Commentary Magazine


The Faithful City, by Dov Joseph; A Clash of Destinies, by Jon and David Kimche

Sources of Victory

The Faithful City.
by Dov Joseph.
Simon and Schuster. 356 pp. $5.95.

A Clash of Destinies.
by Jon and David Kimche.
Praeger. 287 pp. $4.95.

 

Israeli, like American, democracy emerged in the course of an anti-British war. Both nations grew secretly under a slothful but by no means tyrannical British administration, to emerge suddenly, fully grown and fully armed, in a war of independence. From the British point of view, the loss of the Palestine Mandate, like the loss of the American colonies, was a disgraceful consequence of governmental blindness and folly. Yet, ironically enough, a shameful British scuttle has in each case proved wholly beneficial to relations between the two peoples.

Whereas the facts of the American War of Independence are well established, the history of the Israeli War of Independence has still to be written. That war began with the widespread Arab attacks on Jewish settlements which followed the United Nations partition decision in November 1947. It ended with the Rhodes armistice agreements of 1949. The first phase was dominated by Ernest Bevin’s Operation Chaos, the attempt to arrange the withdrawal of an army of 100,000 men and a civil administration more numerous than that which ruled the whole of India, in such a way as to insure that the embryonic Jewish nation was strangled at birth. During this first phase, the Haganah, and every other Jewish defense force, was an illegal organization; most of the British navy was still active organizing the blockade of Palestine and hauling off whatever immigrants they could catch into vast concentration camps on Cyprus. Meanwhile, on the other side, Ernest Bevin had arranged that the frontier should be completely open, and a large army of Arab irregulars had entered the country to collaborate with the British-officered and British-equipped Arab Legion.

Phase I ended on May 4, 1948, the last day of the Mandate and the first day of the State of Israel. Field Marshal Montgomery celebrated the event by breezily declaring that the outcome of the war was already certain and the Arabs would “hit the Jews for six into the Mediterranean.” Phase II then began with the advance of the six Arab armies into Jewish Palestine. The Yishuv was desperately hard pressed. All Ben Gurion had under his command was a resistance movement, superbly trained for guerrilla and sabotage action against the occupying power, but without either the organization or the equipment for conventional war. Moreover, whereas sound strategy required a war of mobility, he was unable, for reasons of morale, to permit a withdrawal at any point, and he had to jeopardize a large part of his forces defending indefensible positions, in particular Jerusalem. When the first truce came on June 11, the Israelis had revealed more heroism than skill in their fighting. They were profoundly relieved. They had survived—but they could not claim much more than that.

The third and final phase of the war starts when the Arabs refused to maintain this truce and continues in a crescendo of Jewish successes, which reached their climax in the Negev victories of December 1948. In retrospect, we can see that, during the June truce, both the nature of the war and the balance of power shifted in favor of Israel. If we seek to uncover the secret of the Jewish victory, we must concentrate our attention on those critical days.

Dov Joseph’s story of the siege of Jerusalem provides us with a large part of the explanation. Joseph is one of the very few Canadian Jews who have broken into the Russian-born Israeli aristocracy and become a prominent politician. A lawyer by profession, he had made himself invaluable long before 1948. In that “State within a State,” the Jewish Agency, he was a member of the secret group, headed by Ben Gurion, which ran the resistance. Naturally enough, therefore, as a prominent Jerusalem citizen he was selected to become military governor of the city and in this book gives us what is likely to become the classical account of the famous siege. Combined with the painstaking attention to detail of an official record, The Faithful City has all the vitality of a personal document. The picture it gives is all the more vivid because it is written in an unadorned, vigorous English.

_____________

 

No people could have been more congenitally unsuited to stand a siege than the Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem. A large number, particularly in the Old City, belonged to ultra-Orthodox sects that regarded Zionism as a heresy and fighting as a crime, as well as refusing to accept the authority of any civil administration, including that of Dov Joseph. Before the siege, no one had ever been able to unite them for any purpose except in protest against whatever invader happened to be in power and interfering with their piety. Apart from the “pious,” the rest of the population consisted, for the most part, of officials, clerks, and shopkeepers; there was virtually no industry. This aging and querulous conglomerate of quarrelsome but unwarlike Jews lived, completely cut off, in aggressively Arab territory. It was dependent for its water on a pumping station held by the Arabs at Latrun and for its food on the Arab villages round about. To complete the picture, I must add that its handful of armed defenders were bitterly divided between the official Haganah, the Irgun, and the Stern Gang.

