The entry of historians into the debate over Ari Shavit’s Lydda chapter, in his bestselling book My Promised Land, constitutes progress. Efraim Karsh and Benny Morris, who for decades have been in almost continuous dispute over the events of 1948, seem to have converged in opposition to Shavit’s turning the July 1948 events in Lydda into the “black box” of the 1948 war and of Zionism. In response to my essay, Karsh writes: “Lydda was one of the very few exceptions that proved the rule, not—as Shavit argues—the rule itself.” And Morris concurs: Shavit “defined ‘Lydda’ as the key to Zionism. Well, it isn’t and it wasn’t. . . . Lydda wasn’t representative of Zionist behavior.”
But that’s where the convergence over Lydda ends. Karsh congratulates me for “putting to rest the canard of an Israeli massacre of Palestinian Arab civilians in that city in July 1948.” Morris condemns me for “effectively denying” that the expulsion of the city’s inhabitants “was preceded by a massacre, albeit a provoked one.”
It would have been quite an accomplishment to put to rest the “massacre” claim or “effectively” disprove it. My purpose was more modest. I sought to plant a seed of doubt regarding Shavit’s baroque narrative of it, using the same range of oral sources he used. This I believe I have done, and as long as Shavit remains silent, that seed of doubt should grow.
In the New Yorker abridgment of his Lydda chapter, Shavit invokes Benny Morris as his source. (Morris isn’t mentioned in the book, but the magazine’s fact-checkers apparently demanded a published source for the “massacre” claim.) And indeed, Shavit’s account ultimately rests on the foundation laid by Morris. Morris’s narrative of the “massacre” is austere in comparison to Shavit’s, because Morris claims he never resorts to oral testimony to establish a fact, only to add “color.” But his own paternity of the “massacre” trope can’t be denied, even if he is repelled by the way Shavit has framed Lydda as a litmus test of Zionism. That being the case, in my remarks here I’ll focus on Morris in lieu of Shavit, who has not deigned to respond to my essay.
As Morris himself admits, not a single contemporary Israeli document makes any mention whatsoever of the events of July 12, 1948 at the Dahmash mosque: the “small mosque” that was supposedly the scene of one Israeli massacre. What Morris calls the “crystal-clear” documentary proof of a wider “massacre” on the same day is an Israeli military summary of the fighting that lists “enemy casualties” at 250 versus four Israeli dead. According to Morris, “this disproportion speaks massacre, not ‘battle.’” And that’s it. On this slim reed rests Morris’s claim not only that there was a “massacre” at Lydda but that it was the “biggest massacre” of the 1948 war.
The claim is particularly audacious, given that Morris has made mistake after mistake over the years in assembling his narrative. In the first edition (1988) of his book on the 1948 Palestinian refugees, he claimed that “dozens of unarmed detainees in the mosque and church compounds in the center of the town were shot and killed.” In fact, none of the unarmed detainees in the Great Mosque and the Church of St. George was harmed during the fighting. Morris seemed not to know that there was another mosque, the Dahmash or “small” mosque, which was the locus of fighting—something any Palmah veteran of the battle could have told him, or that he could have learned by carefully rereading the account by Lydda’s military governor, Shmarya Gutman, published way back in November 1948.
Later, after learning of his error, Morris shifted the locus of the “massacre” to the small mosque (whose name he couldn’t pronounce properly, to judge from his spelling of it: Dahaimash). But he began referring to those inside it as “POWs,” in which case they all would have been men, under stiff armed guard. In his response to me, he now allows that they included some women and children, and admits that it’s “unclear” whether they were even detainees.
Given this patchy record, it’s hard to regard Morris as a meticulous investigator of the Lydda “massacre.” His interest in Lydda has centered instead upon the flight of its inhabitants—and, specifically, who ordered that flight—and it’s therefore not surprising that he steers his response in Mosaic back to that well-worn subject. It wasn’t my focus, but I’ll touch upon it later.
First, to the matter of the small mosque. Morris writes that I “more or less justify the soldiers’ behavior [in striking the small mosque] by citing the veterans’ testimony that grenades were thrown at them from the mosque.” He then effectively accuses the soldiers either of returning fire recklessly or of altogether imagining the grenade attack. Morris seems to think that not a single soldier is credible. After all, he writes, “they would say that [grenades were thrown], wouldn’t they, after the bodies of dozens of men, women, and children were subsequently peeled off the walls?” (Thus, by borrowing from the stock of presumably unreliable oral testimony, does Morris add dark red “color.”)
