The Oscar Winner and Plungė

Recent passing in the UK of celebrated Academy award-winning scriptwriter brings back memories of his Lithuanian roots

By Danutė Serapinienė

First appeared in the local Lithuanian newspaper and translated into English with the help of the writer‘s  daughter, Rita Williams.

On September 8th 2020, at the age of 85, the South African-born British author, playwright, and screenwriter, Sir Ronald Harwood passed away. Best known for his plays for the British stage as well as the screenplays for The Dresser and The Pianist, for which he won the 2003 Acadamy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, Harwood‘s roots trace back to Plungė (in Yiddish Plungyan).

Cape Town born, Sir. Ronald Harwood in his study in London.

The writer‘s  father was born and spent his childhood in our city and this year marks the 15th anniversary of this celebrated writer‘s first and last visit to his father’s homeland.

Two classmates from Cape Town

Ronald Harwoods father was Isaac Horwitz. As a teenager, in 1902 he arrived in Cape Town in South Africa, and in 1934, his son Ronald was born. The boy found himself in the same class throughout his schooing at Sea Point Boys School as Abel Levitt, whose father was also from Plungė, but the two were unaware of this at the time. After matriculating, the friends parted ways.

In 1951, Ronald moved from Cape Town to London  to pursue a career in the theatre, and following an English master telling him his surname was too foreign and too Jewish for a stage actor, he changed it from Horwitz to Harwood.

In 1959, he married Natasha Riehle (1938-2013), the granddaughter of a 7th generation descendant of the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great and had three children – Anthony, Deborah, and Alexander.

From 1993 to 1997, Harwood was president of the International Club of PEN (Poets, Essays, Novelists),  and from 2001 to 2004, he served as president of the Royal Literary Society. The creative legacy of this writer would span 24 stage plays, 20 screenplays, 33 books and publications. Nominated 32 times for various awards, Harwood won eight, his most presigious being the Oscar for The Pianist, which revealed his strong interest in the Nazi period, especially the situation of people who either chose to collaborate with the Nazis or who faced strong pressure to do so and consequently had to work out their own personal combination of resistance, deception and compromise.

Sir Ronald poses with his Best Adapted Screenplay award for “The Pianist” during the 75th Annual Academy Awards in 2003 (Credit: Getty)

His schoolfriend Abel settled in Israel. Together with his wife Glenda, they pursued a path of honouring the memory of Abel‘s relatives and other Jews of Plungė killed during the Holocaust in Kaušėnai, and helped to establish the Tolerance Education Center at the Saulė Gymnasium. For their outstanding efforts in preserving Jewish history and culture in the Plungė district, Abel and Glenda Levitt were awarded in 2014 our Municipaliy‘s Badge of Honor. This was followed in 2019, when the Lithuanian Embassy in Israel awarded the Levitts‘ the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs badge of honor, the “Star of Lithuanian Diplomacy” for fostering relations between the Republic of Lithuania and the State of Israel and perpetuating historical memory.

Relations between the two classmates were resumed when Abel read Harwood’s novel “Home” and learnt that Ronald’s father had emigrated to South Africa from Plungė. Abel called Ronald and suggested “What about you and Natasha joining us in a trip to our shtetl Plungyan?” They immediately agreed.  

“Our Shtetl”. Plunge before World War II from where the fathers of both Sir. Ronald Harwood and Abel Levitt came from before emigrating to South Africa.(Photo Collection, 181co)

Returning to their Roots

On May 25, 2005, Ronald and Natash Harwood and Abel and Glenda Levitt arrive in Plungė and visit Jakov Bunka, known as “The last Jew in Plungė”. Next, they visit the Kaušėnai memorial, where 1,800 Jews from Plungė were murdered in July 1941. Although Ronald’s family had allready left before the Holocaust, he walked in silence, deeply moved, shrouded in the sanctity of the moment.

Next, our  guests visited Saulės Gymnasium, where in an open lesson held in the Assembly Hall, Ronald addressed the gathered students and teachers and spoke about the making of the film “The Pianist”, basing his script on the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish pianist living in Poland. After the Nazis occupied Warsaw, the musician, separated from his family, went into hiding for several years. The idea of ​​the film, explained Ronald, was not to give in to the terrible force of events and to remain a spiritually unbroken person. The screenwriter recounted how the lead actor, the talented American Adrien Brody, had to starve to appear physically like a hunted and hungry man. Not eating normally, the actor was naturally and constantly melancholy – contibuting to the realism of his performance. Admitting that he had  initially agonised how to begin the screenplay – the opening being so important –  he revealed that it was the film’s director, Roman Polanski whocame up with the idea of the main character playing the piano in the opening scene. The screenwriter took advantage of that advice – then came the inspiration to ‘compose’ all the frames and present the protagonist playing the piano in the finale. This film won three Oscars – Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay. Harwood took questions from the audience.

Somber Note. Adrien Brody in the role of Wladyslaw Szpilman, the real-life concert pianist who spent two years hiding in the ghetto of Warsaw during the German occupation of Poland in World War II seen here in Roman Polanski’s Holocaust The Pianist, screenplay by Sir. Ronald Harwood. 

Visiting that afternoon the Samogitian Art Museum, Harwood was met as he entered the hall with a melody by Frederik Chopin played by the pianist of Plungė‘s Mykolas Oginskis Art School. It was a moving introduction to his next encounter as it was the same melody from the opening sequence in The Pianist. It powerfully resonated; after all, the movie’s soundtrack symbolises a belief in life and human purpose that man can find in himself the strength to restore a shattered world even while enduring the horrors of Nazism.  

Music was his Passion, Survival was his Masterpiece. Poster for the award winning film, ‘The Pianist’ about Wladyslaw Szpilman.

Again speaking about the making of the film, Harwood also spoke  about himself and his father who came from Plungė, and answered questions from the audience. The meeting concluded with a photograph of all the participants.

The next day, the Harwoods and Levitts visited Kazys Vitkevičius, the last surviving rescuer of Jews in the Plungė district.

In 1941, at the age of 14, he helped his mother Emilia Vitkevichienė hide and feed Jewish girls. He did this by digging pits in which he hid the girls covered by branches, and bringing them food. Both his mother and Kazys were honoured by Yad Vashem as ‘Righteous among the Nations‘. Ronald and Natasha were visibly moved by the experience of meeting this special man.

At the special reception for our guests at the Municipality, Abel and Glenda Levitt were most impressed by Harwoods words to Algirdas Pečiulis, the mayor of Plungė:

Mr. Mayor, I know you have difficulties with the budget. I appeal to you no matter what you decide, don’t cut the cultural budget so as not to harm your community.”

These words inspired Abel and Glenda to organize with the Saulė Gymnasium Tolerance Centre, “The Ronald Harwood Holocaust Art competition”. Since that time, the Competition has grown from a local, then to a regional and presently to a national event.

Exposing the Past. Drawing by Karolina age 14, a participant in the annual Ronald Harwood Holocaust Art Competition. Note the open eye, an admission of seeing and knowing.

Seeing Light Beyond Darkness

The aim of the Ronald Harwood Holocaust Art Competition is to encourage students to explore a dark chapter in their history and to  express their understanding of it through art. Simply put, school children would be invited to dance, sing, write or paint their insights of the Holocaust.

Confronting History. ‘A Stain on History’ by student Bernadetta Plunge a participant in the annual Ronald Harwood Holocaust Art Competition.

In the spring of 2007, the final event of the first competition took place, which was attended by students and their teachers from Plungė, Palanga and Mažeikiai. Abel and Glenda Levitt came from Israel to assist in judging the competition, while Harwood, who was unable to attend due to commitments of work, sent a letter to the participants, which was read aloud to everyone. He wrote of his strong family roots to  Plungė and the memories from his last visit that gave him strength in his daily life. He believed that his late father, “would be deeply moved, knowing that I could breathe the same air he breathed as a boy and that I could look up at the same sky he did.”

Gone Forever. “Oblivion” by student Albertas from Plunge captures generations of young Jews lost forever in the Holocaust.

He recounted the impact it had on him hearing of the massacres and seeing the graves in Kaušėnai and meeting the heroic rescuer of Jewsish girls – Kazys Vitkevičius:

 “I learned that, despite the horror he experienced, he has survived as a bright example of goodness and courage. He showed the light where I saw only darkness.”

Your Ronnie”

In 2010, Ronald Harwood was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II of England and became Sir. Ronald Harwood and his wife Lady Harwood. The Tolerance Education Center at the Saulė Gymnasium congratulated  Sir. Ronald Harwood who replied with thanks ending his email – “Your Ronnie”.

Signing off with such familiarity from someone who mixed in social circles from world leaders to celebrity film stars, as well as being hosted  for a dinner by Prince Charles and Camilla on the occasion of the writer’s 80th birthday, truly resonated with the people of Plungė.

Sir Ronald Harwood receives a knighthood for Services to Drama Investitures at Buckingham Palace (Credit: Rex Features)

In the 13 years of the Ronald Harwood Holocaust Art Competition, over 800 students have participated. Over the years, interest in the competion has expanded geographically with particiation from schools in Ariogala, Kaunas, Klaipėda, Šiauliai, Vilnius, Alytus, Marijampolė and Kėdainiai. Such support for the goals of the competition offers hope that the current generation can help to create a more beautiful world.

In countries and cities abroad, Abel and Glenda Levitt have exhibited many of these fine artworks by students at schools  confronting the haunting question of “What happened to our Jewish communities during the Holocaust? ”

Towards A Tomorrow Of Tolerance. Lithuanian Ambassador Edminas Bagdonas (left) awards Abel and Glenda Levitt with the Medal of Honor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Lithuanian Embassy in Tel Aviv on the 4th June 2019. (Photo D.E. Kaplan.)
 

They are confronting through art their past to seek a more enlighened future.

At these exhibitions  – which have been held at Plungė Public Library, Biržai, the Israeli cities of Tel Mond, Netanya, Kfar Saba, Jerusalem, Herzliya, Ra‘anana, Tel Aviv, South African cities of Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban, as well as London, Toronto and Washington – the Levitts speak about Lithuania and the Tolerance Centre in Plungė, which promotes the values of humanity and tolerance through art. So thank you to Abel and Glenda in helping to  bring the better angels of our city to the outside world. Let me end with the words that “Ronnie“ concluded in his letter to the first contestant of the art competition:

Politics is temporary, but art is eternal.”

It can be said too that the life of Sir Ronald Harwood was temporary but his message eternal. He has left us a legacy that illuminates the road ahead for those that remain to follow.

