Tag Archives: Negev

Fighting for Kibbutz Yad Mordechai

Reconstruction of the battle for Yad Mordechai
Reconstruction of the battle for Yad Mordechai

In 1948, the Egyptians thought it would be easy. The British were leaving the Palestinian Mandate in mid-May. The sparsely populated areas where Jews lived in the south were ripe for the picking. The Egyptian army could quickly wipe out the few Jewish defenders in the Negev and on the Mediterranean coast. In two or three days they would be in Tel Aviv.

On May 14, the Jews declared independence, as of the British departure at midnight. The Egyptian army, gathered on the border in Sinai readied to attack. I’m sure no soldier sleeps well the night before a battle, not even those about to fight poorly armed untrained Jewish farmers and refugees. Still, I imagine Egyptian soldiers dreaming about lying peacefully in the sun with their families on beaches of Tel Aviv within the week.

The new nation of Israel woke up Shabbat morning, May 15, to news of the Egyptian invasion. The Egyptians headed north east towards Nirin and Kfar Darom. Facing unexpectedly heavy opposition from the Israelis, they withdrew after two days. Since the eastern path to Tel Aviv obviously would not work, they headed west, closer to the coast. Several towns posed obstacles, but they remained confident. Tel Aviv would soon be in their hands. Their air force was already dropping bombs on the city. The only real obstruction in their way was Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, located at a crucial crossroad. They had the superior power—two infantry battalions, one armored battalion and one artillery battalion. They thought the fight would last a few hours.

The agricultural kibbutz had been founded in the late 1930s by Polish immigrants. The founders learned apiculture from some British and Australian soldiers. Soon they were selling honey throughout the land. In December 1943 it was renamed Yad Mordechai, in memory of Mordechai Anielewicz, one of the leaders of the uprising against the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto. By 1948, about 130 people lived there. The farmers had dug trenches so they could move about fairly safely if under attack. They had been joined by a couple dozen Palmach fighters in anticipation of the coming battle. Even so, it couldn’t hold out for very long against an onslaught of thousands of Egyptian soldiers.

On May 18 the Egyptians camped around the kibbutz.

The Israelis worried about the children. It would be too dangerous for them to stay on the kibbutz, but it was also dangerous to send them away. The only road to safety led through the Egyptian lines. With much trepidation they decided to evacuate the children. I imagine the parents trying not to show their fear as they bundled their children into vehicles in the middle of the night. I doubt any of them slept that night, as they envisioned the vehicles slowly making their way around and through the Egyptian encampment and Arab towns. As first light dawned in the morning, word came through. All ninety-two children were safe.

Now it was time to prepare for battle.

We heard the story about the battle at Yad Mordechai standing on a small hill in the kibbutz, looking down at the plain which leads to the Mediterranean Sea. The field below was probably covered with new crops then. Today there are cast iron silhouettes of soldiers, a static reconstruction of the battle. Three old

Egyptian tank, at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai since 1948 invasion
Egyptian tank, at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai since 1948 invasion

Egyptian tanks face us. At the edges of the hill two reinforced bunkers overlook the battlefield, connected by the old trenches. The trenches have fresh gravel on their floors and metal sheeting lining the sides. I watched as young volunteers, dressed in the khaki shorts and kova tembel hats of the period, led a family through the trenches at a run, reminding them to crouch down so the Egyptians won’t see them.

The First and Seventh Battalions attacked. The kibbutzniks repelled them.

The Egyptians attacked again, but again they were repelled. Their artillery bombarded the kibbutz, destroying the water tower and buildings.

The Egyptians repeatedly tried to capture the outpost, and failed. Several thousand trained Egyptian soldiers should not have so much trouble overrunning small farming community. Even their tanks didn’t help. They had plenty of guns and ammunition, but they couldn’t wipe out a hundred and thirty Jews. The Jews were so poorly armed that at night they crept over the battlefield gathering rifles and ammunition from the enemy dead.

Five days later, the Jews were out of ammunition and exhausted. Half the defenders had died or were wounded. They could fight no longer. They crept away during the night, through the Egyptian lines, to safety at Kibbutz Gvar’am. Only Yitzchak Rubinstein and Livka Shefer, who carried the injured Binyamin Eisenberg, on a stretcher did not make it. .

During the ceasefires and then after the armistice, Chief Rabbi of the IDF Shlomo Goren searched for missing Israelis. It was crucial, he believed, to determine who had died, and to give them proper burial. Rabbi Goren crossed enemy lines many times, sometimes walking across minefields, to search battlefields and makeshift graves, looking for the remains of Israeli dead. He spoke to as many fighters, Jewish and Arab, as he could to gather eyewitness testimony. But he never learned what happened to the three missing men from Yad Mordechai. They are still listed as “Open Cases,” soldiers whose death and burial place are unknown, by the IDF MIA Accounting Unit.

