Haganah fighter tells story of early statehood

Amnon Inbar, who joined the Haganah at the age of 15, wears the hero label reluctantly.

Recounting a six-decade history helping to build and secure the state of Israel, he emphasizes that he was one of many working together to ensure the creation of a Jewish homeland.

“It was very simple,” he said during a recent Passover visit to his daughter’s family in Palo Alto. Discussing his service in Israel’s pre-state army from 1941 to 1948, he said, “We went to the Haganah. You didn’t need to think.”

Nonetheless, as a participant in every major Israeli military operation — from the fight for independence through the 1991 Gulf War, when Scud missiles fell on Ramat Gan, the Tel Aviv suburb where he lives — the 80-year-old retired fire chief exemplifies Israel’s “greatest generation.”

A picture of Inbar’s troop hangs on the wall at Tel Aviv’s new Palmach Museum, where visitors from Congregation Beth Am met him during a visit last month. He added his personal perspective as a reserve fighter to a multimedia presentation congregants witnessed about young kibbutzniks who trained and fought in the Haganah’s clandestine striking force.

“It is because of them — their generation — that we have the state of Israel,” said Gabriel Peretz, who guided the Los Altos Hills visitors through Israel.

“It’s really true. I call these people the salt of the earth. That’s Amnon,” said Beth Am Hebrew teacher Orna Morad, an Israeli who co-led the tour and is a friend of Inbar’s daughter, Avivit Steinhart. Discussing his generation, she added, “They are modest. They don’t say too much, but they do a lot.”

Sitting in Steinhart’s Palo Alto living room with Hana, his wife of 51 years, and four grandchildren playing in the background, Inbar expanded on his story.

The former Alter Yerachmiel Borenstein was born in Poland in 1926, emigrating with his family in 1934. At school in Tel Aviv, he changed his first name because his teacher told him the name Alter (“old person”) was inappropriate for a youngster. Years later, he adopted a Hebrew surname, following Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s directive to Israeli officials.

Inbar joined the Haganah in 1941, becoming part of the field forces two years later. A member of the reserves, he trained on Saturdays and evenings, learning to handle arms in schools with darkened windows. He never told his Orthodox parents of his whereabouts.

“I think they guessed, but I didn’t tell them anything,” he said.

In 1946, at age 20, Inbar was involved in two major operations: He served as section leader in a raid on Sarona, the British mobile police force station in Tel Aviv that is now the headquarters of the Israeli army, and participated in a clandestine operation to enable survivors to disembark from the Wingate. The Sarona operation, executed in concert with the Palmach, resulted in the deaths of four young men of 18 and 19. The Wingate, like dozens of refugee ships, was seized at sea by British forces and diverted.

Inbar’s adventures continued through Israel’s independence, his marriage and the birth of three children, punctuated by every milestone in the Jewish state.

In 1967, after the Six-Day War, he was sent to Jenin as military governor, and organized an “open bridge” that enabled surplus food to be sent to Jordan — an operation for which Moshe Dayan received credit. In 1971-73, he went to Malawi with his family as head of an Israeli delegation to build a Young Pioneer movement, comparable to the U.S. Peace Corps.

As fire chief of Ramat Gan during the 1991 Gulf War, when Iraqi Scud missiles rained on his community, he was responsible for rescuing survivors. While investigating, he heard a voice from under a collapsed house crying out, “Is that Amnon Inbar?”

When the trapped man identified himself as one of his friends, Inbar replied, “What are you doing under the house? Are you meshuggah?”

The friend told him, “When I heard your voice, I knew I’d be safe.”

Safety has long been a critical concern for Inbar, who served as chief of security during five Maccabiah Games in Israel. His passion for security was inspired in part by his father, who lost his entire family during the Shoah. In addition, Inbar added, Israel lost 6,000 people in the Independence War, 1 percent of its population at the time — making even the Jewish state not entirely safe for Jews.

Now retired and the grandfather of 12, Inbar continues to serve his country. He is on Ramat Gan’s Board of Elders, which oversees 44 clubs for seniors, including a day care center. He gets together with “old boys” from the Haganah, and he helped organize the erection of a monument in Ramat Gan to honor the three military forces that helped forge Israel’s independence — the Haganah, Etzel and Lehi.

During the 1940s, he noted, the three were often rivals. “Now the sons are coming back to be reunited.”

Israel “was a dream from the beginning,” expressed in prayers and psalms, Inbar said. “For us, it wasn’t only a prayer. We did it. We grew it.”

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].