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Avi Gafni, My Favourite Zionist Hero

IDF soldiers

May 25, 2017

In a bid to celebrate Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day), B’nai Brith Canada has asked readers to share stories about their favourite contemporary Zionists. The most inspirational entry wins a four-pack of Zionist action figures of legendary heroes like Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion courtesy of Piece of History.

Today, we are proud to announce the winner of our Jerusalem Day contest: Christine Melnick of Winnipeg, MB! Christine wrote a poignant and thought-provoking piece about a Zionist near and dear to her heart and, with her permission, we are happy to share her story with you.

Happy Jerusalem Day everyone! 

My favourite Zionist hero is my friend Avi Gafni, who at every turn in his life stood as a proud Israeli and answered the call of Israel every time he was asked. When I told Avi that I would like to write about him for this contest, his first reaction was that he was no different from many Israelis and did not consider himself to be special. From my perspective, it is not always those who capture the headlines, are are awarded the medals or find themselves recorded in the history books that are the heroes of their day.

Rather, it is often those who simply rise to the occasion presented to them and do so with the conviction that it is simply what we all should be doing. Such is the reason that I choose Avi Gafni as my Zionist hero.

Avi Gafni and his twin sister were born to a working class family in Tel Aviv. His father ran a small barber shop on the front of the house where the family lived, on a quiet little side street, which Avi proudly pointed out to me during a tour of the city. The children were raised as typical youth of the day, attending public school and enjoying the benefits of the quickly growing city by the sea. During his teenage years Avi became active in the pioneering youth movement, which would well prepare him for future actions.

When Avi was eighteen years of age he joined the Kibbutz Eilot, near Eilat, on the southern frontier of Israel. He also joined the IDF that year and volunteered to become a member of a combat unit which would eventually become part of a paratrooper brigade. When the Six Day War broke out in 1967, he was mobilized to the 55th Paratrooper Brigade which was assigned to fight on the Jerusalem front. Serving in the 66th Battalion, Avi accepted the mission to clear the way to Mount Scopus, which was an Israeli enclave within Jordanian-occupied East Jerusalem and was being heavily shelled from Jordanian positions. The most challenging target was the highly fortified Ammunition Hill. In Avi’s words, “I happened to be one of the first soldiers to storm the hill with my machine gun.” The truth is the fighting was very hard and the taking of Ammunition Hill was to open up the route to victory for the IDF.

Today, Ammunition Hill is a national memorial site of great significance, so much so that it serves as the main induction centre for IDF paratroopers.

After the victory, again in Avi’s words, “Later I was fortunate enough to be one of the first soldiers at the Western Wall. Honestly, I am not a hero but an ordinary soldier who happened to be at the front at the crucial time of the Six Day War.” This action to take back the Western Wall lead to its open access for Jews world-wide, with the creation of the Western Wall Plaza on June 13, 1967 – just three days after we took back the Wall on June 10, 1967.

After 1967, Avi became a student at the Hebrew University where he obtained two degrees in Earth Sciences. In 1968, Egypt, Jordan and the PLO joined forces against Israel to begin the War of Attrition, which lasted until 1970, in which Avi willingly participated in the defence of the State of Israel.

Avi answered the call to action for the third time on Oct. 6, 1973 when Eqypt and Syria, with expeditionary forces from Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Cuba and Morocco, and supported by Lybia, launched a surprise attack known as the Yom Kippur War (also known as the Arab-Israeli War and as Avi refers to it, the War of October). Again he served as a paratrooper on the very active Egyptian Front.

Avi‘s active military service over, he went on to obtain a PhD in Forestry and Hydrology (1987) in Minnesota and took a Post Doctorate position at the Technion University in Israel. He later joined the KKL/JNF (1991) as an Hydrologist and Research Coordinator. It was during his work with the KKL/JNF that I, then serving as Minister of Water Stewardship, Province of Manitoba met Avi Gafni and formed a lasting friendship through the organization of the first ever Manitoba-Israel Water Experts Symposium, hosted here in Manitoba. From that first meeting of water scientists from Israel and Manitoba, over 30 collaborations have formed and long-term working relationships have been established and strengthened through a second water symposium, hosted by KKL/JNF a few years later.

To this day Avi Gafni continues to promote and protect the State, living the values of the founding pioneers by acting as a country-wide certified Israeli guide, showing people the many, many sites found throughout the great State of Israel whenever asked. His clientele include official KKL/JNF guests, veteran soldiers (paratroopers) and tourists in general.

All of whom are the richer for knowing this Zionist hero.