That Jewish Jerusalem did not fall to the Arab Legion was largely due to the organizing ability of its military governor. It took a very tough and awkward man to enforce strict rationing on the bakeries and food shops of Jewish Jerusalem and to cut down the use of water to a few pints a head per day in the middle of the summer. But Dov Joseph did more. Foreseeing that the water pipe to Latrun would be cut, he made sure, before the proper siege began, that every cistern, however ancient, should be patched and filled, and he extended this to the Arab areas as he took them over. As a result of Dov Joseph’s precautions, Jerusalem just survived the first period of hostilities. Yet, by the time the first truce was imposed, fuel supplies had dwindled to only three tons of fuel oil, 600 gallons of gasoline, and 37 tins of kerosene for the whole beleaguered city.

The stock records showed that on June 9, two days before the first truce, we were down to a potential of 42,600 loaves for the whole city. This meant less than half a loaf per person, or, at a minimum distribution of barely six ounces per day, a 3-day ration. . . . We were able to hold out only because we had kept our average daily ration of food distributed down to the dangerously low figure of 900 calories.

A superb administrator, Dov Joseph was also the ideal leader in the unique conditions of this siege. One story which he tells characterizes his qualities. One day, after the British had withdrawn, he was asked by the Chief Rabbi to meet the ultra-Orthodox Jews at his house. After some hesitation one elder told him how fundamental it was to Jewish religious precepts to save life. They thought that perhaps they could go out to the Arabs and arrange that their quarter of the city should be excluded from the fighting. Dov Joseph concludes the story:

Again silence reigned. Finally he mustered up the courage to ask, “Well, what say you?”

I said, “You do what you believe to be right, and I shall do what I believe to be right.”

Again silence, followed by another question: “And what do you think to be right?”

I replied, “I think that if anyone attempts to raise the white flag, he will be shot.” With this, I rose, told the rabbis that I had nothing more to say, and left.

Unfortunately The Faithful City contains more than the record of an epic siege. Like everyone else, Dov Joseph has the defects of his virtues, and much of his book is taken up with his vendettas, first against Shaltiel, the Jewish military commander in Jerusalem, and secondly against the British, the United Nations officials and the consular officials, particularly the Belgians and the Americans. It is natural enough that, although he had no responsibility for the military operations, Dov Joseph has succumbed to the temptation to tell the soldiers how he would have fought the war if he had been in their place. A much more serious defect in his book is his inability, even in retrospect, to see anything but the official Israeli point of view. The British record in Palestine is shameful enough without the blatant exaggerations he practices. Indeed, one almost begins to sympathize with the English soldiers when one discovers that everyone else—particularly the United Nations truce supervisors and the consular representatives—was just as bad. By the end I could almost hear the grating sound of Dov Joseph’s voice as he stood before the United Nations officials and listed in circumstantial detail the ten-thousandth Arab truce violation that had been brought to his notice, or punctiliously pointed out that “as on previous occasions, the Israel authorities had been overscrupulously careful to comply with the decisions of the UN, to the detriment of our position.”

The truth, of course, is that each truce was used by the Israelis with superlative skill to carry out illegal reinforcement and equally illegal strengthening of their strategic and economic position throughout the country. Indeed, the war was won largely because they succeeded, particularly during the first truce, in evading United Nations supervision and transforming the balance of military power. Perhaps one should not expect a lawyer, even in retrospect, to concede a point. But I should have dearly liked an appendix to this semi-official narrative, in which the military governor of Jerusalem let us into the secret of how, under cover of complaints about Arab truce violations, he succeeding in hoodwinking the UN officials for the sake of his own people’s survival.

