In a revolutionary war, both sides use force. . . . Fighters for freedom must arm; otherwise they would be crushed overnight.
—Menachem Begin, The Revolt1
On November 22, 1942, for the first time since the outbreak of World War II, the Jewish Agency held a meeting devoted entirely to the fate of European Jewry. The following day, it published its first official acknowledgment that the Nazis were systematically murdering Jews in the hopes of exterminating the Jewish people.
Shortly thereafter, a group of young men in the Yishuv gathered to discuss what they might to do to save European Jewry. One of those in attendance was Yechiel Kadishai, a Jewish soldier from the Yishuv serving in the British Army, who had been given a furlough of several days from his base in Ismailia, Egypt.
In the middle of the meeting, Kadishai would later recall,2 a man in his twenties, wearing shorts and glasses with small, round frames, entered the room and sat quietly at the side. In the middle of the discussion, the late arrival spoke up and said that there was only one thing that Jews in Palestine could do to save Polish Jewry. As long as Jews in Europe knew that they had nowhere to go, there was no impetus for them to flee Poland, the latecomer said. Furthermore, he pointed out, Hitler had not yet advanced to Hungarian or Romanian Jewry, and there was still time to save those Jews.
For anyone to be saved, though, the young man continued, the British would have to open Palestine to Jewish immigration. But the British would not open the shores of Palestine until the Jews used massive force, he said. If the Yishuv wanted to help Jews in Europe, it needed to attack the British in Palestine. Then he sat down.
The meeting ended inconclusively, but as they were departing, Kadishai, who had been struck by the newcomer’s audacity, asked a friend who it was who had spoken up about the British. “He was the head of Betar in Poland,” Kadishai’s friend told him. “He was imprisoned by the Soviets, and just got here. The name is [Menachem] Begin.”
The Jewish revolt against the British was about to start.
THE NAZI GENOCIDE of the Jews, somewhat surprisingly, was not much discussed in Palestine, a fact for which the leaders of the Yishuv would later be criticized. Occasionally, there were wistful conversations like that at which Yechiel Kadishai first heard Menachem Begin speak, but realistically, there was little that the Yishuv could do. One of those conversations hatched the idea of assisting the British in their war against the Nazis by parachuting Jews into Europe to gather intelligence and find survivors.
The most famous of those parachutists was Chanah Senesh. Senesh, who had been born in Hungary, moved to Palestine in 1939, upon graduating high school, and shortly thereafter joined the Haganah. In March 1944, she parachuted into Yugoslavia in the hopes of making her way into her native Hungary; the goal was to help Jews there who were about to be sent to the Auschwitz death camp. The Germans captured her on the Hungarian border, however, then jailed, tortured, and eventually executed her in Budapest in late 1944. Almost immediately, her story—like that of the Nili’s Sarah Aaronsohn—became an iconic mainstay of Israeli lore and Zionist education. Her remains were brought to Israel in 1950; she is buried in Jerusalem, on Mount Herzl, not far from Herzl, Jabotinsky, and several of Israel’s prime ministers.
In both Europe and Palestine, however, the Jews needed more than inspiring missions, no matter how courageous, to help them. In Europe, the Nazis were exterminating Jews by the millions. In Palestine, the Yishuv faced enemies in the form of both the Arabs and the British. Some senior British figures made no attempt to disguise their distaste for the Jews. In his letters to his lover, the commander of the British forces in Palestine, General Evelyn Barker, frequently expressed his hatred for the Jews. In one letter he wrote, “I loathe the lot. . . . Why should we be afraid of saying we hate them—it’s time this damned race knew what we think of them—loathesome [sic] people.”3
Among some members of the Yishuv, the feeling was mutual. Soon after Menachem Begin’s arrival in Palestine, the Irgun asked him to become its head. He accepted, and almost immediately—though he knew that the leadership of the Yishuv was opposed—he decided to rid Palestine of what he thought was the Jews’ greatest enemy after Hitler. Begin unleashed “The Revolt” against the British.
THE IRGUN, THOUGH FAR more willing to use violence and much more openly hostile toward the British, was hardly the Yishuv’s most extreme underground group. That position was occupied by yet another group that split off from the Irgun in July 1940. It was led by Avraham Stern, a prolific writer who penned dozens of poems, which bespoke an erotic love for the Land of Israel. Stern had planned to do doctoral work in Italy, but convinced that others were not doing enough to liberate Palestine from the British, he put those aspirations aside to found his even more militant organization to help do so.
Several dozen Irgun members joined Stern and established their own underground militia. They took the name Lochamei Cherut Yisrael (“Fighters for the Freedom of Israel”), the acronym of which, Lechi, is how the group is most commonly known. (The group’s opponents derisively called it the “Stern Gang.”) Unlike the Irgun, which was hesitant to wage an all-out war against the British as long as the British were at war with the Nazis, the Lechi saw the British as the greater enemy of the Yishuv. They unleashed more intensive guerrilla warfare against the British, usually conducting small-scale operations, most notably assassinating British military and government leaders.* Stern was killed in February 1942 in a shoot-out with British forces after a massive manhunt.
On November 6, 1944, just as Chanah Senesh was executed in Budapest, the Lechi incurred the wrath of the Yishuv.4 Two of its members, Eliyahu Bet-Zuri and Eliyahu Hakim, assassinated Lord Moyne, the British minister of state in the Middle East, just outside his home in Cairo. They shot Lord Moyne’s driver, as well. They were captured immediately after being surrounded by an angry crowd and were eventually convicted and hanged. During their trial, the “two Eliyahus” insisted that they killed Lord Moyne because his opposition to Jewish immigration constituted a crime against the Jewish people. The British court, of course, was unmoved; the fact that the driver had been killed as well convinced many in the Yishuv that the Lechi acted more as a band of killers than a disciplined fighting force.
