Oral histories from 1948 tell firsthand stories of Israel’s founding

Ruth Farhi’s eyes cloud with tears and her gaze turns from the camera recording her story as she tells of a memorable January night in 1948 that haunts her to this day.

She and a bunch of friends were crammed into her one-room rooftop apartment, sitting at the same upright piano with wooden inlay that sits just feet away from her now, singing and laughing late into the night. The revelry ended only when the 15 young men among them, all fighters in the Haganah, Israel’s pre-state militia, stood up and said their goodbyes.

Not long afterward, Farhi learned that every one of them had been killed later that night along with 20 others. It was one of the bloodiest and most painful episodes in Israel’s War of Independence. They died in an ambush by Arab villagers as they attempted to deliver supplies to a group of besieged kibbutzim. The victims became known as the Lamed Hey fighters—Hebrew for 35.

“I lived across the street from the Jewish Agency, and by the next morning the place was full of activity,” she recalled. “It was soon evident something terrible had happened.”

Farhi shared her story as part of a project called Toldot Yisrael, which aims to record on video the stories of Israeli and Diaspora Jews who witnessed or were otherwise involved with the War of Independence. The goal is to create a video archive and interactive database for educators, researchers and filmmakers.

Aryeh Halivni, who immigrated to Israel from the United States, modeled Toldot Yisrael after Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Project, which interviewed 52,000 Holocaust survivors on video.

Since the Israeli project was launched in 2007, about 500 interviews have been conducted. Among those interviewed have been prisoners of war and foot soldiers who went on to become generals, Mossad agents and politicians.

Halivni, 39, who Hebraicized his name from Eric Weisberg, told JTA he was driven in part by his own “vicarious interest of what I would have done at the time.”

He’s also driven by a sense of urgency. According to Halivni, there are about 50,000 potential interviewees still alive – those who would have been 15 or older in 1948 and were living in the country at the time. But that number is dwindling by roughly 20 percent a year as Israel’s founding generation dies off.

Add to that the growing attacks on Israel’s legitimacy, and a project like Toldot Yisrael is critically important right now, Halivni says.

“The material in this archive serves as an important reminder of the Jewish people’s legitimate right to a sovereign state in the Land of Israel, particularly at a time when that right has been called into question,” reads the project’s website. “These testimonies reinforce the positive role that Israel plays in contemporary Jewish identity and instill a renewed sense of pride and purpose in Jews throughout the world.”

Halivni adds: “This is also about being able to at least have on record stories of people who were part of it while we still can.”

To cultivate the interest of American Jews, particularly young people, in Israel’s founding story, Toldot Yisrael has begun a pilot program in several American Jewish communities to develop educational curricula based on the footage, including short films, teacher training and discussion guides. The project is partnering with the I Center, a new organization founded to develop Israel educational material.

The first film the collaboration has produced, a 10-minute short about the Jewish men who illegally blew shofars at the Western Wall on Yom Kippur in defiance of what was then British Mandate Law, has been viewed 200,000 times on YouTube.

Their newest film will come out in time for Israel’s Independence Day, which this year falls on May 10. The film describes the role of Jewish volunteers from the West who contributed to the country’s founding, including those who volunteered as sailors to help smuggle Holocaust survivors into the country by sea. It features interviews with figures like Vidal Sassoon, who fought in the Palmach militia before making his fortune in the hair care industry, and Norman Lamm, former president of Yeshiva University who was part of a factory in upstate New York that made bullets for Haganah soldiers.

“Part of what our message is that for Americans or people from the West, this is our story too—either as volunteers who came over or people involved from the United States and elsewhere who helped make things happen,” Halivni said.

In the five years the project has been conducting interviews, the nature of the interviews themselves has evolved. Rather than focusing just on the events surrounding 1948, now the personal stories of where subjects came from are delved into, often deeply.

“When we talk about aliyah or life in Europe, they are full of stories and their families’ stories,” said Peleg Levy, the project’s main cameraman. “Zionism comes from regular life stories.”

In her interview, Farhi describes being a 7-year-old girl in Vienna in 1934 and saying goodbye with her older brother to the walls and doors of their apartment as the family prepared for its journey to what was then pre-state Palestine.

“Coming by boat to the country had been the biggest drama of my life to date,” said Farhi, who would go on to become a stage and film actress in Israel.

She still recoils at the memory of arriving at the port in Jaffa and encountering the Arab dock workers who transported passengers to shore on rowboats and were notoriously rough with baggage. Some suitcases ended up tossed into the water.

