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Nathan Elbaz – the Israeli Hero From Morocco

Itamar Kremer

On February 11, 1954, IDF spokesman released a brief laconic message: “21 years old private Nathan Elbaz sacrificed his life in order to prevent a catastrophic loss of lives of his friends, while a grenade exploded. The deceased soldier has no address, and no relatives to announce his death”.

However, Nathan Elbaz (born on October 17, 1932 – 87 years ago), did have an address. When he came to Israel from Sefrou, near Fez in Morocco, he left behind his parents, who eventually received the letter with the sad news of their son’s heroic death, along with a commendation by the Chief of Staff, Moshe Dayan.

The story of the Nathan, the young courageous Givati fighter, joined the Israeli heroic ethos. After one of the operational activities, Nathan volunteered to disarm grenades, and accidentally released one safety lever. He had four seconds before the blast. Nathan ran outside the tent to throw the grenade, but seeing all his friends, he yelled “grenade”, jumped to the nearby trench, and laid on the grenade, thus saving his friends from the blast and shrapnel.

Elbaz’s sublime act of heroism was the first in a chain of similar incidents: Oved Lezinski, a Paratroopers commander, was killed in this exact way in the Mitle battle; Hagay Bar Orian acted the same way on Mount Scopus in 1964; Eitan Merkel threw himself on a grenade dropped by one of his subordinates in 1969 during training; Moshe Yitzhak Tobal saved all his friends when he laid on a grenade during battle on the first day of the Yom Kippur War; and most recent and renown, Major Roi Klein, who threw himself on an enemy’s grenade, shouting “Shema Israel”, during the battle in Bint Jbeil in July 2006.

Honor guard at Elbaz's funeral, February 1954 (Goverment Press Office, Wikipedia)

Honor guard at Elbaz’s funeral, February 1954 (Goverment Press Office, Wikipedia)

The self-sacrifice of Nathan Elbaz left a deep mark in the chronicles of the young state as an act for the sake of both the comrades and country. It was told again and again and is still being told by campfires, in memorial ceremonies in schools, youth movements, and in the army’s combat units.

Underneath the personal tragedy of Private Elbaz, there also lays the story of a new society struggling through a complex process of cultures integration.

By 1954, the IDF was nothing like the proud army who had defeated all Arab armies back in the War of Independence. The society in Israel has also changed a lot. Within less than four years, over 700,000 new immigrants arrived at Israel, half of them from Europe and half from Asia and North Africa. At the end of the war, IDF’s strength was reduced by 80%, and new manpower had to replace the victorious war heroes. It was a time of austerity. The IDF was failing to cope with the infiltrators in all fronts, nor with the neighboring states’ attempts to change the unmarked borders of the long cease-fire. In the Syrian front during April-May 1951, IDF lost bloody battles in Al Hama and in Tel Mutila, and suffered 48 casualties. In 1953 the Givati Brigade, the 890 Battalion, and the 7th Brigade failed again and again in Palame, Rantis, Husan, Midie and other places.

Regardless of the old saying “success has many fathers, failure is an orphan”, these military failures did not remain orphans for long. In many cases, the simple soldiers were blamed. There were rumors about the low standards of the soldiers, who were new “olim”, many of whom had poor education, as they came straight from the ma’abarot and were commanded by veteran officers, who belonged to the old-timer families – vatikim. Those were hard times: Israel was trying to recover from a horrible war in which one percent of the population was killed in action, and about one-sixth of the Palmach fighters were lost; huge immigration waves kept flooding the young impoverished state; and infiltrators were attacking border settlements. The IDF had to reinvent itself. Therefore, in late July 1953, the new chief of staff Moshe Dayan authorized the founding of a new unit, called “101”, whose mission was to raid and patrol behind the lines, introducing new standards of military actions (after a few months it merged with 890 Battalion).

But how could the problems be solved, even after creating the 101, if indeed the quality of the soldiers was insufficient? A meeting held between Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and the high commanders in 1955 reveals the leadership’s concerns with the poor level of the fighters. It was after the Nitsana battle of Golani and Nachal, in which they achieved an unequivocal victory over the Egyptians, who had 80 casualties. Only 6 Israelis were killed, and one – called Raphael (Raful) Eitan) – injured.

David Ben Gurion with new immigrants in a Ma'abara. Israel, 1950's. Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Shimon Avisemer, Israel

David Ben Gurion with new immigrants in a Ma’abara. Israel, 1950’s. Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Shimon Avisemer, Israel

In that debriefing, Ben Gurion was less interested in military strategies or micro tactical conclusions, but rather wished to know one thing: could they trust the regulars in service, who came from Asia and Africa (the “mizrachim”)? Did the commanders think the IDF was prepared for the next campaign? Apparently, he could not rest assured by their answers. Ben Gurion dared not plan another war until only a year later, and only after being promised by Britain and France to guarantee the safety of Israel.

Back to February 1954 now, to Nathan Elbaz. Our hero was one of the thousands of young olim who left their homes in the Maghreb after inspiring encounters with messengers from the State of Israel who encouraged them to make Aliyah. Nathan has tried to leave to Israel several times, but his parents did not approve, so he was only able to pull it off after he turned 18, without telling his parents of his plan. In his letters home he expressed his longings, but also his strong belief that he did the right thing, and sounded optimistic about his future in the Jewish state. His commanders and friends said he used to stay in the base even on leaves because he had no relatives in Israel. A decade after his death, the “Bamachane” newspaper published a reportage by Moshe Nathan, who portrayed a unique kid-soldier with a fair face and a big smile, and retold his heroic act. But it was thanks to another Nathan that Elbaz’s story was fully accepted into Israeli mythology – the poet Nathan Alterman.

Alterman, who was fascinated with everything that went on in the army and society, wrote a poem about Elbaz for his column Hatur Hashvi’i, which gives us an ironic glimpse of how the Israeli society perceived the mizrachim at that period.

Alterman’s poem glorifies “the beasty frenzy” of Elbaz, “son of Morocco”. Elbaz in the poem “rides furiously like a wild man… who is hot-tempered, outside the law… leaps forth, roars loudly… stirring much ado in the world”. In his poem, Alterman both unfolded Elbaz’s story but at the same time mocked the mistaken, insulting stereotype of the mizrachim in the eyes of the other Israelis.

Nathan Elbaz 1932-1954

Nathan Elbaz 1932-1954

Five years after this column was published, Elbaz made his final entrance to Israeli canon, this time in a slightly different way. After the inter-ethnic conflict in Israel that followed the Wadi Saliv riots, and is still present in Israeli discourse today, Jo Amar released a record of protest songs. One unusual song was Nathan Nathan, written by Amos Ettinger, then a soldier in the army entertainment group. The song became a hit overnight, turning Nathan Elbaz not only an Israeli hero but also a hero of his ethnic community: “In my class there were sons of distant countries, Russia and France, and sons of the Galilee with laughing faces, and also one son of Morocco, Nathan.”

Nathan Elbaz is commemorated in many cities. His is a story in which the sum is bigger than the parts. A story of a simple private, a young idealistic man, whose heroic death made him the hero of two songs, of one community, and of one state.

 

(Translated from Hebrew by Danna Paz Prins)

Beit Hatfutsot