Commentary Magazine


Topic: Israel War of Independence

Lydda, 1948: They Were There

Most Israelis know nothing about Ari Shavit’s bestselling book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Readers of Ha’aretz, where he’s a columnist, may have seen it mentioned in short articles celebrating Shavit’s stateside success. But few Israelis have heard of the book, and I’m guessing that only a handful have actually read it. That’s because there is no Hebrew edition.
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Most Israelis know nothing about Ari Shavit’s bestselling book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Readers of Ha’aretz, where he’s a columnist, may have seen it mentioned in short articles celebrating Shavit’s stateside success. But few Israelis have heard of the book, and I’m guessing that only a handful have actually read it. That’s because there is no Hebrew edition.

Shavit wrote it in English for an American Jewish audience, upon the suggestion of David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker. Ha’aretz at first reported that a Hebrew version would appear at the end of 2013, and later that it would be published in the spring of 2014 (by Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir). But while the book has also appeared in Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Hungarian, and Polish, there’s no sign of a Hebrew edition.

So Israelis have no clue that Shavit has added a massacre in the city of Lydda to the litany of Israel’s alleged crimes in 1948. That’s why I felt privileged to take part in a December 4 panel on the conquests of Lydda and Ramleh in 1948, sponsored by the Galili Center for Defense Studies. The chairman of the center, Uzi Arad, suggested that I explain and analyze the claims made by Shavit in his book, which I’d already done in English for the web magazine Mosaic. (The organizers also invited Shavit, but he was off collecting accolades in south Florida.)

I was the youngest participant on the panel, and nearly the youngest person in the lecture hall, which was full of veterans of Lydda and many other battles of 1948. These people aren’t historians, and they don’t necessarily know the big picture of how politics and military operations interacted. They weren’t commanders (the officers are all gone); they were young soldiers in 1948, at the bottom of the chain of command. They’ve also read a lot and shared recollections over the past sixty-plus years, so you can’t always tell whether what they say about some episode is first-hand or derives from something they read or heard. Finally, time erodes memory, as some are quite prepared to admit.

Still, there were some very sharp minds in the audience—people who know more about the history of the 1948 war than anyone but a handful of expert historians. They know the commanders, the military units, the weaponry, the battles, the geography, the chronology—and woe unto you if you make a mistake. They won’t wait for the Q&A to correct you. The war to establish the State of Israel was the great adventure of their youth, and they wear it as badge of honor.

I was the only one of the four panelists who dealt directly with Shavit’s Lydda chapter. I was preceded by two well-regarded military historians, who described the campaign from an operational vantage point, and one veteran of the conquest, Yeshayahu (Shaike) Gavish. Now 89 years old and still vital, he’s most famous to Israelis as the general who led the Southern Command in the Six-Day War, when Israeli forces overwhelmed the Egyptians and seized the Sinai. In Lydda in 1948, he was a lowly operations officer, and a wounded one at that, so he had a fairly limited view of the theater, confined as he was to a jeep.

His most interesting comments concerned the flight of Lydda’s inhabitants, whose mass departure made a deep impression on him (as it did on many other Israelis). While there’s no doubt that an expulsion order was issued (on whose authority is debated), Gavish echoed many other witnesses who’ve said that Lydda’s inhabitants were eager to get out, begged to leave, and packed up as soon as the roads to the east opened. He did say that in his opinion, the events in the Dahmash mosque (the “small mosque”) which Shavit insists on calling a “massacre” had a strong effect on the populace, reinforcing their desire to flee. But on the question of just what happened at the small mosque, he had nothing to say, as he wasn’t there.

In my presentation, I explained just how large an impact Shavit’s book has had on American Jewry, and the crucial role played by the New Yorker in running the Lydda chapter as a provocative teaser. I then reviewed the “massacre” narrative sentence by sentence, just as I had done in my initial article for Mosaic. I figured that a mostly elderly crowd of Hebrew-speakers would need the crutch of a visible text, so I projected the relevant passages from the Lydda chapter up on the screen and read them slowly and deliberately. Then I explained why I thought Shavit’s conclusions were implausible.

I could have dispensed with my own analysis. The reactions tumbled forth in immediate response to Shavit’s text. I heard gasps of disbelief and angry asides. I didn’t ask for a show of hands as to how many thought Shavit’s account had any credibility, and in retrospect I wish I had. But to judge from the audible responses, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this audience was surprised and offended.

Two passages produced especially strong reactions. Shavit made this claim about the conduct of Palmach soldiers after the counter-attack on the small mosque: in their “desire for revenge,” “because of the rage they felt,” they entered the mosque and “sprayed the surviving wounded with automatic fire.” Shavit also charged that soldiers who were ordered to bury the Arabs killed in the mosque “took eight other Arabs to do the digging of the burial site and afterward shot them, too, and buried the eight” with the rest. Simply projecting these passages on the screen provoked a few salty comments I won’t repeat.

That said, nothing I heard, either in the lecture hall or outside of it, added to the store of testimony about the “massacre” component of Shavit’s Lydda tale. The conquest of Lydda had many moving parts, and most of the veterans I met served the 89th Battalion under Moshe Dayan. That meant that they weren’t in the city when the “massacre” supposedly took place, but fought the day before, mostly on the road between Lydda and Ramleh. But I wasn’t looking for new testimony, because there are plenty of recorded recollections from people who witnessed the events, including the scene in and around the small mosque. I did want these veterans to know what much of the world (Israel excepted) has been reading about their battle for over a year now. And I wanted them to start to talk about it among themselves and with others.

