Uzi Eilam’s rich and fascinating military career peaked when he commanded his paratrooper unit to retake the Old City of Jerusalem // Tehila Bigman

From Tel Yosef to IDF

 What are your roots?

I was born on Kibbutz Tel Yosef, in the Jezreel Valley. My parents had come separately to Mandate Palestine from Ukraine during the third wave of Jewish immigration (1919–23).

My father left home at sixteen, after a wave of pogroms, to join the Red Army. He later became a Zionist, was exiled to Siberia, and then arrived here.

My mother’s family lived in the town of Skvyra (Skver), not far from Kiev. My grandmother ran a flour business and managed to have eleven children, of whom seven survived, while my grandfather stayed close to the rebbe of Skvyra. After pogroms swept the town, my grandparents fled to Romania with their two youngest children. My mother and one of her sisters had emigrated to the land of Israel around 1922.

My father joined a commune and worked in quarries. My mother studied at Hana Meisel’s agricultural school in Nahalal but quit to take care of her sister.

My parents met at a gathering of Russian emigrants and decided to marry and join the fledgling Kibbutz Tel Yosef. Because of what happened to my remaining family in Ukraine, and to the Jews in general, “Never again” is etched deep in my consciousness. I take that conviction with me everywhere.

Uplifting moments. Yoram Zamosh and comrades hang the Israeli flag over the Western WallPhoto: Israel Government Press Office

Uplifting moments. Yoram Zamosh and comrades hang the Israeli flag over the Western Wall

 How long did you stay on the kibbutz?

I left in two stages: first mentally, when I was seventeen and decided I wasn’t going to stay there; and then in fact, around a decade later, when I got married. I was extremely independent and didn’t want to be told what to do.

Though I was a youth leader on the kibbutz and in the army, as well as playing in an orchestra, I didn’t feel I was doing what I wanted. So in my last year of high school, I decided to drop out and matriculate externally. I got seven or eight classmates together, and instead of coming to work, we studied for our exams. That caused a real stir on Tel Yosef, of course, but we stuck to our guns, and in the end the kibbutz even provided us with teachers. For me, my matriculation certificate still symbolizes my independence and freedom from servitude to the kibbutz.

Did you enlist after that?

Yes. They found a heart murmur during my army physicals, and I was devastated not to be fit for combat. I thought of studying math and physics – my two great loves – in the academic reserves, but I missed the registration date, so in 1952 I joined the army youth corps (Gadna) instead of the Fighting Pioneer Youth (Nahal) like my contemporaries. I completed a leadership training course and stayed on to teach the next courses.

Around then, Arik Sharon was forming the elite 101 unit. A lot of my classmates from the kibbutz were there, and they told me, “Just do what everyone else is doing – grab your kit bag and come.” But I put in a proper request to be transferred. After two months with no reply, I realized my commander hadn’t even passed on the request. I was furious, and I used that as an excuse to join the academic reserves. I passed all the tests and got myself accepted.

I started studying electrical engineering at the Technion, once again fighting the kibbutz for permission to learn. I finished the first year and officers’ school at the same time. The kibbutz insisted that I study agricultural engineering and then teach agronomics. I refused. I decided to go back and finish my army service, then continue studying independently.

Meanwhile, my friends in Unit 101 had joined the paratroopers, so when I returned to army recruiting headquarters as an officer, I asked to be placed there. Arik Sharon had already heard of me, and that’s how I began my career as a combat soldier.

Eilam with officers and men from his battalion by the Western Wall, just moments after its liberationCourtesy of the Eilam family

Eilam with officers and men from his battalion by the Western Wall, just moments
after its liberation

 How did you earn a medal of valor?

In Operation Black Arrow, a retaliatory attack on an Egyptian base in the Gaza Strip in 1955. I was commanding a force of ten soldiers, all still in the squad commanders’ course. Our job was to attack the Egyptian camp headquarters and demolish the buildings. We encountered intense fire from the outset. My hand was shattered, the company commander was shot in the head and killed right next to me, and we had other casualties. We lay by the fence while they fired on us without letting up.

