The State Is Born

By virtue of our natural and historic right . . . we hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.

—Israel’s Declaration of Independence

Thirty years had passed since General Edmund Allenby had entered Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate in 1917, signaling the beginning of Britain’s control over Palestine. Now, on May 14, 1948, the last Union Jack slid down the flagpole at Haifa’s port, symbolically bringing the Mandate to an end. The empire was crumbling, and in Palestine, the British had been humiliated, forced out of Palestine by the fledgling Yishuv. Like the Greeks of old who had battled the Maccabees, they had underestimated the sheer grit of the Jews of Palestine.

The hopes that the Zionists had had for British rule when they anxiously awaited the fall of the Ottomans and the beginning of British dominion over Palestine had long been dashed. The British had gone from the Balfour Declaration’s endorsement of Zionism to the barely veiled hostility of the 1939 White Paper to outright hostility. Evelyn Barker’s last act as commander of the British forces in Palestine was to urinate on the ground.1

Yet despite all the enmity at the end, the British had left Palestine far more advanced than it had been when they had received the Mandate. They had built up the country’s infrastructure and had allowed the Yishuv to create and cultivate the institutions that would form the backbone of a state. Despite their later limitations on immigration, under the British the Jewish population of the Yishuv had increased tenfold; it had soared from 56,000 to approximately 600,000—a number sufficient to make a small state viable.

The British were finally leaving. The dream that Theodor Herzl had shared with the world, that Lord Balfour had supported but that the British had later blocked, was at long last about to be realized.

BEN-GURION, WHOSE GENIUS INCLUDED an extraordinary sense of historical timing, understood that the opportunity then presented to the Yishuv might not come again, and he adamantly opposed any delay in declaring independence. That Harry Truman had promised his support was all the more reason to move forward.* Yet some members of the Yishuv’s leadership disagreed. They worried that the Yishuv was not ready for the war that would follow, and they feared that the U.S. State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency’s assessment that the Jewish state might not be able to withstand the inevitable Arab onslaught might be more correct than others in the Yishuv wished to admit. Independence, they insisted, should wait.

Ben-Gurion understood the enormity of the danger, admitting, “We . . . must be prepared for the heavy loss of territory and people, as well as public shock within the Yishuv as a whole.”2 Yet he insisted that for Jewish sovereignty, it might be “now or never.” Mordecai Bentov, who had been part of the Jewish Agency’s delegation to the United Nations, later wrote, “In the room sat ten Jews who had to make what was perhaps the most important decision in the history of the People of Israel for 2,000 years.”3 By a slim margin of 6–4, the People’s Administration voted in Tel Aviv on May 12, 1948, to declare the first sovereign Jewish state since Judea had fallen two millennia earlier.

On Friday, May 14, 1948, as the British were departing, the People’s Assembly gathered in the packed Tel Aviv Museum. Due to fears of an Arab bombing, word of the ceremony was disseminated as late as possible; formal invitations went out the day before. But word leaked, and outside the museum, a crowd of hundreds gathered, buzzing with anticipation.

The hall was not large enough to accommodate all the invitees; some were stranded outside while the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, invited to play the national anthem, had to be moved to the floor above the main hall. Everything had been prepared with great haste, but even in the heat of all the activity, the meaning of the day was lost on no one. “We moved about our duties . . . as if in a dream. . . . The days of the Messiah had arrived, the end of servitude under alien rulers,” Ben-Gurion’s assistant, Ze’ev Sharef, later recalled.4

Inside, the scene was consciously reminiscent of the First Zionist Congress in Basel fifty-one years earlier. And forty-two years after he had arrived in Palestine, David Ben-Gurion stood at the podium under an enormous portrait of the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl.

Promptly at four P.M., as photographers’ bulbs continued to flash without interruption, all those in attendance stood and sang “Hatikva.”5

Ben-Gurion, sixty-two, a five-foot, three-inch pragmatist with rock-hard convictions, who had devoted his life to amassing power, for himself and his people, with the aim of resurrecting Jewish self-determination in Palestine, a land he had reached (from Poland) in 1906 on the back of an Arab stevedore who carried him from skiff to shore—then read out the declaration, “Scroll of the Establishment of the State of Israel.”

The Declaration of Independence opened with a series of preambles. In the Land of Israel, it declared, the Jewish people had been born. It was in the Land of Israel that the Jews had developed the civilization they had shared with the world. They had never ceased dreaming that they would return to their ancestoral homeland. Then, Ben-Gurion continued in a voice both tremulous and strident, “By virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, [we] hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”6*

When Ben-Gurion had finished reading the declaration, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Fishman-Maimon, who headed the religious Zionist Mizrachi Party and had been flown in to the signing from Jerusalem, which was under siege, recited the shehecheyanu blessing, precisely as had Dr. Karl Lippe in Basel at the First Zionist Congress in 1897. “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us and enabled us to reach this moment.”7

After those assembled sang “Hatikva” a second time, David Ben-Gurion declared, “The State of Israel is established! This meeting is adjourned.” The proceedings had lasted a mere thirty-two minutes. A new era of Jewish history had dawned. Two millennia of exile had ended, and for the first time since the Romans, the Jews were sovereign in their ancestral homeland.

