On June 5, 1966, in the evening hours, Yosef Weitz lit two candles in memory of his son, Yehiam, on the twentieth anniversary of his death. Weitz, who was seventy-six at the time, was the head forester for the Jewish National Fund (JNF), one of the Zionist movement’s institutions, concerned with the acquisition of public land. He had lived in the land of Israel for close to sixty years, during which time the JNF had planted millions of trees. Weitz had come from Russia at the age of eighteen; he began his life in Palestine as an agricultural laborer and was promoted over the years until he became one of the directors of the JNF. He was also involved in planning new communities and was considered a founding father of the Israeli state. In his old age, he wrote children’s stories. Sitting by the memorial candles, Weitz looked through old letters from his son; his Yehiam, he wrote in his diary, gazed down at him from a photograph on the wall, smiling sadly.
Yehiam received his name in the midst of a flurry of war and hope. He was born in October 1918 in one of the first Zionist agricultural settlements, Yavnel, in the Lower Galilee. The army of the British general Edmund Allenby was in the final stages of occupying Turkish-ruled Palestine; his mounted soldiers reached the Yavnel area on the night of Yehiam’s birth. Eight days later, on the day of Yehiam’s circumcision and naming, Yosef Weitz first heard about the statement issued by the British foreign secretary, Lord Arthur James Balfour, proclaiming support for the Zionist movement’s aspirations to build a “national home” in Palestine, a Jewish state. The Balfour Declaration had been issued some ten months earlier, but the Lower Galilee was still under Turkish rule at the time and had no contact with the British-occupied areas.
Weitz and his neighbors were ecstatic when they learned of the declaration; as they gathered for the bris, a “vision of imminent salvation” beat in their hearts. “Their shining eyes and joyous exclamations voiced a blessing—that the Jewish people shall live in their land,” wrote Weitz. When the mohel asked for the name of the newborn, one of the guests shouted out, “Yehiam! Yehiam!”—a Hebrew construct meaning “Long live the nation.” And that was how the boy got his name. It was “a token of the covenant the English had made with the Hebrew nation, that it would be resurrected in its own land,” in Weitz’s words. He could not have conceived of a more patriotic name; it had never been given before.
Yehiam grew up in Jerusalem. His father was one of the founders of a comfortable, remote neighborhood in the western part of town, Beit Hakerem: stone houses with red tiled roofs were surrounded by the greenery of pine trees and cypresses. Daffodils and cyclamens blossomed in the gardens, and Yosef Weitz had a cherry tree. The residents of the neighborhood raised their children as loyal Zionists and pioneering leaders, in the spirit of European culture, in preparation for life in the long-awaited “national home.”
Yehiam studied at the Hebrew Gymnasium, as did most of the children of Jerusalem’s founding elite. He was a good student, who once complained that his teachers were not adequately preparing their students to serve the homeland. He grew into a handsome, charismatic young man, and he joined Hashomer Hatzair, the socialist youth movement, to train himself for a working life on a kibbutz, as was customary among many young people. When the Arab revolt against the British and the Zionists erupted in 1936, Yehiam “joined the ranks,” as his father wrote—meaning the Hagana, the largest military organization of the Jewish community in Palestine. “He seems to be gaining serenity,” his father wrote; “has he found himself?” It seemed he had not: Yehiam soon left to study chemistry and botany at the University of London. “I’m falling in love with London,” he wrote to his parents. But when the Second World War broke out he came home and soon enlisted again, this time in the Palmah, the Hagana’s quasi-standing army.
