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In the Hands
of God and Men
Israeli independence did not come cheaply or easily.
The life of Joseph Gabbayan elite Jewish freedom
fightertells the world exactly what it took to ward
off an enemy determined to exterminate a nation.

here are few chapters in history

that have ever revealed the face of
evilor that were wrought in
more human suffering and degradationthan the Holocaust, known as
the Shoah or catastrophe in Hebrew.
What many do not realize, however, is that
the poisonous barbs of Hitlers Final Solution were not confined solely to Europe but
stretched far to the East, where my father
and his father were born.
My Abba (father), Joseph Gabbay, was
an Israeli hero who served proudly and
bravely in Israels 1948 War of Independence. From as early as I can remember, he
would tell me stories of his journey from a
life of wealth and privilege in Iraq, where
he was surrounded by the warmth of family and educated at the prestigious Alliance
school, to a humble, solitary existence of
labor and study on a kibbutz in Haifa
where he first learned to speak Hebrew and
would later prepare for war.
As I grew older and Abba felt I was mature enough to handle greater truths, his
stories became more piquant, filled with
details of his pains and struggles, joys and



triumphs. Each retold memory was imbued

with a sense of pride and humility, of reverence and awe at how he and his lonsmen in
battle, so severely outnumbered, were at the
mercy of the hand of God. For as much as
he witnessed and although his own blood
had been spilled, my father would never
have traded it for the world. He was a part
of Israeland so, too, became I.
Though it was clear Abba restrained
himself a great deal, never wishing to
frighten me with the disturbing details of
the horrors he endured, he said enough. I
knew he suffered. This man who was filled
with an infectious light and beloved by everyone he met was forced to survive a barbarism that few, save those who have faced
evil in war, could fathom even in the darkest recesses of the mind.

Joseph Gabbay, pictured here as a boy

(white shirt with suspenders) with his family
in Iraq, became a warrior determined to
defend Israel. (Gabbay family)

My father was born in Baghdad, as was his

father before him. In fact, our family lineage can be traced back to the times of
Babylon. Throughout history, various
forces came to rule over Iraq, from the Ottomans to the Mongols to the British, but


in all its incarnations, there was only one

constant presencethat of the Jewish people. Indeed, since the 6th century BCE, the
Jewish people maintained a consistent
presence in Iraq, hundreds of years before
Islam arrived in the 7th century.
In my grandfathers prime following
World War I, Iraq fell under the auspices
of the British Mandate, and Jews, who until then were vehemently discriminated
against, finally became recognized as fullfledged citizens. They were given the right
to vote, hold political office and attain their
rightful place in society.
Although the British Mandate of Iraq officially ended in 1932, the Baghdad of my
fathers childhood was still highly influenced
by the monarchy and was a flourishing metropolis if ever there was one. Members of the
citys established Jewish community, which
comprised one-third of Baghdads population, along with its Christian counterpart,
played an indispensable role in shaping the
land into a thriving paradise that enjoyed economic, agricultural and societal prosperity.
Still, the primitivism and tribalism, jealousy and loathing, and, of course, antiSemitism that have long-served as hallmarks of the Arab world reared their ugly
heads eventually. It was not long before a
pro-Nazi prime minister took hold of the
kingdom and the nearly three-millenniaold Iraqi Jewish community was faced with
outright extinction.
While Arabs certainly needed no help
fomenting hatred of their Jewish neighbors, it was Adolf Hitler who solidified, in
their minds, the belief that the genocide
they had always dreamed of was actually
attainable. As the Final Solution raged in
the West, Muslims in the East saw Hitlers
Third Reich as the model to emulate. And
so they tried.