The Yishuv’s leadership grew increasingly worried that the extremist Jewish paramilitary groups would bring down the wrath of the British on the entire Yishuv. With Ben-Gurion’s approval, the Haganah decided to eliminate the other paramilitary groups. Between November 1944 and March 1945 (a period now known as the Saison, or the “hunting season”), special forces from the Palmach searched out members of the Irgun and Lechi, arrested them, and handed them over to the British, knowing full well that the British might hang them. Begin refused to temper his activity against the British, but also refused to fight the Haganah. He would simply not turn his hand against Jews. Ben-Gurion had no similar compunctions; Anita Shapira, one of Israel’s leading historians (and an ideological disciple of Ben-Gurion) later noted that “the Saison was not Ben-Gurion’s finest hour, [but] he never expressed remorse for it.”5
MEANWHILE, IN EUROPE, the Allied war against the Nazis progressed. On May 8, 1945, the Germans surrendered unconditionally and World War II ended four months later on September 2. Some sixty million people died in the war (about 3 percent of the world’s population in 1940), including the six million Jews (constituting one-third of the Jewish people) who had been murdered in the Holocaust. Ben-Gurion, years later, would reflect on the horrific toll of the Holocaust and note that “had partition been carried out [as it was proposed in the Peel Commission,] the history of our people would have been different and six million Jews in Europe would not have been killed—most of them would be in Israel.”6
With the war’s end, Britain was in desperate financial straits, Cold War fears were ubiquitous, and Arab oil was a critical factor. Still unwilling to incur Arab wrath, the British Labour government did not change the White Paper’s policy and did nothing to create the Jewish state that the Zionists believed Balfour had promised.
The British were hardly the only ones exhibiting distaste for the Jews. It seemed that everywhere they turned, the Jews encountered hostility. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) housed the war’s displaced persons in refugee camps, placing Jewish and German displaced persons together. When the Jews complained that they did not want to be with the people who until very recently had been their persecutors, the UNRRA authorities responded cynically that separating the Jews from the Germans would be tantamount to perpetuating the Germans’ racist policies.
Nor were all leading American figures entirely sympathetic. In 1945, General George S. Patton wrote an entry in his journal in which he said, “[Others] believe that the Displaced Person is a human being, which he is not, and this applies particularly to the Jews who are lower than animals.”7Patton recalled taking his commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, to see a temporary synagogue that had been constructed to allow the Jewish displaced persons to commemorate Yom Kippur. “We entered the synagogue, which was packed with the greatest stinking mass of humanity I have ever seen. Of course, I have seen them since the beginning and marveled that beings alleged to be made in the form of God can look the way they do or act the way they act.”8
The displaced persons had survived the war, but they were desperate, and immigration became an ever more pressing issue. When UNRRA did a poll of the Jewish refugees, 96.8 percent said that they wanted to go to Palestine. The United States pressured Britain to back off the prohibition on land sales and to allow one hundred thousand Jews to enter Palestine. But the United States had also closed its borders to Jews during the war and had little moral authority to summon; the British refused.
So the Yishuv stepped up illegal immigration. Between 1945 and 1948, in what constituted a massive and often heroic effort to save the remnants of European Jewry, it assisted many thousands of Jews who—desperate to survive—sought to enter Palestine illegally. Sometimes at great personal peril, those living in the Yishuv would greet boats, large and small, coming to shore, help the survivors onto land, and seek to hide them before they could be caught.
Many, though, were caught. In a devastating twist of fate, survivors of the Holocaust who had finally made their way to Palestine often found themselves imprisoned once again, this time by the British. To delouse them, the British told them to undress and take a shower; revisiting that image was almost too much for many of them to bear.
ON JUNE 26, 1945, at a press conference in New York, Ben-Gurion declared that if the British insisted on maintaining the White Paper’s policies with its restrictions on Jewish immigration, the Yishuv would have no choice but to respond with “constant and brutal force.”9 The Haganah, Irgun, and Lechi joined together to establish the Tnu’at Hameri Haivri (United Resistance Movement), which Ben-Gurion would lead. They agreed to join together to fight the British in a coordinated strategy, attacking “critical strategic points, destroying the infrastructure and symbols of power that legitimated the British mandate.” The Haganah was given veto power over any operations that were decided upon.
The most successful attack by the United Resistance Movement was on June 16 and 17, 1946. Eleven coordinated attacks destroyed road and rail bridges and damaged the Haifa railway system, isolating Palestine from its neighboring countries and blocking Britain’s ability to move goods and soldiers beyond its borders. The attacks cost the British Mandate over four million pounds sterling, an exorbitant sum at that time.
Twelve days later, the British retaliated. In Operation Agatha (which the Yishuv called Black Sabbath), the British placed Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Haifa, and Netanya under lockdown. Some seventeen thousand British soldiers crisscrossed Palestine in search of militants, illegal weapons, and incriminating documents. They arrested twenty-seven hundred Jews, many from the Zionist leadership. Ben-Gurion escaped arrest only because he was in Paris.
As the Jews were being rounded up in Palestine, they were also still being killed in Europe. Five days after Black Sabbath, on July 4, 1946, some 150 to 200 Jewish survivors from the war who were being housed in Kielce, Poland (some had come from Kielce and had gone back to their erstwhile home, while others were en route elsewhere), were attacked in what was the first major postwar pogrom. In the attack by the violent mob (in which the Polish army and police were involved from the outset), forty-two Jews were killed, while the rest were beaten or stoned. The war was over, but pogroms had returned to Europe. It was clear that even postwar, Poland would not be safe for Jews.