Aharon Davidi, the company subcommander, appeared out of nowhere and asked what I was going to do. I replied that I’d take the men who were still unharmed and advance into the camp. He agreed and left.

I had only three fighters, but we penetrated the camp, moving from post to post and shooting nonstop. My men passed me cartridges and grenades, and I fired. Another soldier was killed next to me, so I had two men left. By the end, we’d captured the whole base.

Eight men were wounded, and we barely got them all out of there. After they were taken care of, I went to the doctor myself. He sent me straight to the hospital. Next day Ben-Gurion turned up with Sharon and Davidi to visit the wounded. They were surprised to see me and asked when I’d been injured. I answered that it had been right at the beginning, before the company commander was killed, but that I’d carried on as commander because there was a job to be done. They recommended me for a citation, which turned out to be a medal of valor.

After Black Arrow, Sharon made me his intelligence officer. For the next a year and a quarter, I picked up an inestimable amount of warcraft from him. Then he told me I’d been appointed company commander instead of someone who’d been killed in a Nahal parachute platoon under Motta Gur. I took up the post shortly before the Suez Campaign and found myself going to war in command of a company I hardly knew. I finished my army service a few months after the war.

What did you do after the army?

I completed a second year at the Technion but switched to mechanical engineering. I didn’t ask the kibbutz for financial support, and it didn’t offer. I worked, and my military disability entitled me to a loan. I married Naomi at the end of my third year and disappointed the kibbutz members (who saw me as one their most promising offspring) by leaving for good.

I continued at the Technion, and my wife was in university in Jerusalem. We had nothing. After graduation, I found work in Jerusalem, and we lived there until Naomi had completed her studies too. When we came back to Haifa, I began my master’s in operations research at the Technion.

Three years later, the U.S. government offered me a generous scholarship to Stanford University, and we set off with our one-and-a-half-year-old daughter in tow. Our time in Stanford was very special – I learned a lot, and we enjoyed ourselves tremendously – but after a year and a half, I wanted to come home.

I began working as production manager at an Amcor subsidiary in Beth Shemesh. It was a development town, and I’d decided it was time I did something idealistic. I also somewhat hesitantly agreed to command a reserves battalion in the 55th Paratrooper Brigade. It was extremely hard to divide my efforts between the factory and the reserves, so at a certain point I accepted an offer I’d received – while still in America – to join the research faculty for weapons development in the IDF’s General Staff. I left the plant and was appointed head of a research division just a few weeks before the Six-Day War broke out. Meanwhile, I remained a reserves commander.

What was your battalion’s role in the Six-Day War?

We were thrown into action in Jerusalem. We were supposed to have parachuted into El Arish, but things happened too fast on that front, so my brigade – the 55th, commanded by Motta Gur – was transferred to Jerusalem. Yossi Yaffe’s battalion was ordered to conquer the Jordanian police academy and Ammunition Hill, which were a tough nut to crack. My battalion’s arena was from Sheikh Jarrah and Wadi Joz to the Rockefeller Museum, and a third battalion was to advance once my men had broken through the 1949 armistice line, moving toward the Rivoli Hotel on Sallah a Din Street.

I knew Jerusalem much better than most others in the brigade. During my regular army service, my platoon had guarded that line, so I knew all the lookout posts from our side, and when my wife and I had lived in Jerusalem as a young couple, we’d walked the entire city (it wasn’t so big then). As an intelligence officer under Arik Sharon, I’d also taken part in several operations over the line. My soldiers attributed the relatively few casualties in our battalion – only twelve out of the ninety-six in the brigade as a whole – to my knowledge of the terrain. It certainly did make a difference, mainly because we did everything so fast.

Was there a plan to take the Old City?

