Commentary Magazine


Topic: Lydda

Génocidaires of the Palmah

Ari Shavit’s chapter on Lydda, in his bestselling book My Promised Land, continues to fuel the claim that Israeli forces committed horrific war crimes when they conquered the city in July 1948. As I have shown in much detail, it’s only possible to reach this conclusion by excluding most of the evidence and making up the rest.

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Ari Shavit’s chapter on Lydda, in his bestselling book My Promised Land, continues to fuel the claim that Israeli forces committed horrific war crimes when they conquered the city in July 1948. As I have shown in much detail, it’s only possible to reach this conclusion by excluding most of the evidence and making up the rest.

The latest case in point is an article by Michael Kinsley at Slate (of which he is the founding editor). It’s entitled “Unreconciled History: Why even victims don’t have the right to rewrite the past.” Those “victims” are the Jews, and his basic claim is that Israel long deceived the world (including little Mike Kinsley in his Detroit Jewish school in the 1960s), by peddling the storyline that the Arab refugees fled of their own accord in 1948. Israelis do acknowledge one “dreadful massacre,” at Deir Yassin, but “under the dubious logic of the exception that proves the rule, Deir Yassin has become in a way evidence of Israeli good behavior.” “Trouble is,” announces Kinsley,

all this is not even close to being true. Terror and the decisions by Arab families to flee were not regrettable side effects of the war, but the result of purposeful strategy by the Israelis. This strategy and its execution were endorsed by the Israeli leadership and not just rogue behavior by more ruthless Jewish militias (another common excuse).

And what is his prime example? Why, the “village” of Lydda of course, and the alleged “slaughter” carried out by the Palmah. And what is Kinsley’s source? Why, Ari Shavit of course. “Call me naive,” Kinsley writes, but he “was shocked to read” Shavit’s account of what happened there:

As Shavit describes it, with a lot of new research, the attack on Lydda was part of a purposeful strategy of Arab removal, approved at the highest levels. It had everything we have come to associate with a human rights atrocity: people who had been neighbors for generations turning on and slaughtering one another, Rwanda-style. Crowding people into a church (or, in this case, a mosque) and then blowing it up or setting it on fire. Torturing people, allegedly to extract information, and then killing them when they’ve been squeezed dry. Going house to house and killing everyone discovered inside. And so on.

To read this, you would think that the Yiftah Brigade of the Palmah conducted itself like a gang of roving génocidaires.

Trouble is, to borrow Kinsley’s phrase, “all this is not even close to being true.” Kinsley, far from showing himself a careful sifter of history, clearly has been seduced by Shavit’s dramatic opera, mistaking it for history. And Kinsley then amplfies Shavit’s biases still further, for reasons known only to him, producing a grotesque defamation of Israel that goes even beyond Shavit’s account.

For example, take this point of supposed similarity between Lydda and Rwanda: “Crowding people into a church (or, in this case, a mosque) and then blowing it up or setting it on fire.” This originates in Shavit’s claim that Israeli troops detained Palestinian Arabs in a small mosque, and then fired an anti-armor rocket into it as an act of revenge, killing seventy persons.

But as I’ve shown, Israeli troops didn’t crowd anyone into that mosque. Civilians (probably including fighters) took refuge there, but the Israeli soldiers didn’t know that. From that mosque, those soldiers came under grenade attack, and they returned fire on what they believed to be the source of the attack. When they stormed the mosque and saw the carnage their fire had inflicted, it shocked them. This battle scenario bears no resemblance whatsoever to the deliberate herding of civilians into a church (or synagogue), and setting it ablaze or blowing it up. To insinuate a parallel between the battle in Lydda and the most heinous crimes against humanity, committed as part of a genocide, is simply obscene.

And it suggests that Kinsley didn’t even read Shavit carefully, for Shavit concludes his account with this admission: “The small-mosque massacre could have been a misunderstanding brought about by a tragic chain of accidental events.” But for Kinsley, there are no accidents. He attributes a murderous intent to Israeli troops not because he can be sure of it, but because it suits his forced narrative of Israeli sin.

