In most countries today, the traditional means of honoring military heroes is through the awarding of medals. In 1948, as the fledgling State of Israel fought for its very survival, there were numerous occurrences of outstanding valor, and officers on every front wanted to acknowledge those who distinguished themselves in battle. Thousands of such commendations were recommended.
In the midst of the fight for their existence, the army sought a solution. They created a committee and even sponsored a design contest for medals. With enemies on all sides, however, a system of decorations remained hypothetical. In the summer of 1949, it was decided that there needed to be a temporary solution and the “Hero of Israel” decoration was created.
Since this was meant to be a provisional measure, it was determined that twelve soldiers representing the different branches of the Israeli Defence Forces would be given the award. The number twelve was an allusion to the twelve tribes of Israel.
On July 17, 1949 (three days before the cease-fire agreement), President Chaim Weizman, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and Chief of Staff Yaakov Dori presented the Hero of Israel decoration to eight of the honorees: Yair Racheli, Abraham Avigdorov, Emil Brig, Ben-Zion Leitner, Ron Feller, Yohai Ben-Nun, Siman-Tov Ganeh and Arieh Atzmoni. The remaining Hero of Israel decorations were presented posthumously to the families of Emmanuel Landau, Zerubavel Horowitz, Yizhar Armoni and Zvi Zibel.
Following this ceremony, the army continued on its intended path to create a system of decorations--except that it took several decades, during which no further medals were awarded. In the meantime, citations were presented by the Chief of Staff to commended soldiers. When the mission was finally accomplished in 1973 (when the1970 Knesset Law of Decorations was implemented), the Heroes of Israel were upgraded to Medals of Valor.
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