After the first day’s fighting in Jerusalem, we sat with Motta next to the Rockefeller Museum, and he gave the order to capture the ridge of Augusta Victoria Hospital and the Mount of Olives. [IDF chief rabbi] Shlomo Goren was with us and told me his mother was buried on the Mount of Olives. I told him that as soon as we conquered it, I’d take him with me to look for her grave. Neither he nor Motta mentioned the Old City. But a young man named Yoram Zamosh had asked to go in first with his platoon in the event of an order to enter the Old City. I relayed his request to Motta at the end of the meeting, and he agreed, but he wasn’t really paying attention.

When we went up to Augusta Victoria and the Mount of Olives the next day, I left Zamosh with his platoon A as a secondary reserve force close to Lions’ Gate. When the order “All battalions to enter Lions’ Gate!” came over the radio, I told Yoram, “Go ahead, go in!” He hesitated for a moment, then led the way. That was when I found out that a family in Beth Ha-kerem, where we’d camped before going out to battle, had given Yoram an Israeli flag – the same one the paratroopers later raised over the Western Wall.

I went in with two battalions right behind Platoon A. I sent my subcommander to Dung Gate with another platoon, and asked Motta how to get down to the Western Wall, because we didn’t know the way. In the end, we found the stairs and ran down. We were the first to reach the wall. Zamosh hung his Israeli flag as soon as we got there, and a soldier took a photo.

Rabbi Goren arrived soon after us. I sent someone from Platoon B to help him find the wall, and he started reciting Psalms. He tried blowing the shofar, but his lips were quivering with excitement. I suggested that – as a trumpet player – I could blow it, and that’s exactly what I did. It’s in the photos. That was the first shofar blast at the Wailing Wall.

Afterward the rabbi gave me a book of Psalms – which I still have. He inscribed it: “A gift to Lieutenant Colonel Uzi Eilam, liberator of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. Presented at the Western Wall on the day of liberation, 28 Iyar 5727. Shlomo Goren.”

Blow your horn! Rabbi Goren’s shofar blast at the Western Wall is etched deep in the Israeli consciousness, but in fact the first to blow the ram’s horn there was battalion commander Eilam, a trumpet playerCourtesy of the Eilam family

Blow your horn! Rabbi Goren’s shofar blast at the Western Wall is etched deep in the Israeli consciousness, but in fact the first to blow the ram’s horn there was battalion commander Eilam, a trumpet player

Did you feel you were taking part in a historic moment? Was it elating?

At the time, it was just a break in the battle for me. I couldn’t allow myself a respite from my role as commander, and I left fairly quickly with my whole battalion. We came across another Jordanian force after that – eight Arab Legionaires who fought like lions, killed one of my men, and wounded others, myself included. We stayed overnight in the Old City, and the next day we handed it over to the 16th Brigade.

Motta told us our brigade wouldn’t see any more action, so I took my battalion up to the Golan Heights. On Friday afternoon, when the Golani Brigade was fighting the Battle of Tel Fakher, I arrived at the Northern Command headquarters and asked for a mission for my battalion. The following day we were helicoptered over Syrian lines and ordered to capture Tel Pares.

That was the end of the war as far as we were concerned, freeing me for parades and ceremonies.

On Sunday Motta Gur organized a review of the whole brigade on the Temple Mount. That wasn’t enough for me. I sat my battalion down on the stairs between the Mosque of Omar and El Aksa and told everyone we’d played a part in something we couldn’t quite grasp yet, but one day we’d understand its significance. Then I saluted the battalion, and all the men stood up and saluted. We stood there for a whole minute.

Then we went to the place where we’d started the war – the edge of Wadi Joz – and piled up stones as a monument to those who’d been killed. I carved a rough inscription: “Here the fighters of the 71st Battalion fell in battle.” The Jerusalem Municipality set up a permanent memorial there afterward. Over the years, we added the battalion’s later casualties to the monument.

Every year the battalion gathers at the site on Jerusalem Day, the anniversary of the conquest of the Old City, to remember not only the twelve men who fell in the Six-Day War, but the dozens killed in subsequent wars and military operations. The place unites us all to this day. As the battalion’s first commander, I speak every year, as does the current commander, passing on the tradition and spirit of the battalion from one generation to the next.

