David Ben-Gurion - Government Press Office - May 14, 1948
David Ben-Gurion, May 14, 1948. Photo by Government Press Office
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David Sheen
'War or Peace?' The Manifesto of Avraham Tsfati's Ma'azanei Tsedeq (Scales of Justice) political party. Photo by David Sheen

When Yitzhak Rabin's term as prime minister of Israel was ended abruptly by an assassin's bullet on November 4, 1995, it threw the entire country into a state of shock. Even though there had been widespread discontent among Jewish Israelis over the peace plans that Rabin promoted and partially implemented, few imagined that one of their own would try to change the course of history by gunning him down. And yet, it should not have come as a total surprise, because the first time that a Jew pulled a gun on an Israeli prime minister -- at a session of the Knesset, no less -- had occurred almost fifty years previous.

In 1949, the country was in a state of turmoil, still recovering from a horrible war. Although the United Nations Partition Plan had intended for Jerusalem to become an international protectorate, the armistice agreement signed on April 3 divided the city in half, scuttling the possibility of real peace. So on the afternoon of September 12, 24-year-old Avraham Ben-Malchiel Tsfati entered the Knesset with a vendetta against the government, armed and dangerous. But unlike Rabin's assassin, Tsfati didn't want to quash a peace deal between Jews and Arabs -- he wanted to facilitate one.

Only one year after the State of Israel was established, a young Jewish anti-war activist tried to assassinate its prime minister. On September 12, 1949, at about 5 P.M., 24-year-old Avraham Ben-Malchiel Tsfati (also known as Avraham Isfahani) entered the Israeli parliament building, the Knesset, which at that time was located in Tel Aviv at the Kessem Cinema building (for those familiar with Tel Aviv, where Allenby Street meets Herbert Samuel Street on the boardwalk).

According to a report in Ha'aretz newspaper the next day, Tsfati took a Sten sub-machine gun with a fully loaded clip with 14 bullets out from his underarm and aimed it at then-Prime Minster David Ben-Gurion and his government ministers. The Knesset stenographer claimed that Tsfati then shouted "I'm going to kill Ben-Gurion!"

Knesset ushers managed to disarm Tsfati and hold him before he was able to get off any rounds. In later years, it would alternately be claimed that Tsfati had tried to assassinate then-President Chaim Weizmann.

At his court case a year and a half later, Tsfati revealed that he managed to sneak the Sten gun into the Knesset building by disassembling it, storing it in his suitcase full of papers, and then reassembling it in the Knesset bathroom. Allowed to present his case for the first time in court, he revealed what the newspaper reports that were published in the days that immediately followed the incident did not mention: that after Tsfati was apprehended, he was beaten by some of those in attendance at that fateful session of the Knesset.

Before brandishing his weapon, Haaretz reports that Tsfati had brought into the Knesset bound copies of a photostatted report which he intended to hand out to Knesset members. According to the Government Press Office, the report detailed a plan to build a 12-storey high United Nations world headquarters on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem in order to establish world peace.

Apparently, Tsfati had met with various officials including Knesset Speaker Yosef Shprintsak prior to the date of the incident in attempts to convince them to adopt his idealistic peace plan. Police report that after his attempts had failed, Tsfati told them that he had planned to commit suicide on the floor of the Knesset in protest. After being taken into custody, Tsfati announced the beginning of a hunger strike.

Two days after the incident, Haaretz reported that what Tsfati had actually shouted on the Knesset floor was "Let me see Ben-Gurion!" In Hebrew, the words for "to see" (lir'ot) and "to shoot" (lirot) sound almost identical. Tsfati supposedly feared that if the Knesset took an extended recess, as it planned to, then the legislators would not be able to discuss his plan for a UN headquarters in Jerusalem that would bring about world peace; and that in the interim, a third world war could possibly break out, resulting in devastation and destruction.

Jerusalem syndrome sufferer or proto-anarchist prophet?

Tsfati's report supposedly also contained an autobiography that listed the following details: He was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1926, moved to pre-state Palestine in 1944, left the country in 1945, returned in 1946, spent some time in jail [the country was then ruled by Britain]. Tsfati also claimed to live on Kibbutz Gezer, where he worked a shepherd and from where he said that he acquired the Sten gun. It later learned that when Tsfati left the country between 1945 and 1946, he spent time in Iran, and had been incarcerated there.

Further insight into his motivations was provided at his trial for illegal arms possession and public disturbance, in which Welfare and Social Service Minsiter Yitzhak-Meir Levin claimed that when caught, Tsfati said, "Don't hit me! I'm a leftist, I'm from [Kibbutz] Gezer!" Another witness contradicted this, however, claiming that Tsafti had proclaimed, "I wanted to kill Ben-Gurion! Now kill me!" Interestingly, in subsequent articles in Haaretz, Tsfati is referred to more than once as the "protagonist" of the "Knesset incident".