After the war, Yehiam was trained to carry out anti-British operations. British immigration policy, intended to gain favor with the Arabs, prevented victims of Nazi persecution from settling in Palestine. On the night of June 16, 1946, Palmah units, striking a blow at British control, attacked eleven bridges, destroying ten of them, during the Night of the Bridges. Yehiam was killed near Ahziv, in the north. His father read about the operation in the newspaper the next day and a few hours later was called to the hospital in Haifa. He asked to see his son’s body. “I pulled back the edge of the sheet and saw his curls and his forehead. His thick hair was wild and alive and his brow was smooth and thoughtful. Here was Yehiam, forever silenced.”1
He was buried just as he had lived, as the son of his father, a prominent figure in a very small society: almost everyone knew everyone and many were related. “Jewish Jerusalem in their thousands yesterday accompanied Yehiam, the son of Yosef Weitz, to his final resting place,” reported the daily newspaper Davar. The national flag was draped over the body. Thirteen men had been killed with Yehiam that night, but their bodies had been shattered, thus his funeral stood for theirs, too. The public was called to take part: in Haifa, where the funeral procession began, all work came to a halt, transportation stood still, schools were closed. In Jerusalem the procession could hardly make its way through the crowds. Yehiam was buried on the Mount of Olives.
Weitz poured his pain into his diary. “The beloved son is gone! One cannot accept it—is he truly gone? He lives on in every corner of the house; he springs next to every tree and every plant; he is reflected in every book, every line, even at this very moment. . . . I hear his voice, hear his final shalom, uttered in a hurry as he left the house. He enters every thought and interrupts it. I find it hard to write, I lament him, and Rema, too.” Rema Samsonov was Yehiam’s wife. She came from a family that had lived in the small town of Hadera for many years and later gained fame as a soprano vocalist. “Two young people, tall and upright, beautiful, kind. I had such high hopes for them.”
Weitz blamed himself. “Why did I not go with him? . . . if I had been with him perhaps he would not have been harmed?” He had a “burning passion” to know exactly how Yehiam was killed, how and where he was hit, what had happened in his final moments, what he had said at the end. Friends reported his son’s last words, and yes, they contained a heroic element of sacrifice for the homeland: “I am lost. . . . Go on with the operation,” or “I am finished—you continue,” and also, “Take care of Rema.” His father seemed hurt: “No words of farewell for his grieving parents?” But perhaps Yehiam no longer had the strength.
Describing how he dealt with his pain, Weitz wrote, “My soul is torn in two, the collective and the individual.” He found comfort in the mass participation in his mourning, the public aspect seeming to place a screen, at least at first, between him and his true, private pain; he felt that his task was to fulfill the public role of a bereaved father. “In Haifa and in Jerusalem, the whole nation accompanied us,” he wrote in his diary, “and throngs of people from every walk of life rushed to my home for condolence visits. They say he is the nation’s sacrifice.”
Yehiam’s death indeed took on a national and historical dimension. One of the newspapers wrote: “We are not fostering a cult of sacrifice, but every sacrifice like Yehiam Weitz is precious to us sevenfold. Not only because of the way he lived, but because of the way his life was lost.” Among those who paid consolation was the most senior Zionist leader in Palestine at the time, Moshe Shertok, who would later become Moshe Sharett, Israel’s first foreign minister and second prime minister. He told Weitz that Yehiam had followed the true path and had fulfilled “a sacred duty.” Weitz embraced Shertok’s words. “I said it too: we must have strength in the face of the evil goyim, both Arab and British. And Yehiam chose that path. He believed in it. He was devoted to it. He is admired by all.” The father was aware of the irony of his son dying in an anti-British operation—he, of all people, who had been born with the Balfour Declaration and had grown up as the “national home” was being built with such great hope, under the auspices of the empire.
