From Ben to Charlie

A saga of ships and the men who ‘sailed’ into modern day Israeli history

By David E. Kaplan

I sat enthralled listening to a recent webinar on the globally popular “Lockdown University” – born out of the Covid-19 pandemic  – on Ben Hecht, the famed Jewish American screenwriter, director, producer, playwright, journalist, and novelist.

Ben Hecht. The American screenwriter, director, producer, playwright, journalist and novelist who went on to write 35 books and some of the most entertaining screenplays and plays in America.

It was interesting to learn that his indifference to Jewish issues changed when he met Hillel Kook, also known as Peter Bergson, who was drumming up American assistance for the Zionist group, Irgun. Hecht wrote in his book, Perfidy, that he used to be a scriptwriter until his meeting with Bergson, when “I accidentally bumped into history” – that is, the burning need to do anything possible to save the doomed Jews of Europe.

Golden Boy. Ben Hecht was a master of cinema’s golden age as well a writer on the world’s blackest age  penning articles and plays about the plight of European Jews, such as ‘We Will Never Die’  and ‘A Flag is Born’.

He did!

When our superb lecturer Trudy Gold mentioned that following Hecht’s support for a Jewish State through his writing, noting that the proceeds of his successful play  “A Flag is Born”  – dealing with the subject of illegal immigration and the fight against the British – were used to help purchase a ship to support that cause and was named the S.S. Ben Hecht, I suddenly recollected a South African connection.

The Stage is Set. Bringing the cause of the Jewish state to the hearts and minds of Americans. New York City opening of Ben Hecht’s A Flag is Born at the Alvin Playhouse

Back in 1996, I interviewed a former South African in Israel who served on that vessel during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. His name was Charlie Mandelstam.

On deck of the SS Ben Hecht was a world away both geographically and atmospherically from Charlie’s small agricultural hometown of Standerton on the Vaal River, east of Johannesburg. He came from neither a Zionist nor a religious background, but Charlie too was about to “bump into history” when “my older brother and I started reading in the press about the Jewish struggle in Palestine – it fascinated us. We both felt that the creation of a State of Israel was vital and that our family should be represented in the struggle. We had both served in WWII, me in the navy but this was now personal. Only one of us could go as someone had to stay with our widowed mother and run the family furniture business. At that time, all I was interested in was golf and girls and I certainly didn’t want the responsibility of running a business, so I volunteered.”

A young Charlie Mandelstam serving on the convoys off the east coast of Africa during WWII.

If Charlie had seen little action  on his convoy runs between Mombasa, Madagascar and the Seychelles during WWII, that would not be the case in his next war. It was the end of June 1948, and Charlie had only been in Israel for ten days when below deck on his first ship – the Eilat –  an ex-American ice-breaker that had been converted to bring across illegal immigrants – Holocaust survivors from Europe –  and then turned into a patrol boat, he suddenly heard the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire above as three Egyptian spitfires staffed the upper deck and the bridge.

Here I was, my first day in the Israeli navy, and a fellow shipmate lay dead on the deck!”

A short while later, Charlie was transferred to a sub-chaser – the S.S. Ben Hecht. “It was only called a subchaser because it was the only ship with radar” explained Charlie, “but it didn’t have any anti-submarine equipment.”

Ready for War.  A new ‘chapter’ for the Ben Hecht now recommissioned to patrol Israel’s coastline.

It has an interesting and intriguing history before Charlie graced its deck.

Built originally as a private yacht by the German firm Krupp, it changed hands and was used, at one time, to smuggle the gold of the Republican Government from Spain to Mexico, shortly before its fall in the Spanish Civil War.  Later, it was acquired by the US Navy and used as a coastal patrol vessel until 1946 when it was purchased by a company serving as a façade for the “American League for a Free Palestine”, an organization that was connected to the Revisionist Movement. It was then that the ship was re-named for the author and screenwriter Ben Hecht who was active in Revisionist circles and financed  the purchase of the ship from the proceeds  of “A Flag is Born”.

The March to Independence. Ben Hecht’s ‘A Flag is Born’  advocated the creation of a homeland for the Jewish people in the ancient Land of Israel.

Ben Hecht vs Emir Farouk

On March 1st, 1948, the Ben Hecht sailed from Port de Bouc, France, carrying 626 Ma’apilim (Jews who illegally immigrated to British controlled Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s – known as Aliyah Bet)·. The crew of 18 was made up – for the most part – of American volunteers and when the vessel was close to Palestine, it was intercepted by two British destroyers, towed to Haifa, and the Ma’apilim transferred to an internment camp in Cyprus.

