He Laid the Foundation for Israel's Army. His Story Was Kept Secret – Until His Diary Turned Up

No streets are named for him, he’s not mentioned in textbooks and even his family didn't know about his vital role in Israel's security. Meet Yosef Hecht, who headed the pre-state Haganah for a decade, before being deposed and erased from the collective memory

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Hecht and his notes.
Hecht and his notes.Credit: Photo reproductions by Moti Milrod
Nir Mann
Nir Mann

Miriam Buchval was choked up. She’s 98 years old, and during the coronavirus emergency, finds herself isolated in an assisted-living facility. She probably never expected this moment to come.

“A letter has come from the Haganah,” her niece, Edith Margalit-Hecht, told her, referring to the underground, pre-independence army of Palestine’s Jews. Buchval tried not to listen, bracing herself as if to ward off the letter’s contents. “For 90 years we’ve waited for this letter,” Idit implored her aunt – until finally she agreed to hear her out, still bristling with suspicion.

Idit began to read: “Yosef Hecht, of blessed memory, the first commander of the Haganah organization, passed away half a century ago.”

On the other end of the line, the fraught silence from Buchval, the eldest of Hecht’s four children, was almost palpable, as Idit continued: “On the centennial of the founding of the Haganah, its members and those who follow in their path bow their heads in remembrance of him, and cherish the memory of his security activity in creating the Jewish defense force and of his contribution to the rebirth of the independent State of Israel. With a final salute, Baruch Levy, national chairman, Haganah Membership Organization.”

Next month, the Haganah will mark its centenary, and the last week of April marked the 50th anniversary of the death of the organization’s first commander, Yosef Hecht. Hecht led the Haganah for 10 years, from 1922 to 1931, until he was dismissed in the wake of a bitter clash with David Ben-Gurion and other leaders of the Yishuv, the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine.

The confrontation exacted a steep price – not only Hecht’s dismissal but the erasure of his memory from the public record. Indeed, his name is almost completely absent from Israeli historiography and from institutional commemorative projects; interviews he gave were rendered classified and made inaccessible to scholars; he is effectively a nonperson as far as the education system is concerned; and not a single street in the country was named for him.

The result is that today hardly anyone knows who the first commander of the Haganah was, even though he laid the foundations for the armed forces of the state-in-the-making.

To his dying day Hecht cloaked himself in silence and never uttered a word about his past. Not even his grandchildren knew of his contribution to the national defense force.

“Grandpa never told us about his activity in the Haganah,” says Margalit-Hecht, who spoke with Haaretz at her home in Rosh Ha’ayin. “We were a very involved family. In my parents’ home, we talked about developments in the country, but never about Grandpa’s part in creating the state. The first time I heard about it was in a talk in the army. He didn’t tell us anything. He was an introverted person who devoted himself to the firing range he built in the sands of Mikhmoret [a seaside village north of Netanya] and to his hobby of fishing in the Alexander River.”

In 2011, in a rare interview, Miriam Buchval said, “You never heard anything from him. People in his milieu also knew that Yosef Hecht doesn’t talk. When he came home in a black car, all the children in the neighborhood went out to see the old Ford. I knew he was an important person, but I didn’t know what his job was. When I was 12-13, I knew that all the Haganah officers in the cities called him ‘Yosef the Great.’”

Like the Bible

It has now become clear, however, that although Hecht held his tongue, he let his innermost thoughts flow freely in a private notebook. In it, he fired slings and arrows every which way. No one knew about it or its contents – until now.

It was Margalit-Hecht who found the notebook, recently, among her grandfather’s belongings. It was written in the early months of 1960, in one great outburst. It has almost no punctuation or diacritics – like the Hebrew Bible. It’s clear to see that he was overwrought. The trigger for the volcanic eruption of writing was the publication of the third volume – the one covering the 1920s – of the “History of the Haganah” (in Hebrew).

“The writing of the history of the Haganah is actually the work of one person,” Hecht wrote, referring to the author, Prof. Yehuda Slutsky, with whom he himself had spoken. “He devoted most of his time to the project, meticulously and consistently, and collected a great deal of material. I know him to be a person of integrity for whom the truth is a beacon – but he is under the influence of his superiors in selecting the material. Under those circumstances, it is no wonder that one feels that someone wanted to diminish the value of the other with fabricated tales.”

