Larger than life

At 88, Geula Cohen’s history and soul are apparently inextricably intertwined; Spiritually I’m 18, she says.

Geula Cohen mother of Tzachi Hanegbi 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Geula Cohen mother of Tzachi Hanegbi 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Geula Cohen will soon turn 88, but when asked how old she is, she always gives a different answer.
She doesn’t do this to make herself seem younger – on the contrary.
“I’m 150. 56. 70. 2,000. What difference does it make? Spiritually I’m 18, like our nation,” she says.
Welcome to the world of Geula Cohen: Her legs are heavier than they used to be, and she mostly stays put in her French Hill home that overlooks the village of Anatot, the birthplace of the prophet Jeremiah. Cohen is constantly moving between the intellectual and spiritual spheres. One moment she is referring to the binding of our forefather Isaac, and the next to “price tag” offenders. She worries about her grandchildren who are serving in IDF combat units, but also reads the poetry of Uri Zvi Greenberg. She thinks about Israel’s eternal nature but also about what she’s going to talk about on her next Israel Radio broadcast.
Cohen is still intellectually quite active in the sense that she has not changed over the years. Now, just as then, she answers heated questions about current events by quoting Jewish prophets and sages, as well as individuals like Sarah Aaronsohn, the heroine of the Nili espionage network. And without one ounce of cynicism (“I feel sorry for people who have no faith”).
Despite her reputation for being emotional, it’s almost impossible to get her to lose her composure; she lives according to her beliefs. Only here and there does she use harsh words when people really get to her (“You’re willing to give away Jerusalem? Are you willing to give your child away, too?”).
Maybe, as her son Tzachi Hanegbi says, deep down Cohen understands the pragmatic constraints we are dealing with today. But at 88, her biography and soul are apparently inextricably intertwined. Cohen, the Stern Group radio broadcaster who once escaped from a British jail, tore up a copy of the Camp David Accords in the Knesset and chooses to remain a loyal warrior for a Greater Israel. She believes there is no point to living unless there is a struggle.
“I’m like Descartes,” Cohen smiles. “I struggle, therefore I am.”
Just last week she visited her friends in Abu Ghosh – family members of Yusuf Abu Ghosh, who helped her escape from the British jail. She happened to be visiting just when the recent pricetag attack occurred there.
“These people are crazy fanatics. I don’t understand why we can’t catch them and put them all in jail. What they do is absolutely atrocious. They use Hebrew letters, the same letters used in the Torah, the same letters that tell us ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ They use these same letters to write ‘Death to Arabs’ on stone walls. These are criminal offenses that cause serious national damage,” she says.
“It breaks my heart. Not just because of the price we pay for it. And we will pay because we always do when people do crazy things. But we’ll also pay because they have no idea what Abu Ghosh is like. This is the most pro-Israel village in the entire country. They fought with the Jews against the British – Irgun Zva’i Leumi, Stern Group and the Hagana.
And they helped me personally; they brought me Palestinian clothing so that I would have something to wear after I escaped from the prison. Yusuf Abu Ghosh would always say, ‘First we need to get rid of the British – they for sure have no claim over this land. And then we will sit down together and discuss.’ Ten years ago, an American movie producer wanted to make a film about our story, but he wanted the story to revolve around a romantic relationship. I refused outright. I also told Yusuf that I hoped he agreed with me. ‘Why shouldn’t the movie be about a romance?’ he laughed. ‘Come on, let’s do it!’ But of course he agreed with me,” she recounts.
But you yourself admit that these fanatical groups have sprouted from fanatical settler ideology that you helped foster.
Listen, our bodies are full of disease, bacteria and infections, right? Well, the nation also suffers from bacteria from within. What can we do about it? Just fight it in every possible way. But these radicals are a small minority. Most settlers are wonderful people. I thank God for them. They are idealistic pioneers who love their people, which include people from the Left, too.
But these communities are also home to outlaws who chop down olive trees and confiscate Palestinian land.
Chopping down olive trees is a terrible thing to do, and I am categorically against building settlements on Palestinian land. Why do we need to do that? There is plenty of other land available.
Nobody should have land stolen from them. Rabbi Kook always said, “Fight for the land, but there is no need to take Ahmed’s land away from him.” On the other hand, this happens all the time when idealistic people decide that it’s important to build a settlement in a specific location. It’s easy for me to say this now as I sit here in my comfortable home. Then, when I was there with them – how old was I – 30?” No, you were 45 or 50.
