The Jewish Women Who Posed an 'Existential Threat' to Israel by Marrying Arab Men
By Ofer Aderet
Published April 14, 2021
Hundreds of Jewish women married Arab men in the Mandate period. They were branded enemies of Israel, and to this day their families find it hard to talk about them. No wonder, then, that these stories were buried in the archives and are only now coming to light
Credit: Illustration: Yael Bogen.
In 1942, all traces of Bianca Schwartz disappeared. An orphan who arrived in Palestine as part of the Youth Aliyah effort to save Jewish refugees from war-torn Europe, she had lived on Kibbutz Afikim in the north before moving to Jerusalem. A lengthy search eventually revealed that Schwartz had converted to Islam, married an Arab man, changed her name to Leila Natshe Ali and was living in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, which in 1948 had come under Jordanian control. The couple had five children. After her husband died, in 1971, she wanted to return to the fold of Judaism. According to one account, Hanania Dery, the chief rabbi of Jaffa, was walking in the Old City when he happened to notice a woman who was dressed in Arab attire but whose facial features struck him as Jewish. Dery asked her to tell him about herself, and thanks to his efforts she returned to her Jewish roots and was recognized as a new immigrant.
Schwartz’s story is apparently not unusual. “Dozens of Jewish women who fled in 1948 with their Arab husbands into the territory of Transjordan are now in Amman,” the newspaper Maariv reported two years after the War of Independence. “After some years of life together in a hostile environment, some of the women decided to return.”
Thanks to the same Rabbi Dery, these women returned to the headlines in a big way in 1967, following Israel’s conquest of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This time Dery deliberately went into refugee camps in the newly occupied territories to look for Jewish women who had married Arab men and converted to Islam, had lived for years under a foreign regime and were now once more under Israeli rule.
“He was aided by officers of the military government and drew on sources among Jaffa’s Arabs who took him to the women who had been considered lost,” Uri Dromi wrote in Dery’s obituary in Haaretz in 2002 under the headline, “Assembling the far-flung of Israel.”
In the years that followed, the press reported widely on Dery’s “missionary” activity. Maariv wrote that he brought some 600 Jewish women – who had married Arab men and were then living in Hebron, Nablus, Gaza City, Khan Yunis and East Jerusalem – back to their Jewish roots. That statistic has not yet been verified in official records, but it could indicate the scale of the phenomenon.
Despite public and academic interest in the subject of religious intermarriage during the formative years of the Yishuv – the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine – information on the subject was long buried in archives. Apart from incidental mentions or studies of a specific locale or individual, no one dug deep or comprehensively into those rather explosive materials. But a few years ago, Idith Erez, a graduate student in the Israel studies department at the University of Haifa, came across interesting information. “I was asked to write a paper on Kamal al-Hussein, whose name I knew as the commander of the Arab side in the battle of Tel Hai [in 1920] in which Yosef Trumpeldor was killed. While going through the material, I came across a comment to the effect that he had a Jewish woman as a lover,” she told Haaretz this week. “That struck me as really interesting.”
That was also the genesis of the research subject Erez chose for her master’s thesis. It remains a highly sensitive phenomenon, which for many is still taboo even decades later. Her paper is titled “Love’s Thorny Ways: The Gender Dimension in Relations between Jews and Arabs in Mandatory Palestine: Relationships between Jewish Women and Arab Men.” She is due to present her study later this month at a conference at Tel-Hai College.
Erez, who is a pensioner and lives in Moshav Ein Yaakov in the western Galilee, identifies personally with her research subject. Two of her relatives married Arabs. A male second cousin returned from the 1982 Lebanon War with a local woman and married her in Israel. A female second cousin came back from studies in New York with an Egyptian husband.
“The responses in the family ranged from acceptance and reservations to total rejection,” she notes.
