The Story of an Ancient People
By Leonard Beder
Published by Zion Press
Cover design by David Wolvek
Text and web design by David Wolvek
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To Jacob, Sam and Jonah
1 The Patriarchs
2 Israel in the Land
3 Under Greek and Roman Rule
4 The Rise of Christianity
5 The Age of Islam
6 Life in the Middle-Ages
7 The Wandering Jew
8 The Dawn of Emancipation
9 The Beginning of American Jewry
10 Herzl and Political Zionism
11 The Forerunners
12 The Balfour Declaration
13 Resettling the Land
14 The Struggle For Independence
15 Partition in Jeopardy
16 The Making of an Army
17 Israel's survival Hangs in the Balance
18 A Pause in the Fighting
19 Ten Days That changed the Course of the War
20 The U.N.'s Failed Peace Plan
21 War Comes to an End
The story of the emergence of the Israelites opens in a twilight
comes down to us in a form somewhere between fact and myth. What we know
for certain is that history began in a part of the world dominated by two great
river basins: the Nile and the Tigris - Euphrates. Around these flowing giants,
great societies emerged which were independent of the anxious droughts common
to other parts of the Middle East. Those who lived in Mesopotamia
(today's Iraq) and Egypt were endowed with an abundance of food, grown in
lush green valleys, and were spared the drudgery of a nomadic existence, in
which whole families roamed from place to place in search of water and pasture.
With their basic needs provided by nature, the peoples of Mesopotamia
were free to pursue activities of their own choosing. They became potters, jewelsmiths,
sculptors, woodworkers, cattle breeders, fishermen, scribes, priests,
scientists, and politicians. Farming communities grew into market towns and
later into city-states. A sophisticated numbering system gave precision to life
and thought. Irrigation canals extended the amount of land available for cultivation
and lofty temples were erected to their many gods.
The golden age of Babylonian culture reached its zenith during the reign
of King Hammurabi, two thousand years before the current era. Hammurabi
gave himself the exalted title "King of Babylon, Sumer, and Akkad and the
four quarters of the world." His military achievements and the prosperity he
brought to his people were exceeded only by his formulation of a legal code
based on Semitic law which comes down to us in a well-preserved statue discovered
in 1901 and now on display at the Louvre in Paris. Hammurabi
described his reign with pride and uncommon brevity for a statesman: "Lasting
water I provided for the land of Sumer and Akkad. Its separated peoples I united.
With blessing and abundance I endowed them.
As best we know, Abraham,the patriarch of the Jewish people, was born
during the reign of Hammurabi. Mesopotamia had already experienced many
centuries of stable, national life and the Hebrews, as members of this society,
were steeped in its culture, including paganism. Abraham's father, Terah, had a
workshop where he produced idols and it was Abraham's job, as a boy, to provide
them with food and water. We know from the Bible that Terah took his
household, including Abraham, on a journey to the land of Canaan, but paused
in Haran and remained there "And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son
of Haran his son's son, and Sarah his daughter-in-law, his son Abram's wife;
and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldea to go into the land of
Canaan; he came to Haran and dwelt there"
Abraham, from an early age, questioned his father's religious practices. He
brooded long over the meaning of worshipping objects which man himself
chiseled out of stone and carved from wood. "They have mouths, but they
speak not. They have ears, but they hear not. Noses have they, but they smell
not. They have hands, but they handle not. Feet have they, but they walk
not."His agonizing over the meaning of life and the riddle of man's destiny led
Abraham to a concept of God and the universe that was revolutionary. It centered
on a God that was invisible to the human eye and unfathomable to the
human mind. It rejects idolatry and assumes the universal rule of one God - a
supreme being who acts with a moral purpose and whose outstanding quality
is goodness. A God that walks with man and intervenes in his daily affairs.
Abraham's God would say to him: "Walk before me and be thou perfect" and
while the specifics came later at Mount Sinai, the Israelites, by rejecting idolatry
in favor of the one invisible God created a unique reconciliation of ethics
It was in Haran that God spoke to Abraham for the first time: "Now the
Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred,
and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will show thee. And I will make
of thee a great nation. And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that
curseth thee and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. So Abram
departed, as the Lord had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him: And Abram
took Sarah his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their substance they had
gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth, to
go into the land of Canaan".
Effigy of an Akadian King
Circa 2000 BCE
The history of the Jews begins with Abraham's departure from the land of
his birth. It is the story of a simple people and their God. It has none of the
heroism and splendor of the Greeks and the Romans. The story of the
Patriarchs reflects an attitude in which combat and hostility are secondary to a
yearning for tranquility - where the common greeting among men is Shalom -
peace. Canaan, to which Abraham had ventured, was part of a region known as
the Fertile Crescent - a description which grossly exaggerates its few qualities.
For every square foot of greenery there were countless depressing acres of sand
and rock. It was a land that offered little more than a meager existence to
nomadic families destined to live a pastoral life.
In Canaan we find Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob moving about between a
semi-settled urbane life in Jerusalem, Hebron, Beersheba, and Gerar - and
watering places in between. Their life is neither completely sedentary nor totally
nomadic. A strong sense of kinship underlies their family and tribal life -
welded together by their faith in the Almighty.
We learn from the biblical narrative how the Israelite family evolved as
nation on foreign soil. Abraham's grandson, Jacob, had twelve sons who would
form the twelve tribes of Israel. The tribal community was torn by feud.
Joseph, out of jealousy is sold by his brothers to a passing caravan of traders
and taken off to Egypt. A famine in Canaan sends his brothers down south in
their turn. By then, unknown to the brothers, Joseph becomes a favorite of
Pharaoh's for his talent as an interpreter of dreams. He tells Pharaoh that Egypt
would face seven years of drought and advises him to store away the surplus
from seven abundant years to cover the seven years of famine that would follow.
The brothers appear in Egypt seeking food and locate Joseph. After a
reunion, filled with emotion, Joseph orders his brothers back to Canaan to
return with their father Jacob and the brothers do as they are told. And so, in
the middle of the second millennium BCE, the Children of Israel, settled precariously
in the land of Goshen, secure in the sheltered existence of an agricul-
tural life - far from the anxious droughts of Canaan. They arrived as free men
and ended up oppressed slaves in flight from tyranny and persecution.
Making allowances for the picturesque details in the biblical story we
know from other sources that the general outline is entirely feasible. Once a
year the Nile would overflow her banks to bring fertility and a plentiful harvest.
This enabled Egypt to produce a large surplus of food well beyond her
own needs and making her the breadbasket of the ancient world.
The famine that struck in Canaan attracted others to Egypt. We know that
the Hyksos, a Semitic tribe, overran Egypt in the seventeenth century. Since
they too were foreigners and Semitic it is reasonable to assume that they were
tolerant of the Israelites with whom they shared a remote kinship. In contrast,
Hebrews and Egyptians lived in an uneasy relationship, each considering the
other barbaric for different reasons. The Israelites disapproved of the Egyptian
deification of the man Pharaoh while Egyptians frowned on shepherds as
belonging to a lower class. The Bible tells us that even when Joseph held a high
position in Pharaoh's court: "the Egyptians might not eat bread with the
Hebrews; for that were an abomination unto the Egyptians". But so long as the
Hyksos ruled Egypt, the Israelites were secure in a land where food was abundant
and they were in no hurry to return to Canaan with its uneven harvests.
The Book of Exodus portrays the collapse of Israelite security under the
tyrannical rule of a Pharaoh (most likely, Ramses II) one of the greatest
builders of all time.
And Joseph died, and all his brethren, and all that generation.
the Children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and
multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled
with them. Now there arose up a new king over Egypt which knew
not Joseph. And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the
Children of Israel are more and mightier than we therefore, they did
set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And
they built for Pharaoh the treasure cities, Pithom and Ramses.
Taken away from their homes in Goshen and pressed into forced
there arose a leader among the Israelites who would lead them out of bondage,
become the father of Israel's nationhood, and give structure to the Jewish religion.
This carved relief created during the time of Ramesses
II shows a Hebrew, a
Black and an Asian being sacrificed to the Egyptian God Ammon
Moses was the product of Egyptian life and culture. Although
brought up in an Egyptian royal household, he was aware of his Hebrew ancestry
and identified with his people. Their suffering and humiliation affected him
deeply and led him to confront the Pharaoh over their dreadful condition: - "let
my people go" - and eventually led them out of Egyptian bondage and into the
bright light of freedom.
While not an eloquent speaker and inhibited by a speech defect,
organized the uncertain tribes into a force willing to place their faith in him and
defy their Egyptian masters. He appealed to their dim but unbroken memory of
their homeland in Canaan. He elevated their God to a position of distinction
and majesty and ultimately led a querulous and skeptical family of Hebrews
across the Red Sea, through the desert wilderness, and to the "Promised Land"
The Exodus is more than the liberation of a people from servitude.
It is the
crucial event that formed the way Jews have come to see themselves throughout
the ages. Whenever prophetic voices warned of the loss of identity or the
erosion of sacred values, Jews found strength and exhilaration from the memory
of the Exodus from Egypt. Beyond its special meaning in Jewish history,
the Exodus has been adopted as a symbol of national and social liberation in
many cultures and many lands. In the words of Henry George: "From between
the paws of the rock-hewn Sphinx rises the genius of human liberty and the
trumpets of the Exodus throb with the defiant proclamation of the rights of
Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin considered portraying
Children of Israel, fleeing across the parted waters on the seal of the United
States of America, with the slogan: "Resistance to Tyrants is Obedience to
In the National Convention of Revolutionary France, popular
spoke of themselves as inheritors of the new "Canaan" and in many struggles
through the ages, be they a craving for liberation from foreign oppression or
the humiliation of poverty and discrimination, men everywhere would resort to
the imagery of the Exodus to symbolize the reality of a swift redemption from
"servitude to freedom, from darkness to light".
The Bible does not portray the Israelite return to Canaan as a conquest by
a foreign army. It tends to treat it as the return of the tribes after an extended
stay in exile. Canaan was not only their home but the only place on earth in
which their divine mission could be fulfilled. Moses laid eyes on Canaan from
the eastern bank of the Jordan River but died without having crossed over to
the other side. It was left to Joshua, his disciple, to follow through and lead his
people to the Promised Land.
We are told in the Bible that Joshua was victorious over the Canaanites and
occupied the entire land. This is only part of the story. While the Israelites were
victorious in battle, most of the indigenous populations remained in place,
leaving the returning Hebrews to live among the Canaanites in an uneasy relationship.
Nevertheless, victory stabilized the region sufficiently to allow Israel
to develop a national life.
Canaan was a land of great contrasts, both in topography and climate, a
strip of land, 150 miles long, consisting of a stony plateau with limestone hills,
barren and forbidding, broken only in a few places by lush valleys. Its southernmost
part, the Negev which consists of one third of the country's land mass,
has the aspect of an unyielding rocky wilderness, though in recent times,
through a heroic effort to make the desert bloom, it is beginning to show signs
of greenery. The Jordan River cuts though the stony hills and deep wadis (dry
riverbeds). Anarrow stream at its source, fed by the melting snows from Mount
Hermon, it meanders through a long stretch of country from north to south
until it reaches the Dead Sea, 1,292 feet below sea level, the lowest point on
Joshua divided the 10,000 square miles (the size of the state of Vermont)
among the tribes. Each was apportioned a share of the land, each his "hereditary"
territory. Life was simple. Shepherds tended their sheep and peasants
tilled the soil. Each member of the covenant was expected to come to the aid
of any tribe that was threatened from the outside. For many years Israel
remained a cult community made up of twelve tribes, formed around the central
sanctuary in Shiloh, where the Holy Ark was kept. It was to Shiloh that the
tribes would make their religious pilgrimages, celebrate festivals, and
acknowledge one and the same God.
The Days When Judges Ruled
Two hundred and fifty years (1279-1023 B.C.E.) separate the
Egypt to the establishment of a monarchy. These two and a half centuries are
described as the ". . . . days when the judges ruled". "In those days, there was
no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes." The
institution of Judges was one of tribal origin started by Moses. When the job
of governance became more than one man could handle he delegated a part of
his responsibility to "able men" from among the people.
The Judges’ primary responsibility was to "judge
the people at all seasons"
from minor infractions to serious breaches of religious, civil and criminal law,
and once the Israelites reached Canaan, the title "warrior" was added to their
other responsibilities. There were twelve Judges - eleven men and a woman.
Given the looseness of Israelite society, none of the Judges could claim to have
complete authority nor did any of them rule over the whole of Israel at any one
It was in the late thirteenth century that the Philistines,
a seafaring people
whose barbaric invasions altered the prevailing balance in the eastern
Mediterranean. When their assault against Egypt failed, they turned their hostility
against the Canaanites and conquered the whole of the lowlands along the
southwest coast of Canaan, then moved against the tribes of Ephraim and
Benjamin. The Israelites were no match for these raiders. The Philistines were
fearsome warriors.Tall in stature, they were the commandos of the ancient
world. Having mastered the technology of smelting iron, their hand weapons
were the most deadly and their hard charging chariots would easily overwhelm
a foe. Always seeking to increase their land holdings, and an insatiable lust for
plunder, they were a constant threat to the tribes.
It was at the battle of Aphek that the tribes, out of desperation,
the priests to bring the Ark of the Covenant from Shiloh to serve as standard
bearer. With renewed holy enthusiasm, the Israelites once again hurled themselves
against the foe but in the end, the presence of the Ark did nothing to alter
the outcome and in the fog of battle it fell into the hands of the Philistines. The
loss of the Ark was a national catastrophe - one from which the Israelites would
not soon recover and although the Philistines returned the Ark, the tribes had
lost confidence in their tribal leaders to protect them against the common
enemy. They wanted change.
Samuel was unique among the Judges. Second only to Moses,
service as a Judge, prophet and High Priest, left a lasting mark on Israel's
national identity. In Samuel I, we find Samuel's mother Hannah, the childless
wife of Elkanah going on a religious pilgrimage to God's sacred tent, the tabernacle,
where the Holy Ark was kept and prays for a child. In her prayer,
Hannah vows that if she were to have a boy, she would dedicate him to God.
Soon after, Hannah's wish comes true. Her first born, was a boy whom she
named Samuel, and as she promised in her prayer, gave him over to Eli, the
High Priest, for service to God. Samuel grew up in the priesthood and was the
only Judge to have received an intensive religious upbringing, and following
Eli's death he became High Priest.
"Now the people turned to Samuel: 'Behold, you are old
and your sons do not
walk in your ways. Choose a king for us to judge us like all the nations. A king
vested with absolute powers over all of the tribes". But Samuel, a traditionalist
and strong adherent to tribal democracy responded with a warning:
This will be the manner of king who will reign over you;
he will take
your sons and appoint them to his chariots. And he will appoint captains
over thousands and captains over fifties; and set them to till his
ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war.
And he will take your daughters to be his confectioners and cooks
and bakers. And he will take your fields and your vineyards and your
olive groves, indeed the best of them and give them to those who
serve him. And he will take a tenth of your seed and your vineyards,
to give to his offices. And he will take your manservants and your
maidservants, and your best young men and your asses, to do his
work. And you shall be his slaves.
"The people refused to listen to Samuel, and they answered:
Nevertheless we will have a king over us that we may be like all the
nations, and that our king may judge us and lead us into battles".
Samuel finding himself in a quandary turns to God and God speaks
to Samuel, "Listen to the voice of the people... Because they are not
rejecting you, but Me as king over them. Just as they've done from
the day I brought them out of Egypt, when they abandoned Me and
served other gods, so they're doing now".
Bypassing the more eligible candidates, Samuel turned to
a farmer from
the tribe of Benjamin "He was a young man and handsome, and among the
Children of Israel there was not a handsomer person than he. And from his
shoulders and upward he was taller than any of the people." Saul's first task as
king was to rid the country of the Philistine threat. He spent the first several
years of his rule building an army - many of his fighters were recruited from
his own tribe of Benjamin. His first encounter with the Philistines occurred at
Michmash and resulted in victory. Yet in spite of this early success, Saul
remains one of the Bibles most tragic figures. His dream of uniting the tribes
eluded him and at the time of his death Israel remained a patchwork of tribal
communities - twelve factions functioning as independent states within a state.
Saul was also given to fits of depression and was tormented
of those around him. To soothe his nerves and ease his melancholia, a young
shepherd boy named David, with a talent for writing poetry and playing a harp,
was brought to him. David developed a deep affection for Saul and spent endless
hours strumming his harp and singing ballads and as the Bible tells us:
"David went wherever Saul went". He was given the hand of the king's daughter
in marriage and became the loving friend of the king's son Jonathan. But it
was David's slaying of Goliath that proved to be a mixed blessing. David's popularity
with the masses enraged Saul and soured their relationship. David, nevertheless,
remained compassionate, but when Saul, in a moment of rage, flung
a spear at him, David fled and established relations with the leaders of the tribe
of Judah, while Saul, consumed with hatred, led a group of soldiers to hunt him
down. Yet David, aware of Saul's mental state remained sympathetic and forgiving.
The Bible provides us with these rare insights into the mental
this tragic monarch and of David's nobility:
When Saul returned from following the Philistines, he
"David is in the wilderness of En-Gedi." So Saul took three thousand
chosen men, and went to seek David among the rocks of the wild
goats. He came to the sheepcotes along the way where there was a
cave, and Saul went in to cover his feet. Now David and his men
were lodged inside the innermost parts of the cave. David rose, and
noiselessly cut off the skirt of Saul's robe. But afterward David's
heart smote him, and he said to his men, "The Lord forbid that I
should do this to my master, to stretch out my hand against the Lord's
anointed." David checked his men with these words, and would not
let them rise against Saul.
When Saul left the cave, David also went out, and called after
him, "My Lord, the King." Saul looked behind him, and David
bowed with his face to the earth and said, "Why do you listen to men
who say, David seeks your hurt? See the skirt of your robe in my
hands; I cut it off, yet did not kill you. I have not sinned against you,
yet you hunt my soul to take it. The Lord judge between us and
avenge me, but my hand shall not be upon you. As says the proverb
of the ancients, Wickedness proceeds from the wicked. After whom
does the king of Israel come? Whom do you pursue? After a dead
dog? After a flea? The Lord judge between us."
When David finished speaking, Saul said, "Is this your voice, my
son David?" And Saul lifted up his voice and wept. And he said,
"you are more righteous than I, for you have rewarded me with good,
whereas I have rewarded you with evil" And Saul went home. But
David and his men returned to the stronghold.
A plaque of a harp discovered in Babylon, is probably
of a type used by King
David who speaks of it in Pslams
Soon after, David receives word that Saul and three of his
killed in battle with the Philistines. This passionately written eulogy provides
a rare insight into the inner soul of David, Israel's king to be:
How are the mighty fallen. Tell it not in Gath, nor in
the streets of
Ashkelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters
of the enemy exult. O mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew,
let there be no rain upon you, for there the shield of the mighty was
cast away - the shield of Saul, as though he had not been anointed.
From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of
Jonathan turned not back, and the sword of Saul returned not empty.
Saul and Jonathan, beloved and loving, in their life and in their death
they were not divided. They were swifter than eagles; they were
stronger than lions.
O daughters of Israel, weep for Saul, who clothed you in scarlet,
who adorned your garments with gold. How are the mighty fallen in
the midst of battle.
O Jonathan, I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan. Your
love to me was more wonderful than the love of women.
How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished.
The Reigns of David and Solomon
The biblical account of David's life and rule is a series of unrelated incidents
and events, yet when pieced together, they provide a rather vivid picture
of David and life among the Israelites. Following Saul's death, his son Eshbaal
claimed his father's throne and was recognized by the ten tribes in the north.
David at the same time came out of hiding, returned to Hebron and was
received as king of the two tribes of Judea. But David's ambitions went beyond
that. With his popularity, for having slain Goliath, running high, he was determined
to pick up where Saul left off - break down the barriers that separated
the tribes and unify Israel into one nation. But first, he had to consolidate his
authority as King of Judea and then, given Israel's desperate condition following
the defeat at Mount Gilboa, prove himself capable of standing up to the
In his early battles, David proved successful, greatly enhancing his image
as a warrior. At the same time, Eshbaal, his rival in the North, was having problems
ruling over a collection of ten quarrelsome and unruly tribes. That came
to an end when in a palace coup, the unpopular Eshbaal was assassinated by
two of his own officers. Without a leader, the northern tribes turned to David,
pledged their allegiance, and made him king over all of Israel.
The history of Israel's monarchial rule begins with David ascending the
throne. The Philistines, who had exploited Israel's internal strife to their advantage,
viewed David's rise to power as a threat and were determined to do away
with him. But David, rather than confront the Philistines head on, pulled back
to Adullam to prepare his warriors for the decisive battle that lay ahead. When
it came, he stormed the enemy and drove the Philistines clear back to the coast
- ending once and for all their threat to Israel.
David was now ready to choose a capital, one that would be located in the
center of the country to serve a united people. His choice was Jerusalem. As a
boy, tending his father's sheep, David had occasion to gaze upon Jerusalem
(then called Jebus) but as a Canaanite city he was forbidden to go there - not
giving a thought to the possibility that Jebus would one day be known as the
"City of David." David occupied the city with little effort and the Jebusites
were asked to remain. To add prestige, and make Jerusalem the nations' religious
center, David had the Ark of the Covenant brought from Shiloh. From
then on, Jerusalem (which translates into the City of Peace) was to remain the
sentimental and spiritual center of the Jewish people throughout its history, and
in our own time, was restored as the capital of the State of Israel.
David's rule lasted forty years, each of which was a year of war. He extended
Israel's borders, entered into alliances with Phoenicia and Tyre; placed a
garrison in Syria and subdued Moab, Amon, and Edom. His authority was recognized
from Egypt and the Gulf of Aqaba to the banks of the Euphrates.
Israel, for the first time was secure and at peace with its neighbors.
Amere child when the Prophet Samuel took note of him - by the end of his
reign this seemingly simple, untutored shepherd from Bethlehem will have
ushered in a lasting period of national glory. When he ascended the throne, the
kingdom was little more than home to twelve tribes. Under his leadership he
transformed the tribes into one of the great nations of the Eastern
Mediterranean. His kingship was unlike any that existed before or most that
would follow. Instead of being divine, the king of the Israelites was as a man
subject to the laws of God and the will of his subjects.
The Bible attributes to David many qualities, but none is more endearing
as his gift for poetry and music. A complex personality, his virtues and human
failings live after him. To his people he remains a genuine figure of both drama
and history. Without him there would not be a Hebrew sovereignty.
"Let Zadok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet anoint him King over Israel,
and blow the trumpet and say: Long live King Solomon''. With that, King
David, on his deathbed, arranged for his succession, choosing his youngest son
by Bathsheba, to be the next king of Israel. Solomon was twelve years old
when he ascended the throne. Like his father, he grew up to be a poet - but
unlike David, Solomon was not a warrior. Being in a position to deal with foreign
matters through diplomacy, he entered into alliances with neighboring
countries which were often concluded with marriages to foreign princesses.
Solomon was educated for his time and brought a missing sophistication to
the Jerusalem court. His residence became an intellectual salon that attracted
royalty from throughout the region. The Queen of Sheba undertook a journey
of 1200 miles to meet him and was so dazzled by the pomp and splendor of the
Jerusalem court that "there was no more spirit in her." She came to Jerusalem
bearing precious gifts in the hope of putting her personal charms to the task of
arriving at a trade agreement with Solomon. The Bible assures us that "King
Solomon gave to the Queen of all that it pleased her to ask, besides which he
gave her according to his royal bounty."
The kingdom under Solomon's reign came to full flowering and was
crowned as the most peaceful in Israel's troubled history. He established a large
standing army. He had a cavalry of thousands of horsemen and twelve thousand
chariots. He built fortresses in strategic parts of the country, and surround-
ed Jerusalem with a massive wall. The royal merchant marine sailed great distances,
carying copper from his mines to faraway places and importing precious
metals and luxuries. But Solomon's greatest legacy came from his passion
for building - the crowning glory of which was the Temple atop Mount
Mariah. It was his father, King David, who wanted to build the Temple, but as
a warrior with blood on his hands, the wish was denied him. When the Temple
was dedicated, after twelve years in the making, the Ark containing the two
tablets was placed in the Sanctum Sanctorum. Intoning a stirring invocation,.
King Solomon, in his twenty-third year, exclaimed:
Behold the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain
Thee, O God. How much less this house that I have builded. For
Thou didst separate Israel from among all the people of the earth, to
be Thine inheritance, as Thou speaketh by Moshe Thy servant, and
when Thou broughtest our fathers out of Egypt, O Lord God.
The Temple in Jerusalem has always been more than a holy
remains above all an idea, a myth, a fantasy, a utopian dream that dominated
the imagination for three thousand years and to this day remains a source of
contention. Solomon died at the age of fifty two. Having built on David's
achievements he presided over Israel's "Golden Age". He left his people a sovereign
territory that no foreign nation would dare challenge. During his reign
the nation experienced great economic growth and the population doubled in
size to nearly one million. Yet, in spite of all the good that he did, Solomon's
reign was marred by his extravagant life style, his many marriages to foreign
princesses, the thousands who were pressed into involuntary servitude and the
heavy taxes born by those who could least afford them. His doctrine of reaching
out to foreign nations led to a mingling of populations and along with foreign
princesses came alien ideas and religions. The worship of Baal was a common
and offending sight.
The End of Israel's United Kingdom
Solomon's rule had antagonized the northern tribes and during
years of his reign, rumblings of discord became audible. Upon his death,
Solomon's son Rehoboam was proclaimed king. It was up to the young
monarch now, to carry on with the affairs of state and to patch up a serious
breach that threatened to split the nation. As it were, Rehoboam had neither the
temperament nor the intellect to do either. Following a practice started by his
father, Rehoboam journeyed to Shechem to receive the approval of the northern
tribes. The tribal elders, in turn, used the occasion to register their complaints
against the monarchy; specifically they wanted a reduction in taxes and
the elimination of forced labor as the price of their loyalty. Before responding,
Rehoboam consulted with two sets of advisers. The group, composed of his
elders, advised: "If you will be a servant to the people, and speak good words
to them, they will be your servants forever." His circle of young cronies
Speak thus to the people: You say, "Your father made
heavy, therefore lighten it for us." But you shall find my little finger
thicker than my father's loins. And now, whereas my father burdened
you with a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father chastised
you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.
Jeroboam and all the people returned to Rehoboam on the third
day, as the king had appointed. And the king answered the people
roughly, and spoke to them after the counsel of the young men.
When the people of Israel saw that the king would not listen to them,
they said to him, "What portion have we in David? We have no
inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel. Now look to
your own David." And the people departed.
So Israel rebelled against the House of David. And they summoned
Jeroboam to the congregation, and made him king over Israel
and the House of David was followed by the Tribe of Judah only.
With that, the united kingdom of Israel came to an end. It
through the reigns of only three monarchs -- Saul, David and Solomon. The
country was now split into two political factions that were henceforth to have
their separate destinies.
For the next two hundred years, Israel was divided into two
ten tribes composing the kingdom in the north retained the name Israel, while
the term "Judeans" (From which the term "Jewish" would be derived), denotes
the inhabitants of the kingdom in the south. Judah, continued to be ruled by
scions of the House of David while the relatively unstable northern kingdom,
confusingly called "Israel", was ruled by various monarchies.
The first of the nineteen kings to rule over Israel was the
leader of the
rebellion, Jeroboam. We know little about him. To compete with Jerusalem,
Jeroboam created Israel's own holy shrines, one in Dan, another in Beth El. He
chose Tirzah, a place near Shechem, as his capital to distinguish Israel from
Judah. In spite of these efforts the only temple that mattered to his subjects was
the Temple in Jerusalem and they continued to make their pilgrimages to the
Jeroboam's rule lasted twenty-one years, a long time in the
history of the
North. After Jeroboam, Israel experienced only two periods of normalcy: The
first, following the establishment of the house of Omri and the second came
with the succession of Jeroboam II (793-753). But the general condition was
one of power struggles and civil strife, leading to frequent turnovers in the
monarchy. Foreign invasions ravaged the country and the payment of heavy
tributes to foreign powers drained the nation's resources.
The end came when Assyria, after years of holding Israel
hostage to its
will, decided to strike. A hastily arranged alliance among Phoenicia,
Damascus, and Egypt was of little help. War came and Israel was slowly dismembered
and much of the population deported. Samaria, the capital, held out
for another three years. With its fall in 722 BCE, its inhabitants too were exiled
and, following an established Assyrian practice, were replaced by deportees
from other parts of the Assyrian empire.
The transfer of populations in this manner gives rise to
a long held misconception
that the Ten Tribes were "lost" only to reappear elsewhere in the world.
In fact it is doubtful that there were ten distinct tribes at the time of expulsion.
Time and again people from all over claim to be descendants of the Ten Lost
Tribes of Israel. But as best we know, those exiled to the four corners of the
Assyrian empire were absorbed wherever they were transplanted and lost forever.
The foreign settlers, brought in by the Assyrians, intermarried with the
remnants of the native population and partially absorbed its traditions. Thus a
new race emerged named after the capital, Samaria, as the Samaritans. The
political independence and spiritual character of the Northern Kingdom had
been relegated to history.
The two tribes of Benjamin and Judah (the latter gave the
name) which formed the Southern Kingdom were now alone to embody the
national consciousness of what remained of Israel. Smaller and less affluent,
her population was more homogeneous and less exposed to foreign temptation.
She also had the advantage of a religious unity symbolized in the Temple in
Jerusalem. For the next century and a half, the two remaining tribes, Judah and
Benjamin, huddled in the hills of Jerusalem, held on and managed to retain a
firm grip on Mosaic Law and Jewish tradition.
By the Waters of Babylon
By the year 587 BCE, Babylon had succeeded the Assyrians
as the region's
super power. Judah, isolated with neither allies nor protectors, was easily subdued.
But no sooner had the Babylonians relaxed their grip, the Judeans
rebelled and Nebuchadnezzar responded with force and fury. Jerusalem was
placed under siege, and after holding out for two years, succumbed in the end
to Babylon's superior power. The city was sacked and reduced to rubble. The
Temple was burned to the ground.
To prevent a repetition, Nebuchadnezzar ordered the deportation
entire Judean leadership to Babylon. While there is no precise way of knowing
how many Israelites were banished, we do know that Nebuchadnezzar was
selective in whom he designated to bring to Babylonia. They were the cream
of Israelite society. Thousands of skilled artisans and all "the mighty men of
valor" - the best of Judean manhood. With that, history had come full circle.
Abraham left his native land, between the Tigris and Euphrates at the dawn of
history. His descendants returned as prisoners in bondage. The land they left
behind was at peace but desolate.
As noted earlier, the Sumarians of Abraham's time had already
many centuries of advanced civilization and Neo-Babylonia to which
Abraham's descendants returned, was in the sixth century BCE, the greatest
metropolis in the known world. Babylon, with its massive walls, its giant gates
and its hanging gardens, is where the majority of the deportees were brought
Jews being exiled to Babylon
In time the Jews were freed of their forced labor and were
the country's economy and political life. Language was no barrier. Aramaic, a
Semitic language, was familiar to many. They also had skills that made them
useful in their host country. This did not keep Nebuchadnezzar, the megalomaniac,
from forcing the Jews to bow down before a huge image of himself, but
once they humbled themselves in this manner he proved to be in many
respects, a benevolent despot.
There was every reason for the Judeans to leave the past
behind and assimilate.
They were treated well and there were few restrictions placed on the conduct
of their everyday lives. Yet the Jews stoutheartedly resisted the call to
pagan worship or surrender their national identity. Other captives, those drawn
from pagan lands, were easily assimilated into the local culture. For them the
transition was a simple matter of worshipping a different set of idols. For the
Israelites, however, the same influences which by any logic, would appear to
be the irresistible path to oblivion, became instead, a pause for reflection and
reassessment. Jeremiah urged them to meet their fate with resignation: "Build
ye houses and dwell in them; and plant gardens and eat the fruit of them; take
ye wives and beget sons and daughters…that ye may be increased here, and not
diminished. And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried
away captives". Thus, under the threat of extinction, Israelites drew closer
together and their faith embraced their entire community. Thus the same
inner struggle between identity and assimilation which was put to its first test
in Babylon, was later to become a dominating factor in the nation's history in
one Diaspora after another.
Meanwhile, within the Jewish community, a new and special
way of life
was emerging. As strangers in a foreign land, Jews kept to themselves and created
their own institutions. The synagogue evolved from nostalgic meetings on
the Sabbath - a place to seek out people of one's own kind out of social necessity.
The synagogue had no precedent in Palestine nor did it initially serve a
religious function. It was a place to socialize and learn from one another how
to cope with the day-to-day challenges of living in a foreign country. In time,
the synagogue evolved into a house of worship and study hall - the yeshiva as
we know it, was an outgrowth of the synagogue, a place for laymen as well as
potential ecclesiastics to spend their hours in study. Henceforth, and throughout
history, wherever Jews settled, and a quorum of ten males could be mustered
for public prayer, it was customary to build a synagogue. With the Torah
as its center piece the synagogue became the religious, cultural, and psychic
center of Jewish life.
As a consequence of being cut off from their Temple in Jerusalem,
body of Babylonian Jews became intensely spiritual and abstract and a new
literary creativity emerged. The Torah whose major components had already
existed, were collected and grouped into an organized literary body and the historical
part of the Bible, from Genesis to Kings was reduced to writing.
Nebuchadnezzar died in 562 BCE. Like any regime wherein power
shared, Babylonia declined swiftly. Following a succession of inept rulers
(Nebuchadnezzar's son was assassinated by a brother-in-law) Babylonia was
ripe for takeover and it was Cyrus the Great of Persia who proved its undoing.
Cyrus was unique among the rulers of his time. No sooner had he defeated the
Babylonians, his government instituted a doctrine of leniency toward all conquered
peoples. While religion played a central role in Persian culture, Cyrus
did not impose his religion on others and for reasons of his own, made it his
purpose to restore Jerusalem as the Jewish capital, rebuild the Temple and
assist those who chose to, to return to Judah. Shortly after annexing Jerusalem,
Cyrus issued his famous Decree of Return:
Thus says Cyrus, king of the Persians: "...the Lord
God of heaven,
who has made me a king of the whole world, and charged me to
build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Therefore, whoever
among his people so desires, let him go up to Jerusalem and
rebuild the house of the lord God of Israel. And whoever remains
where he now sojourns let him help with silver, and with gold, and
with goods, and with beasts, besides the freewill offerings for the
house of God in Jerusalem.
Fifty thousand formed the first wave of returnees. "…and
those who stayed
behind strengthened their hands with vessels of silver, with gold, with cattle,
and with other precious things." Jews, once again, were back on their native
In 336 BCE, at the age of twenty, Alexander the Great ascended
Macedonian throne and five years later had conquered all of the Persian
Empire including Palestine. His meteoric rise and phenomenal achievements
guaranteed him a place in history equal to that of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Having been a student of Aristotle, he was intensely involved
in Greek philosophy
and culture. He regarded Greek civilization as transcending Greece
itself and encouraged its spread throughout the empire. Hellenism, as Greek
culture came to be known, was eagerly embraced throughout the Middle East
- it was both cosmopolitan and a great cultural equalizer. By providing the peoples
in his empire with a common language and literature, philosophy, art,
music, dress and manners, Alexander did much to break down the prevailing
cultural barriers throughout the Middle East.
Unfamiliar with Mosaic Law, Alexander attempted at first
Judaism with Grecian idolatry. Because of his lenient policies and irresistible
charisma, there were those who were attracted to this young superstar while the
humble masses looked on with sturdy skepticism.
The Greeks, while considering the Jews a strange people,
whole nation of philosophers persistently exploring the mysteries of life - a
people committed to a law transmitted to them by God. The God of the Jews,
unlike the Grecian idols, was invisible, transcendent and remote - a concept
that had a special attraction for the philosophically curious Greeks. Ultimately
the exchange of values played a significant role in bringing Judaism to Western
In the confusion that followed Alexander's death at the age
the Greek empire, like the Persian Empire before it, fell into disarray.
Alexander left as his only heir, a half-wit, Philip Arrhidaeus, and a pregnant
wife with unborn child. With neither heir nor spare, Alexander's generals
moved in and divided the empire among themselves. The most capable of his
generals, Ptolemy, kept Egypt and later added Palestine to create a buffer
between him and his rivals, the Seleucids.