Revealing the Truth. The writer Danutė Serapinienė (centre) receives an award from the President of Lithuania Gitanas Nausėda (right) for her contribution to educating about the Holocaust that took place in Lithuania.


The Lost Names of Lithuania. The first of two documentary films telling the story of the Jews of Birzai. This poignant film chronicles the astonishing group tour to BIrzai last year. The second documentary, now being made, will tell the depressing story of modern Lithuania (Click on the picture or caption).




About the Writer:

Danutė Serapinienė is a retired schoolteacher in Plungė. She recently received an award by the State President of Lithuania for her role in educating about the Holocaust in Lithuania.







While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

Remembering Rabbi Sacks – Giant of the Jewish World

Global Jewry mourns one of its greatest.

By Rolene Marks

Acts of kindness never die. They linger in the memory, giving life to other acts in return.” – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

The Great Communicator. Towering intellectual giant and warm endearing personality, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

This past weekend, on Shabbat, the Jewish world lost one of its greatest. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l, passed away at the age of 72 after a battle with cancer. As tributes pour in from around the world, from people of all faiths and backgrounds, we too, add ours to the growing international chorus wishing to show our deep appreciation for a true gentleman whose work impacted many and transcended boundaries.

A titan of the Jewish world, with a towering intellect, whose voice could at once stir and soothe, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was more than just the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth; he was seen by many as the Jewish people’s Ambassador to the world.

Ambassador for Faith and Morality. Former prime minister Tony Blair (right) presents Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (left) with a Lifetime Achievement award at the Jewish News’ Night of Heroes (photo credit: BLAKE EZRA PHOTOGRAPHY)
 

Known in equal parts for his majestic intellect, unwavering faith as well as his commitment to interfaith dialogue, Rabbi Sacks was a noted bridge builder and humanitarian whose wisdom and dulcet toned voice appealed to the religious and the secular, Jewish and non-Jew alike.

For many, regardless of faith, his gentle wisdom delivered in his unique soothing timbre would make any challenge seem surmountable, any conflict, resolvable.

Hope and Courage. Facing the future, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s TED Talk #174 was on “Navigate the corona pandemic with hope and courage”.

Renowned for his exceptional intellect, Rabbi Sacks penned many articles, books and other notable writings and would parlay this into a successful career as a speaker and media personality.  He was a sought after speaker on issues such as war and peace, religious fundamentalism, ethics, and the relationship between science and religion, among other topics. Sacks wrote more than 20 books and was lauded by many for making Judaism accessible to all.

Rabbi Sacks served as Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013 and was knighted by her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II in 2005; he was awarded a life peerage four years later in the House of Lords.

Rabbi Sacks made no secret of his great love for the State of Israel – or his concern for growing antisemitism and the threat it posed to world Jewry. He was a fierce advocate for the Jewish State and often her most vocal supporters in times of strife.  Rabbi Sacks was passionate about engagement with the youth, encouraging them to feel proud to be both Jewish and Zionist. He raised the alarm on rising antisemitism in a recent address to the UK parliament, warning that there were no longer any countries in Europe where Jews feels safe. He also courageously took a stand against former UK Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn who was emblematic of rising antisemitism in the UK.

The Prince and the Rabbi. Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks in conversation with Prince Charles (left) at the Chief Rabbi Sacks royal tribute dinner.

Rabbi Sacks was the consummate English gentleman. Perhaps it is HRH Prince Charles who said it best in his moving tribute when he said that Rabbi Sacks would be missed more than words can say.

We may never see the likes of this great scholar and humanitarian again. His passing poignantly reminds us of what we so sorely miss – and need.  Our deepest condolences to his family.

May his memory be eternally blessed.





While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

Rabin Remembered

From the personal to the political –  25 years on from the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin

By David E. Kaplan

While senior Americans may still ask each other where they were when they first heard the news on November 22nd 1963 that President Kennedy was shot, most Israelis are more likely to question of their own leader assassinated on November 4th, 1995:

What would have happened had he lived?

A Nation Stunned. Outside Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, Eitan Haber announces the death of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Saturday, Nov 4, 1995. (AP PHOTo/Eyal Warshavsky)

Reflections of “What If” have persisted unabated  every year this time on the anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was gunned down in office while addressing a peace rally in Tel Aviv in 1995. Despite his physical absence, his somewhat spiritual presence remains profoundly felt – even at places far beyond the borders of the country he so valiantly served.

More than killing a man, the assassin killed a peace process leading to an accelerated and deepening polarization in Israel  that has influenced the country’s domestic and foreign policy ever since. One wonders if Rabin had not been killed by Yigal Amir that fateful Saturday in November, would Israel be different today?

Whatever one’s perspective today on the Oslo Accords  – that had earned Rabin  the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize together with Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat – it was a daring gamble. What made the Prime Minister pursue this course was a question I put to his daughter, Dalia Rabin in an exclusive interview for Hilton Israel Magazine following the opening in 2010 of the  Yitzhak Rabin Center, which she serves as Chairman.

A Noble Affair. The architects of the Oslo Peace  initiative, Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin share the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts at reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.

A former Member of the Knesset and former Deputy Minister of Defense , Dalia explained it this way:

Look, for many years he was trying to deal with the local Palestinian leadership in the West Bank. He set up a forum, when they used to meet in his office on Friday mornings, but he realized that no sooner had they returned to their offices in Ramallah, they would call the guy in Tunis who called the shots.

So he reasoned, rather than talk to Tunis via Ramallah, why not talk directly to the guy in Tunis. If he is so strong, respected and charismatic, maybe he is the one who can deliver the goods and bring peace and so began the dialogue between my father and Yasser Arafat.”

The writer David Kaplan interviewing Dalia Rabin at the newly opened Yitzchak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv in 2010.

It was a huge risk on the shoulders of someone who caried the weight of the future of the Jewish state. He knew that to openly negotiate with Arafat would confer legitimacy on an international terrorist, whose oranisation had been associated with such atrocities as  the Coastal Road Massacre in March 1978, the Munich Massacre of Olympic athletes  in September 1972, and the Achille Lauro hijacking in October 1985.

Was it worth the risk

Depends on the man taking it said the late Eitan Haber who was one of Rabin’s closet friends. I interviewed the late Haber in 2015 on the 20th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination.

Yes, I met him in 1958. I was eighteen, drafted into the IDF and serving as a reporter for ‘Bamachaneh’, a military newspaper when the commander of the Northern Command befriended me. Little did I know that he would one day become Prime Minister?”

It was the beginning of a long and enriching journey. In 1985, when Rabin was Minister of Defense, he appointed Haber – then the military correspondent with Yedioth Ahronoth – as his special media adviser. The relationship peaked, when following Rabin’s election as Prime Minister in 1992, he appointed Haber as his adviser and bureau chief.

So why the risk of legitimising Yasser Arafat and the PLO (Palestinian Liberation organization)?

From Bullets to Handshake. (left-right) Yitzchak Rabin in his suit and  Yasser Arafat in military uniform, shaking hands at the White House, ensconced in Clinton’s wide embrace, immediately after signing their historic peace agreement in 1993. (Ron Edmonds/Associated Press)

Haber directed the conversation to one of Rabin’s biggest risk-taking decisions –  Operation Entebbe in July 1976. On Rabin’s orders, the IDF performed a long-range undercover raid to rescue passengers of an airliner hijacked by terrorists and brought to Idi Amin’s Uganda.

Haber says that “Rabin felt that the Entebbe Operation was probably the hardest decision in his life. Think of it, to send your best soldiers, thousands of kilometers away in Africa to rescue passengers guarded by highly-trained terrorists with the support of a crazy, unpredictable ruler like Idi Amin! Think of the odds. This was a ‘Mission Impossible’ – it was the stuff of a far-fetched movie. And yet, as it turned out, what was ‘far-fetched’, emerged within anxious hours a ‘stunning success’. Movies were later made – many of them – only it was based on fact not fiction, and it was a very, very brave decision of Rabin to give the go-ahead.”

In the end, only one Israeli lost his life – the commander of the operation, Lt.-Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of Israel’s current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

‘You left a worried country, return to a proud one’. In one of the greatest rescues of all time, Shimon Peres (left) and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (right) shares emotional moments with the rescued hostages following the Entebbe Raid in 1976.

Haber cited another example of Rabin’s risk-taking recalling when the broad, straight-back shoulders, always projecting the physical stature and demeanor of a military man showed emotion.

It was when the news came in during Rabin’s second term in office that Wachsman had been killed.”

The kidnapping in 1994 of 19-year-old IDF soldier Nachshon Wachsman by Hamas terrorists, was a traumatic event that emotionally drained the nation. Held hostage for six days, the incident ended in a failed Israeli rescue attempt during which Wachsman was executed by his captors. Three of the terrorists were killed. Tragically however, an Israeli officer was also killed in the operation, reminding Israel’s leadership of the high cost involved in authorizing risky rescue missions.

Rabin was sad, very sad and he showed it,” says Haber. “The political echelon was hopeful that Wachsman would be rescued; after all, they knew where he was held. Instead, we lost an Israeli officer as well.”

It nevertheless sent a resounding message that Rabin was ready to take risks to save the threatened lives of Jews – whether for a soldier close to home like Nachshon Wachsman or a plane-load of Jewish passengers on foreign soil, on a foreign airline, hi-jacked by terrorists. “Rabin gave credence to the policy that Israel – the Nation State of the Jewish People, would come to the rescue of Jews in peril anytime, anywhere,” said Haber.

Servant of the People

In contrast to the ‘cigar and champagne’ image of some of today’s leaders, “The trappings of high office never got to Rabin, as it might others with less moral stature,” says Haber. Supporting this observation, Haber reveals a feature of Rabin’s personality that was quite unique.

He constantly voiced to me the need to justify his monthly salary. He might have held the highest office in the land, but this man never forgot he was a servant of the people and that he had to give it his all.”

And in the end it cost him his life, not as a warrior on the battlefield but as a warrior for peace.

Maybe, Rabin subconsciously had a premonition. “He was obsessive with time,” revealed Haber. “He even used to eat quickly – within minutes his plate was empty. It’s not that he was being impolite – it’s that eating was boring, a diversion of doing something important; food for him was like gas for the car – you needed it to get somewhere.”

Arriving late anywhere was against his nature said Haber. “While I have known Prime Ministers who didn’t think being late was a big deal, this was not the case with Rabin. I recall when we were abroad, he always made sure he left early for a meeting or function and typically questioned his driver how long it would take to where we were going and had he considered the amount of traffic there might be on route. He had this nagging feeling that time was short; that it was against him and so he had to make the most of the time he had.”

