Spielberg of the underground

Aryeh Halivni hopes to record testimonies of 5,000 veterans of pre-state organizations and of the War of Independence.

By Yossi Melman
Published Haaretz.com June 5, 2009

Aryeh Halivni dreams of becoming Steven Spielberg. Actually, the young American-born Orthodox man, who immigrated to Israel a few years ago, has no pretensions of being a successful Hollywood film director and producer. He is merely interested in creating a documentary enterprise in Israel similar to the video archive the famous director has established, which contains interviews with Holocaust survivors. Copies of those testimonies, gathered by Spielberg's Shoah Foundation Institute at the University of Southern California, have been given to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Authority in Jerusalem.

Halivni's project, called Toldot Yisrael, has a slightly different twist: "I want to interview, film and perpetuate the memory of veterans of the [pre-state] Haganah, Etzel and Lehi underground organizations, of the clandestine immigration operation Aliyah Bet and of the War of Independence," he explains, noting that the name of his enterprise was taken from the last line of Natan Alterman's poem "Magah Hakesef" ("The Silver Platter").

"My object is to preserve the personal stories of veterans from that period for future generations, by capturing them on video," says Livni, who is 36. "The plan is to build an archive of unedited oral history accounts."

aryeh_halivniHalivni, who changed his name from Eric Weisberg , was born in Cleveland, Ohio, studied at Yeshiva University in New York and was a counselor in the Bnei Akiva religious youth movement and national director of its North American branch. Upon immigrating to Israel seven years ago, he settled in Gush Etzion.

Spielberg, he says, invested $50 million of his own money in his Holocaust testimony project, and within about five years his people had filmed interviews with 52,000 Holocaust survivors. For his part, Halivni hoped at the outset to raise $10 million, which would have sufficed to document about 10 percent of the 120,000 members of the 1948 generation still living, comprising 20,000 native-born Israelis and 100,000 new immigrants. He is receiving help in his complicated and ambitious project from Peleg Levy of Yad Vashem and Modi Snir, a tour guide who specializes in trips with a "battle-lore" theme.

"I spoke with several major institutions and archives in Israel - such as the Jewish Agency, Yad Ben-Zvi and the Jewish National and University Library," Halivni explains. "Everyone was enthusiastic, but said they had no money. I was told: 'You raise the required funds and we will be happy to cooperate.'"

With help from friends, relatives and a number of private foundations, Halivni has managed to raise a few tens of thousands of dollars so far, which have enabled him to record some 100 testimonies. Among the interviewees are former Israeli president Yitzhak Navon, one of the commanders of the Haganah's intelligence service; Yitzhak Avinoam, the Etzel's commander in Jerusalem; and Uriel Bachrach, one of the founders of the Science Corps of the Israel Defense Forces.

Although the project is currently experiencing difficulties, Halivni is not giving up and has set a relatively modest goal: to record the testimonies of 5,000 members of the generation in question.

"I am optimistic about promoting the idea," he declares.



For more information see the Toldot Yisrael website.

150 interviews have been conducted thus far with men and women in Israel, the United States, and Canada, ranging from 20 minutes to almost 12 hours, with the average interview approximately 2 - 2.5 hours.  Filming is conducted in the interviewee’s home by professional videographers in the language chosen by the interviewee.

Interviews are not scripted and cover recollections of Aliyah to Israel, home life, education, community, youth movements, with a focus on the interviewee’s personal account of the period up to and including the War of Independence and the founding of the State of Israel.

Select video clips are available online on our YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/toldotyisrael.

We are excited to share with you November 29, 1947: The Story of a Vote (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrIjzUK0FKg), a new 10 minute film from Toldot Yisrael.

It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in 1947, and Abba Eban and the Jewish Agency delegation to the United Nations were concerned. A preliminary vote showed that the Zionists did not have enough support to pass the Partition Plan. Rodriguez Fabraget, Uruguay’s UN delegate, kindly obliged Abba Eban’s request for a filibuster that succeeded in postponing the vote until after Thanksgiving. They hoped the brief extension would be enough time to secure the requisite two-thirds majority that would approve the establishment of a Jewish State.

On November 29th, when the day of the vote came, Jews around the world listened anxiously. Within a few brief moments, 20 centuries of Jewish homelessness came to an end.

November 29, 1947: The Story of a Vote is the second installment in the "Eyewitness 1948" short film series produced by Toldot Yisrael and the History Channel. The films are the centerpiece of an educational pilot program for the US being developed with The iCenter and made possible through the generous support of the Jim Joseph Foundation and others. The first film in the series, Echoes of a Shofar, a moving depiction of blowing shofar at the kotel under the British mandate, has been viewed close to 200,000 times since its launch in September! 

Toldot Yisrael is a Jerusalem based nonprofit dedicated to recording and sharing the firsthand testimonies of the men and women who helped found the State of Israel. Over 400 video interviews have been conducted with those who were involved during the pre-State struggle and the momentous events of 1948. Our aim is to conduct hundreds more over the next several years – while it is still possible. Eyewitness 1948 presents stories that address the heroism of the era as well as the complex moral dilemmas confronted as the young nation battled for its existence. Toldot Yisrael’s footage serves as primary source materials for educational curricula that brings to life the founding of the State of Israel for today’s young Jews.


Aryeh Halivni (Eric Weisberg)

Executive Director

Toldot Yisrael

Mobile: 052-530-6020


Aryeh Halivni, AKA Eric Weissberg, Yeshivat Har Etzion Machzor 1993.