In 2018, the 70th year since the founding of the State of Israel, there will be many anniversaries of events, both terrible and inspiring, that we should take the time to recall. I’m writing this on the evening of Jan. 16. Today is the 70th anniversary of the deaths of the heroes known as The Lamed Heh (The 35).
In 1927, Yemenite Jews founded a community called Migdal Eder on land between Hebron and Bethlehem. The land was purchased in 1925 by Zikhron David, a private Jewish land holding company. In 1929, Migdal Eder was attacked and destroyed by Arabs from the neighbouring villages.
In 1932, Shmuel Yosef Holzman, a German entrepreneur, offered to finance the founding of another community on the site. The new village, which was established in 1935, was called Kfar Etzion, in his honour (“holz” means “wood” in German, which is “etz” in Hebrew). In 1937, Arab attacks once again drove the Jewish residents from the site.
In 1943, members of a religious group called Kvutzat Avraham re-established Kfar Etzion and persevered, in spite of their hostile neighbours. They were joined in 1945 by two more villages, Masuot Yitzchak and Ein Tzurim, which were founded by members of the Bnei Akivah movement, as well as Revadim, which was founded by Hashomer Hatza’ir. Together, these four villages were known as Gush Etzion (Etzion Bloc).
On Nov. 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly passed the partition resolution. Gush Etzion lay in the territory assigned to the Arab state. Arabs responded to the passage of the resolution by laying siege to the four kibbutzim of the Etzion Bloc. Convoys attempting to bring in supplies from Jerusalem were ambushed and failed to get through.
By January, the situation in Gush Etzion was growing desperate. The Haganah decided to try to bring in supplies on foot. The Machleket HaHar (Mountain Platoon), which was made up of Hebrew University students, were given the mission. Thirty-eight men set out from Har Tuv at 11 p.m. on the night of Jan. 15, 1948. Three turned back due to an injury. The remaining 35 went on. An hour before they were to have reached their destination, they were spotted by two women from the Arab village of Susa and attacked shortly thereafter by hundreds of Arab militiamen.
The fighters of the Machleket HaHar fought until they ran out of ammunition. The battle ended with the deaths of the last three on Jan. 16, 1948, at 4:30 p.m. The bodies of the dead were held by the Jordanians until 1951, when they were finally released for burial. Contemporary accounts reveal that many of the bodies were mutilated beyond recognition – 12 of them could not even be identified. A rare Jewish ritual was used to assign an identity to each of the 12 men, so that their families could bury them.
I feel great admiration when I think of the courage of these 35 young men, who ventured into the night, risking everything to help the besieged villagers of Gush Etzion. They believed that the Jews of Gush Etzion had the right to stay in the homes they had built, to stay on their land, and they were willing to die for the cause.
Just as those who killed The Lamed Heh mutilated their bodies, there are those who would take the story of Israel’s War of Independence and mutilate it by claiming that it was conducted in the name of an unjust cause. For this reason, and many others, I believe it is important that we know, and pass on, this story. The members of the Makhleket HaHar represent 35 casualties in a war that cost over 6,000 Jewish lives. To honour them, we must remember them with gratitude, tell their stories and teach our children about what they did.