THE BRIEF MOMENT OF religiosity representd by the shehecheyanu notwithstanding, the proceedings were distinctly secular. Ben-Gurion, as had been the case with Herzl some fifty years earlier, stood with his head uncovered. Half a century earlier, Herzl’s contemporaries had pleaded for the creation of a new Jew. The day’s symbolism was clear; that Jew had, in fact, emerged and, now, was establishing a sovereign Jewish state.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence is not a theological document, but a historical one. Unlike the American Declaration of Independence, which speaks both of “God” and of the “Creator,” the Israeli declaration makes no mention of God. To pacify the religious elements who hoped for a more overtly religious text, the declaration does say, “Placing our trust in the Rock of Israel, we affix our signatures to this proclamation at this session of the Provisional Council of state,” but that was an intentionally ambiguous phrasing. To the religious, “Rock of Israel” was a traditional phrase that always meant God.8 (Rabbi Maimon made the reference explicit when above his signature he added three Hebrew letters, an acronym meaning “by the grace of God.”9) To the secularists, statehood had nothing to do with God; the Rock of Israel was therefore Jewish history, Jewish grit, or the newfound ability of the Jews to defend themselves.*

While the declaration omitted God, it was saturated with history. It spoke of the birth of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, the glories of the Jewish past in that land, and the Jews’ horrific suffering in the twentieth century. Reflecting Ben-Gurion’s love of the Bible and his belief that the “Book of Books” was a road map for the Jews’ young state, it promised that the new state would “be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.”

Yet the declaration was no ethereal document. Zionism had been a movement born of a keen awareness of a rapidly changing world, and the declaration was deeply cognizant of the historical circumstances in which it was written. It referred explicitly to the war already under way. As if Ben-Gurion had a premonition that the world’s sympathy for the Jewish people and its newborn state might be short-lived, it asserted that UN Resolution 181 was irrevocable. Declaring that “[t]he State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles,” it explicitly voided the policies of the White Paper. Even in the midst of war, it offered Israel’s enemies peace. “We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness,” it said, “and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land.”

The declaration is a complex and nuanced text. It stresses equality, promising that the state “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” Addressing “the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel,” it invited them “to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship.” It stressed that the ethical foundations of the Jewish tradition would be key to the new Jewish state (“as envisaged by the prophets of Israel”) and would serve as a refuge particularly for the Jewish people yet would “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants.”

Ensuring that the state would be a distinctly Jewish state while also guaranteeing the rights of non-Jewish minorities would never be simple. Debates about how to strike this balance continue in Israel to this day.

The Declaration of Independence was signed by a broad coalition of Jews, ranging from Communists on the left to the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Yisrael on the religious right. Many of these groups had sparred over ideological issues ever since the First Zionist Congress in 1897, but now, in a stunning demonstration of Jewish unity at a critical moment in Jewish history, those differences were set aside. There would be future moments—both of great opportunity and of grave danger—when a politically divided Israel would recognize that the future of the Jewish people was at stake and would set aside even major disagreements.

Ever since the Second Zionist Congress in Basel in 1898, when they were accorded full membership rights in the Zionist political system (long before European governments did anything similar), women had played a significant role in both the Zionist movement and the Yishuv. Two women—Golda Meir (who would later become Israel’s fourth prime minister) and Rachel Kagan-Cohen (a veteran women’s and social welfare campaigner)—also signed the Declaration of Independence.

Not surprisingly, absent from the signing ceremony was Ben-Gurion’s political foe Menachem Begin, who had led the Irgun. (Yitzhak Shamir, who had led the Lechi, would presumably not have been invited, either, but in any case he had been exiled by the British and was in detention.) Ben-Gurion detested Begin no less than he had Jabotinsky. The Declaration of Independence was a central part of Ben-Gurion’s project of shaping Israel’s foundational narrative, and if he could have his way, neither Begin nor the Irgun would figure prominently in the story that the state told about itself. Chaim Weizmann was abroad at the time, so could not sign, either; upon his return, Ben-Gurion, still vindictive even in that historic hour, refused to allow Weizmann to add his signature to the scroll.

The new country’s name also had deep symbolic resonance.* Several possible names for the new country were proposed, but Israel was the name given to the biblical Jacob after he wrestled with an angel. “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and with men.”10 Little could anyone have known how apt that name would be.

THOUGH THE THRONGS OUTSIDE the Tel Aviv Museum were euphoric, the leadership once again found itself unable to celebrate. Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary, “In the country there is celebration and profound joy—and once again I am a mourner among the celebrants, as I was on November 29.”11 He told Shimon Peres (then a young leader of the state, and eventually its prime minister and, later, president), “Today everyone’s happy. Tomorrow, blood will be spilled.”12

THE SECOND PHASE of the war began the next day. It would last until January 1949, consisting of three major phases of fighting, punctuated by two internationally mandated cease-fires.

The first month would be the deadliest of the entire conflict. Israel would lose 876 soldiers and some 300 civilians. The Haganah (which would soon become the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces) found itself facing armies from five Arab states: Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq (which did not even share a border with Israel), and Syria—augmented by troops from Sudan, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. For Ben-Gurion, who consistently saw the new state in light of the Bible’s narrative, the fact that Israel was arrayed against Egypt and Syria was enormously important. During the war, he wrote in his diary: “Our planes need to bomb and destroy Amman [and] across the Jordan, and then Syria will fall. We will bomb Port Said, Alexandria and Cairo. Thus will we end the war and settle our ancestors’ score with Egypt, Assyria and Aram.”13

Those lofty aspirations notwithstanding, the first days did not go well. In the north, the Israelis confronted Iraqi and well-armed Syrian armies. Nor did matters appear much better in the south. Egyptian troops were quickly advancing in the Negev and were soon able to launch air attacks on Tel Aviv—where the Israeli General Staff was headquartered. As Yigal Yadin, the IDF’s head of operations during the War of Independence and later its chief of staff, reflected:

I was suddenly shocked . . . when I realized . . . the whole of the north might be lost. In the south, the Egyptian army was advancing on Tel Aviv. Jerusalem was cut off, and the Iraqis were putting pressure on the middle of the country. This was a moment that I suddenly felt that the dream of generations was about to disintegrate.14

