There’s ALWAYS an “Israel” sermon on the High Holidays. And this year there are so many current topics to choose from: Moving the capital to Jerusalem. The US pulling out of the Iran deal. The situation in Gaza. A two state, or a one state solution. An egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. The plight of African refugees seeking asylum in Israel. The growing anti-Israel stance of the Progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
But instead a sermon about current events, I’d like to go in a different direction. I want to go back to the past and share with you a story, the story of one Israeli family.
We start with the patriarch: Zvi Shimshelevich. I’m guessing that you never heard of him. And yet, in 1952, the Knesset honored him with the title “Father of the State of Israel.” The only person so honored! Who is this guy, and what did he do? It’s through HIS story, and that of his son, and his grandson, that we come to understand what Israel is all about.
Shimshelevich was born in Poland in 1862. He married and moved to Poltava, in Russia where he and his wife had four children.
In the 1880’s, a wave of pogroms broke out across Russia. Some Jews sought to escape to America. Some Jews became Revolutionaries, and tried to depose the Tsar. And some Jews dreamed of immigrating to Palestine and creating a Jewish homeland. This last group were known as “Hovevei Tziyon”- “Lovers of Zion”. About 30,000 came on what is now known as The First Aliyah, from 1882-1903.
Zvi Shimshelevich was a member of the Hovevei Tziyon. He became an organizer of the First Zionist Congress, which met in Basle, Switzerland in 1897, and was led by Theodore Herzl. A modern day Jewish prophet, Herzl wrote in his diary after that Congress: “Within fifty years, there will be a Jewish state!” In 1948, it came to pass. He was off by only one year.
In 1903, in the city of Kishinev, a pogrom broke out on the last day of Passover, which coincided with Easter. The government, the Church, and the Press all fired up the local populace to attack the Jews- accusing them of everything from killing Christian children and using their blood to make Matza, to fomenting revolution. Forty nine Jews were killed in the riots, scores were raped, hundreds were injured. A young man from Odessa, Hayim Nachman Bialik, was sent to Kishinev to report on what had transpired. Bialik interviewed victims and survivors.
In the meantime, poets began creating literary responses to the massacre. Shimon Frug wrote a piece in Yiddish asking for assistance for the victims: “Brothers and sisters, have mercy, great and awful is the need; Bread is required for the living, and funeral shrouds for the dead.”
The Hebrew writer Dovid Frischman wrote an angry piece cursing the perpetrators: “From Human beings, who are worse than wild animals, I flee. I escape to this lion’s den. Here I will be left alone, Here- there are no men. Blessed is it being with the wild animals of the forest!”
Over the next several months, Bialik wrote- not a factual report, but an epic poem that was to change Jewish history. It is called “In the City of Slaughter.” Instead of looking for pity or calling for revenge, Bialik turned his pen against his own people. He blamed the Jews for not fighting back, for not defending themselves. He painted a picture of Jewish husbands hiding while their wives and daughters were assaulted. “And now come, and let me bring you to the outhouses, the pig-stys, and you will see with your own eyes the hiding places of your brothers, the sons of your people, the grandsons of the Maccabees… twenty souls in one hole, they ran away and they hid, and they died the death of dogs…” Bialik’s poem shamed his people: “How can we expect our enemies to respect us when we have no self-respect? Any other people would have fought back and defended their wives and daughters, and themselves. What is the matter with the Jews?” he cried.