“Did he fear his life might be cut short – that he would not live out his term of office?” I asked.

Who knows?”

Roads of Revelation

While streets in Israel are typically named after those that have contributed to the Jews in their land over four thousand years,  “I believe,” said Haber, “that it was most fitting that Israel’s Cross-Israel Highway (“Highway 6”) was officially dedicated as the ‘Yitzhak Rabin Highway’. He was such a powerful force behind this project as he was in pushing ahead with road development throughout the country.”

The Road Ahead. Instrumental in changing the landscape of Israel, Rabin championed Israel’s road building surge in the 1990s.

Haber’s observation resonated with this writer who recalls a meeting he attended in the Prime Minister’s office in 1995 with a delegation of the Jewish leadership from South Africa. After welcoming us each individually, he said, “I am not sitting behind a desk, please grab a chair and let’s sit in a circle.” We complied.

Well into addressing us on the political, economic and security situation, the Prime Minister suddenly paused and asked:

Do you know what still excites me?”

The question was rhetorical, so no-one ventured an answer, but for sure, most were thinking, “What could still excite a guy who was in his second term as Prime Minister, had previously been Minister of Defense, Ambassador to the USA, Chief of Staff and participated in most of the major national events, from all the wars to the Entebbe Raid?”

What’s left?” all thought at the time.

Rabin answered: “Waking up on mornings knowing that I would be cutting a ribbon that day opening a new stretch of road, a bridge or an underpass.”

After a lifetime of excitement, this sounded so mundane!

Only on the drive back from Jerusalem to Tel  Aviv, did the proverbial shekel drop! It was not so much the “stretch of road, bridge or underpass” where Rabin was cutting the ribbon that was so significant – it was what potentially lay ‘down the road’. The ‘road, bridge and underpass’ signified to the Prime Minister easier access to a better future – for they would lead to expansion – new towns, new factories and new lives. Rabin was a man of foresight, he looked not only at the road but down the road and beyond!

On friendship and Loyalty

Rabin’s  character reveals itself in a spat he had with Israel’s first Prime Minister – David Ben Gurion, following the latter’s insistence of the dissolution of the Palmach (elite fighting force of the Yishuv during the period of the British Mandate for Palestine), which Rabin had fought in.   Rabin – who was naturally proud of his Palmach record – found he faced a crisis of loyalty following his appointment in 1949 as commander of the Negev Brigade.

Yitzchak Rabin while serving in the Palmach.

While he had agreed with his Prime Minister that it was right to disband the Palmach – for the sake of one nation, one army – he could NOT bring himself to cut the strong ties of friendship and brotherhood that bound him to his wartime collogues in the strike force.

All this came to a head when the Palmach called its third international conference in October 1949 at the Tel Aviv Stadium. IDF officers, who were Palmach veterans were placed in an awkward position, since Ben Gurion had ordered his most senior ranking officers not to attend. Rabin, as the most senior ranking Palmach veteran was in a dilemma. Not wanting to disappoint his erstwhile Palmach comrades by not attending while at the same time did not want to jeopardize his career following rumors that the Prime Minister would dismiss any officer who did attend, Rabin nevertheless attended.

This act of defiance on Rabin’s part might be considered “as courageous or foolish,” as expressed by the late Robert Slater in the 2015 biography ‘Rabin – 20 Years Later’, but “it certainly demonstrated his integrity and strength of his convictions.” As Rabin later said, “I saw in Ben Gurion’s order a demand to disassociate myself from my friends, with whom I had fought and passed through the seven circles of hell, both before and during the war.”

As it turned out, the premier did not dismiss him but two days later he was reprimanded for breach of discipline.

This episode proved that Rabin was a man of principle who stood by his friends and comrades and a credit to the ethos of the Palmach that forged a nation.


Makers of History. Chief of Staff Yitzchak Rabin  (right) congratulates David Ben Gurion on his 80th birthday.

Leader’s Legacy

My father was a happy man; he loved life and loved his tennis,” Rabin’s daughter Dalia Rabin said concluding the interview at the Israel Museum in the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv in 2010. We were standing next to the glass-encased cabinet of Rabin’s rackets and tennis balls, testimony to the relaxed side of a personality that carried the weight of a nation on his broad shoulders.

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow. To promote democratic values, narrow socioeconomic gaps and address social divisiveness, the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv is dedicated to the legacy of the late Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin.

Earlier in the interview she had stressed the expectations of the Center having an impact on future generations. She explained:

We need to reach today’s young generation. We are all concerned about the increased level of violence, a thread, I believe, traceable to the night of the assassination. People woke up the next day to a new reality they were not prepared for. Unfortunately, the shock was never dealt with by the leadership of all political parties at the time and that has impacted on our culture. When you have tensions that are not addressed, when your minorities do not have adequate platforms to express their ideas and beliefs, it leads to frustration. Seeking an outlet, this pent up frustration can lead to violence. We believe that our initiative to ensure every schoolchild in Israel should visit the museum and hopefully thereafter attend our workshops will help address some of the pressing issues confronting our society.”

Adieu

Saying farewell to the daughter, I left with the pictorial image of the father  captured in a black and white photograph with the late King Hussein of Jordan, both conferring in private and puffing away at their cigarettes. It was taken at the royal residence in Aqaba after the signing of the historic peace treaty between their countries.

Time Out. From warriors in war to worriers in peace, King Hussein of Jordan and Prime Minister Rabin celebrate the fruits of friendship and peace at the royal residence in Aqaba after signing a peace treaty.
(photo credit: YAACOV SAAR/GPO)

 

From Warriors at War, they appeared as ‘Worriers’ for Peace.

It is this transition that Rabin is likely to be most remembered.



While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

Herbert had a Dream

Farewell to the lyricist of the world’s longest running musical, Les Misérables

By David E. Kaplan

It’s quite amazing how Jews from dorps in South Africa managed to dream way beyond their small towns and make it big in the wide world,” remarked international lawyer David Kretzmer from Kochav Yair at the time of his father’s passing in 2015.

Wordsmith in Israel. World famous lyricist Herbert Kretzmer (right) with his nephew David Kretzmer in Kohav Yair, Israel in 2015.

Born and bred in the “dorp” or “one horse town” of  Kroonstad in the Orange Free State (OFS), his father Elliot Kretzmer,  would emerge as the mayor of South Africa’s largest city – Johannesburg.

Small Town, Big Visions. Historic town hall in Kroonstad, South Africa where Herbert Kretzmer grew up.

Included in this observation of meteoric rise out of rural obscurity was his uncle visiting from the UK – Elliot’s brother, Herbert Kretzmer, the world famous lyricist who died this month in London at the age of 95.

With tributes appearing in newspapers around the world of the passing of the lyricist to the world’s longest running musical Les Misérables, the writer reflects on his 2015 interview in Israel with Herbert Kretzmer then aged 89.

Herbert’s voice was a low rumble who as one journalist had described:

 “If a coffee percolator could talk, it would sound like Herbert Kretzmer.”

Charming and witty, it was a delight passing time with Herbert  over copious amounts of his nephew’s 12 year-old Chivas Regal. The stories flowed as one was taken back to the world of film and stage and a ‘Who’s Who’ of the sixties and seventies. Herbert, as a top Fleet Street journalist – “before I was a composer” – had interviewed them all. He refers to a thank-you letter from Frank Sinatra, not for composing the lyrics to a song, but for an article he wrote on the singer: “Your column was most compassionate and sensitive, and I am most grateful to you,” wrote ‘ol’ Blue Eyes’.

Herbert dismisses the missive “on a loo level,” displaying as much reverence as pride, The letter appears in his publication ‘Snapshots – Encounters with Twentieth Century Legends’, a compilation of interviews with Tennessee Williams, Louis Armstrong, Truman Capote, Cary Grant, John Paul Getty, Marlene Dietrich, Marcelle Marceau, Groucho Marx, Niel Simon, Muhammad Ali, Judy Garland, David Niven the director of Exodus, Otto Preminger, Peter Sellers and many others. A Jewish angle is frequently evident. Sellers, he notes “as a supreme example of a man smothered by his mother,” while Marcelle Marceau, “the son of a kosher butcher, was in the French resistance, and escorted groups of children to safety using mime to keep them amused during dangerous crossings.” Most these ‘living legends’ would become his friends with one exception – Leni Riesestahl, Hitler’s favourite film maker. In that interview he abandoned his urbane charm. “If I had a stance, it was adversarial.”

One could hardly blame him.

Almost all of Herbie’s patrilineal cousins, grandparents, uncles, and aunts were murdered in Lithuania during the Holocaust. According to Michael Kretzmer whose late father was the songwriter’s first cousin, the mass murder took place on the 8 August 1941 in the family’s hometown of Birzai. Noting the “unimaginable sadism, torture, and rape on the part of the eighty Lithuanian murderers, fifty of them townsfolk and neighbours, Herbie Kretzmer,” asserts Michael “was the perfect response to that enduring wickedness.”

Stargazing

Herbert’s insights of the stars were riveting. Over breakfast with Yul Brynner – “owner of the most celebrated skull  in the world” – Herbert discovered a “shy philosopher”, while Walt Disney, “the creator of the most famous rodent in the world, confided mice frightened him.”

Although journalism played a major part of Herbert’s professional life, it is as a lyricist that he will be most remembered.

Old songwriters don’t die,” he says, “they just de-compose.”

The Write Stuff

It was way back in 1953 that Herbert moved from Johannesburg to Paris where he played the piano by night in a bar in return for a meal. A fair exchange for those struggling days but Herbert was on course with destiny.

A year later, he hopped over the Channel to the heart of the global media world – LONDON  – in pursuit of his dream that would reward him with award-winning journalistic career that included stints at the Daily Express and Daily Mail.

However, while his fingers pounded the typewriter penning his world famous interviews, his mind seldom strayed from his faithful mistress – MUSIC. It was a love affair that would change his life unimaginably, “beyond my wildest dreams.”

The swinging sixties saw Herbert writing weekly songs for the BBC’s groundbreaking satirical show “That Was the Week That Was,” that helped launch the careers of such luminaries in the world of television as John Cleese and David Frost. It was no less a launchpad for Herbert who would write humorous songs such as “Goodness Gracious Me,” to more poignant melodies like “In the Summer of His Years,” a tribute to President John F. Kennedy that was written hours after his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963.