Ben-Gurion, too, sensed that the next few days would determine the fate of the country: “This is a race [against] time,” he said on May 19, just five days after independence. “If we hold out for two weeks—we will win.”15

In spite of the protracted fighting on all sides, Ben-Gurion urged Yigal Yadin as early as May 19 to push on to Jerusalem, a task for which Yadin feared the Haganah was woefully underprepared. Not assigned to either the Jewish or Arab states in the United Nations partition plan, Jerusalem was supposed to be governed by an international protectorate, but it was commonly understood that that was not likely to happen. The UN had no power, the major international power brokers had no interest in enforcing the resolution, and both the Arabs and the Jews were uninterested in internationalizing the city. Had there been tremendous international pressure, the Jewish community might have agreed, but it was equally clear that the Arabs would reject the suggestion, just as they had rejected Peel and partition.

So a battle over the city ensued. The Arab Legion—intent on assisting Arabs in Jerusalem who were also running short on supplies—began its push toward Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion decided that the Israelis needed to push back.

The problem was how to get there. For the Israelis to have any chance of taking control of the road to Jerusalem, they needed to conquer Latrun, a hilltop outpost about fifteen miles outside the city (today an armored corps memorial just outside Jerusalem). Ben-Gurion ordered a new unit, the Haganah’s Seventh Brigade, to carry out the task. But Yadin resisted, pointing out that many of the fighters who would be sent to the front lines for the battle for Latrun had pitifully little experience and only the most rudimentary weaponry—many of them were without even a canteen. Yadin pleaded with Ben-Gurion to appreciate the devastating irony of what Ben-Gurion was asking: many of these soldiers had been liberated from Nazi death camps, only to be placed in internment camps in Cyprus, to then finally arrive at the shores of Palestine, where they were given outdated weapons and sent to battle with no military training whatsoever. Ben-Gurion understood but was undeterred; the first battle for Latrun began on May 24.

As Yadin had predicted, the battle was a disaster, and the Israeli forces were repelled. Ariel Sharon, then a young platoon commander (later the hero of the Yom Kippur War and still later prime minister of Israel), was wounded. The Israelis launched a second assault on Latrun on June 1, but that also failed. Official counts put the number of killed Israeli troops at 139, though others suggest that the number was higher.

As Yadin had further predicted, Latrun would be remembered as “the place where the blood of Holocaust survivors . . . was spilt.”16 This was true not only of Latrun. Slightly more than a hundred thousand Jews enlisted in Israel’s army during Israel’s War of Independence. And, as one historian notes, “many of the newcomers who had come from Europe to die in the war for Israel were Shoah survivors.”17 Many died in battle almost immediately upon arrival and are buried in unidentified graves. They gave their lives defending a state in which no one even knew their names. It would not be the last time that Israeli society would grapple with its treatment of victims of the Holocaust, but their deaths were also testimony to the depth of their conviction that—given what they had seen in Europe—the creation of a Jewish state mattered more than anything, even more than their own survival.

The failed Latrun operation was followed by another devastating loss days later, when the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City fell to the Arab Legion, the best-trained and equipped of the Arab forces, still fighting under British commanders. Yitzhak Rabin, future prime minister of the state, looked upon the Old City in horror as he saw the Jewish residents surrender to the Arab Legion, white flags waving, the profundity of the loss etched on their faces. Jews had been exiled from Jerusalem after their defeat at the hands of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE and again under the Romans in 70 CE. Now, once again, long lines of defeated Jews, their meager belongings slung over their shoulders, were exiled from the city and made their tearful way out of Jerusalem. The Jordanians, like the conquerors who had come before them, would show the city no mercy. They would turn synagogues into stables and use gravestones as latrines. Nineteen years would elapse until Jews would once again be able to touch the Western Wall and to pray at Judaism’s most sacred site.

THE HAGANAH GAVE UP trying to capture Latrun and decided to seek an alternate route that became known as the Burma Road (so called because it provided Jerusalem’s Jews with supplies, just as the Burma Road between Burma and China enabled supplies to be shuttled to the Chinese under Japanese siege during World War II). The desperate struggle to build the Burma Road on what had been an ancient path reflected the ingenuity that had characterized the underground in the days of the Yishuv and now reflected the character of the IDF. Necessity was the mother of invention, and the newly born state, knowing that Jewish blood would flow if it were defeated, was both ingenious and industrious at numerous points during the war. At the Burma Road, for instance:

Using bulldozers, tractors, and manual labor, the engineers began the nearly impossible task of creating a passable road to the bluff at the head of the orchard and a road to the valley below. At night, against the background of Jordanian shelling, the scene was almost unreal: hundreds of porters silently carrying food and supplies down the hill to waiting trucks and jeeps and even mules. Even herds of cows were led along this route because we desperately needed to ship beef into the city.18

Using this alternate route, the Harel Brigade (under the command of Yitzhak Rabin, then twenty-six years old) succeeded in resupplying and defending the western parts of the city—but they were still unable to recapture the Old City.

The Burma Road was hardly the only example of this sort of creativity and ingenuity. Short of heavy weaponry during much of the war, the Yishuv also relied on the Davikda, a homemade three-inch mortar, which more often than not missed its target or failed to explode.19 If the Davidka had any redeeming value, it was that when it did explode, no matter how inaccurate, the bomb caused a bright flash and an exceptionally loud noise, which then triggered mass panic among the local Arab populations.20 The Davidka was most effective in the battles for Jerusalem and Safed, because the panic it triggered led the local population to leave or to surrender more quickly. In the battle for Safed, from May 6–9, the Davidka’s loud sounds convinced the local Arabs that the Jews were using “atom bombs.” “A Haganah scout plane, flying overhead, reported ‘thousands of refugees streaming by foot toward Meirun.’ . . . The Arab neighborhoods, literally overnight, turned into a ‘ghost town.’”21

The air force employed similar creativity. In addition to genuine bombs loaded onto planes, the ground crews also began loading whatever empty soda bottles they could find—on base or from surrounding areas. They had heard that the falling empty bottles created a loud whistling noise that sounded to those on the ground like a bomb shrieking its way earthward and that the tactic was weakening the enemy’s resolve.

