Israel's 1948 Icon of Femininity, Ziva Arbel, Dies at 85

Ziva Arbel's wartime photograph 'shaped the self-perception of an entire generation.'

Avshalom Halutz
Avshalom Halutz
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Avshalom Halutz
Avshalom Halutz

Ziva Arbel, whose photographed image during the War of Independence became a long-standing icon of Israeli femininity, died at her home in Savyon on Sunday. She was 85.

She was photographed in 1948 by Boris Carmi, the photographer of the Israel Defense Forces newspaper "Bamahane," while attending a fighters' gathering which took place after the fall of Lod. In a famous photo Arbel can be seen leaning on a pine tree, lost in thought. She is wearing very short khaki shorts that expose her long legs, her head wrapped in an Arab kaffiyeh, with a pistol on her belt, and a white bandage on her forehead.

"The shorts, the exposed legs, and the kaffiyeh convey femininity, power, and rootedness and make Arbel into a model figure," wrote Nitza Levavi in the catalog of the exhibition "A Woman of Valor," curated by Noga Ravad at the Negev Art Museum in 2008. "This photograph is undoubtedly one of the images that shaped the self-perception of an entire generation. The group of fighters privileges the feminine presence and the photograph represents this relation, rather than presenting the woman in her own right."

One girl among 136 men

Arbel is the only soldier in the picture carrying a weapon, and her concerned and thoughtful expression stands out against the background of the amused men around her, who pay no attention to her. In an interview with Haaretz reporter Yuval Azoulay three years ago, Arbel related that Carmi had said in a radio interview that she had pretty legs, which caught his attention. That annoyed her. "He took my picture simply because I was there. A single girl among many men. A hundred and thirty-six men to be exact," she said.

A few days later Carmi photographed Arbel again, this time while she was sipping water from a clay jug while resting in the Arabic village of Barfiliya near Latrun. The photograph was the inspiration for Avraham Halfi's "The Jug," sung by Shoshana Damari and later by Shlomo Artzi.

Arbel had made aliyah from Turkey on her own as Ziva Halevi, joined the Palmach elite fighting forces and became a communications officer in the third battalion of the Yiftach Brigade.

"Throughout my service I did not ask for concessions, nor did I receive them," she told Azoulay. "When I began the officers' course I was told I wouldn't last for even a week because the course was so difficult, and indeed it was. Many men dropped out but I completed the course with distinction."

The iconic photograph of Ziva Arbel taken in 1948.Credit: Boris Carmi

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