At the funeral, Weitz approached Shertok, although in “whispers,” with the most difficult question a bereaved father can ask a national leader: “Was the operation necessary? And what was the point of it?” Shertok, whose eyes, according to Weitz, were “kind and comforting,” replied with the answer Weitz felt he needed to hear: Yes, the operation on the bridges was necessary, for it brought us closer to our goal. “The heart of stone was touched with tender drops,” Weitz recalled. He tormented himself with the same question every year, always reminding himself that his son had not been killed in vain. Working the land and being willing to die for it were, to him, values that reinforced the Jews’ right to Eretz Israel, the land of Israel. He came to see a unity between his dead son and the land of Israel—all of it. “I go to wander in the country,” he once wrote, “and as I breathe the air of the entirety of my land from border to border, and that of the people who live in it and embrace it, my people, I hear a comforting voice that says: Yes, it was necessary and it shall be rewarded. The son, and all the other sons, are here, in the sea and the land, in the mountains and valleys, in the fields and gardens, in the shrubs and trees. They are part of the nation and part of the land and when the two grow and become one, great and strong, then will their memory be celebrated by every generation. The memory of all the sons.”
And so Yehiam became a national myth, an emblem of his generation, his image rooted in the country’s soil and in the Jewish struggle for independence. The author S. Yizhar, his cousin, described him as “a tree in its glory.”2 The myth took hold rapidly. Yehiam was described as a member of a generation that breathed the country’s “free air,” that had learned to love it, build it, and fight for it: “This generation produced the finest pioneers, conquerors and defenders of the wilderness; a freeborn and upright generation—the Diaspora and its ways were foreign to it.” Moshe Dayan, who was three years older than Yehiam; Yigal Allon, who was the same age; and Yitzhak Rabin, four years younger, all belonged to the same generation, as did many of the figures who led Israeli society and molded its culture. Yehiam Weitz was supposed to symbolize the “New Hebrew,” whom Zionist leaders hoped to create in Palestine. He was the opposite of the “Old Jew,” the Diaspora Jew, who was viewed with contempt. In Yehiam, they saw “a new man.”*
Three months after the Night of the Bridges, Yosef Weitz traveled to the Arab village of a’Zib, north of Acre, and from a distance observed the place where Yehiam had been killed. “I could not go right there and prostrate myself and search for the drops of his blood which the earth had soaked up,” he wrote. Looking east, he saw the remnants of Qala’at Djedin, or the Heroes’ Fortress, an impressively tall stone tower built by the Crusaders that had become a stronghold of the Galilee ruler Daher el’Omar. The sun was setting, the tower “glimmered and lit up the entire area, all the way to Haifa.” And then Weitz knew; he swore that this would be where Yehiam’s monument would rise. A new Jewish pioneering settlement had to be built here, in this place, for defense, for forestation, and for agriculture. “The fortress shall be renewed and it shall be ours,” he wrote, “and above it shall fly the name of Yehiam, a token of innocence and dedication and sacrifice, and by its side an eternal flame shall send light into the distance.” This endeavor, Weitz told his wife, Ruhama, would be their solace. Thus Kibbutz Yehiam was founded.
Just before the fifth anniversary of their son’s death, Yosef and Ruhama Weitz published a notice asking families with sons named after Yehiam to come to the planting of a memorial grove near Ma’ale Hahamisha, a kibbutz on the way to Jerusalem, whose name refers to five settlers killed by Arabs. They received dozens of responses, including one from Lincoln, Nebraska.4 It was a lively gathering, as some two dozen excited, neatly combed toddlers, one in a sailor suit, crowded around the first Yehiam’s mother and father and had their photograph taken as a souvenir. These were the children of the Zionist dream. Many were the first generation of Israelis born in the country; few of their parents had been born in Palestine. Most came from Eastern Europe. Two fathers were from Turkey, one mother from Germany. There was a lawyer and a housewife, a plumber and a secretary, a mechanical engineer, a driver, and a storekeeper. The father of one Yehiam was a government employee; another’s parents had founded a moshav, a collective village, in the Galilee, where they farmed the land. Some served as army officers in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Most, identifying with the Israeli establishment, read Davar, the newspaper that voiced the positions of the social democratic party in power, Mapai, led by David Ben-Gurion. The little Yehiams would soon be reading Davar Le-Yeladim, the children’s weekly section of the newspaper. Their parents could safely anticipate happiness and prosperity for their children. They could also reasonably hope that these boys’ lives would be better than their own, in an environment that was Hebrew, secular, and safe: they would no longer be persecuted. The children all knew they were named after a hero, and some would grow up with a sense that their name had burdened them with a patriotic duty.5