THE FLEDGLING JEWISH STATE was still outgunned, however, and desperately struggled to hold on. Casualties were high. Israel was desperate for heavy weaponry that had been purchased but that had yet to arrive. And the Egyptians controlled the skies. Israel had barely finished declaring independence, and its fate hung in the balance.

The international community, concerned about the bloodshed, was eager to impose a break in the fighting. On May 22, the United Nations Security Council demanded an immediate cease-fire; the UN secretary-general appointed Count Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish diplomat, to negotiate the truce.

Bernadotte was an interesting choice, to say the least. During World War II, in his role as head of the Swedish Red Cross, he had saved many thousands of Jews from the death camps, but he had also met with senior Nazi leaders, notably Heinrich Himmler, seeking back channels to end the conflict. By the time he stepped into his role as negotiator at the peak of the war in Palestine, he was seen as “the gung-ho Swedish aristocrat, ‘optimistic . . . and eager for action,’ . . . the ‘humanitarian’ Don Quixote.”22 Charged with ending the war, Bernadotte took on a task that no one had thus far been able to accomplish. He was undaunted, however, and set out to secure a break in the fighting, and afterward, to seek a more permanent peace.

In part due to Bernadotte’s political maneuvering and in part due to the exhaustion of all parties engaged in the fighting, the two sides eventually agreed to a truce. Originally scheduled to begin on June 1, the truce proved so complicated to implement that it officially took effect only ten days later, on June 11.

The terms of the respite dictated “a blanket embargo on arms and additional military personnel on Israel and the Arab states,”23 but both sides violated these conditions. The Arab states fortified their combat units and intermittently fired across the Israeli lines. The Israelis used the lull in the fighting to import massive amounts of weapons, including some they had purchased from the United States as well as from other Western powers. The Yishuv also received a massive shipment of arms from Czechoslovakia, including “more than twenty-five thousand rifles, five thousand machineguns, and more than fifty million bullets.”24 In what was surely an ironic twist, some of the Czech arms were standard German Mauser rifles and MG machine guns, and—having been produced for the Germans before May 1945—arrived with swastikas on them (as had the uniforms that the volunteer pilots had been given). Guns manufactured for the Germans during World War II were now in the hands of Jews desperately seeking to inaugurate a new chapter of Jewish history.25

It was not only weapons that arrived from abroad. At the start of the war, Israel had no military aircraft at all and very few pilots.26 The American armed forces, on the other hand, had surplus planes by the hundreds after World War II, and Jewish veterans who had flown for the United States. Israel began a clandestine project of seeking out these pilots, many of whom were highly assimilated. Something about the Holocaust, however, awakened a sense of Jewish commitment in some of these men, and a few, in violation of American law, helped purchase American surplus planes and fly them to Europe and then to Israel. They were outfitted with used uniforms, which like some of the guns of those fighting on the ground had Nazi insignias—in this case, Luftwaffe patches—on them.

Germany had built factories for the manufacture of Messerschmitt warplanes in Czechoslovakia, which continued to produce the planes even after World War II ended. The American pilots flew some of these Messerschmitts to Israel to join the battle.

Almost immediately upon landing in Israel, the Americans were told that Egyptian forces were a mere six miles from Tel Aviv, and that if they did not attack immediately, there would be ten thousand Egyptian troops in Tel Aviv the next morning.27 So they took off, flying primitive, single-engine planes on their first bombing missions, and quickly changed the tide of battle. Later, air attacks on the advancing Iraqi forces convinced them to stay put and not to continue into Israel.28

In all, some 3,500 people from around the world volunteered to come to Israel and helped with the war effort. Many, interestingly, were not Jewish. Some 190 of the volunteers served in the air force.29 Several of the pilots lost their lives in action. After the war, most of the Americans returned home. Others, though, decided that it was Israel that was home, stayed, and flew for El Al or worked in Israel’s aircraft industry.

Benny Morris notes that in addition to its military significance, this wave of volunteers helped Israelis understand that though they were outnumbered, they were not alone.30 It was a dramatic change in Jewish fate from the Holocaust and boosted the morale of the country significantly.

THE DESPERATE NEED FOR rearmament led to one of the most potentially catastrophic events of the war. On May 26, David Ben-Gurion had brought the Haganah out of “clandestine status” and declared in a simple one-page typewritten memo of twenty brief lines that it would now become the Israel Defense Forces, the official army of the new state of Israel. The memo also stipulated that no other armed groups would be permitted to operate. In what was an indication of both the degree to which the country was being stitched together day by day and the broad powers Ben-Gurion was taking for himself, the prime minister wrote, “Any action taken in accordance with this order shall be considered legal even if it contradicts another directive in an existing law.”31

Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin had reached an agreement that stipulated that Irgun members would enlist in the newly created IDF. Their arms and equipment, as well as installations for the manufacture of arms, would be turned over to the army. There would be no special Irgun units within army brigades, and separate purchasing activities would end. Ben-Gurion understood that if Israel were to be a legitimate state, it could not be home to competing militias.

