Out of Reach

Yitzhak Abadi was the highly respected Jewish translator for the Mandatory government, and researchers are sure his archives contain many treasures. Unfortunately, a financial dispute has left the material under lock and key

The official Hebrew name of the British-governed territory that stretched between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea was "Palestina," followed by the initials alef and yod in parentheses, the abbreviation of the land's historical Jewish name: "Eretz Israel."

abadi - Shoshana and Asher Halevy Photo Archive, Menashe Elisar Collection, Rina Raz Collection
Shoshana and Asher Halevy Photo Archive, Menashe Elisar Collection, Rina Raz Collection

That name seems to aptly characterize the Mandatory government's delicate balancing act of trying to appease the two national communities that existed here. The Arabs got the word "Palestine" - and the Jews, the initials for the "Land of Israel." The British insisted on this term and banned, for example, expanding the Hebrew initials to the full-blown "Eretz Israel."

The person who came up with the formula was Yitzhak Abadi, who was the Mandatory regime's official translator during most of the period of British rule.

Abadi perceived his role - and was seen by his British employers and by the Jewish community's leaders - not only as a linguistic translator but also as a cultural bridge between the people. Between 1917, when the British occupied Jerusalem, and 1943, he was the official translator of the various inquiry committees that came here. He sat in the high commissioners' offices and even wrote a speech for Iraq's King Faisal. The various people he corresponded with included T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia ), heads of the British administration here, as well as leaders of the Jewish community.

Researchers of the era consider Abadi's archives a treasure, but one that is for the time being, at least, out of reach. Locked up in a container in an agricultural community somewhere in the Sharon region, the archives are serving as a point of contention in a financial battle between Abadi's son and a former business partner. It's a struggle that does not help those who want to restore the elder Abadi to his rightful place in history. In the meantime, officials of the Israel State Archives intend to take action to force the person who is in possession of Abadi's archives to hand them over to the state.

Doar Hayom

Yitzhak Abadi was born in 1896 in Jerusalem's Old City. When he was young he was among the founders of Doar Hayom, one of the first Hebrew-language newspapers in Palestine, together with Itamar Ben-Avi, son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. It was Field Marshal Edmund Allenby, who headed the British force that occupied Palestine during World War I, who first hired him as a translator. From Allenby he went on to work for Ronald Storrs, the first Mandatory governor of Jerusalem, following which he worked for the various high commissioners. It was in that capacity that Abadi translated the British Mandate's laws and other documents into Hebrew.

Initially, Abadi also served as a translator into Arabic. However, following the Arab community's protests, the British hired a young man named Amin al-Husseini, later mufti of Jerusalem and the Zionists' archenemy, for the job. Abadi and Husseini worked for about a year together in the same office.

shalev khalifa - Emil Salman - June 24 2011
Emil Salman

"He did not recognize Husseini's philological capabilities," said Abadi's son, Ariel, in a telephone interview from his home in Ecuador. "I remember him saying he hated Jews, but their relations were good."

Ariel Abadi says in his memoirs that during a visit by Iraq's King Faisal, to Palestine the king consulted Abadi about a planned speech. "Finally he turned to my father and said: 'Abadi, I trust you. I'll read a chapter from the Koran and you deliver a speech about whatever you want, in English,' and so it was. My father delivered a speech, supposedly in his name in English. Of course, the speech had nothing to do with the Koran, but it was a conciliatory speech."

"He felt he had to connect the Jews and the British people. He's a translator who constantly feels it is his duty to explain the Jewish side," says Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, a historian at the Yad Ben-Zvi research institute, in Jerusalem. She became interested in Abadi after curating last year's exhibition about Storrs at the Eretz Israel Museum. Governor Storrs concurred with her assertion, writing about Abadi that he had made an effort to "faithfully interpret the British for the Jews and the Jews for the British, as far as any human being can interpret them for one another without the assistance of a new divine spirit coming down from Mount Sinai."

Abadi quit working for the British in 1943 - apparently because he felt that the imperial power had betrayed its historical commitment to implement the Balfour Declaration. News of his resignation appeared in all the Hebrew newspapers. Later Israel's second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, a friend of Abadi's, tried unsuccessfully to have the Knesset pass a bill, the "Abadi law," that would have recognized the rights to a pension of Jewish clerks who resigned in protest from the British administration.

