Commentary Magazine


Topic: Lydda

From Lydda to Gaza

“Disproportion speaks massacre, not ‘battle.'” Who wrote that just last week about Israel’s conduct vis-à-vis the Palestinians?

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“Disproportion speaks massacre, not ‘battle.'” Who wrote that just last week about Israel’s conduct vis-à-vis the Palestinians?

I won’t keep you in suspense. It was Israeli historian Benny Morris, replying to my critique (at Mosaic Magazine) of Ari Shavit’s treatment of the Lydda “massacre” of July 12, 1948, in Shavit’s book My Promised Land. Shavit declined to respond to me, but Morris took up the gauntlet last week. He wishes a pox on Shavit’s house and mine, for different reasons. He accuses Shavit of turning Lydda into more than it was, and he accuses me of “effectively denying” that there was “a massacre, albeit a provoked one.” Perhaps I do, although (unlike Shavit and Morris) I don’t claim to know exactly what happened.

I hadn’t set out to contest both Shavit and Morris, but since Shavit relies on Morris, their narratives are intertwined, and it’s just as well. Mosaic Magazine today runs my reply to Morris’s response. Not only do I question the credibility of his historical account, I also make this more general observation:

On Morris’s principle, every occasion on which Israel exacts a numerically “disproportionate” cost in the lives of others—as it often must do, if it is to deter and defeat its enemies—constitutes evidence of massacre; to sustain its very existence, Israel must massacre again and again, decade after decade…. Israel thus can never be legitimate; it is a perpetual war crime, on an ever-larger scale. So saith the “disproportion.”

Unfortunately, it’s a question that’s timely, on the morrow of a day when Israel lost thirteen soldiers in battle, and Palestinians are again claiming that Israel has committed a “massacre.” Read my response to Morris here.

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Blaming Zionism: The Lydda Misdirection

Imagine the following headlines: “Zionism Enables Paraplegics to Walk Again”; “Zionism Leads Lifesaving Medical Efforts in Disaster-Struck Haiti”; “Zionism Helps Prevent AIDS in Africa”; “Zionism Saves Syrian Lives As Arab States Abandon Them”; etc. There is something awkward, clumsy about them. But most of all you have to imagine those headlines because you wouldn’t otherwise see them.

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Imagine the following headlines: “Zionism Enables Paraplegics to Walk Again”; “Zionism Leads Lifesaving Medical Efforts in Disaster-Struck Haiti”; “Zionism Helps Prevent AIDS in Africa”; “Zionism Saves Syrian Lives As Arab States Abandon Them”; etc. There is something awkward, clumsy about them. But most of all you have to imagine those headlines because you wouldn’t otherwise see them.

Yet we hear the opposite refrain: when Israel earns the world’s opprobrium, Zionism gets a black mark as well. This is what jumped out right away at me from Ari Shavit’s much-discussed chapter on Lydda in his new and widely praised book.

There has been a fascinating debate taking place at Mosaic Magazine on the chapter. It began with Martin Kramer’s essay challenging Shavit’s selective interpretation of events in the famous 1948 battle, which Shavit used to accuse Israeli forces of committing a massacre. Efraim Karsh followed that with his take on Lydda and revisionism, and now Benny Morris has responded with a pox on both the houses of Shavit and Kramer who, he says, offer partial truths in the service of agenda-driven history.

But aside from the historical question of what exactly took place in Lydda in 1948, there is the classification by Shavit of Lydda as Zionism’s “black box.” Here is Shavit:

Lydda is our black box. In it lies the dark secret of Zionism. The truth is that Zionism could not bear Lydda. From the very beginning there was a substantial contradiction between Zionism and Lydda. If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be. If Lydda was to be, Zionism could not be. In retrospect it’s all too clear.

This idea of Lydda explaining Zionism–and remember, in Shavit’s telling this means exposing the vengeful violence at the center of it–helps the reader understand, if not approve of, Shavit’s statements about Zionism and Lydda throughout the chapter. With the battle looming, Shavit says that “as Zionism closes in on the valley of Lydda from the south, east, and north, it now prepares to conquer the city of Lydda itself.” Later: “By evening, Zionism has taken the city of Lydda.” And then: “Zionism carries out a massacre in the city of Lydda.”

It is this portrayal of Zionism that is so risible. The documented history of Lydda is murky, and though it’s clear Shavit cherry-picked his facts, his conclusion is not impossible. But he slanders Zionism by declaring it is, at its heart, inseparable from this violence.

Morris touches on this glancingly but effectively in his response piece. Morris leans toward Shavit’s opinion of what actually happened at Lydda, but he writes:

Lydda wasn’t, however, representative of Zionist behavior. Before 1948, the Zionist enterprise expanded by buying, not conquering, Arab land, and it was the Arabs who periodically massacred Jews—as, for example, in Hebron and Safed in 1929. In the 1948 war, the first major atrocity was committed by Arabs: the slaughter of 39 Jewish co-workers in the Haifa Oil Refinery on December 30, 1947.

That is a basic fact. In an earlier parenthetical pair of sentences, Morris offers his own “black box” of Zionism:

As an aside, I would suggest here a much more telling “black box” or key to understanding both Zionism and the conflict. It is Kibbutz Yad Mordekhai, where for four to five days in May 1948 a handful of Holocaust survivors held off the invading mass of the Egyptian army, giving the Haganah/IDF time to organize against the pan-Arab assault on the newborn state of Israel.