Just as there is a pope in the Vatican who

represents the whole of Catholicism, Muslims, too, revere a singular spiritual leader,
and that figure is called a grand mufti. In
1941, Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini
took a shine to the teachings of Fhrer Hitler and began conspiring with the Nazis to
exterminate another contingent of the Jewish populationthis one in Baghdad.
In 1941, al-Husseini traveled to Germany to meet with Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Joachim Von Ribbentrop and other
prominent Nazis to enlist their help in
bringing the Final Solution to the Arab
world. Through no fewer than 15 drafts,
the mufti told Hitler that the Jews were his
archenemies and urged Germany and Ita-

Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini (left) met with Adolf Hitler in Germany in 1941. The mufti
shared the Nazis' hope to wipe the Jews off the face of the earth. (Wikimedia Commons)

ly to declare Jewish homes illegal in the

British Mandate of Palestine. He also called
on the two fascist nations to grant Arabs
the right to solve the problem of the Jewish elements in Palestine and other Arab
countries, in accordance with the interest
of the Arabs and, by the same method, that
the question is now being settled in the
Axis countries.
After all, reasoned the mufti, the Arabs
were Germanys natural friends because
they had the same enemies.
Hitler replied that Germany would
furnish positive and practical aid to the
Arabs involved in the same struggle and
that his countrys objective [is] solely
the destruction of the Jewish element residing in the Arab sphere.
In that hour the mufti would be the
most authoritative spokesman for the Arab
world, he concluded.
In the end, despite their shared antiSemitism, the fhrer was too much a racist
to fully engage the Muslim world but nonetheless proved to be a powerful ally for the
Arabs in some very measurable ways,
namely by introducing them to the highly
effective tool of propaganda.
The German embassy in Iraq, until
1941, was headed by famed Nazi diplomat
Dr. Fritz Grobba, who markedly increased
the dissemination of anti-Semitic propaganda material throughout the Middle
East by purchasing Arab newspapers. One
such newspaper, Al-alam Al-arabi (The

Arab World), published the first Arabiclanguage translation of Mein Kampf. The
German embassy also supported the formation of Al-Fatwa, the Muslim counterpart of Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth).
Of course, this all rings eerily familiar.
How often have we seen children today
in Gaza or West Bank, indeed across the
Arab world, chant anti-Semitic slurs in
much the same way Hitler Youth did decades earlier? From doctored photos of a
wounded or killed Palestinian child to
modeling childrens school textbooks after
Mein Kampf, the influence rings loud
and clear.
Given the background, should it come
as a surprise then that, upon returning to
the Middle East in 1941, Grand Mufti alHusseini helped to orchestrate the beginnings his own Final Solution?

On June 1, 1941, as Jews in Baghdad were

preparing festive meals in preparation for
the holiday of Shavuot, a heavily armed
mob of Iraqi Muslims took to the streets in
a vicious rampage, targeting the citys Jewish communities. Thousands of Islamic
men equipped with guns, swords, knives,
homemade grenades and other crude
weapons searched out and slaughtered any
Jewish man, woman or child they captured.
An image of a hamsa, or Hand of
God, was painted on Jewish homes to single
them out for attack. Ironically, this symbol



is meant to be used as a talisman for protection. The families inside had no choice but
to band together and steel themselves with
whatever weapons they could muster.
My father was there. He recalled the
savagery in complete detail for the duration of his life. Although he was only a
child at the time, the situation demanded
he become a manand he did.
Reliving the events for me on numerous
occasions, Abba said that, as the oldest son,
he felt an onus to stand by his father and
protect the family. Thankfully, he was a hellion and as shrewd as they come, devising
a plan of ambush that, in the end, helped
save him and his family from extinction.
Somehow numb to the fear that should
have overcome anyone at such tender age,
my father resolved to fulfill his duty and
positioned himself on the roof of his house,
poised with metal buckets brimming with
scalding hot cooking grease, heavy stones
and bricks, knives, metal pipes and any
other makeshift weapons he could devise.
As several of the marauders rushed the
grounds of my familys home, my father
launched his defensive, dumping the buckets of piping hot grease and hurling the
projectiles hed had on hand with all of the
nerve and sinew in him. My Saba (grandfather), meanwhile, remained below,
armed with a plan and weapons of his own.
How they managed to stave off that violent mob and certain death remains one of
the great and many mysteries of my fathers
life. To be sure, it would not be the last time
the hand of God would play a role in delivering him to safe harbor.
In the end, British forces came in to disperse the rampaging mob and restore some
semblance of order, but it was too little too
late. According to the Babylonian Heritage
Museum, nearly 800 innocent Iraqi Jews
were killed180 identified and 600 unidentified that were later found buried in a
mass grave. In addition, 1,000 Jews were
injured, nearly 600 Jewish businesses were
looted and another 1,000 Jewish homes
ransacked and destroyed.
The bloody, two-day massacre was
called the Farhud, Arabic for violent dispossession, and came to be known as the

forgotten pogrom of the Holocaust.