I think there’s much to be learned from the Six-Day War. One problem is that we’re still intoxicated by that victory and by our control of the whole land of Israel. I think it makes us less humble, skewing our assessment of reality.

After the war I went back to work at the research faculty for weapons development, which grew into the General Staff Unit for Research and Development. About a week before the Yom Kippur War, when I was thirty-eight, I was appointed to head the unit and promoted to the rank of lieutenant general. I was on the job for just a few days before the outbreak of the war that changed all our lives.

Rabbi Goren’s personal dedication to Eilam on the flyleaf of the book of Psalms the rabbi presented to himCourtesy of the Eilam family

Rabbi Goren’s personal dedication to Eilam on the flyleaf of the book of Psalms the rabbi presented to him

After Six Days

How do you view the transition from the Six-Day War to the Yom Kippur War?

You can’t separate the two. Though most of the action in the Six-Day War was improvised and rushed, it ended in a tremendous victory, and we didn’t bother drawing the right conclusions. The condescension, the pride, and the feeling that we knew everything there was to know were too strong.

I did take stock, and applied the lessons learned to my battalion, as a result of which two platoon commanders and one deputy didn’t stay with us. That battalion was chosen to cross the Suez Canal first in the Yom Kippur War. The battalion’s success in that war stemmed from changes we made as a result of the previous one. But that wasn’t the case throughout the army; the lessons of the Six-Day War, and the subsequent War of Attrition, were not learned.

When the Yom Kippur War began, it took time to pull ourselves together and fight back. We know how bad the casualties were. The surprise at the outbreak of hostilities, and the subsequent dreadful battles before the tables were turned – and even then, only by our soldiers’ selfless bravery and at a terrible price – left a very different taste in our mouths from the Six-Day War’s euphoria.

One example from the field of research and development: During the Yom Kippur War, I criticized several issues that hadn’t been developed correctly, and I documented them. I showed this list to the deputy minister of defense, Tzvi Tzur, and he said we couldn’t circulate it because the truth was too painful. Nonetheless, I sent the document around the department, and we built on those conclusions, bringing ourselves to a much better state of preparedness.

Why are research and development so crucial to the army?

Mainly because of one essential fact: the war you’ve just fought is never the war you’re going to fight. You always have to think what could develop in the future and be ready for that. That’s the most important function of the research, development, and technology community. It knows how to look ahead and prepare for the unexpected; even the generals are generally so busy with the current arena and its challenges that they can’t do that. That’s why the R&D people are critical.

Though I understood the importance of my job, I left fairly quickly when Yitzhak Rabin asked me to head the Atomic Energy Commission. After taking a sabbatical to get back into physics, I started work.

I served under four prime ministers: Rabin, Menahem Begin (who didn’t fire me even though I was ostensibly his opposition’s political appointee), Yitzhak Shamir, and Shimon Peres.

After a decade, it was time for a change, and I asked to retire, but Rabin was then minister of defense as well as prime minister, and he asked me to stay on. So I went back to my R&D unit, by now renamed the Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure. We developed missiles, satellites, and drones, and I felt I could still contribute. I remained there for twelve years.

I’d really wanted to retire earlier, and I was going to notify Rabin. But our meeting was scheduled for Sunday, November 5, 1996, and he was murdered that Saturday night. I decided I’d stay put for the moment, and I left two and a half years later.

How are you still involved in public life?

I do research at the Institute for National Security Studies, I’m on senior military advisory committees, and I mentor, lecture, and teach. That keeps me connected to the real world, to things I feel need to be done in this country, and I’d be happy if a lot more people spent their lives this way.

At the same time, I’m rekindling my love for the trumpet, which I play in the Kiryat Ono Conservatory wind orchestra and in the Emeritus Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Leonte Wolf. I just finished two terms on the board of directors of the Israeli Opera, and I’ve been on the board of the Lin and Ted Arison Israel Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv for twenty-five years, including a stint as chairman. Music is a bonus for me, as well as the energy that drives me. It’s all connected.