Kishinev had not been relegated to the past.
Word of the attack spread quickly. Within twenty-four hours of the attack, five thousand Jews in Poland left their houses, moving toward the Czechoslovakian border in hopes of reaching Palestine. The British, though, stopped them at the entrance to the occupied zone in Austria.
The mass of refugees from Europe was growing yet had nowhere to go. The leadership of the Yishuv was being jailed. And the British had seized many of the Jewish Agency’s documents, some of which they could then use to prosecute leaders of the Yishuv. The volatility was undeniable; it was clear that the region was about to explode.
WORD REACHED THE YISHUV leadership that many of the documents that the British had seized during the Black Sabbath were being stored at the iconic King David Hotel building. The Yishuv was relatively certain that the British had sufficient documents in storage at the building to arrest, and possibly execute, a number of leaders of the Yishuv, including Golda Meir.10 In retaliation for the British crackdown, and in order to destroy the incriminating evidence, the Irgun proposed staging an attack on the hotel, the southern wing of which had served as the British Mandate’s military and administrative headquarters since 1938 (other rooms continued to be used as guest accommodations).
On July 1, 1946, Moshe Sneh, then head of the Haganah, sent Menachem Begin a secret note authorizing the bombing of the King David. The Irgun was to bomb the King David, while the Haganah and Lechi would attack other buildings. The Haganah and Lechi backed out of their roles, and two days before the scheduled attack, Weizmann told Sneh that he would resign from the World Zionist Organization, splitting the Yishuv, unless Sneh sought to stop the Irgun’s plan. Sneh delayed the bombing a few times, but when the Irgun’s leadership realized that the Haganah was getting cold feet, it decided to proceed on its own.
The King David received its milk in large tin canisters. On July 22, seven milk containers filled with TNT explosives were placed strategically in the building. Twenty minutes before the designated detonation time, an Irgun member called the King David and passed on a warning—in English and in Hebrew—of an impending attack in the building. The staff ignored the warning. The Irgun also placed calls to the French Consulate and the Palestine Post, warning them of the impending explosion. Those calls, too, went unheeded.
At 12:37 P.M., the explosives detonated, creating a blast equivalent in pressure to a direct hit by a 500-kilogram aerial bomb. Many occupants were killed immediately, with dozens more buried under the rubble. Ninety-one people died as a result of the attack. Twenty-eight were British, forty-two were Arabs, and seventeen were Jews, including one of the Irgun militants carrying out the operation. The dead also included two Armenians, one Russian, and one Greek.
Not surprisingly, the attack elicited reactions of outrage. American and British newspapers condemned the attack, predicting that it would set back the Zionist cause. The Jewish Agency also denounced the bombing, ignoring the critical fact that the Yishuv leadership had initially approved it. The Haganah, including Ben-Gurion, falsely denied any involvement in the plan. So intense was the backlash that from that point on, the United Resistance Movement was effectively dead. The Irgun and Lechi continued to work on their own, usually in defiance of the Haganah.
ON DECEMBER 9, 1946, some five months after the King David bombing, the Twenty-Second Zionist Congress met in Basel, in the same building in which Herzl had first convened the congress almost fifty years earlier. The aftershocks of the bombing defined the conversation; the central question at the congress was how to deal with the British—to use force or to wait for the British to change their position. It was a debate not unlike that between the biblical Jeremiah and Hananiah thousands of years earlier. Weizmann said terrorism was a “cancer in the body” and argued that creating a Jewish state by “un-Jewish methods” would defeat the entire purpose. Appropriately, he concluded his remarks by quoting Jeremiah: “Would that I had a tongue of flame, the strength of prophets to warn you against the paths of Babylon and Egypt. . . . ‘In justice shall Zion be redeemed,’ not by any other means.”11
Weizmann’s entreaty convinced Ben-Gurion that the congress no longer had the courage it would take to create a Jewish state. Ben-Gurion stormed out of the convention and returned to his room—the very same room in which Herzl had stayed. When other delegates appealed to him to stay, he relented. The vote to determine whether it was time for the Yishuv to begin to resist the British with greater violence was cast at dawn. By a slight majority of 171 to 154, Ben-Gurion won.
After thirty years of influence, Chaim Weizmann had lost not only his appeal for restraint but also the admiration of some erstwhile supporters. He had devoted his life to the cause and had paid a painful personal price in the war—his son, a fighter pilot for the British, had been shot down and killed. He would remain an important figure in Zionist and Israeli affairs, and would be instrumental in convincing President Harry Truman to recognize the State of Israel, but he emerged from this loss with his standing in the movement significantly tarnished.
WORLD WAR II HAD EXACTED a terrible toll on Britain, and the empire needed to retrench. India would achieve independence in 1947, and in the Middle East, the cost of maintaining the Mandate had simply climbed too high. Some one hundred thousand British soldiers (one-tenth of the empire’s entire army) were stationed in Palestine, one soldier for every eighteen inhabitants.12
In the meantime, the leadership of the Yishuv sought to establish as many facts on the ground as it could to expand whatever future borders the Jewish state would have. On October 6, 1946 (immediately upon the conclusion of the Yom Kippur fast), the Jewish Agency worked feverishly to establish—over the course of a single night—eleven new settlements in the northern Negev. They were built in an area that had not been included in the territory allocated to the Jewish state by the Peel Commission, and which, presumably, might not otherwise be included in future partition plans.