_____________

 

These omissions from The Faithful City are more than remedied in A Clash of Destinies. This austere study of military operations is the first serious attempt to investigate what really happened in the Arab-Jewish war. In writing it, the Kimche brothers have had the advantage of access to the records of the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv; furthermore, the whole of their manuscript has been read and annotated by David Ben Gurion. The peculiar importance of this book, therefore, is that it contains more truths unpalatable to their own side than official Israeli historians will for some time be able to record. Particular attention should be given to the numbers of troops engaged, as recorded by the Kimches. They emphasize that, even compared with the Sinai campaign of 1956, the scale of the fighting was tiny. On May 14, the day of Israeli independence, the total number of Jewish effectives was 35,000 men, equipped with 22,000 rifles, 11,000 sub-machine guns, and four old pieces of artillery. The Arab troops, though much better equipped, were roughly equal in number and almost as short of ammunition. Each side was convinced that the other was overwhelmingly stronger—which explains why so many opportunities were missed by both.

By the end of the first truce, however, the balance of power had been transformed. Whereas the Arabs had 40,000 men in Palestine, the Israeli armies had risen to 60,000: and their equipment was now markedly superior. Most important of all, they had achieved, under Ben Gurion, a unified command; whereas the Arab armies were not only operating independently but maneuvering against each other.

The Kimches also make a full and careful investigation of the reasons why the Arab refugees fled from their homes. Even in the case of Haifa, where the evidence is scarcely disputed, an element of mystery remains. It is clear, however, that both the Jewish claim (that the refugees left as the result of instructions from their leaders) and the Arab claim (that they were all deliberately terrorized and expelled from their homes) are gross oversimplifications.

In dealing with the role of the British government, the Kimches seem to me to have been scrupulously, and at times almost over-scrupulously, fair. But it is useful for Americans to be reminded that Mr. Truman’s sins of omission were very nearly as grave as Mr. Bevin’s sins of commission. The enthusiasm for the Jewish cause shown by the White House was equaled only by its ignorance, whereas the State Department was as foolishly pro-Arab as the British Foreign Office. That the Jews survived was not due to any assistance they got either from Washington or from Moscow, but to their conviction that every hand but their own was against them. In the event, this assumption proved not far wrong. As soon as British Middle Eastern paramountcy was ended and the United States sought to take over, it was clear that the Americans had learned nothing from Bevin’s mistakes but would commit them on a greater and even more disastrous scale.

_____________

 

The Kimches conclude that the Jews owed their victory to three main factors. In the first place, whereas the Arab armies never achieved a common strategy or even a common goal, Ben Gurion was able, during the first truce, to transform a tangle of competing terrorist groups into a conventional army. Secondly, he was able to equip this army by purchases first from behind the Iron Curtain and then from nearer home. The superiority of the Jewish over the Arab armies’ purchasing commissions was a not unimportant factor in the ultimate victory. Thirdly, Israel profited by the speed with which Ben Gurion learned to use each successive truce for preparing his next offensive. Indeed, the Kimches reveal that, in the final stages, the Israeli Premier was able to impose his own armistice terms on the Iraqi and the Arab Legion by the secret threat of yet another truce violation—this time an offensive designed to clear the whole area west of the Jordan.

I cannot recommend A Clash of Destinies to those who want their history painted in florid colors and prefer the purple patch to the painful search for fact. Its authors have been deeply influenced by the writings of Liddell Hart, in particular by The Other Side of the Hill, in which the British military expert tried to see the Second World War through the eyes of the captured German generals he had interrogated; and it is remarkable to note what trouble two ardent Zionists have taken to see the Israeli War of Independence not only through Jewish but also through Arab and British eyes. The result is a book which will be completely indispensable to future historians. Although it punctures at least as many Israeli as Arab legends, A Clash of Destinies heightens the sense of Jewish achievement. Indeed, the best way of savoring its quality is to compare, paragraph by paragraph, its concise account of the siege of Jerusalem with the much lengthier version given by Dov Joseph. When the personal feuding and forensic propaganda are cut away, we realize that this is a story which gains by the austere objectivity of the narrators.

_____________

 

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.