Bialik wrote in Hebrew, but there weren’t many who could read “In the City of Slaughter” in the original. A young Jewish writer, named Vladimir Jabotinsky, translated Bialik’s poem into Russian. And here is the testimony of Zvi Shimshelevich’s son, Isaac: “I recall a youth group meeting during that period, in which a guest from Odessa came to Poltava to read us the poem in Russian translation. There is no estimating the impression that Bialik’s poem made on the young people. Then was born the decision concerning Self-Defense. We would not allow them to slaughter us like sheep. We began to prepare weapons- knives, clubs, pistols. We began secret training outside the town in the woods. After Kishinev, there were pogroms in Homel and a few other places, but not in Poltava. In our city, the feeling was that the Jews were preparing, and if pogroms broke out, they would defend themselves…”
The Tsarist regime was not about to allow Jews to collect weapons. In June of 1906, the Russian secret police burst into the Shimshelevich home and discovered arms belonging to the group led by Zvi’s son Isaac. Isaac wasn’t home, and was able to escape to Vilna. His father- Zvi, and brother and sister were arrested and sentenced to Exile-forLife- in Siberia.
In 1907, Isaac Shimshelevich made his way from Vilna to Palestine. Hebrew would now be his main language, so Isaac became Yitzhak. And Shimshelevich was a “ghetto name.” He wanted a name that spoke not of the exile, but of a free people in their own land. Perhaps feeling guilt about what had happened to his father, Yitzhak wanted to honor him. So he was no longer Shimshelevich, but “the Son of Zvi”- Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. Now living under the rule of the Ottomans, he also chose a nickname that would hide his identity from the authorities, and which gave a clue into what he thought about his destiny. He called himself “Avner”- the name of the army commander of Saul, first king of Israel. Jewish power and strength were very much on his mind.
Yitzhak Ben-Zvi was one of 35,000 “halutzim”- Pioneers- who came to Israel during the Second Aliyah, from 1904 to 1914. They created the Kibbutzim; they built Tel Aviv. One of the problems they faced was that in isolated settlements in the Galilee, Arab raiders often stole Jewish livestock, or burned crops. Having been at the forefront of Self-Defense in Russia, Ben-Zvi took a leading role in Palestine. On September 28, 1907, in his small apartment in Jaffa, a group met to create the first self- defense group in Israel. It was called Bar-Giora, named for Shimon Bar-Giora, a military leader of the great Jewish revolt against Rome in the year 70. Bar-Giora would protect the settlement of Sejera in the Lower Galilee. As a motto, the group chose lines from a poem by Yakov Kahan: “BaDam va-esh Yehuda Nafal; BaDam Va-esh Yehudah Takum”: In blood and fire, Judah fell; in blood and fire Judah will rise!
The number of settlements in the Galilee grew, and Bar Giora was no longer able to protect them all. In April of 1909, the organization morphed into something bigger, now called Ha-Shomer- “the Guardians.” During Harvest time, there were as many as 300 Jewish men and women on patrol. They rode on horseback, and often dressed like Arabs in keffiyas, and were armed with primitive rifles.
Among the founding members of HaShomer was a woman from the Ukraine. She had been born as Golda Lishansky. In 1905, at the age of 19, she represented her town at the Zionist Congress. In 1908, she made Aliyah. Like Ben-Zvi, she too changed her name. “Golda” was Yiddish, so she adopted the Biblical name Rahel. And in place of Lishansky, she became Yanait, the feminine form of the name of a Maccabean king, Alexander Yanai. She quickly realized that the future of Jewish life in Palestine depended on agriculture, which Jews knew little about. So she went off to France in 1911 to study agronomy. When she returned to Palestine, she started a school to teach Jews from Eastern Europe how to farm the land.
At the same time, Ben-Zvi came to believe that the Jews in Palestine would have to deal with the Ottoman Turks, so he and a friend, David Grin, (who changed HIS last name to Ben-Gurion) went to Istanbul to study law, hoping that one day they would serve in the Ottoman parliament.
In 1914, the First World War broke out. Ben-Zvi and Ben-Gurion, thinking that the future of the Jews in Palestine depended on the good will of the Ottomans, proposed creating a Jewish Legion that would be attached to the Turkish army. At the same time, Vladimir (now Zev) Jabotinsky- the translator of Bialik’s poem which had changed Ben-Zvi’s life- understood that the future of the Jews rested with the British. He proposed a Jewish Legion that would help the Allies liberate Palestine from the Turks.