Bound for Palestine. Two child refugees aboard the SS Ben Hecht that will be intercepted by the British and its passengers interned in Cyprus. ( Courtesy the Institute for Mediterranean Affairs).

The crew was imprisoned by the British authorities in Acre Prison, and assisted in the preparations for the famous Acre Prison break.

The S.S. Ben Hecht would know greater success in the next chapter of its history with the young South African on board although Charlie relates the famed incident that followed with humour in keeping with his colourful personality.

An American friend of mine aboard the ship got the address of some girls from Ma’agan Michael who were stationed in Rehovot. We got to know them and they used to tease us, “You guys came all the way from the States and South Africa to have a good time sailing between Haifa and Gaza! Why don’t you join a fighting unit?” Soon after there was the famous incident where four speedboats, three of them homemade kamikaze torpedo boats, were launched from our ship – the Ben Hecht. When they got close to the Emir Farouk the Egyptian flagship and an accompanying minesweeper anchored outside Tel Aviv harbor trying to prevent Israel from rearming by sea, our guys jumped safely into the water, and the torpedo boats exploded on impact, sinking both enemy ships. Although the sinking of the Farouk was Israel’s most dramatic naval victory in the War of Independence, all I really saw of the whole thing was the explosion in the distance from on board our ship. However we couldn’t rush fast enough to tell the girls of how we sank the enemy ships. Well, how they laughed at us. It turned out that the guys who had actually been on the torpedo speedboats were friends of theirs from their Kibbutz – Ma’agan Michael.”

Israel Strikes at Sea. The Emir Farouk, the flagship of the Egyptian navy before Israel’s attack off the coast of Tel Aviv.

Charlie would find his “girl” after the war on moshav Habonim where many his shipmates and other South Africans had settled.  “I used to work in the fields and brought feed for the dairy. Lucy used to milk the cows early in the morning. She wore shorts and I couldn’t help notice her legs. They were beautiful; they still are,” he said chuckling. Charlie married Lucy and eventually left the Moshav in 1960 and taking a job as the coach of the newly opened Caesarea golf course, despite his mother’s reservations:

 ‘Fun golf ken men machen a leben ?’ (From golf can you make a living?”)

Charlie remained there for the next 35 years.

Life after War. Looking ever so debonair,  Charlie Mandelstam at home on Moshav Habonim.

Over those years, many of the golfers, Charlie rubbed shoulders with either on the course or on the ‘19th hole’  included Danny Kaye, Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Sean Connery, Micky Rooney, Peter Lawford and Zubin Mehta. Charlie related  a game he played with US diplomats, Asst. Secretary of State Joseph J. Sisco,  whose career in the State Department spanned five presidential administrations and who played a major role in Secretary of State Henry Kissinger‘s shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East and Alfred Atherton, who helped in the negotiations that led to the 1978 Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt.

Astute diplomats, they could plot the course of the political destiny of nations but on a golf course, Charlie was frank:

 “they were poor golfers!”

The night following the game, “I got a phone call from Ted Lurie the then editor of The Jerusalem Post asking what the scores were. I politely skirted the question. That Sunday, the paper ran a piece about Sisco and Atherton playing the local pro, Charlie Mandelstam who wouldn’t divulge the scores. On Monday, I received a call from Joseph Sisco telling me he had just called Abba Eban suggesting he recruit me into the diplomatic corps.”

Down to a ‘Tee’. (L-r) At a 1963 exhibition round at Caesarea – Rex Moss, club champion, Isabel Blumberg, two times South African woman’s champion and club champion; Herman Barra, most famous Jewish golfer and world senior champion and Charlie Mandelstam, club pro.
 

Charlie Mandelstam from Standerton, South Africa came to patrol Israel’s shores, but stayed captivated  by the land and its people, and of course, “a fine pair of legs!”










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 (0&EO)

The Man who said “Yes”

A man who shied away from the spotlight all his life but spent a life never shying away from helping others. South Africa’s “Man of Steel’ philanthropist Eric Samson passes away in the USA

By David E. Kaplan

Eric was a visionary leader and nation-builder and a man of unsurpassed generosity, one whose multifaceted legacy will benefit our country long into the future,” voiced the South African Jewish Board of Deputies in a statement following the passing of South African steel magnate and philanthropist Eric Samson who died at his Newport, California home on Tuesday at the age of 83.

