Yehuda Kedar, who’s 92 (if we believe him), is the closest thing to an Israeli Forrest Gump that I’ve ever met. That is, if Gump were also to take an interest in nutrition and invent a dance style. At times during our conversation, which took place in the library of an upscale if somnolent retiree community in the center of the country, his biography sounded like an off-the-wall life story by a few screenwriters who stitched together a crude plot.
From the start, Kedar was close to the center of the action. He was born in Budapest in 1925 into a religious family, the youngest of 10 siblings. His mother, Miriam Bluma Herzl, was a niece of Theodor Herzl. The family immigrated to Palestine in 1935. Something that happened to Yehuda during the course of their arrival in the port of Jaffa seems to hint at his future pursuit of the cause of peace throughout most of his adult life.
“The ships couldn’t reach the dock,” he tells me, “so the Arab sailors, who were serious, strong guys, took us ashore in boats. When my turn came, they threw me like a suitcase from the ship into the boat. The Arab oarsman caught me, gave me a kiss and said, ‘Ahlan wa sahlan’ [welcome], and that was the first greeting I received in the Holy Land.”
The family settled in the seaside neighborhood of Bayit Vegan, which morphed into today’s Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv. During the Arab Revolt, which broke out in 1936, Kedar’s brothers took part in the defense of the community. He helped out as a runner, but when one of his brothers was killed he was sent to study in the yeshiva of the famed Hazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz).
Kedar: “Two things remained with me from the yeshiva: the sanctity of the Land of Israel is a value to kill for, and the sanctity of life – if you can save someone, be killed and save.”
At the age of 17, he joined the Palmach, the elite strike force of the Haganah, the pre-state underground Jewish militia. This is how it happened, he relates.
“One day, someone sitting in the dark on the roof of the store [where I worked], asks me to come over and tells me about the Palmach. When he saw that I was enthusiastic, he told me to be at the Central Bus Station the next morning at 8. ‘You’ll see someone reading a newspaper. Tell him: Good morning; he’ll respond with: Glad you’re here.’ Well, that’s what happened, and I was put on a bus for a camp of the Palmach’s religiously observant unit. They asked me, ‘Do you observe the mitzvot [commandments]?’ I said I did, and they told me that I was accepted.”
Despite his young age, he became the commander of a squad that helped bring in World War II refugees from Europe via Syria and Lebanon. The squad’s job was to dress them up as kibbutzniks, so they would get through the British checkpoints. To further facilitate the process, Kedar himself joined the British police.
As a Palmach man, he became fond of battle fitness. “There was a girl to whom I was supposed to teach the backstroke, so she would be able to swim and hold a rifle without getting it wet. She did fine work. We became friends and she gave me a small picture: ‘Greetings, [signed] Hannah Szenes’.”
How fit was she?
Kedar, in his capacity as an instructor, sounds critical of the young woman who went on to become a Zionist hero, after parachuting into occupied Hungary in 1944 and dying in Nazi captivity: “I wouldn’t say that she was capable of swimming across Lake Kinneret.”
In 1946, Kedar was sent to Birya [in Upper Galilee] with a wireless set, but was caught by the British and incarcerated in Acre prison. “I was classified as a Palestinian terrorist,” he recalls proudly. The British tortured him in an attempt to force him to reveal the Palmach’s secret Morse code.
“They tore out my teeth one by one with pliers, one tooth a day, and they beat me,” he says. “The British were crueler than the Nazis.” I ask him if he has any teeth left, and he casually takes out his false teeth, to prove that all his teeth were wrenched out.
Now he’s ready to reveal that the Palmach code was based on works by the iconic Hebrew poet Rachel Bluwstein, better known by her first name alone. “I was sure they were killing me, that I was done for. If I’d only said ‘a book of poems by Rachel,’ I would have saved my life. But I withstood the torture and was not disloyal.”