When Erez embarked on her study, she was cautioned by colleagues that she wouldn’t find much material. Indeed, when she searched for accounts of intermarriage she encountered walls of silence, embarrassment and self-censorship. When she found references in Jewish sources to relationships between Jewish women and Arab men during the British Mandate era, from 1917 to 1948, she discovered that “the writers sought to play down the ‘forbidden stories,’” she recalls. “One can assume that what was perceived as a family or personal stigma, or as national shame, was excluded from the collective memory, relegated to the warehouse of the darkest secrets and remained hidden there.”
She finally found what she was looking for in various archives. Many such stories about Jewish women who chose to share their lives with Arab men on the eve of Israel’s establishment were tucked away in the newspapers of the time. Some stories were tragic and heartrending; others had a happy end, with the “mixed” marriages being successful and lasting many years despite all the difficulties. In the archives of the pre-state underground organizations (Haganah, Lehi, Irgun), she found fascinating documentation of how these women were kept under surveillance, partly out of concern – in some cases justified, in others imagined – that they would act against the Yishuv, and also in order to recruit them as spies. All in all, Erez estimates that hundreds if not thousands of Jewish women had relationships of various kinds with Arabs in the period of the British Mandate. “Statistically, it’s a marginal phenomenon,” she says, “but one that’s definitely present and highly charged.”
Erez did not find even one case of the opposite relationship: an Arab woman who was romantically linked to a Jewish man. The reason, she says, is that Arab women, particularly in the period under question, usually remained at home, didn’t mingle with strangers, frequent cafés and so forth.
One of the stories Erez uncovered centered around Esther Shaharur, who was born in 1936 in Safed and grew up in Haifa. She maintained that at the age of 10 she was kidnapped by an Arab, married him under duress and wandered with him between Nablus and Ramallah. Subsequently, she married a different Arab man, assumed an Arab name and bore a number of children. In 1972, Maariv published a story headlined, “I am a Jew, says woman in refugee camp near Ramallah,” which reported that Shaharur had been located. The item included Rabbi Dery’s phone number, so that Jewish relatives in Israel could contact him and verify the woman’s story. In this manner her brother, Yosef, was found, and Maariv reported that “she returned to her family after a disconnect of 26 years.”
Reporting on the siblings’ reunion, Maariv wrote: “The setting was nondescript – a narrow, bland office in the Ramallah police station. The occasion was moving, even shocking, a genuine drama with a happy ending.” The “short, stocky man cast a penetrating gaze at the Arab woman who entered the room in a long, green Arab robe with red embroidery, and a white scarf,” the article continued. Yosef questioned the woman in an attempt to discover whether she really was his lost sister. “What is Mother’s name? – Jamila. What did we call her? – Estarina. Where did we live? – In Haifa, next to the clock.” Afterward “there was another moment of hesitation on both sides, and then the two kissed and broke into tears.”
Kamal al-Hussein and his family. He had an extramarital relationship with Berta Abadi, a Sephardi woman from the Old City of Tiberias.
The story took an unexpected turn a few months later, when the long-lost sister returned to her Arab husband. This time the headline in Maariv was, “She doesn’t want to hear about her Jewish past.” Shaharur said that in Israel she felt like she was “in a prison” and that she was happy to resume her life as an Arab.
Another woman, Simha Mizrahi, related in 1970 that she had fled her parents’ home in Jerusalem on the eve of the War of Independence and had worked in Jaffa for an Arab man who bought and sold real estate. When war broke out, she fled with his family to Nablus, where she married an Arab man and became a mother. The couple lived in the Balata refugee camp outside that city. When she was located by Rabbi Dery, her husband said he would be willing to convert to Judaism for her sake.
Another story reported in the press was that of Ayala Jamili from the Kerem Hateimanin neighborhood in Tel Aviv. She claimed that in the pre-state period she had refused to marry an older Jewish man whom her parents had chosen for her. A girlfriend advised her to move to nearby Jaffa. There she married an Arab man and the two moved to the Gaza Strip, where they lived in a refugee camp. She gave birth to 10 children. The family lived in abject poverty and hunger, until one day, after the Six-Day War, she showed up in the offices of the military government and declared that she wanted to return to Judaism.