Shavit’s treatment of Zionism is one of inevitability: the agency of those involved is removed in favor of ideological predetermination. But it’s also, in a perverse way, a form of blame shifting. And if anti-Arab massacres are the inevitable result and defining characteristic of Zionism, then anti-Zionism would be the proper atonement. This is curious, because Shavit is most certainly not an anti-Zionist. Though he is a man of the left, he doesn’t throw his lot in with those who want to see Israel erased.

It’s cognitive dissonance, then, for Shavit. But not for those who will use his book and his declarations of Zionism’s “black box” to continue faulting the very movement for Jewish self-determination for everything that goes wrong in the Holy Land. And though Israel remains a force for good in the world, we won’t see a flurry of the reverse: declarations crediting Zionism for the fact that the world would be a darker place without it.

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Departure from Lydda

The first response to my essay on Ari Shavit’s Lydda “massacre” claim has appeared over at Mosaic Magazine. It’s by Efraim Karsh, who not only seconds my doubts about the “massacre,” but questions Shavit’s claim that the expulsion of Lydda’s population was planned in advance. Karsh:

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The first response to my essay on Ari Shavit’s Lydda “massacre” claim has appeared over at Mosaic Magazine. It’s by Efraim Karsh, who not only seconds my doubts about the “massacre,” but questions Shavit’s claim that the expulsion of Lydda’s population was planned in advance. Karsh:

No exodus was foreseen in Israeli military plans for the city’s capture or was reflected in the initial phase of its occupation. Quite the contrary: the Israeli commander assured local dignitaries that the city’s inhabitants would be allowed to stay if they so wished. In line with that promise, the occupying Israeli force also requested a competent administrator and other personnel to run the affairs of the civilian population.

Only when some of the townspeople refused to surrender and opened fire on Israeli forces did the calculation change, leading Israel to “encourage” the departure of the population.

I found oblique confirmation of this in the 1988 film interview with the military governor, Shmarya Gutman, now in the archives of the Palmah Museum. According to him, the original plan was to remove the fighting-age Arab men and take them prisoner. Had this been accomplished, the remaining population could not have organized itself for departure. Gutman:

There was actually a decision to take the young men held in the [Great] Mosque and convey them onward as prisoners. But I knew that if that happened, the whole departure operation wouldn’t be implemented. The place would remain a pressure cooker. We would be stuck with thousands of old people, just so that a few young men could be taken prisoner. I sent them off before the buses arrived [to transport them to detention]. When the buses came, they asked: “Where are they?” I said: “They all left.” “How’s that? We wanted to take them.” I said: “I didn’t receive an order.”

The interviewer asked Gutman whether he took that decision on his own accord. His answer: “I did everything on my own accord. I didn’t get an order to detain them.”

Read Karsh’s full response here. There are more responses to come.

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Massacre at Lydda?

“In thirty minutes, at high noon, more than 200 civilians are killed. Zionism carries out a massacre in the city of Lydda.” That lapel-grabber, from Ari Shavit’s bestselling My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, is the departure point for my essay at Mosaic Magazine, “What Happened at Lydda.”

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“In thirty minutes, at high noon, more than 200 civilians are killed. Zionism carries out a massacre in the city of Lydda.” That lapel-grabber, from Ari Shavit’s bestselling My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, is the departure point for my essay at Mosaic Magazine, “What Happened at Lydda.”

I won’t summarize the piece, which will run at the top of the magazine site for the month of July. When I first read Shavit’s account, I thought it sounded forced, and so I searched for other interviews with the same people he spoke to twenty years ago, when he collected his material. (Most of the subjects are dead.) A fairly quick search yielded results: I found a trove of additional interviews in public archives. On their foundation it’s possible to construct an entirely different story: not of a vengeful massacre by “Zionism,” but of collateral damage in a city that turned into a battlefield.

Sound familiar from the recent history of Israel? It should. This is a story that repeats itself every few years. I don’t know exactly what happened in Lydda on July 12, 1948, because the testimony is contradictory. But Shavit has vouched for the accuracy of his work down to the last fact and detail. Read the essay and see whether I’ve planted a seed of doubt.

Some will say that Shavit’s book, on balance, is good for Israel, and so should be entitled to an exemption from this sort of criticism. The confession of sin married to expressions of love for Israel may be what many American Jews need just now, and I make no judgment about the book as a whole. But the same argument for silence was made when American Jews needed to believe that Israel could do no wrong. And while confession is good for the soul, confessing the supposed sins of others—in this case, the Palmah officers and soldiers of the Yiftah brigade who conquered Lydda—must be done judiciously. After all, most of them can no longer speak.

My motive hasn’t been to protect Israel’s honor against the charge of massacre. There are some well-documented instances from 1948. It’s just that Lydda isn’t one of them. From a narrative point of view, it’s appealing to combine the stories of the largest expulsion and the largest massacre. But that’s a little too tidy, and when the past appears tidy, it deserves another look.

As a historian, I know something about the rules, but as I admit in the article, I’m not a historian of 1948 (or even of Israel). My expertise is the rest of the Middle East. That’s why I placed the essay at Mosaic Magazine, which solicits responses by experts. I’m eager to ignite a debate among people who have made this era their lives’ work (and, of course, Shavit too). There’s also a comments feature, for anyone who might have an interesting insight. I urge you to read my opening move, and I’ll be posting more pointers as appropriate.

And as a bonus for getting this far in this post, here are links to some remarkable photographs of Lydda at the time of its capture, taken by Boris Karmi (1914-2002).

Mula Cohen (1923-2002), commander of the Yiftah brigade. Shavit portrays him a sad figure, but he looks like he’s on top of the world here.

• A portrait of a smiling Israeli soldier against the backdrop of the “small mosque,” epicenter of the alleged massacre.

• Yiftah brigade soldiers take a break in Lydda.

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