A large part of Israel's military success in the War of Independence can be credited to the Science Corps, which developed and manufactured armaments and laid the foundations for Israel's defense industry

On Sunday, July 1, 1945 at 9:30am, 17 wealthy Jews secretly met in Rudolf Sonnenborn's elegant apartment on 57th Street in New York City. Sonnenborn was a millionaire and successful businessman that had made his fortune in the petrochemical industry. He was also an enthusiastic Zionist and a close friend of the leaders of the Zionist movement, including David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann. During WWII, he donated and raised many funds to assist Jewish refugees. When the war in Europe was over and Japan was about to surrender, Sonnenborn committed to assist the establishment of the state-in-the-making.

The meeting’s invitees were asked to keep its contents highly secret. For eight hours, Ben-Gurion himself talked to them, presenting his forecast for the expected developments in the Middle East, reviewing the general state of the Yishuv, and patiently answered their many questions. Eventually he reached the main issue. He asked the invitees to establish a fund that would enable the purchase of United States (US) army war surplus equipment, towards establishing an Israeli military industry. Following the meeting, a front organization called ”Sonnenborn Institute” was established to assist the purchase of supplies for Israel's arms industry. Ben-Gurion would later say that this was one of the three most important moves he has made in his lifetime.

Ben-Gurion had understood that purchasing military equipment would not be sufficient, and there was a need to acquire development capabilities as well. During WWII, he spent over a year in the US and was deeply impressed by the close connection between research and development and the military organizations, which gave the US its great military power. From producing antibiotics, through radars and innovative aircraft, up to the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb – the battlefield achievements were founded on scientific and technological research and development.

הנשק שעזר לנצח במלחמה. אנשי ה'הגנה' עם תותח שנבנה בסדנה של תע"ש חוץ ליד תל אביב | מקור: ויקיפדיה, נחלת הכלל
The weapon that helped win the war. A Haganah member with a cannon built in a Ta'as workshop near Tel-Aviv | Source: Wikipedia 

The Haganah's Scientific Research Department

During the war, Ben-Gurion – inspired by Chaim Weizmann who now served as an advisor to the British War Office – reinforced the scientific, technological, and industrial links between the Yishuv and the British mandate government. He encouraged the scientific institutions in the Land of Israel, including the Technion, the Hebrew University, Hadassah hospital, and the Sieff Institute, which later became the Weizmann Institute, to contribute to the British war effort, in hopes that this would politically benefit the Yishuv and strengthen its technological capacity. And indeed, this cooperation led to the establishment of a board for scientific and industrial research in 1945, which provided funding to civilian research.

At the same time, several scientists in the Yishuv joined forces to form a committee for defense research aimed at developing of arms. The committee worked separately from the collaboration with the British, and was soon established as the “Scientific Research department” of the Haganah paramilitary organization. One of its founders was Aharon Katchalsky (to become Katzir), who had a PhD in chemistry and was active in the Haganah and other organizations. He understood the importance of a scientific foundation for the development of military capabilities. As early as 1943, he published, together with Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Moshe Brill, a booklet titled Science Advances in War, surveying military, medical, and industrial developments from the scientific front of the war.

The Haganah’s Scientific Research department was led by Yohanan Ratner, a professor of architecture at the Technion and a high-ranking commander in the Haganah, who had served as a high-ranking officer in the Russian Army before making aliya. The Scientific Research department was not funded on a regularl basis and ceased to exist in early 1947, after only one year. Ben-Gurion met Ratner and Katzir several times in 1947 and in September of that year, they presented him with a plan to establish a body that would oversee scientific research and development, examine new arms, and obtain and transfer knowledge from overseas. Ben-Gurion approved the plan and in October, the scientific research department was back in business, at a larger extent than before.

Ratner and Katzir recruited people and the department immediately began developing arms and perfecting the ones already available, including bombs, mines, Molotov cocktails, and more.

