Tag Archives: War of Independence

Jew of the Week: Yitzhak Shamir

In Memory of a Great Israeli Prime Minister

Yitzhak Yezernitsky (1915-2012) was born in what is now Belarus and spent his youth in Poland. As a young man, he joined Betar, the Zionist organization founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky. After a short time studying law at the University of Warsaw, he made aliyah and changed his last name to “Shamir”, after King Solomon’s Biblical stone-cutting tool used to construct Jerusalem’s Holy Temple. Tragically, his entire family that remained back in Europe was killed in the Holocaust. Before his father was murdered by villagers, he reportedly said: “I have a son in the Land of Israel, and he will exact my revenge.” Shamir joined the paramilitary Irgun force to fight off British rule, and later was part of the more aggressive Lehi, or “Stern Gang”. For his activities, he was imprisoned a number of times. (During one imprisonment, he met his future wife Shulamit, who had been arrested by the British for “illegal” immigration, having escaped Nazi-allied Bulgaria by boat.) In 1946, Shamir was arrested again and this time exiled to Eritrea in Africa. He managed to escape by digging a 200-foot tunnel, and found asylum in France. Shamir moved back to Israel immediately after the Declaration of Independence in 1948. He participated in the War of Independence, and later joined the Mossad. One of his main missions was Operation Damocles, to assassinate former Nazi rocket scientists helping Egypt develop missiles. He later resigned from the Mossad due to controversy over that operation. In 1973, he was first elected to the Knesset as a member of Likud. He became Foreign Minister in 1980, and Prime Minister of Israel in 1983. A hard-liner, Shamir opposed the peace treaty with Egypt, blocked a planned 1987 “regional peace conference”, and opposed the 1991 Madrid peace talks. When the Soviet Union began to fall apart in 1989, many Soviet Jews were fleeing to the United States. Shamir stepped in to stop the “insult to Israel” (as he called it) and said Soviet Jews were not refugees, since they had a home in Israel. The US changed its refugee policy and henceforth most Soviet Jews immigrated to Israel. Similarly, when the Ethiopian government collapsed in 1991, Shamir ordered Operation Solomon to airlift 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Shamir steered the country through the difficult years of the First Intifada and the First Gulf War. During his premiership, Israel established formal relations with over a dozen countries. He stepped down as Likud leader in 1993, but continued to sit in the Knesset until 1996. It was Shamir who launched Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career by appointing him to his first post (Israel’s ambassador to the UN). He would later leave Likud due to disputes with his young protégé, and only returned to the party in 2001 to support Ariel Sharon. That year, he also received the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement. Shamir left politics entirely in 2004 due to declining health. He wrote two books, including an autobiography. He has been described as one of Israel’s bravest warriors and most influential leaders. His yahrzeit is this Sunday.

Words of the Week

In their war against Israel’s existence, the Arab governments took advantage of the Cold War. They enlisted the military, economic, and political support of the communist world against Israel, and they turned a local, regional conflict into an international powder keg.
– Yitzhak Shamir

Jew of the Week: Moshe Dayan

The Military Genius Who Made Warand Peace 

Moshe Dayan (1915-1981) was born on the first kibbutz, Degania Alef, to Jewish-Ukrainian parents. He was named after Moshe Barsky, a kibbutznik from Degania who was murdered in an Arab attack. At just 14 years of age, Dayan joined the Haganah defense force. In 1936, he began training with a British military unit headed by his hero, Major General Wingate. During World War II, Dayan was part of a unit that ran covert operations in Nazi-allied Vichy French territory and participated in the Allied invasion of Syria and Lebanon. In one battle, a sniper bullet missed his head, but the resulting shrapnel destroyed his left eye. His eye muscles were ruined, too, so he could not be fitted with a glass eye, and henceforth wore his characteristic black patch. During Israel’s Independence War, Dayan commanded the Jordan Valley units, and was able to stop the Syrian advance. He also led the takeover of towns like Ramle and Lod, and was part of the negotiating team that brought the war to an end. In 1949, Dayan took charge of the Southern Command and worked to secure Israel’s borders. This meant a policy of strong retaliation for Arab attacks, at times brutal. While it brought him a lot of condemnation, Dayan insisted that it was “the only method that proved effective”. In 1953, Ben-Gurion appointed Dayan the new Chief of Staff, and the latter went on to implement Ben-Gurion’s “three-year defence programme” to reorganize the IDF. Among his accomplishments was founding a military academy for high-ranking officers and establishing new intelligence units. In 1955, Dayan and Shimon Peres signed a series of deals with France to strengthen the IDF, leading to the purchase of over 100 jets, 260 tanks, and 300 trucks. In 1956, Dayan led Israel’s operation in the Sinai (jointly with France and England) and proved his military genius. The French later awarded Dayan with a Legion of Honour. After retiring from the IDF, Dayan joined Ben-Gurion’s government as Minister of Agriculture. During the Six-Day War, he took the military reins again as defense minister and oversaw the liberation of Jerusalem. He remained defense minister until the Yom Kippur War, after which he resigned due to what is generally considered to be his greatest failure. He subsequently fell into a deep depression. In 1977, Dayan returned to government as foreign minister and, no longer the hawk he once was, played a key role in the peace treaty with Egypt. Dayan spoke Arabic fluently, and lamented that more Israelis didn’t. He wrote four books and was also an amateur archaeologist, amassing a large collection of antiques which are now at the Israel Museum. In 1981, he founded a new political party, Telem, but passed away shortly after from a heart attack and complications of cancer. The New York Times eulogized him as “a general who made war, a diplomat who made peace.”