The lyricist was fired up and inspired.

It’s Personal

There were further songs, including “She” which he wrote with French singer Charles Aznavour and which topped the British singles charts for a month in 1974. (*see below the lyrics)

While speculation as the song’s meaning ranged from about a lady who’d had a particularly volatile relationship with Charles Aznavour as “She sounded like quite a handful” to intended as the theme tune for a television series called “The Seven Faces Of Women”, Herbert would later reveal otherwise.

No, it was not about Charles but a British woman with whom Herbert had recently broken up following a yearlong affair!

How telling:

She may be the song that summer sings
Maybe the chill that autumn brings
…”

Just His Cup of Tea

However the really ‘big time’ was still in the future – as they say, written in the tea leaves. This time quite literally, when Les Misérables producer Cameron Mackintosh invited Herbert to tea in June 1984, a meeting that would transform his life.

Mackintosh would later express that Herbert was instrumental in bringing Victor Hugo’s classic tale of defiance and redemption in early 19th century France to the stage in English in October 1985, five years after it had opened in Paris. “His wonderful words for Les Misérables will live on in his memory forever more,” he said in a recent statement.

While the expanded English version of “Les Misérables” had mixed reviews initially, it would emerge one of the biggest successes of 20th century theatre.

Were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic, it would still be running in London, testament to the enduring popularity of the story as well as the songs, such as “I Dreamed a Dream”, “One Day More” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?

Glowing at the Globes

Arriving at the Beverly Hills Hilton for the 2013 Golden Globes, Herbert noted that his table “was an awfully long way back,” from the stage. No matter he thought, “I will not be making that walk.”  How wrong he was when the announcement came that ‘Les Miz’ won the award for Best Musical. “I’m in pretty good nick for 87 but by my calculations it was going to take me about half  an hour to get there. But adrenalin and applause are potent drugs,” he said. So along with Claude-Michel Schonberg, the French composer who wrote the score, and Alain Boublil, who first conceived the idea for a musical version of Victor Hugo’s novel and wrote the original French lyrics, “I positively cantered to the stage.” It was there, amid the blinding television  lights “and the gratifying cheers and whoops of the audience, that something rather special happened.” 

As he stood there, catching his breath and savouring the moment  “I felt someone gently slip their arm through mine – a much appreciated gesture of support and comfort.” It was academy award winner Anne  Hathaway. “Almost 30 years ago, I wrote a lyric — ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ – and Anne sings it so beautifully in the film that it can break even the stoniest of hearts.” Recalling when he sat in his Knightsbridge flat all  those years ago, “agonizing over whether the line about ‘but the tigers come at night’ would work or not, I never dreamed of what Les Misérable would become. Like Hugo’s novel, it’s one part chase story, one part moral fable and one part love story, but when you put those elements together the result has proved irresistible.” And yet, without Herbert, there might have not been the award winning movie.

‘Les Miz’ had been ticking along very nicely – the longest-running musical in the West End (27 years), the  third-longest running Broadway musical (16 years) and the second-longest running musical in the world, with openings in every major city having garnered eight Tony Awards – and then something phenomenal happened that even Herbert could not have “dreamed” possible. “This dumpy little lady walks on to a stage and within minutes she’s a universal legend. Everything about her is stardust as she revived interest not only in the song ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ but in the show. She gave it new life.” Susan Boyle’s show-stopping rendition of Herbert’s lyrics on Britain’s Got Talent in 2009, brought Les Miz to a new audience globally. “It proved too “irresistible” not to take the stage production to the next level – Hollywood!

Nearing the much depleted bottle of scotch, I wondered how many of Herbert’s famous interviewees – captured in “Snapshots” – would have guessed that he would become as celebrated as any of them by writing the English lyrics for the stage behemoth Les Misérables.

I am not a religious man,” Herbert reflects, “but I do feel I am in some way born under a rhyming planet,” one whose celestial path passed over Kroonstad.

As a 12 year-old country boy, Herbert had a dream.

“I saw myself on a hilltop with a microphone in my hand and the wind blowing in my hair. I knew that somehow, somewhere, I would be a communicator.”

A communicator he was.

Seen by more than 70 million people in 44 countries and in 22 languages around the globe, the stage production of the world’s longest running musical, Les Misérables is still breaking box-office records well after 30 years.

The boy from Kroonstad would emerge a worthy  recipient of the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French government and an OBE (Order of the British Empire) from the British monarch.

The song that made him most famous  – ‘I Dreamed a Dream’  – probably best encapsulated Herbert Kretzmer’s life!

As I sat opposite the great lyrist throwing back our last scotch, all that was left to say was – L’Chaim (“to life”).


She

She may be the face I can’t forget
The trace of pleasure or regret
May be my treasure or the price I have to pay
She may be the song that summer sings
Maybe the chill that autumn brings
Maybe a hundred different things
Within the measure of a day

She may be the beauty or the beast
May be the famine or the feast
May turn each day into a Heaven or a Hell
She may be the mirror of my dreams
A smile reflected in a stream
She may not be what she may seem
Inside her shell

She, who always seems so happy in a crowd
Whose eyes can be so private and so proud
No one’s allowed to see them when they cry
She may be the love that cannot hope to last
May come to me from shadows in the past 

Charles Aznavour – She 1974



While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

Passing of a Pioneer

The early years of Les Sheer who left a legacy on the landscape of Israel

By David E. Kaplan

Johannesburg-born, Les Sheer would frequently say to people, “Thank God for Israel, for without it I would never have had the most interesting life I have had.”

Times were Tough. An animated Les Sheer addressing his guests at his 80th birthday party where kibbutz Timorim was first established in 1948 on a picturesque hilltop opposite Nahalal in the Yizreel Valley.

How right he was!

The passing of Les (“Chaim”) Sheer at the age of 93 on the 13th October in the city of Rehovot  in central Israel, brought back memories of when I attended his 80th birthday party thirteen years ago. It was an illuminating history lesson that began for his 50 plus guests of family and friends packing into a bus and learning about the pioneering life on Timorim. Included among the guests was the late South African industrialist and philanthropist and former Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency, Mendel Kaplan, whom Les had been his anchorman in Israel for his multifarious business and philanthropic interests. On this day, we were like schoolkids as Les held court as schoolmaster.

His personal history mirrored the history of Israel.

Young and Idealistic. Les and Tzippy Sheer on kibbutz Timorim in 1950.

The bus did not head south to where moshav Timorim is situated today near Kiryat Gat, but north to a picturesque hilltop opposite Nahalal in the Yizreel Valley. It was here in 1948 that Timorim was originally established as a kibbutz by a core group of some 20 South Africans, all members of that country’s Bnei Zion youth movement. Many of them, like Les and Tzippy Sheer, got married before leaving South Africa. The bus puffed its way up the steep serpentine hill, where perched on top, stands the modern-day  community-settlement of Timrat.

The trees on the side of the road were planted by Tzippy,” says Les proudly, manning the bus microphone. “We were paid the princely sum of one pound a day by the JNF. It was hell climbing up this hill at the time, particularly through the mud in winter, and so one of our first jobs was building a road.”

An idealistic poster of Timorim established the same year as Israel in 1948.

It was on this road – albeit it improved over time – that the bus in high gear strained its way up to Les and Tzippy’s early life in Israel.

FRONTIER LIFE

Life “at the top” then was a far cry from today’s Timrat referred to as the “Savyon of the Lower Galilee”. Savyon in central Israel is one of the wealthiest municipalities in Israel.

Learning from Les. Presenting a history lesson, Les Sheer addresses his birthday guests in front of one of the few remaining buildings on kibbutz Timorim. The plaque in Hebrew reads that the cooperative settlement was established in 1948 by discharged soldiers, immigrants from South Africa and Europe and moved in 1954 to the south of the country. The name ‘Timorim’ was taken from a carving in the shape of a palm in the Temple (1 Kings 6:29)

The group only stayed there some three years.

The cataclysmic schism that tore apart the Kibbutz movement in 1952, “splitting families and friends, affected us even though we were a community unconnected with the conflicting ideologies,” explained Les.  Even in South Africa, the ideology of Bnei Zion was politically neutral, other than the firm conviction of settling in Israel. With the sudden and dramatic splitting of kibbutzim on ideological grounds – depending which side of the Cold War lay one’s allegiance – more land was needed “and they wanted ours,” said Les.

Having a Field Day. Out in the fields on kibbutz Timorim are (L -R) Barney Rosenberg, Dov Sender and Les Sheer  age 21.

Not that it upset Les who as Merakez Meshek was responsible for the management of the settlement. “We have wonderful memories, but economically it was impractical.” The kibbutz fields were nearly a two-hour drive away by tractor, east of Afula, near the Jordanian border and “being so far away, we used to set up camp there in season spending periods of a week to ten days at a time.”

As for showers! “In our dreams!,” bellowed Les.  “We had no such luxuries. The water was brought in a mobile tank and used only for cooking, drinking and very sparingly for washing.”

“So where was the water for irrigation?” I enquired.

We farmed only “dry” crops – wheat, barley, corn and hay, all reliant on rainfall. If there was a drought, you had it.”

Life was harsh.

House on the Hill. Kibbutz Timorim in the early 1950s.

Our wives used to take turns cooking. Life was also dangerous. We always had to be watchful for Arab marauders. There was no fence separating us and Jordan and we used to have an extra person on the tractor with a rifle over and above the driver who had his Sten gun beside him. We had some close shaves, but that was frontier life.”

And to the question “What did you live in?”, Les replied:

 “Converted wooden crates that the immigrants in those days brought their furniture in. We carved out doors and windows and could house up to four in a box.”

Back on the hill, business was better. “We had a few guys who had been sheet metal workers in South Africa. They set up a business and our first order was to supply the ducting for air conditioners to the first Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv. This business became so successful; it was the precursor for Miromit (the world’s first solar heating factory), which is Timorim spelt backwards.” Another big order, reveals Les, “was to make the ducting for Peres’ textile plant in Dimona.”

All laughed at Les’ hush-hush verbal substitute for Israel’s nuclear reactor!

THE MILKY WAY

All over these hills,” Les pointed out to his guests “we had a huge herd of sheep. One day I offered to help with the milking. To this day I still do not understand why they have to do this at 2am. Nevertheless, I reported on time and was directed to the six sheep down the row. It was pretty dark as there was no electricity, only paraffin lamps. I followed their lead by squeezing the teat in a downward motion and the next moment found myself sprawled on my back. Determined not to let a sheep get the better of me, I attacked the teat again and…thump! After being kicked a third time, the boys were hysterical. They had set me up with a bloody ram!”