That’s not important. So, anyway, we used to sit for hours with [Gush Emunim] Rabbi Moshe Levinger to discuss the moral, ethical and legal aspects of certain actions. By the way, make a note that it was a great injustice that Levinger was not awarded the Israel Prize. When I was awarded the Israel Prize in 2003, I told them, “Me? You should be giving the award to Rabbi Levinger.” He is the one who made real changes in this country.
Everyone around the world talks about Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria.
Three hundred thousand people live in settlements, and he is the one who initiated them. I don’t think even leftists would argue with that statement.
You are undoubtedly aware that many people think the settlements are occupied territory that is harming us and harming the Palestinians who live there and are preventing us from reaching a peace agreement.
It would have been an occupation if we hadn’t built communities in all those areas. After the War of Independence, they called us “occupiers.” We are occupiers in Jaffa too, my friend. And of Zichron Ya’acov and Tel Aviv. So what? Should we disengage from these areas, too? And I believe that no peace treaty will not be signed or broken because of a few settlements. On the contrary – they can only strengthen a treaty. I think that Bibi [Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu] should have contributed more to settlement activity than he has until now and taken advantage of the relative quiet to build more.
Today, we only hear about the construction of homes in larger settlements so that negotiation talks can continue.
All the large ones began as small illegal settlements. Elkana and Ma’aleh Adumim started out small. I was there.
If revolutionaries aren’t involved, you’ll never reach your goal.
You are completely ignoring the possibility that we might reach a peace agreement with them.
Which of them is willing to make peace with us? People hang on to the illusion that “If we are just willing to compromise, if we just give in….” If we would just bow down to pick up Antiochus’s ring – do you know that story? Even when we offered them the entire world, they didn’t agree. The Arabs don’t want us here. Period. I love them. Some of my best friends are Arabs. When I was a girl, I would have sleepovers all the time with my Arab neighbor. We were best friends. But we are dealing with a serious conflict: How can we give up the land that we dreamed about and yearned for for 4,000 years? Now that we’ve finally come back and found it empty… Empty? But there were Arabs living here.
Yes, but it was very quiet here, and there wasn’t a nation of people living here. The Jews went through so much to settle the land. The struggle did not begin when the British arrived, my friend.
So do you still believe that we should live by the sword forever and ever without ever trying to live in peace? Struggling is not a bad thing. It means that you have a higher goal that is difficult to reach and that you are willing to pay a price to achieve it. Achieving peace was never our goal. Our goal was to settle the Land of Israel. Of course, no one wants his children to go to war and risk their lives, but unfortunately we are living in a time of war that requires sacrifice. It has been our destiny since our forefather Jacob fought with the angel during which his hip got injured and thereafter walked with a limp. That’s just how it is. There can be no tomorrow if we don’t pay a price for it.
THERE IS no point trying to argue with Geula Cohen. Nothing can make her stray from her beliefs. You either accept her the way she is or dismiss her completely – and there are many people in both these camps. Some people consider her an extremist, while others, such as the taxi driver who drove her to our meeting, view her as “a strong and valiant woman.”
Cohen was born in 1925. Her mother’s family came from Yugoslavia, and her father made aliya from Yemen with his mother when he was five. In her book No Strength to be Tired (Reuven Mass, 2008), she writes, “She inherited her messianic genes from her grandfather.”
Cohen’s grandfather, who is said to have dabbled in Kabbala, climbed a mountain one day to meditate and study Kabbala, but he never came back down.
“When they found his body at the top of the mountain, they noticed that his finger was burnt. They say that his body caught fire, since he was learning about the end of times. Tzachi does not like it when I tell this story, but I believe that spirituality affects our concrete world,” she says.
In 1943, Cohen joined the IZL, and in 1946 she was arrested by the British and sentenced to nine years in a women’s prison in Bethlehem, from which she escaped after 18 months.
Cohen completed her master’s degree in Bible, literature and philosophy. (In her book, she describes how Haaretz journalist Tamar Meroz was astounded to learn that Cohen had an academic degree.) Cohen married Emanuel Hanegbi, an operations officer of the Stern Group, who is the father of their sons Tzachi and Yair, who was autistic and died at 20. In 1962 the couple divorced.
From the 1960s, Cohen authored a column in Ma’ariv. In 1973, she was chosen to run for Knesset on the Likud ticket. Cohen is mainly remembered for leaving the Likud in 1978 just after the Camp David Accords were signed to jointly form the Tehiya Party with Prof. Yuval Ne’eman. Since that time, Cohen has divided her time between the Knesset and the territories. The night before Yamit, in northern Sinai, was to be evacuated in 1982, Cohen relocated to the settlement.