Lasting Legacy. South African steel merchant Eric Samson –  A man who left his mark on the lives of  many.

No less a beneficiary of his generosity was the State of Israel.

The founder and majority shareholder of the Macsteel Group, I recall last speaking to Eric at the funeral in Cape Town in 2009 of his good friend, the steel industrialist, Mendel Kaplan. They had been more than good friends. While partnering in many shared interests in the steel industry, it was their partnership in collective causes that they left their mark in making the world a better place. Eric stood right behind me at Mendel’s funeral service at Cape Town’s Pinelands Jewish Cemetery, shocked and devastated and said that he was on board his private plane flying to Europe when he heard the news and related how he immediately asked the pilot to change the flight path and “head to Cape Town.” That was Eric – decisive at being where he feels he needs to be.

He has been like that together with his wife Sheila with causes in South Africa and Israel.

In South Africa “Innumerable organizations and individuals benefited from his support throughout his life,” revealed the South African Board of Deputies in a statement. A great friend of the late South African State President, Nelson Mandela,  Eric served on the board of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund for two decades and donated to it every July to mark the South African leader’s birthday.

The Visionaries. Eric Samson (right) with South African President Nelson Mandela.

In Israel, the Samsons ‘directed’ their generosity to such causes as Keren Hayesod that had been established in 1920 to serve as the fundraising arm of the Jewish People and the Zionist Movement, the Barzilai Medical Center, the Eric and Sheila Samson New Emergency Surgical Hospital in Ashkelon, the Samson Assuta Ashdod Hospital, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, the South African retirement home in Herzliya Beth Protea, and the Eric and Sheila Samson Prime Minister’s Prize – a prestigious international award, launched in 2013, which grants a million dollars annually for groundbreaking innovation in the fields of smart mobility and alternative fuels for transportation.

Rooted to Israel. The Samson family at the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Office in Jerusalem.

I attended the sixth ceremony of The Eric and Sheila Samson Prime Minister’s Prize held on the 29th October 2018 at the Hilton Tel Aviv Grand Ballroom as part of Israel’s 2018 Smart Mobility Summit.

I could not help feeling proud both as an Israeli for what my country was achieving for all mankind, and as a former South African, for the contribution of its Jewish community in enriching the State of Israel. And in the quest to “transform transportation”, it all began a little over six years ago, explained the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, “with ONE phone call to my friends Eric and Sheila in South Africa.”

Smart New World. The 2018 Smart Mobility Summit at the Hilton Tel Aviv where the 6th  ‘Eric and Sheila Prime Minister’s Prize’ was awarded to two outstanding recipients currently making critical advancements in the fields of alternative fuels for transportation and Smart Mobility.

Aiming to reduce 60% of Israel’s oil consumption by 2025, the Prime Minister revealed his concerns to the Samsons that “we have to free the world from the stranglehold of oil and the biggest culprit in the consumption of oil is transportation.” Therefore, persisted the PM persuasively, “we have to work on transforming transportation.” In pursuance of this vision, the PM appealed to the Samsons to consider sponsoring an annual prize that would not only help reduce the world’s dependency on oil but would further help revolutionize mankind’s modes of transportation.

Peering upon the large audience from across the globe that included delegations from 36 countries, including all the states of Europe, Israel’s Prime Minister bellowed proudly:

 “It took only 60 seconds for Eric and Shelia to answer with one wordYES!”

A co-recipient of the Samson award was Prof. Doron Auerbach of Bar-Ilan University for his contribution to breakthroughs in the field of battery development that included the development of advanced batteries for electric vehicle applications. “Every electric car anywhere in the world is partly powered by our research,” said Auerbach in accepting the prize. “I feel great pride for Israel.”

Israel’s then Minister of Science and Technology, Ofir Akunis said,

We are changing the world. Israel is investing in the future and our Ministry could not ask for a better partner in this critical mission than Eric and Sheila Samson who have made this possible through their contribution towards the Prime Minister’s Prize. We know from our history, knowledge is strength and when used properly, we can make the impossiblepossible!”

The South African retirement home Beth Protea would not have been “possible” were it not for Eric saying “YES” to a vision that skeptics said was “impossible”. It was not too long after that then President of South Africa and future Nobel Peace Laurette, F.W. de Klerk laid the foundation stone to Beth Protea during his visit to Israel in  November 1991.