On another occasion, when “we were on hachsharah (preparation) on Gvat before moving to Timorim, we were working with these young guys who had just been released from the Palmach and they thought they knew everything. This was the period of the Tzena (period of austerity when Israelis stood in line for rations) and I was learning about growing fodder. This bloke comes in, sees no milk in the cooler, so opens the fridge and helps himself to some bottles. I tried to stop him.”

“What are you interfering for?” he bellowed at Les, “so I walked on into the dining room for lunch. About ten minutes later the man in charge of the cows came storming in, shouting:

 “What the bloody hell is going on here! The expert has come to do the artificial insemination of the cows and all the semen in the fridge is gone. Who the hell is responsible?”

The question needed no answer. Everyone turned to the only person in the dining room who had vomited!

The South Africans were joined by a group of survivors from the Holocaust. “They were a wonderful bunch of hard-working young people, who had lived on their wits to survive. For the most part they had missed out on an education and some of them did not even know their own birthdays. One fellow took the name of ‘Pesach Purim’, because he remembered celebrating his birthday sometime between the two chagim. (festivities)”

It was for the most part hearing about the horrors of the Shoah (Holocaust) in Johannesburg in 1945 that made Les determined to settle in the new Jewish State. “My parents were dead against it, but the Shoah was the final straw. All the memories of my schooldays came flooding back of being taunted – “Jew boy, go back to Palestine.”

At age 21, Les took their advice.

Timorim’s Trying Times. An old newspaper article including an interview with Les Sheer about pioneering life on Timorim.

Fruits of his Labour

The intervening years in the 1950s between leaving Timorim and being sent on Shlihut (emissary) to South Africa on behalf of the Jewish Agency, saw him working on a major national project for the government and the Jewish Agency impacting on the lives of thousands of new immigrants. Supported with another South African, Yitzchak Abt, Les organized a team which planned the development of the Lachish Region. This was an area of a million dunams of land stretching from Ashkelon to Beit Guvrin, encompassing the “new” Timorim that was no more a kibbutz in the north but a moshav in the south. Les was the overall strategist, Abt the expert in agriculture. Their mission – a race against time to settle the thousands of immigrants mostly from North Africa – Tunisia and Morocco –  who were pouring in and earmarked to settle in this region. The real challenge was that these new immigrants knew little about farming and yet, with large families, would have to survive by engaging in agriculture.  

From North Africa to South Israel. Immigrants from Morocco leaving the ship in Haifa port in the 1950s. Some would settle in the Lachish Region that Les Sheer was tasked to structure to absorb this new wave of North African immigration. (Keren Hayesod collection)
Israel Assisting Developing World. Les Sheer’s colleague , Yitzchak Abt, lecturing in Panama in the 1960s with a map of Lachish behind him.

Through Les’ strategic planning and Yitzchak Abt’s innovative genius in irrigation and agriculture, they succeeded with Lachish becoming home to thousands of immigrants and their children who established moshavim, kibbutzim and towns. A drive today through this region, we see greenhouses, vineyards, orchids, fields and forests – a topographic testimony to the labours of Les and Yitzchak who helped transform this once rocky and sparce terrain into Israel’s verdant heartland. What is more, so successful were their labours that their ideas emerged as the prototype of regional planning beyond Israel to other developing countries around the world. In the ensuing years would see Apt lecturing in Panama, Venezuela and Malawi with a map of Lachish behind him, revealing –  “How we did it!”

Forging a Future. Les and Tzippy Sheer with their young children Dafna and Avner.

Son Avner Sheer,  remembers those days as a young kid living in a small apartment in Kiryat Gat, which had only been established in 1954. However, in the same way as his father on his 80th remarked that the trees on the way up to Timorim in the north of Israel were planted by “my wife Tzippy,” Avner reveals that, “When I pass through in my car the region of Lachish, I think these trees were planted by my Dad.”

Back to our Roots

Love of the land was in Les’ DNA and on his moshav, Kfar Bilu B near Rehovot, he developed one of the finest private bonsai gardens in Israel. It was little wonder that he was enlisted into the Friends of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens Society and soon became its head. It was in this capacity while being responsible for the Kaplan-Kushlick Foundation in Israel that  he then brought  Mendel and Jill Kaplanto get this garden moving…..We have to do something!” That was back in 1979.

And moving they did.

Today, the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens (JBG) stands as an island of serenity amid the din of a city that resonates to the four corners of the earth.

Garden of Eden. Les Sheer stands next to the entrance to the fynbos section of the South African part of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens (Photo by: Gerald Hoberman).

Having the largest collection of living plants in the Middle East the JBG displays over 6000 species in geographical sections simulating the local landscape of bio-diversity hotspots around the world.

The Jewel in Jerusalem’s CrownThe pride of Les Sheer’s many projects,visitors enjoy a guided tour of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens’ Tropical Conservatory. (Photo by Tom Amit)

On my last visit, it was heartwarming to see all the schoolchildren there digging with spades instead of texting on their smartphones. Indeed, over 1,200 young pupils visit the botanical gardens each week to plant flowers and vegetables. With 92% of Israel’s population living today in cities, “it is vital for these youngsters,” asserted our guide, “to discover that produce does not grow on shelves in their neighborhood supermarket.”

Imparting knowledge by example was so much what Les Sheer was about.

To know him was a “Sheer Delight”!




While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

A Lone Soldier on a Mission in Syrian Territory During the Yom Kippur War

The Yom Kippur War was characterized by ferocious firepower that cost our country 2,656 soldiers, at a time when our population was less than three million.

By Jonathan Davis

First published in The Jerusalem Post marking  the 47th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

This year we are observing the 47th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. This was a war characterized by ferocious firepower that we had never witnessed before, endangering the existence of the State of Israel. Our country sacrificed 2,656 soldiers, at a time when our population was less than three million.

Two years prior to the war, after weeks of grueling tryouts, I was accepted with a small group of mainly outstanding kibbutzniks into the paratroop recon (sayeret) unit of the 35th Brigade.

Nehemia Tamari, Commander of the unit, took a personal interest in me and was amazed that a 22-year-old lone soldier who had completed his undergraduate studies at Columbia University in New York City and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem would be serving in his unit. It was a first for the sayeret. Many years later, Maj.-Gen. Tamari, then OC Central Command, would be killed in a helicopter crash. He was an officer and a gentleman, with true Zionist values which included a deep sensitivity to new immigrants such as myself.

Training Day. Jonathan Davis on maneuvers a year before the Yom Kippur War. 

On October 13, 1973, one week into the war, Israel was already suffering an immense number of casualties on all fronts, and we understood that the existence of the state was in grave danger, as we received daily information about friends being killed in action.

On that same day, 40 of us in the unit were hurriedly gathered by the commander of the sayeret, Capt. Shaul Mofaz (*1998 he became the sixteenth IDF’s Chief of Staff, serving until 2002), for 40 minutes to perform an urgent behind-the-lines operation in Syria.

The night before, October 12, the unit had performed a similar mission, Operation Kutonet (Gown). Our new mission was called Operation Davidka. We looked at the map and aerial reconnaissance photos and realized this was going to be a most daring and dangerous mission.

Our orders were to sabotage reinforcement efforts of the Iraqis, who were moving tanks, rockets and missiles on the Iraqi-Damascus highway. The enemy was moving in a westward direction, in order to join forces with the Syrians. The order was to ambush convoys by blowing up a bridge and inflict any other damage we could.

Men on a Mission.  The 2019 reunion of the soldiers and air crew of the 118 helicopter squadron who participated on the mission into Syria in 1973 with the commander, Capt. Shaul Mofaz (center in blue shirt) and the writer (right).

We would have to move in a clandestine manner by helicopter to our destination, and transport no less than 400 kg. of TNT in order to implement the order. More than the quantitative impact alone, there was also the idea that we would surprise the Syrians, deep in their territory, cause havoc and lower their morale.

Each of us had only a few hours to prepare himself individually, in order to be in top shape. My personal weapon at the time was an AK-47 Kalashnikov, weighing 4 kg., along with nine Kalashnikov magazines weighing 1 kg. each. Add to that two canteens of water, and a 20-kg. pack of TNT to be carried on the back. We were each carrying over 40 kg., which in most cases was more than half of our actual weight. That is something that stands out in my mind so many years later, but at the time we trained to do even more than this, and it did not pose a problem for us.

Escape from Syria. A map of the flight path that Davis’ helicopter took into Syria during the Yom Kippur War.

One fourth of the force was carrying heavier MAG weapons, some LAW rockets, mortars and RPGs.

I recall the operational security officer speaking to us for a few minutes during the orders, telling us that if captured, we need to “keep our mouths shut for at least six hours.”

I also recall being divided into groups of three, should we need to make a quick getaway if something goes wrong and if the chopper cannot return to pick us up. They informed us that in such a situation we should hide during the day and move quietly at night.

Of course, returning to Israel by foot, over 100 kilometers from home, seemed most unrealistic. This operation was a last-minute attempt, while the country was in danger.

We were focused on the mission and were trained for such a mission.

On the evening of October 13, we boarded a Sikorsky helicopter of the 118th Airborne Helicopter Squadron. Our home base was at Tel Nof, a major air force base near Rehovot. The pilot was the squadron commander, Yuval Efrat. The commander of the paratroop recon unit leading the mission was Mofaz, many years later to become IDF chief of staff and defense minister.

We flew north out of Tel Nof along the Mediterranean coast, adjacent to Tel Aviv, Haifa, until we were north of Beirut. I remember seeing the lights of Beirut from the helicopter. We turned eastward north of Beirut over Zahle, north of Damascus, and into the Syrian desert.

We landed at 9:30 in the evening. The helicopter, according to procedure, flew back to Tel Nof. Little did we know that the helicopter had made a navigational error due to cloud cover on an alternate route, and we had landed 8 km. from our intended destination.

After we discovered the navigational error, it was decided by GHQ that we should set out by foot toward the bridge which was the destination of our mission.

At the beginning of our journey by foot, through a valley, shots were fired at us from a house about 100 meters away, but the fire was inaccurate, and we continued on our mission for a number of minutes. We quietly crossed a road, which was adjacent to the valley we were walking in.

All of a sudden on the road appeared a number of jeeps, including a truck with its lights out. We heard Arabic being spoken, and they began firing on us, as the tracer bullets came in our direction. We immediately answered with fierce fire, with MAG weapons, AK-47s, mortars, RPGs, and LAW projectiles. We appeared to have neutralized the danger, but now we realized we had been discovered deep in Syrian territory and were in grave danger.

