How the Deir Yassin Libel Helped to Create the Palestinian Refugee Problem

January 11, 2022 | Daniel Gordis
About the author: Daniel Gordis is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem and the author of the ongoing online column, Israel from the Inside.

In March 1948, units of the Leḥi and Irgun—Zionist militias in competition with the Haganah—seized the Arab village of Deir Yassin in an effort to relieve the siege of Jerusalem. Tales of the conquerors’ brutal behavior spread rapidly, encouraging other Arabs to flee their homes. While some of the more lurid tales were soon disproved, conventional wisdom—embraced by serious historians—states that, after fierce and chaotic fighting, poorly trained and panicked Jewish soldiers opened fire at private residences, leaving about 100 dead, including many civilians. But a recent book, now available in English, tells a very different tale. Daniel Gordis writes:

Eliezer Tauber, a former dean at Bar-Ilan University and an expert on the formation of Arab nationalism, has taken on the Deir Yassin story with painstaking attention to detail unmatched by any other study. Tauber’s conclusion is [that there] was no massacre, . . . but a hard-fought battle in which Palestinian combatants stationed themselves in residences and among families. Using both Arab and Jewish testimony from combatants on both sides and survivors of the “massacre” (testimony which often offered almost identical accounts), he was able to account for the circumstances of almost every Palestinian death in the village. With a handful of exceptions which he does not seek to paper over, virtually all those killed were killed as part of fighting—either because they were combatants, or because they were situated near combatants.

For the most part, he says, “people in Deir Yassin were killed, not massacred.” That distinction, of course, is critically important, particularly given the high-profile role Deir Yassin continues to play in oft-made claims about Israel’s having been “born in sin.”

As Gordis explains, this is not a mere case of random historical error, but of something more sinister. Immediately after the battle, rumors spread, first among Arabs and then among Jews, that the Irgun and Leḥi fighters had sexually assaulted villager en masse. These reports have long since been discredited, but shine light on a different truth:

If the accusations of rape were false, and those who were present knew that they were concocted, how did the false claims come to be so widely believed? The Palestine Broadcast Service, Tauber shows, was instructed to say that there had been rapes, mutilation of bodies, murders, and more. The [radio station] complied, and given the source, many people believed the claims without question. . . . That was what led the Arab population to flee.

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