Jamili and some of her children returned to Israel under Dery’s auspices, together with additional families the rabbi found in the Gaza Strip, as he told the newspaper Hatzofeh in 1968: “Despite real mortal danger I succeeded in redeeming them and returning them to our fold, by means of constant searches in the refugee camps. I collected them the way you would pick flowers in a wild field. Those flowers have been replanted in our flower beds, in the blossoming garden of the nation.”
In one of the interviews Dery gave, he noted that “many of the women who converted to Islam are from the Eastern [Mizrahi] communities. They know Arabic, and the Arabs’ way of life is not something that’s remote for them. Many come from large families that are on welfare. There are also intelligent girls among them who are looking for adventure.” Dery also mentioned other reasons for such relationships, among them “rebellion,” “defiance” and “principles.” According to his obituary, in 2002: “He was never deterred by difficulties, and he persuaded Jewish families who were already sitting shiva for their daughters who had married Arabs, to take them back.”
A particularly interesting case is recounted in a report sent by a Haganah man to the organization’s intelligence branch in 1942. His plan, cited in Erez’s study, was to recruit a young Jewish woman to spy on senior Arab leaders. “I am thinking this week of getting in touch, to obtain information, with a Sephardi girl from Tiberias who has intimate relations with Kamal al-Hussein. He likes to waste a lot of money on her.”
Abadi's fur coat
Hussein entered the history books in 1920, as the leader of the attack on the Jewish settlement of Tel Hai, in Upper Galilee, in which Yosef Trumpeldor, an icon of the Zionist enterprise, was killed. Two decades later, he was having an extramarital affair with Berta Abadi, a Sephardi woman from the Old City of Tiberias.
Abadi managed the city’s Agam Cafés. Some contemporaneous sources claim that she had a “bad reputation” and that she ran a high-class brothel above the café. According to other sources, she was a “society woman” who hobnobbed with dignitaries from the Arab community in Tiberias at social events and soirees. A report of the Haganah’s intelligence service termed her a “modern prostitute” but offered no elaboration.
According to one of the Arab sources, far from hiding her relations with Hussein, Abadi flaunted publicly the gifts with which he plied her and strutted around the streets of Tiberias wearing a fur coat from him, even in the heat of the summer. Alongside her relationship with Hussein, whatever its character may have been, various sources note that she also had a romantic relationship with Ahmed Adora, leader of Najjada, a paramilitary youth movement that was active in the city.
In April 1948, following the battle for Tiberias, which ended with the victory of the Haganah and the evacuation of the city’s Arab population, Abadi disappeared. One account has it that she moved with Adora to Jordan, where she lived for a few months disguised as an Arab, until she was arrested on suspicion of espionage. According to another version, she went to Lebanon with Hussein, who was murdered there about a year later.
In any event Abadi returned to Israel, married a Jewish man and raised a family. She died in 2000 at the age of 80 and is buried in Tiberias.
“Her history from April 1948 is vague,” researcher Erez says. “My attempt to contact members of her family, who still live in Tiberias, was unsuccessful. Oldtimers I spoke to there know Abadi’s story well, but were silent. Other than providing hints about a ‘problematic’ past, they were uncooperative.”
Erez discovered a number of stories about Jewish women of Mizrahi origin from Tiberias who maintained relationships of various kinds with Arabs from the surrounding area. Life together in a mixed city, where the two peoples interacted in cafés, markets and residential neighborhoods, occasioned contacts that crossed national and cultural borders. Erez found that in Tiberias in the pre-state years, as in other communities in the periphery, the majority of the Jewish women who had relationships with Arabs were from the Sephardi communities, “whose way of life, language and customs point to the cultural proximity that existed between Jews and Arabs in the city,” she explains, adding, “Their close acquaintanceship with Arab culture and the Arab men was a natural and convenient basis for the ties that were formed.”
Another reason some women of Mizrahi descent chose Arab men, Erez notes, is that they were not attracted either to the “rough-hewn sabra” or the “European Jewish immigrant, foreign to their way of life.” Arabs, in contrast, shared a common language and social and cultural codes with these women, and were also “ardent suitors, persistent and polite.”