It was also the beginning of the end of
Iraqs 2,700-year-old Jewish community.
From that point on, I was a Zionist,
my father told me. I saw evil. I saw how
primitive and barbaric they were. All they
wanted, all they wanted, was to see us dead.
I couldnt live like that. I just couldnt.
Obsessed with the thought of Israel, my
father began begging his mother, my
Safta, to send him to live with an uncle in
Though he was only 9 nine years old,
not much older than my youngest nephew
is now, my father was indeed every bit the
adult the times required him to be. Determined, he set out to build a new life for
himself and his family in Eretz Israel, far
from the murderous grip of Islamists bent
on annihilating them.
Little did he know at the time, his battle
had just begun.

Reeling from what he endured in the brutal

Nazi-inspired Farhud, and through much
coercion, Abba finally convinced Safta, to
let him live with his uncle, a strict rabbi in
Jerusalem. Upon arrival, however, my father quickly learned that, while life may
have seemed more secure within the confines of his new home, the peace he long
sought still eluded him. With his irreverent, mischievous nature and aversion to
authority, life with an austere rabbi was
bound to go over like a lead balloon.
As the days passed, whiled away by religious study that my young father had neither the patience nor the inclination for, the
Holocaust raged on in Europe. News of the
Allied and Axis powerstheir defeats and
triumphswould make its way to Jerusalem. My fathers anxious, unsettled nature
was spurred on by the stirring in the air of
the new Olim (Jewish immigrants) making their way back home to Eretz Israel.
More than anything, my father wanted
to be a part of what he viewed as Tikkun
haOlam, which in Hebrew means a repairing of the world. In this case, that reparation was manifest through the restora-

From that point on, I was a Zionist. I saw evil.

I saw how primitive and barbaric they were.
All they wanted, all they wanted, was to see
us dead. I couldnt live like that. I just couldnt.


tion of the Jewish state. Thus, it was not

before long the now-seasoned escape artist
fled againthis time to a kibbutz in the
beautiful coastal city of Haifa.

During the British Mandate of Palestine,

the second aliyah (wave of Jewish immigrants) to the region spanning from
1904 to 1914 established the very first kibbutzim. While the concept of the Israeli
kibbutz has become relatively familiar to
some, few realize what an integral role
these communities played in preserving
the Jewish state, not just in terms of building its agricultural infrastructure but also
in enriching the cause of Zionism and in
helping to foster the growth of Israels defense forces.
Founded mainly as agrarian, and in
some instances industrial collective communities, the kibbutzim sought to fuse
concepts of communal life and work with
Zionism. Life on the kibbutz was in no
way glamorous, but at that time, according to my father, they were effective in
their goals.
They were different times, and the
tasks at hand were truly of ones very survival, he relayed to me on numerous occasions. We were all working together toward Israels freedomour freedom.
Days began at the wee hours of dawn
filled with agricultural labor and were followed by Hebrew and other academic
studies for the remainder of the morning.
Later, those days would come to include
rigorous military training, as many of the
kibbutzim, particularly a select few in Haifa, including the one to which my father
belonged, became a base for the Haganah,
an underground army of the yishuv
(Jewish community), and its progeny, the
Palmach, an elite commando fighting unit.
The Palmach (a Hebrew acronym for
striking companies) was born in 1941 in
anticipation of an Axis invasion that was
feared to follow a potential British withdrawal from Palestine.
The kibbutz would host a Palmach platoon, providing it with food and necessary resources in exchange for military
protection and shared agricultural work.
This self-sustaining system of combined
military training, farming and Zionist immersion was called Hachshara Meguyeset and proved to be a great success.

