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The Hadassah Convoy Massacre

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The Hadassah Convoy Massacre

The massacre of the Hadassah convoy which took place on April 13, 1948, was part of the Arab plan for ethnic cleansing of  Jerusalem and Palestine in 1948, planned by the Nazi Grand Mufti Hajj Amin Al Husseini, and his able relative, Abdel Khader Al-Husseini and announced by Arab League.

About 80 people, mostly innocent  civilians, including doctors and nurses, were murdered while trying to bring medical supplies and personnel to Hadassah hospital on Mt. Scopus. The massacre was a gross violation of international military conventions, human rights and common decency.

The account below, adapted from a document by the Zionist Hadassah organization, provides proof of two very important points:

  • The massacre had been planned well in advance, and was not really "retaliation" for the Irgun and Lehi massacre at Deir Yassin.
  • British personnel cooperated and participated in the massacre.

The world has often excused the Hadassah massacre as a "retaliation" for the Deir Yassin massacre. Even if it were true, one crime against humanity cannot excuse another, especially as the Hadassah massacre was in part the work of British collaborators. However, it is evident from the account below that the events at Deir Yassin only served as a convenient excuse for a crime that had been planned well in advance. Unlike the Deir Yassin massacre, which was the spontaneous reaction of untrained troops, the Hadassah massacre was planned in advance, in cold blood.

Even without the explicit statements of the Palestinian Arab leaders, made well in advance of the Deir Yassin raid, it is difficult to believe that the Palestinians could have organized the ambush and obtained the collaboration of British authorities in the three days that followed the raid on Deir Yassin.

Nobody was ever prosecuted for this crime against humanity. British collaborators were not investigated. The Arab planners of the massacre became heroes of the Arab Palestinians. 

This page provides excerpts from the history prepared by the Hadassah organization. The complete text is provided on subsequent pages:

Hadassah Convoy Massacre-Prologue

Hadassah Convoy Massacre-Preparations

Hadassah Convoy Massacre-The Attack

The Ethnic Cleansing of Jerusalem

Conclusion - Later Phases of the war and Armistice

Massacres and Ethnic Cleansing in Palestine

The massacre of the Hadassah convoy and the expulsion of the Jews from the Old City of Jerusalem, continued a well established pattern in the land of Israel, that began even before there were Zionists, and reflected the relations between the Arab community and their Jewish subjects.

Other massacres and instances of genocidal violence, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in Palestine include:

Palestine Massacre: The forgotten pogrom: Safed 1834:

The Kfar Etzion Massacre

Arab Riots and Massacres of 1929

Hebron Massacre

The Arab Revolt of 1936

A similar genocidal campaign was planned and announced in 1967. However, instead of resulting in the ethnic cleansing of the Jews, it brought on the Six day war which liberated Jerusalem from the longest occupation in history, and returned it to its rightful historic owners.

Adapted from http://www.hadassah.org/education/content/StudyGuides/Convoy_ITAD.pdf

The Hadassah Convoy Massacre

At 2:05 pm on March 2, 1948 the operator at the Hadassah exchange in Jerusalem heard an Arab voice warn that the hospital would be blown up within 90 minutes. The explosion did not take place, but it was a clear signal of Arab intentions. Two days, later, Hadassah President Rose Halprin and Denise Tourover called on the State Department and the British embassy in Washington to secure Scopus, then followed up with strong protests to UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie and the International Red Cross. Shortly afterward, commander of Palestine Arab forces Abdul Kader Husseini spoke, on the record, to news correspondents: “Since Jews have been attacking us and blowing up our houses containing women and children from bases in Hadassah Hospital and Hebrew University, I have given orders to occupy or even demolish them.” Showing he meant business, he placed a cannon on the roof of the Rockefeller Museum of Archaeology opposite Mount Scopus and began using armor-piercing ammunition and electrically- detonated mines against Scopus traffic.

