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Chapter One Sampler

by Stephen G. Esrati

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Israel 1948
Yokhanan 1

Rosh Pina is in Upper Galilee. Founded in the 1880s by Baron Rothschild’s settlement organization, it was the first Jewish village in the area. The red-tiled roofs of its houses recalled the south of France despite the Hebrew signs, the felafel seller along the road to Tiberias, the jackals that cried in the night, and the huge anopheles mosquitoes that came in from the Huleh at dusk. Before the century ended, Rosh Pina was joined by Mahanayim, Mishmar Hayarden, and Yesod Hama’ala.

In the 1930s, Yokhanan Galili and his father used to go skiing in Lebanon. Me’ir Galili, who thought his son was a Paavo Nurmi on skis, sent the boy off to America and Switzerland to race. Yokhanan realized he was outclassed, but insisted that if the ski meets flew any flags at all, then the Jewish flag had to be flown to include his presence. He won no prizes, but his performance in the slalom was praised for a skier from a country where it never snows. The inhabitants of Rosh Pina, on the other hand, who mostly disliked Yokhanan’s father, deprecated Me’ir for sending Yokhanan half way around the world just to glide down a snow-covered hill. Me’ir was the town’s richest man and the villagers despised what they called his extravagance. Even before the formation of the Egged bus cooperative, Me’ir was well off because he owned the village restaurant and its general store. When he started to drive the bus from Metulla to Haifa, his wife, Leah, took over the business while his brothers looked after his fields.

Yokhanan was sent off to school at Gymnasia Herzlia in Tel Aviv, the best school in the country, instead of Rosh Pina’s two-room structure. The villagers showed their contempt to Leah in the store with sarcasm and mockery. But, in 1937, when Yokhanan entered Hebrew University, their attitude abruptly changed. They were now proud of the village boy who had made good. Leah forgave their slurs; but Me’ir, unable to forget the taunts and jibes, never warmed up to the others again. In return, they managed to get him kicked out of the Egged bus cooperative, which cited his other interests as making him ineligible for the cooperative.

After Egged expelled Me’ir, he was paid back some of the money he had put into the co-op. He used it to build a bar next to the store. English police and Allied troops in Palestine, mostly Poles, filled Me’ir’s coffers as they consumed the local malt beer and other drinks.

To the other villagers, it seemed that worship of the Palestine pound took second place only to Me’ir’s interest in his son. He hired people, including two Druze and a Christian Arab, to work his fields and he put his brothers to work driving his two trucks—boldly lettered with “Me’ir Galili Trucking” in three languages—around Palestine and the surrounding countries. He built a new house, a modem structure of concrete and stucco for which he hired the world-renowned Tel Aviv architect Erich Mendelsohn.

In 1935, a Jewish orphan from Damascus took up residence in the house and started going to the Rosh Pina school. Yokhanan saw this boy, Akiva Barzilai, only during his own school vacations. At first, they had little to say to each other; later, they became friends, although Akiva always felt awkward around Yokhanan and Yokhanan wondered why his father had brought the boy to their home.

In 1942, a Polish soldier with thick glasses came into the bar and watched Me’ir intently.

When the bar was empty, the Pole approached Me’ir and whispered: “I was the leader of Betar in Poland. I need to make contact with the Jabotinsky movement here in Eretz Yisrael. Do you know anyone who could help me make such an approach?”

Me’ir looked at the slight figure in front of him and said, “If you are Menachem Begin, I am the man you want to see.”

And so, about a week after his arrival in Palestine, Begin deserted the Polish army to join Irgun Zvai Leumi. He was driven in Me’ir Galili’s truck to the Fortress of Ze’ev, the Betar headquarters on King George Street in Tel Aviv.

As soon as he was inside, Begin asked for David Raziel, commander of the Irgun.

“He is dead,” he was told. “He led a British force that was sent to topple the pro-Axis regime of Rashid Ali el-Gailani in Iraq. He has been dead almost two years. Where have you been?”

“I was in Soviet camps and just reached the homeland as part of the Polish army. Permit me to introduce myself. I am Menachem Begin, natziv of the Polish Betar.”

The man he was talking to, stuck out his hand and said, “Tel Hai! Welcome home!”

