The Sex Worker Who Spied for Israel's Pre-state Militia

Shunned during her tragic life for being a sex worker and brothel owner who had Arab friends, Michal Garbovitz is now hailed for aiding the Haganah

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Michal Garbovitz
Michal Garbovitz. “She served her people loyally, despite the risks,” writes Av, “by passing on important information she heard from the Arabs who visited her.” Credit: Izkor website
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

“A Jewish woman was shot and mortally wounded yesterday in Tiberias,” the Hebrew-language daily Haboker reported on May 1, 1939, adding, “Batya Michal, 30, was murdered [on April 30] while walking on Hashalom Street in Tiberias.”

According to another newspaper, Davar, “Bahia Michal was murdered in the Old City of Tiberias by an Arab who shot her five times with an automatic pistol while she was standing on the balcony of her home.”

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In a third report, in the daily Hamashkif, “An Arab attacked her, firing two bullets, while she was walking to the market in the morning. She died later in hospital.”

The scene of the crime and the victim’s name vary from one report to the next, but two facts were not in doubt: The victim was a Jewish woman, the murderer an Arab. In the text that appears on the Izkor site, memorializing members of the country’s defense and security organizations who died in the line of duty, her name is rendered “Michal Garbovitz” (among her many names and nicknames, whose source is not fully clear, are “Bahia,” “Bhaya,” “Batya,” “Macho” and “Mako”).

The biographical text on the site conceals more than it reveals. Garbovitz is described as a “good-looking and handsome” woman who “joined the Arabs and lived in the Old City of Tiberias.” For this reason, “she was estranged from her family.” However, during the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 against the Mandatory forces, she “exploited her contacts with Arabs and British police officers to extract vital information and transfer it to the Haganah,” the pre-state underground that later became the Israel Defense Forces. The Haganah “benefited greatly from the news, and as a result many murders and disasters were prevented in the city.”

The short text also explains why she was recognized as having fallen in Israel’s military operations: “The Arabs suspected her and… when she was standing on the balcony of her house, she was shot by an Arab gang member and killed. The murder shocked the… Haganah.”

Garbovitz’s tragic and extraordinary story is one of 23,816 accounts of individuals who have been officially memorialized to date by the Defense Ministry. She is a small, forgotten drop in a sea of stories of heroism, national tragedies and personal sagas that have entered the history books – one stone among the 23,816 stones on which are engraved eternally the names of Israel’s fallen in the pantheon of national memory on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

Now, after the 80th anniversary of Garbovitz’s murder, last year, and on the occasion of the Haganah’s centenary, her full story deserves to be told. It is rife with many details than the Izkor site could not have permitted itself to provide.

Thief and dancer

Michal Garbovitz was born in Tiberias in 1909. Her father, Michael Garbovitz (Garbvitch), immigrated to Ottoman Palestine at the beginning of the century from somewhere in the Russian empire. In Tiberias he married Moroccan-born Masuda, who bore six children. Garbovitz’s father died at the end of World War I, when she was a child, in circumstances that are not entirely clear. His great-granddaughter related that she heard he was robbed and murdered during an overseas voyage, while raising funds for the Tiberias Jewish community. His place of burial is unknown.

Michal attended a school belonging to the Alliance Israelite network of Jewish educational institutions and became a dancer. The Izkor site notes that later, “she joined up with Arabs and lived among them in the Old City of Tiberias” – for which her family shunned her. Indeed, according to some testimonies, they “were ashamed of her.” Other accounts say that Jewish children taunted her in the alleyways of Tiberias, while the Arabs branded her a “slut.”

The unusual circumstances surrounding her murder are described in various archives. For its part, the Haganah Historical Archives has an account from a security official named Haim Kiryati: “Bahia Michal, a Jewish singer and dancer in an Arab café, was murdered in the Old City near where she worked. The Arabs suspected her of having ties with the Haganah and the police.” A different report, attributed to an informant named “Bin Nun,” notes that “Abdullah Hamamzi was under arrest for the murder of Bahia the prostitute, and was acquitted.”

The main street in Tiberias, in 1939.
The main street in Tiberias, in 1939.

Yet another document mentions the name of another suspect in the case, Ahmed Jamal – “a well-known thief in Tiberias, one of those who burn Jewish homes and throw bombs” – who was said “to have killed Bahia Michal and was arrested and freed.” According to this same report, the person who was responsible for getting the alleged murderer released was a well-known Tiberias lawyer, Sudki Tveri, who headed the local Arab National Committee and was also manager of the Tiberias branch of the Arab Bank.

Was Garbovitz – who is generally not referred to by her surname in reports at that time, but only by her nicknames – a “dancer in an Arab coffee shop”? A “prostitute”? It’s difficult to know from the relevant documents, but it’s evident that the words “her contacts” on the Izkor site refer to physical contacts between the sexes – not to verbal negotiations.

Missing pieces

The missing pieces of the puzzle are provided in a book by a Haganah officer, Nahum Av, called “The Struggle for Tiberias” (Ministry of Defense Publishing House, 1991; in Hebrew). Av took part in the liberation of Tiberias in April, 1948, as the commander of its Old City, rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the nascent IDF and served afterward as deputy mayor of Tiberias.

Av was only 16 years old when Garbovitz was murdered but was already doing guard duty for the Haganah. A week after her murder, his brother was shot and wounded by an Arab; on that same day, an Arab youth was shot to death in the city. Av was arrested on suspicion of having perpetrated the deed as an act of vengeance and was tried, convicted and sentenced by the British to life imprisonment. After seven years in Acre prison, he was pardoned and released, on the occasion of the conclusion of World War II.