What was “the value of the other”? To understand the part Hecht played in the history of Israel’s defense, we must go back to 1920 – before the fall of Tel Hai, the Jewish agricultural settlement in northern Galilee, which was attacked by an Arab militia on March 1, 1920 – when the Yishuv’s leadership was trying in vain to establish an autonomous defense organization.

On the eve of the Jerusalem riots in early April 1920, Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky organized the city’s defenses, and found himself arrested by the British Mandate authorities. After his release a few months later, he set out to establish an open “Jewish Legion,” under the aegis of the Mandatory regime. For their part, however, the British declined to cooperate, even though the Jewish frontier settlements were in immediate need of a force that would protect them.

With the fall of Tel Hai, the path was paved for establishment of the Haganah as a federation of a number of local defense groups, headed by one person: Yosef Hecht.

Hecht was born in 1894 in the town of Bychow, part of the Russian Empire (today Belarus). A pogrom perpetrated by Russian hooligans when he was 9 was engraved on his memory as a formative event. His family subsequently moved to Odessa; at age 19 Hecht immigrated, on his own, to Palestine.

During the World War I years, he worked in almond groves in Kfar Sava and participated in arms-smuggling activities, along with Eliahu Golomb and Dov Hoz, two key figures in the emerging Jewish defense effort.

In 1918, Hecht joined the Jewish Legion – the Jewish volunteers who fought alongside the British against the Ottoman Empire – and when Arab anti-Jewish rioting broke out in 1920, he was put in command of Hulda, a farm near Rehovot.

He subsequently worked at the Mikveh Israel agricultural school, near Tel Aviv. When the facility was attacked during the Jaffa disturbances of May 1921, Hecht stood out as the commander of the local force. But his prowess on the battlefield was even surpassed by his grit as a leader: He refused to obey an order to abandon the site.

“At the end of that month, Eliahu [Golomb] offered me the position of coordinator [of the Haganah],” Hecht recalled, in testimony found in the militia’s archives.

Hecht's notebook.

During his decade commanding the Haganah, Hecht was primarily engaged in raising funds to procure weapons, digging underground arms caches (with his bare hands), organizing officers training courses and managing ties with other top brass throughout the country.

His tough appearance, stocky build and tight-lipped and introverted demeanor created an image of threatening authority, but his subordinates revered him and went along with his suspicious, conspiratorial approach.

“From the earliest days of the Haganah I did not cease to ensure the secrecy of all its operations,” he wrote in his notebook, some four decades after the fact. “We were against holding parties, we banned photographs, and we often destroyed pictures of personnel who were weak enough to be photographed holding a weapon. We were wary of public figures, knowing their pathological pursuit of publicity.”

The budget provided by the Histadrut Federation of Labor for the Haganah at that time was negligible; in practice, the organization’s branches were autonomous entities. In his notebook, Hecht is sharply critical of those, such as the Histadrut officials, who were dismissive of the idea of Jewish self-defense.

“We need to remember,” he wrote, “that the few who worked persistently and unceasingly to create a Jewish force [did so] with extremely meager means in the underground not only vis-à-vis the hostile foreign ruler, but [also] amid the indifference of the closest public – the workers’ functionaries [in the Histadrut] – and the opposition and refusal of the majority of the Yishuv. Even, with all due respect, very important officials – Moshe Smilansky and the residents of the moshavot, the people of Degania and Nahalal – thought the [defense force] was dangerous and unnecessary.

“Rutenberg [Pinhas Rutenberg, founder of the Palestine Electric Corporation] mocked the childish efforts and advised dropping the whole matter. All of these individuals claimed that the [British] government would protect us. There were also those, no few in number, who were bystanders. Quite a few have come to occupy important positions lately, and [now] shamelessly emphasize their devotion in the past to the Haganah. They are the self-serving, and there has never been a shortage of such people.”

Hecht, for one, had no doubts about the necessity of creating a proper defense force.

