A Mystery (Finally) Solved in the Galilee

A generous donor funded the construction by the Jewish National Fund and the regional council of Misgav, of a beautiful bike and walking path which connects the communities of Manof and Shechaniya, two lovely yishuvim in the Galil.  The mostly level path is not long, but it affords panoramic views of the thorn-, carob- and pine-covered Western Galilee and on a clear day you can see Rosh HaNikra in the far north and Haifa Bay in the distance.  Just off the path is a somewhat challenging trail to a cave inhabited by bats.  It was in this cave that human skeletal remains were discovered, fifty-two years after the original murder was committed.

The sad and fascinating story is etched on some stone boulders, a memorial to the 33-year old husband, father, and seventh-generation Israeli Jewish pioneer who met an untimely end while in the service of the Jewish National Fund.  His name was Yisrael ben Ze’ev Loifer Hy”d.  He disappeared mysteriously in August 1938 and nothing was heard from him nor from the people who kidnapped him.  It was as though he’d fallen off the face of the earth.

What follows is my translation of the Hebrew inscription at the memorial site:

Yisrael was born in 1905 in a Jewish settlement in the Galil.  His parents, Ze’ev and Sara, were the sixth generation of his family to live in the Land of Israel.  They left their home in Tzfat to help settle the Galilee in a place called Yisod HaMaaleh.

Because of the difficult economic conditions, as well as severe malarial outbreaks in the area that sickened and killed many, Yisrael was forced to abandon the family settlement and left the Galil to work in the orchards of Petach Tikva.   There, he met the woman who would become his wife, Rivka Bergman, a sixth-generation Jew living in the Land of Israel.  They became parents to a boy, Ze’ev, and a girl, Shulamit.

In 1930 the Jewish National Fund appointed Yisrael as a property guard in the Zevulun Valley and his family moved to Akko.  In the 1920s and then again from 1936 – 1939, Israel experienced an ongoing Arab intifada which included strikes, riots, pograms, thefts and attacks against Jewish settlers throughout the Land.  Hundreds of Jews died.  (ed. note:  It was during this time that many German Jewish emigres living in Israel, traumatized by these attacks, actually returned to Germany where ironically and tragically they would perish in the Holocaust only a few years later.)  Because they were living in what was then considered a remote area subject to extreme danger, Yisrael moved his family to an area just outside of Haifa, in what is today known as Kiryat Bialik.

Meanwhile Yisrael continued his work guarding undeveloped Jewish land in the Galil.  He got to know his Arab neighbors and their way of life; he learned to speak Arabic fluently.  Many Arabs considered him a friend.  Yisrael wore a kaffiye (Arab cloth headdress) and dressed in an abbayya (long flowing white cotton robe); on his feet he wore leather boots and he rode upon a fine Arabian horse.  Only his pale skin identified him as a Jew.  According to Arab custom, Yisrael was called “Abu Ziv” – father of Ze’ev, his firstborn son.

Within the framework of his position as a guard, he prevented the theft and takeover of Jewish-owned land by the area’s Bedouin tribes. (ed. note:  it seems Yisrael Loifer was part Lawrence of Arabia and part Texas Ranger.)  He helped the Jewish National Fund  redeem parcels from the hands of Bedouins that lived in the Zevulun Valley.  Additionally, he secretly trained Jewish youth living in the area of Haifa Bay to handle and  fire weapons for their defense.  With great sensitivity he took tremendous responsibility for his very dangerous work, a task he fulfilled with tremendous passion and dedication.  Yisrael was known far and wide for his audaciousness and courage and his reputation extended all the way to Damascus.

In the beginning of August 1938, Yisrael loaned his beloved horse to a trusted friend, a Bedouin guard, who promised to return the horse to him the following day.  When he was late,  Yisrael took his wooden staff and hiked to the Bedouin guard’s village, Kfar Damon.

And then no trace remained of Yisrael Loifer.

After a long and exhaustive investigation by his son, Ze’ev,  and with the help of Giora Zaid (the son of the legendary guard, Alexander Zaid) and according to eyewitness accounts by Najiv Zaidan and Abu-Daouf, the mystery was finally solved.

It appears that Yisrael was tortured and murdered by three barbaric Bedouin men who chose to commit these horrific acts as part of an initiation rite to join a gang.

On the first of Nisan (March 27, 1990),  bones were found buried under a pile of stones in Shechaniya cave, a place in the area of Bir El Yahudi.

Forensic evidence confirmed that the bones were those of Yisrael Loifer, killed 52 years earlier.

On the 20 of Iyar, 5750 (May 15, 1990), Yisrael Loifer’s remains were brought to Jewish burial next to the grave of his faithful wife, in the Segula cemetery in Petach Tikva.

Rivka Bergman Loifer died without knowing whatever happened to him.

Hy”d.

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Yom HaZikaron l’Shoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day)

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My friend is a classic Israeli.  Sabra; patriotic; a Jewish mother par excellence.  Fluctuating between agnostic and atheist and proudly secular; religion is irrelevant to her daily life.  Close to her extended family.  Raised in the Scouts youth movement, did her mandatory military duty with enthusiasm. Until recently a chain smoker.  Widely traveled, happy to get away from the craziness that is part of daily life in Israel, but always happier to come back to the only place that feels truly like home. Worked for a government agency and now gracefully retired with a cushy pension. A good person.  Loves to volunteer and will be the first to help anyone in need.

