The cover story of this issue focuses on Israel’s founders, the men and women who risked their lives to fight in the War of Independence in 1948 to ensure the establishment of a Jewish state. The members of this heroic generation were shaped by the great historic events of the early twentieth century and they in turn shaped the State of Israel. For this issue, we asked them to reflect on those formative years in the hope that they could provide some insight and guidance to apply in the confusing times we are facing today.
The members of the founding generation raised a variety of intriguing ideas and also expressed consternation about the Israeli government’s 2011 decision to name the memorial being established at Sha’ar Hagay after the late Palmah member, IDF general, and politician Rechavam (Gandhi) Ze’evi, who was assassinated in 2001. Ze’evi is commemorated at many other sites around the country, they explained, and more importantly, he did not fight anywhere near Sha’ar Hagay since he served in the Galilee and Negev as the intelligence officer of the Yiftah Brigade during the war. The most passionate on this point was Eliyahu (Raanana) Sela, who was among the senior Palmah officers who fought in the battle for the road to Jerusalem, which centered around Sha’ar Hagay.
“It is a problematic political move to name [a memorial at Sha’ar Hagay]after someone who did not fight there,” Sela explained, emphasizing that he has no hard feelings toward Ze’evi, but it is inappropriate to honor him at the expense of those who lost their lives at Sha’ar Hagay. “If they are going to build a memorial here, it must be for the fighters who fell here.”
The battles surrounding Sha’ar Hagay were among the most fatal and crucial in the War of Independence. Even though Jerusalem had a large Jewish population, it had been slated to become an international zone and was not among the areas designated to be part of the future Jewish state. Furthermore, it was surrounded by Arab villages that were slated to be part of a future Arab state. The only road connecting Jerusalem to the coast, where most of the Jewish population resided then, twisted through the narrow defile in the Judean Mountains starting at Sha’ar Hagay (or Bab el-Wad in Arabic, both the Hebrew and Arabic names mean the gate to the ravine). Arab villages also were perched on the mountains above the road. As the British prepared for their mandate in Palestine to come to an end, Arab irregulars attacked and blockaded roads throughout the country. The road winding through Sha’ar Hagay, the only lifeline of the 60,000 Jewish residents in Jerusalem, became even more treacherous. Jerusalem was almost completely cut off from the other Jewish communities in Mandatory Palestine.
The protracted battle to gain control of the road to Jerusalem so Jews could travel on it safely took a heavy toll on the Palmah’s Harel Brigade. Each night, the young men and women of the Harel Brigade would set out from their base at Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim on sorties in an effort to secure the heights overlooking the road and dislodge the Arab irregulars blocking the road. As sunrise approached, they would return, carrying their dead and wounded comrades. Every day there would be funerals, before the exhausted fighters went out again to battle.
Fatalities were so common that members of Kiryat Anavim were laboring constantly to give them a proper burial, preparing the graves in advance each day for whoever would fall that night. Since the kibbutz sat on a stony hill, graves could not be dug, but needed to be drilled into the hard stone.
“The sound of the graves being drilled echoed in our ears,” Sela recalls, visibly pained to this day by the memory.
Palmah member and poet Haim Gouri channeled the pain he felt upon seeing the wreckage of the convoys on the road to Jerusalem and talking to his friends in the Harel Brigade into writing “Bab el-Wad.” His tribute to the fallen in the battle for the road to Jerusalem became one of the most famous songs of the Israeli War of Independence:
Please remember our names for eternity
Convoys broke through on the way to the city
By the sides of the road lay our dead.
And the iron skeleton [of the convoy vehicles]is silent, like my [fallen]comrades.
Gouri was not a member of the Harel Brigade, but of the Palmah’s Negev Brigade. However, his wife, Aliza, served in the fifth battalion of the Harel Brigade and fought on the road to Jerusalem. Gouri’s two most famous ballads – “Bab el-Wad” and “Hare’ut” (The Friendship), describing the battles that his brigade fought in the Negev – positioned him as the voice of his generation.
“Naming the memorial for anyone is an outrage,” 93-year-old Gouri declares. “I even went to talk to the government, to Bibi [Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu], about this. The memorial, like the song, should be dedicated to all the people who fell on that road – the Harel Brigade fighters as well as the many, some unknown, convoy drivers and their helpers, the armed escorts, and all who died in that heroic battle and no one remembers their names. ‘Remember our names.’ I wrote – not one name, many names.”
In December 1948, influential Israeli journalist and poet Nathan Alterman wrote a song in praise of the opening of the Burma Road that allowed convoys to reach Jerusalem, Gouri points out. Alterman called it “Dvar Mavkei Haderekh,” Hebrew for the words of those who breached the road. This title, Gouri emphasizes, is “in the plural. It is not about one single person, but about the effort of the many people who took part in this battle.”
Over 400 Palmah soldiers fell in the battles around Sha’ar Hagay to open the road to Jerusalem, yet the Palmah ultimately gained control of the road, making it possible to provide food to Jerusalem’s starving Jewish population and subsequently win control of Jerusalem. If it were not for the determined fighters at Sha’ar Hagay, Jerusalem’s Jewish community would not have survived the war and Jerusalem would not have become the capital of the State of Israel.
Today, less than 70 years later, these brave men and women have almost been forgotten. The most concrete way to honor the memory of the hundreds who lost their lives in the battles over the road to Jerusalem would be to dedicate the visitors’ center and memorial being created at Sha’ar Hagay to them. The conflict over naming the memorial revolves around how to remember the past. It only seems appropriate to rely on Sela, Gouri, and their comrades – the people who were actually there in 1948 – in creating the memorial at Sha’ar Hagay.
Yadin Roman and Heidi J. Gleit