Tsfati was taken to the psychiatric hospital in Bat Yam, where he was evaluated by doctor who determined that he was pleasant and friendly, but became excited and ecstatic when discussing his peace plan. The doctors told a Tel Aviv court judge that Tsfati had good intentions and wanted to contribute to society, but that he represented a threat to himself and others.

During the doctor's testimony, Tsfati repeatedly interjected, denying that he was crazy. Although Tsfati requested that he be taken to jail, the judge accepted the doctors' recommendation that he be committed to a psychiatric hospital for "as long as the Justice Minister sees fit." After a full year, Tsfati was released from hospital, and it was presumed that he planned to return to Kibbutz Gezer.

But a month after his release, the Justice Minister ordered that the investigation into charges against Tsfati be renewed. A Tel Aviv judge sent Tsfati to another psychiatric hospital, this time in Be'er Ya'akov, though once again Tsfati requested that he instead be held in jail. The hospital director there told the court that Tsfati suffered from paranoia and schizophrenia, but Tsfati denied this, telling the court, "I am not crazy and I am responsible for my actions."

At his preliminary court hearings, Tsfati told the court that as a youth, he read about the sufferings of the Jewish people throughout history, and was very affected by these. He then came to the conclusion that in order to end the bloodletting, the major world powers must agree to disarm, and that an international organization would be needed to carry out this plan. Tsfati believed that that headquarters of this organization must be in Jerusalem, a city holy to three major religions.

In June 1951, Tsfati was convicted of the crimes he had been charged with, and sentenced to two years in prison, beginning retroactively five months previous. After serving 15 months in jail, his sentence was commuted, and he was released from jail in 1952.

Would-be suicide assassin turned would-be citizen diplomat

Five years later, Tsfati returned to the headlines when he announced the formation of a new political party in Israel, Ma'azanei Tsedeq (Scales of Justice), that would advance his peace plan, which rejected both American and Russian colonialism. On the eve of the Jewish holiday of Purim in 1957, Tsfati spoke to an audience at the Mughrabi Theater in Tel Aviv, claiming that his new party numbered 50 members. Youth in the audience, many of whom wore costumes, as is the custom on Purim, cheered him, yelling out, "Let Tsfati rule!"

Before elections for the next Knesset were held, though, Tsfati crossed the border into Syria, apparently in an attempt to convince powerful figures in that country of the importance of his peace plan. Syrian officials returned him to Israel, where he was promptly arrested for crossing into an 'enemy state' illegally. Haaretz reports that he told a judge, "The government isn't doing anything to advance the noble cause of peace between us and the Arabs. Going to Syria was my own personal initiative to try to make [peace] happen."

Tsfati claimed that the Syrians treated him well, but they returned him to Israel because they didn't think that a private individual like himself could have much influence. "Go back to Israel, and when your party gains power and has a majority in the Knesset, we'll invite you back to discuss a peace treaty," they reportedly told him. Tsfati left the Syrians with printed copies of his manifesto, the Scales of Justice, for their consideration.

There are no newspaper reports that detail the conclusions of these court proceedings, but apparently at some point, he was remanded to a psychiatric hospital in Acre: In May 1960, he was returned to Israel from Lebanon in a cease-fire deal that included an exchange of populations that had crossed the border between the two countries, whereupon he was taken to the psychiatric hospital in Acre. Perhaps he had gone to Lebanon for the same reason that he had gone to Syria, to promote his personal plan for Israeli-Arab peace.

Tsfati appealed to a court to have him released from the psychiatric hospital. His appeal seems to have been denied, however, because months later, in January 1961, he managed to escape the hospital's confines once again, reportedly for the fourth time. On the lam, when Tsfati eventually ran out of means, he sought to visit members of his family living in Tiberias, but police had already set up an ambush for him there. He did not resist arrest when caught, and claimed to have no intentions of crossing into any Arab countries again.

But that's exactly what he did on December 29, 1964, when he tried to cross the border into Jordan, three kilometers north of Eilat, near the date orchards of Kibbutz Eilot (at that time, Jordan and Israel were still in a state of war). Tsfati was shot in the head and torso by Jordanian soldiers, and he succumbed to his wounds later on that day. His body was returned to Israel, as was the body of another young Israeli that had tried to cross into Jordan on the same day, Avraham Ben Moshe Kalbo of Be'er Sheva. It is not known whether Kalbo had acted in partnership with Tsfati.