For the teeth that were extracted, the eye that was injured and the fingers that were broken during torture, Kedar received the Decoration of State Warriors, a medal given to those who fought for the creation of the state. The British officer who tortured him, William Bruce, was later assassinated by the Palmach for beating prisoners. It was an exceptional act, as the Palmach was against assassinations. To the credit of his captors, it can be noted that Kedar completed his high school degree in prison.
Kedar’s obsession with physical fitness only intensified during his incarceration in the Acre facility. Prisoners were given an hour to exercise in the yard, and Kedar, despite his battered body, tried to make the best of the situation in terms of physical fitness for both himself and his Palmach colleagues. Other Haganah members joined the program immediately, “and so did Irgun prisoners, some of whom we’d turned over to the British, and then Lehi, too,” Kedar says, referring to two other militant Jewish underground groups. “And then, along came Abu Khalil, from Hebron, who was serving a life term for his activity with the Arab gangs, and also wanted to improve his physical fitness. I let him join, too.”
Kedar was released from prison in 1947, in honor of the birthday of King George VI. He wanted to go home but the Palmach had other plans for him. He was appointed commander of the Be’er Sheva region, where he was in contact with Bedouin from the Azazma tribe, who were willing to sell the Jews weapons for the struggle: “We used to get good arms from them that they stole from the British in Rafah, tommy guns and Bren submachine guns. I can say that without those weapons we couldn’t have won the War of Independence.”
Kedar relates that he took part in a failed attempt to capture Qastel, a strategic hilltop village outside Jerusalem. No less difficult was the Nebi Daniel convoy operation in March 1948. Kedar was appointed part of the crew of a barrier-busting vehicle. The large convoy, which set out from Jerusalem, managed to get through to the Etzion Bloc of communities south of the city and bring them much needed supplies. The convoy was scheduled to return quickly to Jerusalem, but was delayed in leaving. According to Kedar, Ezer Weizman, at the time an officer in the fledgling pre-state air corps, informed them from a plane that “the neighbors” were putting up serious roadblocks, but the convoy people were confident of their ability. “I said, ‘What’s the problem, we have a barrier buster.’” In the end, the convoy encountered a roadblock that it couldn't break, and was surrounded and attacked.
Golda Meir, then a senior official in the Jewish Agency, had no choice but to ask the British to rescue the dozens of Jewish fighters trapped in their vehicles. Finally it was agreed with the Arabs besieging them that they would be evacuated without their weapons. During the evacuation, Kedar relates, they raised their hands and were spat upon by the Arabs on their way to freedom. When Kedar emerged, with a pistol hidden on his thigh, he was jumped by an Arab. He was frightened – until he realized that the attacker was his friend, Abu Khalil, whose physical fitness instructor he had been in Acre prison. He told Kedar that if he’d known that he was in the convoy he would have behaved differently. It turned out to be a tragic incident, in which many of the fighters were killed, and large amounts of arms and some armored vehicles were lost as well.
Not long afterward, Kedar says, he commanded a unit that participated in the breakthrough at Bab al-Wab – Sha’ar Hagai – at the start of the ascent to Jerusalem from the coastal plain.
“There was an operational order from Yitzhak Rabin, stating ‘At any cost,’” he recalls. “I was told, if someone is wounded, if someone’s been killed, you ignore it – Jerusalem is hungry. The [enemy] sensed our presence and started to fire shells using illumination flares. We hadn’t been given good weapons, for some reason. I shouted, ‘Forward, forward!’ But I was hit by a volley and lost consciousness. Two days later, I woke up, wounded, on the floor of the police station in Abu Ghosh [an Arab village outside Jerusalem that remained neutral in the war]. A few months later, after I’d recovered, I went to visit wounded friends from the unit. A girl named Batya, who taught Hebrew, happened to come by. We fell in love immediately and we’ve been married for 68 years.”