The British said Yes to Jabotinsky, and in 1915 the Zion Mule Corps was created. About 600 Jews became a part of the brigade that transported supplies. Being part of the Mule Corps and schlepping water wasn’t very romantic, but for the first time in 2000 years, Jews were in their own military unit. Second in command was a one-armed Jewish hero of the Russian-Japanese War, Yosef Trumpeldor. The unit was sent off to Galipoli- where 13 of its members fell in battle.
The Turks, meanwhile, said No to Ben-Zvi and Ben-Gurion, and exiled them from Palestine. The two “Bens” ended up in New York City, where they began to recruit Jews for the British war effort. In 1917, more than 1000 Jews enlisted in what would be the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers- or The Jewish Legion. They had an insignia on their uniforms- a Menorah- and the Hebrew word “Kadima”- meaning “Forward!” Among them were 150 who had been recruited by Ben-Zvi and Ben-Gurion. These Americans, including the “Bens” trained in Canada, were shipped off to England, and then were deployed in Egypt.
In 1918, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (formerly Isaac Shimshilevich) and Rahel Yanait (formerly Golda Lishansky) were married. They had two sons- Amram, and Eli. They lived in a wooden shack in Jerusalem. Ben-Zvi’s father, Zvi Shimshelevich escaped from Siberia after 16 years, and made Aliyah in 1923. He Hebraized his name from Shimshelevich to Shimshi- meaning “sunlight.”
In the Spring of 1920, two critical events took place in Palestine. There was an outpost in the Galilee, called Tel Hai. The Jews (seeking to ally themselves with the British) saw this as their northern border, while the Arabs (who allied with the French) wanted the Jews out. On March 1st, fighting broke out between Jews and Arabs. Eight Jewish defenders (6 men and 2 women) were killed. Their leader was Yosef Trumpeldor, the one-armed Russian hero who had led the Jewish Legion. According to legend, Trumpeldor’s dying words were “Tov lamut b’ad artzeinu”- “It is good to die for our country.” This battle was considered the first military engagement of the Zionists against the Arabs. It spread the determination of the Jews to fight, and sacrifice for their place in the Land of Israel. The eight defenders were buried nearby in Kfar Giladi, and a statue of a roaring lion stands over their graves. The Jewish people had come a long way since the Kishinev pogrom when they were seen as defenseless sheep. Now they saw themselves as ferocious lions.
In April of the same year, Arab riots against the Jews in the Old City of Jerusalem broke out. Five Jews were killed, and hundreds were wounded. This was reminiscent of the pogroms in Russia. Leaders of the Jewish community in Palestine, gathered together. The British, now in charge of Palestine, had no desire to confront the Arab population. And Ha-Shomer was not strong enough to defend Jews all over the country. A new solution was required. Jews, including Zev Jabotinsky and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, created a new group to protect the Jews. It would be called “Hagana”- the Hebrew word for “Defense.” A year later, an organized group of the Hagana repelled an Arab mob in Jerusalem intent on slaughtering the Jews. For the next twenty-eight years, the Hagana defended the Jews in Palestine.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Jews in the land of Israel had to decide how best to help their people in Europe, and defend their homeland in Palestine. Some enlisted in the British army to fight Hitler. Others felt the more immediate task was to join the Hagana and its elite strike unit, the Palmach, in order to protect Palestine from an expected invasion by the German army led by Rommel, and from belligerent Arabs incited by the Mufti.
Yitzhak and Rahel Ben-Zvi’s older son Amram chose the first way; he enlisted in the British army. In May of 1943 he was on an Indian troop ship that embarked from Egypt and was headed for Malta. On board were about 300 Jewish soldiers from Palestine. The ship was attacked by planes that dropped torpedoes. In four minutes, the ship sank. Amram was thrown into the sea, but managed to grab hold of a rope connected to a raft. He was in the water for three hours, until a ship came by and rescued the survivors. One hundred and forty Jews were lost at sea that day.