“We are always persecuted [and] murdered by the majority of ‘civilized’ peoples, or savage and cruel [peoples] like the Arabs,” he wrote. “Their intention toward us is not only to humiliate but also to destroy [us] physically. We must respond in kind [offensively], because philosophy and cleverness have been of no benefit to us for many generations, and that is unlikely to ever change.

“No quotations from Plato and Aristotle, from Buddha or the Prophets will make any impression on them – only the circumstances. And if the circumstances will be in our favor, we will be smart and desirable to everyone, and if the circumstances will not be in our favor, we must be ready for that with all the possible means that will take the enemy by surprise, and not even the ‘Name’ [the Tetragrammaton, or God] will help.”

Assassination and suicide

Two years after taking up his post as the Haganah’s national commander, Hecht was behind one of the most important incidents historically associated with him: the killing in 1924 of Dr. Jacob de Haan, the first political assassination in the Yishuv.

De Haan, born in The Netherlands, was a jurist, an intellectual and a writer – as well as being a Zionist, before becoming a political spokesman of the anti-Zionist Eda Haredit, an ultra-Orthodox sect in Jerusalem. He made no secret of his homosexuality or his sexual relations with young Arabs, but the rabbis turned a blind eye and accepted him as he was.

Dr. Jacob de Haan.

De Haan was a sensual, brilliant and eccentric person, who left his mark in a variety of areas in which he sought to foment a revolution. (In Amsterdam a street was named for him in 1993 under the pressure of the local LGBT community, while in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea She’arim neighborhood, wall posters memorializing him can still be found.)

Specifically, de Haan gained notoriety by managing the anti-Zionist foreign policy of, and providing legal representation for, the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel movement, which advocated peace among all the country’s inhabitants under the Hashemite flag. He opposed the allocation of benefits granted by Mandatory authorities to the Yishuv, attacked Zionism in the European press and met in Amman with Emir (later king) Abdullah and his father, the Sharif of Mecca, rulers of Transjordan.

On the eve of a trip to London to pursue his anti-Zionist activity, de Haan was shot three times on Jaffa Road in downtown Jerusalem, as he emerged from the synagogue at Shaare Zedek Hospital.

The assassination did not generate serious shock waves in the Yishuv: The general public accepted the Zionist leadership’s denial of involvement in the deed, as well as the allegation that the assassination was perpetrated by Arabs.

Over the years, doubts grew over the question of who actually perpetrated the assassination, until, in testimony that Hecht gave to Haganah historian Slutsky in October 1952, he stated explicitly that when he learned that de Haan was about to visit London, he consulted with the Haganah commander in Jerusalem, Zechariah Urieli, and the decision was made to assassinate him. Avraham Tehomi and Avraham Krichevsky, two members of the underground, were assigned to commit the deed.

Only after the assassination did Hecht inform Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, a senior member of the National Council (the Yishuv’s pre-state civilian leadership), and added that “he did not regret it and would do it again.”

In advance of Ben-Zvi’s election as second president of Israel, in 1952, the weekly newsmagazine Haolam Hazeh reported that his wife, Rachel Yana’it Ben-Zvi, had been involved in the de Haan assassination. According to Slutsky’s 1959 “History of the Haganah,” the order was issued by the “Haganah coordinator” – a reference to Yosef Hecht. The author vilified de Haan, describing him as “he of the dangerous pathological background, tainted with homosexuality and with the lust of his perverse acts of love with the Arab shabab [youth].”

The civilian leaders overseeing the Haganah maintained that Hecht had exceeded his authority, but that view was not made known in real time: It became a fierce accusation against him only in the atmosphere of growing resentment among the Yishuv and Histadrut leadership toward Hecht sparked by the 1929 riots in Palestine, in whose wake the Haganah and Hecht had been glorified for saving Jerusalem.

Hecht’s tenure as Haganah commander was also marred by another strange episode: a special court appointed by him condemned a Jew to death by suicide.

The trial was held in 1930 before a panel of three commanders, none of whom had a legal background, and in the absence of the accused himself, a young man from Givatayim, near Tel Aviv. He was charged with providing information about the Haganah to a senior officer in the Mandatory police, Eugene Quigley – and was ordered to kill himself.