On April 9, the  Irgun and LEHI attacked the Arab village of Deir Yassin at the entrance to Jerusalem. The convoy ambush was not retaliation for the Deir Yassin attack since the Arabs had planned the ambush beforehand, but the Irgun’s massacre was cited to justify the Arab attack. The Arab leadership had three goals in attacking the Mount Scopus convoy: to strike a decisive blow that would force the Jews to abandon Mt. Scopus and make Jewish Jerusalem more vulnerable, to destroy the will of the Jews to resist an Arab invasion of the city proper and to deprive the Jews of their largest medical facility.

Conditions for an ambush were ideal in the Sheikh Jarrah quarter. Over a stretch of a few hundred yards between Nashashibi Bend and Antonius House, there were stone walls on either side of the narrow road. The convoy would be traveling slowly uphill at that point; ahead at Antonius House there was a ninety-degree bend. Caught in that stretch of road, the vehicles would be tin ducks in a shooting gallery. Intervention could come only from the Haganah escort and from a small unit of Scots’ highland Light Infantry stationed in Antonius House. But the British would not shoot unless they received orders to do so, a possibility that was remote.

On April 11, the British military commander in Jerusalem assured questioners that the road was safe but, because of the Deir Yassin attack, the area was tense. Even as he spoke, the Arabs were consulting expert British officer friends on the logistics of the operation. Subsequent events indicate that the Arabs had an understanding whereby they would not be disturbed in their mission so long as they did not shoot at British soldiers.

The Arabs could not – and would not – lose this one.

On April 12, Deputy Medical Director Eli Davis returned to town from Scopus. Wryly he commented, “It was not comfortable on the way down.” Customarily Yassky and he took turns up on the hill, but on the evening of the twelfth, Yassky had a social engagement and did not go up that morning. Gynecologist Yehuda Bromberg was with him that evening. “I was struck by the great depression which had overcome Dr. Yassky,” Bromberg wrote three days later. “It was clear that his depression arose from his deep concern over the fate of our hospital. The dangers confronting the hospital because of the difficulties of transport were clear to him. As was the fear of the destruction of the hospital to which he dedicated his life.” On Tuesday, April 13, the largest Scopus convoy yet assembled was to take personnel, patients, visitors, workers and supplies up to the hospital and University. At 8:00 am people began converging on the clinic in Hasolel Street where a University bus and a Hadassah bus, both lightly armored, waited. Three blocks away, outside Hadassah “A,” two armored ambulances were parked. Haim and Fanny Yassky entered one of the ambulances, a converted Dodge truck, which only the day before had been painted a glaring white with a big red Star of David on the body.

Back at the clinic the buses quickly filled. Hadassah Social Director Esther Passman Epstein, her arms brimming over with magazines and sweets for the patients, was so determined to get to her wards that she left behind her beloved son, David, who had been injured while carrying out a school experiment. At the clinic, Esther met noted cancer specialist Leonid Doljansky who urged Esther to sit beside him. Three weeks previously she had become his “mascot” when she moved next to him on a bus and a bullet pierced her hat. Had he, the much taller of the two, been sitting in her place he would have died. But this day Esther was not permitted to board the bus and the ill-fated doctor rode without his lucky mascot. Swearing under her breath, Esther ran three blocks to find a seat on one of the ambulances; but she would live to tell about it.  Dr. Moshe Ben-David, administrator of the planned medical school, got a late start from home, hailed a cab, finally caught one of the buses, sealing his own fate. Shelev Truck Company manager Moshe Lazar had a safe seat in the six-ton Brockway truck of veteran driver Benjamin Adin, but in a move that cost him his life, Lazar changed at the last moment to one of the buses.

By 9:00 am the vehicles were on their way. Three trucks filled with supplies for the hospital and for fortifications joined the two Haganah escort cars, two ambulances and two buses. The exact number of people in the vehicles is not known because precise lists were not kept, but there were well over 100.

At the final checkpost outside Hadassah’s Tipat Halav station, which served as a Haganah outpost, the convoy halted to await the customary order from the Haganah to proceed. British inspector Robert J. Webb, chief of the Mea Shearim police station, said the road was safe. Webb was known as a friend to both Arabs and Jews as was said to be well-rewarded by both. One job Webb did for the Jews outside his official duties was to drive over the road to Scopus before a convoy left. Webb would stop at Nashashibi Bend, look around and sometimes wait there till the convoy passed. On this day, Hillman said, he called Webb as usual and Webb answered that the way was clear. But Webb did not station himself at Nashashibi Bend on April 13 and all efforts made by the Haganah to contact him throughout the rest of the day were fruitless.