Begin understood and agreed that the Irgun would cease operating as a distinct military unit within the State of Israel. Yet some of Begin’s Irgun fighters remained in beleaguered Jerusalem, which was not then technically part of Israel and therefore not governed by Begin’s agreement to fold his force into the IDF. With their ammunition running dangerously low, Begin was committed both to equipping his men, and more broadly, to doing whatever was possible to hold on to Jerusalem.

In the meantime, unbeknownst to Begin, the American arm of the Irgun—with which Begin had long been at odds—purchased an old ship and named it Altalena (the Italian word for “seesaw,” which had been Jabotinsky’s nom de plume as a journalist). The ship eventually docked in France; the French, hoping to curb British influence in the Middle East, donated munitions valued at 150 million francs (more than half a billion dollars in today’s currency).32 The arms loaded on the Altalena included 5,000 rifles, 250 Bren guns, 5 million bullets, 50 bazookas, and 10 light armored vehicles called Bren carriers. In addition to much-needed arms, some 940 immigrants, many of them survivors of the war, as well as some veteran members of the Irgun—including Yechiel Kadishai—also boarded the ship. Originally scheduled to reach Palestine by May 14, the ship departed late and sailed for Israel on June 11—the day the cease-fire banning the import of arms had gone into effect.

Begin was committed to upholding the truce and had not been informed of the ship’s departure. By the time he learned that it had sailed, the ship was very close to Israel’s territorial waters. He desperately tried to reach its captain, Eliyahu Lankin, to instruct him not to enter Israel’s territorial waters. But the communication equipment malfunctioned, and when Begin realized that there was nothing he could do to turn the ship around, he informed Ben-Gurion.

Ben-Gurion understood that the ship’s arrival would constitute a highly visible breach of the truce, but at the same time was loath to give up on such a desperately needed arms cache. The ship, which reached the Israeli shore on June 20, was ordered to sail to Kfar Vitkin (just north of Tel Aviv), where it was assumed UN observers might not see it. Yet there was no agreement between Ben-Gurion and Begin regarding what would happen with the arms. While Begin offered the vast majority to the IDF, he insisted on keeping 20 percent for his Irgun fighters, still struggling to hold out against the Jordanians in Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion dismissed the proposal out of hand. He feared that allocating any arms at all to the Irgun (even the Irgun in Jerusalem) would lend legitimacy to the idea of an army within an army.

News of the ship spread quickly, along with a rumor that Begin himself might appear on the beach at Kfar Vitkin. Irgun soldiers, anxious to meet the man who had been in hiding as they had been fighting under his command, deserted their units and made their way to Kfar Vitkin. This only confirmed Ben-Gurion’s suspicion that Begin was up to something nefarious, so the next day, he called a meeting of the cabinet. Ben-Gurion told his ministers—falsely—that Begin had hidden the Altalena plan until the ship was already at sea. His long-standing mistrust of Begin now governed everything he said and did. He said to his cabinet:

There are not going to be two States and there are not going to be two armies. And Mr. Begin will not do whatever he feels like. We must decide whether to hand over power to Begin or to tell him to cease his separatist activities. If he does not give in, we shall open fire.33

Yisrael Galili, the army’s chief of staff, ordered IDF pilots—many of whom were those Americans and other volunteers who had been Allied pilots during World War II—to strafe the ship. They refused. “We came here to fight for the Jews, not against the Jews,” they said.34

By this time, Begin had boarded the ship and had instructed the Irgun men to use the cover of darkness to begin unloading the cargo. Begin received an ultimatum to hand over all the weapons to the IDF, but did not respond to it; he later claimed that the ultimatum was thoroughly unrealistic and gave him virtually no time to respond.

A firefight broke out between the Haganah forces and those loyal to the Irgun. The Altalena pulled away from shore and sailed south, toward Tel Aviv, and—in full view of hotel guests and beachgoers, reporters and UN observers—ran aground and could not move. Suddenly, Palmach fighters on the beach (the Palmach were the most hostile to the Irgun; among their commanders was Yitzhak Rabin) fired on the Altalena. Irgun fighters returned fire. Jews had begun to fire on Jews. Barely five weeks old, the Jewish state was on the verge of civil war.

More cannon fire stuck the ship, still heavily loaded with ammunition. Throughout, Begin instructed his men not to return fire. The ship was hit and the munitions on board began to explode. Begin, still on board, gave the order to abandon the ship; though he wanted to stay until the very end, his men forced him off the ship and got him to shore. As he was making his way to shore, bursts of gunfire were directed in his direction; many of those present were convinced that the Haganah men were trying to kill Begin. Shortly after Begin left the ship, the remainder of the ammunition caught fire, and the ship exploded. IDF soldiers, no doubt deeply ambivalent about what was unfolding so soon after Israel had declared independence, leaped into the water to save the Altalena’s passengers.

Meanwhile, on shore, the fighting continued. With Haganah and Irgun soldiers shooting at each other, the beginnings of a Jewish civil war moved from the waters of the Mediterranean to the streets of Tel Aviv. There were casualties on both sides. But Begin had insisted that his men not fire on Jews, and men on both sides understood that Israel could not afford a civil war. The firing ended.

All told, factoring in the firefight in Kfar Vitkin, the death toll included sixteen men from the Irgun and three from the IDF. One of those killed was Avraham Stavsky, who had been charged with the 1933 murder of Chaim Arlosoroff but was later exonerated. He had been one of the passengers on the Altalena and died just off the beach where Arlosoroff had been killed fifteen years earlier.

Begin took to the airwaves and delivered a radio address to his Irgun community that lasted over an hour. He reiterated his claim that the Irgun had done nothing wrong, yet even so, he reminded his men time and again, “Do not raise a hand against a brother, not even today.” In what emerged as a refrain, he insisted that Jew not fight Jew, for “it is forbidden that a Hebrew weapon be used against Hebrew fighters.” “There must not be a civil war with the enemy at our gates!” he virtually shouted in his radio address.