"Tel Hai,” the name of a village in the far north of the country, was the greeting of Betar because it was where Yosef Trumpeldor died during an attack by Arabs.

While his father poured the drinks, Yokhanan served in the battle of El Alamein, the capture of the Mareth Line, and the storming of the Italian Winter Line, and, eventually, in the occupation of Holland. It was Yokhanan who had the famous encounter with a French general who relieved the German encirclement of the Palestinians at Mechili, southwest of El Alamein.

Yokhanan was then a captain in a company of Jewish engineers attached to the King’s West African Rifles who were laying mines around Mechili, the god-forsaken outpost fifty miles from Bir Hakim, where the French were under siege. The British general directing operations in Egypt ordered the Jews to hold Mechili at all costs when the Germans and Italians attacked. The Germans sent in a tank under a white flag and demanded the surrender of the strongpoint.

Yokhanan replied: “We have no white flag! This flag we shall fly. It is the blue-and-white flag of Zion!”

The German officer was surprised, saying in British-accented English, “My God, you are Jews!”

He clicked his heels, saluted, and withdrew. And then the siege began. The tanks came first, then the Stukas. Three weeks later, when only forty-five of Yokhanan’s original five hundred men were still alive, French tanks broke through to Mechili.

Yokhanan had ordered the Jewish flag run up to mark his position during General Pierre-Marie Koenig’s final advance. But when the siege was lifted, Yokhanan ordered it pulled down.

“Why are you lowering your flag?” Koenig asked.

“We are not allowed to fly that flag,” Yokhanan replied.

“Leave it up,” Koenig ordered. Then, he turned to his own men and ordered: “Soldats français, le drapeau juif, salut!”

After the war, Yokhanan returned to philosophy and religion in the classroom—interests that had been stimulated by two experiences, the first in his youth, the second in the army.

He had never been able to forget the anguish suffered by another boy at Gymnasia Herzlia who was the son of a non-Jewish mother. They became friends and Yokhanan heard other boys taunt Yigael as a bastard. They excluded the uncircumcised Yigael from their games, baited him as a “goy” and a “Nazi,” and challenged him to innumerable fights.

The rabbis denied Yigael a bar mitzvah, ruling him not to be Jewish, so word spread that if he could not have a bar mitzvah, he must be a girl. Yokhanan was able to rally a small number of friends to Yigael’s defense. These boys went out of their way to show the unfortunate boy that he was their equal. By the time they were graduated, all had been forgotten because Yigael and his mother had gone through the humiliating—and for Yigael, painful—rite of conversion to Judaism, including the circumcision.

The pressures that caused those conversions rankled Yokhanan almost as much as the rabbinate’s unwillingness to accept the Jewishness of his own group of converts, the Jews of Sannicandro. It was when the British Eighth Army was just past Bari and while the American Fifth Army had just roared through Naples. It was before the British allowed the Jews of Palestine to have a full-sized unit of their own, despite their heroic efforts at Tobruk and at the French breakout from Bir Hakim. Palestinians in the Eighth Army were scattered around, a few of them in infantry units. They were not allowed to wear a Palestine flash on their uniforms or to fly their own flag. But they wore the patch and, whenever they could, they flew their flag.

Yokhanan’s company was attached to a Polish infantry division. No love was lost between the Poles and the Jews. Just before Passover 1944, the company was given a week’s leave to observe the Jewish holy days. They were ordered to go to Sannicandro. They were told nothing about the village.

When Yokhanan’s company drove into the village aboard the standard Bedfords with Yokhanan leading the way in a jeep, Yokhanan went to the municipio to find quarters for his men. He could talk only to a flunky, but the flunky noticed the illegal Palestine flash Yokhanan wore on his sleeve.

“È questo Palestina?”—Is that Palestine?—he asked, pointing to the patch.

Yokhanan, whose Italian was limited, said, “Si.”

“Aspettate uno momento!”—Wait a moment—the clerk said, rushing out of the building.

A few minutes later, he brought in Donato Manduzio, the leader of the Jews of Sannicandro.

Manduzio brought along an interpreter.

The story was unbelievable and Yokhanan had to run out of the municipio to tell his men: “Some Pole has been nice to us. He sent us to a Jewish village for Passover.”

