Kibbutz Nahal Oz was established in 1951 as the first Nahal (Noar Halutzi Lohem, i.e. Fighting Pioneer Youth) settlement. Like others that were to follow, it was designed both to cultivate agricultural land and to protect a sensitive border-point. Built right on Israel’s border with the Egyptian-occupied Gaza Strip, it was situated almost within sight of the newly created camps housing Arab refugees who had fled their homes in the course of Israel’s War of Independence. From the end of the war until the Sinai campaign in October of 1956, Palestinian infiltrators and guerillas, encouraged by the Egyptian authorities, had crossed the border, both to pilfer fields and to kill Israelis.
On the morning of April 29, 1956, a young kibbutznik, Ro’I Rotberg, went out on his horse to investigate reports of Arab infiltrators who were harvesting the wheat crop in Nahal Oz’s fields near the border. He was shot and killed, and his body was dragged back to Gaza. His mutilated corpse was returned to Israel by UN officials hours later. The IDF’s Chief of Staff, Moshe Dayan, who had met with Rotberg the day before he fell, decided to come to Nahal Oz to give the eulogy for him.
When Rotberg’s murderers were later apprehended, it turned out that one was an Egyptian police sergeant and the second was a Palestinian guerilla – a finding that underscored the collusion between the Egyptian security forces, which in principle should have been responsible for preventing such incidents, and the guerillas. Dayan’s oft-cited words on the circumstances and significance of Rotberg’s death have had a strong impact on the way Israelis view the dual needs of defense and construction down to this day.
“Millions of Jews, who were massacred because they lacked a country, look upon us from the ashes of Jewish history and command us to settle the land and to raise up a country for our people. But beyond the trench of the border surges a sea of hatred and a lust for revenge, which look forward to the day when the stillness will blunt our readiness, to the day when we shall listen to the ambassadors of malign hypocrisy who call upon us to lay down our arms.
To us and to us alone cries out Ro’i’s blood from his mutilated body. Because we swore a thousand times that our blood would not be spilled in vain, but yesterday again we were tempted, we listened, and we believed.”
Jewish Review of Books
Allan Arkush is Professor of Judaic Studies and History at the State University of New York at Binghamton and Senior Contributing Editor of the Jewish Review of Books. He holds degrees from Cornell University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Brandeis University. He is the author of Moses Mendelssohn and the Enlightenment and co-editor of Perspectives on Jewish Thought and Mysticism: Essays in Memory of Alexander Altmann. His numerous essays on modern Jewish thought and Zionism have appeared in Modern Judaism, Jewish Social Studies, Jewish Quarterly Review, Polity, and other periodicals and books. He is the translator of Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem and Gershom Scholem’s Origins of the Kabbalah. From 2006 to 2009 he was the editor of AJS Perspectives, the magazine of the Association for Jewish Studies.