Ben-Gurion, incensed, refused to allow the dead Irgun men a burial in Tel Aviv.

Begin was vilified by some for having imported the arms. Yet others praised him for his pivotal role in bringing the fighting to an end (just as he had refused to attack the Haganah during the Saison). He would later claim that his greatest contribution to Israel was his having averted all-out civil war. Ben-Gurion also remained defiant in the aftermath, insisting that he had saved the country from a militia’s uprising. The cannon that sank the Altalena, he insisted in a comment that was oft repeated, was so sacred that it deserved to “stand close to the Temple, if it is built.”35

It was only in 1965 that David Ben-Gurion admitted, following a government inquiry into the Altalena affair, “Perhaps I was mistaken.”36

More than anything else, what the Altalena came to represent in Israeli mythos was the understanding that for a state to be legitimate, all its military force had to be subject to the political echelon. In years to come, as Israelis watched Palestinian elected officials unable to rein in their multiple armed factions, they would say, “The Palestinians haven’t yet had their Altalena.”

THE NEXT PHASE of the war, which lasted only ten days, began with the resumption of fighting on July 8, 1948 (the cease-fire had been in effect for about a month). This phase of the conflict led to one of the war’s most controversial moments, including one battle still much discussed.

This battle, the battle for Lydda, has become emblematic in the “war of narratives” not only over Israel’s War of Independence but much of Israel’s history. “Great wars in history eventually became great wars about history,” wrote Michael Oren, a leading historian of Israel (and later Israel’s ambassador to the United States),37 and no country in the world has evoked a “war about history” as vociferous as the one still waging about Israel.

Why is that? As Oren notes, “The unusual ferocity of the debate over Arab-Israeli history is directly related to the singularly high stakes involved. The adversaries are not merely vying for space on university bookshelves, but grappling with issues that have a profound impact on the lives of millions of people: Israel’s security, the rights of Palestinian refugees, the future of Jerusalem.”38 Nor is this exclusively a battle of Israelis versus Arabs; among Israelis themselves, a group of scholars known as the “new historians” have sought at numerous turns to upend Israel’s mainstream narrative about the conflict. And they are unabashed about their aims. As Israeli Ilan Pappe—a member of this group—put it, the goal is to “reconsider the validity of the quest for a Jewish nation-state in what used to be geographic Palestine.”39

The war over history, then, is a war over Israel’s legitimacy, and therefore, over its future. It is thus not surprising that key moments in the War of Independence, and particularly those that contributed to the flood of Palestinian Arabs leaving Israel (a politically fraught issue to this very day), would become a key battleground between these various schools of historians.

Lydda is a case in point. Jerusalem, under Jordanian attack, was barely hanging on in the summer of 1948, and Ben-Gurion was now determined to open another road to the city. To do so, the military brass determined that it needed to capture Lydda, an Arab city of some twenty thousand inhabitants. Situated along the route from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Lydda’s population had grown dramatically due to Arab flight from other towns during the fighting. The Transjordanian Arab Legion also had an infantry company of some 125 soldiers stationed there; both the soldiers and armed locals had long been preparing for battle against the IDF.

That battle came in the form of Operation Dani. On July 11, Israeli troops attacked the town but were unable to subdue it entirely. Later in the evening, an additional battalion moved into the city, taking over both the town’s Great Mosque and the Church of St. George. The IDF ordered the population to report to the mosque and the church; soon, both structures were overflowing with people. According to most accounts, the Israeli troops later allowed the women and children to leave.

With about three hundred Israeli soldiers holding on to the city and fighters from the Arab Legion barricaded in the local police station to which they had retreated, a tense stalemate prevailed. The next day several more vehicles from the Arab Legion suddenly entered the city, spraying fire in all directions. Local fighters joined the renewed attack, firing at the Israelis from numerous buildings. Some of the sniping was coming from a smaller mosque in the city, from the top of which Arab snipers posed a deadly danger. The soldiers received an order to put an end to the Arab fire, and in the battle that ensued, Israeli forces fired an anti-tank grenade at the mosque. Though accounts differ, it is clear that there were many casualties.

Precisely how the fighting unfolded, how many Arabs died in the mosque and elsewhere, and how many of the dead were civilians remain the subjects of great debate. Some of the revisionist new historians have indicted the IDF’s conduct at Lydda. One well-known Israeli author, summarizing their views, contended that “in thirty minutes, at high noon, more than two hundred civilians are killed.”40 He continued accusatorially, suggesting that fault lay not only with the soldiers present but somehow with the larger movement of which they were a part, “Zionism instigated a human catastrophe in the Lydda Valley.”41

Many historians reject that revisionist conclusion categorically. In 2014, a highly regarded historian painstakingly reviewed archival evidence about the Lydda battle and demonstrated that the drive to upend Israel’s narrative led revisionist historians to push too far and to skid off the evidentiary tracks. In Lydda, he demonstrates, the number of dead was far lower than the revisionist accounts suggest and those killed were almost exclusively combatants. While people on both sides died, no massacre of the sort the new historians described had taken place.42

Interestingly, even Benny Morris, at one point a member of the new historians school and very critical of the classic Israeli narrative, does use the word massacre. Nonetheless, he insists, whatever happened at Lydda has to be understood in the larger context of the war and the ways in which Israeli and Arab combatants conducted themselves:

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.