For the Jews of Palestine, the century of Ptolemaic rule
uneventful. That changed abruptly, when Antiochus III, a Seleucid, ousted the
Ptolemy heir and gained control over Palestine. In contrast to the Ptolemies,
the Seleucids were zealous Hellenizers, who refused to leave the Jews alone in
their spiritual isolation. When Antiochus IV ascended the throne upon his
brother's death, he introduced paganism to Jerusalem and plundered the
Temple to finance his military campaigns in Egypt. He then ordered the Jews
to present themselves four times a year to pay homage to Antiochus as the senior
god of the Seleucids. Circumcision and all other forms of religious practice
Jews had known much travail in their history, but never before
been forbidden to practice their religion. Far from being disposed to accept the
Greek divinities, the Jews decided to resist. The spark of rebellion was kindled
in Modiin, a small village outside Jerusalem at the foot of the Judean
Mountains. Here, the arrival of the king's envoy bent on enforcing the pagan
laws, was greeted by open revolt. Mattathias the Priest and his five sons gathered
the pious masses and fled into the hills from where they led simple peasants
in a guerrilla war against an overwhelming Greek army. Upon Mattathias's
death, Judah Maccabee (the Hammer) succeeded his father as leader of the
rebellion. After three years of savage fighting and an astonishing surge of
rebellious courage, the Jews overcame Antiochus' army and drove it out of the
country. It was an achievement that surpassed their highest expectations.
Jerusalem was liberated on the twenty fifth day of the Hebrew month of Kislev
and is commemorated in Jewish history as Chanukah, the Feast of Dedication,
the Feast of Light.
Rome appears on the world scene with the defeat of Carthage
in the second
Punic war. The process of consolidating the empire into one of the greatest
of all time took another century and a half. When complete, Rome was so
powerful that no nation could reasonably hope to challenge her. The Roman
general, Pompey, arrived in Jerusalem in 63 BCE, at a time when Judean fortunes
were at low ebb. After years of internal strife, Judea had lost its inner
cohesion. Queen Salome Alexandra had died four years earlier and her two
sons, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, were still bickering over the succession.
Pompey's first task was to restore some semblance of order
newly acquired province. Palestine was important to Rome. It was the link that
connected Rome to the eastern part of the empire and its deep water ports were
essential to Roman naval operations. A tranquil Judea was vital to its interests
and Rome was ever sensitive to any sign of restiveness. On visiting the
Temple, Pompey gave the Jews special dispensation (not given to others).
According to one historian: "On account of his regard for religion, Pompey
acted in a manner that was worthy of his virtue." He gave an order to those who
had charge of the Temple to cleanse it, and to bring what offerings the Torah
required to God. But before returning to Rome, Pompey had to settle the matter
of succession. He appointed the more pliable Hyrcanus to the High
Priesthood and took Aristobulus back to Rome to keep him under his watchful
But Aristobulus, at the first opportunity, escaped, returned
to Judea, gathered
an army, and rebelled against Rome. He held out in Jerusalem for three
years before being subdued and returned to Rome. This time, Pompey, taking
no chances, had Aristobulus put to death by poisoning. In a later development,
when Antigone, Aristobulus' son, made a similar attempt at usurping the
throne, Rome put an end to the mutinous Hashmoneans and picked their own
man, Herod, an Idumean, to occupy the Judean throne.
Herod was born to command and he was ruthless. When he ascended
throne he already had thousands of murdered victims resting easily on his conscience.
While he married into the dynastic Hashmonean family, he was
always suspicious of their motives and considered them his enemy. After ridding
himself of the High Priest Hyrcanus, he eliminated a number of his inlaws
through assassination, including his mother-in-law. Emperor Augustus
said of him: "One would rather be Herod's swine than his son." It was no exaggeration.
Constantly imagining himself surrounded by traitors he had his two
sons put to death along with their mother, the princess Mariam.
Herod, however uncouth, had an interest in the arts and along
other pursuits, he had a passion for building. His massive structures are legendary.
The streets of Antioch were paved in marble and adorned with colonnades
on either side. He created the city of Caesarea, and pointedly named it
after his patron, Caesar Augustus. To this day, examples of his great works dot
Israel's landscape, the most famous of which is the Western Wall.
While ruling over Judea with an iron fist, Herod recognized
that he could
not totally ignore the needs of his people. He renovated the Temple with
extravagant splendor and while he himself practiced idolatry, he was careful
not to interfere in the religious practices of his subjects. Even so, the Jews
abhorred him. They resented the circus and gladiatorial games and his blatant
disregard for human life. Upon his death, four years before the start of the current
era, Rome rejected his son and heir apparent, Archelaus (also known as
"The Fool"), and abolished the monarchy. In its place Judah was reduced to the
status of a Roman province to be ruled over by an imperial procurator.
Rome and Jerusalem
Distances being as they were, control over the provinces
was scant and the
procurators used their authority in a manner that was not always consistent
with policy - all the while outdoing one another in their patriotic fervor to
impress the Emperor. Rome was aware of this shortcoming and in an effort to
curb the procurators' excesses, took to rotating them about from province to
province, hoping thereby to limit their power and curb their greed. It worked
up to a point. However, the procurators, knowing that their stay would be brief,
wasted little time in lining their pockets at the cost of the local populations.
There was a saying about Senator Sextus Quinctilius Varus, procurator of
Syria: "Poor he entered rich Syria; and rich he left poor Syria."
In 66 CE Gessius Florus was named procurator for Palestine.
over who was more brutal, Pontius Pilate or Florus was settled by the historian
Josephus. "Florus" he wrote, was so wicked that he made all of his predecessors
seem like public benefactors. Florus outdid all of the others in his zest
for plunder and when he looted the Temple treasury and the Jews objected, he
had them slaughtered by the hundreds. Jewish indignation could no longer be
contained and resulted in the unthinkable decision to rebel against Rome.
The War against Rome started in disarray and ended in disaster.
Romans, knowing the Jews to be fierce fighters took no chances and ordered
Vespasian, one of Rome's ablest generals to Palestine to assume command. The
first stage of the war was played out in the Galilee. Joseph Ben Mastitis
(Josephus Flavius) was sent north to assume command. It was an unlikely
choice. Josephus was an intellectual and a scholar with good family connections
but without military experience. He was up against Vespasian, who was
not given to conventional warfare - where armies battle each other in open
country leaving the civilian populations relatively unaffected. Vespasian preferred
wars of attrition wherein his military engineers would build high walls
that would encircle the city and trap its inhabitants inside. Once weakened by
starvation to a point where they could no longer defend themselves, his legions
would storm the city and conquer it.
There aren't many examples of renegades in Jewish history
after making a pretense of fierce resistance, allowed one stronghold after
another to fall into Roman hands. Then, as if to put a seal on his betrayal,
defected to the enemy.
From the Roman perspective, their military successes in the
sealed the fate of the Jews. Vespasian, sizing up the relative positions of
the combatants, decided to take his time with Jerusalem, counting on the Jews
to self-destruct through internal strife or starvation - most likely a measure of
both. As evidence, when word reached Vespasian that Nero had committed suicide,
he relinquished his command to his son Titus and returned to Rome at the
head of an army to assume the emperorship.
A small band of Zealots and their leaders: Johanan, Simon
ben Giora, and
Eleazar ben-Shimon remained to defend Jerusalem. They faced an enemy with
clear superiority and a carefully devised plan of attack. The Jews had neither.
Josephus described the operation in some detail. "The city was surrounded by
three walls. Inside, the defenders suffered from famine and exhaustion. The
outer wall was breached in May of 70 CE. and three months later, the great
gates to the inner city were forced open. On Tisha B'Av (The ninth day of the
Hebrew month of Av) Jerusalem fell - a wilderness of charred houses and devastation.
The Temple was destroyed. Over half a million Jews died by the
sword or starvation and an equal number were taken away and sold into slavery.
For all their scorn of the Jews, Roman historians acknowledged that the
Jewish War was the most difficult struggle that Rome had ever encountered.
Johanan and Simon escaped to Herod's palace where they held
another five months. Eleazar fled to Masada where, on this granite rock protruding
out of the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea, 960 Zealots including
their families, held out for another two years. When the Romans entered
this last Jewish bastion they discovered that all but five of the defenders had
chosen death before surrender. One woman and four children were all that
remained to tell the story of the last days of Masada.
The war was over. Titus returned to Rome to a hero's welcome
and to celebrate
the defeat of that "stubborn people". Coins were minted to mark Titus'
victory with the inscription: "Judea Capta". An arch was erected in his honor
showing in relief the trophies brought to Rome from the Temple. The Arch of
Titus which remains to this day near the Coliseum is as much a tribute to
Roman invincibility as it is to Jewish resistance to tyranny.
A sandal and some braided hair found recently among the ruins of Masada
The Bar Kochba Rebellion
In the year 118CE, fifty-two years after the fall of Jerusalem,
ascended the Roman throne. He sought at first to pacify the embittered Jews by
holding out a vague promise to restore Jerusalem and even hinted at rebuilding
the Temple. But he later reversed himself, when he realized that promoting
Jewish culture would be inconsistent with his broader plan to achieve greater
homogeneity throughout the empire and instead proclaimed Jerusalem a
Rabbi Akiva, the country's spiritual leader did his utmost
to calm the
resentful masses while hoping to arrive at some accommodation with Rome.
But Hadrian would not be moved. Instead, he issued orders to uproot all
remaining vestiges of Jewish tradition and religious observance. With their
hopes dashed, the Jews were once again up in arms.
The leader of the rebellion, Shimon Bar Kochba, was a descendant
House of David and as such was accepted by the masses as Messiah. Many legends
have come down through the ages about Bar Kochba. He was powerful,
he was a military genius and he was born to lead. These legends acquired some
credibility through the discovery in 1960 of a bundle of papyrus rolls in caves
above the Judean desert. The scrolls written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek are
signed by Bar Kochba himself. They speak of Freedom for Israel, of
Redemption of Zion, of Shimon, Prince of Israel.
The first stages of the war supported the legend of the man
Bar Kochba as
he succeeded in ousting the Roman legions from Jerusalem. While the Temple
itself no longer existed, religious services were resumed. Jews by the thousands
made pilgrimages to Jerusalem and coins were minted with the inscription
"Shimon Ha'Nasi". The flame of Jewish independence flickered anew.
Hadrian, however, did not take kindly to the challenge to Rome's authority.
After years of reversals, he ordered Julius Severus, a general with a successful
record in suppressing revolts in the north of England, to take command. The
onslaught came in mid 134CE. Severus considered the entire Judean population
as hostile and went about exterminating one population center after another.
Everywhere that Jews lived was treated as fortified - encircled, starved out
and in the end, reduced to rubble. The people, inside the walls, be they military
or civilian, ended up being killed or sold into slavery. When Jerusalem was no
longer defendable, Bar Kochba escaped with his fighters to Bethar, several
miles away, but as with Masada, the Romans built massive earthen ramps leading
to the fortified hilltop and stormed the city. When the battle was over, Bar
Kochba was found among the dead.
The rebellion was over and Rome proceeded to systematically
vestiges of Jewish nationality. The name "Judea" was removed from official
usage and replaced with "Palestine". Jerusalem was closed to all Jews and
renamed Aelia Capitolina. All that remained of the Temple Mount was the
Western Wall. Jewish Independence was finally crushed. Yet Bar Kochba's
resistance in the name of freedom lives on as a dramatic legend, stirring hopes
and lasting memories.
Early Christianity comes closer to Judaism than adherents of either faith
are often willing to admit. The history of the Holy Land has great historic significance
to Christians and Jews alike. The Gospels are a chronicle of Jewish
life in Palestine during the first decades of the first century and the people
described are Jews living in their own land and Jerusalem is accepted as the
"center of the world".
Jerusalem in its heyday had a population of 100,000 which was periodically
swollen by hordes of pilgrims who often outnumbered the local population.
It was the seat of the High Priesthood and the Sanhedrin - the High Council of
ancient Jewry. Jerusalem was home to the intellectual elite, the artisans and the
well-to-do. The Galileans by contrast were looked upon as commoners. There
were no large cities in the Galilee, no grand bazaars, no great centers of learning
or famous scholars. While the Galilee produced a surplus of grains, much
of the population did not own their own land. Dispossessed and landless, whole
families wandered from place to place as gatherers, scraping together a meager
existence. From these downtrodden Jews came Jesus of Nazareth.
The period between the conquest of Jerusalem by Rome and through the
rule of Pontius Pilate in 39 CE was a time of great internal strife. It was a time
during which Judah was ruled by a succession of puppet princes who succeeded
one another through assassination and civil stife. When Jesus appeared on
the scene, the mood in Judah was depressed. Jews in large numbers were turning
to a multiplicity of religious sects dominated by a belief in the "approaching
end of days" and the coming of Messiah.
Jesus was an observant Jew. He adhered to the oral laws and traditions. He
lived among the common people and ultimately became their spokesman. He
did not consider himself a universal prophet outside of the Jewish context. He
made regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem, ate unleavened bread over Passover,
blessed God when he drank his wine and had no use for Romans. His care for
the ordinary man prompted him to attack the hypocritical leaders of his day and
declare in the Sermon on the Mount that he "had not come to destroy the Law
but to fulfill it." The terms, "Messiah" and "King of the Jews," were used by
him in their spiritual significance. But the Romans, who suspected anyone who
gave voice to revolutionary thought as a threat to the state, viewed Jesus as
subversive. His arrest, trial, and crucifixion was the reaction of an insecure
authority that had become weary of subversion issued out of religious fervor.
After his death, a small circle of followers took to spreading his teachings
among the Jews of Judea, but it took the missionary genius of Paul to transform
a despised and oppressed creed into a world religion. Saul of Tarsus who
became Paul in the New Testament was an intellectual, the product of Greco-
Roman culture. Wherever the apostle went, he denounced the evils of paganism.
To Paul, Christ was the incarnation of the Law, who sacrificed himself to
emancipate man from the burden of the Law and became the intermediary
between God and man. It is this principle that became the cornerstone of
Christianity and Paul its intellectual founder.
It was only gradually, through the introduction of Gentile elements, that
Christianity severed its connection with the Jewish community and transformed
itself into a religion apart from Judaism. In the early days of
Christianity, worship was not far removed from services in the synagogue.
Neo-Christians followed a form of synagogue ritual, with Latin readings from
the Pentateuch and the Prophets and included the chanting of Psalms. But as
Christianity veered away from the old institutions and the limits of deification,
a final split became inevitable, and Christianity grew increasingly distinct from
the parent faith. It was the conversion of Constantine, the Roman emperor to
Christianity in 313, followed by Emperor Theodosius' establishing Christianity
as the state religion, that led to a parting of the ways with the Jews and ushered
in a long period of intolerance. This union of Church and State would lead to
the conversion of a whole Empire to Christianity and the establishment of a
religious apparatus to govern its spiritual affairs.
The Affairs of Church and State
When the Pope crowned Charlemagne, Emperor of the Holy Roman
Empire on Christmas Day, 800CE he was not bestowing any power that
Charlemagne did not already have, nor, it is fair to say, was the Holy Roman
Empire, either holy, Roman or for that matter, an empire. Still, it was a symbolic
gesture that reflected a close bond between Church and State, and
Charlemagne, in gratitude, rewarded the Church by making it a most formidable
ally. He gave the Church two-thirds of all lands that he conquered. The
Church was granted exclusive control over marriage, burial, and wills.
Charlemagne, as a final gesture, made the giving of tithes enforceable by law.
Thus, in exchange for a title of questionable value, the Church was elevated to
a powerful instrument of government.
Following Charlemagne's death in 814, disagreement arose
Church and the State over the appointment of the clergy. At issue was the practice
by the nobles to appoint bishops and abbots, a privilege which the Church
considered exclusively its own. The Church was particularly opposed to the
appointment to the priesthood of persons who had not been ordained and who
did not take an oath of celibacy. These where often the sons of noblemen with
stronger loyalty to their families than to Rome. The dispute came to a head
when Gregory VII became Pope in 1073. Gregory attacked the unauthorized
use of church titles by declaring that all clergy were required to be both
ordained and celibate. He further decreed that church appointments by noblemen
receive the Pope's blessing and added that his authority extended to the
Pope's right and duty to overrule man's choice of rulers, including that of king
and in so doing, placed the papacy above the head of state.
Emperor Henry IV of Germany responded by leading an army
in a march
on Rome, seized the Vatican and forced Gregory to flee. He then convened a
synod of bishops, excommunicated Gregory and consecrated a new Pope,
Clement III. But the period of monarchial dominance over the church was
short-lived. While France and Germany were being distracted by feudal strife,
the Vatican seized the moment and reasserted itself. Indeed, just ten years after
Pope Clement's death, nobles from Italy to England were making their way to
Rome and bowing down to the new Pope as their feudal lord. With that, Europe
had become not just a place with a set of institutions and a cultural texture but
a holy society bent on converting - by force if necessary, all its inhabitants to
the Christian faith and behavior. And as the Church spread its authority, one
Jewish community after another experienced the fate of having to choose
between baptism and expulsion.
From the beginning of time, Arabia, cradle of the Semitic
been a land of nomads. The few patches of tillable soil, along the coast, supported
a meager population, leaving others to roam the desert in search of
scarce watering holes and an occasional oasis. The two principal cities of
Arabia were Mecca and Medina. Mecca, the larger of the two, had twenty-five
thousand inhabitants, most of whom were Bedouins. Medina is believed to
have been founded by Jews who had emigrated from their exile in Babylon
through Yemen. What is known about these Yemenites is that they supported
an active community, with synagogues, and an uninterrupted connection with
their co-religionists in Babylon and Jerusalem. By the time Mohammed
appeared on the scene, the Jews were a well-established part of Arabian society,
having brought with them the palm tree which they cultivated into a profitable
market in dates. Their relations with the Bedouin, many of whom were
attracted to Judaism, were in the main congenial and Jewish folklore and customs
had become an integral part of their social fabric.
It was into this far away corner of the world that the career
of the Prophet
Mohammed unfolded. Mohammed was born in Mecca in 570. According to
legend, he rose from camel driver to become a leader of a caravan and from
there to the leadership of the Arab people. It appears that Judaism made a deep
impression on Mohammed, and many of its fundamental themes found their
way into the theology of Islam. Like the Jews, Muslims affirm the unity of
God, "there is no God but Allah" and of man's ability to approach Him without
intermediary. Like the Jews, Muslims accept the immortality of the soul,
and personal responsibility for deeds committed during one's life. Muslims
accept the primacy of justice and the giving of alms as a virtue rather than as
a self-conscious act of philanthropy. They adopted the Jewish concept of a day
of rest as holy and the Jewish approach to food which rejects the eating of pork.
Mohammed set out to preach his beliefs and to convert all
whom he came in contact. His early converts were slaves and those from
among the humble masses. He made little impression on the prosperous and
influential who were suspicious of his motives and chose to distance themselves
from his mission. Indeed there were those who saw him as a threat to
their prestige and power and their resentment reached the point where his life
was threatened. Yet in spite of such pockets of resistance, Islam, driven by religious
fervor, could not be contained. By the time of Mohammed's death, at age
61, Islam had spread throughout all of Arabia and parts of Western Asia and its
expansion showed no sign of abating. From its capital of Damascus, it swept
across all of Northern Africa, and by the year 711, one hundred years after
Mohammed conceived of his new religion, Arab armies were crossing the
Mediterranean and establishing a foothold in Christian Spain. By then, the
Islamic empire had stretched from the Atlantic coast to India and as far north
as present day Russia. The conquered territories were forged into a mighty
world empire, unified by the Arabic language, and the Islamic religion.
It was in Spain that the Arabs demonstrated their genius
for gaining the
confidence of the conquered populations. By extending religious freedom to its
subjects, many Christians surrendered their towns to the advancing Arab
armies and for the two million Jews of Spain, the Arab arrival was to introduce
four centuries of tranquility, unknown to their co-religionists on the other side
of the Pyrenees. The first city of major importance to be conquered by the
Arabs was Cordoba. When the city fell, the Jews came out to greet the
Moslems as liberators. From this early beginning, the Jews earned the
Moslem's trust and friendship and as their armies advanced, they entrusted the
guarding of some of the newly conquered cities to the Jews. Jews became
active in every aspect of Moorish society. They enjoyed freedom to choose and
practice any profession and many became distinguished in the fields of medicine,
astronomy, philosophy and literature. Others joined the army and fought
alongside their Arab brothers-in-arms.
Spain at the time was the wealthiest and most populated country
and Cordoba was its major city. It had a fine university with a library containing
400,000 books and manuscripts. In every sense, it surpassed the best of
Europe's centers of learning. Well before the European Renaissance, the Arab
Empire had experienced a profound florescence of culture that in its depth and
scope as well as in the sheer quantity of achievement surpassed any like period
in human history.
Mohammed brings Islam to the Middle East and unites the Arab People
While the rest of Europe was recovering from the effects
of the migrations
of the Barbarians and the University of Oxford looked upon bathing as a heathen
custom, the Arab Empire had already experienced a remarkable burst of
cultural and scientific development. Great Arabic minds wrote the first known
astronomical tables along with works in mathematics, including the calculation
of square roots and algebra.
The close association between Arabs and Jews lasted for four
years and ended in 1085 when Alfonso VI of Castile united the Christian North
to break the Moorish hold on Spain. When Toledo fell to Alfonso's army, the
Moors turned to the Berber tribesmen from across the Mediterranean for help
in stemming the Christian tide. The Berbers were fierce warriors as well as
being fanatically religious. While holding the Christians at bay, the Berbers
launched a ruthless campaign against all "infidels" - Jews and Christians alike.
From then on, Moorish Spain changed from an open to a closed society. From
a society in pursuit of social justice and religious tolerance to one of religious
extremes and intolerance. It was a radical change in thinking that doomed not
only the Jews but the Arabs as well.
The experience for the Jews, who had known periods of tolerance
by periods of persecution and oppression, it was a particularly sad one. For
never under Christian domination had the Jewish spirit attained the heights of
cultural expression as it had under Arab rule. For the Arabs, the experience was
equally tragic. For at no time in their long history had they risen to such heights
of achievement as during their "Golden Age", only to descend into a lasting
period of intellectual darkness from which they are yet to recover.
The Middle-Ages are reckoned variously from the fall of the Roman
Empire to the Protestant Reformation, Columbus's discovery of America or the
invention of the printing press - all of which occurred in close proximity and
each was of great historical importance. Collectively, they were the watershed
event which brought an end to a thousand years marked by strife that was both
oral and physical. A period during which Christianity and Islam consolidated
their respective positions with a series of bloody encounters that marked a millennium
of clash and carnage. It was also the age of feudalism wherein ninety
percent of the population of Europe was reduced to a life of serfdom - downtrodden
humans who worked a soil which they could never own and overlords
who ruled over them body and soul. It was also the age of the Black Death
which in a matter of ten years wiped out a third of Europe's population and the
age that witnessed one hundred years of Holy Crusades.
On November 27, 1093 Pope Urban II appeared before the Council of
Clermont in south central France and delivered one of the most passionate
speeches of his papacy. Exaggerating both the atrocities and the exploits of the
Turks, he painted a shocking picture of deprivation and suffering of Christians
in Jerusalem at the hands of the blood- thirsty heathens.
"…an accursed race, wholly alienated from God,
invading the lands of Jerusalem and had depopulated it by pillage
and fire they have led away many captives into their own country
and a part they have killed by cruel tortures. They destroy the altars
after having defiled them with their unseemliness. It is upon you
above all others that God has conferred the glory of arms, great bravery,
and strength to humble those who resist you. Let the deeds of
your ancestors encourage you. Let the Holy Sepulcher of Our Lord
and Savior, taken by the infidels arouse you in the name of the
Savior to arise and take arms against the infidels and rescue the holy
places for our Savior who died on the cross. Enter upon the road to
the Holy Sepulcher, wrest that land from a wicked race, and subject
it to yourselves. Jerusalem, that royal city, situated at the center of
the earth, implores you to come to her aid undertake this journey
eagerly for the remission of your sins, and be assured of the reward
of imperishable glory in the Kingdom of Heaven.
The response was overwhelming. By the thousands the "Soldiers
flocked to his banner. Along with genuine religious conviction, some were
motivated by a craving for adventure; others came for the remission of their
sins, and still others were in it for gold and glory. During the following nine
months, Urban traversed France, seeking support for his cause. Feudal masters
were told to allow their serfs to leave the land and join his great crusade.
Debtors were relieved of their debts and prisoners, including those facing death
sentences, had their sentences commuted to a life of service to God in the Holy
Land. Peter the Hermit, a pious barefoot recluse from Picardy, clad in torn garment,
riding a donkey and bearing an oversized cross, traveled throughout
Germany and France, inciting the crowds with frightening tales of wanton
destruction of the holy places.
The First Crusade was largely manned by peasants, thus its
"People's Crusade". Lacking organization and leadership it turned into a popular
uprising with all the cruelties and excesses, typical of a lawless mob. As
the crusaders made their way to the Holy Land, Jews along the way were subjected
to unspeakable cruelty. Jewish communities throughout France and
Germany were decimated. Some Jews accepted baptism to save their lives -
most wouldn't and died. Humane Christian clerics who tried to intervene were
brushed aside or worse. Dukes, galloping ahead of the undisciplined mob were
helpless to hold them back, while appeals from the Pope went unheeded. For
one whole century (there were eight crusades in all) Jews were in constant danger.
Few of the crusaders reached Palestine. Many died along the
exposure and starvation. Others simply gave up and returned home. On the
seventh of June 1099 the Crusaders reached Jerusalem and six weeks later
were in position to storm the city. Jerusalem fell on July 15. The slaughter was
indescribable. The entire Jewish population was rounded up and herded into
the city's synagogue which was then set on fire, burning alive all those inside.
As night fell the crusaders retired to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to
declare the establishment of a Latin Kingdom in Jerusalem.
In 1147 a Second Crusade, led jointly by the German Emperor
and King Louis VII of France left for Palestine but failed to reach its destination.
Saladin blocked their advance in Egypt and went on to declare a holy war
against all of Christendom. In 1187 Saladin recaptured Jerusalem, only to set
the stage for still another crusade. The Third Crusade was an open declaration
of war against Islam. The best of Europe's knighthood set out in 1189 under the
leadership of Richard the Lion-Heart. With Richard as its leader, the crusade's
staging area shifted from Europe to the British Isles, as did the violence toward
the Jews. This was brought to a halt for a time by order of Richard himself, but
once he departed for the Holy Land the rioting resumed.
The Crusades left in their wake a period of extreme suspicion
Beginning in the twelfth century, Christian Europe embarked on a series of
exclusionary measures that ultimately led to persecution. Jews were not the
only victims. Heretics, lepers and others suffered a similar fate. The Fourth
Lateran Council, which convened in 1215 by Pope Innocent III, included a
number of decrees directed solely at the Jews and were based on the myth that
Jews were rejected by God for their failure to accept Christ as their savior. The
overall purpose of the decrees was to further segregate the Jews from the rest
of the population. No Jew was to be appointed to an executive position by a
nobleman under the threat of excommunication. On Easter Sunday, Jews were
to remain inside their homes with shutters closed. Jews and Christians were
prohibited from living under the same roof and all nonbelievers, principally
Jews, were to wear a badge on their outer garment to distinguish them from the
rest of the population.
One of the more malicious canards in vogue was that of ritual
Christian would disappear, and a Jew would be accused of having crucified
him as a mockery of the martyrdom of Jesus. This would be accompanied by
an accusation that the victim's blood was used in the baking of matzah for the
Passover. The punishment was death and the guilty one's property would be
confiscated and given over to the local church. In our own "enlightened" circumstance,
we attempt to rationalize the psychological inner workings behind
these blood accusations. We make allowance for such behavior in medieval
times when ignorance, fear of "others" and simple witchcraft came together to
contribute and sustain these accusations. And yet variations of the blood libel
survived the backwardness of the Middle Ages to appear in the midst of our
prevailing advanced societies. A prime example is the "Protocols of the Elders
of Zion", a fabrication prepared for Czar Nicholas II of Russia, which purported
to expose a Jewish conspiracy, aimed at destroying Christian organizations
and replacing them with Jewish world domination. With the Czar, recognizing
it as bogus, the Protocols were shelved, only to appear after his death in 1919.
Copies of the Protocols circulated at first in Western Europe and later in the
world at large. Translations and adaptations of the Russian original continue to
appear to this day in many languages including Japanese and Arabic. They
impress themselves on those people who need to believe them, and upon these
same people the disclosure of the truth has no meaning. The blood libel in all
its forms works on the fundamental principle that a lie, when repeated often
enough, will be taken for the truth. And it is particularly harmful when
employed during periods of severe social stress.
Expulsions were another calamity to afflict the Jews during
much of the
Middle-Ages. Since all Jewish property would be confiscated when Jews were
expelled, it became an effective way for the State and Church to replenish their
treasuries. By the end of the fifteenth century, Jews had effectively been driven
out of the whole of Western Europe with the exception of some parts of
Germany and Italy.
And finally we come to the misfortune that overtook the Jews
of Spain, a
tragedy more serious in its magnitude and effect than any other happening elsewhere
in Europe. In no other country had the Jews been so fully integrated into
society as they were in Spain and nowhere else had an expulsion been so devastating.
At the beginning of the Christian "re-conquest" of Spain, Jews were
generally left alone. Their talents, especially their fluency in Arabic, made
them useful as intermediaries between the Christians and the Moors. Jews con-
tinued to perform their traditional roles as physicians, civil servants, merchants
and inventors of nautical instruments. By the end of the thirteenth century, as
the Christian re-conquest was all but complete, the Spanish rulers began to
adjust their treatment of the Jews to the prevailing mood of the rest of Europe
and soon, as in the rest of Europe, Jews found themselves deprived of many
civic and economic rights. All of these anti-Jewish measures came to a head in
1479 when Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic sovereigns of Castile and
Aragon, were joined in marriage. Determined to rule over a purely "Catholic"
state, the monarchs ordered the expulsion of all Jews from Spain. Given just
three months to leave the country the last of the Jewish population departed on
August 2, 1492, a day that coincides with the ninth day of Av, a day of Jewish
mourning for the destruction of the Temple.
The practice of Jews concealing their identity from outsiders
is as old as
persecution itself, and it became more widespread with the advent of a politically
proactive Christian Church. In theory, the Church forbade conversion
through force, although, in practice faced with the choice of "baptism or
death," one would be hard pressed to distinguish between coerced and willing
conversion. Nevertheless the Church viewed such conversions as freely
entered into and many instances of mass conversions took place under these
circumstances. But as most of these conversions were entered into out of selfpreservation,
the converts tended to revert to Judaism when it seemed safe to
do so - a practice that transformed a large number of Jews from infidels outside
the Church to heretics within. These wavering Christians were regarded
by the Church as a greater menace than avowed Jews. The Marranos, as they
were called in Spanish, (meaning swine) became a major concern of the
Church and of special interest to the Inquisition.
The Inquisition was created to weed out heresy and in time,
an effective if unscrupulous covert activity. The distinction goes to the
Dominican friar, Tomas de Torquemada who bore the title Grand Inquisitor.
Father Torquemada's methods had been in use for some time but under his
direction it was expanded in scope and no one, neither woman nor child was
spared his scrutiny. Undercover agents trapped their suspects by checking on
their everyday activities -- Did they keep the Sabbath? Light candles on Friday
eve? Fast on Yom Kippur? Eat Matzah during Passover? Kosher their meat
while shunning pork? When caught, punishment was severe.
The center of Marranos life was the city of Seville - its
leader was Diego
de Susan, a well-to-do merchant. Don Diego had a beautiful daughter who
broke the Marrano oath of secrecy and disclosed to her Christian lover all
about her life as a Marrano. Armed with this information, the groom-to-be
handed the evidence to the Inquisitors and with the evidence in hand they
moved against the named Marranos. When the Auto de Fe trials were over, six
men and a woman were burned at the stake. In a subsequent trial Diego
de Susan himself met with the same fate. For most Marranos, day-to-day life
was conducted under the constant threat of discovery and exposure.
Alarmed, many Marranos attempted to flee Seville, but few
permanent pyre was erected outside the city wall. Public burnings were elevated
to a popular spectacle. Handouts were distributed to the crowd listing thirty
seven clues to spotting a Judaizer. In all, some 400,000 were tried by the
Inquisition in Spain, Portugal and Mexico during the three hundred years of its
existence. Of these, 30,000 were put to death. Lesser punishments were public
floggings, imprisonment and banishment. It wasn't until the eighteenth century
that the trials began to diminish and were finally abolished in 1834.
Even in the face of unspeakable punishment if caught, the
failed to break the Marranos' will. They remained practicing Catholics but
inwardly they were Jews. Their refusal to accept the dogma of the Church was
notorious. They attended mass regularly while practicing their Jewish religion
behind closed doors. They celebrated Jewish ceremonies, observed the dietary
law, married among themselves, and when it seemed safe, sneaked into the
synagogue. In the eyes of the Church their most serious crime was to pass these
practices on to their children As late as the sixteenth century Marranos retained
a familiarity with Hebrew, but as time passed and pressures increased, written
transmission of their heritage was replaced with word of mouth instructions
which were handed down from generation to generation - yet in this random
fashion the Law of Moses prevailed.
Marrano being condemned by the Spanish Inquisition comes
to us through
the sensitive brush of the great Goya
Marrano children were told of their identity when they reached
at the age of thirteen. Circumcision was not practiced, out of fear of it becoming
a death-wish if discovered. Nothing of Jewish belief and practice was written
down for much the same reason. Hebrew was dropped from prayers and
replaced by the local vernacular. Yet biblical names were given and used as
secret aliases In worship, both Jewish and Christian practices were intermingled.
Marranos knelt in the fashion of the Church instead of standing and bobbing
back and forth in the Jewish manner. The Sabbath was kept and candles
lit but always indoors with the blinds drawn. Passover and Yom Kippur were
sacred. Fasting took prominence over feasting because it was easier to conceal.
Purim was an important holiday, possibly because Marranos could identity
with Esther - "telling not her race nor her birth", yet Esther remained faithful
to her religion at the risk of being discovered.
Weddings were celebrated in Church, presided over by a priest
that was done the wedding party would retire to the home of the bride and a
Jewish wedding would follow. Thus, while elements of compromises crept into
their liturgy, Marranos held stubbornly to basic Jewish principles. Without the
benefit of the written word, without schools, without an organizational structure
or leadership and above all in constant fear of being discovered or
betrayed, Marranos held on against insurmountable odds. All for the sake of
retaining a semblance of their Jewish heritage.
And now we come to the New World. Christopher Columbus, before
departing on his voyage to the Indies wrote to Luis de Santagel: "In the same
month in which their Majesties issued the edict that all Jews should be driven
out of the Kingdom and its territories - in that same month they gave me the
order to undertake with sufficient men my expedition of discovery to the
Indies." Columbus himself, a practicing Catholic, is believed to have come
from a Jewish family that had converted to Christianity. When time came to
assemble a crew he turned to the Marranos because of their skills at seamanship.
His expedition was financed by Luis de Santagel, himself a Marrano.
Luis de Torres, the first European to set foot in the New World wanted to join
Columbus's crew but was turned away because he was Jewish. Just before sailing,
a priest was called on board, baptized de Torres and he was allowed to join
the crew and sail to the New World.
The number of Marranos in the world today is small and it
is doubtful that
they will survive for more than a few generations. Though there are Marranos
living in New Mexico whose ancestors came to America with Cortez's conquistadores,
they are a dying breed. Yet, the fact that they survived at all is a
wondrous achievement and a fitting testimony to man's unconquerable will.
The most enduring element in the history of a people is the ground they
live on - the place they call their home. There have been many people who
have preserved their national identity in their native land, even under foreign
domination, but at no time had a people preserved its spiritual identity and
national character in exile, to return after two thousand years, to experience the
rebirth of their nation on its native soil.
What made the Jewish experience different, what made it possible for the
Jews to defy a law of nature, was that they brought with them into exile a priceless
culture and a religious heritage. Their loyalty was not beholden to transient
rulers, passing through history - but to a philosophy, a way of life, a Book. The
unique quality of the Jews shows up in their extraordinary ability to survive
and even flourish in the Diaspora while their Bible filled the emptiness of
Since the origins of the Jewish people itself, certainly back to the days
Kings, Jews had been inveterate wanderers. Early migration was usually
brought on by some manner of upheaval. Invaders regarded conquered people
as booty of war and took whole families away to be sold into slavery. But the
principal reason for leaving Palestine was overcrowding. The few patches of
fertile land were insufficient to provide for an expanding population. In the
words of the Greek Philosopher Philo: "No one country can support the Jews
because they are so numerous." As a consequence, so many had left to seek a
life elsewhere that, during the time of the Roman Empire, more than two million
Jews were already living abroad.