The Yishuv’s intuition that it needed to move quickly proved prescient. Six months after the July 1946 bombing of the King David, the British announced on January 22, 1947, that they were washing their hands of Palestine and turning the fate of that territory—and of any future Jewish state—over to the United Nations.
ON MAY 15, 1947, the UN created the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, better known by its acronym, UNSCOP. Composed of representatives of eleven countries, UNSCOP was charged with doing what the British had been unable to do—finding a solution to Palestine. The Arabs immediately announced that they would boycott all UNSCOP meetings and discussions. On June 2, UNSCOP committee members traveled to Palestine and remained there for three months of intensive study and investigation.
As there were still hundreds of thousands of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust desperate for a place to go, illegal immigration continued apace. While UNSCOP deliberated, another ship carrying homeless Jews once again captured headlines. This ship was the Exodus; again, the British were still unwilling to allow its passengers to disembark in Palestine.
The Exodus had sailed from Genoa, filled beyond capacity with Jewish survivors of the war from Germany and Poland. It reached Palestine in July 1947. After a brief skirmish with the British Royal Navy killed three Holocaust survivors, the passengers were taken off the Exodus. The British transferred them to the Empire Rival, which would take them not to Cyprus, where many other Jewish refugees had been taken before, but back to Europe.
The survivors were devastated. Aubrey Eban (who later, as Abba Eban, became Israel’s ambassador to both the United Nations and the United States) convinced members of the UNSCOP committee to come witness the transfer. When they arrived, Eban later wrote, they saw “British soldiers using rifle butts, hose pipes, and tear gas against the survivors of death camps. Men, women and children were forcibly taken off to prison ships, locked in cages below decks and sent out of Palestine waters.”13 When the UNSCOP members returned to Jerusalem, “they were pale with shock” at the British cruelty they had witnessed.14
UNSCOP heard from leaders of the Yishuv and even met secretly with members of the Haganah to determine whether the Jews could defend themselves against the Arabs once the British departed. On September 1, 1947, UNSCOP officially proposed a partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states; Jerusalem would remain a separate entity under international auspices. (See Map 5.) While the Zionists had moved one major step closer to statehood, that state was still going to be smaller than their original expectations. The Jewish state proposed by UNSCOP was at least larger than the area designated to them by Peel; Peel had proposed 20 percent of Palestine west of the Jordan for the Jews, and 80 percent for the Arabs. UNSCOP, on the other hand, proposed 55 percent for the Jews and 45 percent for the Arabs. Though much of the land assigned to the Jews was desert, UNSCOP’s plan was still a major step forward for the Jews, and a significant setback for the Arabs.
For the Jews, however, the projected population balance of the two proposed states was cause for grave concern. The Jewish state proposed by UNSCOP would have 498,000 Jews and 407,000 Arabs.15 The Arab state would be home to 725,000 Arabs and a mere 10,000 Jews.16 Given the differential in Jewish and Arab birthrates and the ease with which additional Arabs could have been convinced to move to the area from surrounding countries, had the Arabs accepted UNSCOP’s recommendations, all of Palestine might have been theirs in a generation. Just as had happened after Peel, though, the Jewish Agency accepted UNSCOP’s recommendations, and the Arab Higher Committee rejected them outright.
In 1947, the United Nations was merely two years old and composed of fifty-six member countries. In the last week of November 1947, its General Assembly met in New York to debate Resolution 181, a slight modification of UNSCOP’s proposal. Initially, the Americans offered only tepid support for the Zionists. The State Department, under George Marshall, had long assumed a staunchly anti-Jewish-independence stance; to make matters worse for the Yishuv, a day before the vote, a secret CIA report urged President Truman not to lend his support. The Jewish state would not be able to defend itself, the CIA had concluded, and the United States would be drawn into the conflict that was bound to ensue. “The Jews will be able to hold out no longer than two years,” the CIA predicted.17
The president ignored the CIA and the State Department, and gave the partition plan not only America’s vote, but pressured other countries to which the United States gave aid, as well.18
The Soviet Union had already made clear that it would back Jewish independence. Believing that the Jewish state might well become socialist (and undoubtedly delighting in the humiliation that the entire affair caused the British, a symbol of Western imperialism), the Russians threw their support behind Jewish independence. Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet representative, said, “The Jewish people had been closely linked with Palestine for a considerable period in history. . . . As a result of the war, the Jews as a people have suffered more than any other people . . . the Jewish people were therefore striving to create a State of their own, and it would be unjust to deny them that right.”19
Even with Soviet and American support, however, the Zionists feared that they were still a few votes short of the two-thirds majority they needed. The General Assembly vote was scheduled for Wednesday, November 26, but the Jewish Agency calculated that it needed more time to persuade several other countries, including Haiti, Liberia, and the Philippines to support them. Help came in the form of Rodriguez Fabraget, Uruguay’s UN delegate, who launched a filibuster that ended up delaying the vote.20 Because the vote would now have to wait until after the Thanksgiving holiday, the Zionist coalition had another day during which they could lobby a few countries whose votes were critical. Eban and others worked around the clock, calling people in the middle of the night, pleading the Jewish people’s case and urging representatives to help establish the first Jewish commonwealth in two thousand years.21
When the General Assembly reconvened on November 29, Jews around the world, desperate for good news and a renewed lease on Jewish life after the horrors of the Holocaust, huddled around their radios. American Jews and Europeans, Australian Jews and Jews in the Yishuv, suddenly united by a sense that in the coming moments their people’s history might be radically changed, held their breath and listened to the roll call. As expected by that point, the Soviet Union and the United States voted in favor. The British, responsible for Palestine, abstained. What was less expected was that seven of the seventeen countries who had indicated on November 25 that they planned to abstain now voted in favor.22 The filibuster had worked. Resolution 181 for the Partition of Palestine passed by a vote of 33 in favor, 13 opposed, and 10 abstentions.
