Telling Israel’s story

Telling Israel’s story

Shmuel Haram talks about his experiences in the War of Independence for the Toldot Yisrael Video Project.

On the eve of Israel’s 66th Independence Day, the Toldot Yisrael Video Project announced a new partnership with the National Library of Israel to archive and catalogue video testimony of people involved in the 1948 War of Independence. (Toldot Yisrael means Chronicles of Israel.)

The partnership will provide online access to this material.

With the help of supporters including the Maimonides Fund, headed by Mark Charendoff of Englewood, Toldot Yisrael already has recorded the testimonies of 700 veterans and diplomats of that epoch, amounting to more than 3,000 hours of archival material. The goal is to finish 1,000 interviews by the end of 2015.

“I came to this from my own affinity for that time period,” Aryeh Halivni said. Mr. Halivni, who was born Eric Weisberg and made aliyah from Cleveland, is Toldot Yisrael’s founder. “If I could have lived at any other time period in history, I would have chosen the period of the founding of the state of Israel. I always wonder how I might have contributed,” he said.

Aryeh Halivni is in a race against time to record the testimony of War of Independence veterans.

When Steven Spielberg started his Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in 1994, Mr. Halivni thought there ought to be a parallel project about the founding of Israel.

“Two major events changed the face of the Jewish world forever: the Shoah, which is well documented, and the founding of the state of Israel,” Mr. Halivni said. Though Holocaust survivors often speak publicly about their experiences, he added, “I never had the opportunity to hear someone’s personal story from the War of Independence, and I wanted to do that before it was too late.”

When Toldot Yisrael was founded in Jerusalem seven years ago, demographers estimated that the pool of interview candidates numbered 120,000. Today, more than 70 percent of those people have died. Statistically, one in seven of the remaining 35,000 interview candidates will not live through the coming year.

“Just like Steven Spielberg had this notion that there was a ticking clock on capturing remarkable personal firsthand experiences of people who suffered through the Holocaust and people who resisted, Aryeh had a very realistic and doable approach to capturing a piece of history that Jews, Israelis, and the general public will be fascinated with for years to come,” Mr. Charendoff, who also sits on Birthright Israel’s board and is the former head of the Jewish Funders Network, said.

Therefore, “there is some urgency to it. We believe this is a critical moment, that shouldn’t be missed.”

Mr. Halivni said that the Frisch School of Paramus was the first to begin using the video footage educationally. The school’s associate principal, Rabbi Eli Ciner, approached him three or four years ago, when he heard about the project.

“We put together a few moving clips from interviews about what some Americans had done in 1948 and why they had done it,” Mr. Halivni said. “These were volunteers about the same age as the Frisch students who are watching it. This makes the students think about how they fit into the story.”

Rabbi Ciner said the Toldot Yisrael material “was critical in conveying the theme of the Yom Ha’atzmaut program: recognizing and appreciating the everyday heroes of medinat Yisrael” – the state of Israel. “Our students were inspired by the stories of those individuals.”

The success of this screening spurred Mr. Halivni to ask the Jim Joseph Foundation to fund a pilot using some of Toldot Yisrael’s material to create “Eyewitness 1948″ – television-quality short films produced with the History Channel and accompanied by classroom discussion guides now used in schools around the United States.

The films include “Echoes of a Shofar,” showing six octogenarians returning to the Western Wall to re-enact their “crime” of blowing a shofar in the 1940s, when it was illegal under British Mandate law; “The Story of a Vote,” chronicling the November 29, 1947 United Nations decision to create the state of Israel; “The Volunteers,” featuring stories of Jews from abroad who contributed to the founding of the state, including Vidal Sassoon; and “A Bravery Fiercer than Death,” the tragic account of the “Lamed Hey,” a group of 35 young soldiers killed in January 1948 attempting to bring relief to a besieged Gush Etzion.

The Jim Joseph Foundation and others also funded “The Founders: The Story of the 1948 Generation,” a series of two-minute films also produced with the History Channel. These videos, in Hebrew with English subtitles, already have been viewed online half a million times.

Drs. Elad and Zimra Peled spoke at the Jerusalem press conference announcing the partnership with the National Library. Elad Peled, a retired major general and former director general of Israel’s Ministry of Education, was a squad commander in the Palmach strike force and the commanding officer of the battle of Tzfat (Safed) in 1948. Zimra Peled trained new Palmach recruits until the outbreak of the War of Independence, when she was assigned to accompany convoys trying to reach a besieged Jerusalem. The couple wed in 1948 during the first ceasefire of the War of Independence.

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