Meet the man who captured the eyewitnesses to Israel’s birth on video

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Yom HaAtzmaut

Meet the man who captured the eyewitnesses to Israel’s birth on video

Aryeh Halivni's 4,300 hours of memories and first-hand accounts is to join a new collection at Israel's national library

Aryeh Halimi, whose Toldot Yisrael documentary film project is transferring to Israel's national library (Photo via Nathan Jeffay)
Aryeh Halimi, whose Toldot Yisrael documentary film project is transferring to Israel's national library (Photo via Nathan Jeffay)

As Israel celebrates Yom Haatzmaut next week, a remarkable 4,300-hour video collection of the founding generation talking about the state’s first months is making its way into the national canon.

Some 14 years in the making, the production team is preparing to move the 1,300-interview collection from their offices to Israel’s national library — and then start uploading the whole collection online.

It is full of gems, with people who had a front row seat to history talking about how it unfolded in front of their eyes — everything from the dress style of the time to the politics of the Declaration of Independence.

“The idea is to make the whole thing available to everyone who wants to know about Israel’s first years,” says Aryeh Halivni, head of the Toldot Yisrael documentary film project, a non-profit that has raised more than $2.75 million (£2 million), mostly from American foundations and individuals.

“It will be more than just a collection of videos. As people we interviewed talk about topics, you’ll be able to cross-reference topics discussed to show relevant articles on Wikipedia, locations on Google Maps, and newspaper clippings.

“Full of powerful stories from people who were there, it will become the go-to resource for people who want to know, or teach, about the founding of Israel.”

Summer launch

The big transfer of videos to the national library will happen by the summer despite challenges thrown up by the pandemic. One cost of the COVID crisis, however, is that the interview stage of the project — which was meant to involve several more people — was brought to an abrupt stop.

“When the pandemic started we were still interviewing, and in January and February 2020 we did 15 to 20 interviews and we did a handful in the course of summer when things opened up,” said Halivni. “But that was it, and when the fall lockdown started interviewing pretty much stopped.”

Nevertheless, Halivni has gathered more interviews than he ever imagined since he graduated with a degree in history from Yeshiva University.

He began shortly after Steven Spielberg’s launch of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation to record the memories of Holocaust survivors, wanting to do something similar for the State of Israel’s founding generation.

Harold Katz, who served in the Second World War that volunteered for Aliyah Bet (Photo via Nathan Jeffay)

Halivni made aliyah from the US in 2002, and five years later launched Toldot Yisrael, Hebrew for “the chronicles of Israel”.

He consulted British-born Yehuda Avner, the Israeli prime ministerial advisor and diplomat, who guided him and sat on the organisation’s steering committee.

Avner, who died in 2015, was an interviewee, as was the late Arieh Handler, founder of British Bnei Akiva, and one of the invited guests at the Declaration of Independence.

“Mr Handler was one of the very first interviewees, and was fantastic in terms of describing how it was at the centre of things as history was being made,” Halivni reflects.

Remembering Balfour

Some of the interviews took Halivni back long before Israel’s establishment. “Only a handful of interviewees were born in the first decade of the 20th century.”

One of them, the late Chaim Savitzky, recalled the momentous news of the 1917 Balfour Declaration in their interview.

“Savitzky, born in 1907 in Baranovitz, then in Poland and now in Belarus, was 10 years old. ‘We felt we had a country,’ he stated, telling us that the Balfour Declaration was delivered on a Friday, and in synagogue that night a particular prayer was infused with new meaning: ‘Let our eyes behold Your return to Zion.’”

Chaim Savitzsky (left) remembers the moment he heard about the 1917 Balfour Declaration (Photo via Nathan Jeffay)

Halivni said that he believes the stories have the power to make people think, raise questions, and also become inspired. He came to look up to several of the interviewees, especially Harold Katz.

Raised in Terra Haute, Indiana, Katz was valedictorian of his high school, and attended Harvard.

After serving in the Navy during the Second World War, he returned to Harvard for law school, but dropped out to volunteer for Aliyah Bet, the operation to bring Holocaust refugees past the British blockade into Palestine.

“We couldn’t just sit in law school while this was going on,” Katz saysin an interview. “This was history being made.”

Halivni remembers: “Harold was one of the first people we reached out to when we started interviewing in June 2007.

“His story was captivating, his speech was eloquent and refined, and his account resonated with me in a very powerful way.

“Our shared American Jewish background allowed me to imagine myself in his shoes.

“The courage he had to act on his convictions inspires me to this day.”

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