Efraim Karsh weighs in

Efraim Karsh offers the second response to my Mosaic Magazine essay on the prelude to Israel’s declaration of statehood. He succinctly retells the famous saga of the clash between President Truman and his formidable secretary of state, George Marshall, on whether to recognize the Jewish state. Truman emerges as the hero. But there’s an interesting sequel: Truman was also the first president to issue a stiff threat to Israel. Perhaps I’ll tell that story on another occasion. Read Karsh here.

David Ben-Gurion proclaims Israel's independenceSince Israel is primed to mark its 70th anniversary later this week, I’ll quickly tell one of the lesser-known stories about the declaration. The only moving picture camera at the May 14, 1948 ceremony at the Tel Aviv Museum (now Independence Hall) belonged to cinematographer Nathan Axelrod, who had a company that produced weekly newsreels. The Jewish Agency commissioned him at the last minute to film the great occasion.

But he only had four minutes of film on hand, to cover a ceremony which was expected to last half an hour. So Ben-Gurion arranged to give Axelrod hand signals and nods at the most important points in the proceedings, so Axelrod would know when to roll the camera. After the ceremony, the Jewish Agency press handlers cut up the original negative into four parts, and sent them out to various news agencies, so that less than a minute of the original survives. Later, the sound (recorded separately) was overlaid with this fragment, but if you watch it, you’ll see that there’s no synchronization between Ben-Gurion’s lips and his words.

(Avi Weissblei tells the story in his documentary film, A State Behind the Scenes, 2010.)

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:

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.