A hareidi man who fought in every major war in Israel has won an award for a book that tells his life’s story. Lieutenant-Colonel (res.) Yaakov Laniado will be given a prize for new literature for his book B’Sherut Ha’am Vehamoledet (lit. In the Service of the Nation and the Homeland).
Laniado shared his unique life story in an interview with Arutz Sheva, including his family’s miraculous escape from a Muslim pogrom, his captivity in Jordan, and his undercover mission in Syria.
His family’s involvement in what he terms the "Jewish-Muslim" conflict began before his birth, in 1929, Laniado began. He noted that he does not use the term “Jewish-Arab conflict” because as he sees it, the conflict is a religious struggle, not an ethnic one.
“My parents were in Hevron, and they were saved by a miracle,” he related. During that year a vicious Muslim pogrom took place in the ancient city, leaving several dozens of Jews dead and many more wounded. The remaining Jews were forced to flee the ancient city for their lives, ending an unbroken Jewish presence in the city which had lasted for thousands of years.
An Arab neighbor offered to help his parents, along with several others, by leading them to another man who would hide them. However, during their escape his parents became separated from their one-month-old baby. They went back to get him, and found themselves alone and surrounded by a murderous mob.
The young couple and their baby took shelter in a cave. Over the course of the night they heard the sounds of the massacre around them – including the voices of some in the mob saying that they knew Jews were hiding nearby, but that they would ransack nearby homes before killing them.
The family was discovered the next morning by a British captain, who led them to safety. Like other Jews in Hevron, they were forced to relocate after the massacre; the Laniados went to Jerusalem, where the family expanded, ultimately growing to include 14 children.
‘The war started with sticks and stones’
Yaakov Laniado’s involvement in the conflict began at a young age. He recalled standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Jewish friends facing an Arab mob that was screaming, “Allahu Akbar” and “Kill the Jew.”
He and his friends held sticks and stones, their only hope of holding off the mob.
“The war began with sticks and stones,” he noted, adding, “We may have declared, ‘A Hebrew state, freedom to make Aliyah,’ but we didn’t really know what a state was.”
He was a yeshiva student, he said, but was known for his rambunctious nature. A wise neighbor suggested that he channel his energy in a positive way by joining the Brit Hahashmonaim, an underground Jewish group connected first to the Lehi movement, and then to the Hagana.
When the United Nations declared its recognition of Israel, “the city of Jerusalem rejoiced,” he recalled, describing the wild celebrations in the capital. However, the city soon found itself under siege, with people moving from one neighborhood to the next only in convoys – a method which, Laniado noted, provided reassurance, but not actual safety.
Laniado, who was still not yet 17, was soon sent to war. His father’s parting message was, “Go, my son, and return. Never forget that you are a Jew. If you are in danger, say the Shema and viduy” [prayer recognizing G-d’s unity and prayer for forgiveness, respectively – ed.].
The young Yaakov told his parents that he did not know if he would survive the war, and urged them to take comfort in his siblings if he were to die.
Captivity in Jordan
Laniado was sent to fight in Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem. There, he and his fellow soldiers helped rescue the survivors of an Arab ambush.
On the eve of Passover, he said, he deeply missed his family. When his commander asked him what was wrong, he began to cry. His commander told him not to worry, that he would see his parents again soon.
In reality, it was another year and a half before he was able to return. Laniado and several companions were taken prisoner and spent several months in captivity.
“I was among the last captives taken from Masuot Yitzchak to Hevron. We opened our eyes to see a mob around us and the Mayor of Hevron, Jabari, inciting them. I was sure that it was the end. My parents were saved in Hevron, and I would die there,” he said.
Instead, he witnessed another miracle. A Jordanian officer announced that the captives were under his responsibility, and that nobody was to touch them, as Jordan’s King Abdullah had promised not to harm them. Some of those in the mob were angry at his order, he recounted, but the Jordanian soldiers fought them off.
From Hevron he was taken to a camp for Jewish prisoners in Jordan. There, he met his rabbi, as well as Rabbi Moshe Yitzchak, then 80. Rabbi Yitzchak cried at the fact that he had been forced to leave Israel, after taking care for his entire life not to leave Jerusalem. Even the fact that he was still technically within the boundaries of the ancient land of Israel did not comfort the elderly rabbi, Laniado said.
Undercover in Syria
After his release from captivity, Laniado hoped to return to yeshiva - but it was not to be. Instead, he embarked on a successful military career during which he served in the Air Force, Navy and Military Police, and played a part in establishing the Border Police.
Later, he was enlisted in the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service. He was sent to northern Syria disguised as a Palestinian Arab. The disguise proved an obstacle, he said: other Arabs treated him as a traitor to the Arab nation for moving to Syria, and refused to speak with him.
After a local man told him that he sounded like a Syrian from Aleppo, his cover story was changed, and the mission continued.
The rest of Laniado’s story, including his part in Israel’s wars in the 1960s and 1970s, is included in his book.