By Gary Rosenblatt
Jewish Week/Times of Israel
New oral history project describes key roles of American Jews in Israel’s founding.
Soon after the end of World War II, Zimel Resnick, a Russian Jewish immigrant operating an amusement park in New Jersey, was contacted by a good friend in Palestine. Resnick was asked to help raise funds and arms for the Haganah, the nascent Israeli army, in preparation for the coming war with the Arab states.
The friend who called was David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Jewish Agency and future prime minister of Israel. He had been Resnick’s bunkmate in the Jewish Brigade, the branch of the British army in Palestine that Resnick volunteered with during World War I.
“They were lifelong friends,” recalled Phyllis Getzler, Resnick’s niece, who lives in Manhattan. She says she has “a million stories” about her fearless and passionately Zionist Uncle Zimel, “all true,” regarding his clandestine activities on behalf of the Haganah effort.
In one of her favorite images conjured by his tales, he is holding secret meetings with mysterious men, contacts from Palestine, at the top of the amusement park Ferris wheel to ensure that no one could eavesdrop.
Getzler is scheduled to be interviewed this summer as part of a Spielberg-like project, “Eyewitness 1948: The American Contribution,” videotaped oral histories of Americans with first- or second-hand experiences leading to the creation of the Jewish state.
The project is an outgrowth of Toldot Yisrael, a nonprofit in Israel that for the last decade has been documenting Israel’s 1948 generation through extensive video interviews with people involved in the founding of the state. The archive is housed in Israel’s National Library.
More than 1,100 people have participated to date, including those who fought to protect their farms and homes; Holocaust survivors who had recently settled in Palestine; World War II veterans from the U.S. and Europe who came to help create the Israeli Navy and Air Force; and ordinary men and women who lived through the historic period leading up to statehood.
“Our mission is telling the authentic, personal stories of the people who were there, and our greatest challenge is the march of time,” said Aryeh Halivni, the founder and executive director of Toldot Yisrael, who noted that the estimated pool of interview candidates in Israel — people born in 1932 or earlier — has decreased by about 70 percent from 120,000 a decade ago.
Halivni, born Eric Weisberg in the Midwest, was the national director of Bnei Akiva, the religious Zionist youth group in the U.S. and Canada, and was director of student affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York before making aliyah in 2002. He believes that preserving personal stories gives a fresh perspective to Israel’s national narrative, not only for historians but for those who may question “the Jewish people’s legitimate right to a sovereign state.” He hopes these stories will “restore the sense of purpose for young Israelis by helping them reconnect to their past” and inspire a younger generation of diaspora Jews with “the struggle for independence in the shadow of the Holocaust.”
“Our mission is telling the authentic, personal stories of the people who were there, and our greatest challenge is the march of time.”
Over the past 10 years, Halivni said, he and his small team have conducted “a handful” of interviews with Americans, most of whom were in Palestine at the time of the War of Independence in 1948. Some had helped smuggle weapons, machine parts and uniforms into Palestine in defiance of the U.S. embargo; others were involved in the effort to raise funds to provide ships for Holocaust refugees to settle in Palestine.
“As much as I am immersed in this period, I came to realize that this was a goldmine of information I hadn’t known,” Halivni said. He observed that American Jews were able to help in a unique way because “they had the opportunities and access and relationships, and they lived in freedom, not persecution. Some of them contributed in significant but largely unknown ways.” He decided to include interviews with second-generation relatives because “otherwise these stories would be lost to history.”
Thanks to a one-year grant from the Detroit-based William Davidson Foundation, Halivni has conducted more than 50 interviews in the last few months with Americans, most of whom are surviving relatives of people who contributed to the founding of the Jewish state. He hopes to complete another 50, and is always on the lookout for more stories.
“The saddest part is to hear about someone with a story to tell and then learn that they recently passed away,” Halivni said.
Darin McKeever, president and CEO of the William Davidson Foundation, explained that part of the reason for its support of the project is because the late “Bill” Davidson, the foundation’s founder, “was one of those American Jews who helped build Israel from afar.
“We want to help safeguard these stories for future generations,” McKeever said, “and celebrate the deep, longstanding ties between diaspora Jews and the State of Israel that this history illustrates.”
“We want to help safeguard these stories for future generations and celebrate the deep, longstanding ties between diaspora Jews and the State of Israel that this history illustrates.”