The network of roads, which Rome laid out, connected all parts of the
Empire. Roads extended along the Rhine to the North Sea and along the
Danube to the Black Sea. The roads reached as far east as the Tigris and
Euphrates and Jews followed them with determination. They often went
armed, ready to defend themselves and their families. They were by no means
the helpless, cowering fugitives which the Dark Ages had made of them. Nor
was striking out in this manner confined to the young and venturous. Whole
families would move out together after learning of available farm land, commercial
opportunity or in search of a better life away from the crowded conditions
in Palestine. Over land and sea, wherever a way opened up, they pressed
on into the outposts of civilization. Spain had a vibrant Jewish community
even before the fall of the Roman Empire. Others ventured forth across the
Persian Gulf, to India and China and south through the Arabian Sea to Arabia.
In the north they reached the Caspian Sea and created settlements along the
banks of the Black Sea. Strabo, a contemporary of Herod, wrote: "It would
have been difficult to find a single place in the world where there are no Jews."
and Josephus added, "There are no people in the world among whom part of
our brethren could not to be found."
For fifteen hundred years, beginning with the dispersion
following the ill
fated Bar Kochba rebellion, the general movement of the Jews was toward the
west. This changed abruptly with the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian
Peninsula. Over 300,000 Jews, uprooted from their homes in Spain and
Portugal were again on the move in search of another home. Heading east in
the direction of their ancestral homeland, causing a large influx of Jews to
descend on the countries along the Mediterranean rim. Many of these Spanish
Jews, who were among the most accomplished people of medieval times,
joined the Jewish communities in North Africa and the Levant while others
continued on to settle in an expanding Ottoman Empire. The old communities
of Cairo, Jerusalem and Aleppo (Syria), which had been declining in population,
were suddenly revitalized. But it was Turkey and neighboring Greece that
benefited most from their arrival.
The Turks were essentially a military and a farming people,
of trade and finance to the Armenians and Greeks and later to the Jews.
Some 100,000 Jews found a welcome home in Turkey and by the turn of the
century they had become an important element in Turkish life. They were a
diverse group, bold and ever ready to take risks. The Turks for their part looked
upon them with a measure of skepticism and a mixture of admiration and
scorn. A diary left by a Turkish official contains his personal account of these
In Turkey you will find in every town innumerable Jews
countries and languages. And every Jewish group sticks together in
accordance with its languages. And whenever Jews have been
expelled in any land they all come together in Turkey as thick as vermin,
speak German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Czechish,
Polish, Greek, Turkish, Syriac, Chaldean and other languages
The Jews are allowed to travel and to do business anywhere they
wish in Turkey, Egypt, Cairo, Alexandria, Aleppo, Armenia, Tataria,
Babylon, Persia, Poland and Hungary. There is no spot in the world
which hasn't some of its Jews in Constantinople, and there are no
wares which the Jews do not carry about and trade in. Just as soon
as a foreign ship comes in from Alexandria, Kaffa (present day
Crimea), Venice and other places, the Jews are the first to clamber
over the side.
There are all sorts of artisans among the Jews who make a living
selling their products, or on the street. Whether he is skilled or not,
knows little or much no one has a word to say if he only pays his tax
to the sultan and his rent to his shop. (Unlike the Christian lands,
there were no limitations on Jews in Turkey in the practice of the
crafts and commerce.)
There are two cloth-shearers among the Jews and some among the
Greeks, too. The Jews of Constantinople also have a printing press
and print many rare books. They have goldsmiths, painters, tailors,
butchers, druggists, physicians, surgeons, cloth weavers, wound-surgeons,
barbers, mirror-makers, dyers…silk workers, gold washers,
refiners of ores, assayers, engravers…
The sultan has never used any but a certain Jewish physician who
probably rendered good service to him and the court. He was
allowed to build a large stone house of three or four stories in the
Jewish quarter. He died while we were at Constantinople. His son,
Joseph, is also said to be a physician. He now has his father's position;
is said to have a prescription to cure a bellyache. The Jews do
not allow any of their own to go about begging. They have collectors
who go about from house to house to collect into a common chest for
the poor. This is used to support the poor and the hospital.
Beginnings of East-European Jewry
There had been Jewish settlements along the shores of the
Black Sea since
early times. Excavations in the Crimean peninsula uncovered gravestones with
Hebrew inscriptions and symbols such as the seven-branched menorah. Many
of the inscriptions, which are partly or wholly of Jewish content, date back to
the first century, making this the most ancient Jewish community in Europe.
The amazing story of the Khazars, a people who settled in
the same area
as the Jews and converting to Judaism, caught the attention of scholars ever
since it became known to the western world through the 1660 translation of
Yehudah Ha'Levi's "Kuzri" into Latin. It is the story of an exchange of letters
between a Jewish official in Moorish Spain and Joseph, the king of the
Khazars. From this and lesser sources, a picture emerges of a people who
migrated from Turkey to the south of Russia in the fifth century and settled
near the Jewish colony along the shores of the Caspian Sea. The Jews shared
their knowledge of the region with the newcomers. They showed the Khazars
a better way to cultivate the soil, the ways of barter and according to one tenthcentury
Arab author, taught the Khazars the art of writing, using the Hebrew
alphabet. It follows that there would be a certain amount of religious influence
as well, which leads to the plausible legend that Bulan, king of the Khazars
converted to Judaism, establishing a Jewish Kingdom in Southern Russia.
Toward the end of the tenth century, the Khazaria nation
was conquered by
the Russian Prince Sviatoslav I of Kiev and came to an end three centuries later
when the Mongols overran the area. As best we know, the remnants of the
Khazaria nation settled in the Ukraine and it is also likely that some reached
various Slavic counties. While there is little recorded about this period there is
reason to believe that the descendants of the Khazars mixed with other Jews,
coming out of western Europe, along with intermarrying with Gentiles. Thus,
by way of migration and assimilation the Khazars were absorbed into the local
cultures and became extinct as a national entity - going the way of the Ten Lost
Beginning in the eleventh century Jews from the German Rhineland,
the crusades, found a safe haven across the border in Poland where they
enjoyed undisturbed peace and prosperity in its many principalities. Since its
founding and through the creation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in
1559, Poland, allowing for some notable exceptions, was one of the most tolerant
countries in Europe and would remain so for a thousand years.
Jews were welcome by the Poles because of their high educational
and skills. Whole districts in Poland-Lithuania were settled by Jews who were
permitted to practice any trade, including agriculture. Despite the negative picture
of the Jews which was later taught by the Church, despite the Jews' status
as outsiders, and some persecution, relations between Jews and the Christian
population had been relatively stable and benign for centuries.
During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, as the Latin Church
influence and the country came under the control of German emperors, Poland
experienced a large influx of Christian settlers from Germany. These new
immigrants came with their tradition of religious intolerance along with political
exclusion of the Jews. Concerned over any disruption to the prevailing
condition and to shield their Jewish population from the excesses of their
Christian neighbors Boleslav the Pious, in 1264, re-defined the rights of the
Jews in a highly unusual decree. Its preamble deserves repeating:
The deeds of men, when unconfirmed by the voice of witnesses
by written documents, are bound to pass away swiftly and disappear
from memory. Because of this we make it known to our contemporaries
as well as to our descendants, that the Jews, who have established
themselves over the length and breadth of our country, have
received from us the following statutes and privileges.
Among the more important clauses are those guaranteeing the
of Jewish persons and property and forbidding the harassment of Jewish
merchants on the road, the extortion from Jews of higher duties than those paid
by Christians, the destruction of Jewish cemeteries or the defacing of synagogues.
Despite the existence of these charters, anti-Semitic outbreaks
uncommon when the ecclesiastic authorities took to copying the Western
European model and made every effort to disenfranchise the Jews from the
general life of the country. The Catholic Synod of Breslaus in 1266 adopted a
constitution, similar to that of the Fourth Lateran Council, which resolved that
Jews should be segregated from the rest of the population:
In view of the fact that Poland is a new plantation on
the soil of
Christianity, there is reason to fear that her Christian population will
fall an easy prey to the influence of the superstitions and evil habits
of the Jews living among them, the more so as the Christian religion
took root in the hearts of the faithful of these countries at a later date
and in a more feeble manner. For these reasons we must strictly
enjoin that the Jews shall not live side by side with the Christians but
shall live apart in some section of the city or village.
In spite of this, the Jewish community survived and continued
to lead a relatively
normal life. Jews were able to move about freely, partly because they
fulfilled an important need that was recognized by the two opposing interests
in the country's economy - the nobles, and the middle class burghers.
Noblemen championed free enterprise, to enhance their newly organized agricultural
estates, and the burghers, while protective of their monopoly privileges,
reluctantly recognized the contribution made by the Jews to the economy.
In spite of incidents of government imposed restrictions, invasions and
pogroms, the Jews endured and by the mid-twentieth century there where three
million Jews living in vibrant communities throughout the country.
Development of the Ghetto
During the Middle Ages, society in general had a penchant
living. Jews, for their part, often welcomed the assignment of separately designated
quarters well before the imposition of the "ghetto", particularly if these
quarters were located in a safe part of town. The Jewish quarters, which were
a part of every important city, were called by various names: Juderia, in Spain,
Juiverie in France, Jodenstraat in Holland. The quarters were often sealed off
by a wall and massive gates bolted from the inside. By mutual consent the
ghetto was as much a matter of keeping intruders out as keeping the Jews in.
This precaution was appreciated at Easter time when Jews would not risk being
outside the protective wall of the ghetto out of fear of blood accusations.
Legislation aimed at enforced segregation came later, and when it did, it was a
sign of an insecure majority feeling that the existent natural social separation
Within the ghetto, law reigned supreme. Here the leaders
of the community,
usually rabbis, had the full confidence and loyalty of their constituents.
Governance was exercised in keeping with hallowed ancient customs supported
by legal sanctions, the ultimately divine origin of which was never questioned.
It was behind this protective wall of law and custom, more than the one
built of brick and mortar that the drama of Jewish life was played out. While
ghettos differed in appearance, there was little difference in the mode of life as
it unfolded within - be it a ghetto in Italy, Germany, Austria or Bohemia. Life
inside the wall reflected every aspect of the world beyond. Schools were available
to all and attendance was mandatory. The synagogue was the center and
nucleus of communal life. There were courts of law and administrative offices
There were communal baths, bakeries, slaughter-houses, inns and cemeteries.
The larger ghettos had a town hall and even prisons. The ghetto was a republic
By and large, the Jew was left alone behind his mini-walled
city. While the
Church was burning Christians alive for heresy, Jews went on living the life of
non-believers, unmolested in their synagogues. The state would raise armies to
crush infidels in faraway places while shielding the Christ-denying servants of
its treasury at home. So long as the Jews were able to remain invisible and pay
their taxes they were secure and left alone. But the moment activities inside the
ghetto were perceived as a threat to the State or Church, the results could be
catastrophic. It was under these anxious circumstances that Jews existed during
most of the Middle Ages.
The Eighteenth century witnessed a significant improvement in the Jewish
condition, but the majority remained poor, and confined to the ghetto. It took
a Frenchman, Napoleon Bonaparte, to tear the medieval ghetto gates from their
hinges and let the sunshine of independence in. Except for occasional meetings
with the Jews of Palestine during his campaign there in 1799, Napoleon paid
little attention to the Jewish people. Then in 1806 upon his return victorious
from Austerlitz he broke his journey in Strasburg, where he met with a group
of citizens of Alsace who presented him with a petition directed against the
Jews. As it happened, during the French Revolution, a large number of parcels
of land were confiscated by the government from the clergy and nobility and
deeded to the peasants. The peasants, eager to make good but lacking funds,
turned to Jewish moneylenders. But as it turned out, with taxes fixed by law at
high rates and the currency devalued, the peasants found themselves hard
pressed to repay their loans. They blamed the Jews for their misfortune.
Troubled by their complaints, Napoleon, on his return to Paris, was determined
to impose rigorous restrictions on the Jewish usurers but then hit on a
grander idea. Responding to those who spoke rashly of expelling the Jews he
declared: "It would be a weakness to chase away the Jews; it would be a sign
of strength to correct them". He followed this declaration up by calling for the
convening of a Jewish assembly of notables to "study ways of remedying the
The assembly, which met in July 1806, was received by a guard of honor.
Each delegate was given a copy of the twelve “imperial” questions dealing
with Jewish law and tradition, ranging from inter-marriage to domination and
jurisdiction of rabbis. The delegates were asked if Jews were prohibited from
entering into certain professions, if usury was encouraged and finally whether
the Jews considered France their country and were willing to defend it. The
answer to this last question received an arousing "until death". Impressed by
this declaration of loyalty, Napoleon proceeded to legitimize the delegation
into an official representative body of religious authority. Nothing less than the
restoration of the ancient Sanhedrin would do. He then formalized the occasion
with a brief imperial declaration: "I desire to take every means to ensure that
the rights which were restored to the Jewish people be not illusory, to find for
them a Jerusalem in France."
In formal proceedings, the Sanhedrin renounced corporate status, rabbinical
authority, and the dream of returning to the Holy Land, as a condition for
linking their destiny inseparably with that of France. As Abraham Furtado,
head of the delegation declared: "We are no longer a nation within a nation.
France is our country, Jews. Your obligations are outlined; your happiness is
History was about to teach a lesson of irony to the descendants of the generation
which embraced so courageously the Napoleonic attempt to elevate
Judaism by means of an imperial edict. What the Sanhedrin failed to consider
in its tragic innocence was the historic experience of European intolerance.
The shield that protected the Jew against contempt was now gone. He was
offered emancipation, it is true, but under specific conditions: That he recognize
the defects of his people's past and accept the benevolence of a society that
heretofore demonstrated nothing but intolerance and contempt. Decades would
pass before a new generation would come face to face with modern anti-
Semitism on the one hand, and modern Zionism on the other, that in combination
would provide the first clear diagnosis and remedy for a problem which
had become all but insoluble. By then Judaism would have gone through a
deep crisis of conscience and the center of Jewish thought would gravitate
from Western to Eastern Europe.
Russia under the Czars
One of the more significant events of the eighteenth century
was the emergence
of Russia as a world power. Until then, Russia was a vast territory but of
little political significance. By the end of the century, the sleeping giant awoke,
extended its borders, modernized its army, and made important economic
strides. From a position of marginal significance, Russia rose to the stature of
a nation to be reckoned with.
The first Czar to show an interest in the West was Peter
the Great. However
uncouth, he was far from empty-headed. Abroad, he pursued a policy of expansion
while at home he was committed to an overhaul of the country's domestic
institutions. By the time of his death in 1725, the Russian empire extended
from the Arctic Ocean to the Caspian Sea and from the Baltic to the Pacific
The reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine II are separated
by some forty
years. Catherine, was born German but as Tsarina, she was fiercely loyal to her
adopted Russia, matching Peter in her willfulness of vision. Like Peter she was
land hungry, with an appetite to extend Russia's borders in whichever direction
she could. She wanted Courland, which lay between Russia and the Baltic and
by 1795 it was hers. Poland was next. In three separate dismemberments,
Poland was parceled out among Russia, Prussia and Austria with Russia taking
the lion's share.
Since the sixteenth century, when Russia set about to consolidate
principalities into an empire, it had been fixed policy not to admit
Jews into its territory. Ivan the Terrible spoke of the Jews as "importers of poisonous
medicines and misleaders from the Christian Faith," and this same hostile
attitude was backed by the Empress Elizabeth, who proclaimed "I seek no
gain at the hands of the enemies of Christ." This condition prevailed until the
Polish annexation. Poland had one million Jews who unexpectedly came with
the newly acquired territory, leaving Russia with a dilemma. She wanted
Poland but not her Jews. Even wholesale transfer of this unwanted people was
considered but abandoned when western governments voiced stern opposition.
Ultimately the Jews were cordoned off into an area to become known as the
At first, except for the inconvenience of confinement and
restrictions, life went on much as it had before. That would change, however,
when Nicholas I ascended the throne. His plan for solving the Jewish problem
was to convert all Jews to Christianity, starting with the Jewish youth. This was
followed up with the passage of the Conscription Law of 1827 which lowered
the age of entry into the army for a set number of Jews from eighteen to twelve
years. The intent was to get these youngsters before they reached Bar Mitzvah
age and before they received intensive religious indoctrination. What neither
the government nor the church could do to draw the Jews away from their religion,
was now expected of the army. The children, under this early recruitment
scheme were not only exposed to physical hardships, but to long sessions of
spiritual indoctrination. The missionary activity was conducted under the
Czar's personal direction and executed with prescribed severity. It should come
as no surprise that the number of converts among the children was considerable.
Upon Nicholas's death, his son Alexander, a reform minded
many of his father's regressive policies and abolished the dreaded Law of
Conscription. During his reign the number of Jewish students admitted into
government schools rose substantially and other restrictions were relaxed. All
of this progress came to an abrupt and dramatic end in 1881 when Czar
Alexander was assassinated by a terrorist bomb. The terrorist was not Jewish
but a Jewess was suspected of being a co-conspirator. This was the spark that
set off the infamous pogroms - the wanton destruction and devastation of
Jewish communities throughout Russia.
By 1882 the overwhelming pressure on Russian Jewry produced
inevitable - a rush to get out of the country. Russia at the time had more Jews
living within its borders (when including the Jews living behind the Pale) than
any other country and constituted two-thirds of world Jewry. Many sought
refuge in England and the British Dominions (especially Canada and South
Africa) but most chose to come to the United States.
The first Jews to land on the shores of North America were
refugees who arrived from Brazil in September 1654 at the little Dutch community
of New Amsterdam. Wearily they disembarked, only to be told by
Governor Peter Stuyvesant that they must return to their ship and leave. And
when they refused, he petitioned the Dutch West India Company, headquartered
in Amsterdam for permission to expel them:
The Jews who have arrived would nearly all like to remain
but learning that they (with their customary usury and deceitful trading
with the Christians) were very repugnant to the inferior magistrates,
as also to the people having the most affection for you; the
Deaconry also fearing that owing to the present indigence they might
become a charge in the coming winter, we have, for the benefit of
this weak and newly developing place and the land in general, find
it useful to require them in a friendly way to depart; praying also
most seriously in this connection, for ourselves as also for the general
community of your worships that the deceitful race -- such hateful
enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ -- be not allowed
further to infect and trouble this new colony.
Stuyvesant's request aroused a great deal of opposition from
community of Amsterdam and when it came up before the board of directors
of the Dutch West India Company the request was denied. Years later, when the
British replaced Dutch rule, Jewish history in America became interwoven
with the story of British colonization and at the outbreak of the Revolutionary
War, the Jews, numbering between two and three thousand out of a population
of two million were among the first to volunteer to serve in Washington's
Later in the mid-nineteenth century thousands of disappointed
Jews who had pinned their hopes on the European Revolution came to the
United States where they found the realization of their dream: Equality for all
men without distinction of creed or nationality and supported by a constitution.
(The blemish of slavery in the South was resolved later). The German Jews
came with few skills and little money. Many turned to petty trading, an occupation
with which they were familiar from the old country. It required little
capital, a pack on the back, a pushcart, or maybe a horse-drawn wagon and
large doses of perseverance. They would load their wagons with all sorts of
trinkets, housewares and other necessities, and ventured forth into the newly
opened lands of the West. In many cases the Jewish peddler was the only contact
the settlers had with the people back east - bringing not only goods but
news from the outside world. The settlers came to depend on these German
Jews - their arrivals were welcomed and friendships developed. In time, as
farming communities grew into townships the roving subsided and the peddlers
established small stores in growing villages and as villages became
towns, general stores flourished on Main Streets and became an important
focus of the mercantile life. Trade and settlement was characteristic of this generation
of immigrants. They could be found in almost every new town which
sprang up between 1820 and 1860. During the California Gold Rush in the
1850's Jews were swept along with all of the others. Congregations sprang up
in the mining camps as well as in the cities. San Francisco became the site of
a very large Jewish Community
In the late nineteenth century an unprecedented rush of Jewish
arrived from Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe. Like the German
Jews before them they arrived penniless, with little more than the clothes on
their backs. Yet, the impact they were about to make on America was tremendous.
With surprising dexterity and ability to adjust to their new surroundings,
they molded themselves to the new and different life, whose efficiency and
tempo were like nothing they had experienced in Europe. Unlike the German
Jews who came before them, they clung to their traditional orthodoxy and
brought with them a strong feeling of Old World Judaism. For many, New
York, the port of entry, was also the ultimate destination. Life was hard but
even so it was freer and more secure than anything they had known in Europe.
America was a land of boundless opportunities and they were free at last from
the confinement of the Pale where discrimination and prejudice was all that
they had ever known.
Typically they crowded into the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
It was a
one and a half square mile area bounded by the Bowery, Third Avenue,
Catherine Street, 14th Street and the East River. By 1910 more than half a million
immigrants were crammed into tenements that were five to eight stories
high- all walk ups - 25 feet wide, 100 feet deep. Each floor had fourteen rooms,
only one of which was exposed to light from the outside. The East Side was
also the site of the garment industry in which most of the immigrants found
employment, working a seventy-hour week, twelve workers to a tiny room. It
was New York's biggest industry, 16,552 workshops, nearly all Jewish,
employing 312,245 people.
Were these sweat shops? Yes they were. They were, at the
same time, the
great engines of upper mobility. The dammed-up waters of creativity were free
at last to release a stream of talent and productivity in almost every field of
endeavor. By the turn of the century, an entire Jewish-led labor movement had
been created and established itself through four dramatic strikes. By their needles
too, the Eastern European Jews pushed their way into independence and
respect. The average stay in the slums of the Lower East Side was about fifteen
Emma Lazarus was a young poetess who served as a volunteer
Jewish Immigrant Relief Agency at Ward Island. She came from an old and
well-to-do Sephardic family, but saw in the poor Ashkenazi Jews, pushing their
way through US immigration with their bundles, the elements of a future in
their newly adopted land. She defended frightened and submissive refugees
against insensitive immigration officials. She grasped the true significance of
the American dream to the persecuted poor of Europe. When the Statue of
Liberty was raised at the entrance to New York harbor, her sonnet, "The New
Colossus" gave Liberty an immortal voice:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-toss't to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
The flow of immigration to the United States of all races
continues. Indeed, it would be difficult to find an American today whose family
did not take part in this great adventure.
In 1894, a Jewish Artillery Officer in the French Army by the name of
Alfred Dreyfus was accused of espionage. The Dreyfus Affair, as it became
known, rocked the very foundation of the French Republic and haunted the
consciences of men everywhere for years to come. At stake was not just the
good name of one army captain, but the reputation of the entire Jewish community
The condemning evidence against Dreyfus was the "bordereau", an
unsigned letter discovered in a wastepaper basket by a French cleaning woman
who worked at the German Embassy in Paris and doubled as an agent for the
French Military Intelligence. It offered to reveal state secrets in exchange for
payment. The handwriting in the document was compared with that of a number
of persons who could have had knowledge of its contents and through a
process of elimination, narrowed the list of suspects to one man, Alfred
Dreyfus - not that his handwriting was a perfect match, but because it came
closest to that of the "bordereau. At his trial, Dreyfus's attorney called on a
number of expert witnesses who testified that the letter had all the earmarks of
a forgery. The "bordereau", if anything, ruled out Dreyfus.
As they watched their case against Dreyfus disintegrate, the prosecution
announced to the court that it had additional evidence, but due to national security,
it had to remain secret and could be revealed to no one but the military
judges who were trying the case. Dreyfus's attorneys objected vehemently,
arguing that without a full disclosure of all of the evidence against him,
Dreyfus could not be guaranteed a fair trial, but in the end the defense was
On December 15, 1894, after two weeks of deliberation, Dreyfus was pronounced
guilty of treason against France and given a life sentence to be served
out on Devil's Island. Two years after his incarceration, a second letter impli-
cating Dreyfus found its way into the hands of Military Intelligence. It too
dealt with the transfer of state secrets and the handwriting in the "petit bleu" as
it was called was the same as that of the "bordereau".
The appearance of the second letter, however, raised some serious doubts.
Since Captain Dreyfus had been banished to Devil's Island where he was kept
in seclusion, who then was behind the "petit bleu"?
By then there was a new Chief of Military Intelligence, Colonel Picquart,
who was not fully convinced of Dreyfus's guilt. He also knew of a fellow officer,
Major Esterhazy, who was not only anti-Semitic but resented Dreyfus in
particular because he had been selected over him for a coveted position on the
General Staff. Picquart launched an independent investigation but as the evidence
against Esterhazy mounted, Picquart's superiors became concerned that
if the investigation were to lead to Dreyfus's innocence, the Army would be
placed in the untenable position of having convicted the wrong man. This led
the Army brass to call a halt to the investigation and Picquart himself was quietly
reassigned to a lesser position in Tunisia - but not before he had handed
the dossier on Esterhazy to his lawyer who in turn gave it to Scheurer-Kestner,
then Vice-President of the French Senate.
Scheurer-Kestner, determined to see justice done, proved successful up to
a point. Esterhazy was brought to trial and while the evidence against him was
beyond reasonable doubt, the military tribunal found him innocent and
Esterhazy walked free.
That might have put an end to the Dreyfus affair, and certainly the Army
had hoped so. But the news of Esterhazy's acquittal raised a storm of protest.
The Paris daily, L'Aurore, printed a letter to the editor, written by the novelist
Emile Zola, on its front-page under the banner headline: "J'accuse". It decried
the acquittal as a "crime against humanity". It further accused the Army of falsifying
and withholding evidence in a deliberate attempt to destroy an innocent
man and cover up the guilt of another. Zola, for one historic moment, became
the conscience of France. For his pains, he was accused by the Army of libel
and had to flee the country to avoid arrest.
It was then that Emile Loubet, the newly elected President of France,
decided to intervene. Loubet came into office at a time when criticism of the
handling of the Dreyfus trial, both at home and abroad, turned violent. Loubet,
concerned over the negative publicity, appointed a board of inquiry to investigate
the conduct of the two courts-martial with the result that Dreyfus was
found innocent and the president of France granted him a pardon and full
restoration of rights. The Army, in a stunning reversal, reinstated Dreyfus to his
former rank and awarded him the Legion of Honor. By then, Captain Dreyfus,
in middle age, was a broken man.
On the morning of January 5, 1885 Theodor Herzl, a foreign correspondent
for the Neue Frei Presse of Vienna arose early. He had covered the Dreyfus
trial from its beginning and today was the day when Alfred Dreyfus was to be
publicly degraded. Herzl walked in the bitter cold from Hótel Castile to the
courtyard of Ecole Militaire. Standing with a group of other reporters, he
watched as General Darras shouted; "Alfred Dreyfus, you are unworthy to bear
arms. In the name of the French people we degrade you." Dreyfus shouted
back; "Soldiers, an innocent man is being degraded. Soldiers, an innocent is
dishonored. Long Live France -- long live the Army". A sergeant stepped forward
and ripped off Dreyfus' badges and buttons. He then withdrew the prisoner's
sword and broke it over his knee. Dreyfus was then ordered to march
round the courtyard while a large and excited crowd that was being held back
by the police whistled and chanted slogans: "Death to Dreyfus, Death to the
Jews." Depressed and full of lingering doubts Herzl wrote:
At the time I was living in Paris as a newspaper correspondent
attended the proceedings of the military court until they were
declared secret. I can still see the defendant coming into the hall in
his dark artillery uniform trimmed with braid. I still hear him give
his credentials; "Alfred Dreyfus, Captain of Artillery" in his affected
nasal voice. And also the howls of the mob in the street in front of
the Ecole Militaire where he was degraded, still ring unforgettably in
my ears. "Death to Dreyfus, Death to the Jews."
The Dreyfus case contains more than a miscarriage of justice: It
contains the wish of the vast majority in France to damn one Jew and
through him all Jews. "Death to the Jews" the crowd yelled when
they ripped the Captain's stripes from his uniform. And since that
time, "Down with the Jews" has become a battle cry. Where? In
France. In Republican, modern, civilized France, one hundred years
after the Declaration of Man.
And here we are in the matter that concerns us. Here we are at the
lesson in history that any unprejudiced observer must draw from the
Dreyfus case. Up to that time, most of us had believed that the solution
of the Jewish question was to be expected from the gradual
progress of mankind toward tolerance. But if an otherwise progressive,
surely highly civilized people, could come to such a pass, what
was there to be expected from other people, who even today are not
at the height at which the French have already been for a hundred
It was the Dreyfus case that made me a Zionist.
Captain Dreyfus degraded
Following his experience in Paris, ideas began to crystallize
mind about the condition of the Jews and he was burning to do something
about it. "For some time now, I have been engaged upon a work of indescribable
greatness. I do not know yet whether I shall carry it through." It assumed
the aspect of some mighty dream. But days and weeks have passed since it has
filled me utterly, it has over-flown into my unconscious self, it accompanies
me wherever I go, it broods above all my commonplace conversations, it peeps
over my shoulder at the comical little journalistic work which I must carry out,
it disturbs and intoxicates me."
As a leading journalist, Herzl had established many contacts
Europe and he was now ready to test his ideas against the thinking of some of
Europe's most important leaders. In June 1895 he called on Baron Maurice
Hirsch, a railroad magnate and sponsor of a colony of Jewish farmers in
Argentina. He presented a copy of his thesis to the Baron with the intention of
drawing him in to accept a position of leadership in the movement:
Throughout the 2000 years of our dispersion, we have lacked
unified political leadership. I consider this our greatest misfortune. If
only we had a unified political leadership we could initiate the solution
of the Jewish question. I propose to call a congress of Jewish
notables to discuss migration to a sovereign Jewish State.
He got no farther than page six of his 22-page memorandum
called the meeting to a halt and told Herzl that he was a dreamer. Undaunted,
Herzl followed up by presenting his case to Bismarck and several other political
leaders for comment. The responses were uniformly negative. Herzl
remained unaffected. On February 16, 1896 a bookstore in Vienna displayed in
its window a pamphlet titled The Jewish State - the author was Theodor Herzl.
An entry in his diary dated Feb 14 reads: "My five hundred copies came this
evening. When I had the bundle carted to my room, I was terribly shaken. This
package of pamphlets constitutes the decision in tangible form. My life may
now take a new turn. And on the following day: "Meanwhile, the pamphlet has
appeared in the bookshops. For me, the die is cast"
When The Jewish State appeared, Herzl was thirty-six years
old. Born to
an assimilated Jewish family, his parents, while non-observant, made sure that
young Theodor had a Bar Mitzvah. It was the only formal religious training he
was to receive and his knowledge of Hebrew and Judaism remained scant during
the rest of his life. His views on anti-Semitism could be summed up in an
off-handed remark made to a friend: "over the years, assimilation would prove
the best solutions."
From high school, Herzl went on to study law at the University
where he received a doctorate degree in Jurisprudence. Following his graduation
he apprenticed for a while in an attorney's office - just long enough to realize
that law was not for him and that his true calling was to be a writer. But
while he burned with ambition, his attempts at play-writing, essays, and editorials
got off to a disappointing start. "I haven't even the tiniest success to show,
not the slightest achievement of which to be proud and here I am 22 years old.
Damn it all."
It was in journalism that Herzl was to show his true talent.
His instant popularity
as a columnist led to an assignment with the prestigious Neue Frei
Presse and soon after, he was appointed to the coveted position of Foreign
Correspondent in Paris, which led to his coverage of the Dreyfus trial and
hence to a turning point in his life. The Jewish State which incorporates his
thoughts on the status of the Jews and provides a roadmap to its solution, was
very different from any of his other writings. It was written by a person who
had just recently become aware of how deep seated anti-Semitism was. His
early background and convictions certainly did little to prepare him for the
task. Yet he was convinced, somehow, that this little book could bring about a
change in the history of the Jewish people and, as history would later confirm,
Modern Political Zionism began with its publication. The pamphlet which contains
only 86 pages has a simple appeal:
We are a people, one people. We have everywhere tried
to integrate with the national communities surrounding us and to
retain only our faith. We are not permitted to do so. In vain do we
expect ourselves to increase the glory of our fatherlands by achievements
in art and in science and their wealth by our contributions to
commerce. We are denounced as strangers. If only they would leave
us in peace. But I do not think they will.
Herzl went on to propose that through the active collaboration
European powers, the Jews would be enabled to create for themselves a national
homeland to serve as a sanctuary for those who sought refuge. It did not matter
to Herzl at first where this homeland would be, although he did mention
Argentina, but at the same time maintained that Palestine "our unforgettable
historic homeland" would be preferred. The essence of his thesis was that the
Jews be given a chance to determine their own destiny.
What surprised many of his readers was his flat assertion
had not worked. All the more so, coming from an assimilated Jew who held a
top job with a prestigious newspaper and who was welcome at the highest levels
of Christian society. He lived in Vienna by choice and was free to travel at
large, hardly a product of the ghetto. Yet his hard hitting thesis set out to
demonstrate that the condition of Jews in all of Europe was basically the same.
These same concerns were expressed by others before him but
blissfully ignorant of any of the other Zionist writings when he set out to write
The Jewish State. According to an entry in his diary on Feb 10, 1896 he had
just read Pinsker's Auto-emancipation and discovered an almost perfect likeness
in his basic ideas: "A pity I did not read this work before my own pamphlet
was printed. On the other hand, it is a good thing that I didn't know it --
or perhaps I would have abandoned my own undertaking"
To his readers The Jewish State came as a surprise.
Most knew him as an
able journalist and gifted essayist. A man who could write with ease about current
events and the social condition as well as history and great philosophers.
Even the style of writing in The Jewish State was different. Gone was the
involved elegance and nuance of the fashionable feuilleton. The Jewish State
is written in short direct sentences, each with its own impact.
Not everyone agreed with him. The Orthodox were outraged
by this assimilated
Jew who would pervert religious faith into a nationalist movement. At
the same time secular Jews, out of concern over Gentile reaction, objected even
more. Nevertheless the hysteria over the pamphlet gave Herzl the publicity he
needed - never mind that it was mostly unfavorable. In Herzl's skillful hands
he countered each argument with calm eloquence. What mattered to him was
that the subject could no longer be ignored and the entire enterprise be allowed
to fade into oblivion.
To the Reformed Jews of Western Europe, Herzl's giving up
was to deny everything they stood for. Wealthy Jews, whom Herzl would
rely on to provide the money needed for his program were dismissive or even
hostile. The term quixotic was often used to describe his work. From Paris,
Edmund de Rothschild agreed to meet with him but told him bluntly that his
grandiose plan for creating a Jewish national home was not only unrealizable
but would place in jeopardy all the gains already achieved.
Herzl's pamphlet was banned in Russia but copies were smuggled
reach his most enthusiastic readers. To his surprise, it was not from the westernized
elitist but from the poor huddled masses of Eastern Europe, the Jews
living behind the Pale with whom he had no association and knew very little,
that this pamphlet would be accepted with enthusiasm. It was here that he
became a myth-like figure among the poor and helpless.
Count Philip Michael de Nevlinski, a likable, debt-ridden
émigré of Polish
nobility had read Herzl's pamphlet on Zionism and became intrigued. Well
connected in European society, there was little about him that was ever verified,
even his title was open to question. Nevertheless the Count was a recognized
authority on Turkish affairs which he derived from a posting as Press
Attaché to the Austrian Embassy in Constantinople from 1874 to 1878. It was
in this position that he cultivated close ties with officials in the Turkish government
and through them had befriended the ruler of the Ottoman Empire
himself, Abdul Hamid II. All this came to an end when his bosses, back in
Vienna, learned that he had accumulated some large gambling debts and called
him home. Out of work, he sold his services to several European governments
as a freelance agent provocateur and part time spy.
Herzl met Nevlinski in May of 1896, when he invited the Count
home. The two men hit it off immediately. Herzl was very much taken by
Nevlinski's romantic allure. Nevlinski in turn was impressed by Herzl's audacity.
Simply put, Herzl was interested in acquiring Palestine from the Turks and
restoring it to the Jews as their ancient homeland. The idea was not as outlandish
then as it would be today. In the nineteenth century, territories were
exchanged, leased, and purchased as an instrumentality of imperialism, usually
to raise cash to pay off national debts. In this fashion, the United States
bought the Louisiana Territory from France, and Alaska from Russia. Eighteen
years earlier, Disraeli leased Cyprus from Turkey for a yearly payment of
92,000 Pounds Sterling and 5,000 tons of salt.
Nevlinski came to see me, after I had telephoned him.