While the Yehiams were still in their cradles, their name had already been dragged into a major patriotic dispute. On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly proposed its plan to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. Most of the Jews living in Palestine at the time agreed with the assembly’s decision, often enthusiastically, but there were those who opposed it because they wanted the state to control the whole of Eretz Israel. The opposition published a manifesto that proclaimed, “We will have a state—but with no Yehiam.” According to the partition plan, Kibbutz Yehiam, founded in accordance with Yosef Weitz’s vision, would have fallen within the terroritory to be part of the Arab state. Ha’aretz observed that the tomb of King David, on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, would also be left outside the state borders, so that Yehiam would be in good company. Jerusalem, in the partition map, was destined to be a separate entity, under international rule.6
At the end of 1947, war broke out. It resulted in the establishment of the State of Israel, and its territory included Yehiam as well as West Jerusalem and other areas not intended for it under the partition plan. Yosef Weitz believed that the success of the Zionist enterprise necessitated the removal of the Arab population from Palestine. During and after the war, he was involved in deporting Arabs from territories conquered by the IDF, preventing refugees from returning, and forcibly transferring Arabs within the state. In the 1950s he was instrumental in attempts to encourage Israeli Arabs to leave the country. He continued to believe in the “transfer” of Arabs until the end of his days.7
The terms of the cease-fire were set in 1949, and the borders were marked on the map with a green line. The West Bank of the Jordan River and East Jerusalem soon came under the control of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The Mount of Olives was also outside the territory of Israel, and Yosef Weitz could no longer visit his son’s grave. The Gaza Strip was transferred to Egyptian control.
Many Israelis refused to give up the original Zionist dream, hoping for the day when Israel would embrace both sides of the Jordan. Some Israeli politicians, including Ben-Gurion, as well as some IDF generals did not rule out military action to expand the state over the Green Line. But for the most part, Israelis did not seriously consider the possibility that the borders would change, and Israel repeatedly declared that it wanted peace based on the existing situation.8 Nonetheless, Israelis generally believed they had not seen their final war. “Sadly, almost from an inherent inclination, Israelis waited for the next war as for the predictable visit of a wearisome mother-in-law,” wrote Amos Elon.9 While they were not necessarily expecting a fresh round of fighting in the foreseeable future, most thought the Arabs had not abandoned their goal of destroying Israel and that Israelis could offer nothing to induce them to recognize the state and make peace. Until the beginning of 1966, Israelis believed that time was on their side, and assumed that as the country grew stronger, the Arabs would adapt to reality.
When Israelis used the term “Arabs,” they were mainly referring to Egyptians, Jordanians, Syrians, Lebanese, and Iraqis—not to the Palestinians. Ever since they had fled and been deported during Israel’s War of Independence, the Palestinians had ceased being considered an enemy force and were mentioned only as a diplomatic nuisance: refugees whose affair came up for discussion once a year at the UN. Terrorist attacks were mostly attributed to the Arab states, not to the Palestinian national struggle. The 1949 armistice between Israel and its neighbors was violated by numerous acts of terrorism and border incidents, and in 1956 Israel and Egypt engaged in a “second round” of combat, known as the Sinai Campaign.
Most of the Yehiams were in elementary school during the Sinai Campaign, and they were too young to remember the War of Independence. It was not until 1964 that they began to join the army, part of the country’s first enlisted generation. Army service was something they took for granted, part of a routine that most Israelis felt both committed to and powerless to change. “I was at the end of eleventh grade, and all I cared about back then was where I would serve in the army,” one of the Yehiams recollected.10 Their war came in 1967.
Copyright © 2005 by Tom Segev. Translation copyright © 2007 by Jessica Cohen. All rights reserved.