True, the Jews went on to commit more than their fair share of atrocities; prolonged civil wars tend to brutalize combatants and trigger vengefulness. But this happened because they conquered 400 Arab towns and villages. The Palestinians failed to conquer even a single Jewish settlement—at least on their own. The one exception was Kfar Etzion, which was conquered on May 13, 1948 with the aid of the Jordanian Arab Legion, and there they committed a large-scale massacre.43

The War of Independence was a brutal war, a war of honor for the Arabs and a war of survival for the Jews. There were brutal acts on both sides; what Morris notes, though, is that on the Israeli side they were the exception. On the Arab side, he says, brutality was the rule.

When the battle in Lydda ended, the remaining Arab forces withdrew. The IDF and local Arab leadership reached an agreement that the population would leave the town and move to the east. Once again, fighting during the war had resulted in a long line of refugees leaving their homes. Shmarya Gutman, a Jewish archaeologist, witnessed the column of refugees and later recalled:

A multitude of the inhabitants walked one after another. . . . Women walked burdened with packages and sacks on their heads. Mothers dragged children after them. Occasionally warning shots were heard. Occasionally, you encountered a piercing look from one of the youngsters in the column, and the look said, “We have not yet surrendered. We shall return to fight you.”44

Everywhere one turned in the area, there were lines of devastated refugees. Jews were being pushed out of the Old City of Jerusalem. Arabs were fleeing Israel’s north by the tens of thousands. Shortly thereafter, hundreds of thousands of Jews who lived in North African Arab countries would flee, some expelled and others pushed out by mistreatment or the threat of violence. Ultimately, seven hundred thousand Jews would have to leave Arab lands—and make their way to the newly founded state. For Jews and Arabs alike, it was a period of horrific dislocation. The anger and the bitterness these mass movements of people were engendering would poison the region for decades to come.

ON NOVEMBER 19, 1948, Natan Alterman published a poem in Davar, the Histadrut newspaper, which he titled Al Zot (“For This”). The poem does not mention a specific incident; it may have been a reference to Lydda (though several months had elapsed and it would have been strange for him to wait so long to respond to that battle), some other incident he did not identify, or a general sentiment about the ugliness of war. He wrote of a young man, “a lion cub flexing,” on a jeep. He comes across an old man and woman, who out of fear, turn and face the wall along which they were walking. The boy smiles and says to himself, “I’ll try out the gun.” Then, says Alterman, “The old man just cradled his face in his hands, and his blood covered the wall.” While we do not know which specific incident Alterman was reacting to, we do know how the country’s leadership responded. Not only was Ben-Gurion not displeased with Alterman, he thanked him. Extraordinarily, even in the midst of the war, as soon as Ben-Gurion had read the poem, he wrote Alterman, saying:

My dear Alterman,

Congratulations—on the moral force and the expressive power of your most recent column in Davar. You have become the voice—a pure and loyal voice—for the human conscience. If that conscience is not active and does not beat in our hearts during these days—we will not be worthy of the achievements we have had thus far. . . . I am requesting your permission for the Ministry of Defense to reprint the column—no armed column in our army, even with all its weaponry, has [your poem’s] power—in one hundred thousand copies and to distribute it to every soldier in Israel.

With appreciation and with thanks,

  1. Ben-Gurion

Many people on both sides of the conflict suffered. What distinguished Israeli society then, though, and what would continue to characterize it in years to come was its almost compulsive tendency to self-critique. Still in its infancy, Israel was becoming a highly self-reflective society. Poets and politicians alike insisted that if Israel was to merit the independence it had recently achieved, it had to reflect the values of the tradition from which the dream of a Jewish state had emerged. That self-critical voice would become one of Israel’s great strengths in the decades to follow.

BETTER EQUIPPED because of the weapons they had clandestinely imported during the first truce and single-minded in their determination to survive, Israeli forces gradually consolidated their gains throughout the country. The United Nations then pushed for a second truce, which would take effect beginning on July 19—bringing to an end ten days of intense fighting.

Just as with the first truce, both sides hemmed, hawed, and eventually agreed; and just as with the first truce, both sides used the quiet as an opportunity to rearm and to bolster troops and fortify their positions. Even while they feverishly prepared for the next round of fighting, Israelis sensed that the tide of the war had shifted, that the conflict might soon be over, and that they would win. Reveling in the respite, they even staged Jerusalem’s first annual military parade on July 27, beginning a tradition that would continue for years.45

Meanwhile, the Arabs had begun to realize that the war to annihilate Israel had failed. They therefore set their sights on a new issue: the fate of the Arab refugees.

During the War of Independence, some seven hundred thousand Arabs fled their homes. Benny Morris has shown that the Arabs left for many different reasons. In Jaffa, Haifa, and other large cities and towns, urban society simply collapsed, particularly as the Arab leadership fled. In other cases, rumors of Jewish atrocities, the vast majority of them false, led Arabs to believe that fleeing was the only way to save their lives. In still other cases, Israel pushed Arabs out. Even Benny Morris understands that Ben-Gurion really had no choice. Ben-Gurion’s responsibility was to create a viable Jewish state. And, says Morris, Ben-Gurion “understood the demographic issue and the need to establish a Jewish state without a large Arab minority.”46 Nothing else would have been viable.

By the war’s end, these seven hundred thousand Palestinian refugees (almost precisely the number of Jews who would have to flee Muslim countries) had sought refuge in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Gaza. The Arabs pressed Count Bernadotte, still working on behalf of the United Nations to keep the warring sides apart, to make the issue of Arab refugees central to any resolution of the conflict.