“Suddenly, it seemed to me a monster came who grabbed a suitcase in one arm and me under the other, throwing me onto a little boat,” she remembered.

Farhi also describes her first memories of the “sun and the food, olives and peaches” of the country, and her first night here on the farming plot that belonged to cousins in what was then the village of Ramat Hasharon, now an upscale Tel Aviv suburb. There, she and her family were the first residents of a newly built chicken coop.

She would go on to move with her family to Haifa before becoming a teaching student in Jerusalem, where she had her fateful encounter with the Lamed Hey fighters. After the war broke out, she became a soldier in the Haganah herself, working as a telephone switchboard operator. She remembers the commanders would bark over the line, “Don’t listen!”

Returning to Haifa after the war on a visit to her parents, she did not immediately understand why the Arab family who had lived nearby was gone. As a girl, she had fed their cow scraps of watermelon and befriended their daughter.

“Once from afar I saw the mother, selling produce on a street corner,” she said. “I did not have the heart to approach her.”

Insiders: Why was J Street so scared of Soros?

George Soros has been a top funder in recent years of liberal political advocacy groups, and Jews have still been voting for Democrats at a 75 to 80 percent clip. J Street, meanwhile, has built relations with lawmakers, lined up support from liberal rabbis and communal leaders, and found itself on the White House invite list, even while issuing controversial criticisms of Israel and establishment Jewish groups on several occasions.

So why exactly did J Street and its director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, risk the organization’s reputation and undermine its credibility by misleading the world about the donations it received from the financier and philanthropist?

The question has some establishment Jewish leaders and Democratic politicians scratching their heads this week—and predicting that Ben-Ami’s deception would cause the group much greater damage than any association with Soros. It’s especially perplexing given J Street’s insistence that it wanted Soros’ money.

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” said Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, when asked about J Street’s earlier denials about receiving funding from Soros.

Foxman noted that Soros and J Street share the same posture on Middle East peace: an aggressive U.S. role, including pressure on all sides and opposition to settlement building—not to mention an openness to talks with Hamas.

“It’s the most appropriate thing, it fits, it makes sense—there’s nothing wrong with it,” Foxman said of the relationship.

A senior staffer for a Democratic congressman who has accepted J Street’s endorsement agreed, saying that Soros’ support for J Street would not have been “a major factor” in deciding whether to accept the organization’s endorsement.

“People have to know first who George Soros is and, second, why it would be bad for a pro-Israel group—in some circles—to be associated with him,” the staffer said. “There are a lot of people like that in the Jewish macherocracy—but not in our district.”

The Washington Times revealed in a Sept. 17 story that Soros and his children had given J Street $245,000 in 2008. The lobby confirmed the amount and said the Soros family since then had contributed another $500,000—7 percent of the $11 million J Street says it has received in donations since its launch.

Ben-Ami and spokesmen for Soros said the feint arose from the controversy that was sparked in 2006 when it was revealed—by JTA and other agencies—that Soros was a likely funder for the then-unnamed lobby Ben-Ami hoped to establish.

“It was his view that the attacks against him from certain parts of the community would undercut support for us,” Ben-Ami said. “He was concerned that his involvement would be used by others to attack the effort.”

Michael Vachon, a spokesman for Soros, confirmed that outlook, adding that Soros would not have objected to making his role public once he and his family started funneling money to J Street six months after its founding in early 2008.

“He knew that had he given the money at the beginning, media outlets would have tried to claim that the organization is a Soros-funded organization,” Vachon said.

That may have made sense in 2006, Foxman said, when Soros was associated with MoveOn.org, the provocative organization at the forefront of the opposition to the Bush administration, particularly its Iraq war.

“People who liked Bush because of Israel were upset because of MoveOn,” Foxman said.

It didn’t help that MoveOn was erroneously associated with a Web advertisement that likened Bush to Hitler, and that Soros himself said the times reminded him of aspects of his Nazi-era childhood in Hungary.

But, several observers said, the fraught politics of just a few years ago—when Soros was seen as an unhinged provocateur baiting the Bush administration and Republicans—were a thing of the past, with Democrats now controlling the White House and the U.S. Congress.

“His reputation is fine, he’s pro-peace,” Foxman said of the Soros of 2010.

For better or worse, insiders said, J Street’s very success has mainstreamed the very beliefs that had once occasioned anger against Soros.

The views espoused by J Street and Soros are now part of the mix, said Shai Franklin, a veteran of an array of mainstream groups like the World Jewish Congress and NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia.