Nonetheless, Erez discovered that not all of the Jewish women in relationships with Arab men on the eve of Israel’s establishment were Middle Eastern descent, or living in relatively remote communities. Such ties were forged in locales elsewhere in the country and encompassed individuals of various ethnic origins, socioeconomic status and personalities. Among them were members of the Yishuv’s elite, affluent and individuals possessing a high social and public status, as well as more ordinary folk. Some of the women were Ashkenazi, others Mizrahi. Some were driven by economic or social hardship, others by love or simply by preference. In the background of the relationships were personal needs, economic interests or “natural spontaneity,” as Erez puts it. Some women were engaged in what was then known as the “entertainment business” such as dancing and prostitution, others were ordinary women who “simply fell in love with an Arab man.”
Of particular interest are the relationships that developed between members of the Arab elite and Jewish women. Ragheb al-Nashashibi, mayor of Jerusalem from 1920 to 1934, was married to both a Jewish woman named Palomba Marodes and also to an Armenian woman. Of the mayor’s life, Yaakov Shimoni, from the Jewish Agency’s political department and the Haganah’s intelligence unit, wrote: “On Shabbat he sat with his Jewish wife and ate cholent at home. After the death of his Armenian wife, Ragheb took the Jewish woman into his home. His son was circumcised ‘according to Jewish law.’”
Jerusalem Mayor Ragheb al-Nashashibi. Was married to both a Jewish and an Armenian woman. Credit: Zvi Oron (Oroshkes)/Central Zionist Archives
Another member of the illustrious clan, Jawad Nashashibi, was married to Esther Weiner, niece of the illustrious writer S.Y. Agnon. Emunah Yaron, Agnon’s daughter, was quoted as saying that Esther’s father was a “liberal person whose house was open and who customarily hosted Jews and Arabs alike.” Jawad met Esther in 1940, when he came to the Weiner home to buy a coat from her father, a furrier. Three years later, Esther, then 19, converted to Islam and married Jawad, despite her parents’ opposition. After 1948 she and her husband lived in the eastern part of Jerusalem. For years she was known as Samiha Nashashibi, mingled in Arab society in East Jerusalem and bore three children: Suheila, Suheil and Siham.
Siham related in an interview with Haaretz in the past that Esther did not completely forgo Judaism: She lit Sabbath candles, marked Jewish religious days and fasted on Yom Kippur. “When my parents quarreled, they did so in Hebrew,” he said.
In 1955, Jawad took a second wife over Esther’s objections and the two were divorced. She returned to West Jerusalem after the Six-Day War, converted back to Judaism and renewed her ties with her family. In 1969 she celebrated a family Passover seder in the company of Agnon. Later she remarried and upon her death, in 1989, was buried as Esther Neiger.
Suhil Shukri, son of Hassan Bey Shukri, mayor of Haifa during much of the Mandatory period, married Zippora Arbel, who was born in Rishon Letzion and was the granddaughter of Menashe Meyerovich, a member of the Bilu group, who immigrated to Palestine in the 1880s and was one of the founders of Rishon. Zippora, who had studied English literature at the University of Haifa, met Suhil, a graduate of the University of Beirut, when she was working for an insurance company in Haifa. The couple lived in that port city and had two children. “Zippora’s family objected to the marriage and broke off relations with her,” Erez writes in her paper.
At the beginning of 1948, the couple was compelled to leave and moved to Alexandria because the Arabs suspected that Suhil was collaborating with the Jews and threatened his life. With the help of his mother-in-law, who was aided by the authorities, the couple returned to Israel after the state’s establishment, although they later divorced. Zippora afterward married David Hacohen, who served as a Knesset member and a diplomat.
The dentist’s lover
Despite the differences in the stories unearthed by Erez, almost all had one aspect in common: the hostile attitude of Jewish society toward such relationships: “The phenomenon was perceived as a threat to the resurgent Jewish collective in Israel, as crossing a national and religious border and as the violation of a social taboo,” she says. Ties between Jewish women and Arab men were and are often still seen as a threat to establishment of the Jewish national home and as a true existential danger.