The Jews were going to have their state. Following the First Zionist Congress in 1897, Herzl had written in his diary, “At Basel I founded the Jewish state. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty, everyone will admit it.”23 Now it was 1947, exactly fifty years later, and Herzl’s wild dream was about to come true.
Around the world, Jews hugged and wept. In Palestine, synagogues opened in the middle of the night for the reciting of prayers of thanksgiving; Jews by the thousands took to the streets and began to dance. According to one account, the following morning “great bonfires at Jewish collective farms in the north were still blazing. Many big cafes in Tel Aviv served free champagne. . . . Jews jeered some British troops who were patrolling Tel Aviv streets but others handed them wine.”24
Amos Oz, who would become one of Israel’s greatest novelists and was several times considered a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature, later recalled that night in his autobiographical memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness. He told how, merely eight years old, he rode on his father’s shoulders in a surging crowd of celebrants in Jerusalem, and at three or four in the morning, still wearing his dirty clothes, crawled into bed. Moments later, Amos felt his father get into bed with him, not to scold him for still being in his clothes, but to tell him how when he (Amos’s father) had been a boy, students at his Polish school had stolen his pants. When Amos’s grandfather went to the school to complain, the boys—joined by the girls—attacked him, too, taking his pants as well. It was a story of utter humiliation.
Then, Oz relates, his father said to him early that morning of November 30, 1947, “Bullies may well bother you at school or in the street someday. . . . But from now on, from the moment we have our own state, you will never be bullied just because you are a Jew. . . . Not that. Never again. From tonight that’s finished here. Forever.”25
Finally, Oz writes, “I reached out sleepily to touch his face [and] instead of his glasses, my fingers met tears. Never in my life, before or after that night, even when my mother died, did I see my father cry.”26
Not everyone in the Yishuv joined in the reverie. Menachem Begin did not dance, for he knew that war was looming. The Arabs had responded to immigration and to Peel with violence, and it was obvious to him that they would do the same now. The same was true of Begin’s nemesis, David Ben-Gurion. “I could not dance,” Ben-Gurion later recalled. “I knew that we faced war and that in it we would lose the best of our youth.”27
Nothing expressed the Yishuv’s overwhelming sense of anticipation better than the poem “The Silver Platter,” by Natan Alterman. Alterman, who was born in Warsaw in 1910, moved to Palestine with his family in 1925. By 1941, he was recognized as one of the leading poetic voices of the Yishuv; he gradually assumed Bialik’s unofficial position as the poet laureate of the Zionist movement. He wrote “The Silver Platter” on December 26, 1947, barely a month after the vote in the UN General Assembly and shortly after Chaim Weizmann had remarked, “A state is not given to a people on a silver platter.”28
In “The Silver Platter,” Alterman analogized the nation waiting for statehood to the biblical Israelites in the desert waiting for the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The Yishuv, Alterman said, was awaiting “the one miracle and only.” As the nation waited, a boy and a girl, the only characters in the poem, walk slowly and silently toward the assembled throngs. The two are almost immobile and say nothing. Awestruck, the nation watches the young man and woman caked in dirt or blood, and then asks them who they are. “We,” the boy and the girl reply, “are the silver platter on which the Jewish state has been given to you,” whereupon they collapse. With that, the poem ends.
Though the bloodshed had already started, Alterman was reminding the nation that a still heavier price was about to be paid. Yet he was saying something even more important. The state-in-waiting was the new Sinai. The Jewish state about to declare independence would be the setting for the creation of a new Jew, the Jew that Bialik had virtually demanded in “The City of Slaughter” almost half a century earlier.
A “new religion”—a secular Judaism—would become the state’s unofficial religion, intimated Alterman. To traditional Jews, when the nation assembles waiting for “the one miracle and only,” that miracle is the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Not so for Alterman; for him, the “one and only” miracle is the creation of the state. In the biblical account, as the nation prepares to receive the Torah, Moses tells the men not to approach the women. In “The Silver Platter,” however, the central characters—the boy and the girl—are inseparable, virtually indistinguishable. If the Torah demanded separation of the sexes at the foot of Mount Sinai,29 Zionists rejected it without question. In the Torah, God commands the Israelites to wash their clothes as part of their preparation for revelation30; in Alterman’s poem, the boy and the girl are caked with dirt, and they do not wash.
Saving the Jews, Alterman suggested, would require getting very dirty. No longer would purity and holiness guarantee the Jews’ survival; now, staying alive would require young men and women who were willing to die.
THE YISHUV BEGAN a hurried preparation for the war. Ben-Gurion reached out to King Abdullah of Transjordan, with whom the Yishuv had long had a much better relationship than it did with other neighboring leaders, hoping (in vain) that Transjordan would remain neutral. The Haganah, technically still an illegal militia since the British had not yet left Palestine, created four brigades, established hideouts for arms, and recruited Jewish fighters who had battle experience from World War II. Even displaced persons in Cyprus—using wooden rifles local carpenters made them—received training from Haganah fighters.
There had been months of sporadic Arab terror, but now, with the UN vote, the violence that everyone knew was coming erupted in earnest. The war, which would last until early 1949, had two major phases. In the first phase, from the UN vote in November 1947 until Israel’s declaring independence in May 1948, the Haganah and other Jewish military groups fought marginally organized local Arab fighters and irregular Arab forces from other countries who attacked the Yishuv. In many ways, it resembled a civil war between Jews and Arabs more than a conflict between two standing armies. In the second phase of the war, which began in May 1948 and ended in early 1949, Israel—now a country with an official army—would find its forces pitted against the armies of five different countries—Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt.