Hecht (at center, with pith helmet), with soldiers near the northern border. Credit: Reproduction by Moti Milrod

After the trial, two of the judges broke into the condemned man’s home in the middle of the night, bombarded him with accusations, forced him to sign a confession of treason and, on their way out, left him with a loaded pistol with which he carried out the sentence.

Mistaken identity

What was Hecht’s policy regarding the Arab community? According to his declared approach, as revealed in his notebook, there must be a “correct and useful response” to every Arab attack. However, he was not adamant about this subject: During the 1929 disturbances in Jerusalem he refused to authorize the killing of the grand mufti, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, and prohibited retaliatory attacks on British soldiers that arrested Jews who had behaved provocatively (“One enemy is enough for us – the Arabs”).

Still, in 1923, he gave his approval to a liquidation operation initiated by Hashomer (The Watchman, an early Jewish defense organization in Palestine). The target was Tawfiq Bey al-Ghussein, patron of an Arab militia from Wadi Chanin (Nes Tziona). However, the assassins mistakenly shot and killed an Arab in the Mandatory police force with a similar name. When the error was discovered, the victim himself was falsely accused of having been responsible for the massacre of Jewish immigrants during the Jaffa disturbances of 1921, in order to justify the murder retroactively.

For his part, Hecht told Slutsky, the historian, that the assassins had informed him about their mission and he “did not interrogate them at length.”

In the summer of 1927, another event occurred that did prompt a sharp response from Hecht. At the time, residents of the Mughrabi (Moroccan) Quarter, adjacent to the Western Wall of Jerusalem’s Old City, were harassing worshippers at the holy site. Hecht assembled a primitive bomb, which at his order was planted in the home of the local sheikh. The dwelling collapsed under the force of the blast, and the quarter’s inhabitants fled in panic. The Arab press accused the Jews of being behind the explosion, but the Yishuv’s leadership dissociated itself from the event – and Hecht stayed mum.

A traumatized B-G

Hecht’s decade at the helm of the Haganah ended with a tremendous explosion. How should it be interpreted? Its origins lie in the trauma that accompanied the exposure of a group within a group, an underground within the underground, during the 1920s. This trauma scarred Ben-Gurion and planted the seeds of his decisive policies regarding the Saison (the “hunting season,” when the Haganah suppressed activities by the Irgun and Lehi breakaway underground organizations); the Altalena incident (the decision to fire at an arms ship that was brought to the Tel Aviv coast by the Irgun); and the dismantlement of the national headquarters of the Palmach, the Haganah’s strike force.

The episode of the secret underground generated a huge tumult in the Histadrut in the mid-1920s, and became a perfect storm toward the end of the decade. The saga began when members of Hashomer actually joined the Haganah, but, unbeknownst to it, together with members of the Labor Battalion (a collective of Jewish workers), set up a closed group called the “Secret Kibbutz.” The existence of this private army was known to the Histadrut leadership, but Ben-Gurion was unaware of its existence until the autumn of 1925. He viewed the organizing activity as a gross breach of Histadrut authority. The Secret Kibbutz was disbanded in January 1927, but the group’s weapons depots were not turned over to the Haganah.

In a compromise with Hashomer personnel, only Hecht was allowed into a bunker owned by the secret group in Kibbutz Kfar Giladi, in the Upper Galilee, to see the contents for himself. This led Ben-Gurion to suspect him of being close to the subversive isolationism of Hashomer.

Hecht wrote in his notebook that weapons from another cache, at Kibbutz Tel Yosef, also in the north, were confiscated when rumors arose that there was an intention to sell them to Arabs in order to finance the return to the Soviet Union of a group of Jewish immigrants.