As news of the Haganah and later Palmach

brigades spread throughout the kibbutzim,


Above: An improvised jeep of the

Hayot Ha Negev. (Gabbay family)
Left: Members of the Palmach, an
elite Israeli commando fighting unit.
(The Palmach Archive via the PikiWiki)

my father eagerly volunteered. Although

difficult to imagine in days when supplies
and arms were limited, the Palmachniks (a
term used to describe one who had joined
the specialist unit) were ingenious in their
skills of improvisation and general wartime acumen, and in the end, each volunteer received world-class training.
Certain recruits, like Abba, went on to
receive advanced training in sabotage, explosives, reconnaissance, sniping and operating machine guns and mortars. Platoon training was relentless, and in the
end, the Palmach, with its rigorous tech-

niques and fortitude of its leadership, served as the backbone of Israels military.
Indeed, much of the Haganah
and later Israel Defense Forces
high command comprised Palmachniks, including Yitzhak
Sedeh, Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe
Dayan and Yigal Allon, the latter
of whom my father would eventually serve directly under.
For my father, service seemed
to come naturally, and as the hard
times of an impending war
trudged on, time and again he
proved himself a resourceful and
resilient solider. As a result, in
1948, Abba was given a place in
the newly formed elite Negev Brigade,
which ultimately consisted of four Palmach battalions and carried out some of
the wars most crucial and successful operations.

As the war commenced, the 9th Battalions

jeep company emerged into a very unique,
elite motorized commando platoon affectionately (or perhaps not-so-affectionately)
dubbed the Hayot Ha Negev, or Beasts
of the Desert. The platoon was mainly
made up of members from the former Haifa

Reserve Forcesand those who were not

up to the mission impossible style raids
the Hayot would one day come to be known
for were sent to back to the 2nd battalion.
Only the fittest, and bravest were given the
chance to prove themselves as a member of
the fearless Negev Beasts, and my father was
one of those fewer than four-dozen men.
My father recalled how inadequately
the Beasts were armedindeed with nothing more than a scant number of assault
weapons and improvised jeeps rigged to
sound like imposing armored tanksyet
this scant handful of men, perhaps by sheer
divine intervention, played a crucial role in
liberating the Negev and in capturing Beersheva during Israels War of Independence.
While never fully certain as to the origin of the name, a fellow Hayot veteran
once wrote that their moniker derived
from the mens consistently unshaven,
ruddy appearance. My father, however, had
a different theory.
One evening, before dusk, Abba was en
route to his barracks when he happened
upon an image that would change his life and
the way he viewed war forever. What was
once a group of mahals, or foreign volunteers to the Haganah, had all been slaughtered in a fashion that defies description.
While the barbarism seemed senseless,
there was a method to their murderers
madness. In the mind of the Egyptian solider, a defaced body, according to Jewish
tradition, would be denied a proper Jewish
burial. And in this warped reality, the assailants derived joy from their victims suffering and what they hoped would be their
eternal damnation. This wasand, in
truth, still isthe Islamist mindset.
All of the experiences my father had
had to that pointfrom the injustice and
persecution he endured as a Jew in Iraq to
his fight for his and his familys survival
during the Farhudcame flooding back in
that very moment. He believed that the
humanity he and his countrymen had thus
far maintained despite the carnage, must,
by wars gruesome design, give way to the
primal in order to survive. Thus, men of
good will such as my father were forced to
fuse their humanity with the need to steel
themselves in a way that allowed them to
fight and defeat such a savage enemy.
From that day my father became a different kind of soldier. He might even say a

The Third Phase of the first Arab-Israeli

War, occurring between May and July of
1948, was perhaps the most critical. CoorMAY 2013 THEBLAZE