I probably achieved that goal, but I’ve since wondered whether I should have left these people in peace, safe in their ignorance of Shavit’s accusation that Lydda is Israel’s “black box.” At this point, none of them is up to challenging a well-connected media celebrity of Shavit’s caliber, and the persons specifically accused by him are gone. An elderly gentleman came up after my presentation and asked if I intended to publish my article in Hebrew. We ourselves can’t set the record straight anymore, he pleaded. That’s a huge difference from fifteen years ago, when veterans (of the Alexandroni Brigade) sued a graduate student (Teddy Katz) for claiming, in his thesis, that they’d committed a massacre (at Tantura). I told him to wait patiently: if Shavit’s book ever appears in Hebrew, he might roll back some of his claims, just as the New Yorker did when it ran the Lydda chapter as a stand-alone.

During the proceedings, a camera crew bustled about, filming presentations and interviewing some of the veterans. The man running the crew was Dan Setton, an Emmy-winning Israeli documentary filmmaker who told people he’s preparing a film “inspired by [Shavit’s] book.” He says it’s a co-production of HBO and Israel’s Channel Two. I’ve no idea where Setton will go with this project, but getting it right must begin with a dissection of the chapter that made My Promised Land famous.

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The Meaning of Nakba Day

Palestinians and their supporters will demonstrate in the territories, on Israel’s borders and around the world today to mark the anniversary of the Nakba. Nakba is an Arabic word which means disaster, and that is what those who participate in today’s protests consider the founding of the State of Israel on May 15, 1948. But the focus on 1948 is significant.

For those who claim the Middle East conflict is about borders or Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the prominence given Nakba commemorations ought to be an embarrassment as it highlights something Israel’s critics are often at pains to obfuscate. The goal of the Palestinians isn’t an independent state alongside Israel. Their goal is to eradicate Israel and replace it with yet another Arab majority country.

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Palestinians and their supporters will demonstrate in the territories, on Israel’s borders and around the world today to mark the anniversary of the Nakba. Nakba is an Arabic word which means disaster, and that is what those who participate in today’s protests consider the founding of the State of Israel on May 15, 1948. But the focus on 1948 is significant.

For those who claim the Middle East conflict is about borders or Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the prominence given Nakba commemorations ought to be an embarrassment as it highlights something Israel’s critics are often at pains to obfuscate. The goal of the Palestinians isn’t an independent state alongside Israel. Their goal is to eradicate Israel and replace it with yet another Arab majority country.

As Palestine Media Watch notes in their survey of official Palestinian Authority programs, the point about the Nakba narrative is that it draws no distinction between the pre- and post-1967 borders. That means the Jewish presence within the internationally recognized borders of the State of Israel is treated as just as illegitimate as that of the settlers in the territories who we are constantly told are the main obstacle to peace. This is not a minor point, because for the Palestinians, the desire for the descendants of the 1948 refugees to “return” to Israel is tantamount to demanding the dismantling of the Jewish state.

The Jewish left has become increasingly sympathetic to Nakba Day demonstrations. They feel it is only right that the victors show compassion to the losers in Israel’s War of Independence. But compassion for those who suffer — and the Palestinian Arabs have suffered since 1948 — is one thing. Indulging the political fantasies of those who wish to reverse the verdict of that war is something else.

As much as the world seems to have tired of hearing about the history of the events of that year, it is vital we point out that the war that created the refugees was one started by Arabs whose goal was not to share the land but to prevent Jewish sovereignty on any part of it. The vast majority of Palestinians who fled did so because they feared the consequences of this war. Most thought they would return to reap the spoils of the expected destruction of the besieged Jewish community. That they and their descendants still regret this reversal of fortune may be understandable, but it is not a point on which they have any right to demand the world’s sympathy.

Nakba Day is also a reminder that the focus on refugees also ought to discredit Israel’s critics and others who have kept the Palestinians stateless and homeless during the last 64 years. Unlike every other refugee population during this period, the Palestinians have been deliberately not resettled or allowed to assimilate into the Arab populations of the surrounding nations. Instead, they have been kept in poverty by a United Nations agency (UNRWA) supposedly dedicated to their welfare but which is, in fact, merely interested in perpetuating their status as refugees so they can remain props in the Arab war on Israel.

On this day, the unhappy fate of the Palestinian refugees will be endlessly rehearsed. But no mention will be made of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who fled or were expelled from Arab countries in the wake of the events of 1948. Unlike the Palestinians, these people were given homes and new lives in Israel and the West. If Arabs are entitled to compensation for what they lost when they fled the newborn State of Israel, the Jews of the Arab and Muslim world deserve to be paid for what was stolen from them.

Nakba Day takes us back to the unfortunate fact that the Arabs have always treated the struggle between these two peoples as a zero sum game. In 1948, the Jews were willing to share the country, but the Arabs would hear of no solution other than the destruction of any Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn. Those who wonder why the Palestinians continue to refuse to negotiate with Israel and have rejected offers of statehood repeatedly during the past two decades need only go back to 1948 to discover the roots of this madness.

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