They Took Up Arms for Israel, but No One Remembers the Women of the Doomed Gush Etzion Front

Among the many women who fought 22 paid with their lives, yet remained outside the collective memory

Naomi Orev, a veteran of the War of Independence on the Gush Etzion front, April 2017.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

On the afternoon of May 13, 1948, the fighters of Kfar Etzion raised a white flag to Jordan’s Arab Legion. They didn’t know that within hours Israel’s independence would be declared in Tel Aviv.

They had defended the village Kfar Etzion near Jerusalem for weeks. But shortly after they surrendered, their fate was sealed – Jordanian legionnaires and Arab irregulars massacred all but three of them.

The fallen fighters included 22 women, most of them in their 20s, who fought alongside the men as equals. While the heroic story of Kfar Etzion is etched in the Israeli collective memory, the story of the women who fell has been marginalized.

“My mother was a very special phenomenon,” says Yossi Ron, the son of Tzipora Rosenfeld, one of the 22 women. “She was the only mother who fought.”

Ron, a resident of the settlement Elkana, was a day old when his father Yehiel and his mother fought on the front.

“She received a kind of medal of valor for crawling to take care of a wounded fighter in the middle of battle,” Ron says. “She was a trained medic and wrote letters to her sister that she had become a bit numb to blood. She was known as brave, and she was a natural with a weapon.”

Rosenfeld, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, immigrated to Israel after meeting her future husband in a Nazi labor camp. When the children and mothers were evacuated from the Gush Etzion region near Jerusalem for fear the children might lose both parents, Rosenfeld refused to leave.

“The evacuation of the mothers and children started on January 5. Some mothers remained but soon decided to join the children. They realized that it wouldn’t be short and that the children needed them,” Ron says.

“My mother was the only one who remained. I think she wasn’t sorry about it until April. She would have been completely at peace with her decision until it broke her that the nanny wrote that I was calling her ‘Mama.’ It was the moment she wanted to join me what made her hesitate. She didn’t want to be perceived as fleeing the fighting.”

75 women taken prisoner

Rosenfeld stayed on at the front and Ron became an orphan in May. Her insistence on being a fighter was no exception, says Dr. Lilach Rosenberg-Friedman, a Land of Israel studies and archaeology professor at Bar-Ilan University. Her research shows that Kfar Etzion women, like women from the Haganah and the Palmach who joined them in defending Gush Etzion, shared the fighting with the men.

“Women didn’t usually go out to the positions, but they did share guard duty,” Rosenberg-Friedman says. “They were medics and in communications.”

Twenty of the women were religious, but that didn’t stop them from fighting with the men. “Fighting together didn’t stem from the desire to imitate men or feminism, but there was the matter of taking an equal part in the burden of building the nation,” she says.

Besides the 22 fallen, 75 female fighters (from the kibbutz and defense forces) were taken prisoner by the Jordanians and were released a few weeks later. One of them was the Palmach’s Naomi Orev, who joined the convoy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in March 1948.

“I was at a Purim ball in Tel Aviv the evening before,” she told Haaretz this week. “Whenever they said ‘Gush Etzion’ there was a feeling of death, of blood. No one gets out of Gush Etzion alive. That’s why, it seems, they didn’t tell us we were headed there.”

After the convoy reached Gush Etzion, Orev couldn’t get back to Tel Aviv, so she and other Palmach members spent a few weeks among the local people.

“We were four Palmach girls, and the rest were boys,” she says. “I would walk to Kfar Etzion [from Kibbutz Massuot Yitzhak] every morning to work in the hospital. We also set up all kinds of ambushes on the Hebron road. We participated exactly like the boys.”

Orev objects today whenever anyone argues against mixed-gender combat service. “Nowadays, when they say they don’t want girls in tanks with boys, I’m burning to tell them that there were religious boys with us and nothing happened,” she says.

“What’s the problem? We lived in one room with the boys in Massuot Yitzhak,” she says, adding: “We were boys and girls together in an armored vehicle and nothing happened.”

On the eve of Gush Etzion’s fall, after the hospital was moved to Massuot Yitzhak, Orev was asked to join Haganah fighter Esther Rosenzweig and go to a cave in Kfar Etzion to tell the people to evacuate.

“We reached Kfar Etzion and saw female kibbutz members sitting there all bent over scared,” Orev says. “We said, ‘Come on,’ and they said, ‘We don’t want to go.’” Orev and Rosenzweig were forced to return alone. “We saw bodies on the way back,” she noted. “There were already people killed, and it was dark. I told myself not to go anymore.”

Orev stayed on at Massuot Yitzhak, but not 19-year-old Rosenzweig, who was the assistant of Gush Etzion commander Moshe Silberschmidt. “Eti was in love with Mosh,” Orev recalls. “She wanted to be with him all the time. She didn’t care, so she said, ‘I’m going back to the cave.’ It was the end of the girls in the cave, and Eti’s end.”

A model for religious women

Rosenzweig was killed in the Kfar Etzion fighting, a day before the massacre. She didn’t know that Mosh had fallen a few hours earlier.

In the past, the 22 women were pushed out of the collective memory, but Rosenberg-Friedman says an awakening has begun in recent years regarding everything about their memory.

“When I wrote 10 to 12 years ago about the female fighters of Gush Etzion, I spoke about how no religious public figure knew, recognized or viewed them as a model for emulation,” Orev says. “We’ve seen a change this decade. There’s more awareness.”

One sign of change is evident in the videos shown at the Kfar Etzion visitors’ center, which include some of the women’s stories. “Perhaps this reawakening is also because memory and commemoration are changing,” Rosenberg-Friedman says. “There are more personal stories, and the moment there are more personal stories the more there is a presence of women.”

Yaron Rosenthal, the director of the Kfar Etzion Field School, says he is pushing for a memorial “for the religious female fighter” to commemorate the women who died at Gush Etzion. “The female fighters are a symbol and good example for the generation of girls growing up in Gush Etzion who are trying, despite all the background noise, to follow in their footsteps.”