The three years of the Arab Revolt were an extremely tense period in Tiberias, a mixed Jewish-Arab city with a Jewish mayor, Zaki Alhadif. On October 2, 1938, a massacre was perpetrated against the city’s Jews, during which 19 people were killed, including a mother and her five children and a family of four; a synagogue was also torched. At the end of the month, Alhadif was assassinated. It was in this highly charged atmosphere that Garbovitz operated.

In his book, Av – who died in 2015 – wrote, “In the Tiberias of that time, which was a mixed city, a beautiful Jewish woman named Bahia Michal lived in the Old City. Many notables from the Muslim community sought her favors, and local Jews blackballed and ostracized her for her shameful behavior, as they termed it. For Bahia was a prostitute and ran a brothel, though she did not give herself to everyone and kept herself only for a few of the dignitaries of the Tiberian Arab population, who protected her and kept her from harm.”

Garbovitz’s connection with the Haganah began in 1936. At the time, commanders of the Arab gangs in the Tiberias region began to frequent the brothel that she operated. According to Av, she “discovered their identity and their part in the blood-drenched events against her people, and made a decision to assist her people to the best of her ability in its war against the rioters.”

When she realized she could be of help to the Haganah, she sent a secret message to the organization via a Jewish youth, saying she was ready to cooperate by providing information that she could extract from members of the Arab gangs who visited her. In addition, she offered to supply information from other clients as well: the British. According to some reports, she had a pistol – for which she had a license – and said, “Everyone knows me – they won’t hurt me.”

Because of her dubious background, the Haganah’s Intelligence Service decided to test her before recruiting her. A Jew named Yaakov Mizrahi dressed up as a distinguished Arab and introduced himself in the brothel as Mahmoud Artul, an effendi from Nablus who was associated with the leaders of the Arab gangs. He told Garbovitz that he was in the city to rest and visit Tiberias’ hot springs.

As Av recounts in his book, Mizrahi said he wanted “to enjoy the favors of the beautiful woman, who had a reputation among some of the notables of the Tiberian Muslim community.” Initially Garbovitz turned him down and sent him to two other women in the establishment. He declined, “pulled out a wad of bills from his wallet and stuffed them between her breasts.” Garbovitz recoiled at this behavior, refused the money contemptuously and threatened to throw him out.

Fearing that he was going to fail in his assignment, Mizrahi apologized and parted with Garbovitz politely. He returned the next day, and this time Garbovitz received him in her private room. Afterward, she invited him to visit again the following day at the same time; he arrived on schedule. Subsequently, when he felt he had won her heart, he “revealed” important secrets to her, supposedly about the gangs’ exploits and deeds, and asked her to keep them secret and not tell a soul.

Michal Garbovitz's grave in the Tiberias cemetery.
Michal Garbovitz's grave in the Tiberias cemetery. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Garbovitz passed the Haganah’s test: The next morning she contacted her liaison in the organization and told him everything she had heard from the “effendi.” Thus, for several years, she “served her people loyally, despite the risks involved, by passing on the important information she heard from the Arabs who visited her house and were plotting to wreak havoc on the Jews,” as Av writes.

Av believes that many Jewish lives were saved in Tiberias thanks to Garbovitz’s efforts, and that a good many attacks were prevented.

‘Accurate’ information

According to Haim Hatsav, a native of Tiberias who specializes in historical documentation of the city, three brothels operated in the city during the British Mandate period.

“Some of the workers in the ‘oldest profession’ had considerable experience in obtaining information from clients. The reports that arrived from these ‘institutions’ about developments among the Arabs of Tiberias turned out to be accurate and extremely useful,” he told Haaretz.

A few years ago, Oded Yisraeli, a retired painter of 87 who writes a blog about Israeli gravestones, looked into the Garbovitz family story. In connection with the activity of sex workers in Tiberias toward the end of the Ottoman era and during the British Mandate period, he points out that “the war conditions, the edicts of the authorities and the locust invasion generated an economic crisis in the country.”

He adds: “Many of the men were mobilized and left families without a provider. Hunger, homelessness, high morbidity and mortality, and on the other hand, Turkish army officers and afterward of the British military and of the civilian administration… influenced and encouraged a broad phenomenon of prostitution – Jewish and Arab – in Tiberias.”

There are a host of stories connected with Garbovitz’s name. It’s difficult to authenticate these accounts so long after the fact, but they are informative. According to one, a British officer who frequented her brothel told her that Arabs were planning to plant a bomb in a crate of vegetables in the outdoor market. She passed on the information to a nephew, Michael (son of her sister Rosa), and thus saved his life.

Another incident involved a client, sometimes described as a “rich Arab lover,” who also told her about a planned attack on Jews. Some of the sources and testimonies maintain that she was the “lover” of an Arab; others say the two were a “couple” who lived together in the Old City.

However, the exact circumstances of Garbovitz’s murder remain unknown to this day. Her family claimed later that before she was killed, she had passed on to the Haganah information about planned attacks. The Arab who gave her the information became upset when he realized that it had been revealed to the enemy, and sent hit men to eliminate her.

Some local Jews were initially pleased when they heard about her death, but when her good deeds on behalf of the Haganah became known, “People arranged a fine funeral and proper burial for her, befitting a Jewish woman with a pure Jewish heart who sacrificed her life to save Jewish lives,” as Av writes in his book.

Inscribed on her grave, in the Sephardi section of Tiberias’ old cemetery, is the text: “POB [Place of burial] of the honorable woman M [Miss] Bahia DR [daughter of Reb] Michael Garbovitz, murdered by cruel assassins on [Sunday], 11th day of the month of Iyar 5699.”

People at the funeral, according to various sources, related that before her death, Garbovitz said she knew she would “pay with her life” for assisting the Haganah.

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