Moshe Ben-Dror, z"l: 1922-2022
One of the last living commanders of the Palmach, a distant cousin, died this week, a month shy of his 100th birthday. His legacy, I think, is a command.
We got a phone call on Thursday night, telling us that Moshe Ben-Dror, a cousin whom we’d met only fifteen years ago but with whom we had become close, had died. He was less than a month shy of his 100th birthday.
His wife, Esther, fifteen years his junior, had died almost two years ago, and recently, his already poor hearing had decreased to the point of near-deafness. He was also no longer able to see. Sharp as a tack until the very end, it was time. The funeral, we knew, would be not sad, but a celebration of his very long life.
And knowing him, we knew that he would have made it clear that he would want the funeral to focus on that part of his life of which he was most proud—his years as a commander in the Palmach (the elite strike force of the Haganah) and his roles in the battles for independence.
Sure enough, that was how the family characterized him in the mourning notice that I found in the next morning’s paper:
Moshe Ben-Dror: a man, father, grandfather, great-grandfather and friend. Among those who established the state, among the last remaining commanders of the Palmach.
Sunday morning, we drove up the Jordan Valley, on the 90, which for a long stretch hugs the border fence between Israel and Jordan (and passes a turnoff to Gilgal, which coincidentally was mentioned in the Haftarah this past Shabbat, as if we needed a reminder that our people has been in that valley for a very long time). Less than two hours later, we were in Kibbutz Heftziba, Moshe’s kibbutz, and returned to an Israel that one can easily forget still exists. When we got to the kibbutz we needed to ask for directions to the cemetery, so we asked a woman—who was driving a tractor. We made a left right near the enormous cow-shed, and passed fields filled with agricultural equipment.
This was the Israel that created Israel, the Israel that Israel has largely left behind. But in many ways, this was real Israel.
Part of the Gorodeisky clan (the name from which Gordis was created across the ocean), Moshe was born in South Africa in 1922. His parents sent him to Palestine on his own when he was 11; he lived with an uncle (whom he did not remember with much fondness) until his parents joined him several years later. By his late teens, he was training for the Palmach, was eventually involved in bombing British military installations and later in the battles against Arab forces during the War of Independence. He served under Yigal Alon and Yitzchak Rabin—and even in his very old age, that’s what and who he was; he was a fighter, a commander. You didn’t show up late to Moshe. You didn’t not answer an email. And when you saw his name on your screen, you knew you’d damn well better answer the phone.
He was a fighter, but an ideologue no less. Many think of being awash in ideology as a quality of the right these days, but it used to be the character of the left.
He was appalled that I’d written a favorable biography of Begin. After all, he told us, he had been on the beach in July 1948 when Haganah and Palmach troops (by then in theory wrapped into the IDF) and he had fired at Begin in the water. I have my doubts about whether or not he actually fired at Begin (the reasons for that are not for here), but he was definitely involved. He saw it all — the pivotal “Night of the Bridges” against the British, and later, Operation Dani (controversial to this day), against the Arab forces who were seeking to destroy the newborn state. And then … it was over. The Palmach was gone. Ben-Gurion dismantled it, and Moshe left the military; for the next sixty years, he worked on his kibbutz.
He forgave me for admiring Begin, whom he detested until his dying day, and against his better judgement, he forgave me for being religious. Elisheva and I always had the sense that he and Esther were kind of tickled that there was a religious cluster in the broader family. Esther would occasionally say, as she served a cake she’d bought— “Look, see the label? It’s kosher” — “you’re religious … but you’re so … nice.” We laughed every time. No, we weren’t the “men in black” they also despised.
He got over my admiration for Begin. He got over religion.
And he got over Communism. I think.
They were lefties to the end, disappointed that the conflict with the Palestinians had dragged on into their old age. They couldn’t believe that the party that Menachem-Begin-the-fascist had founded had ruled Israel for so long under Bibi. What would be, Esther would ask me every time we’d visit. What would be this with country of ours, she asked me, the greenhorn.
I told her it would be OK, for sure. For reasons I cannot fathom, that actually seemed to comfort them whenever I said it.
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We were his glimpse into a world he barely knew—religious city-folk who actually live in the present century, and who lo and behold, didn’t seem morally reprehensible. And he was our window into an Israel of yesteryear, an Israel that was alive and well in the twinkle of his eyes, his endless stories about the past (but almost never about himself). Every visit ended with his exacting a promise that we’d come back soon, and a photo.
A year ago, on his 99th birthday, he completed an autobiography that focused mostly on his years in the Palmach and (after Ben-Gurion dismantled the Palmach, arousing the everlasting ire of many) the IDF.