dinated assaults on the Jewish state were

waged simultaneously by five regular Arab
armies who outnumbered the Israelis in
both manpower and artillery. This led to
the Fourth and Fifth Phases, during which
two distinct and crucial operations would
change history forever.
On Oct. 15, High Command staged
Operation Yoav in the northern Negev desert. Its goal was to drive a wedge between
the Egyptian forces along the coast and the
Beersheva-Hebron-Jerusalem road and,
ultimately, to capture the Negev. The operation was headed by the southern front
commander, Yigal Allon, whom my father
served under.
The next sign (but not the last) of the
Divine Hand playing a role in the war
and specifically in my fathers fateoccurred during one the battles of Operation
Yoav when my father survived an Egyptian
artillery raid.
Yossi! cried one of the soldiers from
the trenches, Boi Holech!(Come on,
lets go!) A fellow solider urged my father
into the trench where three others had just
taken cover. Blasts resounded. Shrapnel
broke the sky with metal shards. Bullets,
mortars and grenades streaked smoke and
flames towards the soil.
While in the trenches, the four Israelis
soldiers lined up single file and spent the
valuable few minutes they had reloading
their weapons. My father was at the front
of this line when somethinga voice inside himtold him to move.
Heeding this internal warning, he
moved to the back of the line, and at that
very moment, a bomb struck the exact spot
where had been standing. All seemed black
until my father felt the pounding in his
head and the blood trickling down the side
of his cheek. He reached his shaking hand
to the top of his head and could feel where
the shrapnel had lodged. As the adrenaline
surged, Abba noticed that he was the only
one to survive the assault.
Gaining his composure, my father remained, waiting for the shelling to die
down and at the first clear moment, fought
his way to the safety of his command post.
After his wounds were dressed, he rejoined the fighting forces. But while the
operation ended up demolishing the Egyp-

tian army ranks, forcing them to retreat

from the northern Negev, Beersheba and
Ashdod, my father never forgot the pain of
his fallen fellow countrymen or how God
had been watching over him.
On Oct. 22, the Israeli Navy commandos sank the Egyptian flagship, Amir Faruk, which rendered the final blow in this
staggering Israeli victory.
The next mission impossible style raid
the Hayot were asked to perform was to
force the Egyptian army, which had encircled the Gaza Strip, to withdraw and
accept a cease-fire.
The small, ill-equipped Hayot versus an
Egyptian battalion.
My father and his counterparts positioned themselves in a kibbutz near Gaza,
outfitted with no more than uniforms, four
Army jeeps, some hand grenades and machine guns. During the Israelis preparation stages, the Egyptians on the opposite
side of the Gaza hills bombarded the region, the force of each blow shaking the
ground beneath their feet.
Knowing they were clearly outnumbered and out-weaponed, the Hayot understood that it would be only through
intellect and a superior strategy that they
would prevail. As part of this strategy, they
devised a way to rig their four jeeps to
backfire in such a way to make them sound
more like massive army tanks unleashing
their fire. With their plan in place, the
Hayot advanced toward the Egyptians,
pushing the jeeps by hand up the hills and
at strategic momentsbackfired.
Along with the advancing mock-tanks,
the Hayot launched their grenades and let
rip a storm of gunfire. The farther the Israelis advanced, the louder and more ominous the deafening booms of their onslaught became; and those few Israeli
soldiers, including my father, convinced
hundreds of Egyptians that doomsday had
arrived in the form of a massive Israeli raid.
Abba recalled advancing up the hills
through the shower of fire and shelling,
forever determined, pushing the Egyptians
back. All the while, their bullets would zip
by, explosions would set forth a rainstorm
of metal shards, and bombs were launched
and descended to the ground within inches of my father. Remarkably, he trudged on,

It is impossible that I survived each time. By

rights, I should have died but I saw the
face of God there, and He would not let me.


A Hayot Ha Negev pin. (Gabbay family)

unfazed and unmarred, noticing only how

the Egyptian bullets flying by his head at
dusk so resembled shooting stars.
On that night, not one of the members
of the Hayot Ha Negev fell. But the Egyptians, stupefied, terrified and completely
outwitted, retreated in fear.
How could such a feat be possible when
the good were so clearly outnumbered?

I have relived the battles over and over with

my father when he would sit and talk to me
about those days. All the while, tears would
roll down my cheek, thinking of him that
way. I see his sweet face shining, as he ran
amid the bullets, rockets and mortar fire. I
wish I could have taken his place.
Often, when remembering his experience of war, my father used to say, It is
impossible that I survived each time. By
rights, I should have died but I saw the
face of God there, and He would not let
The Divinity that saved my father is the
same Divinity that has protected the Jewish state and those who have fought for
her throughout the centuries, including
the last 65 years of Israeli independence.
May this anniversary finally usher in a
new era of peace, so that the wars in
which my father and other brave Israelis
so valiantly fought will not have been in
vainand so that their children will know
only the sweet, and not the bitter, of all
they endured.