For the Community. Beth Protea, Israel’s South African retirement home ‘of the community, by the community for the community’.

Enter Beth Protea today and there in the lobby, hangs a large portrait painting of Eric amongst  the other founding fathers. What began as a “vision” over a quarter of a century earlier, this South African ‘flower’ flourished to emerge as the benchmark  of excellence in caring for seniors leading in the ensuing years with the name ‘protea’ resonating across the land as its ‘seeds’ sprouted with other retirement complexes carrying the brand name. Such is the impact  of a man who said “yes” to the callings that touched his heart.

Turning 13. Sheila and Eric Samson with Beth Protea senior staff member and member of the Beth Protea Foundation Lyn Bach (left) in 2005 at Beth Protea’s ‘Bar Mitzvah” party.

And on the question of “heart”, one could have asked 106-year-old Avraham Barry who made an incredible recovery from heart surgery at the Samson Assuta Ashdod University Hospital. The hospital’s oldest patient,  Avraham who had immigrated to Israel from Yemen as a young child with his family only days after his surgery, returned to his home in Ashdod.

Heartwarming. Born in Yemen, a 106-year-old patient,  Avraham Barry from Ashdod in Israel, makes an incredible recovery from heart surgery at the Samson Assuta Ashdod University Hospital. It was the oldest patient in the Hospital’s history.

In a statement from Keren Hayasod at the time, “Eric and Sheila Samson, through Keren Hayesod, have provided unparalleled support for patients like Avraham by giving residents of the periphery greater access to healthcare and advance medical facilities.”

The Business of Caring. Businessman Eric Samson addressing a Keren Hayesod fundraiser at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Courtesy)
 

His namesake in the Bible, Samson, was noted for his great strength. Such too was this softly spoken ‘Man of Steel’ who impacted the lives of many – young and old. He will be sorely missed.







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 (0&EO)

That Magnificent Man in his Flying Machine

Smoky Simon takes to the sky for his 100th birthday

By David E. Kaplan

Exhilarating,” was the way Smoky Simon described in one word his flight in a small plane over the central Negev near Beersheba at age 100.  Dubbed “Flight of the Century” in a local video made of the historical flight, it has understandably gone viral on YouTube. Most blokes – at any age – might settle for a slice of birthday cake or if of a senior age a “medicinal” scotch but not Smoky. Donning a helmet and goggles and grinning from ear to ear like a mischievous teenager, Smoky, who turned 100 in May 2020 climbed  into a single propeller Tiger Moth in September and flew over the very area where in 1948 he and his comrades helped repel the advancing Egyptian attack.

Reach for the Sky. Smoky flying at age 100 in September 2020.

It was truly a “family Affair” for in separate planes alongside their dad’s aircraft were his two sons, Saul and Dan, who after school, followed in their father’s ‘flightpath’ by becoming top pilots and flight instructors in the Israel Air Force. What a joy for the birthday boy when he alighted  from the plane an hour later to be met by his adoring grandchildren screaming proudly, “Saba, Saba” (“grandfather”).

If the experience also felt “liberating”, Smoky would later say, “You know, the area I just flew over  – the central Negev – was the very first area to be LIBERATED in the War of Independence.”

Flying High. Smoky and Myra Simon  (sitting) with sons Saul (second left) and Dan (right) following the ‘Flight of the Century’.

Sitting down with Smoky for an exclusive interview with Lay of The Land, Smoky had many more words beyond “Exhilarating” to say of that experience and those daring days during Israel’s War of Independence.

While the War of Independence was Israel’s longest war lasting eight months from May 1948 to January 1949, “it was also its costliest with 6,373 military and civilian lives lost out of a population of 650,000,” says Smoky. “What’s more, it was also Israel’s most fateful war for if this war had been lost, the prayers, hopes and dreams of 2000 years would have vanished into thin AIR.”

To ensure that did not happen, it took the likes of this plucky South African aviator who in 1948 – took to the AIR to fight for Jewish survival and independence.

A Call to Arms

There are not too many couples who can say  they selected a war to come on honeymoon, but that is what Smoky, and his young bride Myra did in 1948. “When the South African Zionist Federation began recruiting ex-WWII servicemen and it became clear there was going to be an imminent war, we brought our wedding earlier. Why?  Well, when  I said to Myra,  “We have got to postpone our wedding,  because I’m going to Palestine,” she replied, “Not postpone, advance because IF YOU’RE GOING, I’M GOING!” 

