– Avi Kumar.
As we approach the 75th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel and the 1948 War of Independence, we honor those who bravely volunteered to fight to bring to reality the 2,000-year-old dream of returning to Zion with sovereignty. Seventy-five years since the victory, as the fighters are aging (some are over 100!), we asked a number of Sephardic fighters to share with Community Magazine their memories and stories of their contributions towards Israel’s successful fight for nationhood. 92-year-old Tsiona Dreimann stated simply, “We had to fight for our own survival.”
At the outbreak of the 1948 war, many Jews in Israel were already in local militias such as the Haganah, the Irgun, or Lehi (listed in order from more mainstream to more radical in outlook) and they were already experienced at keeping the hostile British and Arab forces at bay. These militias were joined by foreign volunteers from across the globe who came to join in fighting to the protect the Jewish homeland.
Ezra Yakhine – Lehi
Ezra Yakhine’s father was from Aleppo, Syria and his mother came from Egypt. He decided to join Lehi at the age of 15, but had difficulty tracking down this clandestine group. “Unlike Haganah, which had gone more ‘mainstream,’ Lehi members were harder to find,” he said. One day, Yakhine heard a rumor that a Brith Hashmonaim movement group of religious youth in the Bukaharan quarter in Jerusalem had Lehi members within its ranks. He investigated and was able to locate them. After seeing how the British police tracked down many of Yahkine’s comrades, he decided to go by the codename of Elnakam. Since Yakhine worked in a post office, he was a huge asset to the underground.
Lehi training had to be very discrete. Although the weapons were at their “safe house” the group did not shoot live rounds for practice. Rather, they improvised different ways to practice their shooting. “If we fired a gun during practice and the neighbors heard, we would be done for,” Yakhine said. “You never know, even a Jewish neighbor would call the police if it was too loud or they were in a rival militia.”
He and his brother Yehoshua were Lehi members, while another brother, David, joined the Irgun. Yakhine did not know that David was in a member of the Irgun until they met by chance at a joint drill. On many occasions, Yakhine miraculously avoided capture, or worse, had the British found him carrying weapons. On a mission to disarm British police on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, Yakhine was wounded in the thigh. On another operation to break into the Old City, he was seriously wounded in the head, causing blindness in his right eye.
“Our goal was to strike fear into the hearts of the British. We blew up strategic posts, trains, and even planes if we could. We even managed to send a package bomb disguised as a present in London, in an effort to assassinate a police officer who had killed one of our members.”
Tsiona Dreimann – Lehi
Tsiona Dreimann (née Dramy) was born in Palestine in 1931 to parents of olim. Her father was a tzaddik from Tehran, her mother was Ashkenazi. She joined the right wing paramilitary group known as Lehi in 1945, when she was 14 years old. She said, “When they killed Itzik Stern, I decided to join the more right-wing Lehi. The British were oppressing the Jews terribly, and we simply had to do something. I felt that Lehi was the best option.”
Dreimann was tasked to put up posters and to hand out fliers to gather new recruits into the militia. Doing so was very dangerous. “One time, while we were on our rounds the British police on patrol saw us. I almost got arrested, or worse,” she recalls. She later got work as a nurse, married a fellow Lehi member, and lives in Jerusalem today.
Itzik Mizrachi – the Haganah
Itzik Mizrachi, now aged 90, was in Gadna, a youth movement set up by the Haganah. He grew up in the Arab village Al-Eisawiye near Mount Scopus, and his first language is Arabic. Although the war broke out in May of 1948, his family stayed on in the village until August because the road leading to the Jewish side was not safe to traverse. One day, an Arab mob came to their house. Mizrachi’s family shared a home with his father’s Arab business partner, Abu Mustafa. Mizrachi remembers clearly how Abu Mustafa refused to let the mob in. With outstretched arms he told the mob, “You have to get past me.” The mob then left. Mizrachi still has fond childhood memories of the time before the war, and he recalls that he and Abu Mustafa’s son were “like brothers.”
Not long after that incident with the Arab mob, Mizrachi recalls the family’s escape. “Haganah members came to our home in an armored car and said, ‘It’s very dangerous for you to be here. You have only 20 minutes, pack up whatever you can, because we have to leave fast.’ And so, just like that we packed up and left.” Mizrachi, his parents, and sister were escorted by armored car to the Israeli side.
