During its sixty-three years of existence, Israel has been through many wars great and small. One of the smallest, least known of them was surely the “tractor war” of 1965, which was actually fought on two levels. Physically, it was a shortlived squabble that claimed two injured victims. Halachically speaking, the fight involved shailos that remain relevant until our time. Just as tractor dueled with tractor in the Ayalon Valley fields during one week of 1965, so contemporary poskim still duel over similar shailos with word and pen.
The Latrun Fort
The arena of the Tractors Battle was the Ayalon Valley, one third of the way from Yerushalayim to Tel Aviv. This is where Yehoshua froze the moon in its tracks, and where the Chashmonaim celebrated their first major victory over the Greeks. Passing through the area, you can’t help noticing a hulking structure in the near distance, the Latrun Tank Museum, originally built as a fortress during the British Mandate. Seized by the Jordanians in 1948, this stronghold was one of the strategic high points that helped the Arabs successfully besiege Yerushalayim during that year. It withstood two desperate Jewish assaults. During the latter, many Holocaust survivors yanked off boats arriving in Tel Aviv were shoved into uniforms and lost their lives under the fort’s concrete walls.
Unable to capture the building, the Jews only broke the Yerushalayim siege by building a new route to Yerushalayim (the Burma Road) out of reach of the fort’s cannon. The 1949 armistice agreement between Israel and Jordan granted Jordan the stretch of the Yerushalayim- Tel Aviv highway that lay under the fort’s guns, stipulating that Jordan must allow Israeli traffic to pass through. In practice, however, Jordanian sniping prevented Jews from using the highway and forced them to take a circuitous route between the two cities.
The armistice also demarcated a large area around the fort, most of the Ayalon Valley, as a no-man’s land to be used by neither Arab nor Jew. In practice, Jews worked part of the no-man’s land near their settlements, as did the Arabs on the Jordanian side.
Then the Tractors War broke out. The United Nations Yearbook for 1965 laconically reports the incident as follows:
“On 1 November, Jordan complained that a fully-equipped detachment of the Israel regular army had escorted 24 tractors into no-man’s land in the Latrun sector on 30 October. The United Nations authorities had requested an immediate withdrawal of the Israel forces from the area, but instead reinforcements had been called in.
“In reply, Israel on 2 November said that the Jordanian account of recent border incidents in the Latrun area did not reflect the true facts. Ever since the Armistice Agreement of 1949, farmers from the neighboring villages on both sides had been cultivating fields situated within no-man’s land in the Latrun area. Israel stated further that these incidents were being dealt with through the Armistice machinery. ”
What actually happened? At the beginning of 1966, Israel planned to stop Jordan’s sniping of cars on the Yerushalayim highway by capturing all the no-man’s land around the fort. (How this was supposed to secure the highway is not that clear). This would be accomplished by a concerted plowing of the land by all the neighboring kibbutzim. The plan posed a problem for the farmers of the local Torah observant Sha’alavim Kibbbutz who had kept shemitta through thick and thin ever since the kibbutz’s founding in 1951. But Rav Meir Shlesinger, the kibbutz’s rav, ruled that the plowing was permitted since its purpose was to conquer land and not to produce new crops.
The project was launched on Sunday, 26 October, 1965 (28th Tishrei 5766). This was less than two weeks before Israel’s national elections, leading some to suspect that it was actually part of the ruling Mapai’s party reelection campaign. Dozens of tractors chugged off from the local settlements and spent the day painfully plowing through the barren rocks and shrubbery. Progress was painfully slow due to the rough terrain, except at the end of the week when a modern plow introduced by the Shala’avim kibbutz speeded things tremendously.
The Jordanians reacted to the Jews’ efforts by plowing on their side. Arab farmers and soldiers leaped into tractors and worked non-stop, steadily drawing nearer to the Jewish side. By Thursday, the Arabs were penetrating into areas of no-man’s land where Jews had worked the land for years and drawing even nearer. As Dan Meir, a member of the Nachshon Kibbutz, related: “At a certain point my tractor and my Arab counterpart’s tractor met. We looked at each other, greeted each other, he gave me one of his tractor keys for a souvenir and we both then went on our ways to capture the territory.”