With a few
words I brought him up to date on my plans. He told me that he had
read my pamphlet before his last trip to Constantinople and had spoken
about it to the Sultan. The latter had declared that he would
never give up Jerusalem. The Mosque of Omar must remain forever
in the hands of Islam. “We can get around that difficulty I said, we
shall extra territorialize Jerusalem, so that it will belong to nobody
and yet everybody and with the Holy Places, which will become the
joint possession of all believers -- a great condominium of culture
Nevlinski wasn't sure. He knew that Palestine had a special
meaning to the
Sultan. Besides, money did not play an important role with him; he showed little
understanding of its value. Nevlinski's opinion notwithstanding, Herzl held
to the belief that with Turkey teetering on the brink of disaster, the Sultan
would welcome an offer to improve his empire's finances and upgrade the condition
of his subjects.
What Herzl failed to see was that the Ottoman sovereign was
not only a
Sultan, the ruler of a state; but was also widely recognized as the Caliph, the
head of all Sunni Islam, and the last in a long line of such rulers that dated back
to the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Along with the Caliphate came the
guardianship of the three holy sites in Islam; Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. As
Abdul Hamid saw it, his paramount interest was not the national debt, but
rather the preservation of his regime and of his hold on what remained of his
empire. The empire was bankrupt, it was true, but that was the case ever since
he took over the reigns of power in 1876 and by now, with twenty years of
experience, he had become a master at manipulating the national debt. So long
as there was a way to cover his immediate obligations, any longterm solution
was not a matter of urgency and could be put off. He was also shrewd enough
to recognize that any help from the outside would not come without the intrusion
of western culture and he feared that more than anything else. So long as
he could hold that off, the status of the treasury, the backwardness of his country,
the poverty of his subjects were of secondary importance.
If Herzl was aware of this he never let on. In his self-assured
way he was
certain that all obstacles could be overcome in a private audience with the
Sultan. But first he had to prod a reluctant Nevlinski to join him on a trip to
Constantinople and arrange for a meeting with the ruler of an Empire.
This morning Nevlinski was with me for an hour and a half.
a strenuous talk with him, in the course of which I strove to re-kindle
his faith in our cause. Obviously something in London, and also
here, had discouraged him. I labored to impress him. I spoke in a
strong, determined, and imperious voice, I paraded our resources
before him, I advised him to serve us at a time when he could derive
the greatest benefit - that is early, at the outset of our activity.
He told me that in journalistic and hence in financial and governmental
circles my project was regarded as Utopian. The director of
the Landesbank had called it a fantasy; our publisher Benedict, a
madness. The journalists all laughed at it. I answered him: In ten
maybe twenty years from now the whole rabble will be licking my
Following this exchange, Herzl sent Nevlinski a short peremptory
"Leaving for Constantinople on June 15. Are you coming with me?" But
Nevlinski, having checked with his connections in London and Paris had
reconfirmed that Herzl's presumed financial backers were not backers at all
and that many people in high places regarded his project as nothing more than
a pipe dream. But Herzl, not one to be put off, employed a mix of charm and
argument to prod him into coming with him. What finally succeeded was his
announcement that with or without Nevlinski he would be going to
Constantinople. He was bluffing to be sure. Herzl knew very well that the trip
would be useless without Nevlinski and his connections.
On June 15 the two men were on their way to the Turkish capital.
lingering doubts Herzl may have had about Nevlinski were quickly dispelled
once they reached Constantinople. They were met at the station by a number
of prominent people and Nevlinski was clearly on intimate terms with everyone
of them. He saw to it that Herzl had the royal suite as befits the spokesman
of a nation and representative of a powerful (though as yet nonexistent) group
of financial backers.
In the meantime, Nevlinski was nearby in a privileged audience
Sultan. That night he returned to the hotel in a foul mood. The Sultan was
under the weather and the visit took place at his bedside under difficult circum-
stances. "If Mr. Herzl is as much of a friend to you as you are to me" he told
Nevlinski, "then advise him not to take any further steps in this matter. I cannot
sell a single foot of this land; it does not belong to me but to my people.
My people have won this empire with their blood. We will again drench it with
our blood before we let it be wrested from us. The Turkish Empire belongs not
to me, but to the Turkish people. Let the Jews save their billions. When my
empire is carved up, they might even get Palestine for nothing. But only our
corpse will be divided. I will not consent to a vivisection."
Surprisingly, none of this shook Herzl's rock-solid belief
that in a private
conversation with the Sultan he could persuade him to change his mind, so that
getting an audience as such, regardless of the outcome, had now become an
end in itself. If he had nothing else to show for his trip, at least he wanted to
legitimize his self-appointed role as spokesman for the Jews. But in the end,
the closest he came to Abdul Hamid was an invitation to a Selamlik, the colorful
Friday prayer ceremony held inside the palace compound, which included
a review by the Sultan of his personal guard and elite army units. As his carriage
passed, Herzl caught a glimpse of the man whom he would not get to
meet in person until years later. Herzl's impression of him: "He is a slight, sickly
man with a large hooked nose and a medium length beard that looks as
though it had been dyed brown".
Herzl left for London on July 2, hoping to line up a syndicate
bankers to join him on his next trip to Constantinople. But as it turned out, this
effort too proved to be no more successful than his attempt to speak with the
Sultan. Sir Samuel Montague, the key figure in his scheme and who was enthusiastic
in the past, seemed to have cooled to the plan since their last meeting.
When he finally did meet with Herzl, Montague distanced himself by saying
that he wanted to first know what the Rothschild's reaction would be. With little
encouragement, Herzl went on to Paris for a meeting with Edmond de
Rothschild. To Herzl's surprise Rothschild saw him immediately but after five
minutes into their conversation he knew that things were not going his way.
Rothschild told him that he did not trust the Sultan to uphold his end of any
bargain. Also, that he was already supporting a group of Jewish settlers in
Palestine and wanted to see how that would develop before engaging in any
larger undertaking. Without the backing of the moneyed Jews, Herzl was left
with nothing to bargain with, yet he seemed unconcerned as he was too busy
plotting his next move. His ultimate aim remained the same - the opening of
Palestine to Jewish immigration under adequate legal safeguards. What was
important now was to get on with his diplomatic initiatives - the money would
William Hechler, the Anglican chaplain to the British Embassy
believed that according to the prophets, Palestine was to be restored to the Jews
and had even written a book on the subject, The Restoration of the Jews to
Palestine According to the Prophets. From a reading of Revelations: "The holy
city shall they tread under foot forty and two months." With that equation and
a liberal use of numerology, he defined a "prophetic month" as thirty years.
This worked out to be 1,260 years which when added to 637, the year the
Caliph Omar conquered Jerusalem brought the date of the Second Coming to
1897 - 1898 at the latest. But he then cautioned that this would happen only if
the Jews were restored to their historic land.
Like Nevlinski, Hechler had read Herzl's pamphlet when it
and convinced himself that Herzl was indeed the prophet sent by God "to fulfill
prophecy." He was eager to become part of the endeavor and sent Herzl a
letter offering his services. He told Herzl that he had been a tutor to the court
of the Grand Duke of Baden and also knew Kaiser Wilhelm from his service
as religious counselor.
Herzl met with Hechler in his fourth story flat. The Reverend's
was cluttered with a large-scale model that he had built of the Second Temple
and an organ on which he played a recital of hymns to put his visitor into a
proper mood - while Herzl listened respectfully without knowing what to make
of it. After much talk about the Holy Land, which Hechler knew better than
Herzl, the Reverend offered to speak to the Grand Duke of Baden about Herzl's
cause and to the Kaiser if he were available, provided Herzl would pay for his
trip to Berlin.
The Reverend William Heckler - Suited up for his journey to the Holy Land
Of course I agreed at once. It will come to several hundred
guilders, no small sacrifice for a man in my circumstances. But a
chance for a talk with the Kaiser is worth the risk. At that I realize
that Hechler may just be a penniless clergyman who likes to travel.
He is an improbable figure if viewed through the eyes of a cynical
Viennese journalist. But I have to take into account the fact that people
who are our opposite in every respect may well see him in an
altogether different light. He won't have duped me, even if all he
wants is to take a trip at my expense. But certain signs lead me to
believe that he is sincere in his belief in prophecy. He regards our
departure for Jerusalem as imminent and showed me the coat pocket
that would hold his big map as we travel about the Holy Land.
That, to me, was his most naïve and almost persuasive gesture yesterday.
Hechler went on to Berlin but found the Kaiser inaccessible.
he stayed on until at the end of the week when he was invited to see the Duke
of Baden. On April 21, Herzl received a wire from Hechler saying that arrangements
had been made for a meeting with him. On the train, all the way to
Karlsruhe, Herzl suffered from a bad case of stage fright and as always resorted
to his diary in an effort to control his anxiety.
The fact that the Grand Duke sent for me is the most striking
that he - and consequently also the Kaiser, who visited him
only three days ago - are taking the matter seriously. This is the most
momentous, the most improbable turn of events. If true, it will hit the
world like a thunderbolt. Much will depend on the conversation, and
on the impression I make on the Duke. Still, I cannot afford to get
dizzy up at these heights. I shall think of death and be earnest. I shall
be cool, calm, firm, modest, but resolute in manner and in speech.
In his audience with the Grand Duke, Herzl pointed out that
the leaders of
the Zionist movement were German-speaking Jews with a strong pro-German
orientation. He also explained that a Jewish colony in Palestine would introduce
a German cultural element into the Orient. "We need a protectorate" he
said to the Duke "and the Germans would suit us best." The Grand Duke react-
ed favorably to Herzl's vision of a Jewish homeland and promised to discuss
the matter with the Kaiser.
It wasn't until sometime later that Herzl was to meet again
with the Duke.
The second meeting took place in Constance, where the Grand Duke was
spending the summer in his castle on the lake. Throughout, the Grand Duke
showed great interest yet repeatedly rejected Herzl's pleas to arrange a meeting
with the Emperor, claiming it was premature. It was Hechler, sitting by
Herzl's side, who rose to the occasion by suggesting that in light of the Kaiser's
upcoming trip to the Holy Land it would be the highlight of his pilgrimage to
meet with the Scion of David that made the Duke change his mind. In a long,
personal letter, the Duke told the Kaiser of his meeting with Herzl, acknowledged
initial reservations but expressed his belief that this "interesting movement"
of Palestinian settlements and the "consistent, diligent work toward the
founding of an "Israelite state" had now reached a stage where they deserved
"certain attention" in light of the Kaiser's forthcoming trip.
Encouraged by his nephew's favorable response, the Grand
Herzl back for a further discussion. The meeting took place on September 2, at
the Grand Duke's summer palace. The Grand Duke, more affable than ever,
ranged freely over the whole of Germany's foreign policy --"If I were to publish
(the interview), it would cause a sensation thoughout Europe." He told
Herzl of the Kaiser's keen interest in his movement and that Count Eulenburg,
the German Ambassador to the court in Vienna would be contacting him to prepare
a paper on Zionism for use by the Kaiser. He also told Herzl what he
already knew, that the Emperor and the Sultan enjoyed a close friendship and
that a favorable word from the Emperor at his upcoming meeting with the
Sultan would carry a lot of weight.
Herzl's meeting with Eulenburg left him euphoric and later
at the Austrian
Embassy there was even more reason to rejoice: "I have nothing but good news
for you," Eulenburg began. "His Majesty has, quite as I expected, shown a full
and profound understanding for your movement. I myself was a jealous advocate,
convinced as I am of the significance of the Zionist movement. It is an
opinion shared also by my friend Bulow, a fact of capital importance." He went
on to inform Herzl that the Kaiser was " ready to intercede with the Sultan on
behalf of your interests in a manner as exhaustive and as urgent as possible. In
this he will have the support of Foreign Secretary Bulow, who will be accompanying
In another letter to Herzl, the ambassador proposed that
Herzl head a deputation
to meet the Kaiser in Jerusalem. "I have already suggested this to his
Royal Highness and his reaction was favorable. "Should you lead this deputation
it will afford you an opportunity to present your wishes personally to his
Majesty. Finally I must urge you most emphatically, dear Doctor, to regard this
letter as strictly confidential. " And in a postscript: "I have just had another talk
with His Majesty. He has asked me to assure you that you will not be deceived
in placing your trust in his effort to promote your work for the protection of
poor and suppressed Jews. And finally, he wishes you to know that he is ready
to assume a possible protectorate. In making this statement he is of course,
counting on your absolute discretion."
Eulenburg was not exaggerating. The Kaiser's volatile imagination
indeed caught fire. He too had succumbed to Hechler's myth that the coming
of Christ was imminent and he saw himself ordained by God to play a leading
role in the event. The idea of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he would
proclaim himself " Protector of the Jews" not only appealed to his sense of
drama but left him fired up with a passion. It wasn't until the end of World War
II that a letter was discovered, hidden in the German archives, that spelled out
his belief in Zionism.
The letter was written on September 29, 1898 and sent to
his uncle the
Grand Duke from his hunting lodge in East Prussia. In it he thanked the Duke
for calling his attention to the movement with whose basic aims he claimed to
have always been in sympathy. He was now convinced that Zionism offered
serious possibilities and that the settlement of the Holy Land "by the financially
powerful and diligent people of Israel" would not only bring prosperity to
Palestine but restore Turkey's finances and prevent a partition of that country.
On October 8, Herzl met again with Eulenberg who told him
Kaiser is fire and flame for the matter. "I was able to get him really worked up
about it. That is the only way. He has to be passionately interested in some-
thing, otherwise he quickly loses sight of the matter because there is so much
going on." He then told Herzl that the Kaiser planned a stopover in
Constantinople on his way to Palestine to meet with the Sultan and asked Herzl
to be on hand in case he were to be called upon when the Kaiser presented his
case. Herzl was delighted. The bizarre affair with Hechler was paying off. In
his diary the entry on that day was: "Wunderbar. Wunderbar. The intervention
of Germany, as protectorate, is a fait acquis."
Herzl arrived in Constantinople on Sunday morning, October
the arrangement to meet with the Kaiser was tentative, Herzl felt that it was
imperative that he see him before he met to discuss the matter with the Sultan.
With the last boat leaving for Palestine about to sail, a desperate Herzl decided
to take matters into his own hands and get a message to the Kaiser. The message
which was hand carried by Wolfshon to the German Embassy read in part:
"…the most humble request for an audience, be it ever so brief and confidential
here in Constantinople so as to discuss a Jewish Land Company for Syria
and Palestine under a German protectorate, which the Kaiser's personal authority
and friendship would surely induce the Sultan to accept. God's secret is
upon us in these world-historic hours, therefore there can be no fear when He
is with us". It worked and three hours later he was being ushered into the presence
of the Kaiser.
Herzl made an immediate good impression. With von Bulow at
the Kaiser listened attentively to Herzl's proposal for a charter to allow Jews to
create a colony in Palestine. Herzl methodically emphasized point by point the
advantages a German protectorate held for both the Germans and the Turks.
When he finished, the Kaiser asked that he put the plan in writing so that he
could discuss it with the Sultan. As Herzl turned to leave, the Kaiser said: "Tell
me in a single sentence what I should ask of the Sultan." "A chartered company
under German protection." Herzl replied. "Good, a chartered company," the
Kaiser repeated. He then shook Herzl's hand warmly and on that note the meeting
Herzl's next encounter with the Kaiser occurred in Jerusalem.
He read him
an address that he had drawn up while on his way to Palestine. This time, to
avoid Turkish displeasure, he avoided the term charter, and substituted "land
company" for Jewish settlement. But compared with the warmth that the
Kaiser projected at their first meeting, Herzl now found him distant and
reserved. He spoke of a shortage of water in the region, his impressions of the
small Jewish settlements that were already there, but not a word about his
meeting with the Sultan. Herzl left the meeting wondering if the Kaiser had
second thoughts. He was right to think so. Since their meeting in
Constantinople, word had reached Wilhelm through the Turkish Ambassador to
Berlin that the Sultan knew of the Zionist plan and was not interested.
When his ship docked in Naples on his return to Europe, Herzl
straight to a newsstand to buy whatever German language paper he could find.
It was only then that the full extent of the debacle became apparent. On an
inside page, there was a short item from the German wire service: "Kaiser
Wilhelm received a Jewish delegation, which presented an album with pictures
of Jewish colonies founded in Palestine." Herzl's name was not even mentioned.
The break with the Kaiser devastated Herzl. Always conscious
charge of "visionary", he was returning from the East to face his backers empty
handed. Two years had passed since the convening of the First Congress and
he had nothing to show for his efforts on the diplomatic front. And here it was,
only months now before the meeting of the next Congress and he was desperate.
Having run out of options, Herzl turned again to Nevlinski.
confident that if he could speak directly with the Sultan the two could fashion
a charter package that would be suitable to both sides. The entry in his diary
for that day was: "The man (Nevlinski) might not be much good but there was
no one else to take his place".
Nevlinski had been out of circulation for some months, and
went to see him at his home he found the Count bedridden and under the
weather. Yet when the subject of returning to Constantinople was broached, the
Count threw aside his covers and sat on the side of his bed eager to discuss the
plan. When Herzl spoke to his doctor, he raised no objection to him taking the
trip. He told Herzl that Nevlinski was suffering from aneurysm of the aorta and
that there was no way of knowing when or even if it would burst. That it did
not matter whether it happened at home or in Constantinople. Herzl, in a bind
anyway, decided to be guided by the more promising diagnosis and to ease his
conscience, he hired the doctor to go along. On March 30, the patient, his wife
and his personal physician boarded the Orient Express.
Three days later, Herzl received a report from Nevlinski
on the progress he
made on his first day. On the day following, a second wire arrived from the
Countess stating that Nevlinski had died. The announcement came as a heavy
blow. Aside from the fact that his diplomatic initiative lay in ruins, Herzl took
Nevlinski's death as a personal loss. Furthermore, it was he who was responsible
for Nevlinski going to Constantinople.
Nevlinski's death had hit me very hard. Although he was
his wife will hold me responsible for the journey, despite all the precautions
I took. But Nevlinski is also a heavy loss for our movement.
He had the best contacts both in Constantinople and in Rome, something
now almost irreplaceable. With him, the romance of Zionism
has lost one of its most colorful charters. He was a grand seigneur
déchu, likable despite many questionable qualities, and with truly
In Vienna where Nevlinski was a known personality, his death
subject of local prattle and back-page newspaper coverage. Few took seriously
the insinuation that his death was "in the service of Zionism". Much of the
gossip had to do with the Count's exceptional skills as a con artist. He simultaneously
served six different governments as an undercover agent. The newspaper
that he published, Correspondence de l'Est which was available by subscription
only, was a tabloid concentrating on sensational and lurid news. Most
of the paper's profits came from public figures paying Nevlinski not to publish
unflattering stories about them. After his death it was revealed that the paper
had a total of twelve subscribers - yet it was a money maker. Several days of
this helped Herzl put Nevlinski's death into perspective and eased his pain.
Shortly after Nevlinski's death, Herzl began to cultivate
with the Turkish Government. This was a seventy-year-old Hungarian
named Arminius Vambery - a character right out of the pages of fiction. He was
an explorer, scientist and political agent in years past to the Turkish
Government. At present, he occupied the Chair of Oriental Languages at the
University of Budapest. But it was in the field of religion that he showed his
greatest diversity. Born Jewish, he converted to Islam and then to Catholicism.
He later joined one of the Protestant sects and finally Russian Orthodoxy and
held priesthoods in two of them. In later years he professed to having been an
atheist during all of his adult life.
Born in 1832 to an Orthodox Jewish family, he lost his father
at an early
age. When his mother could no long care for him she sent him off at the age of
twelve to fend for himself. He apprenticed for a while to a tailor and dropped
that when he won a scholarship to a prestigious prep school where he was
instantly recognized as a "wunderkind", with a phenomenal gift for languages.
In his lifetime he mastered twelve with remarkable fluency. In 1856 he set out
on foot for Constantinople. Working his way across the Austro-Hungarian
Empire and making a point of always putting up at the local church "where my
Latin conversation was sure to cause me some regards and a few kreutzers for
my traveling expenses."
In Constantinople he used his untrained but rich voice as
singer. His German songs were an instant hit. By now, fluent in Turkish, he
befriended several members of the royal family while they were out on the
town and through them he got a day job as a French tutor to the Sultan's harem.
From there he moved on to become tutor to Fatima, the Sultan's favorite
daughter, and through her became a close friend of the then sixteen year-old
prince, Abdul Hamid. It was also at this time that he converted to Islam, the
first of his four conversions.
Herzl first heard of Vambery from one of the delegates to
Congress but did not consider him so long as he had Nevlinski to rely on. But
after Nevlinski's death, Herzl decided to go and see for himself. On June 16 he
traveled to Mühlbach, a resort in the Tyrolean Alps where Vambery spent the
summer and was enormously impressed.
I have met one of the most interesting men in this lame,
old Hungarian Jew who doesn't know whether he is more Turk
than Englishman, writes German, speaks twelve languages with
equal perfection, and has professed five religions, serving two of
them as a priest. With his intimate knowledge of so many religions
he was naturally about to end up an atheist. He told me 2101 tales of
the Orient, about his intimacy with the Sultan, and so on. He immediately
trusted me completely and after swearing me to secrecy, told
me that he was a secret agent for both Turkey and England. The professorship
in Hungary originally a martyrdom because of anti-
Jewish hostilities, was now merely a cover. He showed me a mass of
secret documents, which however, I could only admire rather than
read, since they were in Turkish, including some written in the
Sultan's own hand.... "I don't want any money," he began. "I am a
rich man. I cannot eat golden beefsteaks. I have a quarter of a million,
and I can't use even half the interest I earn. If I help you, it will
be for the sake of the cause. " I told him: Vambery acasci (Uncle
Vambery) - may I call you as Nordau does - ask the Sultan to receive
me (1) because I could be of service to him in the press, (2) because
the mere fact of my appearance would raise his credit. I would like
it best if you could be my interpreter, I told him; but he fears the
hardships of summer travel, It remained uncertain if he would do
anything, and most particularly, if he would immediately write to the
Sultan about my audience. But we embraced and he kissed me when
Herzl followed up with a letter soon after returning to Vienna:
Dear Uncle Vambery:
There is a good Hungarian word: zsidoember (Jewish man)
one, and so am I. That is why we understood one another so fast and
so completely - perhaps more even at a human than at the Jewish
level, although the latter is certainly strong enough in both of us.
Help me, help us. Write to the Sultan, ask him to send for me. The
details we can discuss later before the audience, when I have you as
the interpreter. The audience as such is all I want before the
Congress. Talk (essentials) later. I don't want to khokhmetz (be
smart) with you. You would render our cause an enormous service if
you could get me the audience now. I will understand what you wish
to achieve with your autobiography" a royal tomb. Crown your pyramid
with the chapter: How I helped prepare the homecoming of my
people, the Jews. Your whole strange life will appear as though it had
been leading toward this goal.
In his reply, Vambery cautioned Herzl that negotiations with
always difficult and often nerve-wracking. He referred to Abdul Hamid, as the
"arch liar" whom no less a statesman than Bismarck had characterized as "the
best diplomat of modern times". Turks can never be rushed and in any event a
letter would be meaningless - he would have to go to Constantinople and make
his case for Herzl in person.
With another Zionist Congress not far off and still nothing
to show by way
of a diplomatic breakthrough, Herzl again contacted Vambery with a desperate
appeal. This time it worked. Vambery agreed to go to Constantinople, but not
before making it appear as a major sacrifice on his part. On April 20, 1901 he
arrived in the Turkish capital but the Sultan held off seeing him for more than
two weeks. During this entire time Herzl did not hear from him and found the
suspense of waiting almost impossible to endure. Then on May 7 a wire came
from Vambery telling him to leave at once for Constantinople via Budapest,
where Vambery would fill him in on the details.
Vambery left Constantinople fit to be tied. Herzl met him
at the Budapest
railroad station, where he immediately launched into a noisy tirade against the
Sultan - "It took six meetings to talk the paranoid lunatic into receiving you.
Not as a Zionist, but as the leader of the Jews and influential journalist. You
must not talk to him about Zionism, Jerusalem is as holy to them as Mecca."
The Sultan had insisted on Vambery leaving Constantinople before Herzl's
arrival, which he took as an insult. But, while Vambery thought that it was
essential that he be there, the Sultan didn't want the two in Constantinople at
the same time, fearing some conspiratorial link. When Vambery insisted that
he only meant to act as interpreter, he was told that an official of the Foreign
Ministry would do the interpreting. While Herzl listened sympathetically to
Vambery's tirade, inside he was overjoyed. At last he would get to speak to the
Sultan - he had waited a long time for this moment and Vambery's presence
would only be a hindrance.
Herzl arrived in Constantinople on May 13, accompanied by
Oskar Marmorek. "Here I am," he wrote in his diary, "after five years, sitting
in the same suite of the Hotel Royal were I stayed with Nevlinski at the beginning
of the business. I look out the window, a changed man, and see the
unchanging Golden Horn. Beauty no longer moves me."
Then began the slow, tortuous and expensive crawl though
the maze of
Byzantine bureaucracy. In the five years since his first visit to Constantinople,
he had grown in stature, now a national leader, albeit without a country. He
had, to be sure, shed much of his naiveté. Yet, despite his wider horizons and
a better grasp of technical details he still had a flawed vision of what really
motivated the Sultan, continuing to view him through the eyes of an enlightened
Westerner when in fact, he was dealing with a tyrant ruling with an iron
fist over what was essentially a feudal society.
Days passed without a word of a meeting. Then on May 17,
invited to meet with the Sultan and a number of his aides, He wrote later:
I still see him before me, this Sultan of a dying robber
Small, shabby with a badly dyed beard...the hook nose of a
Punchinello, long yellow teeth with a large gap in the right upper
jaw, the fez pulled down over his head which is probably bald, with
protruding ears. I see the enfeebled hands in the loose gloves and the
big, ill fitted shirt cuffs. The bleating voice, the diffidence in every
word, the timidity in every glance. And that apparition rules.
The Sultan went to considerable lengths to be amiable. He
with a medal. Each comment seemed to be accompanied by an assurance of his
deep feeling for Jews. Herzl when he spoke, opened by quoting the old fable
of Androcles and the lion. "His majesty is the lion, perhaps I am Androcles, and
perhaps there is a thorn which I could withdraw. I consider the Ottoman public
debt the thorn. If this could be removed, then the life-strength of Turkey
could unfold anew." Herzl then intimated that through his connections with
wealthy Jews he would be able to supply the money in return for "the proclamation
of a measure particularly favorable to the Jews." The Sultan listened
attentively but said little. Then, after two hours, Abdul Hamid rose, the two
men exchanged some final pleasantries and the Sultan left the room.
Sultan Abdul Hamid II
While Herzl was allowed to do most of the talking, even granted
hour, it was the Sultan who remained in charge. He dealt with Herzl in
the same manner that he treated all visitors. He avoided confrontation, never
committing himself, answering a question with a question. Yet in spite of the
backtracking and evasiveness, he remained focused on the same position he
took when he discussed the matter with Nevlinski five years earlier. Palestine
was not for sale. On the following day Herzl met with the Grand Vizier and the
Minister of Finance to go over his plan for refinancing the public debt. Herzl
then left for Vienna feeling confident that at last something will come of his
efforts. "We have now entered into actual negotiations about the charter. Good
luck, skill, and money are all we now need to realize everything I have
The big challenge now was to find a considerable amount of
enough to bargain with. Herzl's meeting with the Sultan received a great deal
of publicity and it seemed to him that both Zionism and his leadership would
now be taken seriously. But as it turned out his meeting with Abdul Hamid
made little impression on the moneyed Jews. The Rothschilds would not even
discuss it. "I have run myself ragged and I haven't obtained a hearing from the
wretched crew which controls the money. It is something utterly unheard of,
and fifty years from now people will spit on the graves of these men." The
upshot was that Herzl returned to Vienna empty handed, full of gloom and
resentment, and all the more anxious to keep the Turks in line while he went in
search of a miracle.
On February 5, the Sultan summoned Herzl back to Constantinople
then, all he could do was play for time. He told the Grand Vizier that his backers
were holding out for a positive expression of intent from the Sultan. But the
most the Sultan would commit to was to protect Jewish refugees throughout his
empire, "everywhere but in Palestine." Herzl declined. The Jews of Europe
already enjoyed protection in the lands they lived in, what they were seeking
was a place to call their own. Herzl was no longer certain that anything would
come of these negotiations. And he was right to think so. During his last visit
to the Turkish capital he discovered that the Turks had been using their meeting
with him as a bargaining chip to obtain more favorable terms from a group
of visiting French bankers who were there at the same time from Paris to negotiate
a major loan.
Yet as disappointing as these negotiations were with the
Turks, there was
a positive side to this last encounter. It laid out a new reality for Herzl of the
Middle East that he had failed to recognize before. In writing off Turkey, he
could now give his full attention to Great Britain's national interests in the area.
He saw a need for the British to have a foothold in the region as a buffer to protect
the Suez Canal. It was all a pipe dream to be sure. Britain, whatever her
intentions, did not own Palestine but that didn't stop him. "There will come a
day when Britain will rule over the Ottoman Empire" and when that day
comes, he wanted to be on the right side. In the meantime, somewhere in that
vast empire of hers, Britain would find a place for the Jews as an "overnight"
haven and Palestine would have to wait. With that, Herzl dropped the Turkish
option and turned his energies to developing the British as a partner to his plan.
The First Zionist Congress
The publication of The Jewish State had made Herzl,
acknowledged leader of the Jewish masses. Herzl's name became a household
word. Telegrams and letters of thanks poured in from everywhere calling him
the "new Moses" and begging him to accept the leadership of the movement.
At first, Herzl took his admirers in stride. His aristocratic nature leaned toward
enlisting the moneyed Jews, the Rothschild's, Baron Hirsh and Lord Montague
as the mainstay of his movement. But after having been rejected by this group
he made an about face and decided to turn Zionism into a grass roots organi-
zation. With that, he set out to lay the groundwork for convening a Congress
of Jews, although at the time he hadn't decided what to call it.
With the same drive and attention to detail that characterized
exploits, Herzl set about to stage the first session of the first Jewish parliament
in modern times and allowed himself just five months to bring it off. In seeking
world recognition for Zionism as a legitimate national institution, he envisioned
the first Zionist Congress as a world-class production, with broad media
coverage, and attended by as many of the recognized Jewish leaders that he
could interest in attending. And when it was over, demonstrate a national solidarity
that would fire the imagination of Jews the world over.
There was neither an organization nor precedent for such
Neither he nor any of the people around him were professional organizers. As
a result, the Congress became Herzl's own doing. It was his money, his labor
and his unyielding dedication that brought it about.
The first task was to send announcements to Jewish leaders
wherever Jews lived. The announcement read: "Sir: I am desirous to
announce that preparations are being made for the holding of a representative
Zionist Congress at Munich, on August 25th next. Everything will be done to
render this Congress, the first to be held by Jews, as imposing, as its discussions
will be of importance to Israel. In order to give the conference a thoroughly
representative character, delegates will be invited from all Zionist
movements, political or philanthropic, local or general, in their aims"
Prominent personalities and community leaders received personal
from Herzl himself telling them of the importance of their presence and
requesting a reply. But despite it all, the response was less then enthusiastic.
The Orthodox rabbis denounced the idea of a Jewish national home in
Palestine as going against the will of God. As they interpreted the scriptures, a
return to the Holy Land will occur only after the coming of the Messiah.
Zionism in their view was not only the creation of ungodly assimilationists but
decried the establishment of a Jewish state as getting a step ahead of the
The upper class Jews in England saw in Herzl a threat to
their position and
were alarmed. Lord Montague told Herzl that the Jews had no business mixing
Judaism and international politics. Colonel Goldsmid, in a speech before the
British Hovevei Zion stated: "we mustn't talk too loudly of the National Idea"
and advised his audience to boycott "the congress convened by Dr. Herzl."
Even as far away as the United States, a resolution was passed
"any formation of a Jewish state in Palestine in such a manner as may be
construed as casting doubt upon the citizenship, patriotism, and loyalty of Jews
in whatever country they reside"
Still, most discouraging was the defection of the Berlin
Hovevei Zion, that
up till then was eager to support Herzl, but changed its mind when faced with
the prospect of all the exposure that would come of a congress and denied ever
having an interest in attending it. At the bottom of their concern was the possibility
that such a spectacle would cast doubt on their wholehearted allegiance
to the German fatherland. Then too, was the opposition of the Jewish community
in Munich which was so fearful of having the Congress held in their city
that they threatened to obtain a court injunction to stop it.
Nordau, Herzl's faithful supporter from the first day that
he read his pamphlet
remained steadfast, but Nordau was alone among the Jewish elite who
were planning to attend. Yet in spite of all the opposition, Herzl was in his element.
He relished the confrontation and treated his detractors with tact and
diplomacy. He countered their arguments with quiet logic. He employed flattery
and cajoled his audience to attend the Congress, but refused to yield in his
purpose - the congress must and would take place. His response to the objection
to holding it in Munich was to move it to Basel, Switzerland, a site which
he preferred anyway.
As the opposition became increasingly vocal, it did more
to help rather
than hinder. With Herzl's skill at sparring with the opposition, the Congress
became a popular topic of debate and it helped to publicize it far beyond any
of Herzl's own capacities and resources to do so. Yet what he lacked was an
independent Zionist organ to give him a pulpit from which to wage his war of
words. In early May, he launched a Zionist weekly and in three weeks time he
was ready to go to press. Even though he had hired an editorial staff of three,
Herzl went over every detail of the first issue by himself. From format to editorial
content to checking the galley proofs, he supervised the first press run.
Herzl called his paper Die Welt (The World). The 10,000 paid subscriptions
barely covered the cost of publication but it was enough to take the Zionist case
to the public. It provided the material to make for spirited discussion and narrow
the breach within the Jewish community. Many of the uncommitted
became supporters of the Congress and even among the opposition there were
those who had changed their minds. Still, Jews in positions of leadership were
holding back. The western elite that Herzl had counted on to make his congress
a show case event, remained uncommitted. "Without them," he told Nordau, "It
would turn into a convention of nobodies."
Most of the Jews of Europe lived in the east, and at first,
Herzl did not give
them much thought. From the start, he had organized the Congress around the
leading personalities that he knew, dismissing the Ostjudenland as people of
little significance. He soon discovered that this was a mistake and when support
from the Jews of western Europe failed to provide him with a critical
mass, he quickly switched strategy and began to woo this neglected group.
With less than three months remaining, he abruptly redirected his efforts eastward,
toward that great reservoir of Jewish life which he at first chose to
ignore. But once he switched tactics, he immersed himself into the single task
of bringing the Russians on board. Rather than send out any of the previously
used materials, he re-designed the invitations to give them a "Russian" flavor,
then had it all translated into Hebrew. The invitations were sent to a list of the
most prominent personalities of the Russian Zionist movement. At the same
time, he sent a spirited Russian student, Yehoshua Buchmil, who was working
as a volunteer on his staff, to take the message in person to the masses of Jews
living behind the Pale. Young Buchmil traveled to Odessa, Kiev and Warsaw
to drum up support. His appeal met with mixed reaction but it was generally
The Jews of the Pale were a different breed. In their involuntary
they had developed a certain independence. Unlike the Jews in the West,
status was not important to them. The Jews of Germany, Austria, Hungary,
France, America, England, were in constant review of what the surrounding
populations thought of them. These same concerns were not shared by the Jews
of Russia who, as a result of their involuntary isolation, at least knew where
they stood with their neighbors. They may have disliked their condition, they
might have wanted to escape from it, but they did not deceive themselves. The
many years of persecution only toughened them, and their morale and their
spiritual integrity were greater than that of their more prosperous and altogether
grander co-religionists in the West. Nor did Jews of the Pale need an introduction
to Zionism. To them Herzl's message was not new. It was the manner
by which he was carrying it off that distinguished him from their own leaders.
While the heads of Hovevei Zion theorized on what to do, it was Herzl who
gave Zionism a plan of action. His aggressive stance, his provocative nationalist
rhetoric and emphasis on bold diplomatic moves was the brand of leadership
that inspired them. So that when Buchmil urged his audience to come to
Basel, they were ready to listen.
Lilienblum, Oshishkin, and Sokolow, the opinion setters of
their day were
personally wooed by Herzl himself, as was Ahad Ha-Am, one of his major critics.
It was only at the last moment that he decided to attend: "perhaps I shall
be there, after all. I may possibly be of some use, because it is painful to see
everything put in the hands of young people whose enthusiasm is greater than
Three months into the effort, the holding of a Congress was
no longer in
doubt. Many of those who were sitting on the fence began to join the ranks.
