2018-04-11 / Voice at the Shore

Locals who fought for Israel reflect on the Jewish nation’s 70th birthday

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice shore editor


Yehuda Cohen served in the Israeli Air Force 1961-1963. He is pictured with future wife Shelley, and Shelley’s sister Linda. Yehuda Cohen served in the Israeli Air Force 1961-1963. He is pictured with future wife Shelley, and Shelley’s sister Linda. Israel’s 70th birthday—Yom Haatzmaut—begins on the evening of April 18, immediately following Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s national day of mourning for those who died defending their country, which begins the evening of April 17.

In honor of these upcoming holidays, Voice at the Shore asked several local residents who grew up in Israel and served in the IDF to talk about their experiences defending Israel and their feelings about Israel’s upcoming milestone birthday.

Among those was Yechiel Lehavy, age 89, who actively participated in the creation of the state of Israel as a member of the Palmach, the Haganah’s elite fighting force. Lehavy joined the Palmach in 1945— roughly ten years after his family immigrated to Palestine after escaping from Nazi Germany.


Yechiel Lehavy (right) with fellow Palmach fighter Yitzak Buchbinder, who was killed during Israel’s War of Independence. Yechiel Lehavy (right) with fellow Palmach fighter Yitzak Buchbinder, who was killed during Israel’s War of Independence. When the Palmach was started in 1941, it sometimes fought alongside British troops. Yet by the time Lehavy joined the Palmach, the British authorities in Palestine had become the Palmach’s primary target. The reason: Hundreds of thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors were barred from entering Palestine due to immigration limits imposed by the British, Lehavy explained.

On June 16 and 17th, 1946, Lehavy took part in the Night of the Bridges, a Palmach initiative that succeeded in blowing up ten of the eleven bridges connecting Israel to the outside world. This was done “so the British couldn’t interfere with our efforts to bring refugees into Israel,” he said.

“I was an expert in demolition. I was a scout. All of my platoon had this expertise,” he recalled.

While his platoon succeeded in demolishing its target, one of the other Palmach platoons was not so lucky: At one of the eleven bridges targeted, the bridge guard fired at Palmach fighters, hitting their explosives. “Sixteen Palmach fighters were killed that night,” noted Lehavy.

In January 1947, Lehavy left the Palmach for the reserves but was quickly called back into active duty when Israel’s War of Independence began. At that point, Israel was a small nation of roughly 600,000 people, said Lehavy. Four thousand died defending their country in that war.

“I was sent to the Negev to protect the water line,” he said. That mission ended for Lehavy when a bullet wounded him. Though he recovered and went back to active duty, his next injury—a concussion, which he got after his vehicle ran over a mine in 1948—took him permanently out of combat duty. He was transferred to military investigations until his service ended in 1950.

After returning to service again briefly during the Sinai campaign, Lehavy left Israel to study and eventually work in the United States.

Lehavy’s IDF service ended around the same time that Yehuda Cohen’s began. Cohen, a sabra who now lives in Egg Harbor Township, grew up on a Kibbutz in Israel and entered the Israeli Air Force in 1961, serving two and a half years during an era of relative peace before going into the reserves.

In 1967, Cohen was traveling in Denmark when he found out that Israel was about to go to war. Like other reservists (including Lehavy), he tried to make his way back to Israel to fight but was too late. “I got back June 1, 1967, but the war was over June 10. It was so fast! They didn’t need all the soldiers that came back to help out,” said Cohen.

According to Cohen, the feeling in Israel after the Six-Day War was “something special that didn’t repeat itself in the history of Israel.” Although there was great sadness over the nearly 800 soldiers killed, Israelis felt enormous pride over their victory.

“It was the first real test that Israel had of its survival. We realized then the power we had. It gave us something we were proud of. We were all in it together,” explained Cohen.

Moshe Shinar, another Israeli now living at the Jersey shore, agrees. “After the ’67 war, you were proud to be a soldier,” said Shinar, who was “a new soldier” in the Israeli Navy when the Six-Day War broke out.

During the course of the war, Egyptian forces sunk several large Israeli ships full of soldiers. Shinar took part in the rescue efforts to save the many Israeli soldiers that had been on board one of those ships. “We lost quite a few soldiers,” he recalled.

After the ‘67 war, the Israeli Navy decided to use smaller missile ships manned by fewer soldiers. The French were making these ships but would not sell them to the Israelis, out of fear of displeasing the Arabs and jeopardizing their oil supply.

Shinar was one of a handful of soldiers sent on an undercover mission to France to obtain missile ships in 1968. He and the other soldiers led the French ship makers to believe they would be delivering the ships to Alaska, when in reality “we were undercover to bring them to Israel,” he said. Accordingly, one night they “kidnapped the ships” and took them back to Israel.

Shinar continued in the Navy until 1973, resigning a week before the Yom Kippur War broke out. Shortly after that, he went to the U.S. with his then-wife, an American from Margate, and ultimately decided to stay here.

Iris Harari, another Israeli now living at the Jersey shore, served in the IDF from 1973- 1975. “For me it was a pretty tense time because the [Yom Kippur] War started a few months after I started my service. For an 18-year-old it was pretty scary, even though women didn’t go to the front lines,” she recalled.

Harari moved to the U.S. due to family issues in 1989, but still considers herself to be an Israeli—and is joyously looking forward to celebrating Israel’s 70th birthday.

“I feel enormous, enormous pride that we made it to 70 and that no doubt we will make it many, many more years,” she said.

Her hopes for Israel’s future are simple: “Peace, peace, and again peace. Peace is the most important thing.”

While that hope is universally shared, so it seems is the fear that peace will not happen in the foreseeable future. Lehavy lamented that at this point, “neither side, either Israel or the Palestinians, are politically capable of solving the problem.”

He and Cohen said they worried about what would happen to Israel if a two-state solution did not take effect in the near future, given that the birth rate among Palestinians in Israel is much higher than that of Jewish Israelis. “If you don’t solve this, the rest doesn’t matter,” said Cohen.

Shinar shared this concern as well, but was still optimistic about the future of Israel, which has grown from a small nation of 600,000 people to a continually transforming nation of more than 8.5 million people during the course of his lifetime.

Having grown up with Israel, said Shinar, celebrating Israel’s 70th birthday “is very emotional for me. I’m going to celebrate Yom Haatzmaut there. I can’t wait to see the celebration!”

The local Jewish community will be gathering to celebrate Israel@70 and to commemorate Yom HaZikaron on Wednesday, April 18, at the JCC in Margate, from 6-9 p.m. For more information, please call Becky at (609) 822-4404. 

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