Roy Rogers, Roi Rotberg and Me

One played the part of a brave cowboy and one really was a brave cowboy. Which one does today’s Israel resemble?

I grew up in a “traditional” North American Jewish home – kosher at home, most holidays observed, driving to the synagogue, and with the television on during Shabbat. I remember that around my tenth birthday, we boys were expected to go to Shabbat services, but before that age we stayed home and even watched television. Saturday mornings saw the broadcast of some of the best children’s programs, and the most popular of all was the singing cowboy, Roy Rogers and his wife Dale Evans.

Rogers was good and moral in every way, and unlike some cowboy shows, he did not fight the Indians, who of course were in the way of the westward march of American civilization. Roy and Dale were friends with the Indians (whom we now call “Natives” as they were clearly not from India). While the cowboy and Indian movies made by others often featured the killing of hostile Indians, many of the Saturday morning television fare had the natives acting as “buddies” to white cowboys such as the Lone Ranger with his native sidekick Tonto (played by a Six Nations actor who grew up in the native “reserve” approximately 4 miles from where I lived.

We read that Roy and Dale even adopted a Native American orphan girl. White people were not supposed to be able to adopt Natives, but it turned out that while Roy grew up in Cincinnati Ohio, his great grandmother was a Native American and thus he and Dale qualified.

We were never too much into playing cowboys and indians when we were young. In 1960, when my cousin and I both turned nine, we instead played the characters from Otto Preminger’s great movie version of Leon Uris’ Exodus with one of us playing Paul Newman’s character Ari Ben Canaan and one playing Sal Mineo’s character Dov Landau.

My first trip to Israel was with my family when I was 15 – about a year prior to the 1967 Six Day War. And Israel, much smaller than it would become after that war, was still very much in the mode of settling land in the Negev, the Galil, and the numerous other vacant pieces of land. For some reason, perhaps the romantic spectacles of Americans settling the West in the cowboy movies, I was interested in the often dangerous aspects of settling the Holy Land, and one of my most memorable visits, during that trip, was to Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, adjacent to the Gaza strip – site of a difficult battle where a large number of Egyptian troops attacked the kibbutz in 1948.

I vividly remember how the kibbutz had opened a museum and created a battle scene with fake Egyptian soldiers overrunning one of the kibbutz’s fields. I don’t know if that battle scene is still there, but I do know that the kibbutz is still there, despite all Arab attempts to kill it, including the wars of 1967 and 1973 and then the missile attacks from 2014 to the present day.

Together with the residents of Sderot, Nahal Oz and other communities facing Gaza, we have seen over the years the bravery of those living close to Gaza or in Judea and Samaria. And as a young man, I started reading as much as I could find about the history of the kibbutzim and other settlements along the Gaza border.

And that is when I discovered the story of Roi Rotberg. (In Hebrew, pronounced Ro-ee.)

In Canada, there are many people with the family name Rotenberg, some with Rothberg, Roitberg, Rutberg and very few with the name Rotberg, a name I was somewhat embarrassed about as a child due to it including “Rot”; accordingly when I first learned about Roi Rotberg it was with the hope that he might be a relative and he might have been, like most of the Rotbergs I found, descended from tailors in Warsaw or Lodz or Kiev.. As the child of a survivor of the Shoah, knowing how many Rotbergs were murdered, I was curious to see what Rotbergs might have survived the Holocaust and might there have been some Rotbergs of greater renown.

Roi Rotberg’s parents left Poland\Russia for Israel and he was born in 1935 in Tel Aviv. At the age of 13 he was a messenger between troops in the War of Independence.

After studying at the Mikveh Israel agricultural school and the Shevah Mofet vocational school, he enlisted in the IDF and joined the infantry. After completing an officer’s course, he settled in Nahal Oz right by the armistice line with Gaza, which was to be the first of the Nahal security settlements. Someone who moved to the land adjacent to the Gaza Strip must have been ideological enough to put the interests of the country ahead of his own safety, and nothing much has changed. Rotberrg became the Nahal Oz security officer, and was regularly involved in chasing off infiltrators, sometimes with force.

Rotberg married Amira Glickson and had a son, Boaz, who was an infant at the time of his death at only 25.

The Arab terrorists of the day were called fedayeen. Their constant clashes with the nearby Jewish settlements was one of the causes of the 1956 Sinai War, which started some 6 months after Roi’s murder.

On 29 April 1956 he was caught in an ambush; Arab harvest workers, who had a habit of stealing things from the kibbutz, began to take wheat from the kibbutz’s fields. After Rotberg saw them, he rode his horse toward them to chase them off. If life was a Hollywood movie, he would have chased them away. But in real life, as he approached, others emerged from hiding to attack him. He was shot off his horse, beaten and shot again, then his body was mutilated and dragged into Gaza. His body was returned on the same day after United Nations intervention.

IsraeliChief of StaffMoshe Dayan was visiting Nahal Oz at the time of Roi’s murder and was asked to give a eulogy. This eulogy became one of the most well known speeches in the history of Israel.

As Mitch Ginsburg wrote in April 2016 in the Times of Israel: “What Dayan intended was to eulogize a single fallen comrade. Maybe also to send a message to prime minister David Ben-Gurion, in advance of the 1956 War, about the need for a full-scale operation against the constant flow of Egyptian and Palestinian Arab terror from Gaza. Instead, he penned an ethos that is succinct and brutal, pessimistic and defiant, unapologetic and, tragically, more important to the understanding of Israel today than are large swaths of the state’s own Declaration of Independence.”

