While riding in a Jerusalem taxi this past week, a Hebrew news broadcast was discussing previous member of Knesset, Geula Cohen. My Hebrew is substandard, but I understood that one of the greatest women in Israel’s history had passed away. Exactly 22 years ago this month, I had the humbling experience of visiting with Geula in her home to interview her for my radio show on London Spectrum Radio. Her home was modest but full of rich Moroccan and Yemenite tapestries in tones of red. We sat at her dining room table as the stories flowed from her lips. It was with great joy that I discovered the original tape of that interview and was able to listen to it this evening. Everything I will share with you is from her recorded voice. For a journalist-it doesn’t get better than this.
At the age of 15, Geula Cohen was already a member of the Irgun. She saw British soldiers on the streets of her beloved country and she wanted to join forces with those intent on forcing them to leave. The alternative choice might have been to join ranks with the Haganah- but that organization was only intent on a diplomatic compromise on various areas with the British. The Lechi …later to become the Stern group was fighting to rid Palestine of the British by using any means possible. At the age of 16 Geula Cohen heard a radio broadcast from Avraham Stern ( later to become leader of the Stern Group… renamed the “Stern Gang” after their dramatic activities.). His message resonated with her and she joined immediately. She left home and tried to explain to her bewildered mother why she felt compelled to stand up for her deep beliefs.
Within months, she was the voice of the resistance on the airwaves. She was famous for encouraging Jews to stand up against the British regardless of the risk. She became so famous that the British arrested her along with others from the Stern Gang and put them into prison. The British could not decide whether to put her on trial. While waiting, she tried to escape the prison in Bethlehem where she was being held. As she pulled her second leg through the torn fence, the British saw her and began firing at her. They ran after her shooting for thirty minutes. They wounded her. She stopped running and was re-arrested.
She and others were brought to trial but refused to use a lawyer. They chose to defend themselves in court. The judge told her that as she was a “mere woman” he was inclined to give her a light sentence, as she must surely have been “deluded” by male influence. Geula told the judge that Eve “deluded” Adam in the garden of Eden, not the other way around and that one does not need to be duped to fight for what one believes in. The judge then gave her a 9 year prison sentence: seven years for carrying a gun and two years for using the microphone to reach the public with her message. Her response was two-fold; First she told him that the sentence should have been the other way around, because the microphone was far more powerful than her gun. Second- she told him that the British would never be in Israel long enough to enforce her sentence. She was right. They left one year later when Israeli statehood was declared by the United Nations.
During the day of her court hearing, Geula remembered that the courtroom was full of police, press, politicians, friends and family. As she was speaking to the judge, she heard a small voice begin to sing. She turned around to see her little mother standing and singing “Hatikvah.” Geula said she was in shock at the time, but she still remembered the judge’s face. She was trembling as she told me this story. His face reflected both fear and respect for a people with mothers such as hers. He understood, she said, that people like this cannot be stopped from pursuing their ideals. This memory she reflected, gave her continual strength in the years that followed.
When asked if it was a romantic time for a young woman to be involved in such an effort… she said that their group was so small that they were all in love with the ideals that bound them together. So when they fell in love with one another, the love was magnified by the commonality of purpose and the love of their people.
On the wall of Geula’s home was a photograph of her standing up in the Knesset and tearing up a copy of the Camp David Accord. She was then a member of Likud. With that act she tendered her resignation and began her own political party -Tekiya. Although she respected Menachem Begin on many levels, she felt that he had made a horrendous mistake uprooting Jewish settlements in the Sinai. She felt it was a precedent from which Israel could never return. She felt the accord planted the seeds for a Palestinian State even though Begin did not believe that it would come into force. He later admitted he had misread the situation and tried to push back, but to no avail.
The deed was done, and Geula was right in her assessment. When she tore up the accord, she was crying. When a journalist asked her why she was in tears, she responded “I am crying today so that you will not have to cry tomorrow.”
A woman of principle, she had not only her apartment in Jerusalem but also a caravan in Kiryat Arba-Hebron. She came to Jerusalem to be with family on Shabbat but was in Hebron during the week. When asked why she felt so strongly about Hebron, she responded that “all our forefathers are buried there. It was our first settlement almost four thousand years ago by Avraham Avinu. King David was declared King in Hebron and ruled there for seven and a half years before coming to Jerusalem to be King.” Geula said, “This is our history. Hebron is our land.” She felt that there was no reason to give anything to anyone. She felt that the land acquired in the ’67 war was so rich in Jewish history that Israel was more than entitled to keep it for perpetuity.
Geula Cohen’s vision for the Palestinian people was that they should be returned to Jordan which was already 70 percent Palestinian, and that the Hashemite kingdom needed to work with them if they wanted to retain their rule.
When asked how a young woman could face the death of twelve of her comrades, she explained that somehow the loss of the passionate young fighters added meaning to the struggle in spite of the pain. Their courage gave value to the struggle for Jewish independence.
Israel will miss this valiant and passionate voice of truth. She stayed true to her dreams and her values till the end of her days. Her memory will live forever in the Jewish State.