So let me adduce still more testimony for the grenade attack, this time from an entirely different direction. As it happens, the Palestinian narrative of Lydda also has a grenade thrown at the Israelis from inside or nearby the small mosque. Indeed, Palestinians even preserve the name of the supposed grenade-thrower: Jamil Haroun. Here is Reja-e Busailah, a refugee from Lydda and blind poet who became a professor of English in Indiana: “It is said that Jamil Haroun threw a grenade at a group of Jewish soldiers, killing several, and then ran for shelter into the mosque.” The wife of the Lydda resident who claimed to have been forced to remove the bodies from the small mosque told a similar story: “There was a young man named Jamil Haroun, who threw a grenade on an army vehicle when it was parked in what is now Palmah Square,” where the small mosque stands. And Jamil Haroun is also named, by the Palestinian chronicler Aref al-Aref in his list of 1948 war casualties, as having been “killed with those killed in the mosque” on July 12.
Morris now writes the following about what happened inside the small mosque: “One can assume that something very nasty did occur there, since both Jewish and Arab oral testimonies agree on this.” Well, it seems that both Jewish and Arab oral testimonies agree that something nasty happened outside the mosque: a grenade attack on Israeli soldiers. If the convergence of oral testimonies is your standard for making assumptions, then you should at least be consistent.
As I showed in my essay, there’s plenty of testimony from Israeli soldiers who entered the small mosque—evidence used neither by Shavit (which is inexcusable) nor by Morris (which is no more than one would expect). And as I showed, the soldiers were shocked by what they saw inside the building. Here is another witness, Hanan Sever, who reached the mosque after the events: “When I entered, a grim scene unfolded before my eyes. The mosque was full of bodies. There were old people and children, men and women, all of them cast about dead in a jumble, in groups or singly, one atop another. There were 30 bodies there. Maybe more.”
No one disputes that the result was tragic, and the Israeli eyewitnesses say so themselves. But the accidental killing of civilians in war doesn’t constitute “massacre.” Nor can Morris produce evidence of a deliberate targeting of innocents in the small mosque. “In my long study of the Israeli-Arab conflict,” he has written, “and, specifically, the 1948 war, my experience has been that wherever there was smoke, there was fire: almost invariably, a document surfaces corroborating oral traditions of massacre.” Yet here we are, 66 years later, and there’s not a single document regarding the small mosque.
Why? Morris’s answer is conspiracy. He insinuates that Israeli officers made sure to omit the small mosque “massacre” from their reports. “None of [the documents] mentions the mosque incident,” acknowledges Morris, who then hisses: “Perhaps those who wrote them knew why.” Thus does Morris’s argument become absurdly circular: a document would prove a negligent or deliberate “massacre,” but to all intents and purposes, so does the absence of a document. In fact, however, all we have is the testimony of the Israeli soldiers, who claim to have returned fire at enemy fire. Anything else is speculation.
As for a wider “massacre” on July 12, Morris finds his sole documentary evidence in a military report of the day’s fighting, which lists 250 enemy casualties against four Israelis. According to Morris, “this disproportion speaks massacre, not ‘battle.’”
If that were true, then a whole range of recent Israeli (and American) military actions would qualify as massacres. Consider, for example, “Cast Lead,” Israel’s 2008 operation against Hamas in Gaza. What should one call the deaths of 1,166 Palestinians (the official Israeli estimate) in that operation, weighed against thirteen Israeli dead (four from friendly fire)? Indeed, how should one describe Israel’s current military operation in Gaza, “Protective Edge?” Or, for an American example, should the Battle of Mogadishu (of “Black Hawk Down” fame) be renamed a massacre? There, about 500 Somalis died; the American toll: eighteen.
Even this cursory list highlights the absurdity of claiming that “disproportion speaks massacre.” Disproportion poses a question, but it doesn’t answer it. That’s the role of the historian, who then looks beyond the disproportion at circumstances and context.