אנשי המחלקה. יוחנן רטנר (מימין), אהרן קציר (במרכז) ואפרים קציר | צילומים: Imrich, מכון ויצמן למדע, ויקיפדיה, נחלת הכלל
The people of the Scientific Research department. Right to left: Yohanan Ratner, Aharon Katzir, and Ephraim Katzir | Photographs by: Imrich, Weizmann Institute of Science, Wikipedia

Inside battles

But not everything went so smoothly. With the winds of the upcoming war in the background, the Jews in the Land of Israel were also fighting internal battles. Around the issue of armaments manufacture, the conflict was with Ta'as, the arms factory established in 1933, which objected to the entrance of a new player in the field. Ta'as manufactured mainly firearms and ammunition and relied on imitating existing models. Ta'as director Haim Slavin called the Scientific Research department's initiative to develop new armaments a “factory of illusions”, warning that these weapons would not operate properly.    

Slavin eventually resigned and Ben-Gurion granted permission to outsource the manufacture of the department's developments to other factories, nicknamed “Ta'as Hutz” (“external Ta’as”). Within a number of months, Ta'as Hutz was supervising the manufacture of mines, smoke grenades, and other armaments developed by the Scientific Research Department in 55 civilian factories. Some were made on Sonnenborn Institute-funded machines smuggled from abroad in parts and then assembled in Ta'as or Ta'as Hutz factories. This enabled the Yishuv to manufacture weapons and ammunition without any dependency on external supply.

A large portion of the research and development in the Scientific Research Department was performed by students working in full or partial secrecy, with their university looking the other way. A group of chemistry students from the Hebrew University developed explosives and various types of bombs, even though they had no prior knowledge or experience in the field. One of these students was Aharon Katzir's younger brother, Ephraim Katzir, who would later become a professor of biochemistry – and Israel's fourth president. “When Benny Maharshak came to me, I was embarrassed to tell him I know nothing about the theory behind explosives. So I said yes, and immediately ran to the library to get the education I needed,” said Ephraim Katzir in his autobiography Life Story. “After a month's-worth of intense studying, I already knew something about propellants and explosives and began giving lessons in the Palmach's demolition courses.”

Another student in the group was Uriel Bachrach, who later became a professor of molecular biology. In the book he wrote, The Power of Knowledge – HEMED: The Israeli Science Corps, he describes the heavy price the students paid for their lack of knowledge and experience, along with the shortage of appropriate facilities – several of them killed or injured in accidents while working with explosives. One of those was Zvi Kertes, who had immigrated from Hungary in 1939, studied biochemistry at the Hebrew University, and conducted lab research on milk at the Agricultural Experimental Station (later to become the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Agriculture). He also worked on developing explosives for the Scientific Research department and died on the job in an unintended explosion in June 1948, leaving behind a wife and a child.

Apart from the disasters, the students had some funny anecdotes. Ephraim Katzir tells in his book that Amos Horev had an idea for a bomb delay mechanism based on sulfuric acid, which would activate the bomb after slowly corroding its rubber coating. The rubber coating was made out of condoms, which were purchased in large amounts for the experiments from a store on King George St. The student buying them gained the admiration of the store owner who was sure the philanderer student was putting them to quite a different use. 

עבודה חשובה ומסוכנת. פצצת תבערה שפיתחו אנשי המחלקה המדעית של ההגנה | מקור: אתר ארגון ההגנה
An important and dangerous job. The firebomb developed by the Haganah's Scientific Research department | Source: Haganah's website

From the lab to the battlefield

Alongside the activity of the chemistry students in Jerusalem, similar groups were operating at the Sieff Institute in Rehovot and at the Technion in Haifa. In February 1948, the Hebrew University and the Sieff Institute officially joined the war effort and promised Ben-Gurion assistance with security services. This put defense research, which was previously conducted under the radar, out in the open, and many students and professors joined. 

In March 1948, the Scientific Research Department officially became the Haganah's Science Corps, or HEMED (its acronym in Hebrew). Science Corps members not only developed, tested, and supervised the manufacture of new armaments, they also instructed combat units on their use. Many of the developers were also active participants in combat and operated the armaments they had developed, both to learn how they function in actual combat and since sometimes their operation required experience or knowledge that the other soldiers lacked.

