Talya Woolf

Women of Israel: Then…

The first of a three-part piece inspired by Yom HaAtzmaut 2019. Israel has come a long way in supporting women’s roles in the military, law, science, and elsewhere. There are dozens of names of women throughout the 1950s and forward of whom we should be proud and teach our children, but it is less easy finding the names of women around the turn of the century – who helped fight for the Jewish state, who helped the Jewish people in Palestine, and who assisted in establishing Israel seventy-one years ago. Perhaps there was a resistance fighter, a pilot, or a spy. In my quest for names and identities, there simply wasn’t a varied list in any one place, so, of course, I compiled a short one myself.

Golda Meir.

The “strong-willed, straight-talking, grey-bunned grandmother of the Jewish people.” A cultural Jew and religious atheist, after getting married, Golda and her husband made Aliyah in 1921. She was in the United States as an emissary for the Working Women’s Council and, upon her return to Israel, joined the Executive Committee of the Histadrut and, in 1938, acted as the Jewish observer from Palestine at the Evian Conference. In 1946, when the British cracked down on Zionists in Palestine, she was forced to take over as acting head of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency, and became the principal negotiator between the Jews in Palestine and the British Agency. In January 1948, Meir traveled to the U.S. and raised $50 million, which was used to purchase arms in Europe for the young country, and four days before the official establishment of Israel, Meir snuck into Jordan for a secret meeting with King Abdullah I, when she (unsuccessfully) urged him not to join the other Arab countries in attacking the Jews. In September 1948, she was appointed Israel’s minister plenipotentiary to the Soviet Union, which was extremely important since Israel secured arms from Eastern European countries. After this period, Meir served as Labor Minister, Foreign Minister, and finally, Prime Minister.

Rachel Cohen-Kagan.

Cohen-Kagan immigrated to Palestine in 1919 and soon became involved in the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO). In 1932, she was appointed chairwoman of the Committee for Social Aid in Haifa, and in 1938, was elected chairwoman of WIZO and became more involved in politics. In 1946, she was appointed director of the Social Department of the Jewish National Council, which was the main national executive institution of the Jewish community within Palestine – responsible for education, local government, welfare, security, and defense. In 1948, she became one of only two women to sign the Israeli Declaration of Independence.

Sara Aaronsohn. “The heroine of Nili.”

Aaronsohn was born in Zichron Yaakov in 1890, which was Ottoman Syria at that time. At a young age, she was encouraged by her brother to study languages and was fluent in Hebrew, Yiddish, Turkish, French, had reasonable command of Arabic, and taught herself English. On her way from Istanbul back to Haifa (after a failed marriage), she witnessed part of the Armenian genocide, and after that, greatly disturbed, decided to assist British forces against the Ottomans. Aaronsohn, her sister, and brothers formed and led the Nili spy organization; she oversaw operations in Palestine, passed information to British agents offshore, and travelled widely through Ottoman territory collecting information, delivering it to them in Egypt. Nili developed into the largest pro-British espionage network in the Middle East, with a network of about forty spies. In September 1917, the Ottomans intercepted her carrier pigeon, decrypted the code, and arrested her, along with numerous others. She endured four days of torture but gave up no information beyond what she thought of her torturers. Aaronsohn convinced her captors to allow her to change her clothing before being transferred to Damascus and managed to shoot herself with a concealed pistol. Unfortunately, it took her four days to die, after finally getting assistance from a Jewish doctor.

Chana Szenes (or Senesh).

A poet, playwright, and fighter. Born in 1921 in Hungary, Szenes was considered a gifted student even at a young age. As she grew, she realized that the situation of the Jews in Hungary was becoming precarious. Her response was to become Zionist and join Maccabea, a Hungarian Zionist student organization. After graduating in 1939, she immigrated to Palestine and, in 1941, joined the Haganah, the paramilitary group that laid the foundation of the Israeli Defense Forces. Two years later, she enlisted in the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and, that same year, was recruited into the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and sent to Egypt for parachute training. One of thirty-seven Jewish SOE recruits from Palestine parachuted by the British into Yugoslavia during WWII, she was part of a team that assisted anti-Nazi forces and, ultimately, in the rescue of Hungarian Jews about to be deported to Auschwitz. Though the mission was called off, she headed for the border anyway. Unfortunately, she was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured, but never revealed the details of her mission. Eventually, she was tried and executed by firing squad.

Mira Ben Ari. “Better to fight as a free creature, even against so many animals, than to be locked in a cage!”

In 1935, Mira Ben Ari’s family immigrated to Israel from Berlin immediately after the Nazis rose to power. She later joined the Betar Revisionist Zionist movement and the Lehi pre-state underground militia. As a teenager, in December 1943, she left the city to help found the kibbutz of Nitzanim on a plot of land about halfway between Ashdod and Ashkelon. She got married, settled in, and joined the Haganah strike force. During the Spring of 1948, as the Egyptian army advanced, the kibbutz came under siege and the road became inaccessible. Nitzanim was the sole Hebrew settlement on the coastal road all the way to Ayanot (near Tel Aviv) and the commander of the local brigade decided not to fortify it, thinking that Egypt would go a different direction. On April 20, the kibbutz came under attack, the assault lasting twenty hours. (Now-) General Pundak came to the aid of Nitzanim and, in mid-May, they snuck the small children of the kibbutz out, carrying the toddlers on their backs for six miles (“Operation Baby”). On June 2, the women were ordered to leave and all but ten complied (Ben-Ari, 22yo, being the only mother who stayed, “so that my son will grow up free in his land”). They joined fifty-seven male kibbutz members, thirty soldiers and forty-four inductees, with seventy-eight rifles, four machine guns, one mortar, and one improvised radio. After days of mortar fire, on June 7, an Egyptian battalion launched its final attack. After hours of being bombarded, the kibbutz finally decided to surrender, the only recorded case of an Israeli surrender (though even this is not quite accurate).

Ben-Ari sent a message over the radio that the Egyptians had broken in and that she was going out to fight. She and the company commander went out in an attempt to surrender from afar, but he was shot and injured. She accompanied him as they approached three Egyptian officers, one of whom shot the commander dead, leaving her alone. Ben-Ari dragged him even closer, drew her sidearm, and killed the shooter, an Egyptian colonel, at point-blank range. She was then shot and killed by the remaining two. Despite her act of heroism, everyone else in the kibbutz ended up taken prisoner in Egypt.

Historically and for years, Nitzanim had been derided as a shameful surrender, but recently, before he passed away, General Pundak spent years trying to rehabilitate the kibbutz’s good name. In 1959, he forced the army to re-investigate the battle and to publish its findings. In 1993, he established a monument to female heroism in the rebuilt kibbutz, marking the bravery of Ben-Ari and two other women who were killed, and in 2001, he buried his wife there, alongside the mass grave for the 33 fallen during the war, and has set aside a patch for himself beside her. He had to see the truth spread for what was truly a story of immense heroism.

For additional reading of brave Israeli women in history, please check out the following:

Women in the Haganah

Women in the Palmach

Women in the Lehi (Lohamei Herut Yisrael)

The Women of Gush Etzion – (including Tziporah Rosenfeld)

And PLEASE feel free to add your own stories in the comments!

About the Author
Talya Woolf is an eight-year Olah with four spirited children and a fantastic husband. She is a writer, American-licensed attorney, handgun instructor, amateur photographer, and artist. She is politically confusing, Modern Orthodox (though she doesn't dress the part), and ardent Zionist (ZFB). She enjoys spending time with family, friends, running, photography, and reading about highly contagious diseases and WWII.