More Than Six Decades On, Israel Memorializes Late Commander of British Army's Jewish Unit

Defense Ministry shrugs off duty to honor head of British Army Jewish unit.

In February 2010, Amos Danieli wrote Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, asking him to intervene and allow for the restoration of the grave of Lt. Col. Eliazar Margolin, a commander of the Jewish Fusilier battalion that served as part of the British Army during the 1910s and 20s. Danieli permitted himself to open his letter to the prime minister: "Bibi, my friend," and a reminder that they had served together in the same elite military intelligence unit of the Sayeret Matkal. On May 13, 1969, they had boarded commando boats together under cover of night in order to penetrate behind enemy lines north of Kantara in the Suez Canal, ambush and kill Egyptian soldiers. This took place at the height of the War of Attrition, in which Egypt bombed Israeli positions on the east bank of the canal, and sent commando forces to kill and kidnap soldiers.

Eliazar Margolin

When the teams were in the middle of the 180-meter wide canal, they were sighted and fired upon. One of the soldiers, Haim Ben-Yona, was killed immediately. The others jumped from the boats and swam to the Israeli side. Netanyahu, who was carrying two heavy crates of ammunition on his back, sank like a stone. His fellow soldier Doron Salzburg hurried to his aid and saved him from drowning. The exhausted Netanyahu continued to swim slowly toward the shore, a few dozen meters away. When he was just within its reach, his strength ran out and he began to go under. Danieli, who saw what was happening, pulled him out of the water and onto the shore.

Amos Danieli is a scion of the founders of Rehovot, one of the first Jewish colonies in Palestine, the Land of Israel, and was born there. In recent years he has been living in nearby Karmei Yosef, but continues to be active in the struggle to preserve Rehovot's (now a city 20 km south of Tel Aviv ) legacy and historical sites, serving as the chairman of the association dedicated to these issues. The association has, in recent years, taken on restoration of the town's old cemetery, and in this way discovered Margolin's grave.

The Margolin family, also among the founders of Rehovot, immigrated to Palestine from Czarist Russia in 1891, when Eliazar was 17. With Moshe Smilansky, he became one of the city's young leaders, and rode with his friends in the honor guard for the visit of Theodore Herzl in 1898. He also served for a short time as a teacher on the local school.

His parents died in 1902. Margolin, who was not cut out to run the family farm, emigrated to Australia, where he worked as a merchant. Due to his adventurous and macho nature, he enlisted in the Australian Army at the start of World War I, becoming an officer, and fighting in the bloody battle against the Turks in Gallipoli, where he was wounded. After he recovered he returned to the front, fought in the battle for the Somme in France, and was wounded again. He was hospitalized in England, where he was visited by Zeev Jabotinsky.

Jabotinsky, a leader of right-wing "Revisionist" Zionism, was also founder of the Jewish battalions in the British Army. He suggested that Margolin take command of one of the battalions. Margolin agreed, and joined the forces of Gen. Allenby that overcame the Turks in Palestine. Future Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Israel's second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, served under his command.

During the years 1919 to 1921, the four battalions were united into one - called the First in Yehuda - commanded by Margolin. The unit was located in the military base of Sarafand, 20 km east of Tel Aviv, and during the Arab riots of 1921, it was called to defend Jewish residents of Tel Aviv from the Arabs of Jaffa, but did so without having obtained official permission. Margolin joined his fellow Jewish soldiers. His British commanders saw this as disobeying orders and they threatened to courtmarshal him if he did not resign from the service. Margolin left the army and returned to his business in Australia. Among other things that he did there, he owned a gas station.

He married, though the couple had no children, and died in Sydney in 1944. In 1950, thanks to a childhood friend, Moshe Smilansky, Margolin's wishes, as outlined in his will, were carried out and he was reburied in Israel, in his parents' plot in the old Rehovot cemetery, in a somewhat official ceremony arranged by the Defense Ministry. Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi walked behind the coffin, along with the chief of staff of the Israeli army and his generals.

His grave has been neglected ever since, crumbling to pieces over the years. Amos Danieli approached the Defense Ministry about a year and a half ago, requesting funds for restoration. Danieli says he feels the ministry is obligated to preserve the memory of one of the pioneers of Jewish defense forces which paved the way for the Israeli army. The ministry thinks otherwise. In a terse letter reflecting bureaucratic indifference, Avi Amsalem of the family memorial department wrote, "Eliazar Margolin is not a soldier who fell in the line of duty in an Israeli battle. He died of natural causes. As to an explanatory plaque, he is one individual. There are many fallen soldiers whose stories are heroic, but they are not told in the cemetery."

Danieli hoped that the brotherhood of soldiers might be of use. But his personal and moving letter to the prime minister went unanswered. Finally, as often happens when the state shrugs off responsibility, a solution was found that involves philanthropy. The Richard Pratt Fund (named for an Australian Jew ) contributed NIS 30,000, and last Sunday, in a modest ceremony attended by the Australian Ambassador Adrienna Funkler, and Rahamim Malul, the mayor of Rehovot - and in the absence of representatives from the Ministry of Defense - the restored grave was dedicated.

Netanyahu office has responded that, "Amos is a personal friend of the prime minister. If the letter had arrived, he would have answered it immediately. A check of the prime minister's office reveals that Mr. Danieli's letter never arrived."