An urge to contribute

At 94, Hagana veteran Tamar Eshel looks back on a life of impressive and extraordinary achievements.

Setting up Kibbutz Ma’ale Hahamisha near Jerusalem in 1938 (photo credit: COURTESY TAMAR ESHEL)
Setting up Kibbutz Ma’ale Hahamisha near Jerusalem in 1938
(photo credit: COURTESY TAMAR ESHEL)
LAST SEPTEMBER, hundreds of veterans of the Hagana, the prestate underground paramilitary force, met for a celebration in Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park. Established 94 years ago, the Hagana was organized originally to combat the Arab revolts against the Jewish settlements of Palestine. Outlawed by the British Mandatory authorities, though tolerated during World War II, it was dismantled in 1948 with the formation of the Israel Defense Forces.
Hagana veterans, now in their 80s and 90s, continue to hold reunions, though time has taken its toll and few are left. Whitehaired grandmothers and grandfathers, some accompanied by Filipino caretakers, others walking from the parking lot escorted by motorcycle cops, came to the “Decade of the Hagana centennial,” though the organization won’t celebrate its 100th anniversary for another six years.
Among the veterans at the gathering was 94-year-old Tamar Eshel, who was recruited to the Hagana at the age of 14. In the 1930s, while in London to study, she was re-recruited to operate a clandestine wireless receiving station. In 1943, she joined the British army.
“We were the servants of two masters,” Eshel says today. “We served both the king and the leaders of the Yishuv [Jewish community in Palestine].”
Eshel’s mother Zilla Feinberg was a member of the well-known Feinberg and Belkind families of Bilu pioneers, who came to Palestine in 1882. Zilla’s brother was Avshalom Feinberg, one of the leaders of Nili, a Jewish spy network in Ottoman Palestine during World War I. Tamar’s father, Ze’ev Shoham, was among the first attorneys in Palestine. Born in London while her parents were emissaries of the London Zionist Executive in England, Eshel returned with them to Mandatory Palestine in 1923.
Along with the family’s citrus groves, she recalls ski vacations in Lebanon and visits to Damascus.
She had returned to London to study plant entomology at Kings College when World War II broke out and science faculties were being evacuated. She and the other students from Palestine (“we were known as the ‘Palestinians’”) were asked to help receive Jewish children who were being sent from Europe to special camps in England.
Called one morning to the Zionist Organization office in London, she met one of the top leaders of the Hagana, who asked if she would be willing to stay in London for a very important mission. “They told me it was an illegal operation and if I was caught they would deny having had any contact with me,” she recalls to The Jerusalem Report. She agreed.
The mission was to establish a station to send coded messages back and forth between Palestine and London. She and fellow Hagana member Israel Dostrovsky (who would later become president of the Weizmann Institute of Science) managed to find an apparatus with the appropriate wavelength for receiving – though not sending – messages. That fault was their luck.
“Had the transmissions been two-way we would have been discovered within a week,” recalls Eshel. She deciphered the incoming messages, which she then delivered to the Jewish Agency heads.
By then, the German Blitz on London had begun. Searching for a higher residence so she could operate more easily, Eshel found a house on the city’s Primrose Hill. “It was a bit above my budget, so I asked the owners for a day so I could get permission. When I returned the next day, the house had been completely demolished by a bomb.”
By 1942, the British army had begun recruiting women and Eshel wanted to enlist (her birthplace in London gave her the right to a British passport), but the Hagana wouldn’t agree because they needed her for the radio transmissions.
“I felt terrible that I wasn’t contributing to the war effort, so I volunteered to be an air raid warden,” she recalls. “In the great fire in the London port I was there to help, but I thought I should do more.” She persuaded the Labor Office to assign her to a factory that manufactured gun turrets for planes. Refusing to do “women’s work,” she trained to do the actual metal work – the only woman who did this job.
What Eshel really wanted, however, was to join the British army. “This was quite a difficult decision for people who saw the British as enemies, the oppressors in Palestine, to be a member of the British army,” she admits.
She pleaded with Moshe Shertok (later Moshe Sharett, then head of the Jewish Agency’s political department and later second prime minister of Israel) to let her enlist. When he finally agreed, she signed up and, in 1943, was sent to Scotland as a driver of three-ton trucks shuttling between transit camps.
She repeatedly asked to be sent to the Middle East, but was told only “natives” could be drivers in the Middle East and she was British. So she trained as a secretary and in 1944 she got her overseas posting to Egypt. Apparently unaware she was from Palestine, once in Cairo she was assigned to the Military Intelligence branch. Requesting leave to visit her parents in Haifa, she was called in by the military intelligence officer who asked why she wanted to holiday in Palestine.
“Stupidly, I said, ‘for all intents and purposes I am a Palestinian; I grew up there and studied there and I want to see my parents whom I haven’t seen for a long time,’” she recalls telling him. “The officer turned several shades of purple. There were other Palestinian Jews in the British army, but not in intelligence, and here I was working in an office with the highest level of security in the army.”
She was immediately shown the door without even being allowed to fetch her hat and bag from her desk.
Eshel’s Hagana commanders were furious at her unfortunate confession, having tried unsuccessfully to infiltrate British army intelligence. But, in fact, the British knew nothing of her work for the Hagana and simply reassigned her to the Education Corps. She juggled her time so she could work with Hagana agents in Egypt, teaching Hebrew and helping to send Egyptian Jews to Palestine.
In 1945, she was posted to Jerusalem and began setting up libraries for the British troops stationed in Palestine, all the while continuing clandestine activities for the Hagana. It was a period of great tensions and bombings in Jerusalem. During curfews she delivered messages between the Jewish Agency and the Hagana. The British seemed not to suspect her, but Eshel felt she had had enough of her double life and asked to be discharged.