“These relationships were seen as the ultimate threat, serious and significant. They were perceived as bearing the potential to turn the Yishuv into a Levantine society, to bring about religious conversion and assimilation into Arab society, and to pose a threat to the mission of the Jewish ‘national womb,’” Erez adds.
Both ordinary people and opinion-shapers alike viewed such relationships as licentiousness and a deviation from the norm; the women involved were labeled “whores,” “traitors” and “enemies of Israel,” and were seen as a “national disgrace.” Their families bemoaned their personal tragedy, which was also a national disaster.
As the conflict between the Arab and Jewish communities in Palestine intensified and became increasingly present in everyday life, reactions to the phenomenon in the Yishuv grew increasingly extreme. “Ostracism, denunciation and shaming gave way to violence in the family and violence perpetrated by security organizations” on both the Jewish and Arab sides, Erez says, adding that some women even paid with their lives.
One mixed couple who were under surveillance by the security authorities and suffered harassment consisted of Dr. Issa Dajani, a dentist and the son of the mukhtar of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, and Chava Rechtman, who was living in the city and was 14 years younger than he. They met when Dajani was working as a physician at the school Rechtman attended. She was the sister of Shmuel Rechtman, who would become the mayor of Rehovot and an MK.
Dr. Issa Dajani and his wife Chava Rechtman, who was 14 years younger than him, in an article in Haolam Hazeh from June 22, 1960.
They were married in 1940 by a qadi (a Muslim judge) on Mount Zion, but Chava did not convert to Islam. Their children, Lili and Yosef, were registered as Jews. Erez notes that the couple suffered from harassment of various types and in 1942 moved to the Gaza Strip, where Dajani opened a dental clinic that served soldiers from the British Army. Haganah intelligence reports indicate that Chava was suspected of selling and smuggling arms to the Irgun or Lehi, from Gaza.
On the eve of Israel’s establishment, the threats against the couple intensified. A leaflet left at Issa’s door read: “He is working hand in hand with Jews and is devoted to them heart and soul. He is a traitor and is helping them in all kinds of ways. Everything he has done was at the behest of his wife, she should be put to death.” In the wake of the threats the couple returned to Rehovot, where they lived in the home of Rechtman’s parents. Dajani was arrested and interrogated by Palestinian commander Hassan Salameh on suspicion of collaborating with the Jews.
Dajani’s arrest and the War of Independence imposed separation on the couple. Chava thought her husband had been killed and changed her official status to that of a widow, but in 1950, with the aid of King Abdullah of Jordan, Dajani received a permit of passage to Israel from the eastern side of Jerusalem, and the couple reunited in Rehovot.
Chava a ran a kiosk at the Bilu Junction that was popular with Israeli soldiers after the establishment of the state. Their daughter Lili was mentioned in a line in “Yael,” a song by lyricist Dan Almagor (“Lili from the Kfar Bilu turnoff”) and in 1963 she was chosen runner-up in the Miss Israel beauty contest. The Haolam Hazeh weekly dug up her story, reporting that “a girl named Lili Man was this month chosen runner up in the Miss Israel beauty contest. To that end, the weekly [women’s magazine] La’isha invented a fine Hebrew name [for her], which is an abbreviated form of her mother’s surname: Rechtman. The weekly refrained from mentioning her real surname. It was a well-known Arab name: Dajani. Throughout the entire period of competition the weekly avoided mentioning by so much as a word the most interesting fact in the candidate’s biography: that she is the mixed offspring of the marriage of an Arab man and a Hebrew [Jewish] woman. This was done was for fear that this detail would harm her prospects of being chosen.”
The article quoted Dajani, Lili's father, as saying: “I want to see both peoples living in peace, because these are peoples whose blood is one blood. Even their religions are close.” Lili said, “I do not know the Arab people, but from knowing my father, his good-heartedness, his faithfulness and his character, I am proud to be a daughter of Abraham, of the children of both peoples.”