The day after the UN vote, an Arab opened gunfire on a Jewish ambulance on its way to Hadassah Hospital. No one was injured. Later that day, Arabs, using machine guns and hand grenades, attacked a bus carrying passengers from Netanya to Jerusalem. Those people were not as lucky; five Jews died, including a young woman on the way to her wedding. The five and a half months that would make up the first half of the War of Independence were now under way.
Technically, as they had not yet departed Palestine, the British were responsible for maintaining order in the region. But they made little or no effort to prevent Arab violence. When Arabs attacked a group of Jews and a Haganah platoon went to defend them, the British blocked the Jewish fighters from crossing the street to break up the violence. Consistent with the long-standing but now irrelevant White Paper policy, the British also continued their efforts to block ships carrying “illegal” immigrants.
Jewish tactics remained similar to what they had been, as well. The Haganah, still committed to “restraint,” limited itself to reprisals against individual Arabs who had participated in attacks. But the Irgun and Lechi increased their activity against the British and the Arabs, leading to an endless cycle of attacks. After a mere six weeks, 1,069 Arabs, 769 Jews, and 123 Britons had died.
Ben-Gurion insisted that his forces abandon no territory, even in the face of attack, and for the most part, the Yishuv held on. There were exceptions, however. The most significant (and now iconic) was the attack on four settlements known as the Etzion bloc, located in the Hebron Hills south of Jerusalem. In the first two weeks of 1948, the four settlements (Kfar Etzion, Massuot Yitzhak, Ein Tzurim, and Revadim) were besieged. Led by Abdel-Kader al-Husseini, the mufti’s cousin, a thousand Arab villagers surrounded a few hundred Jewish men in the bloc (women and children had been previously evacuated). With the Jews poorly armed, hundreds of Arab women and children joined the siege with empty suitcases, ready to plunder the possessions they imagined would be left behind. On January 14, the Jewish defenders repelled an attack and succeeded in holding the Arab attackers at bay, killing 150 of the Arab villagers. But they had used a significant portion of their meager ammunition, and the siege continued.
Two days later, on January 16, 1948, a relief mission set out for the Etzion bloc. The column, consisting of thirty-five men, many of them the brightest of Hebrew University’s students, departed from Hartuv (now an industrial zone near the city of Beit Shemesh). Because they departed later than planned, they lost the cover of darkness. They also had no radio or means of communication.
The convoy (known as the Lamed Heh, for two Hebrew letters that represent the number thirty-five) never reached Etzion. According to one account, the convoy encountered an Arab shepherd on its way. They knew they could either kill him, or risk his revealing their whereabouts. But he swore to them that he would say nothing, so they let him go. Another account, which emerged decades later, claimed that two Arab women from the village of Tzurif, on the western side of the hills of the Etzion bloc, were looking for firewood in the early morning. They happened upon two of the thirty-five Palmach fighters and ran back, screaming, toward their village. The soldiers chose not to kill them.31
Either way, with their cover blown, the thirty-five young men were ambushed before they could get the supplies to the Etzion bloc. They were killed and their bodies were mutilated, some beyond recognition.
Entirely cut off from the Yishuv and now facing the more powerful Arab Legion, there was no way the Etzion bloc could hold out. It fell into Arab hands some months later, on May 13, 1948, one day before the State of Israel declared independence. Those who had not been killed defending the area had no choice but to surrender; many of those who surrendered were then murdered by the victorious Arabs.
The loss of the Etzion bloc was a painful blow to the Yishuv’s morale. Just a day before independence, the future Jewish state was already losing ground and had lost some of its finest young men.
Even in wartime, poets had the ear of the Yishuv. Thanks in part to Haim Gouri, another leading poet of the Yishuv born in Tel Aviv in 1923, the death of the thirty-five men quickly became an iconic moment in the battle for the state and in the mythology of Israel thereafter. Entitled “Here Lie Our Bodies,” the poem—dedicated to the fallen men—speaks in their voice. “Look, here our bodies lie in a long, long row. Our faces have changed. Death reflects from our eyes. We do not breathe.”32
Gouri’s poem was ultimately not about death, but about faith that the state would emerge, and the determination required to make that happen. “Will you bury us now?” the men figuratively ask. “For we shall rise, and we will emerge again as before . . . because everything inside us is still alive and streaming in the veins.” As for the sacrifice that statehood would require, the men point to the way they died: “We did not betray. Look, our rifle is beside us and empty of ammunition. . . . [I]ts barrels are still hot and our blood is sprayed on the paths step by step.”
Gouri’s message resonated. With the death of the Lamed Heh and its impact on the Yishuv’s morale, the Haganah altered its strategy. “Restraint” was now a thing of the past. Henceforth, villages from which attacks emanated would themselves be subject to reprisal. The war spread, and casualties—among both civilians and soldiers—rose dramatically. No one was immune, and virtually the entire population was affected. Shlomo Lavi, a childhood friend of Ben-Gurion’s, a Zionist activist and later a member of Israel’s Parliament, lost both his sons in the fighting—one in the Galilee and one in the Negev.33 Such stories abounded.
