Lydda, 1948: They were there

This post first appeared at the Commentary blog on December 24, and again in the English-language opinion section of Israel Hayom on December 25.

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 in 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.

Top: Erez training group, 1947, whose members served later in the Yiftah Bridge that conquered Lydda. Bottom: Galili Center audience for the panel on Lydda, 2014.
Top: Erez training group, 1947, whose members served later in the Yiftah Bridge that conquered Lydda. Bottom: Galili Center audience for the panel on Lydda, 2014.