When he got back to Manduzio he learned the full story:
“It was right after the Fascist March on Rome in 1923. I had a dream in which I heard Moses, our teacher, say to me that I should have no other gods but the Great God Jehovah, blessed be He. I went to Bari, to the library and to the library at the university. I found the Old Testament in Italian. I was able to borrow it because, they told me, nobody ever uses it. After I read it, I studied about the Jews, I studied about the history of the Jews, and I became a Jew.

“Twenty-three families in this little town also became Jews. We saved some money, and I was sent to Palestina, to the Holy Land, to buy a Torah for our town. I asked the office of the chief rabbi of Rome to send us teachers, so we could learn to read the Torah, so we could learn the Holy Language, so we could become circumcised. We didn’t even know what was meant by that. The rabbinate said no. We were not Jews. The Fascists also said we were not Jews—and this was a good thing because they did not turn us over to the Germans.

“So here we are, about a hundred uncircumcised Jews, who have a Torah and cannot read it, who have a synagogue, but don’t know how to use it. Can you help us?”

Yokhanan was deeply touched, but he could not help. Only one of his men spoke Italian.

“No,” Manduzio said, “I was not expecting your men to circumcise us or anything like that. I was hoping they could take us home with them, to Palestina, to the Land Jehovah promised to Moses.”

“We cannot help there, either. Our land is occupied by the British. They will not let Jews in. But let us celebrate the Passover together.”

“When is it?” Manduzio asked.

“It starts tomorrow. Our cook will bake unleavened bread. Will your people join us for a Seder?”

Yokhanan had to explain what he was talking about. And there was a Seder in the village square, on tables made from saw horses and planks. The women of Sannicandro set the tables, using sheets for tablecloths. Yokhanan’s men found all the necessary objects for the Seder except the horseradish, so they ground up carrots and poured vile-tasting grappa over them. A child was taught to ask the Four Questions, and he was answered in simple Italian. The age-old answers were all news to the Jews of Sannicandro.

After Yokhanan’s company returned to the front, he thanked the Polish regimental commander for having sent his men to Sannicandro.

“You are welcome,” he was told. “I thought it would be amusing for you.”

Even after Yokhanan’s company was absorbed into the new Jewish Brigade Group, Yokhanan’s interest in the Jews of Sannicandro continued. Later, in 1944, they were recognized as Jews by the chief rabbi of Rome, but not by the chief rabbi of the Jewish Brigade, who demanded a full Orthodox conversion, including circumcision. Manduzio agreed to the circumcision, but only if it was to be done by trained surgeons, not by laymen whose only experience was with infants. The brigade’s rabbi refused.

The visit by Yokhanan and his men, however, had made the Jews of Sannicandro into Zionists, Zionists who wanted to live nowhere but in the Promised Land.

Yokhanan’s interest in “his” Jews never flagged. In his final year at the university, he wrote a thesis on the development of their beliefs. His correspondence with Manduzio and other elders continued until the Jews of Sannicandro settled into their own village in the Galilee after the Israeli War of Independence. Yokhanan was the guest of honor at their consecration of their house.

“We have all been circumcised,” Manduzio’s son told him. “My father would have been so proud. But he died before we left Italy.”

“Who circumcised you?” Yokhanan asked.

“Tel Hashomer Hospital. It was still very painful, but there was no damage to anyone. We were so afraid of ritual circumcision.”

Soon after Yokhanan finished his studies, he founded the Association Against Religious Compulsion. Its objective was to promote a change in the mandatory regime’s laws on religious status. The British had merely retained all the rules and regulations of Ottoman Turkish irades, permitting religious courts of the three great faiths to control marriage, adoption, divorce, and inheritance. The association campaigned for civil jurisdiction and, in addition, sought to foster resistance to the two Orthodox Jewish hierarchies, Ashkenazic and Sephardic, which banned any other form of Jewish worship in Palestine, effectively halting the introduction of the Reform and Conservative movements. Not that Yokhanan wanted to join a Reform synagogue, but he wanted one to exist so that if he ever did want to join, he would have been able to.

The association, however, made no impression on anyone during the bloody days at the end of the British mandate. Everyone had more important things to think about, including Yokhanan, who was on the Haganah staff in Jerusalem. His job was to plan the defense of the Old City, but he never had to carry out that project, which ended with the complete victory of John Bagot Glubb’s Arab Legion. Yokhanan had been sent to America to join the arms buyers for the Haganah.