“It was unnecessary, and that’s what makes it a tragedy,” Franklin, now a senior fellow with the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, said of Ben-Ami’s deception. “People like me were willing to accept J Street as the new kid on the block, but this disfigures J Street.”

A source associated with J Street dismissed predictions that the controversy would turn J Street into a pariah, noting that 80 of the group’s leaders met separately Tuesday with Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, and U.S. State Department officials.

To be sure, many Jewish conservatives, including U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House minority whip, continue to cast Soros as a bogeyman and are seeking to make an issue out of his support for J Street.

They point to a piece on Israel and the pro-Israel lobby Soros wrote for The New York Review of Books in 2007.

“I am not a Zionist, nor am I am a practicing Jew,” he wrote. But, Soros added immediately, “I have a great deal of sympathy for my fellow Jews and a deep concern for the survival of Israel.”

He also sought to clarify 2003 comments that had led some critics to accuse him of blaming Jews and Israel for anti-Semitism.

“Anti-Semitism predates the birth of Israel. Neither Israel’s policies nor the critics of those policies should be held responsible for anti-Semitism,” Soros wrote. “At the same time, I do believe that attitudes toward Israel are influenced by Israel’s policies, and attitudes toward the Jewish community are influenced by the pro-Israel lobby’s success in suppressing divergent views.”

Soros called for increased U.S. engagement in the Middle East peace process, asserted that Israeli governments have overemphasized the military option, argued against unilateralism and sought a way to include Hamas in negotiations.

While the article stirred much controversy at the time, it now reads like a blueprint for J Street’s agenda. So even without the Soros funding, Jewish hard-liners would have plenty of reasons to bash the organization. And several prominent and wealthy liberal pro-Israel activists have made a point of steering clear of J Street following the revelation in 2006 about Soros being a likely funder for the intended lobby.

J Street since its founding has attracted support in many liberal circles, so just how many Jewish doves are there who would back an organization that shares Soros’ positions and openly says it wants him as a financial supporter—but not if the organization actually takes his money?

In recent weeks, conservatives and other critics of Soros have noted the recent $100 million donation to Human Rights Watch, a group that is seen by Israel and many of the country’s supporters as biased in its treatment of abuses in the Middle East.

The donation “makes it a fine fit for George Soros, whose own biases are well established,” Gerald Steinberg, NGO Monitor’s director, wrote in a New York Post op-ed before the J Street controversy broke. “In the Middle East, for example, his Open Society Institute exclusively supports advocacy groups that campaign internationally to undermine the elected governments of Israel—organizations such as Adalah, Peace Now, Breaking the Silence, Gisha and Yesh Din.”

But J Street had openly associated with most of those groups, so news of the Soros funding was not needed to make the link.

One insider who monitors Human Rights Watch for bias told JTA that the group’s ties to Soros would not affect J Street’s image.

Soros, who made his billions in the hedge fund market, first became known for aggressively backing democratic movements in the former communist world. He also developed a reputation for micromanaging how his charitable money is spent and unabashedly using it to political ends.

Such an approach may have once been considered outsized, vulgar behavior for a philanthropist, but these days it is commonplace.

In the pro-Israel world, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson unashamedly wears his right-wing politics on his sleeve, and none of the many pro-Israel groups he funds is turning away his money.

Soros’ J Street role signifies a Jewish involvement that is always welcome from the very rich, according to some insiders—especially for someone who in the 1990s was known for his pronounced disinterest in Jewish causes.

“He played an active role in different pro-democracy movements” in the former Soviet Union, said Mark Levin, who directs NCSJ. “I don’t think he ever really had an interest in dealing with the Jewish communities in those countries.”

Ultimately, much of the fury this week was directed at Ben-Ami instead of Soros for misleading the public in the first place. Even in an apology posted on J Street’s blog, Ben-Ami appeared defensive.

“Those who attack J Street over the sources of its funding are not good government watchdogs concerned about the state of non-profit financing in the United States,” Ben-Ami wrote. “Our critics are really so concerned with transparency of funding, then I challenge them to reveal the sources of funds for the organizations with which they agree.”

“Legalisms,” sputtered Rabbi Steve Gutow, who directs the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups and has defended J Street on many occasions.

Gutow noted that a number of the JCPA’s constituent network of local community relations councils have praised J Street for helping to suck the wind out of anti-Israel divestment efforts by presenting a credible left-wing, pro-Israel alternative.

The potential loss of that voice was worrisome, he said.

“I am not happy that the Soros money was not explicitly admitted to all along by J Street,” Gutow said.