All three underground militias were working feverishly, often without coordination. To amass ammunition without it being discovered by the British (or in the case of the Irgun and the Lechi, without it being discovered by the Haganah), each of the military groups created its own secret caches of guns, grenades, bullets, and the like, all in preparation for wars looming with either the British or Palestine’s Arabs. These secret stashes, called “slicks” (possibly based on the Hebrew word meaning “to remove,” though the etymology of the term remains unclear), were hidden in storehouses, some underground, even under reservoirs, throughout cities, moshavim, and kibbutzim.34
By 1948, there were more than fifteen hundred slicks in the Yishuv. There was, some experts say, scarcely a single kibbutz or moshav throughout the entire country that did not have a slick. One of the Haganah’s largest slicks and main source of bullets was an underground bullet factory (today called the Ayalon factory), constructed in a kibbutz right outside Rehovot. Between 1945 and 1948, the factory—situated beneath a working laundry and bakery and operated by a group of young Palmach members—produced two million 9 mm bullets, making a significant contribution to the war effort.
Those who knew about each slick were sworn to secrecy. So hallowed was the aura of secrecy that, in many cases, these people died decades later without having ever mentioned the “slick”; the ammunition caches were discovered only when the area was dug up for new construction or some other purpose. Many will likely never be discovered.
WITH THE WAR TURNING into a slog, international opinion began to shift. There were calls to revisit the UN’s partition vote, with the U.S. State Department pushing Truman hard to change the Americans’ prior position. Ensuring the support of the president was now of prime importance. Truman, though, was unwilling to discuss Palestine. Indeed, in February 1948, when Weizmann traveled to the United States to muster support for partition, Truman refused to see him. So American Jewish leaders, desperate and having exhausted all their other options, turned to Truman’s longtime Jewish friend Eddie Jacobson, with whom Truman had owned a haberdashery decades earlier. The two had remained friendly.
Frank Goldman, president of the national B’nai B’rith (then a leading American Jewish organization), called Jacobson and asked him to intervene. Jacobson wrote the president, but Truman would not budge. There was nothing new that Weizmann could tell him, he replied in a letter. Jacobson then traveled to Washington, where, on March 13, as Truman’s long-standing friend, he gained entry to the White House via a side door. Waiting for the president outside the Oval Office, Jacobson was warned not to raise the subject of Palestine with the president.
Much to Truman’s ire, however, that is precisely what Jacobson did. The president scolded him harshly, but Jacobson refused to back down. Pointing to a statue of Andrew Jackson that Truman had in his office, Jacobson said to his longtime friend, “Harry, all your life you have had a hero. . . . I too have a hero, a man I never met, but who is, I think, the greatest Jew who ever lived. . . . I am talking about Chaim Weizmann.” Jacobson continued, “He is a very sick man, almost broken in health, but he traveled thousands of miles just to see you and plead the cause of my people. Now you refuse to see him just because you are insulted by some of our American Jewish leaders. . . . It doesn’t sound like you, Harry, because I thought you could take this stuff they have been handing out.”
Jacobson later reported that neither man said anything for what seemed “like centuries.” Then, though, Truman turned to Jacobson and said, “You win, you baldheaded son-of-a-bitch. I will see him.” It worked. Weizmann, whom Truman had met earlier and described as “a wonderful man, one of the wisest people I think I ever met,” convinced Truman.
THE WINTER OF 1948 was a particularly harsh one. In Jerusalem, snow fell and blanketed the city. Beginning in February 1948, Arab forces blocked the roads to Jerusalem to prevent food and ammunition from reaching the Jewish population. Arab snipers picked off people waiting on line for food and water. Even the struggle for rudimentary supplies meant risking one’s life.
Fighting in the north was also fierce. On January 10, the Arab Liberation Army, based in Syria, took nine hundred of its men to attack Kfar Szold, only two hundred yards from the Syrian border. In this instance, the defenders were well prepared and the Arab attackers retreated after suffering heavy casualties.
But the Yishuv was losing the battle for the roads, and as a result, the battle for Jerusalem. The Arabs were increasingly emboldened and the Jews dispirited, and perhaps most important, observers abroad started to believe that the Jews could not win a war against the Arab states if they couldn’t even beat the local Palestinian Arabs or hold on to the territory assigned to it. The U.S. State Department began pushing its trusteeship plan, which effectively meant canceling the partition decision to create a Jewish state, and Truman was wavering as advisers told him the Jews might lose and be slaughtered.
The once-in-two-millennia chance to establish a Jewish state seemed to be slipping through the fingers of the Yishuv, and decisive action was needed.
In March 1948, Ben-Gurion instructed the Haganah to “gain control of the territory of the Hebrew state and defend its borders.” So began Plan Dalet (Plan “D”). According to the plan, if Arab towns were strategically positioned, essential for communication, or could be used as enemy bases, the Haganah would aim to destroy the enemy’s armed forces and drive the enemy civilian population to areas outside of the borders of the state. The assumption was that Arabs would be forced out of their villages only if they resisted; if they did not fight back, they could remain in their towns under Jewish sovereignty. Many Arabs fled, however, preferring to leave rather than live under Jewish rule. By May 14, 1948, the date the State of Israel declared independence, some three hundred thousand Arabs had already left Palestine. The problem of Palestinian refugees, today still far from being resolved, had begun.
A GROUP OF ISRAELI scholars known as the “new historians,” often associated with Israel’s political Left, argues that Ben-Gurion’s motivation was at least as much about demography as it was about territory. He understood, they claim, that the demographic balance that the UN’s partition plan would create was untenable for the Jewish state in the long run. If the new state were to be both Jewish and democratic, it would need a substantial Jewish majority. In their view, Plan Dalet and others like it were largely intended to get many of the Arabs to leave. Arab historians make the same claim, while mainstream Jewish historians see matters very differently and argue that the Arabs largely fled, both because their leadership had fled before them, and because of fear of the advancing Jewish forces. To this day, the decisions and actions that led to the Palestinian refugee problem remain one of the most hotly contested dimensions of the War of Independence.