The dubious press moderated its sarcasm. Terms like 'wild eyed dreamer' and
crackpot' were replaced by more reasoned descriptions
Herzl arrived in Basel on August 25 to go over the final
he saw that day in Basel was disappointing. With only four days remaining,
many essentials remained unresolved. Even the location of the Congress was
unsettling to him. Herzl was outraged to find that the people responsible for the
preparations had rented a beer hall for the event. He immediately contacted
city officials and was offered the elaborate and sedate Municipal Casino. He
then took charge of every last detail, issuing a steady stream of instructions. He
was an indefatigable stage director, fully in his element. He ended up designing
the whole production, wrote the script, and was about to play the lead role.
His attendance at the Saturday morning services at the local
became the curtain raiser, a concession to the believers, of whom he always
stood in secret awe. He managed to memorize the few Hebrew words of the
blessing, although he complained that it caused him more sweat than an entire
His concept of politics as theater proved extremely effective
and his attention
to details paid off handsomely. But the conduct of the Congress itself concerned
him most, which he described as the Dance of the Eggs:
Stage managing the congress will involve a rare feat,
an egg dance
among eggs invisible to all but myself. Egg number 1: Neue Freie
Presse, which I must not compromise or furnish an excuse for sacking
me. 2 The Orthodox. 3: The Secularists. 4 Austrian patriotism, 5:
Turkey , the Sultan. 6: the Russian government; against which nothing
derogatory is to be said, although the deplorable situation of
Russian Jewry will have to be mentioned. 7: the Christian denominations,
on account of the Holy Places.
In short, it is a summary of all the problems with which I have
wrestled until now. Not to mention a few other eggs to watch out for.
Edmond de Rothschild, the Russian Hovevei Zion, the colonists
dependent on Rothschild's help. Then there are the personality clashes
that have to be taken into account - envy, jealousy. I have to run
the show impersonally and yet cannot afford to let go of the reins.
For the opening session he asked that the delegates wear
formal attire, tails
and white tie. To him dress was part of the staging and he was irked when
Nordau, his right hand man, appeared in a business suit and refused to return
to his room and change. "I took him aside and asked him to do it for my sake.
I told him: Today the Executive Committee of the Zionist Congress is still an
absolute nothing; we have yet to make something of it. People should be used
to seeing the Congress as a most exalted and solemn authority. He let himself
be persuaded, for which I gave him a grateful hug. Fifteen minutes later he was
back, in formal dress."
The First Zionist Congress assembled in Basel on Sunday morning
August 29, 1897. Herzl watched with satisfaction as the delegates poured in
from Eastern and Western Europe, England, South America, South Africa, the
United States and Algeria. By far the largest delegation came from Russia -
accounting for three fourths of all the delegates. It was a cross section of world
Jewry. The orthodox and reformed sat side by side. There were young and old
and they came from every economic strata - 197 delegates in all.
Herzl's appearance before the Congress set off a wave of
wild applause and
cries of "Long live the King". It was a spontaneous outburst of hope long
deferred, a deep longing for messianic redemption. An eye-witness, Jakob De
Haas, covering the event for the London Jewish World:
Then Dr Herzl came out of the side room and stepped up
platform. The gathering leaped to its feet and cheered and cheered,
in the acclaiming voices of a dozen nationalities. And then, exhausted
by its first burst of enthusiasm, sat down quiet and orderly. The
Congress had commenced. Dr Herzl as he delivered his first address
was listened to with spell-bound, tense, ear-straining attention. It
was neither the manner nor the method of speech, but something of
what he said, and the existence of his tribunal that impressed itself
deeply upon all. Herzl received the huzzas of a king, and men
climbed over one another to congratulate him. The address of Dr.
Nordau, which followed the organization of the Bureau of the
Congress, was accorded a reception but a little less royal. Men wept
over his new lamentation, which told not so much in tearful accents,
but in words that at one moment clashed like an ominous roll of
thunder, and at another crossed the horizon like a lightning flash. He
stood before the Congress as the tale of the years of woe. For the
impression was growing and growing that this was not a mere gathering
of practical men, not just a mere assembly of dreamers; the
inward note was the gathering of brothers meeting after the
Diaspora, and every word lent force to the ideas.
The Casino in Basel Switzerland - Site of the FIrst Zionist Congress
In three days - one of which was taken up by speeches, announcements,
and other routine matters - the Congress established the movement's basic
institutions and formulated a program of action. The highest authority of the
World Zionist Organization was to be the Congress, which would convene on
an annual basis, thereby ensuring a democratic institution. Delegates were to
be elected on a proportional basis. Voters, to qualify, would be required to pay
a poll tax of one shekel, the equivalent of one American dollar. The day to day
business of the Zionist Organization would be conducted by an eighteen member
Action Committee to be located in Herzl's hometown of Vienna. These four
principles created a simple institutional framework that guided the Zionist
Organization, almost without alteration, for the next fifty years, until the creation
of the State of Israel. "Ha'Tikvah" was adopted as the National Anthem.
The three days in Basel were Herzl's first chance to make
with Eastern European Jews. They were much different from what he expected.
Far from being the culturally deprived schnorers he had imagined, many of
the Russian Jewish delegates were brilliant, poly-lingual lawyers, doctors, and
scholars. He was impressed by their moral stature, as well. "They possessed
that inner unity which has disappeared from among the Westerners".
De Hass goes on to describe the final moments:
A vote of thanks followed, but it was not an ordinary
The Congress was on its feet, the correspondents mounted the tables,
and the audience in the gallery grew equally excited. It was not a
question of cheering, but of ventilating hearts full of emotion. I had
seen bigger crowds and have heard more vociferous outbursts, but
not the sight of this mass of waving handkerchiefs. I made a mental
picture of Zangwill's spare figure on a chair, waving a red bandana
in the midst of it all --the likes of this I have never seen.
The simple words of the president: "The first Congress is at an
end," were heard, but not understood; that is to say, no one realized
and no one could realize that after so many ages of separation there
was to be so speedy a parting. The delegates remained standing,
Herzl addressing the FIrst Zionist Congress
It is doubtful if without the dramatic trappings, the careful
obsessive attention to detail, that the Congress would have lived up to its purpose.
But it was Herzl, the man, that transformed a rather haphazard collection
of Jews from many parts of the world who were to meet each other for the first
time in Basel, into an organization with a sense of its historic role. In the end,
the Congress became a personal triumph and Herzl emerged from it with his
stature enormously enhanced and his leadership accepted without question.
That it came off at all remains a miracle.
Back in Vienna, alone in his study, Herzl for the first time
was able to sit
back and reflect on the week gone by. He then opened his diary and made his
entry for the day. "Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word - which I
shall carefully refrain from uttering in public - it would be this: In Basel I
founded the Jewish State. If I were to say this out loud today, everybody would
laugh at me. In five years, perhaps, but certainly in fifty, everybody will agree."
Herzl made this entry in his diary on September 3, 1897.The State of Israel
came into being on May 14, 1948. He was off by eight months.
In the upper Galilee, some fifteen miles inland from the coast, a winding
road off Route 85 leads to an observation point on Mount Ha'ari where on a
clear day, a vast and varied panorama unfolds in all directions. Toward the
west, the Mediterranean lines the horizon and in the east lies the Sea of Galilee.
Continuing along this same road for a short distance one comes to the village
of Peki'in with its mixed population of Druze, Arabs and Jews. In the center of
this drab village stands a synagogue, the only indication that Jews live here.
The synagogue is easily recognized as an ancient structure. What comes as a
surprise is that it has been in continuous use since before the fall of the Roman
Empire. Legend has it that two carved stones embedded in its wall were salvaged
from the remains of the Second Temple. The few remaining Jews of
Peki'in speak both Hebrew and Arabic. They make their living as did their forbears
by cultivating the land and breeding silkworms. These scrawny dark
skinned people do not blend in with their fairer co-religionists who returned, to
the Land of Israel in recent times, but they are quick to remind visitors that the
Jews of Peki'in are the "authentic" Israelites.
And authentic they are. Anthropologists who have studied the Jews of
Peki'in have established an unbroken line between them and the Jews who
lived in Palestine before the dispersion. The Romans, in putting down the
Jewish rebellion, laid the entire country to waste, slaughtered half a million
Jews and carried many of the survivors off into bondage. Yet even in the wake
of the dispersion, several thousand Jews remained by taking to the hills of the
upper Galilee. Two centuries later, after the departure of the Romans, the Jews
of Peki'in emerged from their mountain hideaway and made a revival. Their
population increased. Towns and villages sprang up and their farms flourished
all the way to the coastal plain. This went on well beyond the Arab conquest in
the seventh century.
This long and prosperous interlude ended abruptly with the coming of the
Crusaders. Thereafter, the wholesale slaughter of anyone not Christian drastically
reduced the numbers of both Jews and Moslems in the Holy Land. Yet
even then, the foothold was tenaciously held and in 1187, Saladin crushed the
Crusaders and ultimately drove them out of the country. Life once again, for
the Jews of Peki'in, returned to normal.
In the fifteenth century, pilgrims, starting with the refugees from the
Spanish Expulsion, began to return in small numbers. They were joined by the
Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe whose purpose for coming to the Holy Land
was to spend their remaining days in prayer and to be buried in the sacred soil.
Then in 1882, fifteen years before Herzl discovered Zionism, a small venturesome
group of seventeen young men and a woman imbued with a mixture of
Zionist ideology and social reform, quit their college studies and departed for
Palestine. They called themselves Biluim.
The Biluim came ill-equipped for the task that lay ahead. Their plan was
to find gainful employment in farming and in time to buy a piece of land of
their own where they would create a settlement based on equality, and till the
soil as their forefathers did before them. It was a commendable dream but the
youngsters were up against some formidable odds. There were no jobs to be
had in farming but even so they had little to offer. They knew nothing about
agriculture and were not prepared for the long hours of toil under Palestine's
With their money running low they were given work as farm hands on the
lands owned by the agricultural school at Mikveh-Israel founded by the
Alliance Israelite where they were put to work under the direction of hard-bitten
French agronomists who had no interest in Zionist fantasies. They toiled
eleven and twelve-hour days until they were near collapse. The wages were
minimal - they worked mainly for food and a place to sleep. "The overseers
kept pressing us," lamented one of the Biluim, "giving us not a moment’s rest.
They had been instructed to drive the spirit of folly out of us and compel us to
leave." After six months, sickness and exhaustion took its toll and had undermined
their will to carry on.
It was then, by some act of providence, that help came at the last moment
from two ultra-Orthodox Jews; Zalman Levontin and Joseph Feinberg who
had, some time back, decided to break free of rabbinical authority, leave
Jerusalem and lead a productive and normal life in farming. Raising enough
money to buy 100 acres of land a few miles inland from the coast, the partners
went to Mikveh Israel and persuaded the Biluim to join their venture. They
called their settlement Rishon Le'Zion.
The Biluim took up shelter in one of the existing structures and helped with
cultivating the land and planting the settlement’s first crop consisting of maize
and vegetables. But the harvest proved a disappointment and with their money
gone and without a crop, Feinberg hurried off to Europe in a desperate attempt
to raise money to save the settlement.
The Rothschilds were considered the first stop for all Jewish philanthropy,
and indeed the banking dynasty was a generous giver. Its favorite cause was
the Alliance Francaise Israelite, an organization that ran schools and training
centers to help liberated Jews to break with their ghetto mentality and become
"productive" "normal" citizens in a multi-cultural society. But at the same time
the Rothschilds were categorically opposed to Zionism and the Biluim were
Zionists. It was the Rabbi of Paris who persuaded Baron Edmond de
Rothschild to receive Feinberg.
The Baron had not heard of Rishon Le'Zion, let alone the Biluim. He listened
as Feinberg told him how the group of eighteen youngsters gave up their
studies and left Russia to establish a settlement in Palestine. How at Mikveh
Israel they worked long hours until they were near collapse. When they joined
the group at Rishon Le'Zion they were forced to prepare the land by pulling
rocks from the soil with their bare hands for lack of proper tools. He told him
that the Biluim tried to dig a well but hit solid rock and didn't have the equipment
to drill through it.
The Baron had heard many pleas for help before and always listened with
a good deal of skepticism. But there was something different about these
youngsters. The fact that they could have completed their studies and worked
at their chosen professions instead of the backbreaking work, against incredi-
ble odds, impressed him. Edmond de Rothschild was himself something of a
maverick -- rather than pursue a career in banking, he chose the life of a philanthropist
and helped stock the Louvre with the world's finest collection of
masterpieces. While Feinberg was still in the midst of stating his case, the
Baron reached out, and holding him by the arm started to ask questions about
the Biluim. How was the girl bearing up? What will they do for food now that
they lost their crop? Did any of them catch malaria? He was told that several
of them had. "I knew then,” Feinberg recalled later, “that I had won him over.
His questions were those that a father would ask about his own children."
Baron Edmund deRothchild
There and then the Baron made his peace with the fact they were Zionists
and decided to take them under his wing. They would need money, he told
Feinberg, to tide them over to the next harvest. They would need seed, some
farm animals, and equipment. Rothschild handed Feinberg a check for 30,000
francs. He also told him that he would send an agronomist from France to
instruct them in the ways of farming and help in the selection of crops suitable
for Palestine's climate and soil conditions. As the two men parted, the Baron
asked Freiberg to keep his identity a secret. He then added that he would
arrange to complete the well.
Shortly after the Biluim arrival, a second group came from Rumania where
life for the Jews had become unbearable. This group was more mature and
many of them came with families. They also had a firmer grasp of the reality
of settling in this forlorn corner of the world. Following a rough crossing by
sea, they arrived at the port of Haifa. Crowded into a small rooming house that
had no beds, leaving them to sleep on the bare floor, they soon met with
Samuel Inger, a watch-maker who dabbled in real estate. Inger told the group
about a parcel of land that was available a short distance south of Haifa, a place
the Arabs called Zamarin - beautiful spring. The land stretched over the crest
of a hill in the Carmel Range. Much of it was covered with scrub and very little
of it was arable. Its main attraction was that it was only one day's journey
by oxcart from Haifa.
Inger assembled the group at his place to describe the property. "What
I say, what shall I tell you?" he said to his prospective buyers. "There are thousands
of olive trees on the site, I saw them myself. "And I saw a tree flowing
with honey. Moses spoke the truth and his Torah is true: A land flowing with
milk and honey. This will be your inheritance" Without seeing it, they fell in
love with the place. Quickly a bargain was struck, 47,000 francs for the land
and 5000 francs to Inger as commission. But the land was not as he described
One settler, Yerachmiel Halperin, wrote in his diary:
On Monday, December 6, `1882 we went up to our land and
in the available mud huts. We found the soil too rock-strewn to
plough, and had first to gather up all the stones and clear the land for
tilling. We tried our best to discover the tree Inger old us about that
dripped honey but it was nowhere to be found. Nor were the thousands
of olive trees. We found only a few wild ones in the wood.
Batia Leibman, another pioneer, wrote to a friend:
"…men, women and children crowded together
into a wagon and set
off. There were no roads and the journey took the entire day. At
nightfall we were at the foothills of Samaria. We did not speak the
language, and so, though dying of thirst, could not ask for water
from passers by. We were blanketed in darkness. Our oxen would go
no further. Two of our men folk began to slash the thick thorn bushes
with hatchets urging the beasts ahead, and we women, babes in
our arms followed. We ran that grim gauntlet for hours, murky pall
and a deathly stillness all about us. Only the howling jackals broke
the silence,. Thanks to our livestock, we safely made the hilltop, to
be welcomed joyfully by comrades who had made the perilous
ascent before us. They sat round a fire and we sat beside them to
warm our frozen limbs and relieve our thirst and hunger.
But conditions improved as we learn from a letter written
later by Meir Hirsh Haufler to a friend who remained in Rumania:
We have been working now for three weeks and thank God,
already we see the result of our labors; the wheat is spouting fingerhigh.
When you come here and see the mountain facing you, you
may be alarmed, but once you climb it your heart is gladdened by a
vista of pleasant fields and bracing air, healthful and wholesome--
there is nothing to equal it. Our drinking water is far better than
Haifa's, sweet when that is salty. What do we lack? We have lots of
trees, plenty of stones to build houses with the timber for every purpose.
We have already ploughed several fields to sow potatoes, and
next week are going to lay out a vegetable plot in Tantura.
Six months later, Rothschild, having taken Rishon Le'Zion
under his wing,
now added Zamarin. The Baron, being the Frenchman that he was, saw in the
gravelly soil and the hillside exposed to full sun, an opportunity to grow grapes
for making wine and sent a viniculturist from France to start a winery. In gratitude
the settlers changed the name of their settlement to Zichron Yaakov, in
memory of Jacob Rothschild, the Baron's father. From this modest beginning,
the Rothschilds sponsored settlements sprung up throughout Palestine. He purchased
land, built homes, dispensaries and synagogues. He furnished the livestock,
machinery and farm equipment. He sent agronomists and managers
from France to train the settlers in the ways of farming and ensure the success
of their enterprises. He also used the family's influence to induce the Turkish
Government to show leniency toward the new immigrants who were there
without legal status.
In the seven years after his commitment to the Biluim, Rothschild
or supported twenty-five new settlements. Not all were successful but
this unique partnership between one of the richest families in Europe and the
early pioneers lay at the foundation of the State of Israel.
In early 1902 the British parliament appointed a Royal Commission
Inquiry to study the "threat of cheap labor" resulting from an influx of Jewish
immigrants to London's East End and Herzl was invited to testify as an expert
witness on Jewish affairs.
Herzl, as it turned out, proved to be an impressive witness.
In his testimony,
he described the wretched conditions under which Eastern European Jews
were barely surviving. He thanked the British people for taking them in and
expressed the hope that Britain would continue to offer them asylum. But then
he switched ground. "If you find that they are not wanted here" he told the
Commission, "then some place must be found to which they can migrate without
raising the problems that confront them here. These problems will not arise
if a home were found for them which would be legally recognized as Jewish."
Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary was intrigued.
was known to favor the use of client peoples as dependable instruments of
British Imperialism and conceivably the Jews might play a role while easing
the pressure on the domestic side.
Herzl made it clear that the Zionist's favored a return to
the Holy Land but
since that was not practical, a place close by would do. Perhaps Cyprus, Herzl
suggested or a place in the Sinai. Chamberlain ruled out Cyprus. It was already
densely populated with Turks and Greeks and the addition of another culture
would not work out. He then asked Herzl if he would consider a part of Egypt.
Herzl pondered the question for a moment then answered: "I don't think so, Mr.
Secretary - we have been there."
At that, Chamberlain lit up "In my travels recently"
the Colonial secretary
said "I saw a country for you, Uganda. On the coast, it is hot, but in the interior,
the climate is excellent for Europeans. You can plant cotton and sugar."
When Herzl described Chamberlain's offer of Uganda to Nordau,
him unenthusiastic. Herzl assured him that the plan for a Jewish home in
Palestine was not abandoned but only delayed. He then added: "If we acknowledge
Chamberlain's offer with thanks we strengthen our position in his sympathies,
we involve him in the necessity of doing something for us in the event
that our commission brings in a negative recommendation; and we have, in our
relationship with this gigantic nation, a qualified recognition as a state-building
power". The rationale was based on Herzl's belief that the Ottoman Empire,
"the Sick Man of Europe" was on the verge of collapse and when that happened,
Britain would be in the best position to take it over. Nordau found the
argument persuasive and agreed to go along with it.
The gathering of the Sixth Zionist Congress took place in
the wake of the
pogroms of Kishinev. When Herzl rose to address the Congress, he confirmed
his diplomatic activities with Great Britain and revealed for the first time that
Britain had offered the Jews a colony in Uganda. He then went on at great
lengths to assure the Congress that he was as fully committed to the goal of
Palestine as they were. "Zion this certainly is not", Herzl emphasized, "and can
never become. It is and must remain an emergency measure which is intended
to prevent the loss of these detached fragments of our people." That said he followed
up with a warning that the opportunity for developing a relationship
with Britain should not be forfeited. Nordau then followed with an assurance
that "Uganda could be envisaged at most as an asylum for a night and as a
thrilling new connection with the British government." Herzl's audience was
not prepared for such an announcement. One of the delegates, Shmaryahu
Levin, described the reaction.
On the faces where written astonishment and admiration
but not a
sign of protest. As the rousing applause died down, however, and the
implication of the offer sank in, a muffled disquiet became evident
in the hall… It was given its first expression on the rostrum by
Yechiel Gechlonov, a fervent admirer of Herzl and leader of the East
European delegates. "It fills us all with an inexpressible joy," he
declared, "that a great European power, for the first time since the
destruction of the Temple, has recognized with this offer the nation-
al needs of the Jewish people. But therewith is linked the great sorrow
that we must refuse this offer. Because our needs can be satisfied
only by Palestine.
On the following day the opposing sides reached a compromise
that a mission
would be sent to East Africa, with the proviso that it be exploratory only
and without authority of commitment. But as the debate wore on, the issue
became academic. The English colonists in Uganda did not take kindly to the
notion of sharing their land with an influx of Russian Jews. As a result, the
Foreign Secretary sent Herzl a letter which was very evasive and Joseph
Chamberlain came out with the statement that the land was probably too small
for large immigration.
Chamberlain's statement as it turned out was no disappointment.
opposed to the Uganda plan were concerned that it would become the permanent
and not the temporary solution and the cause of settling in Palestine would
have been abandoned. They felt so strongly about the Land of Israel as the
Jewish home, that they were willing to take the suffering, the privation and
even pogroms, rather than give up the dream. Herzl for the first time understood
the power of commitment of the East European Jews and admired them
For his part, Herzl was relieved. Unity was a major concern
of his and with
the dropping of the Uganda issue Zionists were able to focus on their original
goal. In the meantime, Herzl continued to cultivate his diplomatic relations
with Great Britain. "You will see," he told Max Bodenheimer, "the time is coming
when England will do everything in her power to have Palestine ceded to
us for the Jewish state".
Herzl died on July 3, 1904 at the age of 44. With his departure
of close ties with Great Britain came to an end. In the words of Chaim
Weizmann, a professor of chemistry at the University of Manchester, who
assumed the leadership of the Zionist movement: "We are standing before a
blank wall". Then, in March of 1916 Weizmann, was summoned to the War
Office, not as the leader of the Zionist movement but as a chemist of world
renown. Britain was faced with a shortage of acetone, a product used in the
production of explosive cordite, a component of smokeless gun powder.
Weizmann went to work and through his research, discovered a way to convert
potatoes to acetone through a process of rapid fermentation. This valuable
service to the Crown was not lost on Lloyd George, then Chairman of the
Munitions Committee and later to become Prime minister of Great Britain.
And through this connection, the chemist from Manchester, found himself
overnight in the company of the elite of Britain's ruling class.
Many of the people that he was about to meet were deeply
steeped in Bible lore from childhood. They had a mystical veneration of Jews
as messengers of the prophets of the Old Testament and found Weizmann's
knowledge and insights into the scriptures irresistible. And Weizmann, with his
constant references to the Bible, did much to nourish this sentiment. Lloyd
George wrote after meeting him: "Historic sites in Palestine were mentioned
that were more familiar to me than those of the Western Front" and through it
all, Weizmann never missed an opportunity to leave his listeners with a single
thought - that from a purely British point of view, a stable Jewish population
in Palestine, owing its loyalty to the Crown, would be an invaluable component
in safeguarding the Suez Canal.
The man most impressed by Weizmann's argument was Lord Arthur
Balfour, Britain's Foreign Minster. Balfour had an interest in Palestine from
early childhood. His genuine personal affinity for the Holy Land and the
Jewish people led to the conviction that once the Turks were driven out, he
would dedicate himself to reestablishing a Jewish State on the ancient soil. He
told Weizmann: "You know, I was thinking of that conversation of ours and
believe that when the fighting stops, you may get your Jerusalem."
As it happened, Britain didn't wait for the guns to grow
November 2, 1917 shortly after a British army, under the command of General
Allenby, crossed the Sinai into Palestine, the British Foreign Office issued its
famous Balfour declaration: "His Majesty's Government views with favor the
establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will
use their best endeavor to facilitate the achievement of this objective...." The
document itself was issued in the form of a letter addressed to Lord Rothschild,
head of the British branch of the Rothschild family and a member of the House
The Declaration itself is a simple statement consisting of
only sixty seven
words yet for the Jews, it was their Magna Carta. The realization of a dream
held dear by a people that longed for this moment for so long that when it came
they couldn't bring themselves to believe it. To many it was nothing short of
the coming of Messiah.
Sir Charles Webster covers Weizmann's achievement in the
Practice of Diplomacy:
No one will dispute that Dr. Weizmann was the main creator
national home, and without the national home there would have been
no State of Israel today. But even so I doubt whether this part of his
great achievement has ever received in contemporary history all the
recognition that it deserves. It was, in my opinion, the greatest act of
diplomatic statesmanship of the First World War. That period produced
several great leaders of small nationalities who obtained much
for their people when the world was transformed by the conflict
between the great powers. But none of them in my view, not even the
two most renowned amongst them Masaryk and Venizelos, can compare
in stature with Dr. Weizmann. The obstacles which they had to
overcome to achieve their aims were far smaller than those which
confronted Dr. Weizmann. Their peoples were already in physical
possession of their territories. But Dr. Weizmann had not such
advantage. The people for whom he strove to create were dispersed
over all the five continents. The home which he sought to create was
in a country whose inhabitants, except for a small and all-important
body of pioneers, was settled by another people. He had to go back
nearly 2,000 years to establish a claim upon it. There was no precedent
for what he asked.
With the advent of the Balfour Declaration, the reality that
the Zionist leadership
now faced was that after 2,000 years away from the land, the Jews were
starting from scratch. Palestine had few resources, little water, no shade and
lots of diseases. There was no experience at nation building and very little
money in the till. At the first Congress to convene after the war, Weizmann
made the point that Zionism was now entering into a new phase. Political
Zionism had served its purpose and now the priorities must shift to building a
national home and enlarging the Jewish population on the land. He further
emphasized that the endeavor called for a large investment of money and to
that end, the Congress created the Karen Ha'Yesod - the Foundation Fund, to
which all Jews were expected to contribute. It was voluntary to be sure, since
there were no means of enforcement, and the amount of contribution, while
based on the biblical tithe of ten percent, was optional. Yet Jews, the world
over gave generously - it was a way of fulfilling a personal bond with the Land
The Congress also established the Zionist Executive Committee
the Executive to function as a quasi-government of the Yishuv. Each member
appointed to the Executive was assigned responsibility for some aspect of life
in Palestine. Thus, departments were established for political affairs, immigration,
labor, colonization, education, and health. Political Affairs was a mini-
Ministry of Foreign Affairs housed in Jerusalem and interfaced with the
Mandatory Government. Most of its work had to do with the interpretation and
implementation of the Balfour Declaration. The Immigration Department was
responsible for lending a hand to the new immigrants to help them settle, find
work, and generally indoctrinate them to life in their new country. The
Colonization Department was responsible for buying land and creating agricultural
settlements. Public Works was responsible for building roads and other
The first task facing the Yishuv was to change the land into
a suitable environment
- drain the swamps, plant trees, build roads and cultivate the soil. The
influx of pioneers which started with the Biluim was followed by a long procession
of young and highly motivated people from all walks of life, determined
to build in Palestine not just a home but a new social order based on the
two pillars of equality and work, and they went at it with a passion. "Halutz"
(Hebrew for pioneer) became the central meaning of life. Their dedication was
the motivating force of a people who for centuries had been deprived of owning
their own land and who were now placing all of their energies into working
The pioneers were also committed to creating an economic
would be the opposite of the one they grew up with in Europe. One that was
devoid of one person exploiting the other and reflecting the willingness to do
all of the hard work themselves. And when these principles were tested against
the realities of life in their new country, there emerged a society that was new
and exciting. Much of it was centered around the kibbutz, that legendary Israeli
institution whose entire philosophy is based on a strong feeling of belonging,
a rejection of materialism and a tremendous amount of work.
The Kibbutzniks were totally immersed in a grand vision.
came not from material gain or personal advantage but out of a deep conviction
in the significance of their cause. Golda Meir who came to Palestine from
the United States in 1921 joined Kibbutz Merhavia and tells about it later in
"The Romantic Years":
I myself have always believed that the kibbutz is the
one place in
the world where people are judged, accepted and given a chance to
participate fully in the community to which they belong, not in
accordance with the kind of work they do or how well they did it, but
for their intrinsic value as human beings. Not that the kibbutz life is
never flawed by envy, dishonesty or laziness. Kibbutz members are
not angels, but they are the only people, as far as I know, who truly
share almost everything - problems, rewards, responsibilities and
satisfaction. And because of the way in which they live they have
certainly been able to contribute to Israel's development far in excess
of their numbers.
When the Jews returned to their ancestral home, they were
returning to a
country in which the land was occupied by others - much of which was owned
by wealthy Arab absentee landlords. When a large section in the Jezreel Valley
became available, money was raised by the Jewish National Fund - (JNF) to
buy the parcel and reclaim it. Work started with the draining of the swamps,
those breeding grounds for the clouds of mosquitoes carrying their deadly
malaria and making the valley uninhabitable. Roads were built where none
existed before and trees were planted to provide shade. There was little money
and even food was often scarce. Many of the settlements were in remote places
and were in constant danger of being attacked by marauding Arab bands. Yet
in time the land was transformed from a malarial waste into a green and golden
carpet extending as far as the eye could see. Twenty new collective and
cooperative villages were functioning in the Emek by 1925. At the same time,
other farm settlements were springing up on JNF and private property along
the coast and in the Galilee.
Starting in 1922 an unexpected and sizeable influx of Polish
in the country. They came essentially as economic fugitives. The Polish government
had nationalized whole industries in which Jews were prominently
represented and drove Jews out of their government-held jobs. Within two
years of the new decrees, fully one third of Jewish businesses had filed for
bankruptcy. Between 1924 and 1928, 70,000 came to Palestine. Few of the
newcomers were as dedicated as the pioneers. Instead of fulfilling a dream of
coming to the Promised Land, they were running away from an oppressive
anti-Semitic government back home. The new immigrants had little interest in
farming. They gravitated to the cities and set up the same little shops that they
had left behind in Poland. Weizmann regarded their arrival with misgivings
and in a speech on October 13, 1924, he warned:
When one leaves the Emek (Jezreel Valley) and comes into
streets of Tel Aviv, the whole picture changes. The rising stream of
immigration delights me nor do I underrate the importance of this
immigration for our work of reconstruction. Our brothers and sisters
of Djika and Nalveski (two ghettos in Warsaw) are flesh of our flesh
and blood of our blood. But we must see to it that we direct this
stream and do not allow it to distract us from our goal. It is essential
to remember that we are not building our National Home on the
model of Djika and Nalveski.
Draining the swamps
As it turned out there was no reason for concern. If the
storekeepers were less than pioneers, in their own way their contribution
toward building the nation was substantial. In rejecting life on the farm, they
laid the foundation for the Yishuv's urban economy. By settling in the three
major cities they doubled the populations of Jerusalem and Haifa, but it was
Tel Aviv that benefited most. At the time of their arrival, Tel-Aviv had a population
of 3,600. It grew to 16,000 by 1924 and to 46,000 by 1929. After that
there was no looking back. Tel Aviv represented a new eagerness. It was
always impatient to move on. The city went up block by block with little
thought given to city planning. By 1939 Tel Aviv boasted a population of
160,000 inhabitants and became the country's commercial and industrial center.
A frontier town in 1922 became Palestine's largest city.
The twenties also witnessed the beginnings of industry throughout
Palestine. It started with a brick factory in Tel Aviv. Shortly afterwards a
Jewish engineer from Russia, Pinchas Rutenberg, obtained a concession from
the Mandatory Government to build an electric power plant in Tel Aviv and
soon after, two more were built, one in Haifa and one in Tiberius. From 1922
on, private capital established a salt works at the Dead Sea, a flour mill and an
oil factory in Haifa. In 1925 the Nesher cement factory went into operation.
The new factories, along with an expanding agriculture, were
growing labor force. But it was the construction industry that experienced the
greatest growth. By 1927 as many as 45 percent of the workers in Tel Aviv
were employed in the building trades and the beginnings of a sizable blue-collar
working class was visible for the first time.
The acceptance of Hebrew as a spoken language was an even
achievement. Creating a new state with a unique national culture called for the
establishment of a single unifying language. But from the outset it was not
obvious that it should be Hebrew. Hebrew had been out of use as a spoken language
since biblical times. Most of the immigrants to Palestine spoke Yiddish
and there was good reason for Yiddish becoming the Yeshuv's official language.
But Yiddish came to symbolize the Diaspora and the early settlers wanted
to make a clean break with the past.
It was Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who made the acceptance of Hebrew
pursuit. When the Ben Yehudas disembarked at the port of Jaffa, they vowed
that henceforth they would speak only Hebrew to one another. Theirs became
the first Hebrew-speaking household in the country and their first son was the
first Hebrew-speaking child since antiquity.
The first to use Hebrew in their everyday lives were the
young people, full of hope and enthusiasm, insisted on using Hebrew in all
manner of communication. Had they not displayed such obstinacy, Hebrew
might not have become established as the common vernacular. But its acceptance
did not come about without a long and bitter struggle. The ultra-Orthodox
regarded Hebrew as holy, restricted to use in prayer. To use it for everyday purpose
was considered a desecration of the sacred tongue. That argument was
settled when the British named Hebrew as one of the three official languages
of the Mandate along with English and Arabic. While the ultra-Orthodox continue
to use Yiddish, Hebrew today is Israel's official language and it is at once
the most ancient and the most modern languages in use today.
While the country was developing economically, the schooling
of its children
was not overlooked. Education through the eighth grade was available to
all and the educational level in the remote settlements was as high as in the
urban centers. But the crown jewel of the Yishuv was the Hebrew University
in Jerusalem. It was Weizmann who originated the idea of an institution of
higher learning as part of his dream of the return to Zion. In July 1918, while
the guns could still be heard on Mount Scopus, the foundation stones of the
Hebrew University were being laid during a subdued ceremony. General
Allenby left the battlefield to be there. Others in attendance were dignitaries of
the three religions represented in Palestine. For Weizmann it was a great personal
achievement. Of that day he wrote:
The physical setting of the ceremony was of unforgettable
sublime beauty. The declining sun flooded the hills of Judea and
Moab with golden light, and it seemed to me, too, that the transfigured
heights were watching, wondering, dimly aware perhaps that
this was the beginning of the return of their own people after many
days. Below us lay Jerusalem, gleaming like a jewel. We were practically
within sound of the guns on the northern front, and I spoke
briefly, contrasting the desolation which the war was bringing with
the creative significance of the act on which we were engaged,
recalling, too, that only a week before we had observed the fast of
the Ninth of Av, the day on which the Temple was destroyed and the
Jewish national political existence extinguished - apparently forever.
We were here to plant the germ of a new Jewish life.
The ceremony did not last longer than an hour. When it was over,
we sang Ha'Tikvah and God Save the King. Yet no one seemed anxious
to leave, and we stood silent with bowed heads, round the little
row of stones while the twilight deepened into night.
It wasn't until seven years later that the University was
It was an impressive sight. Dignitaries from all over the world were there in a
natural amphitheater, garbed in their colorful robes. Lord Balfour, who had
done so much to make it possible delivered the inaugural address. Wearing his
scarlet robes of Cambridge, he seemed to express the feelings of so many like
him in the Gentile World that were pleased to show their support for the Jewish
return to their ancestral home.
It is not the magnificence of the view which is stretched
you. It is the consciousness that this occasion marks a great epoch in
the history of a people who have made this little land of Palestine, a
seed ground of great religion, and whose intellectual and moral destiny
is again, from a national point of view, reviving, and who will
look back to this day which we are celebrating as one of the great
milestones in its future career.
In the brief period between the two world wars the Yishuv
grew from a
population of fifty thousand to just under half-a-million. For the first time the
people that put so much of themselves into building a country were enjoying a
measure of prosperity. The Yishuv had an autonomous agricultural system with
160 farming settlements and more were on the way. The country's citrus, sold
under the Jaffa brand was in demand for its high quality throughout Europe.
Industry too had made strides. It was small to be sure - much of it consisted of
independently owned work shops. Consumption of electric power, a reliable
indicator of industrial activity trebled in the three years between 1933 and 1935
and the Levant Fair, held in Tel Aviv had over a thousand exhibitors.