On Patrol. The writer with “my AK 47 personal weapon” in Faid, Egypt.  

Mofaz kept his cool and kept all of us calm. We immediately began our retreat by climbing to the top of a hill in the mountainous terrain of the Syrian desert. We had been fired on at 1,430 meters above sea level and reached a mountaintop that was 1,640 meters above sea level. Each of us now had to ferociously climb more than 200 meters straight up, including all we were carrying. Mofaz led us to the top and had us lying quietly in a circle, ready to engage the enemy.

Suddenly, Syrian MIGs appeared and began lighting up the sky with flares in pursuit of us. We heard Syrian vehicles and half-tracks driving by the bottom of the hill. They did not fire on us, because I do not believe they could locate us. They were probably going to wait until dawn, which was only a couple of hours away, in order to identify our location, and for hundreds of them to surround us, capture us or neutralize us.

Action in Sinai. The writer crouches in front of an Egyptian helicopter shot down in Sinai while “we were seeking to neutralize or capture Egyptian commandos. We took a number as prisoners.” 

From the mountaintop, Mofaz was speaking to GHQ in Tel Aviv. They told us to sit tight and that they would do all in their power to send a helicopter to our rescue.

The “sandwich” radio transmitter, weighing around 50 kg, was carried by the strongest warrior in the unit, Shmuel Rosenberg of Moshav Kerem Ben-Zimra, in the Galilee. Later in the war, on the Egyptian front, Shmulik would tell me how his father survived the Holocaust but lost his wife and all of his children, and married again and had six children, including Shmulik.

In the meantime, we were lying on the mountaintop and wondering what our final fate would be.

Perhaps we had too much time to think.

In my operational-security-created group of three, for the “emergency getaway” back to Israel, were Shmari of Kibbutz Hagoshrim and Giora of Kibbutz Givat Haim, together with me, the 24-year-old lone soldier with the BA.

Shmari was always quite entrepreneurial and with a good sense of humor. He was only 1.65 meters tall, but the best basketball player in the unit and a born “survivor”. He suggested that if all hell breaks loose, there is no way we were going to be captured alive by the Syrians. He suggested we carjack a vehicle on the road below and head north to the Turkish border, where in my “good English” we would request political immunity from the Turkish government. He emphasized that the two kibbutzniks would take care of the situation, and me, the ‘city boy’, would just need to be the spokesman! He was speaking in jest, but there was something to what he was saying.

In retrospect, this may have been one of the only solutions at the time, albeit highly improbable. We were young, lying on a mountaintop deep in Syrian territory, and wanted to live for as long as we could, and had to be entrepreneurial and original.

Less than one hour from dawn, we heard the engine of what seemed to be a helicopter, and lo and behold it was an Israeli Sikorsky helicopter trying to establish contact with us, to get us out of there as quickly as possible.

We had an electronic gadget called a “Miri,” which was able to give the chopper a general direction of where we were but not an exact one. There was cloud cover and fog on that mountaintop, and we were not on a completely flat surface.

Mofaz, with his low-tech flashlight, pointed in the direction of where he heard the helicopter. The pilot, none other than Efrat, who had flown us there seven hours earlier, managed to identify the low-tech light through the fog. He had flown through the valleys in order to come to our rescue. He had already been a couple of days without sleep but insisted on coming personally to fetch us, since he had brought us there.

The helicopter landed against all odds, not taking into consideration the regulations we had been used to in training. This was not a good time for being conventional, though. He landed in a relatively crooked fashion, and we piled into that helicopter faster than I can remember in any previous exercise.

As the helicopter took off, one of our soldiers caught a bullet in his backside but was not seriously wounded. As the helicopter began to take altitude, hundreds of tracer bullets of green and red colors were being fired toward the helicopter. We saw them through the windows of the helicopter.

Now we had a two-hour flight back to Tel Nof, of which many kilometers would be in enemy territory, and it appeared the helicopter had been hit and we did not know for sure if we were going to make it back or not. Efrat flew the chopper brilliantly, and we finally saw the lights of Beirut beneath us once again and headed south along the Mediterranean, but the pilot ditched the idea of Tel Nof and made sure to land as soon as possible in the Ramat David air force base in the north of Israel.

Aftermath. The writer outside a building riddled with shrapnel observes UN soldiers in Suez, Egypt at the end of the Yom Kippur War.

There was silence upon landing and a great feeling to be home.

After landing, I saw, from the corner of my eye, Efrat counting the hits on the helicopter on the rotor, and then he showed Mofaz the fuel leaking from the gas tank, which was hit by bullets, and a small puddle on the tarmac. Later, we found out it was very low-grade fuel, which does not explode as easily, but on the other hand – it sure can!

After the war, Efrat received a Medal of Bravery for his actions. His rescue is still considered one of the most daring in the history of the 118 Squadron.

After the War. Six months following the war, a two week jeep trip in Sinai in 1974 with the writer standing in the center. 

Five years ago, we all gathered on the lawn at Mofaz’s home in Kochav Yair, some with children and grandchildren, to hear him discuss the mission, together with Efrat. So many years later, to hear together, in person, how he had identified the flashlight through the fog was one of the most inspiring gatherings of my life.

Last year, the 118 Squadron invited all participants of the mission,  – from the flight crew and members of our paratroop recon unit – to attend a reunion in order to educate the new generation of pilots on the history and pride of this helicopter unit. We all received commendations of excellence from the 118th, and they are proudly hanging on a wall outside my office.




About the writer

Jonathan Davis is Vice-President for External Relations at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, Israel’s first private university. He heads the Raphael Recanati International School and is a Member of the Advisory Board of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and Research Fellow.

From serving in a paratrooper reconnaissance unit executing many behind-the-lines missions, Jonathan still serves as a Lieutenant Colonel (Res) in the IDF Spokesman’s office.

A graduate of Columbia University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University, Jonathan  has served as an emissary for the Jewish Agency for Israel in Cape Town, Boston, and Rome.



While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

Major Contributing ‘Faktor’

The passing this September 2020 of Dr. Jossy Faktor in Israel brings back memories of his role in the famed Entebbe Raid of 1976

By David E. Kaplan

The announcement of the passing of a former South African doctor in Israel, brought back memories of one of the bravest and most successful rescue operations in history.

Many, who were around in 1976, will recall where they were on July 3 when the story on the Entebbe Raid broke. I was then a law student in South Africa in 1976 travelling by car between Durban and Cape Town and was sitting in a Wimpy Bar in in the small town of Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape when the restaurant’s TV broke to Breaking News to announce the unfolding drama. Little did I know at the time that years later I would interview for The Jerusalem Post  a former South African from Pretoria, Dr. Jossy Faktor who participated in the raid that would later be made into  a number of Hollywood movies.

A gynaecologist and obstetrician who died from lymphoma on September 17, 2020 in Herzliya Pituach, Faktor was drawn into the crisis that began on the 27th June, when four terrorists seized an Air France plane, flying from Israel to Paris with 248 passengers on board. The hijackers – two from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two from Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang boarded the plane during a stopover in Athens, Greece and diverted the aircraft, ‘Flight 139’ to Entebbe, Uganda. There, the hijackers were joined by three more terrorists who then demanded the release of fifty-three of their associates held in jails in Israel and four other countries. The clock was ticking.

If the detainees were not released, they would begin killing hostages.

Merchants of Death. Three of the hijackers of Air France Flight 139: Jayel al-Arja (right to left) Wilfried Bose, and Fayez Abdul-Rahim al-Jaber (photo credit: CANVA.COM)

Shades of the Shoah

The plot of the unfolding saga drew in a global audience mesmerized by the twists and turns of a modern-day Homeric epic. Abduction and rescue – the stage was set for a cataclysmic clash of wills. On the one side, an anguished Israel, while on the other, German and Palestinian terrorists aided and abetted by one of Africa’s most notorious dictators, President Idi Amin. Stories abounded by this man’s evil proclivities, notable that he had a certain taste for literally devouring his enemies.

It was said that his palace fridge had been a ‘Who’s Who’ in Ugandan politics. Some 3,400 kilometres away, a nervous Israeli government was agonizing which way to move.

No options were risk free.

The terrorists then played a card that simplified the decision of Israel’s leaders.

They separated the passengers – Jews from non-Jews – releasing the latter!

Shades of the Shoah coloured the unfolding drama and Israel now stood alone.

It also knew what it had to do.

It was a proud cast of characters who participated in the mission dubbed by the Israeli military – “Operation Thunderbolt”. Amongst the medical team on board one of the four C-130 Hercules aircraft, was Dr. Jossy Faktor who at the time was serving in the permanent force of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) and would later rise to become its Surgeon General.

Honouring Heroism. Formally of Pretoria, South Africa, Dr. Jossy Faktor (right) of ‘The Entebbe Raid’ medical team, receives a Lieutenant Colonel rank from Chief of Staff, Ehud Barak (left) later to be Prime Minister of Israel.

“No Going Back”

When the call came summoning the 36-year-old doctor to report for duty, Jossy and his wife Barbara were clicking champagne glasses celebrating the tenth wedding anniversary of their good friends from their South African youth movement ‘Habonim’ days, the Kessels in Ra’anana. Little did they all know when Jossey hurriedly stepped out of their front door to report for duty, that he was about to enter the history books.

Dreaming About Tomorrow.  Planning for life in Israel, Jossy Faktor (sitting far right) in the late 1950s together with the national leadership of South Africa’s Jewish youth movement ‘Habonim’ in Johannesburg. (credit Habonim Dror)

The next day saw Jossy being briefed by the Surgeon General, the late Dan Michaeli. “I was instructed to quickly put together an aero-medical team.” Although Jossy’s specialization was gynaecology, he had been trained in aviation medicine that included ensuring the health of aircrews and aero-medical evacuations. While there had been missions and escapades in the past, nothing would come close to what he was to experience in the next few days. “The success of the operation was secrecy, and because the public at the time was well aware of the hostage crisis, we had to come up with something to deflect attention. Also, we needed to obtain a large supply of blood from Magen David Adom (Israel’s Red Cross), and that necessitated a credible cover story. We did not want anyone – least of all the media – questioning why we suddenly needed so much blood. Because nothing quite like this had ever been attempted, we had no idea of what casualties to expect. Anyway, the word went out that a crisis was developing on the northern border with Lebanon, and we would need medical teams and blood. The story held, and we took off with only those involved in the operation in the know.”