Then there is the figure of 250 itself: the prime piece of evidence on which the “massacre” edifice rests. In the first edition of his book on the 1948 refugees, Morris claimed that this figure, “while a general estimate, was given in contemporary military dispatches and had no political or propagandistic intent or purpose.” The naïveté of this statement is stunning. The late Israeli general Yehoshafat Harkabi, a battalion commander in 1948 who became a university professor, wrote this about the 1948 war:
Neither the Arabs nor we had numbers and estimates regarding Arab losses that had any reasonable approximation of certainty. True, we had estimates based on commanders’ assessments of the results of battles. But these were unreliable: at times, the fighters were liable to exaggerate enemy losses.
The historian Itamar Radai, in his just-published history of the 3rd Battalion, writes that the basis for the Lydda estimate is unclear, and adds: “During the War of Independence, the number ‘250’ sometimes was a symbolic figure, representing a large number of killed. The best-known case was Deir Yassin, in which all sides, each for its own purpose, adopted the number of 254 killed. . . . It later became clear that the number of killed at Deir Yassin was about 100.”
As the Tel Aviv University historian Anita Shapira has noted, the figure of 250 enemy killed at Lydda was “a very high number of fatalities compared to previous battles.” This has rendered it suspect. The Hebrew University scholars Avraham Sela and Alon Kadish have concluded that “any attempt to calculate ‘actual’ numbers of casualties in Lydda would be futile.” Unfortunately for Morris, his entire argument for a broader “massacre” rests on this one “statistic,” the accuracy of which it is impossible to ascertain.
Unlike the “massacre,” at any rate, the battle between Israeli troops and local fighters is attested by a contemporary document, which Morris himself added to the revised version (2004) of his book on the refugees. It’s a message from the Yiftah brigade to overall HQ of the operation, on the afternoon of July 12: “Battles have erupted in Lydda. We have hit an armored car with a two-pounder [gun] and killed many Arabs. There are still exchanges of fire in the town. We have many wounded.” That perfectly evokes what in my Mosaic essay I call “a battle with two sides.” Yet while Morris added the Yiftah brigade message in the revised edition, he didn’t alter his interpretation of the events by one iota. Just as a reminder to him: an image of the message appears at this link.
Lydda was no fishing village or mountain hamlet. It was a market city with an important church, immediately adjacent to the country’s railway hub and airport, and its conquest made headlines in Israel, the Arab countries, and the West. There were plenty of eyes and ears in Lydda. Two “embedded” journalists, Keith Wheeler of the Chicago Sun-Times and Kenneth Bilby of the New York Herald Tribune, entered the city on July 12, accompanied by Yigal Allon’s aide Yeruham Cohen, and had to take cover on Lydda’s main street when gunfire broke out. (Cohen remembered “small, uncoordinated battles in various corners of the city.”) The professional photographer Boris Carmi took a portrait of a smiling Yiftah-brigade soldier right outside the Dahmash mosque. Yitzhak Sadeh, then commander of the 8th brigade, invited two poets, Natan Alterman and Yaakov Orland, to tour Lydda while there were still bodies in the streets. (Alterman declined.) Aside from the hundreds of officers and soldiers of the Yiftah brigade who captured the city, hundreds more from the Kiryati brigade replaced them a day after the fighting.
That the “largest massacre” of the 1948 war could have occurred in this place and in these circumstances, and not generate a single document, contemporary press report, or photograph, defies belief. Were some innocents killed, either in the crossfire or by jittery or undisciplined or even rampaging soldiers? Mula Cohen, commander of the Yiftah brigade, said (in a quote that I included in my essay) that there were “deviations” that day but no “mass killing.” No one has yet proved otherwise.
Scattered atrocities don’t add up to a massacre (a distinction drawn by Morris himself in his analysis of an alleged “massacre” at Tantura), and neither do the unintended deaths of bystanders in the midst of firefights. Documents may surface one day casting the episode in another light; so far, they haven’t.
