This is a cr0ss-post by Jacobinism
Lydda (now Ben Gurion) airport, captured by the IDF in 1948
At Mosaic magazine, a fascinating dispute recently concluded over an incident that took place during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. The cause of the trouble, at least in the first instance, was a chapter in Ha’aretz journalist Ari Shavit’s bestselling book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, which deals with the conquest of the Arab city of Lydda. More specifically at issue was Shavit’s description of what occurred there as a massacre, for which he held Zionism explicitly responsible.
For those unfamiliar with the story, a quick précis:
On 14 May 1948, as the last of the British forces withdrew, bringing the curtain down on Mandatory Palestine, Israel had declared its independence. The next day, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, refusing to recognise the new state, declared war and invaded from the south, east, and north, respectively. Only 3 years after the Holocaust had ended, a state created as a refuge for a persecuted nation found itself faced with an eliminationist – and possibly genocidal – war on three fronts.
On 11 July, as the war turned in Israel’s favour, Israeli forces approached the city of Lydda. The operational order of 26 June, codenamed Larlar, described their mission as follows:
To attack in order to destroy the enemy forces in the area of the bases Lydda-Ramla-Latrun-Ramallah, to capture these bases and by so doing to free the city of Jerusalem and the road to it from enemy pressure.
The battle for Lydda began with a charge of armoured vehicles during the course of which dozens of Arabs and nine Israeli soldiers were shot dead. The Arab irregulars stationed in Lydda, stunned by the ferocity of the raid, watched as Israeli forces took up positions in the town. The inhabitants were rounded up and ordered to report to the Great Mosque and the Church of St George where they were temporarily confined. It was assumed that Lydda had been taken and pacified.
The next day at noon, two Jordanian armoured cars entered the city, surprising the IDF. A firefight broke out and pandemonium erupted. Armed Arab irregulars, perhaps believing the Jordanian cars heralded further reinforcement, began to fire at Israeli soldiers, who were also reporting that grenades had been thrown from in or around a building known as the Small Mosque (distinct from the Great Mosque, where unarmed detainees were being held).
In response to the uprising, Israeli troops returned fire wildly, threw grenades into houses, and fired an anti-tank missile at the Small Mosque killing a large number of those inside. It was all over in 30 minutes. The IDF lost just four soldiers. The exact number of Arab casualties is disputed, but the losses are generally thought to be in three figures. Over the next 24 hours or so, the detainees were released and those Arab inhabitants of Lydda not already fleeing the city were expelled into the West Bank.
Part of the problem posed by Shavit’s handling of these events is that he’s dealing with history but approaching it as a journalist; this is a personal, emotional work, not a scholarly one. And because he’s therefore concerned with the demands and possibilities of narrative and style, complexities inevitably get collapsed into big symbols and themes.
Shavit has structured his book so that each chapter represents a particular historical event, movement, or development. Thus, the chapter on Lydda represents the 1948 war – the triumph of Zionism and the tragedy of Palestinian defeat and expulsion, encapsulating his book’s subtitle rather too neatly. It is partly for this reason, I suspect, that it was the chapter selected in advance of the book’s publication to appear in abridged form in the New Yorker. When the article appeared on 21 October 2013, it generated a great deal of attention and comment. So did the book when it was published a month later.
Shavit conceives of what happened at Lydda in grandiloquent, quasi-Biblical terms: ‘Zionism’ – the Jewish quest for self-determination in their historic homeland – is here personalised as a vengeful deity descending on Lydda, massacring its people, and smiting the city. But it is on the ashes of these crimes, Shavit insists, that Israel has built a democracy worth defending. His story of Zionism and Lydda, then, is one of sin and redemption; an experience in expiation.
Shavit loves his country but feels he must atone for 1948. He invites the reader – or rather, the Zionist reader – to join him in a display penitence for events which occurred nine years before his birth. The sins for which Shavit and his liberal Zionist audience want absolution are also of a Biblical nature – they are the sins inherited from previous generations and passed down from parent to child like a curse. Lydda, Shavit warns portentously, symbolises “our black box”, inside of which “lies the dark secret of Zionism”. As an Arab town at the very heart of Israel, he writes…
Zionism could not bear Lydda. From the very beginning, there was a substantial contradiction between Zionism and Lydda. If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be. If Lydda was to be, Zionism could not be.