Hecht (in foreground, left) at a soldier’s funeral.Credit: Reproduction by Moti Milrod

“They [the Secret Kibbutz members at Tel Yosef] ridiculed our demand to hand over the weapons and were certain that we would not get to the depot, which could be accessed through an opening under the floor of a cabin,” Hecht wrote, going on to document the operation he undertook with Ben-Zvi, the future president, to put an end to the affair:

“[Zalman] Zeiger, a local person, showed me a secret entry from the outside through a long tunnel. I got hold of ropes and a flashlight and we started to crawl through a narrow tunnel covered with tins. In the middle of the tunnel the tins were rusty and disintegrated at touch, and the soil spilled out. Ben-Zvi crawled back and I went on crawling forward with great difficulty, because the passage was very narrow.

“Finally I reached a large, deep pit, which I could enter head-first. The floor of the pit was about one meter lower than the entrance. We took out the weapons with the help of a rope.”

The results of this episode resonated three years later: On the eve of the 1929 riots, the Haganah in Jerusalem consisted of only about a hundred people and few weapons. The local commander and his deputy were injured in a traffic accident before the flare-up, and Hecht assumed command of the city when the violence erupted. A week earlier, he had ordered the former Hashomer members in Kfar Giladi to send their weapons to Jerusalem, but they believed the real intention was to get control of their arms. When it seemed to them that the tension had abated, they decided not to send any of their weapons, which outnumbered those stockpiled in Haifa and Jerusalem combined. Only after the massacre of the Jewish community in Hebron did the Hashomer group agree to send arms to help save those two cities.

The advance deployment of the Haganah in Jerusalem spared the Jews in the Old City and in the new neighborhoods the fate that awaited their countrymen in other locales during the tumult. Rachel Yana’it, a leader of the Haganah in Jerusalem, wrote that “there was no one like the brave Hecht, with his organizational ability, who felt in every fiber of his being the danger lurking for the Yishuv, and in Jerusalem especially.”

In Slutsky’s account, “During the fraught hours, Hecht displayed sangfroid, self-control, personal bravery and great skill at improvising, the only qualities with which it was possible to take action in the situation that had developed in the city.” At a rally in Paris, in September 1929, Jabotinsky declared, “We have to bow down to the heroes of our defense [the meaning of the word haganah], because it is the Haganah that saved the Yishuv.”

But no one in the Yishuv political leadership bowed down before Hecht, and he, for his part, fatally misread the new map. When the fighting ended, in August 1929, the Yishuv’s leadership recognized its own failure in having left security matters in the hands of the Haganah alone, and they prepared for a sweeping reform. The substantive lesson it learned was that it was untenable that those needs should be left in the exclusive control of people who were obsessed only with such matters; in fact, defense was a mission for the whole Yishuv and it required investment of additional personnel and materiel.

Hecht, who was embittered and frustrated from promises made by functionaries of the Jewish community, suspected that the promises of money and assistance were little more than lip service and would evaporate as quickly as they had been uttered. Backed by the loyal, hard core of the Haganah officers under his command, Hecht decided to turn down the requests from Ben-Gurion and Haganah founder Eliyahu Golomb to take part in the structural changes. For two years, in fact, he refused to share his power or help with the reorganization effort. He stepped back from the political brouhaha and paid the price.

At this time the Histadrut was caught up in a whirlpool of its own suspicions, accusations and investigations regarding the Haganah. The right-wing circles in Tel Aviv tried to tempt Hecht, offering him significant financial resources in order to split the militia’s leadership and head an autonomous force in the city, as had occurred in Jerusalem during the process that led to the establishment of the Irgun.

In May 1931, a Histadrut panel headed by Levi Eshkol, the future prime minister, decided to dismiss Hecht from the Haganah – “for one year.” Eventually, Hecht had come to regret his dispute with Golomb, whom he esteemed, and accepted the proposition that control of the Haganah must not be centralized in the hands of one person. But his removal was to be permanent.

“In the early 1930s I endured a period of great suffering, torment and loneliness,” Hecht wrote, decades later. “The cruel incitement that began in a narrow circle spread apace, and people whom I had never seen before, as well as people I loved and for whom I wanted to work, were incited, so that everywhere I turned – hostility. A psychosis of hatred and suspicions that have no basis engulfed me like a swarm of hornets, each of them trying to sting you and inject you with its poison.”

Hecht's niece, Edith Margalit-Hecht.