The final briefings were divided according to the different roles to be performed by the various participants. “We were briefed by Dr. Ephraim Sneh, who was the overall commander of the medical teams.”

Jossy describes the flight as long and uneventful.

We left Friday morning and landed at Sharem el Sheik, stopping for essentially two reasons.  Firstly, for refueling. We had enough to get us to Entebbe, but no more. And as we did not expect the ground staff at Entebbe to accommodate us by refueling our planes, we needed sufficient fuel to take off after the rescue and make it to Nairobi.”

The other reason for the stopover was no less intriguing.

When we took off in Israel, the Cabinet had still not decided to go through with the mission. The risks obviously weighed enormously with them and so wanted to keep the option to abort open until the last moment. On the runway at Sharem El Sheik, we received the final green light. Now there was no going back.”

The last stretch of the flight to Entebbe “we flew at a very low altitude to avoid radar detection. The turbulence was heavy, but it did not bother me,” said Jossy. “I recall there was very little chatting; everyone was so wrapped up with their own thoughts. I spent much of my time in the cockpit as the captain, Amnon Halivni, was a good friend of mine.”

Jossy traveled with the medical teams in the fourth Hercules. “Our plane was virtually empty as we were to bring the hostages and wounded back.” Some of the unusual equipment they took along, revealed Faktor, “were empty milk cans. We expected some of our surprised passengers to be sick on the return flight and so had to provide a suitable alternative to pretty airhostesses going around with paper bags.”

The other three planes carried the ground forces, with the black Mercedes Benz and Land Rovers on board the first aircraft. The word out on the street was that the Mercedes was owned by an Israeli civilian and was apparently sprayed black so it would appear as the Ugandan’s president’s car when approaching the terminal building. However, the intelligence was dated. The two Ugandan sentries on duty that morning were well aware that their President had recently purchased a white Mercedes replacing his black one. They ordered the motorcade to stop. Had they had the opportunity for a closer look they would have also noticed that the steering wheel was on the wrong side of the car, but by that time, they were both dead.

Planed To Perfection. The Black Mercedes used to fool Uganda soldiers in the Israeli raid on Entebbe parked aboard an Israeli transport plane upon return from the July 4 operation. (AP-Photo)

In fear of prematurely alerting the terrorists inside the terminal, the subterfuge motorcade sped up and the assault teams quickly went into action.

“Sitting Ducks”

Faktor’’s aircraft had been the last to land. Throughout the operation “we stayed on board, preparing for the arrival of our passengers. It took just under forty minutes for the first casualties to arrive. The waiting was the worst. We felt like sitting ducks as the battle ensured. In the end we needed only six stretchers, one of which was used for Yoni Netanyahu, who died on the way to the aircraft.”

A Tale of Two Leaders. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Ugandan President, Idi Amin.

Describing the mood on the return flight to Israel, Faktor recalled:

While there was jubilation, the passengers also appeared in a state of shock. This was expected. They had been captive for a week and then unexpectedly rescued in a shootout, where they could so easy have lost their lives. Three of the hostages did. Compounding their trauma had been the constant fear of execution if the demands of their captors were not met. So while there was the obvious feeling of elation, it was also mixed with sorrow at the loss of life.”

The enormity of what these daring men had pulled off “only sunk in,” said Jossy “when we touched down at Tel Nof Airbase and were met by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres. It was only then, safe on Israeli soil, that people felt free to express their emotions.”

Fake News. Rather than report that Israel recues its hostages, a Ugandan newspaper reports that “Israelis invade Entebbe”.

The Aftermath

Following the rescue mission, the government of Uganda convened a session of the UN Security Council to seek official condemnation of Israel for violating Ugandan sovereignty. The Security Council ultimately declined to pass any resolution on the matter. The words of Israel’s Ambassador to the UN at the time, Chaim Herzog, in his address to the Council resonates no less today:

We are proud not only because we have saved the lives of over a hundred innocent people – men, women and children – but because of the significance of our act for the cause of human freedom.”

Escape from Entebbe. In July 6, 1976, the world learns a word – Entebbe

The Entebbe raid continues to be a source of pride for the Israeli public, with so many lives shaped by the experience. Dubbed ‘Operation Thunderbolt’ by the Israeli military operatives who planned and carried it out, it was retroactively renamed ‘Operation Yonatan’, honoring Yonatan Netanyahu, who was the only soldier to lose his life in the raid. His brother Benyamin Netanyahu stands today as Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister.

Joy and Jubilation. Free in Israel, Air France hostages after being rescued from Entebbe Airport. (Photo: Wiki Commons)

Shimon Peres, who served as Defense Minister during the Entebbe raid  went on to become Prime Minister and President of the State of Israel.

Overall Commander of the rescue operation, Dan Shomron, became Israel’s 13th Chief of Staff, while Ephraim Sneh, who headed the medical team on the mission, would later serve as a Minister of Health.

“The Butcher”. A smiling  conniving President Idi Amin visits the hostages at Entebbe Airport, who following the successful Israeli rescue said “Israel should be condemned in the strongest possible terms for this aggression,” and took his revenge by murdering of one of its passengers  left behind, the elderly Dora Bloch. (Photo: AP)

Ugandan President Idi Amin, humiliated by the surprise raid and believing Kenya colluded with Israel in its planning, vented his rage by massacring hundreds of Kenyans living in Uganda. However, after the raid on Entebbe, his regime began to crumble and two years later was forced into exile settling in the only country that would take him, Saudi Arabia. He died in Jeddah in August 2003.

Dr. Jossy Faktor would serve for twelve years in the IAF, attaining the rank of Surgeon General before returning to private practice.

To whatever lives each of the participants on the Entebbe Raid would henceforth pursue, they will for eternity be honoured for the special role they played in the greatest rescue operation of all time

Operation Entebbe – The Greatest Hostage Rescue in History (Documentary)





While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

The Right Kind of Notorious

A tribute to the extraordinary Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg

By Rolene Marks

It has been said that if someone passes away during the High Holy days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they must have been a righteous soul.  This past weekend, US Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, died at the age of 87 due to complications from pancreatic cancer. It was first day of Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year.

(Illustration Credit :Casey Wood ’23/The Hawk)

Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Kiki, as she was affectionately called; was one of the most loved and respected public figures in the United States. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, the promising young lawyer earned her Bachelor’s degree at Cornell University before studying law at the prestigious Harvard University. One of 9 women in her class of 500; she had married Martin D. Ginsberg and became a mother and balanced all of this with her studies. Theirs was a love story for the ages, and the jurist often referred to her falling for her husband because he valued her for her brain. Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School, where she graduated joint first in her class. After law school, Ginsburg entered academia, becoming a professor at Rutgers Law School and Columbia Law School, teaching civil procedure as one of the few women in her field.

Apart from her stellar academic record, Bader Ginsburg  was a trailblazer for women’s rights, having spent much of her legal career as an advocate for gender equality and winning many arguments before the Supreme Court. She was famous for saying, “women belong in all places where decisions are made” and certainly made sure that women were represented – not merely token placements. Five of the most significant gender based laws that she  helped pass include employers cannot discriminate against workers based on reproductive choices, state-funded schools must include women, the right for women to have financial independence and equal benefits, men being entitled to the same caregiving and social security rights as women and juries to include women.

These were landmark cases and earned Bader Ginsberg the respect and support not only of her colleagues and peers but civil rights activists around the world. A feminist who supported not only gender equality, LGBTQ+ and civil rights, Bader Ginsburg was called a new nickname from the one she grew up with – Notorious RGB.  This was a reference to the late Brooklyn-born rapper The Notorious B.I.G., and she later embraced the moniker. RNG was the right kind of “Notorious”!

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court during the Clinton administration, becoming the second woman and first Jew to serve on this most esteemed body. Her Jewish heritage was something the jurist was extremely proud of and had a clear bearing on her career and decisions.

“I had the good fortune to be a Jew born and raised in the U.S.A. My father left Odessa bound for the New World in 1909, at age 13; my mother was first in her large family to be born here, in 1903, just a few months after her parents and older siblings landed in New York. What is the difference between a bookkeeper in New York’s garment district and a Supreme Court Justice? Just one generation, my mother’s life and mine bear witness. Where else but America could that happen?

My heritage as a Jew and my occupation as a judge fit together symmetrically. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition. I take pride in and draw strength from my heritage, as signs in my chambers attest: a large silver mezuzah on my door post, [a] gift from the Shulamith School for Girls in Brooklyn; on three walls, in artists’ renditions of Hebrew letters, the command from Deuteronomy: “Zedek, zedek, tirdof” — “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Those words are ever-present reminders of what judges must do that they “may thrive.”

More recently this famous self-confessed dissenter expressed her outrage that Jewish women who are Zionist were told that they could not be both Zionists and Feminists. “That is simply not true”, the indignant RBG told Zioness, a movement founded in response to this ridiculous accusation.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg will become the first woman to lie in state until her funeral. This is testament to her massive legacy and extraordinary reputation and level of respect she commanded.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s passing leaves a gaping hole in the continued global feminist movement.  She joins the great women of Jewish history who  left an indelible mark on the world. She was more than notorious, she was righteous.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg (RBG) with Israeli Chief Justice, Esther Hayut



While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

His Name was Navid Afkari

Iranian Wrestling Champion murdered by the regime for protesting.

By  Rolene Marks

His name was Navid Afkari. His life was full of promise. A talented sportsman, Afkari was a champion wrestler, proudly representing his country, Iran. He was 27 years old with a glorious future ahead of him. The Iranian regime recently executed champion wrestler, Navid Afkari.

Navid Afkari. Former wrestling champion executed by Iran despite calls to stop death sentence.

Iran is not a country that is synonymous with human rights. In fact, their record is as dismal as it gets. Some of their gross violations include the hanging of members of the LGBTQ community by crane, regardless of age, using lethal force to subdue protests, sometimes even killing hundreds of protestors, suppressing any rights to the freedom of expression and gender discrimination with women’s rights activists also face abuse. Ethnic and religious minorities endure entrenched discrimination. Torture and other ill-treatment, including through the denial of medical care, remain widespread and systematic; and committed with impunity. The right to fair trials is often denied and cruel, inhuman and degrading judicial punishments are carried out. Scores of people have been executed, sometimes in public; several under the age of 18 at the time of the crime.

Iran is routinely called out by human rights advocates for their ongoing violations.

