A history of Israel in silver and bronze

What better way to trace a place’s past than by looking to see what people valued and rewarded?

By YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO
March 26, 2010 16:22
Medals awarded by Arabs countries to soldiers who

arab medals 311. (photo credit: Dani Machlis, BGU)

A new exhibit, “Official Awards and Orders in Eretz Israel,” open to the public at the Aranne Library on the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev campus in Beersheba, offers a unique commentary on local heroism and history. This selection of medals, certificates and awards from the days of the Ottoman Empire, through the British Mandate, the Anzac period and on into the modern State of Israel, is the private collection of Shaul Ladany, a BGU professor of industrial engineering. Ladany, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen, says his collection began with a medal he was awarded in 1954 for marksmanship.   

“It’s a tiny replica of a rifle,” Ladany, Prof. Emeritus of Industrial Engineering and Management, notes. “It was the first medal I ever received. About three months before, I’d been recruited into the army, trained in marksmanship, and then we were all tested. Those who passed received these little medals. The award wasn’t a big deal and isn’t given anymore, but to me personally, that little pin is indescribably precious. It represents so many things I treasure and value. After that, I just started collecting.”

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Ladany’s collection is unique for another reason. “Most collectors build their collections in four different ways,” Ladany explains. “Either they find the items, or receive them as gifts. Some swap one thing for another, or buy the pieces outright. I had a fifth way: Several items in my collection were medals awarded to me personally.”

Especially interesting is their diversity. Not all the medals were awarded for state-building activities. In fact, one of the more unfortunate commentaries on local history is the inclusion of medals and awards given by Arab states to Arab soldiers for heroism in the several wars against the State of Israel. 

The awards themselves take many forms: Some are colorful fabric bars, others hang from brightly colored ribbons, some are simple pins, others hefty medallions. Some are accompanied by official certificates, some in elegant script, others perfunctory. Acts of military heroism earned some awards, while civilians, Jewish and otherwise, earned others. Most were designed to honor the person to whom the medal was given, but a surprising number appear to have been given as a means of enhancing the status of the person who made the award. The only thing the medals have in common is that each was awarded for some act accomplished in the land of Israel. 

The story behind the oldest medal illuminates a tiny footnote in history.

“This medal dates back to 1840,” Ladany says, pointing to a small bronze disk now separated from two pieces of red and white ribbon to which it had previously been attached. “The Ottoman Sultan awarded this medal for military service in Akko (Acre). Since 1517 Acre had been under the Sultan’s rule, but in 1831, the Egyptians under Ibrahim Pasha besieged the town and held it for nine years.  During the Oriental Crisis of 1840, the Sultan received Acre back when a combined fleet of 22 ships, mostly British, Austrian and French, attacked from the sea, bombarded the area, and recaptured the citadel.

“To show his gratitude, the Sultan awarded medals to the foreigners who restored his property to him. Only one of the 22 ships was Turkish – we don’t know what those seamen received, but the heads of the foreign fleet were given this medal in gold, while lesser servicemen received a bronze medal like this.”

Displayed next to the “citadel” medal is another very old medal, this one depicting a locomotive on one side and the tughra, the Sultan’s personal symbol, on the other. “What this proves is that even back then, money and government went hand in hand,” Ladany laughs.

“This medal dates from 1900, when the Turkish Sultan wanted to build a railroad to connect Damascus with Saudi Arabia, to help Muslims make the haj, the pilgrimage. He lined up a German railroad engineer to help build it, even gave him a title for his efforts. But still, the Sultan needed money. He invited wealthy people to donate to help pay the cost. Those who did received this medal.

“So why is this medal here?” Ladany asks. “These medals are for service in the land of Israel – not Damascus or Saudi Arabia. But here’s the Israeli connection: With the donated money, a branch railroad line to Haifa was also constructed. So the money played a role in Israel, too.” 

One medal designed by the artists of Bezalel sends an unmistakably triumphant message. “This medal was awarded in 1918 by Dr. Chaim Weizmann to an assembly of soldiers in Jerusalem. The design is especially poignant. Back when the Romans had captured Judea and demolished the Temple, the Romans struck a coin that depicted a captured Jewish woman in bondage, her hands bound by chains.

“When General Allenby captured Jerusalem in 1917, a group of soldiers known as the Jewish Regiment of Eretz Israel were instrumental in that effort and were awarded this medal, designed to be the antithesis of the Roman coin. This medal depicts a Jewish woman breaking free of the chains that bind her hands. On the perimeter, the Hebrew date shows how many years it had been since Jerusalem had been free.”  

Several medals bear the image of England’s King George VI (1895–1952) and dangle from colorful ribbons.

“In 1936 the Arabs mutinied against both the Jews and the British in Eretz Israel. The British brought in a division along with a general, who stayed three years, working to calm the situation. That British general was much like General Allenby – or like Moshe Dayan a bit later,” Ladany smiles. “They were all eager to be remembered. This general decided that every soldier who served in Palestine during those years, 1936 to 1939, would be given a medal. Today these medals are highly sought-after because of how famous this general later became. In the 1940s he won one of the decisive battles of WWII in a place no one had heard of before – El Alamein. It was “Monty” – Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery who later became Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery.” 