The Commander of the convoy was Jerusalem-born Lieutenant Asher “Zizi” Rahav, a British army sergeant during World War II. Now in Company Noam of the Jerusalem Haganah , the city’s only Jewish unit that wore uniforms and black berets, Rahav’s assignment was to escort convoys in the Jerusalem area in an armored Ford truck.

It was 9:30 am, Rahav was in the lead in his escort vehicle with ten men and two young Haganah hitchhikers, “When we proceeded a short way through Arab territory on Nablus Road, near a mosque, I had an odd feeling that something was wrong, because there was no traffic. I thought of turning back but instead I told my men to load their weapons and keep their eyes open.” The car had peepholes through which the gunners could shoot and a winged roof of meshed steel covered by canvas.

“Step on it,” Rahav told his civilian driver. At the first turn in the road the Arab grocery shop was shuttered – another bad omen. The cars began to climb. Ahead Zizi saw Nashashibi Bend curving like a snake. Rahavheld his breath. Through his peephole, he spied the movement of Arabs wearing green Iraqi uniform with bandoliers. To his left, Rahav noticed that the road was broken. The driver had to swing slightly right. It was 9:45 on Rahav’s watch. Suddenly the Ford truck shook violently, throwing the men forward. A mine was electrically detonated five feet in front of them, creating a narrow four-foot-deep ditch. The car’s front wheels nosed into the hole and the car settled at a steep angle. The mesh roof and canvas slid back, partly off the vehicle, obscuring the view of the rest of the convoy. “Bullets came through the armor like bees swarming around us,” Rahav recalled later. Zizi shot holes in the canvas to see what was happening to the convoy behind. He saw the last vehicles trying to turn around. At Nashashibi Bend, two British armored cars blocked the retreat. Rahav gave orders to his armorer, Baruch Nussbaum, to fire a few bursts at the British cars to get them to move out of the way. He did not know that in one of those cars, sitting as a spectator, was Lieutenant-General G.H.A. MacMillan, commander of all British forces in Palestine. MacMillan ordered his driver to move away from the convoy.

Two days later, MacMillan replied to a protest by University Chancellor Magnes in words that unintentionally admitted British lack of assistance to the beleaguered Hadassah staff in the convoy tragedy:

I myself motored through the area, passing under the fire of an automatic weapon in a Jewish armored car at 9:45 on my way to Kalandia (Jerusalem’s airport)…I assumed that the situation was clearing up and my inference at the time was that it would have cleared up much quicker, had the Jewish armored car stopped firing.

Five vehicles managed to extricate themselves and return to Jewish quarters. The Haganah escort car in the rear, its tires punctured, inexplicably turned tail and returned to Jerusalem. Driving blindly with only crack to see though, Benajmin Adin reversed, advanced, reversed, backed into the wall of the Nashashibi House and finally turned his six-ton Brockway toward the city. His foot brakes were gone, his tires were flat, the steering wheel worked only partially. On the floor of the cabin was a weeping male passenger who had hopped on at the last moment in an effort to see his wife and newborn son on Scopus. “I never shall see them again,” he cried repeatedly. Adin pushed his pedal to the floor and arrived safely at Mandelbaum gate where his passenger fell out of the cab in a deep faint.

The driver of the larger of the two ambulances, Yosef Levy, was wounded in the head. Surgeon Edward Joseph took a quick look, found it was only superficial and urged him to get moving toward Scopus. Reported Joseph, “We thought the driver was going on but instead he wisely turned the car around and returned. It was the first to get back.” Dr. Joseph crawled to join the Haganah men who were trying to edge close to the besieged convoy: We were being attacked by a tremendous amount of shooting. It was impossible to lift one’s head. The bullets were whizzing everywhere. I asked the solder nearest me, “Are these Arabs shooting at us?” He replied, ‘No. They are English soldiers.’ I knew it had to be true because it was the kind of shooting that only a proper army could do. They were shooting at the Haganah boys. If they had not, we could have reached the convoy.