She became a full-time officer in the political and military intelligence service of the Hagana in Jerusalem, which included work with the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine in 1947.
After the UN decision to partition Palestine, she was sent to Europe to engage in arms purchases and then put in charge of illegal immigration operations in Marseilles. “Aliya Dalet” organized immigration to Palestine of Jewish refugees who had survived the war – mostly young people and many orphans who had been found throughout Eastern Europe.
“We forged passports of real people for them so they wouldn’t be sent to the DP camp in Cyprus if they were caught,” she explains. “When they proclaimed the establishment of Israel on Friday, the 14th of May [1948], I was so busy sending thousands of people to the country that I couldn’t even raise a glass in honor of the new state that we’d been dreaming of and fighting for.”
In 1948, Eshel married economist Lionel Schwartz and, in 1949, had a daughter, Yael, and then divorced. Eight years later she married Arie Eshel, like herself an employee of the Foreign Ministry.
They have a daughter, Ruth.
Aside from one year when Yael was born, Tamar never stayed at home. “I knew nothing about housework and had to learn to do everything,” she recalls.
“But I went back to work when I understood my marriage was ending and I had to earn my own way.”
And thus began her long career in the Foreign Ministry. She was sent to New York as First Secretary of the Israeli permanent mission to the United Nations in 1955. When the Suez Crisis broke out in 1956, Abba Eban was ambassador to the US and was expected to address the General Assembly. Eshel was tasked with crafting a speech while having been left in the dark as to events.
“We didn’t get a single cable from Israel to explain to us what was going on,” she discloses today. “No one gave us any information. I had to find out from delegates from other countries and from newspapers from Arab countries. I stapled together various bits and pieces.
Eban didn’t know anything either. We had to make it up as we went.”
She was recalled to Israel in 1968 to become director of the Technical Assistance Department in prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s office.The director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office at the time was Teddy Kollek. He and Eshel had worked together in the Hagana and in the Foreign Ministry, and were close friends and associates long before Kollek became the storied mayor of Jerusalem.
“Teddy could be a difficult fellow to work with, but if he trusted you he wouldn’t interfere with your work,” she says fondly.
Immediately after the Six Day War in 1967, Kollek asked her to be in charge of international relations and church affairs for the city. In the 1970s she was elected to the Jerusalem City Council three times, serving as deputy mayor and holding the education portfolio – a position she held even while she was a Member of Knesset for the Labor (Alignment) Party. “We built 360 classrooms a year in Jerusalem, for the Arabs and the Haredim; it was a record. It was a period when I never slept.”
Eshel is deeply saddened by the escalating violence in Jerusalem today, and the tension surrounding the Temple Mount. “In those early days, we met freely with Arab residents, and sat nights in discussion and arguments,” she recalls. “I used to go to the Temple Mount with visitors, the waqf was very friendly. It was a different atmosphere altogether.
“People don’t understand that the boundaries of Jerusalem annexed after the Six Day War were very artificial, incorporating Arab villages,” she continues.
“There is no real integration of these populations. People who speak so vociferously of never dividing Jerusalem have never been to these neighborhoods.
There is a real material problem for the Arab population in Jerusalem. Even the municipality doesn’t send services, people are afraid to go there,” she sighs.
Declared a Distinguished Citizen of Jerusalem in 1990, Eshel is frankly angered by moves by Jewish groups to buy up buildings in Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
“It’s idiotic to say that Jews once lived in Silwan,” she argues. “Yes, 110 years ago the Yemenites were put there by the leaders of the city to be out of the way.
But we should remember the thousands of Arab-owned houses we requisitioned in the western part without their consent.
I suspect that these are deliberate provocations so the Arabs will disappear.”
From 1977 to 1984, Tamar served as a Labor Party (Alignment) Member of the ninth and tenth Knessets. Although she became an MK after Golda Meir was no longer prime minister, as a member of the Labor Party’s central committee she had worked with her on various projects and incurred Meir’s wrath with her proposal to set aside 25 percent of the candidates on the list for the Knesset as women.
“Golda was furious with me,” recalls Eshel. “She insisted that ‘a talented woman will always succeed.’ But that wasn’t true even in her case. She was only appointed minister of labor through Ben-Gurion, not through the party. Later on, I had a good relationship with her, but we were never buddies.”
When Eshel was an MK, just 10 percent of Knesset Members were women – today it is barely 22 percent.
Though she has been active in a very long list of women’s organizations, including as chair of the Council of Women’s Organizations and as head of Na’amat (the Movement of Working Women and Volunteers), Eshel says that when it comes to politics “there is no friendship between women. When I first came to the Knesset they barely showed me where the loo was. I was horrified.
I chose committees where I wouldn’t be in competition with the old guard of women.”
She has long been active in organizations promoting women’s status and has represented the country at numerous international women’s conferences.
Does she see any improvement in Israeli women’s status in the last two decades? “There have been some achievements,” Eshel allows. “Some Orthodox women have become more active and, for the first time, there are rabbinic pleaders [a position in a rabbinical court equivalent to that of a lawyer in a secular law court]. But I would say that the rabbinic establishment is one of the greatest hurdles to improving the status of women.
Unfortunately, we are captives of an obsolete law from Turkish times that our status is determined in religious courts, and there is still no civil marriage.”
Hers has been a life of impressive, even extraordinary, achievements, but Eshel is wary of speaking on a personal level.
“In this era of self-promoting, I’m very much a product of the pre-state era. In those days, what you wanted was to be able to contribute, to do your bit – the last thing you wanted was to be public; you wanted to be anonymous, so you knew you were doing the right thing.
“I belong to a generation that was taught to give up a great deal of personal indulgence for the sake of communal or national needs. We may have gone a bit too far with this.”