The First Female Pilot in Pre-state Israel’s Elite Fighting Force

Dita Perah, whose father Yitzhak Ben Jacob helped found pre-state Israel’s first airline, undertook aerial intelligence missions photographing Arab villages for the Palmach

Dita Perah at pilot training in the 1940s.
Palmach Photo Archive

Dita Perah, the first female pilot in pre-state Israel’s elite fighting unit, died at 93 last week in Kibbutz Beit Hashita.

Her life story begins with her father, Yitzhak Ben Jacob, who was born at the end of the 19th century in Russia and immigrated to Israel in 1908, where he joined the founders of Kibbutz Degania Alef, Israel’s first communal settlement.

It was there that Ben Jacob married Yona Greenspan, an educator originally from Odessa. In 1924, the couple had twins: Dita (Yehudit) and Sarah (Siya). They later had another daughter, Rachel.

In their youth, the girls studied under the kindergarten teacher Miriam Singer, a friend of Franz Kafka. In later years, Dita related how as a child she rummaged through letters from Joseph Trumpeldor, the Zionist activist and war hero who was a friend of her father. The letters were kept at their home, but she didn’t understand their contents because the letters were written in Russian.

As part of his activities in the Haganah, Ben Jacob – together with Dov Hoz, a Zionist leader and one of the founders of the pre-independence army of Palestine’s Jews – founded Aviron, the pre-state community’s first airline. Its goal was to train pilots for the future state. In 1940, though, he was killed in a road accident that also claimed the lives of Hoz and some of his family members. The accident shocked the entire community. (The city airport in Tel Aviv bears Hoz’s name today, while the small airport in Rosh Pina is named after Ben Jacob.

Dita Perah during her days in the Palmach.
Palmach Photo Archive

A year after her father’s death, Dita, then 17, joined the famed trek to Masada by the Hanoar Haoved Vehalomed youth movement, guided by Palmach leader Shmaryahu Gutman (considered the father of the legend of Masada). During that trek, a plan was formed to create a “Masada on Mount Carmel,” where the Jewish population would gather for a last-ditch stand in case the Germans invaded what was then British Mandatory Palestine.

In 1943, Dita joined the Palmach – the elite fighting force of the pre-state underground Haganah organization – where she was a radio operator. She was also a member of an entertainment troupe along with poet Haim Gouri. Later, when an aerial branch of the Palmach was established, she volunteered to serve in it.

“Other girls didn’t even consider that, but I was connected to it from home,” she recounted years later. “I didn’t think twice and volunteered.” First, she did a gliders’ course in Givat Hamoreh, near Afula, which was concealed from the British authorities as a sporting activity. She later learned how to fly at a club in Ramle.

“I lived among the men as the only woman,” she said. “I was like one of them. I wasn’t singled out for better or worse. Equality between men and women was self-evident.”

As part of her operational duties, she conducted aerial photography of Arab villages for the Haganah’s intelligence service.

Dita, center, with female colleagues from the Palmach.
Beit HaShita

It was during her service that she met her husband, Zalman Perah, one of the first members of the Palmach and co-founder of its naval branch. Their first son was born in Degania Alef. They then moved to Beit Hashita, Zalman’s kibbutz. She stopped training after she became a mother.

“In my kibbutz, which was fighting for its existence at the time, a woman couldn’t even dream of a luxury called flying,” she recalled. In an interview with historian Dr. Nir Mann, she said women shouldn’t become combat pilots. “That job is unsuited to the physiology and mentality of a woman. Men have skills and suitability to flying much more than women do,” she added.

After the state was founded in 1948, she learned a method of movement notation with choreographer Noa Eshkol (the daughter of future Prime Minister Levi Eshkol). She later developed her own style for teaching movement to children. In 1949, she participated as a dancer and choreographer in an international festival for democratic youth, held in Budapest. In 1957, she traveled to the international youth festival in Moscow.

In 1984, with the establishment of the nonprofit group Dor Hapalmach, she set up a Palmach photo archive, traversing the country in search of photos hiding in private albums. “The archive started out in shoeboxes under Dita’s bed,” Mann recounted this week.

“Heritage is a bombastic word and archives usually means closed dossiers. For me, it’s a collection of photos that tell the history of the Palmach,” Dita said in an interview with writer and Palmach member Tehila Ofer.

Her eldest son, Yitzhak – who was named after his grandfather who died in that 1940 road accident – was killed in 1971, also in an accident. Husband Zalman died in 1989.

Dita died on November 22, leaving behind two daughters and a son, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, as well as her twin sister, Sarah, who is the widow of Maj. Gen. Yohai Ben-Nun, a former commander of the Israel Navy, as well as their younger sister Rachel.