Plotting Israel’s Survival. Harold ‘Smoky’ Simon (second left) goes over plans with then-Israel Air Force commander Aharon Remez (left) and two unidentified serviceman during the War of Independence.
(photo credit: Courtesy)

This is how Smoky and Myra were part of the first group of volunteers from South Africa. “We arrived on the 9 May 1948 and the next day we signed on to serve in the new-born Israeli air force, although on that day we did not know yet it was Israel – we spoke of Palestine.” While Myra had served in the SAAF during WWII as a meteorologist  and became the first instructor in meteorology in the IAF, Smoky, who had flown for the Royal Air Force over the deserts of western Egypt, Libya and Tunisia and later over Sicily and the rest of Italy, was about to again ‘take off’ into history.

On the 14 May 1948,  while David Ben-Gurion was declaring the State of Israel in Tel Aviv, Smoky was one of three people who had a clear, disturbing view of what was about to befall the new state. The other two were fellow South African Boris Senior and an Israeli photographer Shmulik Videlis who were flying in a Bonaza in what was the first reconnaissance flight over enemy territory. Boris was the pilot, Smoky, the navigator.

They observed with sinking hearts the roads leading from Transjordan and Syria lined with hundreds of vehicles, tanks trucks, half-tracks, and armoured cars, “all moving in for the kill.”

They could see Kfar Etzion “had already been overrun and was on fire,” and would soon learn that some 200 members of Kfar Etzion had been killed in its defense, including South Africans.

Returning to Tel Aviv for their debriefing, they could hardly conceal their anxiety.

We know,” said Yigal Yadin, Head of Operations.

What Smoky did not know but discovered on landing was that Ben Gurion had declared the State of Israel.

“I always say that when I left on that reconnaissance mission,  I took from Tel Aviv Palestine but when  landed later at the same location it was  Tel Aviv Israel!”

The Jewish world as had Smokys’, changed forever.

‘Tiger Moth’ to ‘do the Math’

The anxiety felt by all was natural. “All we had were a few Tiger Moths, Cessnas and Austers. This made up our ‘Bomber Command’. Egypt had 62 frontline aircraft, including British Spitfires and Italian Macchis and here we were completely exposed without a single combat aircraft or anti-aircraft gun. I keep reminding myself – and I thought of this when flying again for my 100 birthday in the Tiger Moth –  that we are really living in a miracle.”

The leaders of the Jewish community in Palestine at the time were aware that the result of declaration of a State of Israel would be an immediate invasion by the surrounding Arab nations.

And the warning was clear in the words of US Secretary of Defence, James Forrestal:

 “There are thirty million Arabs on one side and about six hundred thousand Jews on the other. It is clear that in any contest, the Arabs are going to overwhelm the Jews. Why don’t you face up to the realities? Just look at the numbers!”

No Jew could expect any quarter. These words by the first Secretary-General of the Arab League, Abd Al-Rahman Azzam Pasha were chilling:

 “It will be a war of annihilation. It will be a momentous massacre in history that will be talked about like the massacres of the Mongols or the Crusades.”

What was going through Ben Gurion’s mind to proceed with the declaration?  “You know,” says Smoky, “I have asked myself a 1000 times, what sort of inspiration  and courage and determination  he had. Only answer I can find, is  Ein Beira – “No Choice

Israel’s position was bleak. It was a David and Goliath scenario of bringing the proverbial staff and sling to a battlefield against five well equipped armies.

‘Plane’ Truth. Smoky and Myra Simon display on the 24 September 2019 Smoky’s Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Sylvan Adams Bonei Zion Lifetime Achievement Award for his key role in the founding of the Israeli Air Force. (Source: Nefesh B’Nefesh via Facebook)
 

“In our few Austers and the few Cessnas brought over from South Africa we flew off into battle with a pilot, navigator and what we called” bomb chuckers”. These fellow carried the bombs on their laps   – 20 and 50 kilograms –  and at a height of 1500 to 2000 feet,  they would chuck ‘em out and drop them on the  enemy. We would then fly back to base  counting our lucky stars, ‘reload’, and then off again on our next trip.”

Incredulous, I ask, “Wasn’t this very dangerous?”