Four years after his resignation, Abadi published a book (in Hebrew ) entitled "Between Us and the English," in which he tried to explain the rift that developed between the Zionists and the British after the Balfour Declaration. He attributed the difficulties to cultural gaps. "The English political thought is not keen about problems rooted in an abstract and unseen ideology," he wrote.

In 1952 several public personalities suggested he run for Israel's presidency, as a "respectable Sephardi." Abadi's reaction, says his son, was: "If you want to nominate me for that position as Yitzhak Abadi then so be it, but if you want to nominate me as a Sephardi, then it is totally out of the question."

Abadi continued to research language and had plans for both a book about the history of the British Mandate and a dictionary of Hebrew, but did not complete either task by the time he died, in 1969.

"Abadi is a key figure who links everything and can shed light on all matters," says Shalev-Khalifa, who in recent months has been campaigning for access to his archives, but who in the meantime seems to have run into a dead end. She is now pinning her hopes on legal action by the state archives.

storrs - Reproduction by Alon Ron - June 24 2011
Reproduction by Alon Ron.
Storage expenses

The story of the Abadi archives is reminiscent of the ongoing drama surrounding the estate of Franz Kafka. In that case, too, the archives have been in the hands of a person who has limited the access to researchers to the material; there too, the state decided to take legal steps in an attempt to retrieve the legacy.

Abadi's archives are, today, in the hands of a businessman named Haim Raveh, a former business partner of Ariel Abadi's. In 2003, Abadi, who lives in Ecuador, asked Raveh to vacate an apartment that he owned in Jerusalem and that contained boxes with his father's archives. Raveh removed the boxes from the flat, and stored them in a container in a small cooperative farming community in the Sharon region, and refuses to show them to Shalev-Khalifa or to representatives of the state archives. Raveh claims that Abadi owes him $35,000 for storage expenses and that until he receives the money, he will not open the archives to the researchers.

In response to a question from Haaretz - regarding why he won't allow outside researchers to examine the material in the meantime, even before his financial dispute with Abadi is resolved - Raveh said that if it transpires that the archives do not contain the historical treasures that are believed to be there, Ariel Abadi would have no incentive to repay him. "I don't have a problem returning the material, but he asked me for a favor, and for that reason I laid out $35,000 that I do not have," says Raveh.

Abadi, for his part, says he has already paid for the storage, and is ready to pay more providing Raveh presents receipts for his outlay.

A large portion of the materials in the Abadi archive date back to the time when he worked for the Mandatory government. As the legal heir to that government, the Israeli government claims that it is the owner of the papers.

"The financial dispute does not interest us," says Ruti Avramovitz, director of the state archives. "A person cannot hold onto material that the state created." Last month, a legal adviser to the state archives sent Raveh a letter ordering him to present the archival material to the researchers.

Officials at the state archives hope that this will become a test case of the state's ability to keep other archival treasures that are now in the hands of private citizens.

Storrs vs. Haaretz

"He complained that Haaretz never checks whether information is correct or not." I: "One can ask about the information but not about the interpretation of the facts." Storrs: "They did not ask me about the facts either."

This dialogue appears in the record of a 1921 meeting between Jerusalem's first British governor, Ronald Storrs, and Arye Leib Yaffe, then the editor of Haaretz. Storrs summoned Yaffe to a meeting in his home to try and stem the attacks on him.

Haaretz was Storrs' most vociferous critic. In November 1921, several months before the two men met, the paper published an editorial under the unequivocal headline, "Get Down": "We appeal to Jerusalem's governor, Mr. Ronald Storrs to get down. You stain the English government with blood. Down!" the editorial said.

Dr. Mordechai Naor presented the story of the bitter relations between Storrs and the Hebrew press at a conference last week at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. In his talk, titled "Enemy or Lover: Sir Ronald Storrs and his attitude toward Zionism," Naor said that on several occasions Storrs exercised his authority and closed the newspaper for short periods or censored it. "He had a very thorough English education, so he understood the freedom of the press. On the other hand, this was a colony, and in a colony you do not write against the authorities," said Naor.