The ugly truth, Shavit tells us, is that it was “Zionism” which “carrie[d] out a massacre in the city of Lydda”. Then, as tens of thousands of Arabs stream out of the city and into the Jordanian West Bank, he states: “Zionism obliterates Lydda”. Shavit’s use of the term “obliterates” is obviously figurative. But is his use of the term “massacre” intended to be figurative or literal? The casual mixture of the literal and the figurative makes it hard to tell. There were, however, no shortage of people happy to take him at his word without inquiring further. I was one of them.
But when Ari Shavit’s claim of a massacre at Lydda caught Israeli historian Martin Kramer’s sceptical eye, he decided to look into it. In July of this year, Mosaic magazine published the results of his investigations: a 9000 word essay, entitled What Happened at Lydda, in which Kramer methodically analysed Shavit’s version of events and found it wanting.
Unlike Shavit, Kramer’s first responsibility as a practising historian is not to good storytelling but to establishing what most probably happened. Kramer contends that what happened at Lydda was not a massacre but a battle, albeit a chaotic one with highly disproportionate losses to the Palestinian side. Damagingly, he unearths further testimony given by Shavit’s own interviewees that either contradicts or significantly complicates his version of events.
And, as Kramer invites us to notice, it turns out that Shavit’s omissions and elisions all point in the same direction and support the same narrative demands. This happy coincidence is unlikely to result from sloppy scholarship. Shavit is just doing what storytellers have always done: fashioning a story in his own way, so as to emphasise the themes he wishes to explore. But in so doing, Kramer argues, he had helped to further defame an already slandered state.
Ari Shavit, regrettably, declined to respond. So in the interests of furthering the discussion, Mosaic invited the historian Benny Morris to weigh in.
Morris is well-placed to comment. As a member of those Israeli scholars who became known as the ‘New Historians’, he has emerged as one of Israel’s leading authorities on the 1948 war, writing four books on the subject between 1988 and 2008, and editing a fifth.
The New Historians emerged following the declassification of large parts of the Israeli archives in 1978. This development prompted a surge of revisionist scholarship devoted, not just to updating the record, but to critically re-examining some of Israel’s most sensitive foundational myths. Some of what they wrote has since been rejected or updated; much of it has become a part of accepted consensus; other areas – like this one, apparently – remain fiercely disputed.
Furthermore, it is on Morris’s work that Shavit reveals he has relied for Lydda’s casualty figures and his description of what occurred there as “a massacre”. In his 2008 book, 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War, Morris summarised what happened at Lydda like this:
A firefight ensued, and the locals joined in, sniping from windows and rooftops. The jittery Palmahniks [Israeli soldiers] responded by firing at anything that moved, throwing grenades into houses and massacring detainees in a mosque compound; altogether, “about 250” townspeople died and many were injured, according to IDF records. [pp. 289-90]
Morris, however, declared himself unimpressed by Shavit’s account which, he wrote, “distorts in the grand manner”. And he rejected Shavit’s central contention that Zionism needed to be indicted. Lydda was not and is not Zionism’s black box.
But then, nor was Morris all that persuaded by Martin Kramer’s contribution, which he accused of trying to whitewash the Israeli crimes of massacre and expulsion. And he agreed with Shavit’s claim (derived, as it was, from Morris’s own writing) that “Lydda was the biggest massacre of the 1948 war”.
Thereafter, the debate sets Ari Shavit’s book aside and refocusses on trying to establish what actually occurred over 30 minutes in Lydda on July 12, 1948. From what I can tell the gaps between Kramer and Morris about the events themselves are fairly narrow. But the debate about numbers and testimony is complicated by mutual suspicion of a perceived agenda relating to how these events ought to be described.
Benny Morris is the sworn foe of euphemism. As a Zionist, he insists that Israel must be defended for what it is, not what we would like it to be, and that this requires historians to catalogue its crimes and mistakes with unsparing frankness.