Naturally, there were also some unfortunate cases, such as that involving Esther K. and Mahmoud al-Kurdi, which is cited in Erez’s research. She was 17 and he was 45 when they married in 1940. They met in a Jerusalem café that he owned, fell in love and were married without her parents’ agreement, indeed without their knowledge. The case ended up in court, where Esther testified that she had fallen in love with Mahmoud at first sight. “Never mind, a few months will go by, I’ll turn 18 and come back to you, my dear,” she said to her beloved at the conclusion of the hearing, which ended with the court ruling that she had to return home. Subsequently it emerged that she was pregnant, and she was compelled to undergo an abortion.
“I loved her so much. I would do anything for her. People are cruel. Why are they trying to take my blood from me? If I had known this in advance, I would not even have spared my religion, as long as I could win her,” Mahmoud was quoted as saying during the courtroom proceedings, according to Erez.
One very active arena of romances between Jewish women and Arab men was the Palestine Communist Party. “The couples in the party shared a joint ideology amid a complex reality, contradictions and polarization, in a national atmosphere that was heating up,” Erez writes in her study.
Yet it was precisely the complexity of the situation in the country in 1948 that led these individuals to believe that communism was a correct and possible solution, and that a relationship devoid of elements of nationality and religion was part of the solution. “They saw in the personal ties between them a mirror of their belief in Jewish-Arab brotherhood,” Erez writes.
The best known of the couples among senior figures in the local Communist Party were Khamis and Orna Mer (the parents of the late actor and director Juliano Mer-Khamis), and Muhammad Najati Sidqi and Lutka Loberboim. Najati, a Muslim who started out as a postal clerk in Jerusalem, joined the Communist Party in 1924 and rose to become its first secretary. In 1927 he married Loberboim, a party member who had immigrated illegally to Palestine from Poland. The party suggested that he enter into a fictitious marriage with her in order to regularize her status in the country. The two had a daughter, Internationale, but afterward their paths parted. Najati gained fame as an intellectual, journalist and writer. He took part in the Spanish Civil War and was critical of the Nazi regime. All trace of his Jewish wife disappeared.
Orna Mer, mother of the late actor and director Juliano Mer-Khamis.
Radwan Khilo and Simha Tsabari were another couple who met in the Communist Party in the 1930s. He was a Muslim from Jaffa who worked in the municipality’s sanitation department, she was a Jew of Yemeni extraction from Tel Aviv and sister of Rachel Tsabari, a Knesset member in the state’s first years. Khilo and Tsabari went to Moscow to study and returned to Palestine as a couple in 1933. He was appointed secretary general of the party; she was a member of its central committee. They lived in Tel Aviv. Tsabari’s political views grew more radical as her involvement in the party deepened: During the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939, she initiated sabotage actions against the Yishuv in solidarity with the uprising.
Erez: “Tsabari was one of the first party members who viewed a romantic relationship with an Arab man as an expression of readiness to sacrifice for the sake of the party’s goals and ideology. The relationship between Tsabari and Khilo was said to be an ‘ideological love affair.’ They were the standard-bearers of supra-national couplehood and also its concrete example.”
Ignoring the ‘stain’
The voices of the women involved in these relationships are barely heard in Erez’s study. “The women didn’t leave behind testimony of their history or their feelings. Their families also preferred not to deal with the ‘stain,’” she explains. “My attempt to interview people who were involved was unsuccessful. In part because those who were directly involved are no longer with us, but also because close friends and family members refused to be interviewed. The sensitivity surrounding the subject of such relationships has clearly not faded with the passing of the years.”
Even so, newspaper items and reports from underground groups and other sources provided descriptions of the strong characters of some of the women.
“In cases in which the relationship was an expression of personal preference and an intelligent choice,” writes Erez, “the women involved… were opinionated and strong, unwitting feminists who were ahead of their time and defied the social order, the mechanisms of regimentation and the establishment’s balance of forces. They ignored public opinion and the Zionist ethos, which expected the Hebrew woman to nullify her personal yearnings and serve as a ‘sacrifice,’ if needed, on the altar of the nation.”