Well, before opening the aircraft’s door and pitching-out the bombs, we would secure the bomb-chuckers with rope, so that they would not fall out of the plane along with the bombs. Sometimes, for good measure we also threw out crates of empty bottles which made a terrifying noise scaring the hell out of the population below. If we did not have the goods, we had to pretend!

This is how the IAF in this modest way, developed into this amazing world class air force of today.”

An Officer and a Gentleman

MODEST” it was, as Smoky will attest in this delightful anecdote. On being made Israel’s first Chief of Air Operations in 1948 with the rank of Major or the equivalent of “Squadron Leader”, he needed to display his new rank, “but we didn’t even have any so  what did we do? Myra went to a haberdashery shop in Allenby Street and purchased a few pieces of ribbon and sowed it on to my uniform.”

At Ease. A relaxed Chief of Air Operations Smoky Simon and Derek Bowden, a paratrooper from the UK.

Making fun to lighten the tension, the night before Smoky’s participation in an aerial attack on Damascus on the 10th of June 1948 – the first attack on an enemy Arab city – Smoky said to Myra “Now at least if I get shot down, they will know I am an ‘Officer and a gentleman’!”

Smoky’s plane did six runs over Damascus that night creating the impression “that we were part of a large formation.”

Although the damage caused was probably negligible – “a few fires” – the next day, “all the foreigners fled Damascus as they feared our ‘air force’ was about to hammer them.”

Man on a Mission. Major Smoky Simon in uniform, first Chief of Operations in the Israel Air Force.

Age of Miracles

Smoky reminds that in those early days of the war that while Egypt and Jordan were equipped by the British, Syria and Iraq by the French “Israel had only one friend in the world and that was Czechoslovakia. You know, we have such a debt to that country. It was Israel’s lifeline and I still keep in touch with guys in Czechoslovakia to this day.”

“How significant was that contribution? I ask.

“Firstly, they provided 25 German Messerschmitts,  and what was so remarkable was  – I call it a miracle within the bigger miracle – was that the first four Messerschmitt’s,  which  were brought in parts to Israel and reassembled under the strictest security,  were ready on the 29th of May –  two weeks after the declaration of the State – for an operation that literally saved the war and the State of Israel.

Flight of The Century – Smoky Simon celebrates his 100th birthday by  returning to the cockpit of a Tiger Moth after 72 years since he was Chief of Air Operation in the IAF during Israel’s War of Independence.

The Egyptians had overrun the kibbutzim in the south and reached Ashdod,  and the next day they would have been in Tel Aviv, where Ben Gurion and the provisional government was located, and the War of Independence would have been lost.”

So who flew these planes to counter the Egyptians?

Two Mahalniks (volunteers from abroad), Lou Lenart an American who led the attack and Eddy Cohen a South African, who was sadly killed in the operation, and two Israelis, Ezer Weitzman, later President of Israel and  Modi Alon.  And I call that day, Israel’s day of survival. It was one of the IAF’s greatest moments.”

The attack came as a shock to the Egyptian commanders who had believed Israel to be without combat aircraft and suddenly this air attack by the four Messerschmitts halted their advance. Says Smoky, “The Egyptians fell on the defensive and would not be in Tel Aviv in 48 hours as their government-controlled media had boasted. Tel Aviv receded from their grasp! I always think of Churchill’s words of the Battle of Britain, “Never has so much been owed by so many to so few.”

Special Breed. Seen at Telfed’s Tribute to Machal held at Beth Protea, Herzliya, two of the founders of the Israel Air Force, Smoky Simon, deputy Chief of Air Operations (left) and the late Sid Cohen who commanded 101 Squadron ( right) and the late Maurice Ostroff, (centre) commander of radar station Gefen. (Photo by D.E. Kaplan)

Amongst that “few” is Smoky, today Chairman of World Machal (Organisation representing the volunteers from overseas in the Israel Defense Forces). In the words of Israel’s Founding Father and  first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion:

The Machal forces were the Diaspora’s most important contribution to the survival of the State of Israel.”

Seventy-two years on from those fateful days, Smoky – at the wonderful age of 100 – was back in the cockpit, revisiting in a similar plane over a familiar terrain and reflecting “what was achieved.”

All the people on the ground below can ‘tip their proverbial wings’  and shout “BRAVO”!



Family Roots. Smoky and Myra Simon and extended family at a special dedication woodland rehabilitation event near the memorial for fallen Machal (overseas volunteers) soldiers.






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 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