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January 8, 2017 6:58 am

Preserving the Early History of the State of Israel

avatar by Judy Lash Balint / JNS.org

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At left, Harold (Smoky) Simon, a South African-born accountant who became chief of air operations of the nascent Israeli Air Force in May 1948, talks with Aryeh Halivni, Toldot Yisrael founder. Photo: Judy Lash Balint.

At left, Harold (Smoky) Simon, a South African-born accountant who became chief of air operations of the nascent Israeli Air Force in May 1948, talks with Aryeh Halivni, Toldot Yisrael founder. Photo: Judy Lash Balint.

JNS.org — The early founders of the Jewish state are being encouraged by an ambitious documentary program to tell their remarkable, personal stories of Israel’s beginnings, so that the human dimension of the Zionist national project will be on record for future generations.

Toldot Yisrael, Hebrew for Chronicles of Israel, founded by American immigrant Aryeh Halivni, was inspired by the efforts of the Shoah Foundation and Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum to supplement the work of historians with individuals’ oral testimonies, before those accounts are lost.

“We have a finite opportunity to capture and preserve the inspiring stories of the incredible generation that enabled the creation of the state of Israel,” Halivni said, explaining that when Toldot Yisrael started a decade ago, there was an estimated pool of 120,000 potential interviewees, but that 70 percent of those people have since passed away.

On a recent evening at Tel Aviv’s Beit Hatfutsot Museum, the organization introduced an audience of olim to the dapper and articulate Harold (Smoky) Simon, a South African-born accountant who became chief of air operations of the nascent Israeli Air Force in May 1948, during the War of Independence. Simon, 97, described in detail what he called Israel’s longest, costliest and most fateful war, including the role of 4,800 volunteer soldiers who came from abroad to fight and the crucial purchase of Czechoslovakian planes in defeating the Egyptian front.

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“In order to get the full picture of this amazing period of history, it’s important to get testimony from people who were active in every part of it,” said Toldot Yisrael videographer Peleg Levy, who has conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with more than 1,000 subjects, ranging from high-ranking Mossad intelligence agency officials to ordinary Jerusalem residents who struggled to survive the siege of the city.

“We have interviews with Palmach, Haganah, Lechi and Etzel fighters. Everyone had a job, and collectively they impacted the British Empire,” said Levy.

Today, Toldot Yisrael is housed at the National Library of Israel but is privately funded, and mostly by American donors, Halivni noted. The non-profit’s steering committee includes Member of Knesset Michael Oren, an historian and former Israeli ambassador to the US; Ruth Wisse, professor emeritus of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University; and Michael Berenbaum, former president of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

The organization’s goal is to digitize all the interviews and integrate them with newspaper articles and photos from the period in order to make it a usable database easily accessed for educational and research purposes.

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