On the sixth day of the battle, not knowing the defenders had retreated, Egyptians opened fire again. After about four hours of steady artillery bombardment, they realized no one was shooting back at them. They entered the kibbutz, only to find it empty. Not even bodies remained; the Jews had buried their dead in a mass grave.

The Egyptian army destroyed the kibbutz and continued towards Tel Aviv. In Ashdod the Israeli Air Force attacked them. Egypt hadn’t known Israel possessed an air force, nor that they had already seen it in its entirety—all four planes. Surprised by bombs dropping on them from directly above, they retreated.

Actually, a week earlier the Israeli Air Force had not existed.

After World War II, the Jewish community in British Palestine knew that sooner or later they would have to fight the British or the Arabs to gain a state. Agents were sent to Europe to buy surplus military equipment. One found Messerschmitts in Czechoslovakia, then ruled by the USSR. When the USSR decided to support Israel, the Czechs sold five planes plus spare parts, to Israel. Experienced fighter pilots and airplane technicians were recruited from the US and Canada.

Boxes of airplane parts arrived in Haifa and were taken to Zichron Yakov, a town near the coast. The planes were reassembled in a large wine storage cave. They were not equipped to drop bombs, so they were loaded with hand grenades and bottles full of water.

By this time, the Egyptian army was marching up the coast.

The brand new Air Force took off and flew south. One plane crashed into the sea, but the remaining four planes attacked the Egyptians in Ashdod. The pilots dropped the hand grenades and water bottles out the window. The grenades killed only a few soldiers. The water bottles broke with loud noise. The Israeli air attack was successful only because the Egyptians were surprised and panicked. They turned and fled back to the Negev.

In Ashdod today you can stand on the Ad Halom (“This Far”) Bridge. The Egyptian army got that far north and no farther.

Kibbutz Yad Mordechai paid a terrible price—twenty-three of its members had died and all its buildings had been destroyed. But in the six days it held the Egyptian army at bay, Israel had built an air force which saved its largest city.

About six months later Israel retook Yad Mordechai. The farmers returned and rebuilt. Today, with more than 600 members, it is the largest producer of honey in the country.

Several Egyptian tanks still sit in its fields. Defensive trenches still rim one of its hills. The cast iron soldiers stand where once live soldiers fought. And visitors look at it all, listen to the recorded description of the battle, and learn about the sacrifices it took to make the country.

Location of Kibbutz Yad Mordechai

Negev Ostrich Farm

Tsofia van Grevenbroek shows off some eggs laid by the ostriches at her farm in the Western Negev.
Tsofia van Grevenbroek shows off some eggs laid by the ostriches at her farm in the Western Negev.

An ostrich farm in Israel? Sounds about as realistic as US cavalry patrols on camels.

Except that both really happened.

It is not widely known that camels were imported to the US in the mid 19th century for use by army cavalry in the Southwest. However, as the Civil War heated up, the army abandoned many of the forts, and the camels were let lose to wander freely until they died out. There just weren’t enough camels in the wild to sustain a viable population .

The ostrich ranch also raises turkeys, chickens, and ducks in the Negev
The ostrich farm also raises turkeys, chickens, and ducks


In the first decade of the 21st century, ostrich farming was a thriving industry in Israel, but due to changing market needs and agricultural laws, today only the original farm still exists. It has been converted from an ostrich breeding endeavor to an educational one. Its owner, Tsofia van Grevenbroek, spoke of its history to our group from Pardes Institute of this week.

A city girl from Tel Aviv, Tsofia was learning agricultural skills at Kibbutz Yotvata in the southern Negev when she met Mike van Grevenbroek, a Dutch agriculturalist. He was the original manager of Chai Bar, the first wild animal sanctuary in the country, founded to reintroduce into the wild once indigenous species, such as the oryx, vulture and fallow deer. In 1978, with permission of the Shah of Iran, he captured four Syrian Fallow Deer from a small herd that lived near the Caspian Sea. Until this herd was discovered in the 1950s, Syrian fallow deer had been thought extinct. He brought them back to Israel on the last El Al plane to leave Tehran in December 1978, at the height of the Iranian revolution. The does were pregnant, and along with a male Syrian Fallow deer purchased from a European zoo, they thrived in Israel. Today, besides the herd of over a hundred at Chai Bar, fallow deer have been successfully released into the wild in the Carmel and Jerusalem forests.