The notion that what happened in Lydda in July 1948 was a “human rights atrocity,” “Rwanda-style,” is preposterous. Just as absurd is Kinsley’s claim that Israel’s leaders had a “purposeful strategy” to engender Arab flight through “terror,” of which Lydda was an exemplar. Not even Benny Morris, cited by Kinsley as an authority, makes that claim. “There was no Zionist ‘plan’ or blanket policy of evicting the Arab population,” Morris has written. He has discovered no “policy or master-plan of expulsion; the Yishuv and its military forces did not enter the 1948 War, which was initiated by the Arab side, with a policy or plan for expulsion,” nor did they develop such a plan during the war. In his exchange with me, Morris took the view that the forced expulsion from Lydda wasn’t typical: “In most places in 1948, Arabs simply fled in the face of actual or approaching hostilities.” Kinsley’s “purposeful strategy” is the thesis of Israel-hater Ilan Pappé, whose credibility has been shredded by—yes, Benny Morris.

“Victims don’t have the right to rewrite the past.” If you’ve gleaned your own knowledge of 1948 from a Detroit Hebrew school curriculum circa 1960 and a (cursory) reading of Shavit’s My Promised Land, you don’t have the right to rewrite the past either. The latter source poses almost as many problems as the former. In Shavit’s role as Israel’s Pied Piper on campuses and in synagogues, he may be doing some good. But the Lydda chapter is doing damage, and keeps popping up as the authoritative word on Israel’s original sin. This, even though Morris and Efraim Karsh have savaged his Lydda premises, and I have punched holes in his Lydda claims, many of which also failed to get past the fact checkers at the New Yorker (on which, see my critique).

When Shavit is asked about the criticism of his Lydda chapter on one of his innumerable whistle stops, he either dodges the question or dismisses discussion of it as a waste of his valuable time. Actually, that’s fine with me. All he needs to do is deposit the tapes of his witnesses in a public archive, and give Israeli readers his final version of the Lydda chapter in Hebrew. The critics will take over from there.

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Lydda 1948: The Dog That Didn’t Bark

In his July 2014 Mosaic essay, Martin Kramer dismantled Ari Shavit’s assertion that “Zionism carrie[d] out a massacre” at Lydda in 1948 – a claim Shavit has spread not only in his book, My Promised Land, but in his New Yorker article, “Lydda, 1948: A City, a Massacre, and the Middle East Today.” Kramer recently presented his findings to an Israeli audience that included Lydda veterans and others intimately familiar with the 1948 war – who expressed surprise and anger at Shavit’s allegation. This post provides still another reason to doubt Shavit’s claim: in 1948, The New York Times covered the April “massacre” at Deir Yassin and the later operation at Lydda – but reported no “massacre” at Lydda. And for the reasons set forth below, it is virtually certain that the Times would have reported it if it had occurred at Lydda.

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In his July 2014 Mosaic essay, Martin Kramer dismantled Ari Shavit’s assertion that “Zionism carrie[d] out a massacre” at Lydda in 1948 – a claim Shavit has spread not only in his book, My Promised Land, but in his New Yorker article, “Lydda, 1948: A City, a Massacre, and the Middle East Today.” Kramer recently presented his findings to an Israeli audience that included Lydda veterans and others intimately familiar with the 1948 war – who expressed surprise and anger at Shavit’s allegation. This post provides still another reason to doubt Shavit’s claim: in 1948, The New York Times covered the April “massacre” at Deir Yassin and the later operation at Lydda – but reported no “massacre” at Lydda. And for the reasons set forth below, it is virtually certain that the Times would have reported it if it had occurred at Lydda.