Before leaving Jerusalem, Yokhanan marched at the head of a slowly moving funeral procession in which eighteen shrouded corpses were carried on horse-drawn wagons to save gasoline in the encircled city. The dead had been in a convoy bringing water and food to the City of David. Two of the trucks had signs saying they belonged to Me’ir Galili of Rosh Pina. Thus, Yokhanan helped bury his father, his mother, and his Uncle Gabriel, victims of the stretch of death at Bab el-Wad.

After escaping from Lebanese captivity in Baalbek, Yokhanan hid in the daytime and walked all night. Fearing far better police work in Lebanon than was actually the case, he dared not visit any of his acquaintances. It took ten slow nights to reach Marjayoun, a village on the Israeli–Lebanese frontier. But the entire area in front of him was sealed off by Arab troops, so he backtracked until he reached another part of the border. He went around Taibe until he reached Wadi Doubbe, then followed it to the Jebel Haroun. Crossing a ridge line near dawn, he saw the Valley of the Upper Jordan in front of him. He awaited full daylight and started creeping and crawling toward the road that crossed his path toward Israel. A barbed-wire entanglement projected out into the Lebanon from the village on the Israeli side of the road, the kibbutz of Menara. He crawled under the first strands of wire, and was fired upon. He took off his keffiyeh and shouted. The firing stopped.

“Stay where you are. Do not move,” he was told in Arabic through a megaphone.

A small group of men, each armed with a rifle, came out of Menara toward him. They went around the defense perimeter and brought him out as he had entered. That way they did not reveal the path through their own mine field.

Yokhanan was led to the dining hall, several rifles constantly pointed at him. A man who did not identify himself questioned him, at first in Arabic, then in Hebrew.

“Who are you?”

“Yokhanan Galili from Rosh Pina.”

“Me’ir Galili’s son?”


“Are you a thief like your father?”

“I honor my father and my mother. If you will not, you should be ashamed. They died in the defense of Jerusalem!”

“What are the names of your uncles?” he went on, ignoring Yokhanan’s previous answer.

“Gabriel, Moshe and Menachem. Gabriel also died at Bab el-Wad.”

“What is a sitzmark?”

“The mark you would make if you attempted to ski.”

“Welcome home, Yokhanan. I must say you found an unusual way to arrive. What were you doing in Lebanon?”

“I was imprisoned in Baalbek by an act of piracy in which our ‘friends,’ the Americans, sided with the Arabs. I escaped and spent more than a week to get here on foot. Let’s cut the pleasantries. I would like to get to my unit in Jerusalem. How do I get there from Menara?”

“Very funny! You cannot get there from here. The entire Upper Galilee is cut off. Jerusalem is also cut off. Between here and Tiberias, you will find units of Fawzi el-Ka’ukji’s Arab Liberation Army, Glubb Pasha’s Arab Legion, and several brigades of Syrians. As you go south, the Iraqis are almost at Herzliya. And here, we are cut off from the rest of Galilee except from Kfar Giladi, from which we are separated by an impassable cliff. We are up; they are down.”

“How did you reach them before the war?” Yokhanan asked.

“That road you crossed is on our side of the border. We could take it north and south and could descend at the Nebi Yusha police fortress, which the Palmach captured last week. But we cannot use that road now.”

“Can I get to Jerusalem if I can get down to Giladi?”

“Not easily,” he was told. “There are Pipers that land in Metulla, but we do not want them to take chances. They are still forced to fly where Arab rifles can shoot at them. Let me show you on the map. These are Ka’ukji’s positions. We can push a force past Ayelet, but getting to Rosh Pina is not yet possible.”

“Can you inform the Haganah commander in Jerusalem that I’m stuck up here?”

“Why tell Shaltiel? I’ll report you in up here. We’re expecting to open the whole area the minute this goddamned U.N. cease-fire ends, so you’ll have plenty to do right here. Meanwhile,” he said, looking at Yokhanan’s suit, “you better get some clothes in the makhsan.”

“Thanks. Who are you, by the way?”

“Gidon. I’m a member of Menara.”

