed, it could not defeat us for before it stood the faces and arms of the builders of the Negev, of the liberators of Jerusalem, brave soldiers – of eleven comrades who swore: They shall not set foot on our land!”

“Nirim Against the Enemy”, published a year after the Battle of Nirim in the War of Independence

In the 1949 memorial booklet, members expressed both mourning over the destruction and the loss along with hope and determination to press on:

“The beautiful Dangur with its red thatched roofs, which we so often took pride in, was destroyed and burned, shack by shack. Everything above was burned, but the Egyptians didn’t penetrate the [settlement] point. Nirim in Dangur was destroyed and another Nirim will be built. In a place close to the place where our comrades fell, we will erect our homes. And there in our new place, we will erect a monument, a dear living witness to our comrades who fell.” (Benny, p. 39)

Members wanted to preserve the memory of their fallen comrades as a living, vital thing, not as a silent monument. The flourishing of the kibbutz was their monument, as they promised in the memorial booklet:

“A year passed. Months passed – and we were not healed. The signs of the disasters that befell us in just one year were etched deep in our hearts. Correct are those who say that everyone carries a small cemetery inside them.

We need a monument bearing witness to the lives that were cut down. We want a home which will preserve their image, with their smile.

We will erect a house of culture. A house of culture which will be for the leisure of a comrade after his work is done. A place of emotional and cultural refreshment – such as they, our comrades who are not with us in this hour, would want it to be.

Not a memorial monument alone, not a silent stone. A house thrumming with life, a house for generations and for our children after us.

And in this house their image will be preserved, everything that was and remains alive in our hearts and all they had will be preserved. For them to be with us day after day, hour after hour, and for the expression of our shared lives to be deeper, more honest.

This needs to be a good, warm and pleasant house of culture, a house which will bind to it the parents, the relatives and friends. This is the project which will be erected in their memory.”

The first decade was also hard on the members of Nirim, who had to deal with innumerable challenges of survival in the impossible conditions of a desolate wilderness, little water, blinding sandstorms, and impassable access roads.

Kibbutz Nirim members opposite a work chart, showing their assignments for the coming day or week, 1955. Photo: Moshe Fridan. Source: National Photographic Collection, Government Press Office
Nirim children taking a walk through the kibbutz’s defensive trenches, at the entrance to the shelter adjacent to the children’s home. Likely early 1960s. Photo: Benno Rothenberg. Source: the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Although life in Nirim was never entirely peaceful when it came to security, the hardships didn’t dampen the spirits of the kibbutz members. They remained proud of their heritage, and lived up to the vision of the kibbutz’s early members. This was expressed in the songs which were a central part of Nirim’s culture.

When the kibbutz decided to print its own song book, the members chose the unequivocal title – This Is How We Sing Here – Nirim 1956-1967. The songs were collected by Orah Chasin, a kibbutz member who eventually departed Nirim, for whom this collection was a sort of farewell gift for those she left behind. It was likely published around 1967, before the Six-Day War, when things were relatively quiet on the kibbutz. The booklet is an example of the unique and wide-ranging culture which developed in Nirim, which strengthened the sense of pride and belonging its residents felt.

Cover of This Is How We Sing Here – Nirim 1956-1967, copy held at the National Library of Israel


The first song appearing in the collection is a local Nirim version of Shir HaShalom – “The Song of Peace” – a song that was well-known throughout the kibbutz movement and which was written by Nirim member Tziki Dinstein during the Sinai Campaign of 1956. The song courageously expressed the striving for a shared, peaceful life with Arab neighbors, which seems like a distant dream now but which was sung innumerable times in Kibbutz Nirim. The opening verse could be translated as:

“See gentlemen, there will be a new order,

There will yet be peace on our border

And we’ll travel to Khan Yunis to see a move flick,

With Abdul Wahab, in spoken Arabic.”

The Lyrics of Shir HaShalom – “The Song of Peace”

The booklet ends with the representative statement:

“You will yet see what kind of kibbutz there will be here in Nirim! The kind that others will come to from other Kibbutzim to learn their lessons [Hebrew: shi’urim – lessons]!!”

Over the years, the kibbutz was considered one of the undisputed pillars of Jewish settlement in the Western Negev and the Gaza border region. A well-known joke in neighboring Kibbutz Nir Oz demonstrates this nicely:

“When you ask a Kibbutz Nir Oz member where he’s from, the answer is ‘next to Nirim’…when we were kids, we tended to make fun of the children of Kibbutz Nirim who thought they were the center of the world; so we said that we are ‘next to Nirim.’ Or in other words: we are next to the center of the world (important, but less so).”

-Hadar Rubin, on her Facebook page

T-shirts printed at Kibbutz Nirim also express this sense of local pride, a pride which even the events of October 7 could not trample. They were all designed by Arnon Avni, an illustrator, graphic artist, and caricaturist and a member of Kibbutz Nirim. On this shirt, the first to be printed, the kibbutz is placed among the largest, most famous cities in the world:

“Paris, New York, London, Nirim.” Photo courtesy of Yinon Hefetz, from Kibbutz Nirim. Design: Arnon Avni

The shirt below, printed to mark the end of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, reads: “Not Giving Up on Nirim.”

Ela Bargil of Kibbutz Nirim, with a shirt reading – “Not Giving Up on Nirim” – printed in Nirim in August 2014 to mark the end of Operation Protective Edge. Design: Arnon Avni. Photo: Arnon Avni

During the October 7 Massacre, five people were killed in Nirim – three kibbutz members and two guests. Four kibbutz members and one guest were also among those kidnapped to Gaza. Now, with 2023 nearing its end and after the tragic events which struck the kibbutz and the whole western Negev region, the strong spirit of Kibbutz Nirim is being felt once more, and a new shirt (not yet printed) now bears the simple message – “We Shall Return.”

Proposed shirt design by Arnon Avni. Regarding the thought process behind the shirt, Avni writes: “…it features an anemone [type of flower] which is a kind of symbol of the whole [Gaza] border region which we are all part of and also two petals which have wilted. Those who choose to see them as drops of blood or a kind of broken heart – will not be missing the point. The words ‘We Shall Return’ are the journey we have begun. They are written in a freestyle which can be seen as a signature, as a guarantee.”

The shirts are a moving testament to the kibbutz members’ sense of belonging to their land and the amazing project they built on it, despite the enormous difficulties. It’s the kind of local pride which strengthens those who remain. It’s perhaps not surprising that Nirim was the first kibbutz to publicly declare that its members have decided to return home as soon as this becomes possible.

We will end with the final lines of that Yizkor memorial prayer from 1949:

 “We will remember them, their nicknames, the times of comfort and pain that they lived through with us. For in all that we will build and erect, their name will yet arise and be remembered. Without words – in the founding of a building, in every dunam of land we sow and reap – for that was the yearning of their soul, in life and in death.”

May the kibbutz recover its former glory in our own day, as well, with the same speed and the same passion that was felt after the War of Independence, a passion to build and grow. May the memory of the murdered serve as fuel for rebuilding, for pioneering activity and cultural creation, things they know so well in Kibbutz Nirim.


In the preparation of this article, we made use of Galia Heller Kramer’s seminar paper:
 יצירה עצמית של חברי קיבוץ נירים בשנות החמישים והשישים [Hebrew].

We would like to thank Kibbutz Nirim members Bar Hefetz and Anat Marla, for their help in preparing this article.


This article is part of our special series: “Life on the Border: A Tribute to the Communities of the Gaza Border Region”

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