Words of the Week

We cannot save each water pipe from explosion or each tree from being uprooted. We cannot prevent the murder of workers in orange groves or of families in their beds. But we can put a very high price on their blood, a price so high that it will no longer be worthwhile for the Arabs, the Arab armies, for the Arab states to pay it.
– Moshe Dayan

 

Jews of the Week: Bielski Partisans

The Jewish Avengers

Tuvia Bielski

Tuvia Bielski (1906-1987) was born in a small village near what is today Navahrudak, Belarus (then part of the Russian Empire). When the German Army occupied the area during World War I, he was called to work for them as an interpreter, since he knew Polish, Russian and Yiddish. After the war, his hometown reverted to Polish rule, and Bielski was drafted to the Polish Army. He finished his service with the rank of corporal, then returned home to work in the family grain mill. When Nazi Germany invaded in 1939, Bielski was called up to fight. His cousin Yehuda Bielski (1909-1994), who had served as an officer in the Polish Army, was called up, too, and was shot in the leg. When SS troops stormed his hospital, he managed to escape. The Poles surrendered shortly after and the Bielski cousins returned to their village. The Nazis arrived there in the summer of 1941 and forced all the Jews into the Navahrudak ghetto. Tuvia, his sister, and three brothers fled to the Naliboki Forest; their parents, and two other brothers, were killed in the ghetto. The wife and baby daughter of his brother, Alexander “Zus” Bielski (1912-1995), were killed as well. In the forest, the Bielski brothers and 13 friends formed a paramilitary group under the command of Tuvia and brother Asael Bielski (1908-1945), launching a guerrilla war campaign against the Nazis. Through a Christian friend, they got a letter out to cousin Yehuda to join them and share his military expertise, which he did after escaping the ghetto.

The Bielski Partisans quickly grew to a force of about 150 fighters, and freed over 1200 Jews (including Jared Kushner’s grandmother) from the ghetto and surrounding villages. They worked to sabotage Nazi plans, destroying 4 bridges, 23 train cars, 32 telegraph lines, and killing nearly 400 soldiers. Their primarily goal, however, was to save lives. (Tuvia’s motto: “I would rather save one old Jewish woman than kill ten German soldiers.”) The Bielski Partisans built their entire life in the forest, constructing a school and hospital, bathhouse, bakery, tannery, synagogue, and even a courthouse and jail. The place became known as “Forest Jerusalem”. It had 125 full-time workers who also supplied the Soviet Army and other partisan forces in the area. The Nazis soon placed a 100,000 Reichsmark reward for the capture of Tuvia, and in August of 1943 launched a huge operation in the Naliboki Forest. While they were unable to suppress the Bielskis, they damaged most of their infrastructure, and punished many surrounding villages. The Bielskis ultimately joined forces with the Soviets and helped drive the Nazis out. (Throughout this time, they kept the identity of Yehuda secret, since the Soviets considered Polish officers to be enemies, and would have executed him immediately.) After the region was liberated in the summer of 1944, the Soviets turned on the Bielskis and the brothers fled. Unable to escape, Asael was conscripted to the Soviet Army and died in the Battle of Konigsberg in 1945. Tuvia and Zus, along with younger brother Aron Bielski (b. 1927)—who was only 12 when the war started—made their way to Israel and fought in the new state’s Independence War. Yehuda Bielski was there, too, and was injured in battle yet again. He rose to the rank of lieutenant in the IDF. The Bielskis eventually settled in New York, where they built a successful transportation company with a fleet of taxis and trucks. The story of the Bielski brothers was featured in two books, and a Hollywood film, Defiance, starring Daniel Craig as Tuvia.

Words of the Week

It’s the small acts that you do on a daily basis that turn two people from a “you and I” into an “us”.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), the Lubavitcher Rebbe

The Bielski Partisans in the Naliboki Forest