When Yokhanan had changed into the standard kibbutz garb of khaki shorts and a short-sleeved blue shirt that may have belonged to a woman because its buttons went the wrong way, they went to a communications trench and followed it into a bunker overlooking the plain east of the kibbutz. A home-made telephone switchboard and a knapsack-type military radio of British origin indicated that this was Menara’s command post. The switchboard was hooked to each of the defensive positions on the perimeter and to the other bunkers by wires that were buried only inches under the ground. The radio was part of Haganah’s net. There was no one in the bunker.

“Where is everyone?” Yokhanan asked.

“We evacuated the women and children to the Valley of Jezreel and we are only twenty-two people. In the daytime, one man is on watch on the silo and one in each defense point. The rest of us try to do the work. At night, we all man the defenses. Now, let me call you in.” He inserted a wire into a snap bracket and turned a crank. “Gidon here. Shmuel? Yes ... Listen, Yokhanan Galili, Me’ir Galili’s son, just turned up in the meshek. Yes... Well... he wanted to tell Shaltiel in Jerusalem that he’s here. Can you do anything? ... What? ... What? ... Wait a minute. Here, he wants to talk to you.”

Yokhanan took the phone as Gidon pulled a crushed pack of cigarettes from his pocket. He lit one for Yokhanan and handed it to him.

“Hello; hello, Shmuel? ... I’ll try, but Gidon says we are cut off. I’ll ask him. ... What?... Sure, here he is.”

Gidon listened, then scratched his chin pensively as he turned the crank to end the call. “I think he’s meshuga, Yokhanan.”

“Why? It sounds perfectly reasonable. Can you get me to Giladi?”

“Now is a poor time. It is late.”

“I don’t see what the time has to do with it,” Yokhanan said.

“It is best to leave Menara at dawn to keep the sun in the Arabs’ eyes. Do you think he can wait until tomorrow?”

“It sounds like he wants me right now.”

“Then you must go down the cliff to Khalsa. We are between you and the Arabs in Lebanon, and we have captured Khalsa. In honor of the men who died in the defense of Tel Hai with Trumpeldor, it is now called Kiryat Shmone, the village of the eight. It would be too dangerous to try to get to Giladi.”

“Very well, can you get me a pick, some rope, and a rifle?”

“Sure. Leave them with Shmuel when you get down there.”

Using the pick as an alpenstock and with the rope tied around his waist, Yokhanan made his way down the cliff. Several hours later, he walked into the Khalsa police station, asking for Shmuel.

“Shmuel who?”

“I don’t know his last name. He’s the Haganah commander here.”

“Oh, you mean Shmuel Hasbani. I’ll take you.”

Shmuel was the Egged bus driver who had taken over Me’ir’s route. He was a member of Ayelet and knew Yokhanan well.

“When did you become Hasbani?”

“On Independence Day. Like it?”

"It’s geographical like mine. Why not?”

The Hasbani is one of the three sources of the River Jordan and flows through Tel Hai.

“I like it better than Ginsburg. But I didn’t ask you to break your neck coming down here for pleasantries. The cease-fire ended this morning. We are in combat all over the north. Come, let me show you the situation map.”

Areas held by Jews were marked in blue on an acetate overlay; those held by Arabs were in different hatchings of red to designate Syrians, Ka’ukji’s men, Glubb Pasha’s Legion, and local Arabs. Shmuel took a pointer and quickly sketched out his plan for clearing all Arabs out of Upper Galilee. To hear Shmuel tell it, it would be simple.

The campaign was called Operation Barosh, Operation Uppercut. It was intended to prevent a Syrian attack to link up with the Lebanese at Malikiyeh, the Lebanese town the Israelis had booby trapped as they withdrew. Other objectives included lifting the siege of Mishmar Hayarden, now occupied by Syrians, and clearing the road from Rosh Pina to the north. Then they would turn south and go after Ka’ukji.

The Jewish attack on Mishmar Hayarden was already in progress. Four separate columns were moving toward the Syrian bridgeheads across the Jordan. Shmuel’s task was to clear the road to the south and, after getting past Ka’ukji, to connect the Upper Galilee with the rest of Israel. But several days earlier, a terrible thing had happened when a group of Irgun soldiers came north from Tiberias on their way toward Mishmar Hayarden. At Rosh Pina, they were stopped by Haganah forces, who beat them into bloody pulps and confiscated their arms and equipment. The Irgun men made their way back to Affula, where they told their story. On the next night, it was broadcast over The Voice of Fighting Zion, the broadcasting station of the Irgun.