The irony is that global powers who are aware of this, still allow Iran place on international bodies like the UN Commission on Criminal Justice, the Permanent Court of Arbitration and various others.

Looking Back with Anger. Iran executed champion wrestler Navid Afkari despite widespread pleas to spare him, prompting angry reactions from Iranians at home and abroad on social media platforms.

Why would Iran execute one of their star sportsmen? The circumstances surrounding this execution, which many are calling cold-blooded murder smack of conspiracy because Afkari dared use his voice.

Navid Afkari was among the vast crowds who took to the streets during the 2018 protests in Iran, opposing the totalitarian dictatorship of Khamenei and the rapidly deteriorating living conditions. He was arrested and charged with multiple offenses shortly after the protests. Among his charges were “insulting the supreme leader”, “waging war against God (aka. moharebeh)”, and the alleged case of “Hasan Torkman’s murder”.

Hasan Torkman was a secret security agent of IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) which were tasked with silencing the protests and after his death he was buried as a “martyr” by the regime, signifying his position. Akfari strongly denied this blatantly bogus murder charge and there was no evidence linking him to the case. The court sentencing was influenced by two sources that they claim showed him as the murderer. It was obviously a situation where Afkari was framed but what was the Iranian motivation?

Crushing an Icon. Afraid of his influence, Iran executes 27-year-old champion wrestler, Navid Afkari.

It could only have been his high profile as a young champion posed such a threat that he had to be silenced permanently. They could ill afford having their tyrannical views challenged by young people following in his example and demanding change and a better way of living.

Akfari was given two death sentences. 

While Afkari initially confessed to the murder charge, he would later retract stating he had been tortured into making a false confession.  During the hearings he stated:

   “I told the inspector that neither do I know the secret agent (that has been killed), nor have I heard his name! But under torture, and to save my family, and for Vahid (one of his imprisoned brothers), I gave them what they wanted.

Once I had been freed from the pressure of solitary confinement, the basement, and the tortures, once I stepped back onto the prison, I immediately wrote to the judicial offices and filed my complaint (against their use of torture) and screamed that I am not a murderer. I requested them to take me to the forensics bureau (for medical examinations of his scars). Per their report and eye-witness account (of my torture) and other evidences, it was made clear that I had been tortured. No matter the countless times I wrote and pleaded that all my confessions were obtained under torture; or how there is not a single shred of evidence in this damned case that could prove my guilt, but they did not want to hear our voice. I figured they were looking for a neck for their noose.”

Many campaigned to save his life. From human rights groups, online social media campaigns by Iranians, to important people and organisations including U.S. President Donald Trump, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, and UFC President Dana White. A global union representing 85,000 athletes called for Iran’s expulsion from world sport if it executed Afkari. All appealed for Afkari’s life to be saved, but to no avail!

On Saturday, the 12th of September 2020, Navid Afkari was executed. For many, this was cold blooded murder.

The European Union (EU), Olympic Committee and countless others condemned the killing of Afkari:

The European Union condemns this execution in the strongest terms. Human rights remain a central feature of our engagement with Iran. We will continue to engage with Iranian authorities on this issue including through the local EU representation in Tehran and also on individual cases such as this recent execution,” an EU foreign affairs spokesperson said in a statement.

A German foreign ministry spokeswoman also condemned the execution, saying, “There were considerable doubts about the rule of law in the proceedings, and we also take very seriously the allegations that Navid Afkari confessed only under torture.”

The Olympic Committee expressed their outrage and shock.

Condemnations are not enough. Many are calling for Iran to be banned from sports and political bodies for their gross violations of human rights. It cannot be forgotten that Iran is not only guilty of gross human rights abuses; but is also the world’s foremost supporter of state sponsored terror and is responsible for the loss of life in attacks from Buenos Aires to Jerusalem. The killing of a champion to push a political agenda and make him an example to the millions who want to exercise their fundamental right to protest is extremely concerning.

Protests Abroad. Iranian opposition supporttyers of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) protesting the execution of Iranian wrestling champion Navid Afkari on September 12, 2020 in Berlin, Germany

While there were many campaigns and condemnations, the killing of Navid Afkari did not dominate headlines or garner major global reactions. There will be nobody taking a knee for Afkari. Hollywood celebrities will not be putting out impassioned social media statements.

There needs to be justice for Navid Afkari and the countless others killed by the despotic Iranian regime. This will only come when the global outrage is so strong that Iran feels the shame of exclusion from major international agencies and bodies and is roundly condemned and isolated.

His name was Navid Afkari. He was a champion. May his memory be blessed.

Navid Afkari’s last audio message from prison before his execution





While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

Remembering Munich

Survivors recall the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

By Rolene Marks and Yair Chelouche

“They’re all gone”.

They were the words that reverberated around the world. Television viewers across the globe were glued to Jim McKay, who anchored ABC’s coverage of the unfolding terrorist attack in Munich during the 1972 Olympics. The words are seared into our conscience. We can never forget that moment when we heard that 11 members of the Israeli Olympic Team had been murdered by Black September terrorists. Germany, once emblematic of painful memories for the Jewish people, had become a place where Jews were targeted for murder yet again.

Proud Presence. The Israeli delegation at the opening ceremony in Munich. (Credit: Agence France-Presse-Getty Images)

On the 5th of September, we will remember how these terrorists first killed two members of the Israeli delegation and held another 9 hostage, until they too, were slaughtered.  Israelis are far too familiar with terrorism, having endured attacks from terror groups since the birth of the modern state; but for it to happen like this on foreign soil, at the Olympic Games, the very essence and symbol of brotherhood and the human spirit, made the pain that much more acute.

Several weeks ago, history was made when the Israeli Airforce entered German airspace for the first time to train with the country’s Luftwaffe.  Apart from practicing complex maneuvers, the premise of the joint exercise was to strengthen ties – and pay tribute to the past. Sharing the commitment to fight antisemitism and declaring “Never Again” the two allied forces flew over the Dachau Concentration Camp in tribute to victims and survivors of the Holocaust as well as those who were murdered on that tragic day in September, 1972.

Yehuda Weinstain has often been called the “Flying Fencer”.  Weinstain was just 17 when he participated in the Olympics as a Fencer.  He recalls the excitement of being in the Olympic Village, sharing the camaraderie with his team, being a bit star struck at seeing the famous athletes and practicing with intense focus. It was the Olympics after all! The Olympics symbolise the best of the sporting world and the very spirit of international goodwill, devoid of the partisan politics that plague global discourse. This was shattered with the attack on the Israeli team.

“Flying Fencer”. Future Israeli pilot, Yehuda Weinstain  was just 17 when he participated in the 1972 Munich Olympics as a Fencer. 

Yehuda Weinstain recalls how it was a twist of fate that saved his life. Having visited the city to acclimate so that when it came to choosing his accommodation, he chose the same room that was in between that of the coaches and other team members. This decision would prove lifesaving.

The sportsmen were assigned a room in a complex with three bedrooms, with two in each room.

Touché. Israeli fencer Yehuda Weinstain (right) scores a hit in a fencing bout in the 1972 Munich Olympics before the massacre.

When the terrorists started their deadly attack, they went to the rooms on either side of Weinstain and roommate, Dan Alon; but not theirs. They heard the shots that killed wrestling coach, Moshe Weinberg. They knew that something horrific had occurred. Weinstain remembers seeing a blood puddle at the place where Weinberg’s body lay as he peered through the window.

“It could’ve been me,” he says, “Because the terrorists, passed by my window twice and didn’t come in. Later on we believed that the terrorists’ omission on our door was a deliberate act by Moshe Weinberg who wanted that the people who will face the terrorists are those, he thought, could resist stronger. So it was my luck”.

Desperate Situation. Held hostage, fencing coach Andre Spitzer (right) and marksmanship coach Kehat Shorr (left) negotiating with the German police.

He recalls making the decision to run to safety. “I ran about seven metres around the corner. It felt longer. I had the feeling that someone could shoot me in the small of my back”, he says. It was Alon’s turn, then some of the others to make the run for safety and he, Weinstain and the remaining survivors were taken to safety by German police and isolated before being sent home to their worried families in Israel.

40 years later (2012) – “The 11th Day” – Munich ’72 massacre survivors.

Yehuda Weinstain, Olympic athlete for Fencing enlisted in the army as is required of Israeli citizens and became Lt Col Weinstain, a combat pilot in the IAF, flying many important missions for the Jewish state.

 His latest mission was addressing the delegation from the IAF that participated in the training exercise in Germany – a poignant and important moment.

As Young fencerAvishay Jakobovich at the Munich Olympic village
Dr Avishay Jakobovich

Dr Avishay Jakobovich was also at those fateful games – albeit in a different role. Host country Germany, wanted to show the world that it had moved forward from its Nazi past and invited all participating countries to send separate delegations  of youth under 21 that would serve as cultural and social Ambassadors. In retrospect, many would criticize the lack of police presence and security. Jakobovich, delighted to be part of the Israeli delegation, remembers the incredible happy and inclusive vibe, with dancing and singing amongst the different global representatives and enjoying the games as a spectator.

Israel’s Young Ambassadors. Avishay Jakobovich (left) as a member of the Israeli youth social ambassador’s delegation to the Munich Olympics.

This was until the massacre of the Israeli coaches and athletes. “We were quickly removed from where we were staying and isolated. I called my parents to let them know I was okay. The hardest parts were when we represented the State of Israel at the main memorial held by the Olympic committee the day after the massacre and accompanying the coffins of the victims and the flight was difficult and emotional, knowing the bodies of those murdered were underneath us, in the belly of the plane. I sat next to Ankie Spitzer, now the widow of Andre Spitzer the Fencing coach. Very hard,” he recalls.

Dr Jakobovich served as Chief Gynaecologist for the IDF and is a leader in his field today.

This and every September, we remember them – the 11 coaches and athletes, slaughtered in their prime in one of the most nefarious and infamous terror attacks in recent history. The recent IAF-Luftwaffe flyover may have been history in the making and a great tribute to remember and heal wounds but it is the message of that auspicious occasion that we take heed of – NEVER AGAIN!

Munich Olympics Opening Ceremony. Israeli Delegation enters the Olympic stadium onr the 26/08/1972 (left). The ceremony (centre). Ending the opening ceremony by freeing pigeons of peace (right).

Murdered in Munich. The 11 Israeli sportsmen killed at the Munich Olympics on the 05/09/1972

Right handed fencer. Co-writer Rolene Marks (L) with the “Flying Fencer” Yehuda Weinstain (R), Sept. 2020


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