In the short period since the Balfour Declaration, the Yishuv
a swamp-ridden backwater, into a land of green and golden pastures.
The barren hills were covered with thousands of newly planted trees. The
Yishuv boasted a lively Hebrew culture - there were three theater groups and a
world class orchestra. It had its own education system and a national health
service. Zionism was no longer a political theory but a fact.
In normal times these achievements would have been taken
as reason to
pause and reflect on two decades of collective progress. But these were not
normal times. The year was 1938 and dark clouds were gathering on the horizon.
Arab nationalism was on the rise. The statesmen who nurtured the Balfour
Declaration were gone and those who replaced them were deep into other concerns,
while a Nazi regime was on the rise in Germany, committed to the domination
of all of Europe and the annihilation of an entire family of the human
The year was 1938 and war in Europe was looming on the horizon. While
the world searched for a clue to Hitler's sanity, Germans were hailing his propaganda
in a manner that bordered on mass hysteria. The prospect of war, so
joyfully acclaimed in Germany, could be denied only by those given to selfdeception.
The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, correctly concluded that
the question of war was not "if" but "when" and was deeply concerned over
Britain's lack of preparedness. In a desperate effort to buy time, Chamberlain
embarked on a number of initiatives which were collectively packaged in the
public mind as the "Year of Appeasement."
Although no stranger to realpolitik, the Prime Minister was still inclined
believe that most disputes could be settled with a friendly chat over a cup of
tea, met with Adolph Hitler in Munich, and acceded to a German takeover of
Czechoslovakia in return for Hitler's word that he had no further territorial
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, a crisis of another kind was brewing. In
April of 1936, an Arab revolt against British rule broke out, under the leadership
of the Mufti of Jerusalem. The Arab High Committee, established to
organize the disturbance, demanded an immediate halt to all Jewish immigration
to Palestine, and warned that civil disobedience would continue until their
demands were met.
Upon his return from Munich, Chamberlain met with his Colonial
Secretary, Ramsay MacDonald, and instructed him to meet with the Arab leaders
of the region, along with the Jewish Agency, and arrive at a solution to the
Palestinian unrest. He was to make every effort to forge an agreement that was
acceptable to both sides, but failing that, he was instructed by the Prime
Minister to impose a settlement of his own - one that safeguarded British interests.
"…however valuable Jewish support may be, it was no compensation for
the loss of Arab goodwill".
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Great Britain and
Hitler after agreeing to a German takeover of Czechoslovakia
Jews and Arabs met on February 7, 1939 at St. James's Palace. The Arabs
set the tone for the gathering by refusing to sit at the same table with the Jewish
delegates. The Arab case, presented by Jamil Al-Husseini was uncompromising
- demanding an end to Britain's mandate over Palestine and a halt to Jewish
immigration as the price for a treaty to safeguard reasonable British interests
in Palestine. If MacDonald had hoped for any moderation in the Arab position,
it was not to happen. The Arabs were not prepared to make any concessions of
any kind, and the Palestinians, among them, acted not only through conviction
but at the price of their lives.
In his meeting with the Jews, MacDonald asserted frankly that Jewish
immigration lay at the heart of the Arab unrest and pressed the Jews to accept
a fixed ceiling on immigration and agree to an arrangement whereby any
increases to those limits be subject to Arab consent. The Secretary, in laying
down his conditions, reminded the Jews that Britain's lifeline in the Middle
East depended largely upon the sympathetic understanding of the Arab world.
"With war imminent," he told the Jews "His Majesty's Government was left
with no choice but to ensure that Arab Governments were not tempted to
accept support from hostile powers. There were important British security
interests that could be protected only through Arab goodwill."
The conference ended on February 17, without an agreement - leaving the
Foreign Minister to impose a solution of his own. If appeasement was to be
practiced here, it would be done at the expense of one of the parties and
MacDonald reasoned correctly, that in the coming war, the Jews would have
no choice as to which side they would support, while the Arabs, already
inclined to favor the Nazis, could go either way. Based on this reasoning,
Britain elected to appease the Arabs at the expense of the Jews.
On May 14 - in a clear surrender to Arab intransigence, the British
Government issued its White Paper of 1939. In it, Britain agreed to surrender
its rule over Palestine within ten years and in its place, create a Palestinian state
with a Jewish minority. The White Paper also reduced Jewish immigration to
a trickle, to be shut off completely after five years. Thus in a single cynical act,
Britain effectively abolished all that had been promised the Jews in the Balfour
Declaration. By curtailing immigration, the White Paper created the absurdity
of a "Jewish National Home" to which no Jew would be allowed entry.
With Nazism on the rise, the restrictions imposed by the White Paper left
the Jews of Europe in a life threatening position. The United States, despite its
tradition of providing refuge for the needy, was admitting fewer than 7,000
Jews per year; Argentina, 3,000; Brazil 1,750; South Africa, 1,000. Palestine
had been admitting as many as 60,000 per annum but that number dropped to
10,000 following the issue of the White Paper. These numbers speak for themselves.
For the seven million Jews trapped inside Europe, finding a way out
became a matter of life and death.
To deal with the crisis, an emergency conference was convened in Evian,
France, but nothing came of it. The British agreed to participate on condition
that Palestine was taken off the agenda. One speaker after another stepped up
to the rostrum to announce that there was no room in their respective countries
for additional immigration. The delegate from Australia added that his country
had no racial problems and was not about to import one. A notable exception
to this pattern of rejection was the Dominican Republic that offered 10,000 certificates
of entry provided that their offer be matched by another country - there
where no takers. In the end, the conference adjourned after three days without
a single offer of asylum. Chaim Weizmann, head of the Jewish Agency, in summing
up the Jewish predicament, stated: " There are seven million Jews in east
and central Europe doomed to be pent up in places where they are not wanted,
and for whom the world is divided into places where they cannot live and
places into which they cannot enter."
Following Evian, boats filled with hundreds of refugees
sailed the oceans of
the world like so many ghostly galleons. Some headed for Palestine in the
innocent belief that the Royal Navy, which was maintaining a close surveil-
lance over Palestine's shores, would relax the rules for those few that man-
aged to escape the Nazis. It was not to happen. Boats within sight of
Palestine's shore were intercepted and turned away.
A Jewish couple, trapped in Germany, with no way out,
is forced to wear the
Star of David on their outer garment as a mark of humiliation
When the war ended in the summer of 1945 with the defeat of Germany,
the curtain rose on the most brutal torture which had ever been inflicted on a
member of the human family. Six million Jews, including a million children,
had perished. Yet, while the rest of the world was emerging from the ravages
of war and every nation subjected to Nazi tyranny was being rehabilitated, the
status of the Jews remained desperate.
It was General Eisenhower's practice to repatriate refugees to their countries
of origin, and many were rehabilitated in this fashion. But for the Jews,
there was no going home. Those who accepted repatriation found their homecoming
unbearable. Their families and friends were gone. The thriving Jewish
communities were no more. The homes they left behind were now occupied by
strangers who claimed them as their own. The returning Jews were helpless in
the face of Ukrainians, Poles, Rumanians, and others for whom the experience
of the Holocaust had no meaning. Many openly expressed disappointment that
Hitler didn't finish them off.
When President Harry Truman learned of their plight, he issued a directive
halting the resettlement of any displaced person against his will. He also dispatched
Major General Hilldring to Europe to take charge of the refugee problem.
Former Nazi concentration camps, where the refugees were being held,
were cleaned up. The U.S. Army, in cooperation with Jewish philanthropic
organizations, provided food and clothing and, as the survivors learned of the
improved conditions in the American Zone, they began to leave Eastern
Europe and drift westward. At first the numbers were small, but as word
spread, the trickle became first a stream and then a river of humanity.
Thousands came by train, by truck, and on foot. By the summer of 1946,
100,000 of these drifters had made their way to the West.
Chaim Weizmann approached Winston Churchill with a request to allow
the 100,000 to enter Palestine as a one-time humanitarian gesture. "The position
of the Jews in liberated countries is desperate", he wrote to the Prime
Minister. "This is the hour to eliminate the White Paper, to open the doors of
Palestine and to proclaim the Jewish State." Whether Churchill personally
favored the move or not is not clear. The Conservative government which he
headed was irrevocably committed to the White Paper's restrictions, and
Weizmann's request was denied.
For years, the Labour Party at its conventions and in statement after statement
supported the Zionist ideal while condemning the brutality of the White
Paper. At its 1944 convention, Labour promised to abolish the document and
went on to declare that: ". . . . there is surely neither hope nor meaning in a
Jewish National Home unless we are prepared to let Jews, if they wish, enter
this tiny land in such numbers as to become a majority. There was a strong case
before the war; there is an irresistible case now after the unspeakable atrocities
of the cold and calculated German Nazi plan to kill all Jews in Europe".
In light of these declarations, in light of what the world had learned about
Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, Theresienstadt and Treblinka, it was assumed,
when Labour defeated the Tories at the polls in 1945 that the 100,000, languishing
in the DP camps would soon be on their way to Palestine. But as it
turned out, once the election was over and the Labour Party emerged victorious,
these promises were swiftly broken.
So what went wrong? Britain emerged from the war virtually bankrupt
after five years of fighting the Axis Powers all the way from Europe to the Far
East. Its proportional share of the cost of the war exceeded that of any of her
allies. Her reserves of foreign currency were depleted and conditions were
manifestly desperate on the home front. The immediate responsibility of the
new government, regardless of its earlier pronouncements was to fix the economy.
In taking stock of her resources, Britain's single most valuable asset was
her vast oil holdings in the Middle East. All told, they constituted 40 percent
of the known reserves in the region and represented Britain's best hope for economic
recovery. As a result, oil became the cornerstone of Britain's Middle
East policy which was based on the premise that to safeguard its interests in
the region, she must do whatever was necessary to sustain and promote favorable
relations with the Arab World. Britain considered this essential, not only
to protect her oil holdings but to ensure an uninterrupted flow through a network
of pipelines that traversed the Middle East. The same policy that had long
been held by the Conservatives was now fully embraced by the Labour
100,000 survivors of the Holocaust drifting westward
Clement Atlee, himself a mild-mannered man, recognized in Ernest Bevin,
a former labor boss and now one of the most influential people in the government,
the kind of toughness that the implementation of this policy called for.
In appointing Bevin Foreign Minister, Atlee gave him free rein in running
Britain's Middle East policy and Bevin, in turn, wasted little time in repudiating
all of Labour's pre-election promises in support of the Zionist cause. Thus
in a single act of cold cynicism, Britain succeeded in dashing the hopes for a
new life in the Promised Land for the 100,000 survivors of the Holocaust.
For the Yishuv, this became a defining moment - either to acquiesce to the
White Paper and abandon the "100,000" or to run the Royal Navy's blockade
of Palestine and risk a confrontation with a major power. But saving the survivors
became a national obsession, while abandoning them to their fate was
unthinkable. And so it was that "David" made the soul wrenching decision to
take on the British Goliath.
"Bricha" Means Escape
Shaul Avigur, a tough and resourceful member of Haganah,
still in his early
thirties, was at his kibbutz tending the cows when a message came from David
Ben-Gurion telling him to be ready to leave immediately for Europe to take
charge of a massive effort to bring 100,000 refugees to Palestine. Upon arriving
in Europe, Avigur rented a modest office in Paris, around the corner from
the Allied Military Headquarters. His instruction from the Jewish Agency was
to organize an operation on a scale of far-reaching proportions, capable of trafficking
tens of thousands of refugees and bringing them to Palestine. For the
"100,000", it was do or die. First, they had to reach the coast, then hope that
there would be a ship waiting, and finally run the blockade imposed by the
Royal Navy that was keeping a watchful eye on all traffic plying the waters of
the Mediterranean. The odds were heavily stacked against them.
During the next several months, undercover agents of Haganah
appear at the camps and elsewhere throughout Europe. With money obtained
from Jewish philanthropies, border-crossings were plotted, rest stops established
and food and clothing supplied. Small boats and later full-size ships
were acquired and outfitted at Italian ports and along the French Riviera.
Another player was Yehuda Arazi, also of Haganah and an accomplished
gunrunner. In a covert operation before the war, Arazi had a complete bullet
factory dismantled and smuggled out of Poland into Palestine under the guise
of agricultural equipment. Always just a few steps ahead of the law, Arazi had
only recently evaded the British dragnet by fleeing to Europe where he became
Avigur's assistant and was assigned the task of coordinating all refugee traffic
out of Germany and to the Mediterranean.
Masquerading as a British officer, Arazi took advantage of
existing in the British Army of Occupation in Italy and succeeded in expropriating
trucks and large quantities of food from British military stores. He went
on to lease vacant Italian estates which he converted into stopping off places
for his refugees. He forged papers, confiscated supplies, transported fuel, hired
ships, and recruited sailors - much of this with the full knowledge of the Italian
and French officials whose compassion for the refugees transcended their official
By October, the first group of several hundred refugees was
taken by truck
out of the DP camps in the American Zone and brought to the French border.
From there they spread out and made their way over mountain passes by foot
until they reached the coast. All of them - men, women, children and sometimes
infants, had to be transported in dead secrecy from wherever they were
picked up to a port of embarkation.
From the moment the refugees were whisked away from the camps
time of departure, a battle of wits was being waged between Haganah and
British Intelligence. Criminal Investigating Division, CID agents were everywhere.
Some agents, passing themselves off as Jews, infiltrated the ranks of the
refugees, hoping to ferret out information on points of embarkation and departure
schedules. It was a useless exercise. The refugees were never given that
information. More often than not, Haganah could not be sure until the last
Refugees moving through the Black Forest of Germany
The overland passage from the camps in Germany to the coast
difficult and once they reached the point of embarkation, still faced a perilous
voyage in boats that were extremely crowded and barely seaworthy. If all went
well and they succeeded in eluding the British Navy, they faced the additional
risk of having to land on some isolated beach in Palestine where they were met
by Haganah and whisked away to a nearby kibbutz or some other population
center where they were given false identification papers and hoped that the
authorities wouldn't discover them.
Meanwhile, in Palestine, a lively debate was ongoing over
the use of force
against the British occupiers. At one extreme were the "dissidents", those who
were prone to violence -- the Stern Gang and the Irgun; at the other end were
those who counseled restraint, urging diplomacy as the way to resolve their
differences with Britain. The majority, despondent and hesitant, took a middle
position between the two.
While the public debated, attacks against the British were
on the increase.
The Stern Gang, whose 300 members were committed to terrorism, took to
random shootings of police and army personnel, kidnappings, executions,
indiscriminate bombings and armed robbery. In response to the British executing
three of its members, they kidnapped two British sergeants at random and
hanged them from a tree. As it happened, one of the Sergeants was Jewish, but
careful selection is not what terrorism is about. The Stern Gang, for all of its
brutality, operated on a small scale and its activities received very little public
Another player was the Irgun, a paramilitary organization,
than the Stern Gang, whose leader was Menachem Begin. Its confrontations
with the British were limited to acts of reprisal for actions taken against the
Irgun. It kidnapped seven British soldiers and threatened to execute them if the
British did not commute the death sentences of four of its members. The
British gave in and the hostages were released. On June 22, 1946, the Irgun
bombed a wing of the King David Hotel that housed the British government's
CID out of revenge for the British having destroyed the Irgun's headquarters in
Tel-Aviv. But none of these activities had any chance of dislodging the British
who had proved their mettle during the Battle of Britain.
Arriving in Palestine, their ship is intentionally run
aground while Haganah
is there to help the passengers disembark and spirit them off to a safe haven
Home at last
It wasn't until Haganah joined the fray that the impact of
the Yishuv's hostility
toward Great Britain became felt. Haganah was able to operate on a
grander scale and strike at the British where it hurt. Its targets were primarily
military and anything that made it possible for the military to function. The
entire railroad system was planted with mines which paralyzed troop movements
throughout Palestine. Radar installations were destroyed and naval vessels
sunk by Palmach frogmen, weakening the Royal Navy's ability to interfere
with the landing of immigrants. On June 18, Jewish resistance reached a high
mark when Haganah, in a single coordinated action, demolished seven of the
eight bridges that connected Palestine with the outside.
With its troop strength increased to 95,000, the response
by the British
army was immediate and harsh. Kibbutzim in the vicinity of the landing beaches
were assiduously combed for illegal immigrants and hidden arms. At
Kibbutz Yagur, after a meticulous search, several secret hideaways were
uncovered and large caches of mortars, rifles and grenades were seized.
In the major population centers, a strict curfew was imposed
military operations were launched against the civilian population.
Armored cars cruised along deserted streets. Thousands were searched for
arms and arrested. By the end of 1946 there was little about Palestine that
resembled an orderly society. Deportations without charges or trial and mass
arrests were commonplace. Habeas corpus, the English people's gift to
mankind went out of existence. In Jerusalem, it was difficult to move about
without running into barbed wire barricades. But none of these measures succeeded
in diminishing the Yishuv's resolve or Haganah's determination to pressure
the British into leaving the country.
With the situation out of control, General Barker, Commander
of all British
forces in Palestine, requested an additional 30,000 troops to deal with the
insurrection, but the Chancellor of the Exchequer turned him down with the
terse statement that the money just wasn't there.
Britain was now faced with some difficult choices. Either
remain an armed camp wherein 95,000 troops proved powerless when arrayed
against a ludicrously small but very stubborn foe, or quitting its mandate over
Palestine, and in the words of Sir Alan Cunningham, the High commissioner:
"rid ourselves of the bloody affair".
Unable to control the insurrection, Britain turned to the
United Nations to
work out an arrangement for the transfer of power. But even then, as Bevin's
undersecretary Harold Beeley would later recall, Bevin had accepted the idea
of leaving Palestine "with an absolute minimum of enthusiasm". He appeared
to believe that in turning the matter over to the United Nations, the UN would
not find a workable solution for the country's problems and would have no
choice but to thrust the matter back into Britain's lap, under an arrangement
that would leave her in control but relieve her of the heavy cost of running the
Mandate. He came close to being right.
The United Nations, which was barely two years old, was expected
a way for Arabs and Jews to live together peacefully in the tiniest of countries.
As in Northern Ireland they were of different religions. While both claimed a
common heritage in the Holy Land, they did not share the same culture.
Economically, the Jews had a much higher standard of living, with a majority
of its population belonging to a broad middle class. The Arabs in contrast had
a small wealthy elite ruling over a population that was mostly impoverished.
But the biggest hurdle was their conflicting national interests that left little
room for accommodation.
The UN Committee created to deal with the problem was the
Nations Special Committee on Palestine or UNSCOP. Its eleven members were
chosen from medium sized countries.
The United Nations' Special Committee on Palestine
UNSCOP began work in mid June 1947. It was a sound gathering
men, but at the same time, of men who had little knowledge of the causes and
nature of the problem. Most held senior positions at one time or another in their
own countries but none was prepared for a task of such international complexity.
Nor did any of the group bring with them a solid background in Middle
Eastern affairs or a deep understanding of the peoples who were a party to the
drama. It was revealed later, that after an escorted tour of a kibbutz, one of the
members, to preserve the committee's reputation for impartiality, asked if the
group could visit an Arab kibbutz.
In the streets, they saw how the Mandatory Government had
country into an armed camp. Troops in armored vehicles were ever present.
Barbed wire barricades separated neighborhoods and the civilian population
was routinely searched for hidden weapons. It was in this atmosphere that the
committee settled down to work and approached an extremely difficult task
with uncommon dedication.
The members of the committee took up residence at the YMCA
Jerusalem, opposite the King David Hotel. They studied the Peel Report, the
report of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, and digested gobs of evidence.
They looked at Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. The Committee visited
collective settlements, stared at Arabs and tried to talk to them. The hearings
and a backbreaking schedule of tours had covered every inch of Palestine. Its
single purpose was to discover what was wrong and what should be done to
After much deliberation, The Committee remained evenly split
those who favored partitioning Palestine into two independent states, one Arab
and one Jewish, and those who favored the creation of a single state with an
Arab majority and a Jewish minority. The disagreement over this basic issue
turned ugly and was marked by emotional outbursts and personal vendetta. The
chairman, the respected Judge Emil Sandstrom of Sweden, had all he could do
to maintain order. Then, just as the committee seemed hopelessly deadlocked
an eventful happening took place at the port of Haifa.
The SS Exodus
The SS President Warfield, a ship that had been docked in
a French seaport
with 4,500 refugees on board, was about to set sail for Palestine. The British
got wind of the sailing and filed a petition with the French Government to bar
it from leaving port. But the local gendarmes, whose sympathies were with the
refugees, looked the other way as the ship pulled away from the dock in the
middle of the night and slipped out of port unnoticed. Once on the high seas,
it took down the Honduran flag of its registry, hoisted the Star of David and
changed its name to "Exodus". That done, it radioed its intention to sail to
By daybreak a British aircraft, patrolling out of Malta,
spotted the ship and
soon Exodus, had some unwanted company. First, one destroyer moved into
position behind her, and by day's end it was joined by two others. From the
beginning, conditions on board Exodus were unbearable. It was mid-summer
and passengers wilted from the heat in their cramped quarters. Food and water
were in short supply. While a makeshift hospital was set up with twenty-seven
doctors to care for the passengers, they were hard pressed to keep up with all
of those who were suffering from a whole array of illnesses including the usual
diarrhea and seasickness.
Two of the women passengers who managed to talk their way
even though they were in their ninth month of pregnancy, gave birth while the
ship was at sea. The first delivered her baby without incident but the other died
in childbirth. The captain wanted to take her body to Palestine for burial but he
was overruled by the ship's doctors and a decision was made to have a burial
at sea. The crew made a makeshift body bag from a sheet of canvas and painted
a Star of David on the outside. For a brief moment, the ship's engines were
stopped and the body was lowered into the water. Curiously, the British ships
tailing Exodus, in a show of respect, shut down their engines and lowered their
standards while the ceremony was in progress.
As the ship continued on its way, the size of the British
escort grew in size
to eight destroyers and a cruiser. Despite this show of force, the captain continued
on course, confident that Exodus, having been designed as a river boat
with a shallow draft, could avoid her pursuers once she reached the shallow
waters near the shore where the British vessels could not navigate. But the
British, aware of this, were taking no chances. Their plan was to force a boarding
of the ship the moment she crossed into territorial waters or even sooner.
The attack came at 3 AM on the morning of July 17, when Exodus was still in
international waters. The ship was lit up by powerful searchlights from the
escorting warships. A megaphone blasted a prepared statement to the captain
claiming that the ship had crossed into the territorial waters of Palestine and
ordered her to stop her engines and prepare the ship to be towed to Haifa.
Having failed to receive a response, two destroyers, the
Childress and the
Chieftain pulled up along either side and took turns at ramming Exodus while
she changed course and speed in a hopeless attempt to squirm free. As the ships
were bouncing off one another, the destroyers lowered their landing platforms
and a contingent of Royal Marines streamed onto the ship. Passengers and
crew confronted the boarding party with a hail of canned goods, potatoes, steel
bolts and anything else they had to throw. The skirmish lasted for several hours
but by then there were casualties, some of them with bullet wounds that
required immediate attention. The captain, concerned that any further resistance
might result in the sinking of his ship, radioed Haganah headquarters and
was given permission to surrender Exodus.
For Bevin, the arrival of Exodus at Haifa, while UNSCOP was
still in session,
could not have occurred at a worse time. Yet a small measure of "damage
control" at this awkward moment might have defused the drama that was about
to burst on the world scene, and Exodus would have been just another ship that
tried but failed to slip through the blockade. One possibility was to allow the
passengers to disembark in Palestine or, barring that, the ship could have been
escorted to nearby Cyprus. But Bevin, unmoved by world opinion or the
mounting opposition by the British public to his Middle East policy, did neither.
Convinced that Exodus, arriving when she did, was a plot to embarrass
his Government, he ordered the ship back to France "….to teach the Jews a lesson".
In a letter to his counterpart, George Bidault, Bevin expressed his displeasure
with the French for having allowed Exodus to leave port:
12 July, 1947
Dear Mr. Bidault,
On numerous occasions in the past few months we have appealed
to our French friends to help us in our difficult task in Palestine by
taking all possible steps to stop illicit Jewish traffic through France.
The French Government has responded by giving assurances that,
among other things, the validity of the visas of the immigrants would
be closely scrutinized before they were allowed to leave France and
that the provisions of the International Conventions regarding the
safety of life at sea would be rigorously applied to ships suspected of
participating in the traffic. As recently as 27th June I wrote Your
Excellency once again invoking your help and requesting in particular
that a ship, the President Warfield, was strongly suspected of
engaging in illicit traffic, should be strictly controlled in accordance
with the request made to your ministry by His Majesty's Embassy.
As I told you this morning, I was dismayed to find on arriving in
Paris that not only had the President Warfield escaped from France,
but that she had been permitted to embark, according to the reports
so far available with some 4,000 illicit immigrants, in spite of the
fact that she possessed a clearance certificate valid only for a journey
without passengers and in fair weather.
You will recognize how gravely this departure, which is by far the
largest single shipload that has ever sailed for Palestine, increases
the difficulties of His Majesty's Government. I would only ask you
to consider what would be the feeling of the French Government if
His Majesty's Government were to facilitate the arrival in some territory
which the French Government was responsible, of a large
number of elements, calculated to disturb the peace there. In the circumstances,
I must protest most strongly against the facilities which
have been accorded to the President Warfield, and I request that the
British Government readmit her to France with all the passengers on
board. I would also be grateful to learn that the necessary disciplinary
measures have been taken as regards those who permitted the
departure of the President Warfield in contradiction to the assurance
of the French Government. I shall be glad if, in view of the departure
of the President Warfield, you will agree to maintain a warship
in the vicinity of Marseilles with standing orders to stop any of these
vessels which may leave port.
I am, dear Mr. Bidault
Sgd Ernest Bevin
A small delegation from UNSCOP, including its chairman, drove
Jerusalem. What they saw that day on the dock Haifa would cast a long shadow
over events to come. A group of British soldiers was ordered on board to
remove the refugees and place them in cages in three prison ships that were
standing by to send them back to Europe. Those passengers who refused to disembark
peacefully were beaten into submission. In the melee, 146 were injured
and three were shot dead.
By the time the three prison ships had arrived in France
the refugees were
steadfast in their determination not to disembark. After three weeks in port, the
French authorities, concerned over an outbreak of an epidemic among the passengers,
ordered the British to take their ships and leave. At this point the cabinet
was called into special session. The option of sending the refugees to
Cyprus was still open, but instead, the cabinet chose the worst of all possible
alternatives and ordered the ships to Germany from where the refugees had
started their long odyssey three months before. The thought alone of returning
to the site of the Holocaust bore horrifying memories.
By now the Exodus affair was front-page news and when the
docked at the port of Hamburg which was in the British Occupation Zone, hundreds
of reporters were waiting on the dock. Many of the passengers were too
weak or too sick from their long ordeal to resist and disembarked peacefully
but others refused. While onlookers on the dock watched in horror, the
wretched remains of Hitler's "Final Solution" were being dragged off by club
wielding troops. From there, they were placed on trains destined for detention
at the former Nazi concentration camps of Amstau and Popendorf.
On their backs they carried all of their earthly possessions.
Many were sick,
pregnant and frightened. Looking at this pathetic lot, it took a heroic amount
of imagination to picture them as a group that was about to change the
course of history
Mother and child iwth unknown future
Not all of the British soldiers were anti-Semitic, far
from it - and many offi-
cers and Tommies who were not pro-Zionist still felt sympathy for the belea-
guered Jews and had a healthy admiration for their steadfastness and readi-
ness to endure
In cages waiting to be deported back to Europe
This was not Britain's finest hour. This was the same Britain
that was first
to declare war on the Nazis and by defeating Rommel at El Alamein prevented
his army from overrunning Palestine. This was also the same Britain that
took in more Jewish refugees during the war than any other country.
The plight of the refugees weighed heavily on the world's
their actions legal or not. It was a mix of sympathy for their plight and admiration
for their stubborn stand against their tormentors. Individual members of
UNSCOP continued to follow the events of Exodus and concluded that if the
lives of the survivors of the cruelest act in the history of mankind were to be
restored, the Jews must be allowed to control their own destiny.
In recommending partition, UNSCOP divided the map of Palestine
demographic lines. To the Arabs it gave the western Galilee, the hill country of
Samaria and Judea and part of the coastal plain. The Jewish portion included
the coastal plain north of Ashdod, part of the Galilee, the Jezreel Valley, and
much of the Negev. Admittedly, dividing the country in this fashion created a
mass of confusion. The coastal plain was no more than eight miles wide at one
point. Jerusalem remained isolated and its status was left to be worked out by
the religious interests. The headwaters of the Jordan remained in Syrian hands.
Yet for all of its shortcomings it was a plan that provided
the Jews with a
state if they wanted it and the Arabs of Palestine a state if they wanted it. The
Jews did and the Arabs didn't, prompting Abba Eban to quip: "The Arabs never
miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity".
The Arabs in their outright rejection of the report threatened
war should the
UN vote in favor of its acceptance. The British, disappointed with the outcome,
reacted by refusing to cooperate with the UN to the point of refusing to discuss
a date for their withdrawal from Palestine so that an orderly transfer of power
could take place.
The Soviet Union that had been eyeing the Middle East for
saw in Britain's departure an opportunity worth exploiting to its advantage. Her
belated interest in Zionism proved to be self-serving and her support of partition
was to evaporate soon after the British were out.
The position of the United States was now crucial. While
America had only
one vote in the General Assembly, her influence in the early days of the United
Nations was considerable, particularly among the smaller uncommitted
President Truman at first assumed a sphinx-like role, refusing
even to intimates where he stood on partition. This may have had to do with
the fact that he himself had not arrived at a firm position. It was generally
assumed that the President leaned toward the creation of a Jewish state but it
was also known that he agonized over the possibility of war breaking out in the
region that would involve the United States. Opposed to partition were two
powerful members of his Cabinet, George C. Marshal, Secretary of State and
James Forrestal, Secretary of Defense. Marshall, as the architect of the plan
that bore his name, to rehabilitate Western Europe, held that Europe's recovery
was dependent on an uninterrupted flow of Arab oil. With that, both the departments
of State and Defense, independent of the White House, made common
cause with the British in resisting any move that would antagonize the Arabs.
Backing this same position were many lower echelon officials at the State
Department's Middle East desk who had a pro-Arab orientation. President
Truman after leaving office commented on the Department's personnel:
…almost without exception they were unfriendly to
the idea of a
Jewish State…Like most of the British diplomats, as well as our own
people, thought that the Arabs, on account of their numbers and
because of the fact they controlled such immense oil resources,
should be appeased. I am sorry to say that there were some among
them who were inclined to be anti-Semitic.
A turning point came on October 9, 1947 when the Arabs, in
a show of
force and warning to the United Nations began to amass troops on their borders
with Palestine. It was unfortunate for them that they knew so little about
the President's temperament. Truman, not one to be intimidated, ended his
silence by issuing instructions to the State Department to back the Partition
Plan. Marshall, sensing how strongly the President felt, dutifully fell into line
- for the time being. Two days later, the American position was made known
to the United Nations.
The General Assembly scheduled a vote for November 27, 1947.
majority of the 57 members was needed for passage and as the date
approached, the outcome remained uncertain. The Soviets, who along with
their satellites accounted for six votes, were committed to partition, as was the
United States. The nations of South America, Canada and Norway were also in
favor. But there were still a number of uncommitted nations whose votes were
needed for passage. A motion to postpone the vote to the 29th, the day following
the Thanksgiving Day holiday was successful, allowing the proponents of
partition two additional days to come up with the needed two thirds majority.
France remained a holdout to the very end. The French supported the Jews in
a number of ways but France was concerned over the effect her vote would
have on her Arab populations in the African colonies. It took a last minute call
from Chaim Weizmann to Leon Blum who asked his old friend if he meant to
be left out of this great historic event.
It was past mid-night in Jerusalem when the Brazilian, Oswaldo
declared the results: "For --33: opposed 13: 10 abstentions and one absent. The
proposal is adopted." The adoption of the resolution was nothing short of a
miracle. An act of courage no matter what the personal interests of the parties,
and remains to this day as one of the United Nation's greatest achievements.
Crowds gathered at the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem to hear Golda Meir, that
matronly, housewifely deputy to Moshe Sharett say: "For two thousand years
we longed for deliverance. We awaited this great day with awe. Now that it is
here it is so great and wondrous that it surpasses human expression."
The crowds burst into song and there was dancing in the streets until the wee
hours of the morning - while Ben-Gurion was resting at an accustomed retreat
in Tiberius quietly contemplating the difficulties that lay ahead.
No sooner had the United Nations passed the Partition Resolution when
opposing interests turned to the task of overturning it. Ernest Bevin, for one,
was particularly concerned over the Negev falling into Jewish hands. This
small piece of desert, located between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River,
was sparsely populated and devoid of natural resources, but to Britain, it had
strategic value. Possession of the Negev gave her an important land link with
the Gulf States and insured her political dominance in the area. Britain wanted
to hold on to this piece of land either directly, or barring that, through her puppet,
King Abdullah of Trans-Jordan whom Britain had installed as reigning
monarch. Abdullah's Arab Legion was the best trained and equipped army in
the Middle East. It was commanded by a British general, Sir John Glubb and
staffed with British officers. Britain also paid the bills and had a say in the
Legion's daily operations. As Bevin saw it, the Arabs could defeat the Jews if
it came to war, a position shared by some of the best military minds of the day.
But this same result could be achieved through the repeal of the UN Partition
Resolution, and with assurances from his counterpart at the State Department
that the United States was having second thoughts over its commitment to partition,
Bevin decided to give diplomacy a chance.
As the Mandatory Authority, Britain was responsible for maintaining law
and order in Palestine until the end of the Mandate but Bevin saw it differently.
He saw in Arab resentment of the UN resolution a force that could be turned
to his advantage and that is what he meant to do. By allowing the Arabs some
slack to do their mischief and create a general climate of unrest throughout
Palestine, he would be in a position to claim that partition was not only
unworkable but that it would lead to war.
On November 29 the Arabs called a general strike. The area between Jaffa
and Tel Aviv and the crowded streets of Jerusalem were choked with howling
mobs calling for death to the Jews. After setting fire to a number of Jewish
properties, the crowds, whipped up by agitators, headed for the commercial
center of town. At the junction of Mamilah Road and Princes Mary Avenue
they were met by British police who were there to keep the mob in check but
did nothing to disburse it. A local journalist was grabbed by the rioters and
stabbed. Jewish stores were looted and burned. A storekeeper who couldn't
escape the mob was stabbed and left to bleed to death.
On the 25th day of April, a group of doctors and nurses was returning to
the Hadassah Hospital on Mt Scopus. They first checked with the police and
were assured that the road was safe. Mid-way to the hospital their convoy of
marked ambulances was ambushed by an Arab band. The police, who were
minutes away, were called but waited until all of the vehicles were set on fire
before showing up. Eighty doctors nurses and patients, trapped inside the
ambulances, lost their lives.
When the cycle of violence was in full swing, the British ambassador to the
United Nations, Lord Cadogan, in a classic case of double dealing, pointed to
the internal unrest in Palestine to support the argument that chaos was the
direct result of the U.N.'s Partition Resolution and warned fellow delegates that
failure to abolish the plan would lead to war.
That same argument was picked up by those who had an economic interest
in the Middle East and who felt threatened by the Partition Plan.
Spokespersons for Aramco and other oil interests, who kept a low profile while
the Palestine question was under consideration, were now actively lobbying
Congress and the delegates at Lake Success. Their most compelling argument
was that the American sponsored Marshall Plan depended for its success on an
uninterrupted flow of oil from the Middle East. America's support of partition,
they argued, would surely result in the alienation of the Arabs and with it, the
oil needed for Europe's recovery.
On January 21 Vice-Admiral Robert Carney (Deputy Chief for Naval
Operations and Logistics) testified before the House Armed Services
Committee: "In the event of serious disturbance in the Middle East, there is
cause for grave concern for the fortunes of American oil facilities throughout
that area, and to those who might desire to deny the oil of the Middle East to
us (meaning the USSR) such disturbance could afford nice opportunities for
interference." In later testimony, James Druze, Vice-President of Aramco, corroborated
Admiral Carney's statement and warned of dire consequences should
the U.S. continue on its present course.
It was unfortunate for the Zionist cause that at the very moment that it
needed the support of the President to see the Partition Plan through to fruition,
that there should occur a serious falling out between him and the Zionist leadership.