“Right now,” Shmuel told Yokhanan, “we are assembling a column of armored cars and men at Ayelet. They are going to move out in about an hour. Our people are also coming down from Safed and, when the two groups make contact, they push Ka’ukji into the Lebanon. When he is running, the hilltop settlements are to cut off his retreat.”

“How do I fit in?”

“Come to Ayelet with me. You should report to Danny and take over one of his units. Its commander is a youngster who hasn’t even been through leadership school.”

“What does Danny have, a battalion?”

“Yes, but without the artillery or any of the other stuff we had in the Eighth Army.”

“OK,” Yokhanan said, but in truth he did not like it.

All the way to Ayelet he wrestled with the problem of taking command of a unit without knowing its men, the training they had had, or the level of their equipment. He knew he could not make any command decisions without knowing more about the unit or its mission. At Ayelet, Danny had the same misgivings. He asked Yokhanan to stay with the youngster and to help him only when needed.

What Yokhanan saw in Ayelet was also not encouraging, The “armored cars” were trucks with varying amounts of sheet metal attached. The best mobile weapons were two jeeps with machine guns mounted on unipods; so they could fire across the hood.

At one thirty—late in this war in which most attacks began before dawn—the column moved out of Ayelet. Firing from Mishmar was drowned out by the noise of their engines.

The battle never developed. Ka’ukji had withdrawn during the truce and the road to Rosh Pina was clear. Joined by the small column that came down from Safed, the battalion turned north toward the Lebanese frontier. Shmuel recalled them after they were well inside Lebanon without having met any resistance. They were rerouted to Mishmar, where the fighting had gone badly and the Syrians had broken out of their bridgehead.

During the next ten days, before another cease-fire was ordered by the United Nations, Israel captured Ramle and Lydda, most of the Galilee, including Nazareth, opened the roads to Upper Galilee and stopped two Egyptian attacks in the south. Their only setbacks were at Mishmar, where the four-pronged Israeli assault was badly botched, and at Latrun, where Genia HaCohen had been wounded.

While the second cease-fire was in effect, Yokhanan reported to Jerusalem. He was told to remain where he was, holding the command he had taken from the youngster during the Syrian attack on Ulpanim.

When the war ended, Yokhanan and his unit were in Eilat, spearheading what was now called the Golani Brigade. Meanwhile, Shmuel had gone to the general staff, Danny had been killed during Ka’ukji’s full-force attack on Menara, and Yokhanan had been given command of Shmuel’s battalion. The army had assumed ranks, and saluting had been instituted. Girls were taken out of combat units, the dissident Irgun (which had captured Ramle by mounting a blitz with stolen British jeeps) had been disbanded, the air force had bombed Cairo and Damascus, and the navy had raided Tyre and had sunk the flagship of King Farouk’s Egyptian fleet.

On the Golani Brigade’s last operation, Moshe HaCohen of Golania had been named brigade commander and the staff work began to function in the best tradition of the British Eighth Army, the new army’s godfather.

The Golanis scored Israel’s most illustrious victory of the War of Independence when they crossed the southern wilderness, without water, to capture Eilat on the deep blue Gulf of Aqaba. The men were restrained from diving in and going swimming. Only after a defense perimeter had been set up and the guns sighted on positions in Trans-Jordan was the command given: “Go swimming.”

Arab Legion troops could be seen on their side of the Israel–Trans-Jordan border. A British destroyer lay at anchor at Aqaba, its guns ominously pointed toward Eilat.

The gulf was paradise. The water was warm and crystal clear.

Yokhanan swam over to Moshe HaCohen, hollering: “What now, Moshe?”

“Me, I hope to go back to Golania. What about you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Two wars in one man’s lifetime is too much for a man to take. What a waste!” Moshe said.

“An American once said, ‘War is hell,’ Moshe.”

“He was right; he was so right. Not to change the subject, though, isn’t it beautiful here? I have visions of a marvelous winter resort if UNO doesn’t make us give it up.”

“They will. Then the Arabs can let it go to hell for another two thousand years. Did you know that this was King Solomon’s port?”

“Yes. In my signal, I flashed: ‘Bay of Solomon is ours!’ ”

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