After many years at Chai Bar, Mike wanted a change. He left the nature reserve, and he and Tsofia traveled to South Africa, where they worked at friend’s ostrich ranch for a year. Ostrich ranching is a big industry there; the large birds are grown for their feathers, meat, and leather. Because the government wants to keep a monopoly, it was illegal to export ostriches or their eggs. Since Mike and Tsofia wanted to start their own ostrich farm in Israel, the night before their return home, Mike went to the incubator room and looked for ones that were about to hatch. He found a dozen, which he and Tsofia carefully packed into their hand luggage.

Anxiously, they carried their hand luggage through South African customs. A few hours into the thirteen hour flight, Tsofia turned to Mike and said, “Your bag is making noise.”

Mike had chosen well—the birds were hatching.

You can’t keep baby birds in a handbag. To the delight of the other passengers, they let the birds out to run around the plane cabin for the rest of the flight. She did not tell us how they managed to round up all the birds when they landed at Ben Gurion. I imagine it would have been only slightly harder than trying to round up a dozen toddlers who don’t want to leave the playground.

Mike informed his friend of what he had done, in coded language so the South African authorities would not know he had broken the law. The friend invited him to return and pick up twenty more. This time he put cellophane tape around the egg so the chicks could hatch and breathe, but not escape the eggs. Tsofia and Mike now had almost three dozen baby ostriches running around their apartment.

Ostriches are big birds. They grow from being small one pound chicks to six and a half foot, 200 pound birds in a year. Luckily, Kibbutz Urim was willing to take care of the birds in its children’s zoo.

What the Grevenbroeks really wanted was some land to build a farm for ostriches. Most land in this country is owned by the Israel Lands Authority. The ILA does not sell land, but leases it to people for 49 or 98 years. The bureaucracy, like most other bureaucracies, moves slowly. Meanwhile, the ostriches were growing rapidly. So Mike called General Avraham Yoffe, the first head of the Nature Preserves Authority, the man who had sent him to catch the fallow deer. General Yoffe called his good friend, Ariel Sharon, and told him about the Grevenbroek’s plight. Sharon, then the Minister of Agriculture, was promoting development of the Negev, so he in turn called the Land Office and told them to give the Grevenbroeks some land.

They received a lease for an area in the Negev, near the borders with Gaza and Egypt. The land was unsuitable for agriculture, but worked for ostriches. Although they had permission to use the land, Mike and Tsofia could not build a house. They solved their housing problem by buy three old Turkish railway carriages, which they moved into in July 1981, without water or electricity. Somehow, they managed.

After twenty-five years, they finally received a permit to build a house. The railway carriages are still there, now converted to a beautiful home. I could see traces of the original railway cars in some of the outside walls.

The ostriches thrived and the Gevenbroeks started selling them. By the year 2000, they had eight hundred breeders; twenty-two ranches in Israel were raising ostriches. Most of the products—feathers, meat, and leather—went to the export market.

Then demand for ostrich products decreased. Prices fell. The worst blow was the outbreak of bird flu in Israel in 2006—ostrich ranchers could not export anything. Then ostriches were declared a protected species. Commercial ostrich farming in Israel died.

Today the original farm has only about forty ostriches. Each male has his own large pen which he shares with two females. During breeding season he digs a nest in the ground, in which both females lay around fifteen eggs. They all share incubating duties. The male sits on the eggs during the night,the females in the daytime.

Tsofia told us that ostriches have a long history in the land of Israel. Paleontologists have found remains of ostriches from the time of dinosaurs. A few years ago, a rancher in the Sharon, the area between Tel Aviv and, found four ostrich eggs that were estimated to be around 5500 years old. Ancient pictures of birds that look like ostriches have even been found etched on stone plaques uncovered in the Galil, near Nazareth. And the ostrich is also mentioned several times in the Bible, in the books of Leviticus, Isaiah, Job, and Lamentations. The birds roamed wild in the country becoming extinct in the 1920s.

The ostrich’s long legs and two-toed foot enable it to run up to seventy kilometers per hour, for most of a day, and tends to run in circles. It’s not a very smart bird. How could it be, when its eyes are bigger than its brain?

Side view of male ostrich, showing the relatively large eye
When an ostrich show his profile, you can see how large its eye is compared to the size of its head.

This surprised me until I really looked at the tall bird standing a few feet in front of me. Its tiny head and big eyes do look out of proportion. I started wondering about how it sees. Vision in mammals requires a large proportion of the brain to interpret signals from the eyes. How does that work, precisely, if the eye is bigger than the brain? Yet the ostrich is known to have acute eyesight both during the day and at night.

When checking the history of ostriches in Israel, I discovered that Tsofia’s tale of smuggling ostrich eggs from South Africa may not have been entirely accurate. There were too many inconsistencies in the reporting of how the ostriches came to the Negev. Nonetheless, my mental image of a dozen ostrich chicks running loose in an airplane cabin is one that will no doubt stay with me a long time.