The war ended in 1949. The following year, both Kedar and his wife, the former Batya Lador, enrolled in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Kedar became a cartography and aerial photography expert – he has published extensively in the international arena – and in 1959 obtained a Ph.D. in geography.
Kedar relates that he hooked up with David Ben-Gurion at the end of 1953, when the latter resigned for the first time as prime minister and went to live in Kibbutz Sde Boker, in the Negev. At the time, Kedar was his next-door neighbor at the kibbutz.
“Ben-Gurion told me, ‘You have to save the State of Israel, do something for the sake of research of the Negev,’” says Kedar. Thereafter he devoted a decade of his life to making drawings of ancient rock terraces and forgotten inscriptions on rocks, and took aerial photographs of over a million dunams of land (250,000 acres). The result was his revolutionary book “Ancient Agriculture in the Negev Hills” (in Hebrew).
Kedar, who was born Ervin Yehuda Klein, notes that Ben-Gurion was also responsible for his surname change. “In 1956,” he says, “when I was sent on a secret mission abroad, Ben-Gurion demanded that I change my name. At first he suggested ‘Ze’ira,’ but then took it back. I suggested ‘Kedar,’ as I had studied the desert, and he approved it happily.” (Kedar was the name of one of Ishmael’s sons, and the namesake of the Qedarites, a nomadic Arab tribe.)
Our man in NASA
In 1967, he became the first Israeli to work with NASA, which was then working on the moon-landing project. The family moved to Houston, Texas. According to Kedar, who was hired for his cartography skills, the project was hampered by analog technology.
“There weren’t any genuine computers back then, and a technology had to be developed in order to land a person on the moon,” he explains. “So I started to argue with myself. I came to the conclusion that every existing point consists of three coordinates, X, Y, Z. In a lecture to NASA scientists, I called it a ‘picture cell.’” That study, he says, helped propel the transition from the analog world to the digital and open the door to our pixelated world. “That’s the Jewish contribution to human civilization,” he asserts.
Was it Kedar’s idea that brought about the digital revolution? As proof, he shows me a letter from a professional scientific organization in the U.S., and the title page from a book, two of the many documents he brought to our interview in folders.
At times, Kedar seems over-enthusiastic about his place at major junctions in history. It’s not clear where the vision and the creative imagination end, and reality begins. Did Kedar really spend time with all these famous people and did they pat him on the back? Possibly. Most of them have died and can’t be asked. But even if it’s not all accurate, even if it’s 80 percent correct, he’s managed to do more than anyone I’ve ever met.
“When we landed on the moon, I was at mission control,” Kedar relates, winging it. “After the applause, I instructed Neil Armstrong to photograph Earth at sunrise and especially to focus on the atmosphere. It was the first time in the history of humanity that an individual saw Earth from the outside.”
According to a press report from the period, Kedar utilized the NASA photographs to make archaeological discoveries in the United States. An Israeli newspaper reported too that he accurately predicted an earthquake in California. However, the success and subsequent scaling back of the moon mission generated mass dismissals at NASA. Kedar was forced to leave, but didn’t remain unemployed. “All the universities descended on Houston and grabbed us,” he says. He moved to the State University of New York, Binghamton, where he dealt with the commemoration of the Holocaust, and from there went on to William Paterson University, in New Jersey.
In the early 1990s, he left the fleshpots of America and settled in a modest home in Arad, near the Dead Sea. “I am a desert person, our home is there,” he declares now. One of the projects he’s most proud of is the Institute for Advanced Studies in Arad, which he established with the Ministry of Absorption in order to help immigrant families from the former Soviet Union engage in scientific work: “There was serious unemployment, and the mayor asked what could be done. So I established the institute – ‘Beiga’ [former Arad mayor and Finance Minister Avraham Shochat] helped with the funding. Kids who came from Russia became stars.”
Yehuda Kedar’s life project, however, is a peace plan in which he’s been trying to interest the world for 30 years. In the elevator of the old folks’ home, a second after he takes me to see the nursing wing there, he whispers to me, “You can save the homeland” and “You can become a billionaire.”