She continues: “The steep price paid for maintaining a relationship with an Arab man – the harsh opposition from home, the ostracism, the labeling, the opprobrium and the social alienation the women sustained – none of that kept them from conducting the relationship. These women did not flinch from harsh reactions and they saw no contradiction between their choice of an Arab man and their national loyalty or religious affiliation, and in any event… the ties of love… were what guided them and overcame every attempt to arouse in them moralistic or unpatriotic guilt feelings.”
The interplay between love and patriotism was at the center of the brutal story of Chaya Zeidenberg, who was executed in early 1948 by the Lehi underground. The group accused her of committing treason during a mission planned by her lover, Daoud Yasmina, a Christian Arab from Jaffa. The two had met while working in the postal service a few years earlier. Chaya’s mother looked askance at the relationship, and in an effort to break it up the family moved to Holon, where mother and daughter worked in a vegetable store. Nevertheless, Chaya continued to see Daoud, whom she called “David.”
The Haganah and Lehi put Daoud under surveillance, on suspicion that he was engaged in military activity against the Yishuv. From a wiretap they learned, as Lehi claimed, that he had persuaded Chaya to plant a bomb in Tel Aviv. On February 1, 1948, members of the underground raided the apartment in Holon, abducted Chaya at gunpoint and drove her to an unknown location, where she faced a drumhead court-martial.
She signed a confession in which she stated, “I, Chaya Seidenberg, who live in Holon… hereby confess that I had ties with an Arab named David Yasmina. At one point I promised him that I would take a bomb into Tel Aviv. That Arab has been my lover for six consecutive years. I visited him often in Jaffa.” Lehi issued an announcement stating that the organization had “sentenced to death by shooting the young woman Chaya Zeidenberg, aged 22, from Holon. She is accused of treason against the homeland and the Jewish people and of collaborating with Arab gangs. And her guilt was proven. The judgment was carried out that very same day.”
Her execution rocked the Yishuv and stirred fury against Lehi. On February 9, 1948, Haaretz condemned the act in an editorial, which also didn’t spare criticism of the victim. “A woman was killed by Lehi, and that organization glorifies the deed as usual… It wasn’t a murder, Lehi argues, it was a trial. They saved the Yishuv from a lethal threat by eliminating a traitor as she was about to smuggle a bomb assembled by her Arab lover into the Jewish city, and as proof they append with fanfare a photocopy of the supposed confession of the victim, in which the woman who was killed accuses herself of the terrible crime,” the editorial stated.
“It is not our desire to defend Chaya Zeidenberg,” Haaretz continued. “The impression is that the Jewish people had no reason to be proud of her. She apparently maintained ties with an Arab in Jaffa. Even though that is not a crime that justifies the death penalty, that fact certainly constitutes a breach of the wall and a danger to the security of the Yishuv. Sufficient reason existed to watch her, to interrogate her, to take measures to prevent danger to the Yishuv, to detain her, for example. But the hand that put her to death permitted itself to act without the nation’s approval and with no moral authority… Her death has an element of principle that must not be dispensed with even in these unsettled times. Sitting in the back rooms is a group of people who have appointed themselves judges over the life and death of their Jewish brethren. They decided as they saw fit. They are not accountable to the public for their deeds.”
Chaya Zeidenberg was buried in the Nahalat Yitzhak cemetery on the Tel Aviv-Givatayim border without her surname on the headstone. The Hevra Kadisha burial society registered her as a “spy.”
Erez’s conclusions go far beyond the romantic sphere. “The romantic ties between Jewish women and Arab men during the Mandate period were intertwined with the elements of the national conflict,” she says. “The feeling of hostility and repulsion that prevailed between the peoples, the desire to be separate and to demarcate clear separation boundaries were projected onto such relationships as well.”
The possibility of accepting the people involved in these relationships, which to some looked like a natural development as part of the joint life in the Yishuv, Erez sums up, “was ruled out similar to the way in which the path to find a political solution was lost, even though it could and should have been found for the different peoples living in the geographic space of the Land of Israel. The road to ‘normalization’ of the life together and of the romantic relationships wasn’t found then, nor has it to this day.”
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