On July 12, 1948 – the day on which Shavit claims “Zionism” conducted a midday “massacre” of more than 200 civilians in Lydda (about twice the deaths at Deir Yassin) – the Times carried an extensive report about the Lydda operation. The news article was datelined the day before, and was written by one of the Times’ most distinguished foreign correspondents, Gene Currivan, who covered World War II before he covered the founding of Israel in 1948. Currivan reported that:

The strategically situated towns of Ramleh and Lydda, which were constant threats to the Tel Aviv area and control the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road, were surrounded tonight by Israeli forces. They were encircled after the last remaining Arab strongholds on the periphery of the Ramleh-Lydda area had been captured this morning. …

Mopping up operations were still going on tonight, with armored cars of both sides darting back and forth and mortar fire crashing about. However, because of the seeming hopeless position of the Arabs, there appeared to be little hope of anything better for them than a disorderly retreat.” [Emphasis added].

Currivan and his editors would have considered a Lydda “massacre” the following day “news fit to print” – to put it mildly. But Currivan’s next report on Lydda, datelined July 12 (published on July 13) reported the capture of Lydda and Ramleh “on this all-important front” and noted that Lydda “had offered considerable resistance at first and suffered heavy casualties as a result.” Currivan’s succeeding report, datelined July 13 (published July 14) reported “the complete capture of Lydda,” with the exception of a holdout of Arab fighters at the police station, and noted that Arab civilians had suddenly departed Lydda after its capture. In none of his reports did Currivan report anything remotely approaching a “massacre.”

This is the journalistic equivalent of the non-barking dog: (1) the Lydda operation occurred three months after Deir Yassin, which the Times had covered; (2) Lydda was a significant strategic site; (3) the Times had an experienced war correspondent covering the Lydda operation; and yet (4) the Times reported no “massacre” there. A massacre at Lydda would have been a major development and important news. But there was no bark from the Times.

Kramer’s Mosaic article drew a favorable response from Efraim Karsh, who also challenged a related Shavit claim: that “Zionism” was responsible for the expulsion of Arab civilians from Lydda – an “inevitable phase,” in Shavit’s words, “of the Zionist revolution.” Contrary to Shavit’s contention, more evidence comes from the Times archives: on November 2, 1979, the newspaper published a letter from Ephraim Lotan, a staff officer under General Yigal Allon (who directed the Lydda operation). Lotan wrote that he had “talked to quite a few of [the Arabs] while they were walking along the road” toward Latrun (the remaining Arab Legion stronghold in the area) after the Lydda operation:

As officer in charge of an engineering unit which was clearing the mines ahead of the motorized unit and the regular army unit moving toward Latrun, I was one of the first to see the masses of Arabs walking toward Latrun, most of them on foot, some on horses and donkeys, some on bicycles. They were taking with them their most important belongings – the women carrying their possessions on their heads, the men with packs on their backs. Every mile or so they left parts of their burdens on the side of the road; the packs were just too heavy. Now, 31 years later, the picture is as vivid as it was in 1948.

I stopped quite a few times to talk to the men to find out what happened and why they were leaving their houses and property. The answers were different, but no one said that he was forced out of his house. … I am certain that no order was given to any Israeli army unit (Palmach or other) to evacuate the Arabs. In the position I had at the time I would have known about such an order.

Needless to say, not one of us objected to the Arabs’ departure, but my only explanation for the exodus is that they were panic-stricken. [Emphasis added].

Was there a “massacre” at Lydda? Did “Zionism” order the expulsion of the Arabs there? Ari Shavit owes readers a response to the contrary evidence presented by Kramer and Karsh, as well as to the devastating critique by Harvard professor Ruth Wisse (who wrote that the commitment to truth is a “further casualty of this book”), to that of Alex Safian at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) (who provides even more facts that Shavit either ignored or misstated), and to other stinging critiques.

Mosaic offered Shavit the opportunity to respond six months ago, but he declined it. He has also failed to respond in any other venue. If his refusal to confront contrary evidence persists, and he continues to ignore the published critiques of highly respected scholars and researchers, there will be a conclusion that can be drawn from that silence as well.

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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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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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