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Sunday, December 31, 2006

[Alexander and Yiftah Zaid] The end of a legend

The end of a legend
By Aryeh Dayan

In the small cemetery near Hashomrim junction next to Kiryat Tivon, where the leaders of the Hashomer organization are buried, the last son of a legendary figure of early 20th century Zionism was laid to rest last week. The man who was buried, Yiftah Zaid, was an inseparable part of the legend. In the agricultural communities of the Jezreel Valley, there was a feeling that a family and national legend, which began in a small village in Siberia in the late 19th century, had reached its conclusion. Among the hundreds of participants in the funeral were some who were present 68 years ago at another funeral in the same cemetery. Then, on a burning hot summer day in July 1938, Alexander Zaid, the father of Yiftah and the man whose murder created the legend, was laid to rest.
This week, Amnon Barkai, who has lived in nearby Kfar Yehoshua since 1930, said: "I have a clear recollection of the night of Alexander Zaid's murder and of the funeral. How during the night they suddenly rang the bells of Kfar Yehoshua in order to announce that he had been murdered." The next day, Barkai, who was 12 years old at the time, could have seen all the leaders of the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine): David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Ben Zvi, Berl Katznelson and others. They came to pay their final respects to the man who had become one of the symbols of their struggle for control of the Land of Israel. The legend that has since been created around the figure of Alexander Zaid, "the watchman on the horse," included all the elements to which the Zionist Labor Movement wanted to educate Jewish youth.
Alexander Zaid was born in 1886 in Siberia, to a mother who belonged to the Russian Subotnik sect. At age 15, he immigrated to Palestine on his own. He worked in a vineyard in Rishon Letzion, as a construction worker in Ben Shemen and as a stonemason in Jerusalem. Zaid was one of the founders of the Bar Giora stonemasons' association and was active in its military arm, Hashomer (The Watchman), the Yishuv's first armed organization. With other friends from Hashomer, Alexander and his wife Tzippora founded Kibbutz Kfar Giladi in the Galilee. The leaders of Hashomer turned the kibbutz into the center of their group's underground activity. The weapons that they hid there were not aimed only against the British and the Arabs; the group refused to accept the authority of the Yishuv institutions that were then coming into being.
In 1926, this led to a crisis in Hashomer, following the establishment of the Haganah (the main pre-state underground) and Ben-Gurion's demand that Hashomer become subordinate to the new organization and transfer its weapons to it. Most members of Kfar Giladi opposed these demands, but Alexander and Tzippora Zaid thought that they should be accepted, and were therefore forced to leave the kibbutz with their four young children.
Ben-Gurion and the other Yishuv leaders did not abandon the family; they made sure that the Jewish National Fund employed Zaid as a watchman on its lands in the Jezreel Valley. Eventually, the JNF gave Alexander the Sheikh Abreik hill, near present-day Kiryat Tivon. The Zaid family settled there, and Alexander started a farm and also discovered the remains of the ancient site of Beit Shearim.
During the 1930s, Zaid became a favorite of Tel Aviv's bohemian community, including poet Alexander Penn, who immortalized him in a famous song. Zaid preached the creation of "a new Jewish fighter" - a combination of the Russian Cossack and the Bedouin, with strong roots in the land. He became friendly with several of his Arab neighbors, but quarreled with others, and was eventually murdered not far from his home during the Arab uprising of the 1930s.
Security versus agriculture
Each of Zaid's four children dealt in his own way with their father's complex legacy. The eldest son, Giora Zaid, who died about two years ago at age 90, continued his father's clandestine career: Before the establishment of the state, he joined the Haganah, and after 1948, he was a senior official in the military administration that governed Arabs living in Israel. Inter alia, he played a central role in persuading Bedouin and Druze from the Galilee to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. Afterward, he worked for the prime minister's adviser on Arab affairs, where he helped to plan the land expropriations that led to the 1976 Land Day demonstrations. For most of his adult life, he worked to curb the freedom of Israeli Arabs, but like his father, he considered himself their friend. He spoke fluent Arabic, called himself "Abu Zaid" and enjoyed visiting Bedouin and Druze friends.
Like his twin brothers, Yiftah and Yohanan, Giora Zaid lived until his death at Sheik Abreik, which is today called Beit Zaid.
Yohanan, who died a few years ago, also served in the defense establishment: During World War II, he enlisted in the Jewish Brigade; he then served in the Haganah, helping to organize illegal immigration; and with the establishment of the state, he became a commander in the IDF tank corps.