The family acquired a house in Bukharan quarter of Jerusalem. The home was by the Jordanian border, where snipers fired at Jews from their side of the border every day. The Mizrachi family filled up sacks with sand to cover the windows to protect them from bullets. One time Mizrachi recalls the sacks caught fire when a bullet hit. He narrowly missed being shot on many occasions.
Mizrachi remembers learning KAPAP (Krav Panim el Panim – literally: face-to-face combat) the martial art developed in the late 1930s and used by the Haganah. Mizrachi recalled that much of the training included learning stick-fighting. He said that many instructors were young, just like their students. Although Mizrachi was not a full-fledged member of the Haganah, he worked transferring letters between posts by bicycle..
Mizrachi later moved to a kibbutz where he lives to this day. When he joined the IDF he learned the more modern martial art, Krav Maga, from Krav Maga’s founder, Imi Lechtenfeld. Mizrachi’s son Rhon is a well-known Krav Maga instructor.
Moshe Abadie – the Haganah
Moshe Abadie was also in the Haganah. His parents made Aliyah from Aleppo. Aided by a smuggler, Abadie’s parents walked all the way from Syria to British Mandatory Palestine via Lebanon in the early 1920s via Lebanon. Abadie was born in Jerusalem.
When asked why he joined the Haganah, Abadie replied, “We had no choice but to fight.” The Haganah members knew about the Holocaust, and Abadie had personally met Holocaust survivors who recounted what had happened to them in Europe. Also, unlike Lehi, the more left-wing Haganah had gone more mainstream and was more able to work around the British colonial establishment.
Abadie attributes Israel’s miraculous victory to the training and dedication of its own people. He felt that Israel had a stronger advantage in the later wars, such as in 1956 and 1967. After the 1948 war, Abadie helped found Moshav Tal Shahar (literally Mountain Dew), which was named after Robert Morgenthau (Former U.S. Secretary of Treasury) whose last name in German also means “mountain dew.”
Many volunteers came from across the world to fight in the volunteer unit known as Machal (an acronym for Mitnadvei Chutz L’Aretz – Volunteers from Abroad). Most of the overseas volunteers had served in the Allied Forces during World War II, and they brought their much-needed expertise to the fledgling IDF. Some 4,000 volunteers, mostly Jews and also a few non-Jews, arrived to help the fight. Most were from the U.S., UK, and South Africa. Nina Pope came from Burma and is of Iraqi descent. At least seven foreign fighters from Syria joined, including Linda Assas, Raphael Zanul, and Baruch Kaposo. Other Sephardic Jews came to assist the Israeli cause from Turkey, Iran, Latin America, France, Belgium, Netherlands, and even Germany and the far-flung corners of the Diaspora. Some of the Machal volunteers were Holocaust survivors.
South African “machalnik” Joe Woolf remembers a man in his unit, the English-speaking B company, named Ezra Macmull, who was nicknamed Gandhi. “He was of Iraqi descent and grew up in India. That’s why we called him ‘Gandhi.’”
Woolf recalls seeing a few Indian Jews in different units, including one in the radar unit. “But Gandhi stood out,” Woolf recalled. Macmull had a grandmother named Miriam, who lived in Jerusalem and spoke Arabic. Because of Miriam he could speak the language, which allowed him to communicate with Arab prisoners of war who were captured as they battled on the northern front.
Forces Combine to Form the IDF
On May 28th, 1948, less than two weeks after the creation of the State of Israel, the provisional government created the Israeli Defense Forces.
Menachem Begin, former commander of the Irgun, followed the advice of Robert Briscoe, an Irish statesman and supporter of Israel. Briscoe used his own experiences of Ireland’s civil war to convince Begin to abandon the Irgun as a separate militia and to join the three militias together. As the different militias merged, they all brought in their expertise and training into a common goal as members of the IDF.
Yakhine says, “We failed to retake Jerusalem but the next generation succeeded where we failed 19 years later in the Six Day War.”
Dreimann added “At the end of the day, we now have a state to call our home.”