Some Jewish leaders, including the mayor of Haifa, Abba Hushy, encouraged, even begged, the Arab residents to stay in the city where, for years, they had worked side by side with their Jewish counterparts. The Arab residents ignored Hushy’s request and followed in the footsteps of the city’s Arab leaders who had fled earlier (presumably to avoid the violence with the hopes of returning when it subsided).
The Yishuv was not oblivious to the human tragedy unfolding, and some of its leaders explicitly expressed their sympathy for what the Arabs were enduring. Golda Meir, who had replaced Moshe Shertok as the head of the political department of the Jewish Agency, said on May 6, after seeing Haifa empty following the flight of its Arab population, “I found children, women, the old, waiting for a way to leave. I entered the houses, there were houses where the coffee and pita were left on the table, and I could not avoid thinking that this, indeed, had been the picture in many Jewish towns [as Jews fled their homes in World War II].”35 The Arabs had refused to accept the partition plan and had started the war, but there could be no denying that the resulting human suffering was immense.
IN ALL, THE WAR was not going well. Ben-Gurion, a master of timing and strategy, understood that he simply had to turn the war around or all would be lost.36 Arabs had control of the roads; Jerusalem was cut off and was desperate for food and supplies. It seemed that the Jews might well lose the war.
To make matters worse, the Americans indicated that they were inclined to withdraw their support for partition and might favor putting Palestine under an international trusteeship. Ben-Gurion understood that time was against him and ordered the Haganah to undertake an attack of unprecedented scale. Operation Nachshon in April 1948, in which he dispatched fifteen hundred soldiers to break through to Jerusalem, tipped the scales of the war.
Thanks to arms shipments that finally arrived from Czechoslovakia (one of the few countries willing to violate the international arms embargo), Jewish forces were also able to conquer Tiberias, Safed, and Haifa’s all-important port. Ben-Gurion had acted just in time, and the tide of the conflict began to shift.
BEYOND THE LEGITIMATE ACCUSATION that Jewish forces at times forced Arab populations to leave their homes, this portion of the war also prompted what the historian Benny Morris called the “atrocity factor”37—allegations that in the midst of the War of Independence, Jewish forces committed numerous atrocious and heinous acts, including rape and outright murder. Most of those accusations have been soundly debunked by contemporary scholars.
The key example, very controversial and still commonly cited by Israel’s enemies, was the fierce battle for the Arab village of Deir Yassin. On March 22, 1948, Arab forces successfully cut off Jerusalem from any outside Jewish settlements. As the Haganah was assembling its platoon of fifteen hundred men for Operation Nachshon, three times larger than any force it had used before, the Irgun and Lechi, seeking to help relieve the siege of Jerusalem, decided to take the town of Deir Yassin, from which Arab forces were shooting onto the road into Jerusalem. Deir Yassin was one of the last villages on the western side of Jerusalem that the Arabs had not yet abandoned. Barely trained and ill equipped, the Irgun fighters were unlikely to stand their ground in a real battle, but no one expected significant resistance.
The operation began on April 9. A truck with a loudspeaker was sent to the village to instruct the villagers to leave or surrender. But the truck got stuck before it was close enough to be heard, the communication equipment between the Irgun and Lechi fighters failed, and the fighters encountered far more resistance than expected. In their panic, the ill-trained fighters tossed grenades into homes, with a horrendous death toll. Early accounts suggested that 250 people had been killed, and that the Jewish fighters raped villagers.
The Irgun admitted a high body count but insisted that the number of dead was closer to one hundred. It also absolutely denied the rape charges. The denials fell on deaf ears, however, largely because all parties had incentive to make the most of the charges. The Haganah used the incident to accuse the Irgun of being irresponsible and murderous. The Arabs used it to claim to the international community that the Jews were butchering them and in so doing helped cement the determination of surrounding Arab countries to enter the fray. And the Yishuv as a whole, including Ben-Gurion, benefited from the Arab panic and the increased Arab flight that ensued. Getting the Arabs out of the territory assigned to the Jews was precisely what Ben-Gurion wanted.
But had there been genocide or rape? Later scholars, both Israeli and Palestinian, agreed that there had been no rapes whatsoever, and that the death toll was almost precisely what the Irgun had claimed.38 Both the Haganah and the Arabs had inflated the numbers. There was a heavy battle, to be sure, with heavy losses. Yet killing civilians had never been the intent.
But that was never how the Arabs described it. At the time, their assertions of a horrific massacre spread and prompted more Arabs to flee their homes in Palestine, ultimately making them refugees. To this day, they use Deir Yassin as part of their claim that Israel was “born in sin.”
ON MAY 10, 1948, Golda—disguised as an Arab woman—went to see King Abdullah of Jordan. Meir knew that the Arab states were about to join the fray and that the war was heading into a new, more lethal phase. She pleaded with him not to attack the new Jewish state, insisting that Israel and Jordan could be allies. But Abdullah understood the larger political world in which he operated, and he told Golda that he might have no choice but to join the war against the Jewish state. He then asked Meir not to hurry in proclaiming a Jewish state. “We have been waiting for two thousand years,” she said to the king. “Is that hurrying?”
Creating a state, Golda Meir understood, was about much more than sovereignty. It was key to ensuring the future of the Jewish people. After all the Jews had been through, there was no time to waste. And failure was simply not an option.
But the king remained noncommittal. As she departed his office, Meir turned to Abdullah and said, “If you can offer us nothing more than you have just done, then there will be a war and we will win it. But perhaps we can meet again—and after the war and after there is a Jewish state.”39