Their sister, Kochevet, is the only family member who left Sheikh Abreik and distanced herself from the family legacy. Today, she is almost 90 and lives in Haifa.
Yiftah, who was born in 1920 in Kfar Giladi, lived in Sheikh Abreik from the time his parents moved there until his death. His daughter, Tali Zaid-Raveh, said last week: "My grandfather's legacy included two main components: security and agriculture. My father's two brothers worked in security, and my father worked in agriculture. He studied at Mikveh Israel, raised a large herd of sheep here and was an expert in grafting and pruning." She described her father as "a quiet, modest man" who was "crazy about trees."
"In Tivon he was familiar with every tree. If you told him the name of a family in Tivon, he would immediately tell you which trees they had in their yard."
Yiftah studied at the Mikveh Israel agricultural boarding school, where he spent the first two years of the Arab uprising that broke out in 1936. During those years, his father and his brother Giora were involved in several violent incidents with their Palestinian neighbors, incidents that planted the seeds of the conflict that led to his father's murder. Yiftah received the news of his father's murder at school. A year later, when he completed his studies, he returned to the hill in the Jezreel Valley and participated in an unsuccessful attempt to establish a kibbutz there.
As opposed to Giora, who spoke a great deal about his father's murder and explained how much the incident had shaped his attitude toward the Arabs, Yiftah consistently refrained from mentioning the subject. As far as is known, he had no part in the decision of the Palmach (another pre-state underground) to send a unit in 1942 to kill Kassem Tabash, who was apparently responsible for the murder, though Giora encouraged this decision. For Yiftah, said Tali Zaid-Raveh, "the murder of his father was a wound that never healed, and therefore, he hardly talked about it and didn't show his pain. He simply buried the matter deep inside him."
Boxing champ
Yiftah's principal claim to fame was neither his father nor his knowledge of agriculture: In the 1940s, when the British turned boxing into a popular sport, Yiftah became a famous local boxer. With the founding of the state, he was even crowned the Israeli middleweight boxing champion.
He developed his boxing career in the early 1940s, on the Hapoel Haifa team. "Boxing was very popular in the country at the time, almost like soccer," said Avraham Gafni, a friend of Yiftah's who boxed with him for Hapoel Haifa. "In Haifa itself, there were eight Jewish boxing clubs, two Arab clubs and one Greek club, in addition to teams on the British army bases. On all the British warships that anchored in Haifa, there were boxing teams that wanted to compete against the local teams."
Gafni said that he cannot recall "any match that Yiftah lost," and he won most of his victories "in a knockout, long before the third round." Unlike today, Gafni emphasized that at the time, "we all worked for a living and none of us made a living from sports. Yiftah, for example, would come for training sessions in Haifa after working on the farm all day."
Gafni recalled one boxing match in Haifa between two Arab teams, from Haifa and Jaffa. He and Zaid were sitting in the audience, and "suddenly it turned out that the boxer from Jaffa who was supposed to participate in the heavyweight contest had not arrived. The announcer asked if there was anyone in the audience who was willing to replace him. Yiftah, who was very familiar to the Arab audience, got up, took a pair of gloves and went up to box without any preparations, without changing his shoes and with the shorts he always wore. He won in the first round and became the hero of the Arab audience."
Gafni and members of the Zaid family stressed that Yiftah considered the educational aspect of boxing more important than the competitive aspect. "Cups and championships really didn't interest him," said his son-in-law, Elad Betzer. "He always said that boxing was important to him because people should know how to defend themselves and how to stand on their feet properly."
In the early 1950s, Yiftah left boxing, and from then until he fell ill with Parkinson's disease almost 40 years later, he devoted all his energy to his farm.
With Yiftah's death, the last of Alexander Zaid's sons is gone. Now the family estate will pass into the hands of those grandchildren and great-grandchildren who have chosen to live near the famous monument to his memory. Several of them, like Tali Zaid-Raveh, who organizes tours of sites connected to her family's history, try to preserve the legends. Her cousin, Alexander Zaid, raises goats there and sells cheeses at the dairy that bears his grandfather's name. But other grandchildren and great-grandchildren prefer to distance themselves from the legend and sink into anonymity.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors. Originally posted at Please do link to these articles, quote from them and forward them by email to friends with this notice. Other uses require written permission of the author.


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