One of the most beautiful medals came in the form of a medallion awarded by the commander of the 53rd (Welsh) Division to his troops for their participation in the liberation of Eretz Israel. “This medallion wasn’t engraved but has raised print showing the place in which each operation took place. It commemorates service during the conquest of Beersheba. In very tiny print, on the perimeter, the name ‘Beersheba’ appears, so this medal was awarded for local action.” 

Long before the state, the local Jewish community awarded medals, too. One bears an intricate, detailed design for a medal awarded to those who participated in the Homa U'Migdal operations. “In the late 1930s, in the wake of the Balfour Declaration, Jews worked to claim as much land as they could for the future state. Very much against the wishes of the British, they set up villages on remote lands, knowing that under the law, a village that existed could not be destroyed. Off site, they constructed prefabricated parts that could quickly be assembled into the two structures that by tradition constituted a “village” – a tower and a stockade. Then clandestinely, at night, they’d truck the pieces in and assemble them very quickly.

“When day dawned, a new – and legally indestructible – Jewish village existed. Pins were awarded to people who took part in this mission. This medal depicts a very detailed drawing of a tower in the background with a stockade in front.” 

It’s hardly surprising that politics enters into award-making, too. “During the first 10 years of the state, a colorful ribbon bar was awarded to members of several independent organizations that had participated in the War of Independence – specifically, to members of Hagana, and then also to members of the Shomer and Nili organizations.  But not until 1977 – 35 years later – were the members of the Lehi and Etzel movements similarly rewarded. Only after Likud came into power were their efforts acknowledged.” 

In the late 1970s and ’80s,  Etzel awarded two types of medals to its own members, one design for members who had been in British prisons, another to those who had participated in military actions against the British. One such, with the certificate that accompanied the medal, is on display. It was signed by three men: Menachem Begin, Amachi “Gidi” Paglin, chief operations officer of Etzel, and finally Eitan Yud Livni. Today, Eitan Livni’s daughter Tzipi is the head of the opposition Kadima Party. 

Not all awards are for military prowess. Some commemorate acts of bravery or courage in the police or prison service. Boxed and beribboned, these handmade medals seemed destined from the beginning to serve as heirlooms. Another medal, no doubt among the most cherished by anyone who received it, is that given by Yad Vashem to “Righteous Gentiles,” those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Elegant in its simplicity, the medallion bears an inscription from the Talmud: “He who saves one life, it is as if he saves the entire world.” 

Without a doubt, the most elaborate medals on display are those awarded by Arab countries to their soldiers who fought against Israel. More than any of the other medals, these are detailed and colorful, many bearing flags or elaborate designs.

One from Iraq depicts an Israeli map with a sword splitting it in two. Another from Syria shows the State of Israel pierced by an arrow. “Of course they’re more elaborate,” Ladany says. “From their point of view, the war was not successful. The least they can do is make the medals especially beautiful.” 

Only one medal commemorates a sporting event, which is unusual since Ladany is also one of Israel’s greatest athletes.

At age 74, he still holds unbroken international race walking records. He won the Israeli National Walking Championships an incredible 28 times between 1963 and 1988, the US walking championship six times, the championship in Belgium twice, Switzerland’s in 1972, and South Africa’s in 1975. In 1976, he became the first person ever to win both the American Open and Masters (40 years and over) 75-kilometer walking championship, and then did it again in 1977 and 1981. In 2006, at age 70, he set the US 100-mile World Record (21:45:34 hours) for the 70-74 age group.

Twice he served on Israel’s Olympic team – first in Mexico in 1968, and then again in Munich in 1972, when he was one of only four Israeli athletes to escape death at the hands of Arab terrorists.

Why are none of Ladany’s own sporting medals on display? “I have something like 2,000 sporting medals,” he says dismissively. “I thought of including the Pierre de Coubertin Medal for outstanding service to the Olympic Movement, because it’s more beautiful than all these medals here combined. But I decided I wanted to keep all that separate.”

He points to a very small round pin like a button.

“In the late 1930s, the Jewish residents of Palestine decided to promote sports activities,” he says. “They set standards for running, jumping and other activities, then awarded medals in competition. This pin dates from 1940, but what’s most interesting is the person who received it, a man named Ephra Dafni. 

“Ephra and his brother Reuben, from Ein Gev, were two of the brave young Jews who in 1944 parachuted behind German lines along with Hannah Szenes. She was captured and killed, but not the Dafni brothers. Ephra and Reuben saw the Third Reich crumble and remained in Europe, working behind the lines. After the War, Reuben Dafni returned to Israel and later served as Vice Chair of Yad Vashem for many years.”

Behind every medal, there’s a story, a piece of history, big or small.


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