The younger son, Eli, chose the second way. From an early age he had been smuggling weapons- just like his father had done in Russia- now for the Hagana. He and many of his classmates joined the Palmach. In 1944, Eli was part of a group that founded a new Kibbutz in the Lower Galilee, a few miles from Sejera, where the first members of Bar-Giora, founded by his father-were on guard. Eli consulted with his Ben-Zvi about an appropriate name for the new settlement. His father opened his Bible and found an answer in the Book of Samuel, in the opening line of David’s poem for the fallen King Saul and his son Jonathan: David’s lament began: “Teach the sons of Judah how to use the bow…” The Kibbutz would be called “Bet Keshet”- “The House of the Bow.” Eli was chosen as “Muchtar”- the head of the kibbutz. Though he tried to establish good relations with the local Arab villagers, there were still numerous attacks on Jews. Then, In November of 1947, the UN voted for Partition, and the British announced that they would leave Palestine on May 14, 1948. Arab attacks increased during those months. At this time, Eli was planning to be married on Purim to his fiancé P’nina. On March 16, ten days before the wedding, Eli led seven kibbutz members on patrol to protect the settlement, just like Bar-Giora did forty years before. They walked into an ambush and were surrounded by hundreds of members of the local Arab clan, who had been trained and were led by a former German army officer who fled to Palestine following the war. One member of the patrol managed to escape and alert the Kibbutz, who called the British to intervene. The remaining seven- led by Eli Ben-Zvi- fought to their last bullet. They were all killed. When Eli’s body was recovered, it was discovered that after running out of ammunition, he had smashed his gun so that a precious weapon would not fall into the hands of the enemy. It took three days of negotiations by the British for the seven dead to be returned to the kibbutz for burial. Just as David had sang a song of mourning for his king and best friend, so too the Ben-Zvi family mourned for a beloved son, grandson, brother- and fiancé.
Just two months after burying his son, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi stood next to his old friend David Ben-Gurion in the Dizingoff home in Tel Aviv on Friday, May 14th, 1948 and affixed his signature to the Israeli Declaration of Independence. The Shimshelevich family- father, son and grandson, had played important roles in making a 2000 year old dream come true. That same day, the Hagana ceased to exist, and the Israeli Defense Forces was born. There is a direct line from that Pogrom in Russia, to the famous poem read in translation, to the creation of the first self-defense units in Poltava, to the formation of Bar-Giora in Jaffa, and HaShomer in the Galilee, and the Hagana in Jerusalem, and the creation of the Israeli Army in Tel Aviv. Yitzhak Ben-Zvi had been connected to each and every point on that straight line.
Ben-Zvi had been at the center of the creation of the Jewish state. In politics, he had helped found Achdut HaAvodah, which later morphed into Mapai, and today is known as the Labor Party. He was part of the Secretariat of the Histadrut, the Israeli Labor federation. He had been the Chairman of the Va’ad Leumi, the pre-1948 National Council. With independence, he served as a member of the Knesset. And in 1952, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi was elected President of the State of Israel, serving during the administration of his old comrade, David Ben-Gurion, the Prime Minister.
Zvi Shimshi, named by the Knesset as “Father of the State of Israel,” passed away in 1953 at the age of 91. His son, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Second President of Israel, died in 1963, 79 years old. Zvi’s grandson, and Yitzhak’s son- Eli Ben-Zvi, Muchtar of Kibbutz Bet Keshet, fell in battle on the eve of Israeli Independence, at the age of 24. The story of this family is a reminder that Israel was not given to the Jewish people on a silver platter. To be “a free people in our own land” requires great courage, and sacrifice. The same holds true to this day.
Sometimes, in order to know where we are, we have to remember where we came from.