Morris also claims that I “obfuscated or elided” the July 11 shock-and-awe sprint along the fringes of Lydda and Ramleh by Moshe Dayan’s 89th Battalion. (A strong case has been made that this column didn’t enter Lydda, but only skirted it.) The contemporary account of who died was given by the “embedded” reporter Kenneth Bilby: “The corpses of Arab men, women, and even children were strewn about in the wake of this ruthlessly brilliant charge.” In My Promised Land, Shavit cuts out the men (that is, those who could be fighters), and writes this: “More than a hundred Arab civilians are shot dead—women, children, old people.” Apparently, the New Yorker’s fact-checkers doubted the accuracy of this sentence, including the fatality count (Morris in his book 1948 and in his Mosaic response writes “dozens”), so the magazine version of Shavit’s chapter reads thus: “Dozens of Arabs were shot dead, including women, children, and old people.”
Notice how this event gets bargained down on the way from book to magazine: “more than a hundred” becomes “dozens,” and the shooting of women, children, and old people now just “includes” women, children, and old people. A “massacre”? Even Shavit doesn’t call it that, saving the word for the events of the following day, July 12. At one time, Morris too wasn’t so certain about how to describe this episode. In his original book on the refugees, he provided not a single detail about the raid except to say that it “dented” Arab civilian morale and the will to resist. In the revised edition, he wrote that Dayan’s maneuver “combined elements of a battle and a massacre.” In his response to me, Morris now calls it “a mass killing of townspeople.” A massacre is born.
But there’s a reason this famous raid hasn’t gone down in Israeli history as a “massacre” or “mass killing.” It’s largely because Dayan’s column, operating in hostile enemy territory, charged through a rain of enemy fire and lost nine men and many vehicles along the way. There’s also doubt as to how many people the column killed. The late Elhanan Orren, who wrote the detailed military history of this front, concluded that the enemy casualty figures of between 100 and 150 given in Dayan’s own report were “very exaggerated,” and that the raid “did not cause heavy losses to the enemy.”
The toll of Arab dead from Dayan’s raid isn’t even mentioned in more recent scholarship like Mordechai Bar-On’s biography of Dayan and Anita Shapira’s study of Yigal Allon. So Morris’s accusation of obfuscation and elision must apply to those two historians as well. If they concede that Dayan committed a massacre at Lydda, I’ll reconsider.
One thing seems certain, however. Contrary to Morris (in his revised refugee book), the famed poet Natan Alterman did not compose his poem Al Zot, condemning the killing of innocent Arabs as war crimes, in reaction to Dayan’s raid. The foremost authorities on Alterman, and most recently his biographer Dan Laor, insist that the poem was inspired by the wanton killing of Arab civilians in the village of Al-Dawayima, west of Hebron, in October 1948. Al Zot has sometimes been adduced (by Morris but not by Shavit) as indirect evidence for brutal conduct at Lydda. It shouldn’t be.
Finally, Morris accuses me of “whitewashing and/or ignoring the expulsion” of Lydda’s inhabitants. I don’t know why: the subject of my essay was the “massacre,” not the “expulsion.” I suppose this is a maneuver so that Morris can repeat here, yet again, his much-contested claim that an order to expel came from David Ben-Gurion himself. Shavit, in his book, echoes that claim: “Yigal Allon asks Ben-Gurion what to do with the Arabs. Ben-Gurion waves his hand: Deport them.”
As usual, things are never as simple as Shavit portrays them. One leading Israeli historian has argued that Ben-Gurion never “waved” orders, and might just as well “have waved his hand to get rid of a fly.” The entire question has been hotly debated among Israeli historians for decades. I’ll simply refer readers to the contrary view, most thoroughly elaborated by Ben-Gurion’s biographer Shabtai Teveth.
In reading through the oral testimony, I was impressed by an aspect of the Lydda flight that that both Morris and Shavit seem to have elided or ignored. A large portion of the Arab population in Lydda in July 1948 wasn’t from Lydda, but consisted of refugees from Jaffa and villages to the west. “There were masses of refugees there,” recalled the military governor, Shmarya Gutman, in a 1988 film interview. “I could determine the names of all the villages from the region that had fled to Lydda. It was possible to estimate the number. The impression was that in the city, where there should have been 12,000 people, there were about 35,000.”
Reja-e Busailah, in his memoir of the events, reports numbers almost twice as large, but in the same rough proportion of residents to refugees: “Originally we had numbered from 20,000 to 25,000. We grew to from 60,000 to 65,000 by the time the town fell.” These outsiders “had settled on the sidewalks and under the olive trees.”