Truman, who had maintained an open door policy with the Zionists,
received a call from Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, that the President considered
offensive and disrespectful. Others in the Zionist camp, in their exuberance,
overplayed their hand in similar fashion. Truman described his irritation with
these people in his Memoirs:
The Jewish pressure on the White House did not diminish
days following the partition vote. Individuals and groups asked me,
usually in rather quarrelsome and emotional ways, to stop the Arabs,
to keep the British from supporting the Arabs, to furnish American
soldiers, to do this, that and the other. As the pressure mounted I
found it necessary to give instructions that I did not want to be
approached by any more spokesmen for the extreme Zionist cause.
With the White House having distanced itself from the issue,
Warren Austin, the American Ambassador to the UN and an ardent foe of
Partition, began hinting to his fellow delegates that the United States was considering
withdrawing its support for the plan in favor of a trusteeship under
United Nations supervision and urged them to do the same. The Zionist camp,
sensing that their hard won gains were being eroded, attempted to reach the
President but found all access closed to them. After considering the gravity of
their predicament, The Jewish Agency Executive, with some misgivings,
decided to seek out Chaim Weizmann to patch things up with the President.
Truman had met Weizmann only once, but a curious admiration
developed between the two men from that one meeting. The president was not
only fascinated by Weizmann's intellect but allowed himself to be influenced
by him. That meeting had occurred in November of 1947 just prior to the vote
on Partition. The United States, at the time, planned to accept the UNSCOP
plan, provided the Negev was deleted from the Jewish state. Weizmann, at a
White House meeting, convinced the President that without the Negev, Israel
would be denied an outlet to the Red Sea, which was needed if it were to develop
trade with Asia. He further convinced Truman that through the use of modern
technology, the desert could be made into productive farmland to feed the
flood of immigrants who were expected to arrive once the Jews had a state of
their own. Truman was convinced, and following that meeting with Weizmann,
the United States placed its influence solidly behind the UNSCOP Partition
Aware of this special relationship, the Jewish Agency Executive
Weizmann through Abba Eban, with a request that he intercede on their behalf
with the President. Weizmann, as it happened, was about to leave for Palestine
to pursue his scientific work at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot when he
received the following cable:
In view of worsening situation urge you to reconsider
go to Palestine in January. Everything depends upon outcome of
negotiations here, Lake Success Washington. Most crucial phase of
all now approaches here in which we sorely miss your presence
advice activity and influence. Affectionately, EBAN
But Weizmann, still smarting from the shabby treatment he
received at the
hands of the American Zionist establishment in the recent past refused to
budge. It took his wife Vera to persuade him to change his mind. She knew that
the future of the Jewish State might well rest on his seeing the President.
On arriving in New York, Weizmann learned that there were no arrangements
made for him with the White House. None could be made since Truman left
strict orders with his staff that he was not to see any of the Zionist leaders and
they took that to include Weizmann. On February 19 Weizmann wrote to the
My dear Mr. President:
I was on the eve of leaving for Palestine last week from London
when I received an urgent call to return to the United States in view
of the crisis which had developed in the affairs of Palestine. It was
not easy to postpone my departure for Palestine because I felt that I
should be with my people at this critical time. In deciding, however,
to return to the United States, I was largely swayed by the hope that
it might be possible for me to have an opportunity of meeting with
you once more and of trying to be of some help in these difficult and
I just heard today that you will shortly be leaving Washington
a trip to the Caribbean. I well understand how heavily occupied you
must be in these circumstances, and I would not venture to intrude
on you at this moment were not the situation, in my opinion, so serious.
Time is of the essence and if the present trend of events is not
halted, the crisis might well end in catastrophe, not only for my people
but for Palestine and indeed the United Nations.
Remembering the kindness and understanding which you showed
to me on the last occasion when I was in the United States, I am
emboldened to ask you respectfully to receive me during the course
of the next few days before your departure and to spare me a few
minutes of your precious time
The response came from Truman's appointment secretary, Matt
It said that the President regretted that he would not be able to see him because
of a busy schedule and there was nothing in the reply to encourage him that
they might be able to meet at another time. Connelly's letter came while
Weizmann was bed-ridden in a New York hotel room and the president's
refusal depressed him deeply.
While Weizmann was still brooding over the president's rejection,
came from an unexpected source. A Jewish haberdasher, named Edward
Jacobson, heard of Weizmann's plight and called him at his hotel. He told
Weizmann that he and the President were partners in a business years ago and
he offered to speak to his friend Harry Truman on Weizmann's behalf.On March 12,
after Truman returned from his vacation in Key West,
Jacobson came to Washington unannounced, on the off chance that the
President would see him. On his arrival at the White House he was immediately
ushered into the Oval Office by Matt Connelly who told him the President
was expecting him but that under no circumstance was he to bring up the question
The President was delighted to see his old friend and the
two were soon sitting
comfortably and chatting about old times. Truman, some years later
described their days together in the haberdashery business: "Eddie was the best
buyer we had in the store and I was the best seller." He also recounted how his
friend appeared to be dejected and asked: "Eddie, why are you going around
looking like you've heard about the destruction of the Temple for the first
time?" Jacobson replied, "Well, Mr. President, it's because you will not agree
to meet any of my Zionist friends, not even Chaim Weizmann. You really must
meet him. He, after all, had taken this cause through forty years of wilderness".
With that, Truman's expression changed. "I don't want to discuss Palestine or
the Jews" he said, "I've discussed it enough. I'm just going to let the matter run
its course in the United Nations". Jacobson was shocked. Truman, through all
their years together had never spoken to him in that tone of voice. He was
about to give up when he spotted a small sculpture of Andrew Jackson on the
mantel. Pointing to the statue, Jacobson found himself saying:
"He's been your hero all your life, hasn't he? You
read every book there is on Jackson. I remember when we had the
store that you were always reading books and pamphlets, and a lot
of them were about Jackson. You put his statue in front of the
Jackson County court House in Kansas City when you built it. I have
never met the man who has been my hero all my life, but I have studied
his past like you had studied Jackson's. He is the greatest Jew
alive, perhaps the greatest Jew who ever lived. You yourself have
told me that he is a great statesman and a fine gentleman. I am talking
abut Dr, Chaim Weizmann. He is an old man, a very sick man.
He has traveled thousands of miles to see you and now you put off
seeing him. That isn't like you."
Eddie Jacobson and his friend, the President of the United States
Jacobson's remarks were followed by a long silence during
began drumming with his fingers on the desk. He then turned around in his
chair, gazing out at the Rose Garden, he appeared to be in deep thought. After
a long pause that seemed to Jacobson like an eternity, the President of the
United States turned to his old friend and looking him straight in the eye
uttered the words he most wanted to hear: "All right, you baldheaded son of a
bitch, you win. I will see him"
On March 18, six weeks after his arrival in America, Chaim
entered the White House by the side gate so as not to be recognized. The meeting
which was kept secret was later described by Truman:
We talked for almost three quarters of an hour. He told
the possibilities of development in Palestine; about the scientific
work that he and his assistants had done that would some day be
translated into industrial activity in the Jewish State that he envisaged.
He spoke of the need for land if the future immigrants were to
be cared for, and he impressed on me the importance of the Negev
area in the south of any Jewish State. I told him as plainly as I could,
why I had at first put off seeing him. He understood. I explained to
him what the basis of my interest in the Jewish problem was and that
my primary concern was to see justice done without bloodshed. And
when he left my office, I felt that we had reached a full understanding
of my policy and that I know what it was he wanted.
On March 19, Warren Austin, unaware of the understanding
day before between Weizmann and the President, appeared before the Security
Council and dropped a bombshell: "There seems to be general agreement that
Partition cannot now be implemented by peaceful means," and went on to recommend
that the plan be suspended and proposed instead that the General
Assembly be convened in special session to consider a temporary "trusteeship"
over Palestine until a more permanent solution could be found. Austin's
announcement came as a surprise and it shook the Zionist leadership to its very
Chaim Weizmann, familiar with the rift between the president
and his own
State Department, refused to allow this diplomatic debacle to shake his faith in
the White House. In a call to Jacobson he said; "I do not believe that President
Truman knew what was going to happen at the United Nations on Friday when
he talked to me the day before". Truman, deeply disturbed by the announcement,
ordered Clark Clifford, his political advisor, to find out how this could
have happened. "I assured Chaim Weizmann that we were for partition and
would stick to it. He must think I am a plain liar."
The best that can be said in the State Department's behalf
is that the
President's lack of involvement with the Palestine issue during the preceding
several weeks led Marshall and others to believe that he had acquiesced in the
Department's distancing itself from Partition. But that does not adequately
explain why a policy statement of such magnitude was not first cleared with
the White House. Abba Eban sheds some light on Truman's strange relationship
with the State Department in his book: "Personal Witness":
As I was to discover in my own subsequent contacts with
Truman was chronically suspicious that the mandarins in the higher
reaches of the bureaucracy did not take him seriously. This was substantially
true. He had not been elected and his nomination as Vice-
President had been accomplished with casual negligence by party
functionaries who did not really believe that he was fit for the highest
office. The self-revealing phrase "these people forget who is president
of the United States" was often on his lips, even in conversation
with foreigners. The March 18 episode seemed to bear out the
image of a man whom his own subordinates could affront with
In retrospect, what happened at the United Nations may have
worked to the
Zionist's advantage. Truman, who had suffered in silence while a rebellious
State Department allowed the oil interests to influence Middle East policy,
decided after Austin's speech that the situation was out of control and that he
needed to confront it. But for now he would bide his time and his true feelings
would not be revealed until later.
In a last ditch effort, the State Department settled on an
attempt to persuade
the Jews to hold off on their declaration of statehood, but Ben-Gurion, who had
already made up his mind that a Jewish state would come into being as soon as
the British left Palestine, had no intention of changing that date. Moshe Sharett
who now held the position of Foreign Minister in the Provisional Government
was sent to Washington to review the matter with George Marshall.
In their meeting, Marshall warned Sharett that five Arab
poised to invade Palestine should the Jews proclaim statehood and "if the Jews
persisted in their course, they need not look to the United States to help in the
event of an invasion." Sharett listened and remained unmoved. Indeed, he used
the occasion to remind Marshall that much of the bloodshed in Palestine might
have been avoided had the United States not wavered in its policy on partition.
Marshall closed the meeting with a warning:
I shall remember all that you have said. I fully appreciate
weight of the considerations. It is not for me to advise you what to
do. But I want to tell you as a military man: don't rely on your military
advisers. You have just achieved some success. What will happen
if there is a prolonged invasion? It will weaken you. I have had
experience in China. At first there was an easy victory. Now they've
been fighting for two years and they've lost Manchuria. However, if
it turns out that you're right and you will establish the Jewish State...
I will be happy. But you are undertaking a grave responsibility.
Sharett informed Ben-Gurion of Marshal's admonition, but
by then BG
was irreversibly committed to Independence.
On the morning of May 14 1948, another page was turned in
the history of
the Holy Land. Joining its predecessors - Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians,
Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders and Turks - the Union Jack is lowered -
bringing to an end 30 years of British rule.
At four o'clock that afternoon, Ben-Gurion was standing at
podium in the Tel Aviv Museum, proclaiming the birth of the State of Israel.
This was the moment President Truman had been waiting for.
bothering to schedule a formal meeting of the Cabinet, he called a number of
its members to the Oval Office and informed them of his intention to grant
recognition to the new State of Israel. Secretary Marshall objected vehemently
and threatened to resign but to no avail. Truman wrote later of this event:
I was told that to some of the career men of the State
announcement came as a surprise. It should not have been if these
men had faithfully supported my policy…..I wanted to make it plain
that the President of the United States, and not the second or third
tier echelon in the State Department, is responsible for making foreign
Directly following Ben-Gurion's proclamation, President Truman
announced from the White House that the United States of America was
extending to the State of Israel de-facto recognition. As he walked away from
his desk Truman was heard to murmur, "the old doctor will believe me now."
Evening was now approaching. Amidst ominous reports of five
armies massing troops on its borders, Jews were hurrying home to greet the
coming of the Sabbath. This for the first time as citizens of their own country.
The backbone of Israel's defense establishment was Haganah. The organization
was created in 1921 for the purpose of protecting Jewish settlers living
in isolated areas from attacks by Arab bands. Haganah had an arsenal of small
arms, its members received limited military training and it was of course, illegal.
But Haganah was so resourceful in acquiring and concealing its weapons
and so secret in the conduct of its affairs that neither the British intelligence
apparatus, the CID, nor the British army were able to check its growth. Known
by its code name, "the Aunt," Haganah was woven into the very fabric of the
community. Much of the population of military age belonged and its members
came from all walks of life. Farmers, doctors, school teachers, construction
workers by day, became sentries at night. It was in every sense a people's militia.
It was during the Arab riots of 1936 that the Jewish population in Palestine
came under widespread Arab attacks. The effect of these attacks was crucial in
marking a turning point in how the Jews, living in Palestine, came to view
themselves and their purpose as Zionists. Not only did the Arab riots intensify
the Yishuv's sense of mission but it changed forever the way it approached the
task of defending itself.
Until then, Haganah operated under a code-of-arms known as "Havlaga"
or self restraint - a pacifist principle which restricted the use of arms to selfdefense.
This took the form of Haganah sentries barricading themselves behind
sand bags or other protective shield and using their weapons only when fired
upon. Havlaga ruled out the use of counterattack, preemptive strike, or giving
chase in hot pursuit. Its members were thus confined to static positions behind
perimeter fences to wait for the Arabs to strike first and on their own terms.
Haganah was in every sense a People's Militia
Yitzhak Sadeh, a burly Crimean Jew who had served in the Czar's army
before coming to Palestine considered Havlaga to be unrealistic. To Sadeh, the
absolute pragmatist, Havlaga was a self-imposed constraint that had no place
in fighting an enemy that operated by a different set of rules. In light of the
increasing attacks, he was not only determined to change the rules of combat
but to give the young men who served under him a sense of mission and to
change forever the way they thought of themselves. Yigal Allon, who started
his military career under Sadeh and who was later to become Chief of Staff of
the Israel Defense Force gives the following account of his boss in his book,
Shield of David:
Possessed of limitless personal courage and endowed with
quality of leadership, Sadeh was one of the few high-ranking members
of the Haganah, able at all times to project his own unconventional
insights into the real meaning of self-defense. He was to
become a foremost figure in the annals of the Jewish liberation
movement in Palestine, the father of the Field Companies which
were created at the height of the riots and later of Palmach, the shock
troops of the Haganah. Other men led the Haganah ideologically. But
it was Sadeh - that bespectacled, warm, crumpled, ordinary-looking
bon-vivant-cum-poet, that great lover of country, of women, of
implacable logic of history - who, in 1936, symbolized most vividly
the fighting spirit of the underground and who discovered and taught
war to a group of teenagers destined within only a few years, to lead
the army of Israel.
Sadeh set out to convince his colleagues in Haganah that
was ineffective against the savage guerilla warfare practiced by the Arabs. For
the men in the ranks who had yearned for the day when they could carry the
fight to the enemy, Sadeh's doctrine "Get out from behind the barricades" was
a welcome change. Accompanied by no more than two or three young men at
a time, they studied the terrain in which the Arabs operated, their movements,
their hiding places, and the mountain passes where they were most vulnerable
to ambush. All operations were conducted at night under the cover of darkness
and the element of surprise was their secret weapon.
Sadeh instilled in his youngsters a sense of self-reliance.
He set an example
of boldness and imagination. He saw through and beyond the fallacy that
their parents brought with them from Europe that Jews did not make good soldiers;
and he set out to prove to them that in the defense of their own land they
could be the equal of any army in the world. His small group of no more than
seventy youngsters became the nucleus of an elite cadre of mobile units called
FOSH, a Hebrew acronym for Field Companies, capable of responding quickly
to calls for help from the outlying settlements.
In 1936, a young British intelligence officer by the name
of Orde Wingate,
was assigned to Palestine after a brilliant career in the Sudan where he was successful
in containing Sudanese rebels through the use of tactics similar to those
developed by Sadeh. Again from Yigal Allon:
Of all the extraordinary personalities - and there have
- to flare on the Palestine horizon, Orde Wingate was one of the most
striking. Born in India to a pious British military family (his parents
belonged to the Plymouth Brethren) and steeped throughout his
English childhood in Bible lore and Puritanism, he was a cousin of
the one-time High Commissioner of Egypt, Sir Reginald Wingate;
related to Lawrence of Arabia, and a professional Arabist who had
seen service in the Sudan before he was sent to Palestine. Like
Lawrence, Wingate was short, slight, and had deep glowing eyes
which bespoke fanaticism. Posted to Palestine in 1936, within a few
weeks he developed what was to become an abiding passion for
Zionism. Of this conversion, he wrote; "When I came to Palestine, I
found a whole people who had been looked down upon and made to
feel unwanted for scores of generations, and yet at the end of it, they
were undefeated and were building their country anew. I felt I
belonged to such a people."
At first, the Jews who met him tended to regard the Englishman
but Wingate persisted in trying to win their friendship. His personal
habits were of no help. He was unkempt, subject to fits of deep depression, and
impatient with conventions such as wearing clothes when receiving company.
His manners were abominable and he was given to great bouts of onion-eating.
Yet his unquestionable sincerity about Zionism, his ardor, his familiarity with
the Bible, and his doggedness, gradually dispelled the skepticism he had initially
It was during the height of the riots that Arab bands took
to sabotaging the
pipeline that carried oil from Iraq to the refinery in Haifa. The British army,
using conventional warfare, was ineffective in stopping them. The Arabs were
operating in familiar surroundings and knew the terrain. When pursued, they
easily disappeared into numerous hiding places. Above all, the Arabs operated
at night in an environment unfamiliar to an army trained and equipped to fight
in broad daylight.
Convinced from his experience in the Sudan that to win against
adversary, it was necessary at times to adapt to their ways, Wingate proposed
to his superiors that a special task force be created, using Jewish soldiers
from FOSH who were already trained in this style of warfare. General Dill,
Commander-in-Chief of all forces in Palestine was interested. However, out of
concern over the political consequences, Dill turned him down. But when
Dill's replacement, Sir Archibald Wavell arrived, Wingate was given another
hearing. This time he convinced his commanding general and was instructed to
Yitzhak Sadeh had met Wingate at Kibbutz Ein Harod. These
men had much in common and were soon engaged in the creation of the
Special Night Squad (SNS). Wingate was in a position to grant Haganah quasilegitimacy,
money to pay the troops and to provide specialized training. There
was little in the tactics used by Wingate that had not already been employed by
Sadeh, but Wingate was able to operate on a larger scale. The SNS carried the
fight to the enemy by infiltrating deep into its bases of operation and undermining
its ability to fight. Before long SNS succeeded in overcoming the terrorists
and put an end to sabotaging the pipeline. But at the same time,
Wingate's close association with the Jews did not set well with his superiors.
With the pipeline secure and his services no longer needed, the SNS was abolished
and Wingate was ordered back to England for reassignment. In his
farewell speech to the Jewish members of SNS, Wingate said: "I am sent away
from you and the country I love. I suppose you know why. I am transferred
because we are too great friends. The dream of a Jewish Army has not ended,
it is only postponed. I wish for all of us that the vision of the people of Israel,
free in their homeland, will come true soon. I will be back with you some day,
Wingate was ordered back to England just before the outbreak
His personnel file contained the entry: "A good soldier but a poor security risk.
Not to be trusted. The interests of the Jews are more important to him than
those of his own country. He must not be allowed to return to Palestine."
Wingate was reassigned to Burma, where he gained a reputation for unconventional
warfare and was promoted to the rank of General. He died in an airplane
accident in 1944. To the Jews, who at first didn't know what to make of him,
he became a folk hero. His wife Lorna carried on in his tradition and in 1947,
prior to Israel's War of Independence, she traveled extensively throughout the
United States, Canada, and Great Britain recruiting officers and specialists to
serve in Israel's fledgling army.
The Arab riots in Palestine came to an end in 1939, the same
year that war
broke out in Europe. Palestine was far removed from the fighting, and a period
of calm prevailed for a while throughout the land. But soon dark clouds
gathered as the German Anschluss, after rolling across Europe, spilled over
into North Africa. Rommel's army, with lightning speed, drove the British back
in the Western Desert. In the north of Palestine, the Germans, by leave of the
Vichy Government, where able to operate freely in Syria and Lebanon. With
Rommel's forces positioned less than 200 miles west of the Suez Canal, the
Germans were in a position to overrun Palestine and link up with the Vichy
French in Syria. This would have driven the British out of the Middle East and
leave the Jews to the same fate as their brethren in Europe.
Arab sentiments were solidly pro-German. The Mufti of Jerusalem,
Amin El Husseini, was in Berlin at the time preparing to return to Palestine
with a victorious German army. Arabs in the Middle East openly spoke of
Hitler as their redeemer. For the Jews, many of whom had recently escaped the
horrors of the Nazis in Europe, the prospects were grim.
The Jewish Agency pleaded with Britain to allow it to create
a Jewish combat
unit of division strength to fight alongside the British against the common
enemy. But the Colonial Office objected on grounds that such a move would
provoke the Arabs. While Winston Churchill favored the plan, he could not
overcome the passive resistance within his own government. Instead, the
Colonial Office, which was notoriously pro-Arab, remained steadfast in its
conviction that its policy of appeasement would, in time, win the Arabs over to
the British side. Oblivious to the deteriorating military condition around them,
the British continued to divert resources needed to fight the Axis Powers to the
blocking of immigration of Jewish refugees into Palestine.
Palmach - The Shock Troops of Haganah
The possibility of a German invasion of Palestine weighed
heavily on the
commanders of Haganah. They doubted that Britain had either the necessary
will or the military might to contain a superior German force and, in all likelihood,
would abandon the Middle East and leave the half-a-million Jews of
Palestine to the mercy of the Germans. Haganah leaders, in evaluating the state
of readiness of the Yishuv, found little to encourage them. Most of the
advances made during the Arab riots were no longer in place. FOSH had been
disbanded. Wingate's SAS was dissolved when he was ordered back to
England. The most promising of the Yishuv's young men and women were out
of the country serving in British units, and Haganah, after enjoying a brief period
of legitimacy, had been forced back into the underground.
It was during this bleak period that Haganah made one of
its most fateful
decisions. Instead of entrusting its survival to others in the event of an invasion
of Palistine, the Yishuv would take its destiny into it own hands. In one bold
move, it embarked on the formation of a highly mobile strike force that would
carry the fight to the Germans by operating as guerrillas behind their lines.
Yitzhak Sadeh, the same man whose unorthodox ways were to
the way the Yishuv defended itself against the Arabs, was now called upon
to assemble a force that would stand up to the Germans. For the first time since
the Germans threatened to overrun Palestine, the Jews could see a ray of hope.
Extinction at the hands of the Nazis was no longer considered inevitable. While
the reality of a German occupation was on everyone's mind, the Yishuv was
ready to put up a fight.
Sadeh lost little time in getting started. Without waiting
from his superiors, he turned to the task of organizing Palmach. He handpicked
the bravest and most capable men who had served with him in FOSH
to be his unit commanders. They, in turn, were given the task of filling out the
ranks with young men and women of known courage and ability. Sadeh had little
to offer his recruits. Because of a lack of funds, there was no promise of pay
or even uniforms - only the likelihood that they would have to fight under the
most trying of conditions.
When Palmach was still in its infancy, the military condition
on both the Egyptian and the Syrian fronts. The War Office in London
realized that unless the Allies seized the initiative, the Germans would overrun
the Middle East. A plan under consideration to invade Syria was ruled out on
grounds that it would lead to a long and costly war with the Vichy French.
Instead, the War Office favored a series of sharp strikes against Vichy’s vital
installations and lines of communications in Syria and Lebanon. The operation
called for a mobile force trained in guerrilla warfare, which would slip across
the border and commit acts of harassment and sabotage. But the British had no
units specifically trained for that purpose. It was then that an English officer,
who had served with Wingate in Palestine, reminded his superiors that it was
Haganah that had supplied the manpower for the Special Night Squads and that
Haganah was still functioning in the underground. Ignoring the wishes of the
Colonial Office, the War Office approached the Jewish Agency to arrange for
an accommodation that would lead to the Palmach joining with the Allies in a
campaign in the north. Their assignment was to penetrate into Syria and
Lebanon where they would team up with the Free French to prepare the population
for an Allied takeover.
In the south, Rommel reached the outskirts of Alexandria
but got no farther.
Under Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, in one massive counter
attack, the British crushed Rommel's Afrika Korps at El Alamein. A year later
the Americans, under the command of General George Patton landed in North
Africa, linked up with the British Eighth Army, and rid the area of all German
forces. With that, the threat to the Middle East came to an end.
No longer threatened by a German invasion, Britain reassessed
with Haganah and saw no advantage in continuing with it. Over night, its
ties with their "comrades-in-arms" during the past two years ended abruptly,
and Haganah was again forced underground. For Yitzhak Sadeh, this came as
a great disappointment. Sadeh was able to see beyond the current crisis with
Germany and knew that one day Palmach would be needed to fight for the
Yishuv's survival in a Jewish War of Independence. "The Allied Victory," he
said, "will be our victory, the victory over the most terrible of all our enemies,
but it will not be the ultimate victory. That will come only when we have won
our war of national liberation - a war which may well start when the World War
ends." He somehow knew that he must find a way to hold Palmach together as
a cohesive combat-ready unit for that future eventuality.
But without funds and subject to constant harassment by the
appeared certain that Palmach would have to disband. After considering a
number of alternatives, Sadeh accepted an offer from Yitzhak Tabenkin, head
of a large kibbutz movement, to spread units of Palmach among the kibbutzim
where they would be invisible to the British, and spend their time between
farming and military training. There was little enthusiasm for the plan among
the Palmachniks who had become accustomed to the status of a standing army,
but it was all that was available and they went along with it.
Not being members of the kibbutz and living apart from the
young men and women of Palmach created their own unique culture. They
formed a deep attachment to the land and strong ties of camaraderie toward one
another. When the day's work was done, and if there was any strength left, the
nights were given over to the "Kumzitz" a Yiddish term of their own creation
that roughly translates into "a gathering of friends." They sang the songs of the
pioneers and laughed and joked and chatted into the wee hours. They took to
calling one another by the same aliases they had adopted to confuse the British,
and the practice remains with them to this day.
Working the land and ready to defend it
There was little about Palmach to suggest that it was an
army. Its members
dressed like the farm hands that they were. They disdained the external trappings
of military discipline. There was no spit and polish, no saluting, no
insignia of rank or campaign ribbons. Rank had no privilege other than to lead.
Yitzhak Sadeh, their commander, was called by his first name except when he
was referred to as Ha'Zaken - the old man - a term used more in deference to
a respected leader than to his chronological age. And yet the term Palmach carried
an aura all its own. It stood for youthful pioneers, capable of working the
land as well as defending it. While they did not exalt the warrior spirit, when
war came to the Yishuv, these same young men and women were there to hold
the enemy back during the initial period of the war.
On May 15, 1947, one day following Israel's declaration of independence,
Israel was invaded by five Arab Armies. The person responsible for military
operations was Yigael Yadin who took over from Yaakov Dori when Dori had
suddenly taken ill. A Sabra (Israeli born) who was an archeologist in private
life, his military experience came from serving in the underground and advancing
through the ranks as a cautious but brave soldier with broad experience in
sabotage and leading small patrols against the British army and Arab bands. In
an organization that rewarded imagination and courage, he rose through the
ranks to the position of Chief of Planning. Now at the age of twenty-nine, he
was holding down the top job in Israel's fledgling defense establishment.
Despite his youth, he seemed capable and he had better be. The fate of a nation
was in his hands.
Yadin had surveyed the military condition shortly before the British had
left Palestine and gave the following account of Israel's chances:
We will not discuss the problem of whether or not there
will be an
invasion. We have been planning all this time on the assumption that
an invasion will take place. Our information indicates that it is a certainty.
Our plans for such an invasion are simple: All our forces and
all our arms - all of them - will have to be concentrated in those
places which are likely to be battlefields in the first phase of the war.
The regular forces of the neighboring countries - with
and their armaments - enjoy superiority at this time. However,
evaluation of the possibilities cannot be merely a military consideration
of arms against arms and units versus units, since we do not
have those arms or that armored force. The problem is to what extent
our men will be able to overcome enemy forces by virtue of their
fighting spirit, of our planning and our tactics.
It has been found in certain cases that it is not the
numbers and the
formations which determine the outcome of battle, but something
else. However, objectively speaking there is no doubt that the enemy
enjoys a great superiority at this time.
Our Air Force cannot even compare with theirs. We have
Force. The planes have not arrived yet. It is possible that they may
yet come on the decisive day, but I cannot rely on that. Even then, if
the neighboring Arab countries activate their Air Forces, a comparison
will be invidious. Their Air Force is a hundred and fifty times the
size of ours. At this moment, our planes operate contrary to all the
rules of aerial tactics.
No other pilots would dare to take off in planes like
planes are antiquated and obsolete, some of them are patrol planes or
trainers. Even with these planes we have had grievous losses, and we
are now in a poor state, so it would be best not to take them into
account as a military factor.
To sum up, I would say that the outlook at this time seems
balanced. Or to be more honest - I would say that their superiority
is considerable, if indeed their entire forces enter battle
The 30,000 troops under Yadin's command were divided into
and were distributed to each of the four fronts with great care. Two brigades:
Carmel and Yiftach, faced the Syrian and Lebanese armies in the north;
Alexandroni and Kiryati protected the population centers on the coastal plain;
Golani faced the Arab Triangle; Harel and Etzioni were assigned to Jerusalem,
and Givati and Negev protected the south and Tel Aviv.
The Syrians crossed the Jordan River at the southern tip
of the Sea of
Galilee with a column of 200 armored vehicles. They planned their attack in
two phases. In the first, the goal was to overrun the lush farming communities
of the Jordan Valley and in the second, to link up with the Lebanese and Arab
Liberation Army (ALA) and seize the Galilee. The Syrians did not plan on a
long drawn out war. The ten days that they allowed themselves to complete the
task was not unrealistic. The Jews were no match for the Syrians, and without
artillery, there was little they could do to stop them.
While the Syrian advance met with little resistance, they
chose to proceed
with caution, taking several days to reach Tzemach on the southern shore of
the Sea of Galilee. This gave the settlements along the invasion route time to
evacuate the children and construct makeshift fortifications. But the period of
grace ended abruptly on the 18th of May, when 30 armored vehicles broke
through the Tzemach defenses. Fighting was fierce on both sides but in the end
the defenders of Tzemach proved no match for the Syrian army, and after four
hours of fighting, Tzemach was overrun. Those of the defenders who could,
fled to Degania. The others either fell in battle or were taken prisoner.
With the fall of Tzemach, nothing stood between the Syrians
Out of desperation, a delegation of elders from the kibbutz was dispatched to
Tel Aviv to plead for help, but with Haganah holding back the invaders on four
fronts and with nothing left in reserve, little could be done except to encourage
them to fight back as best they could. Yossef Baratz, a member of the delegation,
gave the following account of their meeting with Ben-Gurion:
The Prime Minister appeared tired and weary but he listened
attentively. He was very sympathetic to our request. "We have nothing"
came the reply. "We have a front in Jerusalem, a front in the
Galilee, a front in the Negev. There are not enough arms anywhere.
There are not enough guns, there are not enough airplanes, we are
short of men on all fronts, the situation is very serious in the Negev,
serious in Jerusalem and in the upper Galilee. The front line is everywhere.
There is no chance of reinforcements for Degania.
In a later meeting with Yigael Yadin, Baratz was told: "Yossef,
there is no
way but to allow the enemy to approach up to the perimeter fence and then fire
on them at close range. When he was asked by one of the delegates if letting
them come that close would be taking a big risk, Yadin said "yes it is but you
have no ammunition to spare and every bullet must count". Yet the delegation
did not go away empty handed. In a morale-boosting move, Ben-Gurion sent
Moshe Dayan, one of Israel's boldest commanders and a native son of Degania,
to assume command in the North.
Dayan arrived at Degania in an old car followed by a truck
only reserves available - a company of sixteen and seventeen-year-olds belonging
to Gadna, the Youth Auxiliary of Haganah. The Syrians were encamped
just a few miles away and if Degania were to fall, nothing stood in the way of
the Syrians linking up with the Arab Liberation Army and the Lebanese and
overrunning all of the Galilee. To make matters worse, Degania had little time
to organize a defense or build fortifications.
The Syrian force based in Tzemach consisted of an infantry
brigade and an
armored unit of thirty tanks plus some armored personnel carriers. Degania's
defenders were armed with rifles, several machine guns, grenades, and a 20mm
gun. The only anti-tank weapons in its arsenal were two hand-held Piats.
Throughout the day and night, the defenders dug trenches and reinforced their
Just off shore in the Mediterranean, the SS Borea was waiting
for the arms
embargo to end so that she could dock and unload her cargo of weapons.
Included were four badly needed 65 millimeter mountain guns. Suddenly a
British destroyer appeared from out of nowhere. A customs inspector boarded
the vessel and called for the Borea's manifest. It listed tomato juice, potatoes
and the inevitable sacks of onions. Not satisfied, the ship was ordered to Haifa
for inspection. Haganah radioed the captain to send a crewman below to disable
the ship's engines, but no such gesture was about to dissuade the British
authorities from enforcing the embargo. A second destroyer came up alongside
and towed the Borea into port.
On the following day, while the ship's captain was standing
on the bridge
waiting, an immaculately uniformed British naval office climbed on board.
"Within a few minute" he informed the captain, "His Majesty's Government's
mandate in Palestine will end. At that time this vessel and all of its contents
will be returned to your custody". The Captain of the Borea didn't know what
to make of it. Twenty-four years of British rule over Palestine was about to end
and he was playing a part in that historic event. The officer took another glance
at his watch and at the stroke of six announced: "The ship is now yours, captain,
I wish your people well - Shalom". With that he saluted again, executed
an about face and without glancing back disappeared down the ship's gangplank.
The four field guns that were on board were of French manufacture
back to the early 1900's and of a design used in the Franco-Prussian War. The
gunner who was sent to take charge of them could not believe his eyes. He
dubbed the museum pieces "Napoleonchiks" and the name stuck. The weapons
were unloaded and quickly shipped to the front. Two of the four guns were sent
The Syrian attack came at 4:15 on the morning of May 20 with
artillery barrage that lasted close to an hour. When it was over, a column of
tanks was seen making its way toward the kibbutz followed by several companies
of infantry. It wasn't long before the lead tank broke through the kibbutz's
gate but it was quickly disabled by a shell from the 20mm gun. Another tank
smashed through the barbed wire fence and over the trenches. With the tank
only a few yards away, one of the Kibbutzniks jumped out of the trench and
scored a direct hit with a Molotov cocktail. Another hit and the tank burst into
The Syrian infantry, advancing behind the tanks, made its
way up to the
perimeter fence where it was met by a hail of bullets but continued to advance.
While the battle was still raging, the Napoleonchiks arrived. They came without
sights. The gunners would point them in the general direction of the target,
fire, and hope for the best. But what these two relics lacked in accuracy they
made up for in the ear shattering noise they produced. After 50 rounds, the
Syrians, convinced that they were up against a large battery of artillery, began
The defenders of Degania, assumed that the Syrians withdrew
in order to
regroup and launch another attack, but it never came. At nightfall, Dayan took
several scouts with him to patrol the area in order to determine the whereabouts
of the Syrian army. He was dumbfounded to discover that Tzemach had been
abandoned and the Syrian force didn't pause in its retreat until it reached Gitet
el Kaiser, at the eastern edge of the Sea of Galilee. Had the Syrians known that
they were facing a small group of defenders who were running out of ammunition
and two antiquated field pieces, they might have followed up their attack
and the outcome would have been different.
Dayan was now ready to press the advantage. He sent two boatloads
sappers across the lake at a point near Ein-Gev. Undetected, they made their
way along the shore and planted explosives among the Syrian guns that were
harassing the little kibbutz and several other settlements to the south. By daybreak
all of the Syrian guns were silenced, and the Syrian attempt to conquer
the north of Israel was never revived.
For the Syrians, who were counting on a swift victory, the
Degania was a major setback. Their troops did not perform as expected. There
was little coordination between armor and infantry. Even when the tanks managed
to penetrate Israeli lines, follow-up by its infantry was clumsy. Then too
was their disappointment with their allies. The Arab Liberation Army that was
operating in the Central Galilee failed to capture a single Jewish settlement.
The Lebanese Army, which was expected to invade at Rosh-Hanikra and drive
south to Haifa, showed little interest in the war and settled instead on a less
ambitious objective. It attacked Malkiya, a small settlement on the Lebanese
border which it succeeded in capturing after days of fighting, but got no farther.
