Bitter controversy has erupted over the recent visits by two leftwing Israeli delegations to the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. Accusations and insults have been flying back and forth across the political spectrum over the mission to Ramallah by leaders of the Meretz Party earlier this month, followed four days later by leaders of the Labor Party.
Ironically, this all-too-familiar display of Israeli disunity overshadowed the 75th anniversary of one of the most stirring displays of unity in Zionist history.
The Fight for the Negev
The Zionist movement had always expected that the Negev desert would be part of the future Jewish state. But London and Washington had other ideas. In August 1946, a joint British-American committee proposed what came to be known as the Morrison-Grady plan, which would have divided Palestine into semi-autonomous Jewish and Arab provinces under British rule. The Negev was to be controlled exclusively by the British.
In the weeks leading up to the high holidays, Zionist factions from across the political and religious spectrum united to plan the overnight creation of eleven new Jewish settlements in the Negev, to take place immediately upon the conclusion of Yom Kippur.
The Zionist leadership decided to fight the plan by establishing facts on the ground. In the weeks leading up to the high holidays, Zionist factions from across the political and religious spectrum united to plan the overnight creation of eleven new Jewish settlements in the Negev, to take place immediately upon the conclusion of Yom Kippur.
Describing one of the scenes that unfolded in the moments after the Day of Atonement ended, a young religious Zionist participant recalled a legend concerning the Baal Shem Tov, founder of hasidism, and the custom of blessing the new moon at the end of Yom Kippur. One year, he wrote, clouds obscured the moon as Yom Kippur drew to a close, which would have made it impossible to recite the blessing. The Baal Shem Tov “began to concentrate very intensely on some mystical formulas in an effort to bring out the moon,” to no avail. Meanwhile, however, his followers began their post-Yom Kippur custom of singing and dancing, and their enthusiasm drew their leader into their joyous circle. “The moon suddenly appeared and lit up the sky,” the young settler wrote. “Said the Baal Shem Tov: ‘What my intense concentration did not accomplish was brought about by the joy of the chassidim.’”
“If the Baal Shem Tov had been standing the evening after Yom Kippur in [the town of] Be’erot Yitzchak,” the account continued, “and had seen hundreds of chalutzim [pioneers], hand on shoulder, tightly interwoven, surrounding chain-wise the main vehicles loaded with provisions and dancing joyous dances before ascending to the eleven new yishuvim [settlements], he would have placed himself in the center, jumped to the very heavens and drawn the moon from behind the clouds, saying, ‘That which is not accomplished through political means, through discussions and conferences, that is accomplished by Eretz Israel chassidim (devotees) burning with the joy of creation.’”
What they created, on the “Night of the Eleven Points,” were Jewish outposts across the Negev and the adjoining Gaza region.
The settlers came from a variety of Zionist factions, but were united in purpose and passion. Some of the settlements were established by members of Labor Zionist youth movements, including the sites named Be’eri (pen name of Labor Zionist icon Berl Katznelson), Mishmar HaNegev and Urim. Three others—Shoval, Gal-On, and Nirim—were created by the members of the further-left Hashomer Hatzair movement (forerunner of today’s Meretz Party). Two, Kfar Darom and Tkuma, were set up by the religious Hapoel Hamizrachi group.
“The map of Palestine was changed yesterday when 11 new Jewish settlements were established in a sweeping dawn-to-dusk action,” the Palestine (later Jerusalem) Post reported. “At dawn, scores of vehicles brought men and building materials” —other media accounts estimated that 300 of the 1,000 settlers were women—to the eleven chosen sites, “stretching from Gedera to Rafah, and by darkness tents and fences had been erected and the beginnings made on the construction of the first huts.”
Unity in America, Too
American Zionists were united in their support for the settlement drive. Rabbi Dr. Abba Hillel Silver, cochairman of the American Zionist Emergency Council—the umbrella for all major U.S. Zionist groups—declared that American Jews were “thrilled by the news” of the settlements, which he called “a magnificent tribute to the indefensible spirit of the Yishuv.”
The Labor Zionist journal “Furrows” hailed the settlements as “the reply of the yishuv to every attempt by the British to convert the Jewish homeland into a ghetto.”
During Israel’s War of Independence two years later, the eleven new towns played a crucial role in fighting off Egyptian advances and ensuring that the Negev would become part of the Jewish state. Today, they are thriving communities that have helped transform the region.
Except for one.
Kfar Darom was among the Jewish towns in the Gaza region that the Israeli government dismantled in 2005, in the hope that an Israeli withdrawal would lead to peace. That has not worked out as hoped.
A CARTOONIST’S PERSPECTIVE
This political cartoon by Arie Navon—later one of the most famous cartoonists in Israeli history—appeared in the Labor Party daily newspaper Davar on October 9, 1946.
Titled “This Week in Sport,” it features two goalkeepers. One, smoking a pipe—cartoonists’ standard symbol for the British—is labeled “Anti-Zionist Regime.” There are eleven balls in his net. The other, the Jewish goalkeeper, has just one ball in his net, labeled “Rafiah.” The reference is to the Rafiah prison camp in the Negev, where the British detained thousands of Jewish political prisoners in the 1940s (note the barbed wire structure behind the Jewish goalie).
The landscape in the background features eleven towers and a flag reading “The Negev.”
The caption at the bottom, “11:1,” gives the “score.”
Dr. Medoff is the author of numerous books on Jewish and Zionist history, including the “Historical Dictionary of Zionism,” coauthored with Chaim I. Waxman.