Those refugees, having already fled their homes to escape the Jews, didn’t need encouragement to flee again. A safe road leading east was enough, and that road opened when the Arab Legion abandoned the Lydda police station. Gutman remembered that when he announced to the inhabitants of Lydda that they could leave, “they were so happy. In any case, there were [already] refugees there. Why be refugees in hell? They would be refugees in a safer place.”
As for the residents, there is testimony that many fled believing they would return in victory. Buseilah recalls the reaction of some (perhaps most) to Gutman’s announcement that they were free to leave:
The oldest male among us finally went out and came back shortly. He was joyous, bubbling almost. Salvation had come. They were going to let us go. And we should go, else they would kill us all. . . . We should return very shortly. It will not take the Arab armies long before they drive them out of Lydda and Ramle, out of Jaffa and beyond. In a matter of weeks, if not days, we should be back. Most believed this, in the face of the new reality.
So the word “expulsion” cannot suffice to describe everything that happened in Lydda. There was also self-propelled flight.
I repeat: I can’t construct an absolutely certain narrative of the events in Lydda on July 12, 1948. There are too many gaps and contradictions in the record. But with a little digging, I’ve had no trouble casting doubt on Shavit’s stick-figure dramatization and Morris’s smug assertions.
Why does it matter?
“Zionism carries out a massacre in the city of Lydda.” Shavit’s repellent statement, derided even by Morris, is part of the answer to why it matters. There are those who claim that Israel came into being through massacre, which Zionism facilitated and legitimated. Today it’s possible to take a “Nakba” tour of Lydda (now called Lod). There, one will be told by the Arab guide that what transpired in the town, from massacre through expulsion, was part of a “systematic policy,” and therefore “an action of Zionism.” How systematic? Here is a Palestinian professor whose institute collects oral testimonies:
There was a brain behind the massacres, call it a master plan, call it an outline, because there is a pattern to the killings, and a logic to this pattern. After working in different archives, my picture is that Palestine in 1948 was a theater of Israeli massacres, a continuous show of Palestinians massacred, of killings and destruction, and of psychological warfare.
In this narrative, the “original sin” of Israel’s birth wasn’t expulsion. The Palestinians wouldn’t have fled their homes had there not been repeated and planned massacres, which have since been sealed up in “black boxes.” Lydda stands as the prime example.
“Disproportion speaks massacre, not ‘battle.’” This equally repellent statement, by Morris, is just as defamatory of Israel as Shavit’s. On Morris’s principle, every occasion on which Israel exacts a numerically “disproportionate” cost in the lives of others—as it often must do, if it is to deter and defeat its enemies—constitutes evidence of massacre; to sustain its very existence, Israel must massacre again and again, decade after decade. There are those who busily quantify and tabulate just that allegation. “Since January 2005,” we may read in the latest such exercise, “the conflict has killed 23 Palestinians for every one Israeli it claims.” Israel thus can never be legitimate; it is a perpetual war crime, on an ever-larger scale. So saith the “disproportion.”
Shavit and Morris thus validate the argument for Israel’s dismantlement. As anyone familiar with their politics knows, that is not their intent. Israel is precious to both of them, and they call themselves Zionists. But at an earlier point in their lives, they became habituated to ripping events from their context, which was the hallmark of what was once called the “new history.” Their treatment of Lydda is a relapse into a past addiction, which consists of simplification, exaggeration, and decontextualization—in short, the very behavior displayed by those now addicted to hatred of Israel.
The other day, someone posted a video clip from Lod (Lydda). It shows a demonstration by Arab residents (who comprise about a quarter of the town’s population) and possibly some Jews, in Palmah Square, alongside the small mosque. The demonstrators, waving Palestinian flags, are protesting against “Protective Edge,” Israel’s operation in Gaza. They carry a large banner with this message: “Stop the massacre in Gaza.”
At the site of one presumed “massacre,” yet another is presumed. This is how myths evolve into a mythology. And that is why it’s so important to recognize that even in Lydda, supposed site of the “largest massacre” of 1948, we just can’t be certain there was a “massacre” at all.
Martin Kramer is president of Shalem College in Jerusalem and past director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.