Halivni noted that starting around 1945, Ben-Gurion himself called people he knew in the U.S., like his old friend Zimel Resnick and others who had been referred to him as experts in certain areas, for help. He convinced Isadore Milstone, a builder from St. Louis, to come to Palestine and help design housing for new immigrants. In 1947, William Herlands, an attorney in New York, received a call from Ben-Gurion and went to Palestine to make recommendations for the future state’s court system. Similarly, economist Robert Nathan got the call and helped develop an economic plan for the nation-to-be.
“These were American Jews who contributed to the founding of the state in a major way by interrupting their professional and personal lives, sharing their expertise and then coming back to the U.S.,” Halivni said, with few knowing of their efforts. “It was their special moment,” he said. He also cited Ben-Gurion’s foresight in tapping into this pool of talented people and harnessing commitment to the Zionist cause.
‘A Higher Law We Had To Obey’
Toldot Yisrael has just made available on its website the first installments of its series on the American contribution to the founding of the state, with brief clips culled from five interviews:
- Dr. Norman Lamm, president emeritus of Yeshiva University, describes in a 2008 interview how as a chemistry student at YU in 1948, he volunteered his services to the Jewish Agency for Israel and helped develop munitions to manufacture bullets for the fledgling army. “You have to do some things quietly, even break the law,” he said in describing what he called “one of the highlights of my life.
“There’s a higher law we had to obey.”
- David Macarov, in a 2014 interview, tells how in 1946 he used various methods, including bribery, to help acquire a ship, the President Warfield, to bring refugees to Palestine. “The ship became the Exodus in 1947,” he noted. “Maybe for this I was born.” (Macarov died two years ago at 97.)
- Sam Schulman came to Baltimore to volunteer as a crew member on the historic voyage of the Exodus, which was rammed by a British destroyer, seized at sea, and he and others were sent to France for several weeks. “The people wouldn’t get off,” he said. “They were the first aliyah.”
- Stephen Stulman tells how his father, Julius, helped acquire a loading terminal in Queens for arms to be shipped to the Haganah in 1948.
- Zipporah Porath was an American student at Hebrew University in 1947 when, with little understanding of the severity of the situation, she took a secret oath of allegiance to the Haganah and carried hand grenades in her clothing. The British were too polite to search women, she said. The penalty, if discovered, was death. “Had I known then …”
One of Halivni’s favorite stories, which he says is close to his heart, comes from Harold Katz, 96, who grew up in Terre Haute, Ind., the son of a rabbi in a Zionist family. He went to Harvard on a scholarship, enlisted in the Navy when World War II broke out and served for three and a half years on a destroyer in the Pacific.
“After the war, I went back to Harvard Law School,” he told me in a strong, clear voice in a recent phone interview from his home in Israel. Having been isolated in the Pacific, he only learned of the horrors of the Holocaust on his return stateside. He also read about the Aliyah Bet, the illegal effort to bring Holocaust survivors by ship to Palestine and was influenced by muckraking journalist I.F. Stone’s account of his effort in what would become his 1948 book, “Underground to Palestine.”
With his Navy experience and a strong desire to play a role “in this rare moment in history,” Katz walked away from his academic career and volunteered to join the crew of the Hatikvah, which sought to bring 1,500 refugees from Europe to Palestine.
“I figured Harvard will always be here,” he told me, but this was the time to act.
The British captured the ship in 1947, and Katz was among hundreds taken captive in Cyprus. He later escaped and played a key role in planning an explosive attack that sunk a British ship in Haifa harbor.
“Afterwards, I got myself re-admitted to Harvard Law with the hope of going back to live in Palestine,” Katz told me. “In retrospect, my instincts were right.”
In 1972, he gave up a successful law practice in Boston to fulfill his dream, moving to Israel with his wife and family.
“For me, being part of the re-establishment of the Jewish state was miraculous,” Katz said, “and to miss it would have been like missing the handing down of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. It was a seminal decision that altered my life, for which I am very grateful — to be a Jew in a Jewish state.”
It’s people like Harold Katz, and their remarkable narratives, that keep Aryeh Halivni racing against time to collect and preserve these pieces of history. Perhaps they can help inspire a new generation to recall and connect to the essence of the Zionist dream.
For more videos, and if you have a relevant story to contribute, visit www.toldotyisrael.org.