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Passing of Netiva Ben Yehuda, 2011

On This Day in Jewish History: February 28, 2011


On this day, 2011, Netiva Ben-Yehuda, an Israeli author and editor, passed away. Netiva was known for her service as an underground commander for the Palmach, an elite secretive fighting force during the days of British Occupied Palestine. She was trained in demolition, topography, and scouting. As one of the few women in a male-dominated military unit, Ben-Yehuda is often marked as an early Israeli feminist. Her contributions to the movement are famouslydepicted in her Palmach trilogy; “1948: Between the Calendars”; “Through the Binding Ropes”; and “When the War Broke Out.” It is in these texts that Ben-Yehuda exposes the sexism of the Palmach and depicts the traumatic experiences of a woman on the battle lines of the Israeli Wars. Netiva Ben-Yehdua was born in Tel-Aviv, in British Occupied Palestine. Her father was a Lithuanian immigrant who had served as director general of the first Israeli ministry of education. Her mother was an immigrant from the Ukraine. Netiva had two younger sisters. At the age of 18, she joined the Palmach secretive combat unit. While the Palmach largely opposed women fighting on the front lines, Ben-Yehuda was a commander, eventually climbing her way up to title of lieutenant. Despite the hindering sexism she had encountered in the Palmach, her ambition and determination rendered her distinguished amongst her male comrades. One of Ben-Yehuda’s most notorious military missions was single-handedly commanding the first successful Jewish ambush on an Arab bus. The Arab fighters, shocked at the sight of a female fighter, placed a price on Ben-Yehuda’s head and named her the “Blonde Devil” After the army, Ben-Yehuda attended Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. She also studied Jewish Philosophy at the Hebrew University, a prestigious institution in Israel which prides itself upon Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud being among the members of its first Board of Governors. While she excelled academically, Ben-Yehuda was also athletically talented. She wished to attend the Olympics for discus throwing, but a bullet injury in her arm cut her athletic career short. In the 70’s, Ben-Yehuda pursued a successful career as a freelance editor. As a strong advocate for the revival of the Hebrew language, she published “The World Dictionary of Hebrew Slang” in 1972. But it was with her publications of the Palmach trilogy with which she claimed national as well as international attention. Scholars and academics were intrigued by her unique stance on the feminism movement; through experiencing sexism in the battle field, Ben-Yehuda highlights the discourse of women in combat, the ways in which the military exploits its women, and the sacrifices women in the military made, all of which is too often ignored by official histories. In an interview with the New York Times, she explains that in the military, a “woman has to constantly prove herself and be prepared to be blamed for whatever goes wrong” and that in relation to Palmach, she had never seen “any other underground movement in the world in which ‘male chauvinism' is triumphed so powerfully and so proudly.” Ben-Yehuda’s depiction of the foundations of the nation-state of Israel are notorious for its integrity and rawness. Miss Ben-Yehuda will forever be remembered for her great contributions to Israeli culture and the feminist movement.

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