The Israelis insisted that they would not discuss the refugees as long as the Arabs continued fighting in an effort to destroy the Jewish state. So the Arabs shifted their approach, insisting that there would be no peace talks until the issue of the refugees was resolved. Resolving the refugee problem would not be a goal of the negotiations that would follow, but rather, had to be a precursor to any talks. Essentially, this meant that the refugee problem would forever remain unaddressed. From Israel’s perspective, it seemed that rather than solving the problem of the refugees, Lebanon, Syria, and (to a lesser extent) Jordan chose to keep the refugees as an ace in their pocket. They would use this “asset” in future negotiations with the Zionist enemy—for even then, they were determined not to end the conflict until Israel no longer existed.

COUNT BERNADOTTE PRESSED ON, not only urging Israel to permit the refugees to return, but suggesting it relinquish the Negev, Jerusalem, the Haifa port (which would be internationalized), the international airport at Lydda (today, Ben-Gurion International Airport, Israel’s largest), and more. Not only was Bernadotte ignoring the fact that Israel was now winning, but his proposal actually took away land that had been assigned to Israel by the UN partition plan. That stance, for many Israelis, impugned any pretense that Bernadotte was a fair arbiter. He was, many felt, undeniably an enemy who was now clearly siding with Israel’s foes.

On September 17, 1948, four Lechi members, taking the matter into their own hands, donned IDF uniforms and assassinated Bernadotte, with the yet-unpublished draft of his plan in hand, in west Jerusalem. The international outcry was immediate, and Ben-Gurion was mortified. David Remez, minister of transportation and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, said “Since the crucifixion of Jesus we have not had such an accusation directed at us.”47 Ben-Gurion was determined to snuff out any remaining embers of the Irgun and the Lechi, and he convinced the cabinet to give him broad powers to end acts of terrorism, including administrative detention without trial. The era of the Jewish underground, important as it had been in uprooting the British, was now over.

BEN-GURION UNDERSTOOD THAT TIME was not on his side. He had mobilized half of Israel’s able-bodied male population and some of the women, and the conflict clearly could not go on endlessly. Yet there were still Syrian, Egyptian, and Jordanian forces in pockets of the land originally assigned to Israel under the partition plan, and Ben-Gurion wanted them out. So he pushed the IDF to establish control of those areas assigned to Israel, determined to bring the fighting to an end.

By the end of October, Syrian and Arab Liberation Army forces in the north were dislodged. By January 1949, the IDF had managed to push the Egyptians out of the portions of the Negev that had not been given to Israel in the partition plan—though Egypt held on to the Gaza Strip. (See Map 6.) The Jordanians, for their part, were also anxious for the war to be behind them. They and the Israelis had had an understanding to limit the scope of their fighting and to partition the land in such a way that the Jordanians would get the West Bank. No more battles were needed. The war was essentially over.

Some of Ben-Gurion’s generals wanted to take the West Bank of the Jordan River, frustrated that Israel had forfeited an opportunity to establish a secure natural frontier, but Ben-Gurion demurred. He had several reasons. The last thing Israel needed, he believed, was to control an even greater number of Arab civilians. As it was, Ben-Gurion was worried about those Arabs who remained in Israel. They were Israeli, because they had stayed inside the state, but the only thing that distinguished them at that point from Israel’s enemies on the other side of the line was that they had not fled, while their family members had. Ben-Gurion did not dare imagine that they yet had any loyalty to the new state.

Ben-Gurion was also concerned that the Americans would look askance on Israel taking more territory. No less important, Ben-Gurion chose not to conquer the West Bank because his mind had moved on to other challenges. He was, as Anita Shapira notes, “already immersed in the vital mission of bringing in masses of new immigrants and absorbing them.”48

THE ARABS WERE RETICENT to sign armistice agreements, because, their denials notwithstanding, signing any agreement with Israel meant admitting that the battle to destroy the Jewish state had been lost. Eventually, though, Egypt signed on February 24, 1949; Lebanon, on March 23; and Jordan on April 3. Syria was the last to sign, on July 20, 1949.

Israel had secured the victory that the U.S. State Department had said it could not, but it nonetheless emerged from the war badly battered. Some six thousand Israelis had been killed—one-quarter of them civilians. This amounted to nearly 1 percent of the fledgling state’s Jewish population. More than 500 women had been killed, 108 of them in military service.49 Percentage-wise, the Palestinian Arabs lost roughly an equivalent number—about 1 percent of the civilian population.

The biggest losers in the conflict were Palestine’s Arabs, who came to refer to this period as the Nakba, “the Catastrophe.” Some seven hundred thousand Palestinian Arabs were displaced by the war and thousands more died. It was a terrible human toll.

That so many Palestinian Arabs had to leave their homes was undeniably heartbreaking. And Israel had, without doubt, played a role in their displacement. At the same time, however, what turned the heartbreak into genuine human tragedy was the decision of their new host countries to deliberately perpetuate their homelessness to foment international condemnation of Israel. Maintaining the refugee status of the Palestinians who had entered their countries gave the Lebanese, Syrians, Jordanians, and Egyptians a card they were intent on playing as the conflict unfolded.

Israel did precisely the opposite with Jews who were homeless. When hundreds of thousands of Jews evicted from Arab countries reached Israel’s shores, the Jewish state granted them citizenship. One was a response of cynicism and manipulation, while the other was a commitment to peoplehood and a vision of a brighter future. Those differing responses made all the difference in what the future would hold for each population.

IN THE TWO YEARS that had passed since the UN vote on November 29, 1947, Israel had declared independence, had triumphed in a war that its Arab neighbors had initiated in order to destroy it and that many thought Israel could not survive, and had made tremendous progress on numerous fronts. Ben-Gurion, though, was anything but naive. He understood that the very existence of the Jewish state was anathema to Israel’s Arab neighbors, and he assumed—correctly—that they would simply regroup in order to attack once again. Eventually, the war was bound to resume.

For now, though, the prime minister put war out of his mind and turned his attention elsewhere. It was time to build a nation.

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