And here is a large part of the eulogy on the death of Roi Rotberg, that rings true today as much as that day in April, 1956.

“Yesterday with daybreak, Roi was murdered. The quiet of a spring morning blinded him, and he did not see the stalkers of his soul on the furrow. Let us not hurl blame at the murderers. Why should we complain of their hatred for us? …

“Not from the Arabs of Gaza must we demand the blood of Roi, but from ourselves. How our eyes are closed to the reality of our fate, unwilling to see the destiny of our generation in its full cruelty. Have we forgotten that this small band of youths, settled in Nahal Oz, carries on its shoulders the heavy gates of Gaza, beyond which hundreds of thousands of eyes and arms huddle together and pray for the onset of our weakness so that they may tear us to pieces — has this been forgotten? For we know that if the hope of our destruction is to perish, we must be, morning and evening, armed and ready.

“A generation of settlement are we, and without the steel helmet and the maw of the cannon we shall not plant a tree, nor build a house. Our children shall not have lives to live if we do not dig shelters; and without the barbed wire fence and the machine gun, we shall not pave a path nor drill for water.

“The millions of Jews, annihilated without a land, peer out at us from the ashes of Israeli history and command us to settle and rebuild a land for our people.

“But beyond the furrow that marks the border, lies a surging sea of hatred and vengeance, yearning for the day that the tranquility blunts our alertness, for the day that we heed the ambassadors of conspiring hypocrisy, who call for us to lay down our arms.

“It is to us that the blood of Roi calls from his shredded body. Although we have vowed a thousand vows that our blood will never again be shed in vain — yesterday we were once again seduced, brought to listen, to believe. Our reckoning with ourselves, we shall make today. We mustn’t flinch from the hatred that accompanies and fills the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs, who live around us and are waiting for the moment when their hands may claim our blood. We mustn’t avert our eyes, lest our hands be weakened. That is the decree of our generation. That is the choice of our lives — to be willing and armed, strong and unyielding, lest the sword be knocked from our fists, and our lives severed.

“Roi Rotberg, the thin blond lad who left Tel Aviv in order to build his home alongside the gates of Gaza, to serve as our wall. Roi — the light in his heart blinded his eyes and he saw not the flash of the blade. The longing for peace deafened his ears and he heard not the sound of the coiled murderers. The gates of Gaza were too heavy for his shoulders, and they crushed him.”

This eulogy, along with his surviving wife, son and parents are pretty much all that Roi Rotberg left behind. On the other hand, Roy Rogers left his wife and 9 children, some natural and most adopted, together with an estate of some $150 million, a chain of restaurants and royalties from his songs.

Roy Rogers was not a “real” cowboy but Roi Rotberg was. Moshe Dayan went on continuing to serve his country, with distinction,, but the great words of the eulogy were later drowned out by Dayan’s naive plea for “tolerance” in the Six Day War of 1967 when, in his autobiography, he justified turning over the Temple Mount to the Muslims.

Moshe Dayan, the famous Israeli General who headed up the re-capture of Old Jerusalem after it had been occupied and often desecrated by Jordan, from 1948 to 1967 (but who deprecatingly called the Temple Mount a “Vatican” in a famous talk with Central Comman head, Gen. Uzi Narkis, who pushed for liberating the Old City), made a fateful decision not to offend the very Muslims who had desecrated Jewish cemeteries and synagogues in the Old City.

Prior to Israel’s capture of the Old City in the defensive war of 1967, Jordan controlled the Temple Mount and it made sure to control what the Imam was allowed to say in his sermon.

Since 1967, while each Friday Moslem religious leaders indulge in rabble-rousing sermons that would incite some of their followers, Israel has never taken appropriate action. In fact, Jews are not allowed to visit the Temple Mount except under strict guidelines, which, amongst other rules, forbid praying, even silent praying where lips are moving with no sounds coming out.

This Jewish presence is deemed “offensive” to the holiness of the Muslim Mosque built on top of the Jewish Temple; however, Arab children play soccer there, and that is not deemed offensive.

Dayan’s wished to show “broad tolerance,” what I call Tolerism in my book of the same name. Non-Muslims, we are told, must evidence a special tolerance for Muslim intolerance and that extends to changing the facts where necessary to placate Muslim revisionist history – in this case the idea that there is some equivalence between Muslim claims to a supposed ‘third holiest site” (not mentioned in the Koran) and Jewish claims to the absolutely most holy site in Judaism.

The Israeli flag flew over the Temple Mount for a total of 12 hours before Dayan ordered it taken down and he then gave administration of the area to the Arabs.

Dayan, despite his great military career forgot the lesson from Roi Rotberg’s murder, of which he spoke in his eulogy.

The late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once wrote: “We cannot secure every water pipe from vandalism, or prevent the uprooting of every tree. We do not have the capacity to prevent the murder of workers toiling in vineyard, or families when they are asleep.

“But we do have the power to exact a very high price for our blood.”

Finally then, are we willing and armed, strong and unyielding when it comes to the terrorists who hate us so? Israel has the power to exact a very high price for its blood – but does it have the will to use its power to become something other than rich singing cowboys?

©Howard Rotberg. All rights reserved.

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