The Arab Legion attacking the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, May 1948 (John Phillips, Life Magazine).
“When you wage war against your enemies...” (Deut. 21:10)
Rabbi She'ar Yashuv Cohen, ZT"L former Chief Rabbi of Haifa and son of the Rav HaNazir, told the story of his part in defending Jerusalem during the 1948 War of Independence:
During the winter of 5708 [1947-1948], I was one of the younger students at the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva. I was also a member of the Haganah, the pre-state Jewish defense organization. This was during the period of Arab rioting and attacks that erupted following the United Nations’ vote on the 29th of November, 1947, to establish a Jewish state.
In those days, there was much discussion in Mercaz HaRav whether the yeshiva students should enlist to fight and defend. Both my father, the Rav HaNazir, and Rav Tzvi Yehudah were of the opinion that everyone as obligated to go out and fight. This was a milhemet mitzvah, a compulsory war in which all are expected to participate.
However, those close to the head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlap, argued that yeshiva students should continue their Torah studies in the yeshiva, and the merit of their Torah learning would bring victory in battle. They would quote the verse in Isaiah 62:6, “On your walls, Jerusalem, I have posted watchmen,” explaining that these watchmen protecting the city are in fact scholars, diligent in their Torah study.
At that time, the situation in the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City was desperate. I came up with the idea of organizing a group of yeshiva students to establish a “Fighting-Defense Yeshiva” in the Jewish Quarter. The yeshiva’s daily schedule would be comprised of eight hours for defense and guard duty, eight hours for Torah study, and eight hours for rest and sleep.
The proposal was brought before the Haganah command and was approved. But those close to Rabbi Charlap were vehemently opposed to the idea. The controversy within Mercaz HaRav disturbed me deeply and caused me great anguish.
One day, as I exited the yeshiva, I saw huge notices posted at the entrance to the yeshiva. It was a broadside quoting Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, of blessed memory, that yeshiva students should not be drafted into the army. When I read the notices, I was in shock. Was I acting against the teachings of our master, Rav Kook?
Agitated and upset, I made my way down the road toward Jerusalem’s Zion Square. There I saw a figure walking toward me, slightly limping. As he came closer, I saw that it was Rav Tzvi Yehudah. I felt very close to Rav Tzvi Yehudah; he was like an uncle to me.
When he saw my shocked face, Rav Tzvi Yehudah became concerned. “What happened, She'ar Yashuv? Why do you look like that? Don’t be afraid. Tell me!”
Under the pressure of his questioning, I told him about my efforts to organize a “fighting yeshiva” in the Jewish Quarter, and my distress when I saw the posters which indicated that we were acting against his father’s guidance.
When he heard my words, Rav Tzvi Yehudah was horrified. He grabbed me by my shoulders and roared, “This is a complete forgery! A distortion and utter falsehood!” He was so upset, his shouts echoed down the street.
After calming down, he explained that the notices had quoted a letter his father had written in London during the First World War. The letter dealt with drafting yeshiva students who had escaped from Russia to England. Rav Kook felt that these students should be exempt from the draft, just as the British exempted other clergy students.
But here — Rav Tzvi Yehudah motioned emphatically with his hands — here we are fighting for our hold on the Land of Israel and the holy city of Jerusalem. This is undoubtedly a milhemet mitzvah; whereas in England, the demand was that the yeshiva students fight for a foreign army.
The rabbi’s words reassured me. I asked if he would be willing to write them down so that they could be publicized. He agreed. The rabbi publicized a broadside in which he objected to the use of his father’s letter to Rabbi Hertz, Chief Rabbi of England, during World War I.
I also asked Rav Tzvi Yehudah to publish his views on the matter in a more detailed and reasoned format. He replied that there is no point in composing an article when the city is under siege and the printing presses are closed down. However, I was able to obtain a special permit from the Defense Board, so that a pamphlet containing five articles was published soon after.
In his article, Rav Tzvi Yehudah explained that joining the army at that time was important for three reasons:
- To save lives (pikuah nefesh);
- To fulfill the mitzvah of conquering and settling the Land of Israel (mitzvat yishuv ha’aretz);
- Due to the great public kiddush Hashem, sanctification of God’s Name, when the nation of Israel is redeemed from danger.
I was one of the volunteers who succeeded in finding a way to slip inside the walls of the Old City. I joined the fighters there, and I was seriously wounded in battle.
When the Old City fell to the Arab Legion on May 27th, 1948, I was taken prisoner. The Jordanian commander was shocked to discover that only 26 of the surrendering Jewish soldiers survived the battles without serious injury. Embarrassed to return victorious to Jordan with such a small group of prisoners, he decided to also take wounded soldiers.
After seven months as a prisoner in Jordan, we were returned to Israel in a prisoner exchange deal. I was taken to Zichron Ya’akov to recuperate, and Rav Tzvi Yehudah came to visit me the first morning after my arrival.
The morning of Rav Tzvi Yehudah’s visit, as I was removing my tefillin after morning prayers, I peered out the window and saw Rav Tzvi Yehudah slowly making his way up the mountain. Afterward, I found out that he had taken the very first bus from Jerusalem, and had traveled early in the morning all the way to Zichron Ya’akov in order to greet me.
I ran toward him, and he hugged and kissed me. He cried over me like a child. The truth is that my situation was so grave that my family and friends had nearly given up all hope. Until then, such a thing had never happened — returning alive from captivity in an Arab country. But the Jordanian King Abdullah had wanted to show the world that he was an enlightened monarch who respected international law....
After recovering from his outburst of emotion, Rav Tzvi Yehudah put his hand in his coat pocket and brought out a small pamphlet containing his article about defending the country. Inside was a personal inscription:
“For my dear beloved friend — the initiator, advisor, and solicitor [of this tract]. This pamphlet is set aside, from the day it was printed, until “God’s redeemed will return in peace, and joyfully come to Zion.”
Decades later, I still have that treasured pamphlet carefully stored in my possession.