A book that left its mark on you?

My father was an autodidact. He volunteered to be the kibbutz librarian, so I was the first to read every new book suitable for my age. That foundation helped me later in all kinds of fields. The urge to read that my father instilled in me as a child has profoundly influenced me.

A historic figure you’d like to meet?

One man I met a number of times – and I’d love to go on talking to him if he were still alive – was the Hungarian-Jewish-American physicist and Nobel Prize winner Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb. I met him when he visited Israel while I was on the Atomic Energy Commission, and he advised me to observe a laser experiment in the U.S. I went secretly, and using what I’d learned, I started developing an antimissile laser, as yet incomplete. I stayed in touch with Teller, and we met again in Washington. The Jewish people owes him a great debt for his contribution to the development of advanced military technology.

What historic lesson must we never forget?

In the Six-Day War, we realized that the ability to improvise, to react creatively to the unexpected and the unknown, is a key part of the Israeli psyche. As battlefields are changing rapidly nowadays, and so many challenges storm the imagination, that capacity will be crucial for a good many years.

If you could be at a historic crossroads and alter the sequence of events, where would you choose?

I’d bring Rabin back to life. Rabin was a man, not a politician. He was an introvert, and sincere. He couldn’t tell a lie. I miss him. We all miss him.

Are you optimistic about the State of Israel and Israeli society?

Yes, but cautiously so. The Palmah generation that founded the state is disappearing; my generation, not so far off, is also on the way out. We must look to the people involved in founding and stabilizing the state and learn from them for the future.

Another major challenge is that of developing interpersonal relations; they’re critical in the era of social media, as real communication dwindles. I urge us all to ponder how we can maintain our thinking capabilities and depth of understanding, avoiding superficiality.

I’m optimistic because Israel is immortal, indestructible.

At eighty-three, I should feel as if I’ve done a lot in life, but I’ll always be looking for something more to do, some way of being involved. I’m not worried about my personal future. As long I can, I’ll give whatever I can. Eighty-three is nothing.

Impromptu immortality. At this makeshift monument on Wadi Joz Street, Eilam carved the names of his fallen comrades under the heading “71st Battalion.” Though the original heap of stones has been replaced by an official memorial, the battalion gathers here every year to pay its respectsCourtesy of the Eilam family

Impromptu immortality. At this makeshift monument on Wadi Joz Street, Eilam carved the names of his fallen comrades under the heading “71st Battalion.” Though the original heap of stones has been replaced by an official memorial, the battalion gathers here every year to pay its respects

ID

Reserve General Uzi Eilam

Reserve General Uzi EilamCourtesy of the Eilam family

Reserve General Uzi Eilam

  • 1934 Born on Kibbutz Tel Yosef
  • 1952 Enlisted in the IDF’s Gadna unit
  • 1954 Volunteer paratrooper; founding member of the elite Unit 101
  •  BSc in mechanical engineering and business studies; MSc in operations research
  • 1955 IDF medal of valor
  • Six-Day War Commander of the 71st Battalion in the 55th Paratrooper Brigade
  • 1972 Pioneered weapons development research in the IDF General Staff
  • 1976 Director of the Atomic Energy Commission
  • 1986 Appointed head of army research, weapons development, and technological systems management
  •  Award-winning author of Eilam’s Arc: How Israel Became a Military Technology Powerhouse plus three novels
  •  Married to Naomi, with three children and six grandchildren
Uzi Eilam as a young officer in paratroopers’ uniformCourtesy of the Eilam family

Uzi Eilam as a young officer in paratroopers’ uniform

In a word

Jerusalem :: the Old City

The Six-Day War :: the pride before the fall

The Temple Mount :: a bundle of myths

Ariel Sharon :: the greatest tactician

Family :: life’s best secret

Kibbutz :: not for me

Music :: blue skies

Tel Aviv :: exciting turmoil

The State of Israel :: homeland