Martin Kramer agrees that Israel should be defended for what it is. But what worries him is an overcorrection into dysphemism. Euphemism distorts reality by sanitising it and reducing argument to apologetics. Dysphemism – the substitution of a neutral term with a pejorative or inflammatory one – does the reverse; it distorts reality by poisoning it and reducing argument to invective.
And so, once the available facts had been disputed and discussed, the debate’s conclusion turned on a question of language. About half-way through their final exchange at Mosaic, entitled The Meaning of Massacre, almost as an aside, Benny Morris suddenly appears to concede the point:
Perhaps part of the problem stems from the meaning of the word “massacre.” Of course, all would agree that if you line up 100 civilians or unarmed POWs against a wall and shoot them, you have a massacre. But what occurred in Lydda was more complicated. A firefight with two Jordanian armored cars and sniping by armed townspeople provoked mass killing by a small IDF contingent that felt vulnerable and panicky: 300 to 400 men in the center of a town that they thought had surrendered (it hadn’t) and that contained tens of thousands of locals and refugees. And the Arabs were the ones who had started the war.
Here Morris defines “massacre” as I would understand it in this context: the deliberate mass killing of unarmed civilians or detainees. Since Morris acknowledges that this is not what happened in Lydda, that would appear to settle the matter. But he then stubbornly defends his use of the term anyway, only in a metaphorical sense – to covey recklessness and vastly disproportionate losses:
But whatever the extenuating circumstances, had IDF troops acted in such a manner today, given current legal and moral norms, they would most likely have been put on trial—by Israel. One can argue that one shouldn’t “judge” soldiers’ behavior in the past by today’s standards. Agreed. But this doesn’t change the fact that they committed a massacre.
This is a slippery defence, and its potential to mislead is large. When Morris writes in 1948 that Lydda witnessed “the massacring of detainees in a mosque compound”, it evokes lurid images of helpless men, women, and children being arbitrarily dragged from their houses and having their throats slit by rampaging soldiers. Morris’s use of the term “slaughter” during his debate with Kramer only reinforces this impression.
This obscure semantic dispute is important precisely because the rhetoric deployed against Israel has become so thick with abuse, that causal dysphemism is now central to the way the entire conflict is debated, reported, and discussed. In the most recent Gaza war, Israel was widely and routinely accused of committing “massacres”, the term often meant to reflect the disproportionate casualty figures, but understood by many to mean the deliberate mass murder of civilians. Thus is the picture created in the mind of the uninformed or hitherto neutral observer of a state which pitilessly liquidates innocents.
But to misapply the term to the War of Independence, as Kramer argues Shavit and Morris have done, is to concede something of even greater value to those who would delegitimise the very existence of the Israeli state: the notion that it was created in sin. Such people are not interested in Zionism’s redemption or liberal Zionists’ tormented confessions.
For Israel’s enemies, the only acceptable act of contrition would be the disestablishment of the whole rotten state. And to that end, if Israel’s sin is indeed original, it may legitimately be denied credit for any achievement and condemned twice over for every crime. This accusation is made explicit by a Zionist in Ari Shavit’s book: Zionism committed a massacre in Lydda, and it was a massacre without which Israel would not and could not have been created.
Massacres were sometimes committed during the 1948 war, of course. But in trying to ascertain how many, it is no more useful to re-describe a battle as a massacre than it is to whitewash a massacre as a battle. To do either creates not just a category confusion but also a moral one. And yet this confusion persists, in part, because it satisfies a peculiar need.
I find it interesting to note that, by Kramer’s account, those most effusive in their praise for Shavit’s book, and for the Lydda extract in particular, have not circulated his rebuttal. There are many possible reasons for this, but one of them, I suspect, is that Kramer’s analysis did not offer them the same easy but perverse satisfaction as Shavit’s account: the satisfaction of feeling good about feeling bad.
The entire discussion can be found collected into a single 36 page .pdf document here. It includes a contribution from historian Efraim Karsh, unmentioned above, which appeared in Mosaic after Kramer’s essay but before Morris’s first reply. I encourage those who have enjoyed this post to read the whole exchange. Aside from the issues at hand, seeing history debated this way is its own reward.