Prisoners of Zion remembered

Pre-state fighters enjoy rare return to spotlight in third annual gathering in Tel Aviv.

prisoners of zion 298.88 (photo credit: Haviv Rettig)
prisoners of zion 298.88
(photo credit: Haviv Rettig)
"It's so exciting it brings tears to my eyes," 82-year-old Naftali Dresner said Thursday. "In the first years after independence, they ignored the underground movements completely." In the background at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, at a ceremony commemorating thousands of prisoners of Zion and those killed for their commitment to Zionism and Jewish life, a band played Hanukka melodies and ballads from the War of Independence. The event was attended by some 800 prisoners of Zion and families of those who lost their lives. It was sponsored by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry. Dresner's older brother Yehiel was executed by the British in April 1947 after he was convicted of membership in the Irgun (Etzel), an underground organization that fought for independence. Another brother, Tzvi, a senior commander in the Irgun, was arrested five days after his wedding in 1944 by the British, and was sent to prison camps in Tunisia, the Sudan and Kenya. He was released in June 1948 and returned to Israel. "Nobody knows these stories anymore," Dresner, who also belonged to the Irgun before 1948, told The Jerusalem Post. "They don't teach it at school, and nobody reads the books." Abraham Ben-Har was sentenced to hang by the British for his membership in the Stern Gang (Lehi) from 1944 to 1948. He survived a shoot-out with British troops that claimed the lives of nine Lehi fighters, and was arrested along with 18 men and four women. The men were sentenced to hang. Ben-Har said he survived because "we treated our trial as a [combat] operation." To reduce the potential backlash in the Jewish community, he said, the British tried to convince some of the suspects to claim they were under 18, which would prevent them from being sentenced to death by British law. Ben-Har, who was 18, and the others refused, eventually forcing the authorities to back down. "It is fitting to hold this event during Hanukka," Immigrant Absorption Minister Ze'ev Boim told the attendees. "This holiday was dear to the Zionist movement because its values and symbols reflect the resurgence of Israel throughout the generations." Israel has recognized more than 3,000 people as prisoners of Zion. Some 2,200 live in Israel, including 795 from Eastern Europe, 714 from Muslim countries, 368 from Ethiopia and 325 who served in the Jewish underground movements during the British Mandate. Thursday's event was the third annual ceremony commemorating prisoners of Zion, as mandated by a Knesset law passed in 2003.