The surgeon then joined a few men who had been in the Haganah vehicle that retreated and ran to the roof of the Tipat Halav station. Esther Passman Epstein, who had been in Joseph’s ambulance, joined the men. With his old pistol, Joseph ran from roof to roof trying to get close enough to get a clear shot. It was a hopeless attempt. As the ambush appeared to be succeeding, Arab volunteers from the region ran to the scene to get in on the kill. Esther could only sob at the end of the day, “It was horrible to see.” Blood was beginning to flow in Zizi Rahav’s thinly-armored escort car. Private Shlomo Mizrahi got two bullets in the stomach and fell. Rahav himself caught a steel splinter in the temple; his eye swelled and blood gushed. He kept shooting, aiming with his one good eye. Around noontime one of the hitchhiking Haganah young women, Shoshana Ben-Ari of Kibbutz Yagur, rose from the floor to help a wounded man, was hit in the mouth by a bullet and died shortly after. At 12:15, Zizi dispatched his armorer, Baruch Nussbaum, to Antonius House about 200 yards farther on to get help from the Highland Light Infantry officers who were observing the battle, their heavy weapons silent. Baruch, who had a slight limp from a case of childhood polio, jumped into the deep ditch made by the mine and crawled along the wall. His body was later found in a wadi in Arab territory.

Back in Jerusalem proper at Haganah headquarters, Commander David Shaltiel called twenty-one-year old Baruch Gilboa, who had arrived in Jerusalem early that morning from Tel Aviv. Gilboa was a commander of an armored unit that had escorted over 150 trucks of supplies to the city, following the capture of Qastel Hill on the city’s outskirts. Shaltiel ordered him to take some men in his armored car to the Sheikh Jarah Quarters and try to tow out the four vehicles under Arab fire.

It was obvious that Shaltiel’s intelligence from the scene of battle was faulty; otherwise he would not have ordered a lone escort car into that trap. Gilboa and his men were fatigued from fourteen hours on the road. His civilian driver, apparently shocked by the battle, saw the ditch made by the mine across the road and decided to try to drive over it.

He put on speed as he came up to the left of Zizi Rahav’s embattled vehicle and landed with a thud in the ditch, injuring some of the passengers. Had he gone to the right of Rahav, he would have missed the ditch, gone on to Antonius House and the men could then have engaged Arabs who were firing at the convoy from a house across the street.

Now the two Haganah cars were stuck at the head of the convoy. Close behind was Yassky’s ambulance, its tires shot out, standing breadth-wise across the road where it was protected by the two Haganah cars just ahead. About fifty yards behind were the two buses. They were the most open to attack from both sides of the road. One attempt to extricate the buses was made by a British friend of the Haganah .

Major Jack Churchill, of the Highland Light Infantry, drove an open-fronted armored car to the scene on his one initiative and was about to put a towline on one of the buses when his driver was killed by a bullet in the neck. Churchill pulled in the tow and drove out of the area, but before doing so, banged on one bus and shouted to the occupants to risk getting out and returning with him. He later reported they had refused to do so.

By early afternoon the two buses were sieves. Only one man from each vehicle survived. Shalom Nissan, a university student, jumped when the Arabs began lobbing grenades at his stricken bus. Miraculously, he dodged the rain of fire and ran all the way to Mount Scopus where has was to provide the first on-scene account of events.

In the other bus was a guard, Nathan Sandowsky, who told a ghastly story that has since been verified. Nathan said that the driver was wounded from the initial fire and lost control. The second driver was lightly wounded but froze from fear and could not function. The bus had three lookouts inside. One was Nathan. Another was D. Avraham Freiman, lecturer in Jewish Law, and a third was university employee Zev Mariasin.

From the rear opening I saw that all the time the British army passed in large convoys. They continued on their way. We shouted ‘Help! We have wounded women and men!’ But they did not stop. Armored cars of the police arrived and stood for a time without extending any help whatever and without even communicating with us. We were sure that at least they would not let the Arabs approach so close as to burn the vehicles.

