If Eric Halivni (Weisberg) ’93YC could travel back in time, he would go back 62 years to the establishment of the State of Israel. Halivni’s fascination with this time period stems from his curiosity about the personal stories behind the establishment of the State of Israel. It is this inquisitiveness that served as the impetus for Halivni’s latest project, Toldot Yisrael an organization committed to preserving the history of 1948 through interviews with anyone who can describe their experiences in pre-state Palestine leading up to, and including, the War of Independence.
While the larger history of the war has been told many times and is familiar to many, the stories of those who fought in the war or experienced it in other ways has been less well-documented. In fact, while testimonies of the War of 1948 have been collected over the years, Toldot Yisrael is the first comprehensive attempt to capture on video the personal stories of those who lived in the pre-state era.
“As a history major, I learned that history is not just a series of dates and places and battles,” says Halivni. “The details and personal perspectives provided by oral histories paint a much richer picture of what actually happened.”
Painting that richer picture is what Toldot Yisrael aims to do–although sometimes it’s the ordinary stories that add the most vivid colors. “When I started this, I had this conception that the War of 1948 was so miraculous and such a monumental event,” says Halivni. “What’s interesting is that most of the people that we’ve talked to don’t seem themselves as heroes. They see themselves as ordinary people living in extraordinary times. People volunteered and it was clear as day to them that it was what they had to do. They’re just matter-of-fact about it.”
More than 150 interviews have been conducted so far, and Halivni has been actively looking for testimonials as the pre state of Israel generation is quickly dying out. Among the interviewees is Dr. Norman Lamm, Chancellor of Yeshiva University who, as a Yeshiva College student, took a leave of absence to work in a bullet factory in upstate New York during the War of Independence. In his interview, Dr. Lamm considers his experience to be one of the highlights of his life. (Dr. Lamm’s interview can be seen here.)
Halivni draws inspiration from Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which conducted oral history interviews with Holocaust survivors worldwide. Halivni adapted a similar model and the Shoah Foundation provided some of the knowhow to get started. A host of Israeli museums, veteran’s associations and public figures including historian Michael Oren, Ambassador of Israel to the United States and Elad Peled, former director general of Israel’s Ministry of Education (who himself was an officer in 1948) have also provided valuable guidance.
Halivni’s ties to Israel and his interest in its founding were strengthened when he made aliyah in 2002 with his wife Erica Goldberg ’97S. For the Cleveland, Ohio, native who grew up as an avid participant in the Bnei Akiva youth movement, making aliyah was inevitable.
Along with his B.A. in history, Halivni internalized the University’s philosophy of Torah u’Madda as a guiding principle in his life. “While at YU, I learned of the power of being an active member of society and the ability of people committed to an ideal or goal to make a difference in the community and world around them,” he says.
Now he’s recording the stories of people whose commitment to an ideal in the War of Independence 60 years ago lives on today. “The men and women who fought for the founding of Israel persevered in the face of remarkable adversity,” Halivni says. “By preserving their memories for posterity, Toldot Yisrael reminds us and the world what Israel is still fighting for.”