With the establishment of the state and the Israeli Defense Forces, the Science Corps became an essential part of the small army. Ephraim Katzir was appointed as its first commander, at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel – the third highest rank at the time (Colonel and Brigadier General were later additions).

Under Katzir's command, the Science Corps developed and supervised the manufacture of many different armaments. These included 1,800 projector infantry anti-tank (PIAT) weapons, dozens of heavy mortars, numerous mortar rounds, tens of thousands of mines, and 13,000 aerial bombs manufactured by Ta'as Hutz. Yehudith Birk, subsequently a professor of biochemistry and an Israel Prize in Agriculture laureate, worked as a student in HEMED on the development of flares –throwing them herself off planes to test if they were properly functioning.

הבסיס לתשתית הגרעין. ישראל דוסטרובסקי (מימין) ואנשי חמ"ד ג' בסיור גיאולוגי בנגב | מקור: ויקיפדיה, שימוש חופשי
The foundation for the nuclear infrastructure. Israel Dostrovsky (on the right) and members of HEMED Gimel in a geological tour of the Negev | Source: Wikipedia

The future is nuclear

Along with the routine activities of developing and manufacturing arms for immediate use, the Science Corps was also involved in long-term projects from the very beginning. Ernst David Bergman, one of the founders of the Science Corps, recruited a number of physics students, among them Amos de Shalit, and assured that their graduate studies abroad will be funded by the Ministry of Defense, so that they could establish the foundations of nuclear research in Israel upon their return.

The physical infrastructure for nuclear research in Israel was established by Prof. Israel Dostrovsky, one of the Weizmann Institute’s first researchers, who led the “HEMED Gimel” unit. The unit engaged in searching for useful ores and its members conducted vast geological surveys in the Negev. Samples from these surveys were transferred to the Institute’s laboratories, where Dostrovsky and his colleagues found that the Negev soil contains a large amount of phosphates, but also small amounts of uranium. These findings and the continued work of HEMED Gimel laid the foundations for the Israeli nuclear program and the establishment of the Negev Nuclear Research Center.

Shneior Lifson, Michael Doron, and Shlomo Gur succeeded Katzir as the Science Corps' commanders. Bergman, who was appointed scientific advisor to the Minister of Defense, David Ben-Gurion, refused to accept command of HEMED in 1951, saying that the scientific work should be civilian rather than military. He suggested turning the Science Corps into a unit in the Ministry of Defense. Shlomo Gur, the last commander of HEMED also agreed with this stance, and, in 1952, Ben-Gurion followed their advice. The Science Corps was disbanded and the Research and Design Directorate was established in its place, which became Rafael Advanced Defense Systems in the late 1950s. In 2002, Rafael became a government-owned company.

“The establishment of HEMED transformed the types of technological products and the manner by which they are manufactured in the armament field. With the encouragement of the young Israeli state, a new approach to manufacturing arms took hold, which encouraged not only imitating and copying existing models, but also perfecting them and developing new ones, conducting research, experimenting, and relying on advanced technological and scientific knowledge for technological innovation,” wrote historian Ari Barel. “The legitimacy, institutionalization, and support of technological research and development of technological innovation was realized by the establishment of HEMED, which served as the foundations for the vast defense research of Israel, and also for the current Israeli technological innovation.”

The story of the Science Corps is very short, spanning only a few years. But it realized Ben-Gurion's vision and proved his claim that a state’s military power depends also on its scientific and technological capacity. Under his leadership, the Science Corps brought together the knowledge and skills of some of the greatest of minds of their time, who would go on to lead Israeli scientific research. The best evidence for the power of Ben-Gurion's vision was that the organizations that originated in the Science Corps, including Rafael, the Negev Nuclear Research Center, and the Israel Institute for Biological Research, are responsible for the most crucial elements of Israel's defense system and also contributed significantly to its economy.


Translated by Elee Shimshoni