From inside the buses, Arabs shouting “Minshan Deir Yassin” (For Deir Yassin) could be heard clearly over and over again. Nathan reported that the arrival of Gilboa’s armored car caused rejoicing in the bus. “We saw that our people were at last coming. But the Arabs derived courage from the fact that the police and army cars which passed did not raise a finger.” From the early hours on, bullets found their marks. Gas fumes began to seep in as the Arabs made ready to burn the bus. Molotov cocktails were being thrown. Some of the unhurt passengers tried to make a dash to safety. But the Arabs, only a few yards away, picked them off as they jumped out. As four men ran, a girl in the bus cried, “They are being killed.” Nathan deliberated:

I sat at the side of the opening of the bus with a scalpel--my only weapon.

Fire started from the rear of the bus. There were cries, ‘We are burning alive.’ I dived. The blade of the scalpel broke. I ran the length of the road zigzag. I passed the ambulance and approached an escort car, waving the broken knife in my hand. I pounded on the door shouting, ‘I am one of you.’ The door opened. Inside all the men were dead or wounded.

It was now 2:30 pm. Inside Gilboa’s armored car, Sandowsky saw Safed-born David Bar- Ner with a grenade in his hand. The pin was out and the grenade primed to explode.

Recalls Bar-Ner:

When Sandowsky climbed in we were waiting for the final assault. It was now a tradition in the Haganah not to be caught alive. We had five dead.

Gilboa was paralyzed by a head wound. I had three bullets in my arm. I piled up the six grenades left in the car and pulled the pin on one to blow us up if the Arabs tried to take us prisoner. We had plenty of ammunition left but there was no one left to fire it. Then Sandowsky appeared. His face was blackened from the fire in his bus. He grabbed the grenade from my hand and threw it outside where it went off. The he took one of our two machine-guns and kept shooting short bursts. That kept the Arabs at bay since they knew we could till shoot back. He saved our lives, for soon after, the British picked us up.

One further feeble and futile attempt to save the convoy was made in the afternoon by the Haganah . Squad Seargeant Haim Kimron took an armored car to Sheikh Jarrah to tow out the vehicles. As Kimron entered the ambush he saw the buses burning. His vehicle stalled in a ditch. Almost immediately, the two occupants were killed and three wounded from the fire overhead. He wrote, “Hysterically, I ordered my driver to get the hell out of the ditch. He reversed and we went around to the right of the road, past the two armored cars and beat it up to Mount Scopus. My tires were shot full of holes.” No one knew yet what was happening in the white ambulance with the big red Magen David. Because its armor was the thickest of all the vehicles, the wagon was the safest place to be in that corridor of hell. Next to driver Zecharya Leitan sat Yassky.

Behind him on the benches were Fanny Yassky, six doctors, a nurse and a wounded soldier. The ambulance, behind the two armored cars, was a poor target for the Arabs and so it absorbed the least punishment. Yassky, who sat by the driver because he had a revolver and could more easily use it, concerned himself with appraising the situation by looking through the tiny window in the vehicle.

“Every time he opened the window,” Yehuda Bromberg reported later, “a rain of shots was fired at him. At 2:00 pm, Yassky informed us that everyone had been killed in the burning buses.” After the buses turned into pyres, Yassky announced, “Now our time has come.

No escape from our fate is left. We must bid one another farewell.” He took leave of his wife, thanking her for the happy life that they had lived. At 2:30, Yassky was wounded in the liver by a bullet that must have ricocheted through the ambulance’s engine.

“I’m hit,” he said and then after a few minutes of continuous chatter, he whispered to Fanny, “Shalom, my beloved.” Pediatrician Yehuda Mattot, who sat on a bench behind Yassky, recalls: “Fanny Yassky took off her blouse and with it I bandaged Yassky. Only an immediate blood transfusion and an operation could have saved him.” Yassky lost consciousness and was dead five minutes later. There was nothing the six physicians and one nurse in the ambulance could do. Ironically, there was not even a first aid kit in the vehicle.