She invited me to a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at Kibbutz Lochamei HaGhettaot.

This is a big deal.  The kibbutz was founded by survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Located in the Western Galilee between Akko and Nahariya, it houses two museums dedicated to the Holocaust, one of which is expressly for children.  The kibbutz conducts educational programs about the Holocaust to schoolchildren, youth groups, young soldiers in the Israeli army and tourists throughout the year.  It also houses archives – – the kibbutz was the first in the entire world to start an archival collection of Holocaust information shortly after the War.

Every year Kibbutz Lochamei HaGhettaot hosts a huge ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance Day.  It is held in a massive amphitheatre whose backdrop is along an ancient Roman aqueduct, lit dramatically against the night.  Many thousands of people from all over Israel attend the annual ceremony, and it was no different last night.  The overwhelming number of attendees were very much like my friend:  completely secular and deeply connected to the State of Israel.

First Israeli President Reuvi Rivlin addressed the crowd.  While it was beautifully stated, the speech was pretty much what you’d expect:  Never Forget. Always Remember. Bear Witness.  Share your stories. Pass them on from generation to generation.  Educate the world, so we can actualize Never Again.

Next was former German President Joachim Gauck.  He appeared sincerely touched and affected to have been invited to the ceremony.  Can you imagine?, he said.  A boy (himself) who had Nazi parents, or at the very least parents who were complicit Nazi sympathizers, who is the same age of the Jewish boy (Rivlin) whose parents fled Germany.   Is it not ironic, the President of Germany wondered aloud, that the current President of Israel,  who once undoubtedly hated all Germans for what they did to his family,  invited the object of his disdain to participate in the commemoration of victims of German hatred, cruelty and oppression?

Then came the most moving segment of the evening.  They chose six Holocaust survivors to light memorial beacons representing the six million Jews murdered.  First they gave a short bio about each survivor, and then the survivor was shown in a taped interview, telling their stories of survival and loss.  And the best part:  they were called up to light the beacon, accompanies by those whom they aptly called their Living Revenge:  each survivor was supported (literally; they are so old and frail that many can no longer walk on their own) by a child or grandchild  who stood alongside them to light the beacon with them, representing the past, the present, and the future.

Thirty-five Holocaust survivors die of old age every day.  Soon there will be no one left.   It is up to the survivors to transmit those stories while they still can, because they are too important to be lost forever.   It is up to us, the children and grandchildren, to tell their stories.  How many of these survivors will be at the ceremony next year, or the year after?

And then the head of the Jewish National Fund got up to speak.  Like Rivlin, he spoke the words that we hear again and again:  Always remember.  Never forget.  Never again.  He spoke of the miracle of the State of Israel.  How that in Israel, a land re-birthed and built from the ashes only 69 years ago, we are at the forefront of medical, scientific, educational and agricultural innovation and revolution.  We have built village, towns and cities that thrive.  Israelis not only produce for themselves, they share the products of their toil with other nations.  They are at the forefront of helping other countries during national disasters, and training Third World countries to improve the lives of their citizens.  Israel’s youth groups train future leaders, as does its army.  Its army is one of the best in the world.  Israel’s military strength will ensure that what happened to helpless Jews in WWII will Never. Happen. Again.

Oh, really?

Today, Israel is at its greatest height.

I love and respect the Israeli army.  Those boy and girl soldiers are like my sons and daughters.  They are risking everything every day to ensure that I am protected.  Many have fallen so that I could live here.  We are incredibly grateful for Israel’s military finesse, and recognize that a strong military is both critical and essential.

Nations come and go.  They ascend, and they fall;  they cease to exist.  Who would have believed in the decay of the superpowers of ancient Greece?  Rome?  Mid-20th-century Germany?  Who cannot deny that currently America is in a state of decline?  Do we really believe that we Israelis are invincible and invulnerable?

Why is the Jewish religion so completely irrelevant to Israeli culture that it was not mentioned the entire evening in a ceremony dedicated to Holocaust remembrance?

One of the things I love about Israel is the diversity in its people.  And although I am a person of faith, the truth is that none of us can be sure that our faith would remain intact after going through the horrible things that our families went through in Europe. But if we excise what makes us unique – – the Jewish, religious part that has also defined us and our history – – then we are like any other nation.  If we are like every other nation, then we must accept that like the others, we will rise – – and eventually, G-d forbid, fall.

Our revenge is a Living Revenge:  that despite our broken-ness and destitution, the survivors (and indeed  Jewish people throughout history) have always moved forward.  We are builders.  We are lovers of life.  We have faith – yes, Jewish faith that there is something supernatural happening that we continue to beat the odds, even if we don’t understand it.  We have children who beget more children and give us grandchildren.  And we teach these children who they are, why they are here, what is their legacy, and what their purpose is in a life we regard with holiness.  And we teach them what it means to be Jewish, their importance and responsibility and the myriad challenges in being the continual link in the chain; how to live Jewish-ly, and how this will positively affect and impact their life and the lives of those around them.

If we ignore the Jewish part of the equation, then we become like every other nation. Our Israeli army is strong, but it is not invincible.   We need to know who we are, not just as Israelis, but also as Jews.