Kedar’s peace plan calls for establishment of an Israeli-Palestinian condominium covering the whole of the land. Not a painful partition, but with the two peoples sharing the whole country – from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. He claims to have obtained an okay from the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir; to have met with Yasser Arafat for an hour at the Muqata, Palestinian government headquarters, in Ramallah (on a mission from Rabin, he says); and to have received official PLO approval for the idea. After he explained the plan to Arafat, he remembers, the Palestinian leader embraced him and said, “This is my dream.”
The energetic – sometimes excessively so – Kedar takes advantage of the interview to try to obtain the contact information for Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent, in order to interest her in a 1986 letter from the PLO that okays the plan. I suggest giving him her email address, but he wants me to call her first to recommend him. I try to explain that a 30-year-old letter is of no news interest, but to no avail.
“It’s David Ben-Gurion’s idea from 1936,” Kedar asserts, and quotes a Ben-Gurion remark: “Each nation should be granted an autonomous sovereign government, and the country should be administered together on an equal basis.”
The difference between Kedar’s idea and other plans in the peace-initiative market is that, as a scientist, Kedar is saying that it’s not a personal initiative but the product of scientific research. He shows me a complicated mathematical algorithm from his 2010 book “The Vision of Peace in the Shadow of History” (in Hebrew), which explains both the plan and the cause of the ongoing friction with the Palestinians. Kedar calls the state-in-the-making “the United States of Israel and Palestine,” though lately the European Union is a more fashionable label, so he’s upgraded the name to the “Israeli-Palestinian Union.”
Beneath the algorithms, Kedar’s peace plan bubbles with good will and faith in humankind, but it’s not clear whether it is any more than a fine dream in our world, which consists of sovereign states. It’s also hard to know whether Kedar is on the right or the left. On the one hand, he uses the term “peace for peace,” talks about the sanctity of the land and reminds me that “the penal code says that anyone who cedes an inch of soil of the Land of Israel is condemned to death.” Right-wingers sometimes make use of his ideas.
On the other hand, he refuses to describe the Palestinian armed struggle as “terrorism,” as the Israeli mainstream does. “It’s ignorant to call it terrorism,” he says. “The Palestinian situation brings about an armed struggle. When a person can’t travel freely and is under occupation, for him it’s like battling cancer. The war against the occupation is not terror. You know, it’s the same thing we did. I too was given orders to shoot British policemen and soldiers when we brought in [Jewish] refugees. Was that terrorism? People call the ‘knifers’ [involved in stabbing incidents in the past few years] terror. They don’t understand that it’s because of their situation. When they cease to be occupied, without rights, that will change. Why shouldn’t they travel freely to Tel Aviv? Why are checkpoints needed? After all, we ourselves fought the [British] White Paper and the checkpoints.”
What do you think of the new legislation that would call for the execution of terrorists?
“It won’t stop it, it will only heighten the fighting. That’s what I would do in their place. The Irgun abducted Britons when they were about to execute their people, and that’s what will happen here.”
And at the same time, you believe in keeping an undivided Land of Israel.
“That’s the whole idea.”
And the settlements?
“When I was in the United States in the 1980s, we established settlements. I was the biggest ‘criminal.’ I was one of the pioneers of settlement in Judea and Samaria. To induce aliyah from the United States, people bought a ticket to Israel and as part of the price of the ticket they also received land in Judea and Samaria – in [the settlement of] Karnei Shomron, for example. But in the past the settlements lived in coexistence with the Palestinian neighbors. Today it’s occupation. That has to be changed.”
You’re against the Oslo Accords, but see your plan as the continuation of the Rabin legacy.
“Rabin did not forgo even one grain of sand; he believed in joint sovereignty. He was assassinated by mistake. He did not sign the Oslo Accords. He agreed to my plan.”
Rabin agreed to Oslo.