Fanny remained strong. Someone else began to weep. Fanny asked, “Why do you cry? Soon we shall follow him.” Zecharya the driver suddenly got up, opened the door and jumped out. He was shot dead a few yards away.

Dermatologist Haim Cohen asked gynecologist Bruno Berkovitz to join him in an attempt to run for it. But Dr. Ullmann said firmly, “Cohen, we have survived this together from nine o’clock. You can wait another few hours.” Mattot, who missed certain death by changing at the last minute from a bus to the ambulance, tried his luck a second time. He recalled: I thought that if I stayed put it would be the end. My wife later thought I did it because I could not stand to be without a cigarette. I jumped into the ditch and I began to crawl. The Arabs spotted me and began shooting. I got one bullet next to my spine. I kept going and got to Antonius House where the British troops welcomed me. Just opposite on the other side of the road were Arabs, apparently the leaders of the whole thing. The British took me in and bandaged me. They were apologetic. They said they were in a small unit and they could not do anything. They had been asking for reinforcement but could not get any. I was not able to convince the British to do anything for the convoy.

Throughout the day, pleas to intercede were directed to the British by the Jewish Agency, the Haganah , Magnes, Davis and others. The British authorities suggested a truce to both sides and waited. The few troops at Antonius House were consistently refused permission to use their heavy machine gun and bazookas; a few bursts from these weapons could have smothered the Arab initiative.

Hadassah volunteers monitored the British radio conversations throughout the day. This exchange was noted at a critical point: Forward British observer: “The buses are burning. Someone has to put out a white flag. Request permission to intercede.” British Headquarters: “Reinforcements are on the way. Keep everything steady.” But reinforcements, only a few minutes away, took seven hours to get to the site.

Lieutenant-General MacMillan returned to the site at 4:30 pm. Incredibly, he admitted to Magnes by letter that he had been uninformed all day about events in Sheikh Jarrah. Wrote MacMillan: I was surprised…to find heavy firing in progress on the spot and my own car, which had been back to barracks and returned again to meet me, had been pierced by a bullet. On arrival once more on the spot, I found that Brigadier Jones had got the matter in hand and had persuaded the Arabs to stop firing but had not been able to achieve this until after he had been forced to fire heavily upon them and kill fifteen.

At about 400 pm, Brigadier Jones had finally been given permission to open fire with bazookas. Another army post fired off a few mortars. Then under a smokescreen, half- tracks were sent in to pick up the survivors. A British Intelligence captain who had befriended the Jews arrived under his own steam from military headquarters at the King David Hotel. A wounded Zizi Rahav was already in Antonius House. When the captain asked Zizi what he could do to help, Zizi requested that the captain return to the scene to bring back the weapons and secret operational papers on the body of one of the men. The captain did just that.

The captain would never forget the scene. It was grotesque. People were standing over the body of Dr. Yassky, screaming and yelling, while a little farther back beside the two burned- out houses the dead were piled in heaps. The corpses were burning and it was at least 20 minutes after the shooting finally stopped that someone thought to douse them with water.

Precisely how many were killed or wounded in the convoy? It is unlikely that anyone will ever know. A marble memorial bearing seventy-six names stands near Nashashibi Bend. A seventy-seventh is listed as “Unknown.” Later, the number was set at seventy-eight. The bodies were so badly burned that the remains were buried in a common grave in Jerusalem’s Sanhedria Cemetery.

Three days after the attack, Hadassah handed the Red Cross a list of forty-seven “still unaccounted for.” In the mid-1970s an inquirycommission reportedly determined that only twenty-five of the bodies were buried in Sanhedria. Later, Yehoshua Levanon, son of victim Zvi Levanon. located an Arab who claimed to have participated in the ambush. The Arab reportedly said that remains of the twenty-two were buried in an Arab cemetery outside the Old City wall, but officials doubt the veracity of the Arab’s statement.


This work is copyright ©2005 by Ami Isseroff and Zionism and Israel Information Center. Please do not copy it in any form without direct permission from the author.  All rights reserved

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