Jew of the Week: Motta Gur

Liberator of Jerusalem, Hero of Israel

Mordechai Gurban (1930-1995) was born in Jerusalem to parents who had both made aliyah in 1913. He joined the Haganah defence force shortly after his bar mitzvah, and went on to its special forces Palmach unit. With the formation of the IDF in 1948 he became a paratrooper, and by this point shortened his last name to “Gur”. After the war, he served in the special forces under the command of Ariel Sharon. In 1955, Gur led Operation Elkayam into Khan Yunis, destroying a key Egyptian military installation, routing their forces, and taking out 72 troops (compared to one Israeli fatality). This led a frightened Egypt to finally sign a ceasefire with Israel, and to stop supporting Palestinian fedayeen terrorists directly. Gur then headed to Paris to study at its prestigious military academy. He returned two years later to take over the helm of the Golani Brigade, transforming it into the IDF’s most illustrious unit. In 1967, Gur led the recapture of Jerusalem (the 55th anniversary of which is this Sunday, Yom Yerushalayim). His radio declaration that Har HaBayit beYadeinu! (“The Temple Mount is in our hands!”) was broadcast to jubilant Jews around the world (see video here). Gur ordered an Israeli flag put up on the Dome of the Rock. When Moshe Dayan saw it through his binoculars, he immediately radioed to take it down, shouting “Do you want to set the Middle East on fire?” Gur believed recapturing Jerusalem’s Old City was his life’s purpose, and even boldly told IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren back in 1961 that he would be the one to liberate it. Gur was promoted to Brigadier General after the war, and took up oversight of Gaza and the Sinai. Two years later, he was promoted to Major General and took over the Northern Front. In 1972, he was posted as military attaché in Washington, and only returned after the Yom Kippur War to ensure such a catastrophe would never happen again. He became Israel’s 10th Chief of Staff, rebuilding the military and reinvigorating it with renewed morale. In 1976, he planned and oversaw Operation Thunderbolt to save hostages in Entebbe. One of his last missions was a successful 1978 operation into Lebanon to wipe out terrorists. After retiring from the military, he first went to study for a year at Harvard, then went into politics and became a Member of Knesset in 1981. In 1984 he became Minister of Health, and in 1992 was appointed Deputy Minister of Defense by Yitzhak Rabin. Initially, he supported Rabin’s peace initiative but soon saw the negotiations went nowhere and believed the Palestinians used the Oslo Accords as a ruse. He came to oppose the peace process and, despite battling cancer, started planning a run for prime minister. Gur suddenly died shortly after at just 65 years old, which gave rise to an unfortunate conspiracy theory: The death was officially ruled a suicide, yet the accompanying note appeared forged, and the gunshot wound could not have been self-inflicted, leading many to believe he was deliberately silenced. (Rabin would be assassinated just a few months later, launching another conspiracy theory.) Whatever the case, Gur was undoubtedly one of the greatest soldiers and military heroes in Israel’s history. He had also published three popular children’s books and three military books. Today, there is an army base named after him, as well as a street and school in Modi’in.

Jerusalem: 4000 Years in 5 Minutes (Video)

Rabbi Sacks: What Jerusalem Means to Me

The Abandoned Crown of David: Reflections on Yom Yerushalayim

Words of the Week

Can you imagine what the reaction would have been in the Muslim world if a photograph of that had been published? I’m proud that we raised the flag, and I’m relieved that we took it down.
Arik Achmon, the IDF soldier who had put up the Israeli flag on the Dome of the Rock

Jew of the Week: Shimon Lavi

Father of Libyan Jewry

Shimon ibn Lavi (1486-1585) was born in Spain and exiled with his family during the Spanish Expulsion of 1492. The family settled in Fez, Morocco, where Lavi studied to become a rabbi. He then sought to make aliyah to the Holy Land, but was kidnapped along the way near Tripoli by Arab brigands. After being ransomed, he found the Tripoli Jewish community in need of a rabbi so he stayed there. It was Lavi who opened the city’s first yeshivas, established a beit din, and went on to make the city one of the largest Jewish communities in North Africa. He is often credited with being the “father of Tripoli Jews”. Rabbi Lavi was the community’s official representative to the government, and served as the Ottoman governor’s personal physician. He was also a major Kabbalist, alchemist, and mystic. In fact, he wrote the popular song “Bar Yochai”, in honour of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai whose teachings would become the Zohar (the primary “textbook” of Kabbalah) and who is celebrated on Lag b’Omer. Lavi wrote a commentary on the Zohar called Ketem Paz, as well as a dictionary translating some of the Zohar’s most cryptic words. He was widely known as a miracle worker, and was revered by Jews and Muslims alike (the latter refer to him as “Ibn Limam”), with his tomb serving as a major pilgrimage site in Libya.

Lag b’Omer Begins Tonight!

How To Celebrate Lag b’Omer

Video: Secret Origins of Lag b’Omer

Words of the Week

One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.
Carl Sagan

Jew of the Week: Gamliel Cohen

Father of Israeli Espionage

Gamliel Jamil Cohen (1922-2002) was born in Damascus to a religious Syrian-Jewish family, and grew up in the city’s Jewish Quarter. Yearning to live in the Holy Land and inspired by the Zionist vision, he left Damascus at the age of 21 and literally walked to Israel. He joined a kibbutz started by Ashkenazi immigrants. Despite being the odd one who was darker-skinned and spoke no Yiddish, Cohen quickly fell in love with the sense of unity and brotherhood, as well as the important pioneering work of developing the Jewish ancestral homeland. His uniqueness caught the attention of the Palmach, the commando unit of the pre-IDF defence force, the Haganah. The Palmach sought to launch an intelligence unit that could infiltrate Arab governments, and were looking for talented and dedicated Arab Jews. In 1944, Cohen became their first recruit. Together with Iraqi Jew Shimon Somech, they created the first unit of Mista’arvim (recently popularized by the show Fauda). The term itself came from the name of the ancient Mizrachi Jewish communities living in Arab lands that were distinct from, and pre-dated, the Sephardic Jews that joined them after the Spanish Expulsion of 1492. After several years of training, Cohen moved to Beirut in 1948 and set up Israel’s first official intelligence outpost, living undercover as Yussef el-Hamed, a textile shop owner. By this point, his operation was overseen by the newly-formed Mossad. Cohen’s trailblazing work and espionage innovations paved the way for more famous later spies like Shula Cohen and Eli Cohen. In 1954, Cohen married a fellow Syrian Jew who also worked for the Mossad. Together, they moved to Paris undercover as Arabic journalists. Cohen managed to get hired by the Syrian Embassy in Paris, from which he sent critical intelligence to the Israeli government. In 1958, the Cohens moved to Vienna to continue their work as “journalists”. In addition to infiltrating the embassies of Arab states, they also found information on neo-Nazi groups and exposed war criminals in hiding. Cohen retired from active duty in 1964 and went on to train the next generation of Israeli spies. In his last years, he wrote the book Undercover: The Untold Story of the Palmach’s Clandestine Arab Unit. Almost all of Cohen’s work remains classified. He has been called the “father of Israeli espionage”.

Happy Israel Independence Day!

Zionism Before Zionism

Words of the Week

The U.N. did not create Israel. The Jewish state came into being because the Jewish community in what was Mandatory Palestine rebelled against foreign imperialist rule. We did not conquer a foreign land.
– Yitzhak Shamir