As deputy science minister, Cohen was involved in the absorption of Russian scientists.
“It was a very successful aliya, but we made the mistake of not sending some of them to live in Judea and Samaria.”
In 1994, Cohen moved to Hebron and stayed there for seven years.
“I called this my ‘reserve duty,’” she says. “I had a room there, and on weekends I would return to Jerusalem.
Commuting back and forth was not so simple in those days.”
Why did you move to Hebron? Seven members of the same family had been killed, and I went to make a shiva call to the family who was in mourning.
And then I said to myself, ‘How can I just visit for a few hours and then go back to my comfortable life in Jerusalem? I need to come live here.’ Hebron is an amazing historic place. It’s very spiritual. You can really feel it when you’re there. The Arabs living in the area also have very deep roots.
Many people think Hebron is the epitome of the injustice being done to the Arabs by the settlements.
A small group of Jews is carrying out a reign of terror on an entire city. Dan Meridor, a member of the Likud, recently said that it’s unconscionable that for the past 46 years Jews in Hebron have had the right to vote but the Arabs haven’t.
Because they didn’t want it. But if you ask me, I’m willing to include all the Arabs in a Greater Israel and offer them full citizenship, including voting rights.
And I said so when I proposed the basic Jerusalem law.
But then Israel would no longer be a Jewish country, at least from a demographic point of view.
We can deal with that. Do you think that a nation that’s been waiting 4,000 years to come home can be stopped by one serious problem? All the great ideologies have now disappeared. Don’t you think it’s time to give up on the vision of a Greater Israel? Maybe other nations can live without ideology, but we cannot. We were born at Mount Sinai – a very spiritual place – where we were given a unique role in this world.”
You do realize that most Israelis today, especially young people, have no idea what you’re talking about.
One time I went to Beit Hadassah.
Outside, a few nice soldiers were standing guard. They didn’t know anything about Hebron or our forefathers. I felt sorry for them. I wanted to tear off their uniforms and put them on myself. It’s so sad. They are giving three full years of their lives to the IDF, but they have no idea what for.
They have no idea what purpose their sacrifice serves. If our lives don’t have special meaning, then we are just like animals. Animals live, but they don’t know why. We do, and that’s what gives us the strength to go on.
COHEN IS courageous and resourceful.
She knows how to make compromises when necessary and to be diplomatic.
She is patient and tolerant.
An exhibition recently opened at the Herzl-Lilienblum Museum in Tel Aviv titled “Amazing Women Who Have Contributed to Israeli Society.”
Cohen is one of the women featured in the exhibition, alongside Golda Meir, Hannah Szenes, Leah Goldberg and Shulamit Aloni.
Was it difficult being a woman in the world of politics? No, not at all. I believe that all women are natural leaders.
There are more women in senior political positions today than there used to be. What do you think of Shelly Yacimovich? I think she’s fantastic. She’s very opinionated and fights for what she believes in. I also like that she speaks respectfully about settlers.
And what about Yair Lapid? He is very nice. It’s easy to like him.
He’s also courageous. I believe that he will be very successful if he’s in the right place at the right time. I’m not sure that he’s in the right place now, though.
You were a single mother. Do you think you were a good mother? Not good enough. Tzachi says that he was a latch-key kid, but that’s not totally accurate, since there was always someone at home with him. On the other hand, I worried too much. When he was late coming home, I would run around to all the hospitals searching for him to see if he had been injured. Oh, how he would laugh at me. But I couldn’t change the way I was. I became a fighter when I was only 15.
Are you satisfied with the way Tzachi’s political career has turned out? I think that he missed a number of opportunities.
He would have been a great defense minister or prime minister. He has what it takes: analytical thinking, courage even in tough situations and leadership capabilities.
What about the trials and charges? What crime did he commit? He was just doing what everyone else did. He was just recruiting new members for the Likud. I don’t even remember what position he was holding at the time. Granted, I didn’t sleep well while this was going on, but I always believed that in the end his name would be cleared. Tzachi does everything by the book.
Do you think that he was set up? For a time I did, but then I saw how much love and support everyone was showing him – even people on the Left.
Do you think much about getting old? Whenever I get together with other IZL veterans, everyone is always saying, ‘We should all just be healthy,’ and until a few years ago that would make me so mad.
We were all willing to risk our lives for our beliefs, but now the most important thing is our health? But now I see that they were right. In order to get things done, we must first be healthy.
Do you think about death? I prefer not to spend time thinking about things that are out of my control. I do have a very hard time saying goodbye, though.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.