The Shabbos Question
By Friday, the project was still incomplete and Arabs were grabbing more land by the hour. Now, the question arose whether it was permissible to continue plowing on Shabbos. Besides the Chief Rabbi of the Israeli army showing up and ruling that the farmers of Sha’alavim could plow on Shabbos, Rav Meir Shlesinger the rav of Sha’alavim consulted with one of Israel’s greatestposkim who concurred that the plowing was indeed allowed due to considerations ofpikuach nefesh. Some time later, Rav Shlesinger explained the rationale of the heter in theMa’ayan Torah journal of Teves 1966.
He wrote that it was based on the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 329:6) that if non-Jews attack a town near the border of Eretz Yisroel, even if they only want straw and stubble, Jews are permitted to organize armed resistance against them on Shabbos. Now, in the tractors incident, the Jordanians were seizing no-man’s land that had been previously worked by Jews and were in some cases approaching within seventy yards of Jewish homes. Since war must be waged in optimum fashion, and since army commanders considered the best way to proceed was to plow rather than use weaponry, the area should be plowed on Shabbos. For just as a sick person should listen to the instructions of his doctor in cases of pikuach nefesh, so too, the Jews of Sha’alavim in this instance should follow the opinion of the army commanders.
Of course, the heter would end the moment the tractors returned to the kibbutz. A kibbutz member recalls how Rav Shlesinger rushed from his Shabbos seudah when he heard a tractor returning to warn the driver to leave his motor running the rest of Shabbos.
Rav Avrohom Horowitz, a close talmid of the Steipler Gaon, Rav Yisroel Yaakov Kanievsky, kept a journal of the Steipler’s pesakim and opinions, which he later printed in the four-volume sefer, Orchos Rabbeinu. In an entry dated Kislev 5726, a few months after the tractor incident, he writes that the Steipler Gaon strongly opposed the heter, and describes his stance as follows:
“Kislev 5726. The rabbi of the settlement near the border with the Arabs permitted the plowing of the ownerless area between the border of the Arabs and Israel, because the Arabs had begun plowing and wanted to seize this area. They allowed this because when a settlement is on the border one may desecrate Shabbos to fight non-Jews who came even for matters of straw and stubble. Rabbeinu said that this was forbidden and not comparable to the case of straw and stubble where the non-Jews are coming to fight the Jews and steal from them. Here, however, the Jews wanted to seize the area.
“I told Rabbeinu that the above mentioned Rav told me that the Arabs had brought army personnel and were ready with cannon and mortars. They were waiting for the Jews to open fire so they could return fire and shell the settlements. Also, the Jews were already plowing this area for ten years and now the Arabs wanted to seize it and had begun plowing, and if they seized it, they would be within seventy meters of the Jewish homes, while the ownerless area is over two kilometers wide, etc.”
Despite these objections, for reasons outlined in the next paragraph of the entry and perhaps for others as well, the Steipler Gaon still maintained that it was forbidden for Jews to plow the land.
Jordan Fights Back
That Shabbos morning, after the Jews had climbed onto their tractors and resumed their plowing, Jordanian soldiers fired mortars at the tractors and injured two of the drivers. The army ordered the Jewish drivers to retreat under cover of a thick smoke screen, and United Nations observers were rushed in to restore peace and quite. On Sunday, the Tractor War sputtered to a halt when the Jordanians repulsed a final attempt to resume the plowing. Israeli papers reported the incident on Sunday and Monday, but by Tuesday, the national elections drove an incident that almost launched the Six Day War a year early from the public’s collective memory forever.
The tractor campaign turned out to be a debacle when the United Nations ruled that the entire no-man’s land should be left alone as the 1949 armistice dictated, meaning that the kibbutzim had to stop using the land they had plowed there for years and ended up with less than they started. But it wasn’t so bad after all because Israel got every inch of the disputed territory back the next year on the second day of the Six Day War. The Yerushalayim highway, too, has been open ever since.
It is said that over forty years after the Tractor War, a member of the Nachshon Kibbutz named Yumpala visited Jordan and happened to meet a Jordanian who claimed he was the commander of Latrun during the incident. In the course of their conversation, he said to Yumpala, “We were uncertain of Israel’s intent when the tractors began plowing. However, because we knew that the Sha’alavim Kibbutz was Torah observant and never worked in fields on Shabbos, we assumed they would never plow on Shabbos. Subsequently, when we saw that the Jews of Sha’alavim were also setting out with their tractors on Shab- bos and beginning to plow, we understood that this was war. If it was war, we needed to react as in time of war and we opened fire on the tractors.”
(Sources: Mordechai Emanuel, The Datche Torah journal, 10/10.09; Ha’ichud Bechidud Torah weekly, parshas Lech Lecha 5771.)