Monday, April 28, 2008

Yossi Harel: Now there was a true hero

IN AN AGE of instant celebrities and questionable hero worship, the name of Yossi Harel may mean little.
It's really a name from the past that has been largely forgotten by a generation populated by insignificant wannabees and shallow politicians.
However, Yossi Harel was once an authentic hero of the entire globe, but over time he has been marginalized. The few exceptions are when a reader explores the inside stories concerning Leon Uris' classic novel, 'Exodus' or a movie buff goes searching for insights into Otto Preminger's brilliant recollection of the same name, which starred Paul Newman.
When 90-year-old Yossi Harel died on the weekend in Tel Aviv, the obit writers went scrambling for the appropriate words. His daughter, Sharon, said it best in the Jerusalem Post when she noted: "He was one of a generation of giants. He fought for the State of Israel and to protect and strengthen it. His courageous spirit was marked by his modesty, generosity and passion."
Perhaps, this writer has had more than a passing interest in such a true hero, after living and working in Jerusalem, but Harel's heroics were, indeed, the stuff of legends.
While the legendary ship's journey has been detailed in 'Exodus' (the book and the movie) as well as others, including Aviva Halamish's The Exodus Affair (1998), there were certainly gaps in the history of its commander.
But brilliant Israeli writer, Yoram Kaniuk, was able to give Harel his just due in his 'Commander of the Exodus' from 1999, which was translated from Hebrew by Seymour Simckes.
In brief, Harel was truly a modern-day Moses as he commanded four broken-down ships, Pan York, Pan Crescent, Knesset Israel, and the most famous, Exodus, and packed with Holocaust survivors bound for their new "homeland." Those journeys, from 1945 to 1948, were overcrowded with 24,000 'illegal immigrants' and defied the British blockade while the world closed its doors.
Harel was a compassionate and sensitive man, as Kaniuk described in his book, and he certainly was the complete opposite of any Hollywood stereotype.
Kaniuk once described him this way: "There was something very hevreman (sociable) about him. He was not the kind of clap-you-on-the-back hero. He was a man of manners, the type who didn't raise his voice. He was a man of conscience and a daring fighter."
Then Kaniuk also added in the Haaretz story that Harel's Jewishness was important, "as someone who had grown up in Jerusalem and not in Tel Aviv or on a kibbutz."
In Kaniuk's book, there's detailed passages of how Harel joined the Haganah (the Jewish militia) at the age of 14 . Then he fought the Arabs during the anti-Jewish riots of the 1930s and then the Germans in the Second World War. When that war ended, Harel fought the British and, of course, was instrumental in the birth of Israel in 1948 against such long odds.
In the June 2, 2005 issue of the San Diego Jewish Times, Donald H. Harrison related the modest Harel talking about his experiences concerning such perilous times:
"Overall, we brought 100,000 people but this was the bloodiest war we ever had. In the War for Independence, we had 600,000 Jews, and we lost 6,000 -- one per cent." Running the blockade, he said, "we lost over 3,000 people drowned in the Black Sea -- three per cent ...
"With all these casualties, they kept coming, they didn't stop. A nation destroyed was coming back to life."
After those heroic and harrowing voyages, Harel left for the U.S. to study mechanical engineering. However, he was called back to command an Israeli intelligence operation, but left the army in 1954 and entered the business world.
Today, Harel was buried in Kibbutz Sdot Yam, the communal farm which was the headquarters of the naval force of the Palmach, Israel's pre-state military, near Caesarea.
He is survived by three children, eight grandchildren and eight great grandchildren as well as a heroic legacy.
SPEAKING OF ISRAEL: A significant news story, involving Israel, has been, seemingly, ignored by the world press and it involves the famous actors, Kirk and Michael Douglas, as well as Canadian tycoon Leslie Dan. The three are involved in erecting a "grandiose"museum tracing Jewish history from the days of Abraham to the present. However, the most startling announcement was concerning the massive replica of the original Temple. It's being built opposite of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The museum, itself, is expected to cost about $20 million. One of those in charge, Ephraim Shor, in commenting about the structure, said: "This will be an audio-visual experience incorporating scents, so that the act of entering the Temple will be done with awe of God."


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