But Hecht was not one to polemicize to show he was in the right, as he continued: “I fought hard with myself so as not to react the way people do in such cases. I could have joined a [political] party and fought those who hated me and perhaps also overcome them. But I restrained myself, because I knew how much destruction is involved in battles like that, and we – then as now – are surrounded by people who hate us and are waiting for every failure on our part.”

Even though the price he eventually paid was the near-total erasure of his memory from the public record, he did not regret choosing the path of silence after 1931. “I am not sorry that I did not get swept up into the maelstrom of slanders and lies that surrounded me on every side [and] which I am still not free of. I was dealing with people for whom everything is legitimate when it comes to their victory and their rule, and for whom all the organizational structures within which they operate are a cover for their personal desires.”

As for Ben-Gurion, Hecht’s anger toward him did not prevent him from taking the side of the leader who ousted him in the 1954 “Lavon Affair” – the failed covert Israeli operation in Egypt named after the then-defense minister.

“I admire Ben-Gurion for his ability to stand up even to his own party in a case where it is liable to be harmful to the state’s security, and stubbornly refuses to yield, and only those who know nothing or who are ill-intentioned will accuse him,” Hecht wrote in 1960.

“It is easy to dispense with Lavon, but Ben-Gurion must not act according to the atmosphere that has now been created. Certainly I don’t think that it is impossible to get along without him – the people will not disappoint. There will be no lack of Jews who will be ready to replace him, and it’s possible that we will be more successful during their rule.”

For his part, Ben-Gurion, too, wrote about his clashes with Hecht in his diary, in September 1929: “Yosef came to see me this evening. I said to him: Until two weeks ago I had complete faith in you, and even now I believe in your devotion to your work, but I have no faith in your loyalty to the Histadrut. We knew that you are working in the name of the Histadrut, but you are now apparently relying on other forces [i.e., Hashomer and the right-wing groups]. We do not wish to remove you from the job, but an affiliation between that job [command of the Haganah] and the Histadrut is a necessary condition for its organization and its success. And if we will not be sure of your affiliation, we will organize the job without you.”

‘Not an iota of skill’

After being forced out of the Haganah, Hecht returned to his farm in Givatayim and shunned public activity. In 1954, he moved to Moshav Mikhmoret, where other members of his family lived. He died 50 years ago, on April 25, 1970, maintaining his silence to the last.

“I will say without any pretense that I did not feel that I had an iota of military skill,” he wrote in his notebook. “However, from the experience of 10 years of responsibility and running an illegal military organization, I do not admit the existence of military ‘geniuses’ but of good organization! Every fighting force, the largest and smallest, depends on a surprise [factor], and an underground organization requires this more than all the others.

“The person best suited to head an organization like this is [someone] who knows how to do things with the participation of a minimum of indispensable people and no more, in every operation. It is clear that ultimately this will boomerang on the responsible person, because his behavior will stir many against him out of anger and rage, or out of misunderstanding. To defend my people, I was ready to seize on any means.”

Hecht possessed the qualities of a natural commander. He never participated in an officers course and had no connection to the political arena. In his decade commanding the Haganah he was a loyal Histadrut member, but one who also fought vigorously to preserve his organization’s national (as opposed to partisan) orientation. “I was against giving the Haganah a party or class character; I saw it as the future Jewish army, and that is what I fought for,” Hecht said.

Though he was a man of few words, he maintained an ongoing conversation with the leaders of the Yishuv, who sought him out. He hosted prominent Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, as well as Jabotinsky, at Haganah training exercises, much to Ben-Gurion’s chagrin – they were political rivals of his – and when the war reached Jerusalem, he determinedly opened the organization’s ranks both to Haredim from Mea She’arim and to communists, despite the grumbling this aroused.

“Every person has victories and failures,” he wrote in the notebook. “It is impossible to ask of someone that he publicize his failures to strangers who will not understand him; his conscience will be quiet only if he does not boast of his victories. I knew my weaknesses better than others did. I never pretended to be a paragon of perfection. However, there is one thing I know and about which I have a clear conscience: I always saw the good of the nation before me, and wars of factionalism, parties and classes were alien to me and are alien now, too.”

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