Retelling the Tale of Two Heroines and Their Guns

A play about one female Zionist legend of the Haganah led to the discovery of a historical pistol belonging to another

A portrait of Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi alongside her pistol, October 29, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

November 2, 1921 was a very tense day in Jerusalem. Rumor had it that the Arabs were planning on attacking Jews after demonstrations marking four years since the Balfour Declaration. One of the leaders of the Haganah military organization, which was established at that time, was Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, the wife of the man who was to become Israel’s second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi.

“I’m hiding a small pistol in my clothes and am hurrying back to the Old City,” she wrote in her memoirs, which were incorporated into the Hebrew-language book “The Haganah in Jerusalem.” Ben-Zvi joined a group of Haganah members who were trying to help defend the Jews of the Old City. She described how the small group was attacked by Arabs: “A large rioting crowd, headed by Sheikh al-Shabab, who waved his sword and shouted ‘itbakh al yahud [massacre the Jews].’”

One of the members of the Haganah threw a hand grenade at the assailants, striking one of them in the head, and they retreated. “That day was a turning point. From then on the Haganah would act wherever there was a riot,” Ben-Zvi wrote. The pistol she used, which she mentioned in that incident, for the first of many times in her memoirs, was returned on Monday to the Yad Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, after decades in the possession of the family.

The pistol, manufactured by Melior, was apparently given to Ben-Zvi by the founder and first commander of the Haganah, Eliyahu Golomb, and she used it in the years following the riots of 1921. The pistol was recently discovered in the home of Ben-Zvi’s granddaughter, Yael Ilan, following research for a play, titled “Manya,” about another high-up woman in the Haganah, Manya Shochat. The play was written by Pnina Gary, who had been the fiancée of Eli Ben-Zvi, son of Rachel Yanait and Yitzhak, who was killed in 1948.

“Manya” will be presented by Yad Ben-Zvi on Friday, the same date on which the pistol appeared for the first time in Ben-Zvi’s memoirs, November 2. The pistol will be on display on Friday to the public in the cabin where the couple lived when Yitzhak Ben-Zvi was president.

Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi's pistol, October 29, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

According to Yad Ben-Zvi’s curator, Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, the play and the pistol provide an opportunity to discuss the figures of two women – both had a reputation for being tough commanders, and even merciless murderers. Ben-Zvi is perceived to this day in ultra-Orthodox circles as responsible for the murder of the ultra-Orthodox leader Jacob Israel de Haan in 1924. De Haan was murdered by Haganah members to prevent him from acting abroad to try to rescind the Balfour Declaration. But Ben-Zvi was apparently not the one who sent the murderers. To this day posters appear from time to time on the walls of ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem blaming her for the murder.

Manya Shochat did kill a Russian intelligence agent who entered her apartment while she was packing a weapon intended for defense of the Jews in Russia. After she killed him, she put his body into a crate and mailed it to a false address. Evidence of her reputation can be found on the Facebook page of Kan Broadcasting Channel 11’s satirical program “The Jews are Coming.” In recent weeks the page has been advertising the program and one picture shows an actress dressed as Manya Shochat, over which are the words “One of the founders of Hashomer and a psychotic killer who cut up a man and put him in a suitcase.”

“If she had been a man, her act would have been perceived as heroic,” Shalev-Khalifa said. “No one would have called her a psychotic killer.” Shochat’s granddaughter, Ron Mei Bar, wrote to Kan: “Manya did indeed kill a man under unique circumstances, defending herself when the only choice she had was him, or her and the entire weapons delivery project. If she had been a man she would have been glorified forever for this act.”