(April 17, 2023 / JNS) Many see the creation of the modern-day State of Israel as part of a historical narrative, in which Israeli independence was a reaction to the Holocaust. “The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people—the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe—was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of its homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish State,” the provisional government of Israel declared on May 14, 1948.
But when JNS interviewed nearly 30 veterans of the 1948 War of Independence in Israel from October 2022 to January 2023, all of the octogenarians, nonagenarians and centenarians said that 3,000 years of Jewish history—and not the Shoah—drove them to help reclaim the Jewish historic homeland.
JNS found the interviewees by visiting nursing homes, kibbutzim and other sites in Israel and abroad, often asking to speak with the oldest people present. The roughly 30 who agreed to talk about their experiences spoke with JNS—the majority in English with some Yiddish—for more than 60 hours collectively.
The veterans spanned Israeli-born sabras who were active in the Jewish militias Irgun, Lehi and the Haganah, as well as foreign fighters who came to assist what would become the Israel Defense Forces in Machal units. Both sabras and foreign volunteers knew a great deal about the Holocaust, and many had lost relatives and friends. They met survivors who recounted their experiences. But invariably, the veterans told JNS that they were motivated in their service by a long cultural and historical memory rather than World War II itself.
Ahead of Yom Ha’atzmaut—Israel’s Independence Day, which begins on the evening of April 25 and continues through the following day—JNS shares a few of those stories.
JNS spent some eight hours at kibbutz Gan Shmuel with Itzik Mizrachi, 90, who shared his story, gave a tour of the kibbutz where he lives and invited JNS to lunch at its dining hall. The Jerusalem-born Mizrachi said he was a messenger in Haganah’s youth wing, Gadna.
During the outbreak of the war in May 1948, Itzik and his family were in the Mount Scopus area, and Arabs blocked them from taking roads to other safe areas. A mob mobilized to try to kill them, he said, but the patriarch of an Arab family, Abu Mustafa, who shared their home stood guard at the door and told the mob it would have to kill him first.
Soon thereafter, Haganah members came in an armored truck and told the family it had half an hour to gather its things and come to safety.
Mizrachi, who remains in good health, and walks and drives on his own, told JNS that he is the seventh generation in his family to live in Israel, after his ancestors, Sephardic Jews, left Spain during the expulsion.
As a Haganah message runner, he studied KAPAP—an acronym for krav panim el panim, or close-quarter fighting—which Haganah used to disguise its weapons training. Mizrachi later studied with Imi Lichtenfeld, founder of krav maga, and his son Rhon Mizrachi is now one of the recognized experts in that area.
Mizrachi told JNS that the Holocaust was only one chapter in Jewish history. “Why would we allow that moment alone to define us as Jews?” he said. “Long before the Holocaust, we said, ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ every year during the Passover seder.”
The Holocaust was a motivator, but not the main one. “For generations, we yearned for our independence. There were many pogroms, massacres and expulsions in our history. We never let any of these define us either,” he said.
South African Zionism
“The South African Jewish community was very Zionist long before the Holocaust,” Ruth Stern, 97, a South African nurse who now lives in Jerusalem, told JNS.
The 800 South African volunteers in 1948 paled in number only to Americans (1,000). Due to the representation from these two nations in particular, English became the most spoken language among machalniks, and most foreign volunteers, who were likelier to know Yiddish than Hebrew, first spoke in Yiddish with Israelis.
Stern, who went to Israel to volunteer over her parents’ objections—“Why can’t you be like your sisters and not go?”—said that she and her peers knew about the Holocaust and that many South African Jews of Lithuanian heritage lost relatives back home.
“The Holocaust wasn’t why I volunteered or why most other Jews did,” she insisted.
In 1948, she treated many patients who had survived the Holocaust before their injuries in the war. They experienced trauma on top of trauma, she said.
She accounted for her choice to go to Israel despite pressure from her parents with her spirit of adventurousness. It’s not every 2,000 that one can see the Jewish state rebuilt, she said. She didn’t want to wait another two millennia.
High-flying graphic designer
Asked whether the Holocaust motivated him, the late Alex Zilony, who died at age 107 on March 3, replied: “No. What a question!”
Zilony, who was born in Poland and grew up in Israel, studied in the United Kingdom before becoming a Haganah pilot. He was one of the founders of the Israeli Air Force, and speaking from his home in Tel Aviv, he told JNS that he designed the IAF emblem, which remains in use today.
“We have wanted a state for over 3,000 years,” he said. “Maybe the possibility of building a state was higher after the Holocaust because we got many new immigrants and war veterans, but Jews had been migrating since the 1920s and even before this,” he said.
Zilony’s daughter, Ruth, who was present during the interview, was as surprised as JNS was at her father’s response. “This was not the answer I expected,” she said, highlighting generational differences in Israel today.
Despite the tendency of American South African and British volunteer pilots to pride themselves on the proclamation that they helped solidify a victory in 1948, Zilony was adamant that Israel would have prevailed without that help.
“They say three Jews, five opinions,” the late Tom Tugend told JNS in a phone call from his California home late last year. “This time, it was half a million of us, one opinion—stay alive! Pretty much the whole Diaspora or every Jew who could hold a gun sent someone to represent their community.”
Despite having fled Nazi Germany to the United States and later returned to Europe as a U.S. soldier, Tugend insisted that his desire to help create a Jewish state was a more significant motivator than the Holocaust.
Jews came from a variety of backgrounds, noted Tugend, from Jewish IRA (Irish Republican Army) arms smugglers to Indian Jews. Some, like Tugend, had served in the U.S. military, or in the British or French armies in World War II. Some were officers, while others lacked any military experience, he said, and a few even came from Kenya.
“The South Africans were among the most dedicated fighters,” he pointed out. “There was a Jewish Texan cowboy with a Southern accent. There was a Jew with a Scottish accent, and I recall one from Yorkshire whom nobody could understand! They all wanted to defend the new nation of Israel.”