Shortly after that 99th birthday, he called me. I saw his name on my screen and just knew that this couldn’t be good. I answered, and though he was almost stone deaf, he was chewing me out, chastising me for not having thanked him for the book. What book? I hadn’t received any book. But I mailed it last week, they said you’d have it by now. But I didn’t. I asked the staff at Shalem to call me the minute it arrived, which they did a couple of days later. It took some cajoling, but Moshe eventually forgave me for the mail service having been slow.
When I finally got the book, there was a letter pasted to the inside of the front cover. It was his parting letter, I now understand (though we saw him again after that). He described how we had met late in life, the issues we had discussed during our many visits. And, he made a point of highlighting this in yellow, that even though he disagreed with me completely about Menachem Begin, he never let that get in the way of our friendship.
He saw it as a mark of his great forbearance that I could be on the wrong side of the ideological divide, but still be his friend.
After a long but moving series of eulogies, and then the very quick burial, two of his daughters announced that they would end with two things that Moshe loved — the Palmach Anthem and marshmallows (he had an insatiable sweet tooth, and when his grandchildren were sick or upset, it was marshmallows, rather than medicines, that he provided).
If you’re not familiar with the Palmach Anthem and its spirit, here’s a video with subtitles. I have no idea who attached the adulation of the Soviets to the beginning of this video, but it’s not inaccurate. Many who had served in the Palmach openly mourned Stalin, despite the fact that he died after his purging of Jews was already well known. Ben-Gurion had many reasons for dismantling the Palmach, including their irrepressible sense of independence which did not bode well for a single army under the government’s command, but not least of them was his desire to move Israel into America’s orbit, while the socialist/communist ideologues, many of whom were leaders of the Palmach, were staunchly in love with the Soviet Union’s vision for the world.
Anyway, here’s the Palmach Anthem. Both the melody and the words give you a sense of their world.
As his daughter had promised, someone turned on the music, and the same anthem you heard above began to blare. And someone else began to distribute the marshmallows, on long sticks stuck into watermelon halves.
It was a classic kibbutz moment, a classic kibbutz funeral. Jeans and shorts. Some people barefoot. Hardly a kippah in sight. And the informality that still characterizes the Galilee. Then, as you’ll see when you watch the video, someone had the idea of sticking the marshmallows on the stick into the earth of the freshly filled grave, a “flower” of sorts, made of marshmallows and the irreverence for which the kibbutz movement was known.
Immediately before they played the Palmach Anthem and distributed the marshmallows, one of Moshe’s son’s spoke. He spoke only very briefly, and ended with thanks. He wanted to thank his father, and his father’s generation, he said. For daring to dream big dreams. For building a state.
People nodded. Then someone turned on the music. A few people sang along. Some chatted with each other. A few hugged. And then they placed those marshmallows, along with real flowers, onto the grave.
There they were. Moshe’s grave, next to Esther’s just to the left, and a bit further to the left, much older, the grave of their seventeen-year-old daughter, killed in 1986 in a traffic accident that took the lives of ten kibbutz members (nine of them teenagers) and changed the kibbutz forever.
That horror and its aftermath, which led to Moshe’s working on a family tree (containing thousands of people, stretching back to the late 1700s) which eventually led him to us, is also not for now. Suffice it to say, though, that pain and anguish overflowed the banks of Kibbutz Heftziba some thirty-five years ago. Eventually, it was anger, too, and like others, Moshe and Esther eventually moved away, to Afula, just down the road.
But the people who moved away in those heartbroken years have all started coming back now — to be buried next to their children. Esther first, now Moshe. And now the three are reunited.
We will miss him, but the marshmallow placers had it right; Sunday was not a day of mourning, but a day to celebrate a life, a generation, a mission. Moshe’s was a life that, along with many others’, brought a People back to life.
When people began to “plant” the marshmallows, a few laughed. A few giggled. Everyone at least smiled. It would have made Moshe smile, too. We also laughed, in sadness, but even more, with gratitude to him and his extraordinary generation.
I actually didn’t put a marshmallow in the earth. I was preoccupied, thinking about his generation and ours, with the prayer that ours be worthy of what we inherited from theirs.
And I remembered our visits, hoping that I’d been telling Esther the truth when I reassured her that everything would be OK. It just needs to be, doesn’t it? After all they did, we might be the ones to let it slip away between our fingers?
יהי זכרו ברוך. Yehi Zichro Baruch — May his memory — and that of his generation — be both a blessing and a command.
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