In light of these setbacks, Syria was forced to rethink not only its strategy
but its purpose for being in the war.
The Egyptian Invasion
The most crucial of the four fronts was in the south where
Expeditionary Force launched a two-pronged attack through the Negev aimed
at the two major population centers of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Facing the
Egyptians were two Brigades, the Negev Brigade which, as its name implies,
was deployed in the Negev with a force of 800 troops. Farther north, near Tel
Aviv, was Golani, another Palmach brigade of similar strength but reinforced
by 2000 troops from the local Home Guard. It was an unlikely force to stop the
There were approximately 1000 Jews living in twenty-seven
scattered throughout the Negev. Typically, they were kibbutzim organized by
young pioneers to farm the land and serve as military outposts. Only a few of
the larger ones could claim more than thirty members. Yad Mordechai, with
150 members was the exception. All of the settlers had some military training
and were equipped with small weapons. Three of the settlements: Kfar Darom,
Yad Mordechai and Nitzanim, were either close to or straddled the Egyptian
invasion route, and were in particular danger of being overrun. The Egyptian
High Command all but wrote them off as of no military importance and left the
job of clearing them out to the Moslem Brotherhood, a group of religious
fanatics who were sent in ahead of the regular army for that purpose. The Jews
in turn relied on the kibbutz outposts to form their first line of defense.
Years later, Sir Allen Cunningham, last of the British High
told of a conversation he had with Golda Meir before leaving Palestine.
Despite the issues that separated them politically, a mutual sense of respect and
esteem had developed between them. " I understand", said Sir Allen "that your
daughter is in a kibbutz in the Negev. There will be a war, and they stand no
chance in those settlements. The Egyptians will move through them no matter
how hard they fight. Why not bring her home to Jerusalem?" he suggested.
Golda Meir was touched by his gesture. "Thank you, she said, "but all the boys
and girls in those settlements have mothers. If all of them were to take their
children home, then who will stop the Egyptians?'
Kibbutz Kfar Darom, located near the Egyptian border, was
the first settlement
to be targeted by the Moslem Brotherhood. On the morning of May 15,
The Brotherhood opened an attack on the kibbutz starting with a heavy artillery
barrage that lasted over an hour, followed by an infantry charge. The defenders
held their fire until the attackers came up to the fence and only then let go
with everything they had. Casualties among the attackers were heavy. The
Egyptians, who did not expect to encounter any resistance, let alone one of
such ferocity, began to leave the battlefield. In an attempt to help their retreating
infantry, Egyptian gunners renewed their bombardment of the kibbutz, but
their aim was off and instead of hitting Kfar Darom, their shells landed on top
of their own troops. The retreating Egyptians, thinking that the shelling was
coming from the kibbutz, panicked and what started as an orderly retreat
turned into a disorderly rout.
Waiting for the Egyptian attack
The defenders were puzzled. They had no idea who was doing
but they were certain that it was not coming from their direction. When the battle
was over, seventy of the enemy lay dead on the battlefield and fifty were
wounded. After that, only one other attempt was made to conquer the Kibbutz
and it too failed. Thereafter, the Egyptians, who occupied several strategic hills
overlooking Kfar Darom settled down to sporadic shelling from a safe distance.
The unexpected stand at Kfar Darom boosted the morale of
the other settlements
that took it as a sign that in spite of their small numbers it was possible
to stand up to the Egyptians. Napoleon's famous epigram that in war,
morale accounts for three quarters of a combatant's strength, gained validity at
Yad Mordechai sits mid-way between Gaza and Ashkelon. It
after Mordechai Anilewitz, the man who led the uprising against the Nazis in
the Warsaw Ghetto. An Egyptian force reached Yad Mordechai on May 18 and
on the following day, opened an offensive that succeeded in penetrating the
outer fence but was driven back. On the next day, the Egyptians returned with
a fresh force, determined this time to do away with Yad Mordechai in one powerful
assault. After four successive charges that day, they succeeded in penetrating
the inner defenses of the kibbutz and got as far as the farm buildings
where they were stopped. But casualties were piling up and the settlement's
fortifications were a shambles. There was no place to treat the wounded and
the fighters were running out of ammunition. An urgent appeal was radioed for
The enemy shells heavily, dug-outs and trenches have been
destroyed, there is no place to house the wounded, no water.
Exhaustion. If no help is forthcoming we will break out tonight and
evacuate. We are no longer able to defend the settlement because of
the many dead and wounded.
But Haganah had nothing in reserve and could only encourage
to fight on. During the following two days the Egyptians pounded the kibbutz
relentlessly with artillery to soften it up for the final blow. On May 23 the
Egyptians returned with two formations of tanks and armored vehicles and this
time, had little difficulty in breaking through the outer defenses. Nothing
remained for the defenders of Yad Mordechai to do, but to abandon the kibbutz
and escape with their lives. Again they radioed Negev Headquarters: We are no
longer in a position to defend ourselves our losses are too heavy". And once
again Haganah told them to hold on, but this time promised help.
Help came that night in the form of a commando unit of Palmach
but it was
too little and too late. The best that the commandos could do was to place as
many of the wounded that it had room for in the bed of a truck and instruct the
others how best to escape through enemy lines to the closest kibbutz. After
midnight 110 members of Kibbutz Yad Mordechai started their four mile trek
to the sanctuary of Kibbutz Kfar Am. Among them, were 25 wounded who
were able to walk and two stretcher cases that needed to be carried.
Mid-way the survivors were discovered by the Egyptians who
them with machine gun and mortar fire. Those who could took cover, but one
man who had lost a leg in World War II was left to crawl but couldn't make it.
Two of the women in the group lifted him to their shoulders and dragged him
along until they were out of range of the Egyptian guns. When the group was
within reach of Kfar Am, it was met by several trucks waiting to take them the
rest of the way. It was then that someone discovered that one of the stretcher
cases and the bearers were missing. A small party returned to the site where
they were last seen but couldn't find them. It was later learned that they were
taken prisoner by the Egyptians - never to be heard from again.
A pause in the fighting
In the five days that the settlers held out, they had tied
down half of
General Naguib's force. The Egyptians suffered heavy losses and had to temporarily
deactivate one whole battalion. In defeat, the defenders of Yad
Mordechai earned for themselves a special place in the hearts of their countrymen,
and their kibbutz is today a memorial to their heroism and sacrifice. 150
men and women stood up to an Egyptian army and gained five precious days
for the defenders of Tel-Aviv to prepare for the coming assault on their city.
With Yad Mordechai out of the way, the Egyptian army continued
advance on Tel Aviv, overrunning Nitzanim, the last settlement in the path of
the invaders. At mid-day, on May 29, a large Egyptian column was seen
approaching Ashdod, 20 miles south of the city. Tel Aviv was in danger, and its
fall appeared imminent.
Facing the Egyptian force at Yavne, just north of the Arab
town of Ashdod,
was the Givati Brigade of Palmach under the command of Shimon Avidan.
With the Egyptian column having reached Ashdod unchecked, Givati went into
action. As it happened, four war surplus Messerschmitts that were bought in
Czechoslovakia were air lifted the day before to Tel-Nof, an abandoned British
Air Base, now used by the IAF. It was the new Israeli Air Force's first fighter
squadron on its inaugural mission. Ezer Weizman, who was later to become
president of the State of Israel participated in the attack on the Egyptian convoy
and describes what happened:
I was a young combat pilot at the Tel Nof Air Base. It
was one of
the most crucial moments in our War of Independence. A tired and
distracted officer (Shimon Avidan) appeared, urging us to take off
without delay in a desperate bid to halt the Egyptian advance toward
Tel Aviv. That was how I clambered into my Messerschmitt for my
first combat sortie in the 1948 War
The attack itself was a disappointment. The four Messerschmitts
down on their target and unleashed eight 200 pound bombs with little effect.
There were several direct hits, but due to faulty detonators, the bombs failed to
explode. The 20-mm cannons used for strafing, jammed and did little damage.
Eddy Cohen, a pilot who volunteered from the States, was killed when his
plane took a direct hit and broke apart in mid air as he was attempting an emer-
gency landing. Another of the Messerschmitts was badly damaged but managed
to land safely.
The Egyptian column got as far as Ashdod, where it ran into
and stalled. Haganah decided to take advantage of the opportunity by mounting
an assault on the column, but the operation was scrubbed when a false
report reached headquarters of a pending UN ceasefire. When it did not materialize,
the operation was rescheduled for the following night but by then the
element of surprise was gone - the Egyptians were ready and waiting and the
Givati unit that led the attack on the convoy was thrown back with heavy losses.
A second attempt met with a similar fate.
While Haganah wrote off both the air strike and the two ground
failures, the Egyptians saw it differently. The air strike came as a complete surprise.
The Egyptians were not counting on the Jews to have fighter planes. In
addition, while the ground assaults ended in failure, it was learned later that the
Egyptians were impressed by their boldness and were concerned that should a
follow on attack prove successful, it would wipe out the entire column. Until
then, the thought that they might not prevail over the Jews hadn't occurred. The
Egyptian High Command, which had based its strategy on fighting what they
dismissed as "Zionist gangs", discovered that their army was facing an organized
force with an unknown amount of artillery and air power.
In the same way that they underestimated the strength of
the Jews in the
first instance, they now erred in the opposite direction and abandoned their
plan to take Tel Aviv. Instead, the Egyptian Government decided to concentrate
on a less ambitious objective, that of isolating the Negev from Israel proper by
driving a wedge between it and the rest of the country along the Majdal - Bet
Guvrin road. For an army that was bent on being in Tel Aviv in a matter of two
weeks time, it was a painful reassessment.
The Egyptian 2nd Brigade under the command of General Abd
fared much better, at least until it reached Kibbutz Ramat Rachel. His army
moved inland from Al-Auja in the direction of Beersheba and from there to
Hebron and to Bethlehem. There were no Jewish settlements along the route to
hold him up. This was Arab country and everywhere he went, his army
received a hero's welcome.
The purpose of this secondary invasion is not clear. Its
stated goal was to
join forces with the Arab Legion and help it in its battle for the conquest of
Jerusalem. But since King Abdullah did not ask for their help, a more plausible
explanation is that King Farouk of Egypt, was concerned that if left to his
own devices, King Abdullah would grab all of Palestine.
The 2nd Brigade's only encounter with the Jews occurred at
a small kibbutz that was founded in 1926 straddling the road between Hebron
and Jerusalem. While the kibbutz faced an entire Egyptian brigade, it was not
as isolated as were the settlements in the Negev, and its own defenses were
backed by units from Harel and Etzion, two Palmach brigades. It also lived
with the memory of their kibbutz being destroyed during the Arab riots of 1929
and was determined not to let it happen again.
The battle for Ramat Rachel was as hard fought as any battle
in the War of
Independence. Much of it was hand-to-hand combat. In ten days of fighting,
the kibbutz changed hands six times and the settlement's buildings were badly
damaged. But in the end, it was the Kibbutzniks who prevailed. The Egyptian
army was fought to a standstill and was kept from entering Jerusalem.
King Abdullah was a moderate, compared with the other leaders
Arab League, yet he had no misgivings about wanting to expand his small
kingdom by annexing that part of Palestine that was given to the Arabs by the
United Nations. His life till then had been a series of disappointments. It was
Abdullah who first proposed the "Arab rebellion" to the British, but T.E.
Lawrence, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia, turned to his more pliable brother
Faisal to lead the revolt against the Turks. As a result, Faisal became the
champion of Arab nationalism while Abdullah was relegated to rule over
Trans-Jordan as a consolation prize. During the first years of his reign as emirate,
the royal residence was a Bedouin tent perched on a hilltop overlooking
Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, after the fighting
But having Jerusalem as his capital, the Eternal City and
the third holiest
place in Islam, would change all that. It would raise his stature in the Moslem
world and avenge the humiliation suffered by his family when it lost the sacred
cities of Mecca and Medina to Faisal in 1925. Jerusalem was also home to
100,000 Jews. Isolated in the Judean hills, its lifeline to the coast was a single
artery, the Tel-Aviv - Jerusalem road. Forty miles long, it rose from sea level
to 2,500 feet. From the outskirts of Tel Aviv, the road passed through rich
orange groves and farmland until it reached Bab al-Wad, where the road started
its climb through forbidding Arab territory - where behind every rock and
tree an Arab sniper might be lurking.
With the Arabs in control of that last ten mile stretch of
road, the city was
completely cut off. The pipeline bringing water from Rosh Ha'ayin had been
severed weeks before and there wasn't enough food to last a month. Given
these conditions, Abdullah could afford to wait the Jews out while his artillery,
strategically positioned in the hills ringing Jerusalem, hailed a steady stream of
shells on the population below. Abdullah reasoned that between the two, he
could demoralize the population and crush its will to resist. By late May, food
and everything else needed to sustain life was running low. Hospitals were
crammed with military and civilian casualties. To make matters worse, much
of Jerusalem's medical resources were out of reach at the Hadassah Hospital on
Mount Scopus. Powdered milk, the basic ingredient for baby formula, was particularly
scarce. Children would cry for more but there was none to be had - a
city under siege is no place for children.
On March 29, Ben-Gurion convened a meeting of the commanders
We are here to find a way to open the road to Jerusalem.
three vital centers, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. The Arabs have
calculated correctly that the subjugation of Jerusalem, its capture or
its destruction would deal a severe and possibly a fatal blow to the
Yishuv and break its will and its ability to withstand Arab aggression.
King David chose for his capital one of the most difficult
in the country. Those who returned to Zion in our generation did not
provide for a territorial link, consisting of settlements with the capital.
We are now paying the penalty for that sin, and we have to correct
in war what we omitted to do in peace. It is in the hands of our
army, and at this moment exclusively in its hands, to right that
wrong. And to the citizens of Jerusalem: You have not been forgotten,
and the oath taken by our forefathers by the Rivers of Babylon,
'If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning,' is
as binding now as when first pronounced.
But on the minds of his commanders, as Ben-Gurion spoke,
was the giant
fortress at Latrun, abandoned to the Arab Legion when the British left
Palestine. High upon the hilltop overlooking the Ayalon Valley, it controlled all
traffic between Jerusalem and the coast. Nothing passing below could escape
its notice. For Ben-Gurion, to make good on his pledge to the Jerusalemites,
Haganah would have to take on the Arab Legion and drive it out of Latrun. But
beset on every side by Arabs, many wondered if their knack for improvising
had already run its course.
The Ayalon Valley is rich with Bible lore. It was here that
the sun to stand still to give him several more hours of daylight to finish off the
Canaanites. The Maccabeans launched their attack to liberate the Israelites
from Greek suppression and it is here where David slew Goliath.
The operation to conquer Latrun got off to a bad start. The
facing Shlomo Shamir, hand picked by Ben-Gurion to lead the operation, was
that of manpower. Haganah was stretched thin. Every soldier was already
engaged and there was no one left in reserve.
To form a new brigade, Yigael Yadin took an infantry battalion
Palmach. Another unit, loosely referred to as the armored battalion, was created
by closing down the armor school run by Haim Laskov. He was ordered to
shut the school down and bring his trainees and their homemade armored cars
with them. Finally, to fill the ranks, Shamir was given a group of immigrants,
recently arrived in Israel. When he first laid eyes on them getting off their
busses at Hulda there was little to inspire confidence. Their military experience
was minimal if non-existent. Many of them were still in their street clothes.
Some had never held a rifle and certainly not of the type that they were about
to be issued.
Jerusalem under siege
Another problem was that of language. Among these immigrants
were Poles, Rumanians, Czechs, Bulgarians, Russians, Yugoslavs and
Hungarians. The closest they came to having a common language was Yiddish.
Their commander, Zvi Horowitz, as well as his company and platoon leaders,
on the other hand, were Israeli born who spoke Hebrew but not Yiddish. How
they were expected to lead men into battle who could not understand one
another let alone their commander's orders, was questioned but not resolved.
It was up to Shamir now to whip this motley assortment into fighting shape and
he was given one week in which to do it. At this juncture Ben-Gurion would
have done well to heed the advice of Winston Churchill: "When you're in a
hurry, slow down". But when Yigael Yadin asked him for additional time, Ben-
Gurion, thinking only of the Jerusalemites desperation, would not hear of it.
As night descended, the troops climbed into their busses
to take them to
their jumping off point. But no sooner were they in their seats that word
reached Shamir that a convoy of 100 enemy vehicles was spotted heading for
Latrun from the direction of Ramallah. The news was disturbing, but Shamir
dismissed it as something he could handle. Moments later, another report came
stating that the road between Hulda and Latrun had been mined and was unsafe
for passage. With that, Shamir advanced zero hour from 10pm to midnight and
sent a party of engineers to check the road. When they returned to report that
nothing was found, he sent a second team to confirm the findings of the first.
But these precautions used up precious time and it wasn't until 2am that the
buses were ready to move out.
Under a full moon, the two companies of immigrants began
trek toward Beit Susin on their way to Bab-el-Wad. From there they would
head north, cross over the gorge and onto the heights of Latrun. But instead of
finding Beit Susin deserted, the village was alive with soldiers of the Arab
Legion's 2nd Regiment, ready and waiting, and as they reached the outskirts of
the village, they were greeted by a murderous barrage of small arms fire. In
addition, hordes of Arab villagers swooped down from every direction.
Since the operation depended on the cover of darkness, the
Joshua might well have prayed to the same God who stopped the sun for
Joshua, to now look favorably upon them and hold back the dawn. But that was
not to happen. The sun rose at the usual hour and exposed the hapless recruits
to enemy fire.
When Zvi Hurwitz succeeded in making contact with Headquarters,
was told to have his men dig in while they figured out what to do. Without
waiting for instructions, Hurwitz's men, who had never been under fire, followed
their natural instincts and started an agonizing retreat in the direction of
Hulda. The Valley of Ayalon was again beset by men running, crawling or
being dragged with only one thought in mind - that of saving their lives. But
few survived the massacre. Most of the 140 killed that day had been in the
country for less than a week. For them it was a luckless return to the Promised
Ben-Gurion spent little time brooding over the failure. He
as a result of the assault on Latrun, the Arab Legion was forced to divert two
of its regiments from the Jerusalem front and as a result the city was saved. An
assessment that prompted Yigael Yadin to counter that if all the Prime Minister
wanted was a diversionary attack, it could have been accomplished at a much
lower cost in human life.
With the setback at Latrun, Ben-Gurion realized how formidable
Haganah was up against. But Jerusalem remained in peril and there was no
other choice but to follow up with another attack. Ben-Gurion then turned to
Mickey Marcus, a good-natured man with a forceful personality. He was a
graduate of West Point who had finished a career in the American Army at the
rank of colonel when he was persuaded to come to Palestine and lend his considerable
talents to help shape Haganah into a modern army. Ben-Gurion asked
him how soon he could be ready to lead a second assault on Latrun and
Marcus, after some reflection, replied: "I need two days."
The battle plan prepared by Marcus was similar to the one
used by Shamir
- a frontal attack on the fortress, coordinated with a flanking operation from the
south. The difference was in the players. The frontal assault was to be made by
Chaim Laskov's armored battalion and the flanking movement would be left to
Yaakov Prulov and his battle hardened 52nd Battalion from the Givati Brigade.
Another difference was that Marcus considered it of utmost importance to hold
to a strict timetable.
At eleven sharp on the night of May 30 the armored battalion
from Hulda and headed for Latrun. There were now five half-tracks in the formation
with flame throwers that were not available at the time of the first
assault. A command post was set up approximately 300 yards from the fortress
to wait for Prulov, who according to plan, would seize the heights of Bab-el-
Wad, then circle around the Legion's positions on the Latrun-Ramallah road
and join up with Laskov who would have already started his frontal assault on
By midnight, several of Laskov's armored vehicles succeeded
their way into the fortress courtyard. With proper support, this could have
decided the battle for Latrun. But the two infantry companies that were
assigned to back up the armored assault ran into a minor mishap along the way
and without checking with Marcus, decided to turn back. This left Laskov and
his men inside the fortress walls to fight it out with the Legion on their own.
Meanwhile, the deadly burst of fire from the flamethrowers which Laskov was
counting on to drive the Arabs from the roof top had set fire to the wooden
structures inside the fort and soon, the entire courtyard was lit up like a stage.
Laskov's men were now trapped inside the courtyard, making them an easy target
for the Legionnaires' hand grenades that were being lobbed from up above.
One by one Laskov's half-tracks were reduced to flaming wrecks and many of
his men died inside the fort.
Marcus's only remaining hope was Prulov, who was expected
to have been
well past Dir Ayub. When word finally reached him, Marcus was told that
Prulov got as far as Dir Ayub and decided to turn back. Without infantry to support
Laskov's armor and with daybreak only an hour away, there was nothing
for Marcus to do but call off the attack.
Back at Hulda, Marcus learned that Prulov decided to give
up the fight
after meeting with only minor resistance. Why a seasoned soldier, known for
his bravery would fail to follow through on a direct order had never been satisfactorily
explained. Marcus summed up the second attempt to take Latrun in
a one line report to Yigael Yadin: "I was there, was battle, Plan good. Artillery
good. Armor excellent. Infantry disgraceful".
After the second defeat, Latrun came close to becoming the
Jewish hopes for ever opening a passage to Jerusalem. Yet while the struggle
was going on inside the city and unbeknown to its inhabitants, relief was on the
way. There was a section of no man's land south of the Jerusalem road that was
used as a crossing for goat herders since biblical times. It occurred to one of
Marcus's officers that this same trail could be used to bypass Latrun if only a
way could be found for vehicles to get across the steep ravines and over to the
Jerusalem side. It was a long shot and an enormous engineering undertaking.
It meant carving out of a tortuous goat trail that zigzagged through the precipitous
hills, a detour that would bypass the regular road and doing it without
alerting the Arabs to what the Jews were up to. But with Jerusalem in a desperate
state, and conditions worsening by the hour, Marcus felt the idea was worth
exploring. On the day following the second defeat at Latrun, Marcus set out
from Hulda with a small party and drove by Jeep as far as Beit Susin. While
the others waited behind, Chorev went on his own, leaving the others to remain
at the edge of the gorge to contemplate its three miles of ravines and sharp
inclines and wonder how a road could ever be built to cross over to the other
Chorev needed to find the goat trail, then figure out a way
to make it passable
for men and vehicles. Chorev proceeded to climb down the ravine and up
to the other side. When he returned, he reported that the going was tough but
doable. To prove his point Chorev, on the following night, took three others
with him from the Jerusalem side in a Jeep and made it across to Beit Susin.
On the following morning, Marcus met with a group of engineers at Haganah
headquarters in Tel Aviv. "We are about to cut a path through to Jerusalem"
Marcus told them. "What we have failed to accomplish with force of arms we
will achieve with sweat, ingenuity and engineering skill. The same people who
parted the waters of the Red Sea, are about to create a passage to Jerusalem".
In naming the road, Marcus departed from the tradition of
seeking a name
from the Bible and called it Burma Road, after a well-known predecessor, the
highway the Chinese built through the jungles of Burma and over the mountains
While work on the road was in the early stages, the first
trucks laden with
food were heading in the direction of Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. They traveled
as far as the western edge of the ravine where their cargoes were unloaded, and
from there hauled on the backs of a steady stream of porters who climbed down
the steep slopes with their heavy burdens and up to the opposite side, where
empty trucks sent from Jerusalem were waiting to take the cargo the rest of
way. The entire operation took place at night so as not to be discovered. Two
such round trips per night were all that the porters could physically handle but
it was enough to ensure that a small but steady trickle of food and ammunition
was reaching the beleaguered city.
While this was going on, bulldozers had graded the road to
a point where
the more powerful trucks were able to make it through on an ad-hoc basis. To
help those that did not have the power to scale the slopes on their own, large
tractors, using cables and winches, were stationed on either side of the ravine
to let the overburdened trucks down gently to the bottom and then tow them up
to the opposite side. Less than two weeks after work began, Burma Road was
ready for its real test. On that day, a long triumphant convoy of 140 trucks,
each carrying a three ton load of fresh food, reached the outskirts of Jerusalem.
They were the first such supplies to arrive in any quantity in nearly three
months - traveling over a madcap highway carved from terrain that a British
brigadier dismissed with the words. "They'll never get a road through there".
On June 11, a truce was arranged by the UN and went into
effect almost a
month, after the Arab armies marched across Israel's borders to deal a harsh
and final reckoning with the Jews. The truce was welcomed by both sides: The
Arabs, because they badly needed time to figure out what had gone wrong, and
the Jews, because they were stretched to the limit and needed some breathing
space in which to get into shape for when the fighting resumed.
Bulldozing Burma Road
The Jews had met the threat with what one contemporary described
mixture of improvisation, courage, able fieldmanship and luck." With an army
that just recently surfaced from the underground and with too few weapons to
go round, the Jews held their ground against a vastly superior force. Of this
they could be proud. But it was, nevertheless, a feat accomplished at a devastating
cost in human life.
Although the truce came as one commander put it, as dew from
Israel's future was by no means certain. Much of the land allocated to the
Jews by the United Nations remained in enemy hands. In the north, the Syrians
had a foothold on the western bank of the Jordan River and were in a position
to break out and capture the upper Galilee. The Arab triangle, biting almost to
the coast was occupied by an Iraqi army that could, at any momen, cut Israel
in half by closing the eight mile gap that separated it from the Mediterranean.
The Arab Legion, in spite of the Burma Road, continued to maintain a death
grip on Jerusalem. And in the south the Egyptians had occupied most of the
Negev. With the cease-fire in effect, Israel was not only given a chance to catch
her breath, but twenty-eight precious days to get ready for the struggle that lay
Obtaining weapons had been a Haganah preoccupation from its early
beginnings. But at no time was it more acute than in 1947, when the Jewish
State faced the threat of an Arab invasion. Ben-Gurion had dispatched two military
hardware experts to Europe with a shopping list of weapons and, at the
same time sent Eliezer Kaplan, the Agency's treasurer, to the United States to
raise twenty-five million dollars to pay for them. With only six months remaining
before the end of the Mandate, the need was urgent.
Three weeks later, Kaplan returned with his pockets virtually empty.
Jewish leaders told him that the record level of giving year in and year out was
becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. The American Jewish community,
so long the financial bulwark of the Zionist movement, he was told, was tired
of giving and giving and giving. In no case, Kaplan was told, should he expect
more than an additional five million dollars in emergency aid.
The people sitting at the table with Kaplan were dumbstruck. Five million
dollars wouldn't make a dent in the cost of the weapons that were absolutely
needed for the nation's defense.
Ben-Gurion, waited impatiently for Kaplan to finish. He then sprang to his
feet and staring at the group gathered around him, he bellowed: "The Jews will
not survive two weeks in an all-out war without those weapons. I will leave
immediately for the United States. The Americans must be made to understand
the desperate condition we are in. We need an absolute minimum of twentyfive
million dollars and we need it right now."
At that moment, Golda Meir, the only woman on the thirteen person council,
had a suggestion. "What you are doing here, I cannot do." she told Ben-
Gurion. "However, what you propose to do in the United States, I can do. You
stay here, and let me go to the States to raise the money."
Ben-Gurion tried to brush her off. He felt that he alone had the stature
persuasive power to raise so formidable a sum. But the others felt differently.
Golda Meir had been raised in Milwaukee and knew her fellow Americans in
a way that Ben-Gurion didn't. While she had not been back to the States in over
ten years, she was not an unknown in the Jewish community, and she was an
experienced fund raiser.
That night, Ben-Gurion called Golda in, to tell her of his decision to send
her in his place. She was to leave on the following day. As he bid her farewell,
BG, a consummate reader, handed her a slip of paper containing the title of a
book that he had been wanting, and apologetically asked if she would get it for
Golda arrived in New York on a Friday night toward the end of January
1948, during one of the worst blizzards the city had ever known. By her own
account, she had had no time to return to her apartment in Jerusalem to pack a
bag. The only garment she had to protect her against the cold was the summer
dress she was wearing. In her purse there was a single ten-dollar bill. For a carpenter's
daughter from Milwaukee, the raising of twenty-five million dollars
seemed a daunting task. There had been no time to prepare for the trip. She had
left Israel with neither plan nor itinerary nor an organization to back her up.
The only person to meet her when her plane landed in New York was her sister
Golda arrived on American soil knowing that the Council of Jewish
Federations was gathering in Chicago on the following day at the former
Chicago Athletic Club. Gathered there would be eight hundred community
leaders, including some of the most influential Jews in America, many of
whom were very rich and Golda meant to be at that meeting. As soon as she
could get to a phone, she placed a call to Henry Montor, Director of the United
Jewish Appeal. After a short introduction of her purpose for being in the States,
she asked Montor to arrange for her to address the Council. But Montor was
cool to the idea. There was no room for her on the speaker's roster which he
said had been established months before. "I also need to warn you", he said,
"that many of these people do not believe as you do and there are many who
are openly anti-Zionist. They have given a great deal of money to worthy caus-
es but they have grown cynical over time to emotional appeals. This is the
worst possible place" he said "for you to start".
"I am aware of that, Henry", she told Montor,
"But these are the people
who have the money and that is what I am here for". Then pausing
only to buy a winter coat and a basic wardrobe she headed for
the airport where she waited until there was a break in the weather
and her plane took off. "I think our plane was the only one that left
It was one of the most important plane trips Golda ever took
and the speech
that she was about to deliver was surely the most important one she ever made.
The birth of a nation depended on it.
Now Golda Meir heard the chairman announce her name. The
sight of this
simple, austere figure, wearing an ordinary blue dress and her hair done up in
a bun was in itself enough to stir her audience. One man was heard to murmur:
"She is a woman out of the Bible". If she was afraid, it didn't show. She spoke
as always, without notes. She seemed neither overawed by her audience nor
condescending. She spoke almost without emotion:
"You must believe me", she said, "that
I have not come to the
United States solely to prevent seven hundred thousand Jews from
being wiped off the face of the earth. During these last years, the
Jewish people have lost six million of their kind, and it would be presumptuous
indeed of me to remind the Jews of the world that seven
hundred thousand Jews are in danger. That is not the question. If,
however, these seven hundred thousand Jews survive, then the Jews
of the world will survive with them, and their freedom will be forever
assured. But if they did not, "then there is little doubt that for centuries,
there will be no Jewish people, there will be no Jewish nation,
and all our hopes will be smashed.
In a few months a Jewish state will exist in Palestine. We shall
fight for its birth. This is natural. We shall pay for it with our blood.
This is normal. The best among us will fall, that is certain. But what
is equally certain is that our morale will not waver no matter how
numerous our invaders will be. Yet, she warned, those invaders
would come with cannon and armor. Against those weapons, “sooner
or later, our courage will have no meaning, for we will have
ceased to exist.
When she finished, there was a long silence. She felt her
Then, in a sudden burst of enthusiasm the entire audience leaped to its feet. The
applause was deafening. People scrambled to the stage to shake her hand. More
important, they got her message and came forward with their support. Others
were on the phone with their constituencies back home raising money for her
cause. By the end of the evening she had received a million dollars in cash,
along with a promise that they would provide the necessary support to raise the
balance of the twenty-five million dollars.
Encouraged by her Chicago triumph, Montor, who at first was
went on to organize a cross-country tour. Accompanied by Henry Morgenthau,
Jr., Franklin Roosevelt's former Secretary of the Treasury, she set a grueling
pace, speaking sometimes three and four times a day. She was now preceded
by a team of professional fund raisers who made the arrangements for her
arrival as she proceeded from city to city, and in each city, her dramatic plea
elicited the same spontaneous, overwhelming reaction that she generated in
Chicago. When it was over, the woman who arrived in the U.S. on a bitter cold
January night with ten dollars in her purse, would leave with fifty million -
twice the goal that was set for her.
Waiting for her at the airport in Israel was David Ben-Gurion,
the man who
wanted to go in her place. "The day when history is written," he told the crowd
that came to greet her, "it will be recorded that it was thanks to a Jewish woman
that the Jewish state was born. As they walked together toward his car, Ben-
Gurion turned to her and in a muffled voice asked: "Golda, did you bring the
book?" She simply nodded "yes".
With the money that Golda raised, the purchase of weapons
smoothly and stockpiled aboard scores of ships waiting for the embargo to
be lifted. In their holds they carried 25,000 rifles, 5,000 light machine guns,
175 Howitzers, ten tanks, fifty armored half-tracks, thirty-five antiaircraft
guns, twelve 120-millimeter mortars, fifty 65-millimeter cannons, 200 heavy
machine guns, 97,000 artillery and mortar shells and thousands of rounds of
At the same time other ships were on their way from the United
bringing the harvest of a massive collection campaign conducted by "Materials
for Palestine". This organization gathered contributions from every state in the
Union. Wisconsin sent 350,000 sandbags and 2,000 flares; New Jersey, 2500
helmets. Chicago, one hundred tons of barbed wire and ten tons of khaki paint;
San Francisco offered mosquito netting; Minneapolis, six hundred mine detectors.
From New Orleans, salt tablets and penicillin. In one of the shipments, a
well meaning soul had placed a complete set of the Memoirs of Admiral von
During the truce, preparations for the resumption of fighting
a frantic pace. On May 31, the Provisional Government issued a Defense Order
which authorized conscription of all citizens of military age, and all members
of the armed forces were obligated to take an oath of allegiance. In some ways,
the ceremony was a formality - it legitimized an army that had already existed.
Haganah and Irgun were absorbed into the newly created Israel Defense Force
(IDF), better known by its Hebrew acronym,. "Tzahal" and all fighting units
were reorganized along the lines of a modern army with a separate Army, Navy
and Air Force. It had a unified command reporting to the Chief of Staff who
was under the civilian authority of the Minister of Defense.
Military training in all categories was intensive. Many soldiers
basic training for the first time even though most of them had already experienced
their baptism of fire. The training of commanders at the platoon and
company levels was particularly urgent. It was a time-honored practice in
Haganah for commanders to lead the charge with the order; "Acharai" meaning
follow me. As a result, commanders were the first to be exposed to enemy
fire and often the first to fall in battle. When the truce was called, their ranks
were severely depleted and they had to be replenished. And finally, there were
crash courses given in basic Hebrew to facilitate communication among the
new immigrants and the Hebrew speaking natives.
Training in all catagories was intensive
As Yigael Yadin stated, in summing up Israel's state of preparedness:
Air Force cannot even compare with theirs. We have no Air Force". That was
about to change. Israel's air force at the beginning of the war, consisted of a
few single engine Piper Cubs, and four war surplus Messerschmitts, two of
which were lost in a single engagement. In order to match the Arabs in air
power, Israel needed aircraft of every type and the pilots to fly them.
Not having enough pilots of their own, an appeal went out
for pilots and
ground crews to man the aircraft that were on the way. The response was
encouraging. Scores signed on from all over the world, Jews and non-Jews.
Some were Zionists and others were in it for the adventure. Among them was
a TWAcaptain, a Red Army deserter, a Dutch millionaire, and even a Brooklyn
cop. They all had two things in common - a desire to fight for the new Jewish
state and many hours of flying experience during the Second World War.
The planes they would fly were as varied as their pilots'
From the United States came three Constellations and ten C-46 cargo planes
smuggled out by way of Panama. There were five Mustangs and three Flying
Fortresses. Twenty-five Norseman transports, bought from a scrap-metal dealer
in Germany. Ten Spitfires were slipped out of Britain by a bogus movie
company on the pretext that they would be used in the filming of the Battle of
Britain. To this array, twenty-five WWII Messerschmitts 109s were bought in
Czechoslovakia, disassembled and air lifted to Israel. From this modest beginning
there would emerge an air force that would one day dazzle the world.
The ten days immediately following the resumption of hostilities
prove to be the turning point in the war. Israel used the 28 day lull in the fighting
to maximum advantage. Its equipment, in terms of quantity and quality,
had changed out of all resemblance to its resources just one month earlier. In
addition, its manpower almost doubled since the invasion. It was a better
trained, better organized and more disciplined army, and it was now ready to
face the future with a new air of confidence.
When fighting resumed, Tzahal had two priorities. The first was to widen
the corridor leading to Jerusalem. While the link with Jerusalem had been considerably
improved with the building of Burma Road, the situation remained
tenuous. Military planners were concerned that if Burma Road were blocked
by the Jordanian Army, Jerusalem would again be under siege. The second priority
was to rid the Galilee of all foreign troops. With the Egyptian army no
longer an immediate threat, the Southern Front was put on hold.
The first objective was to neutralize the Arab Towns of Lod and Ramleh,
situated as they were within the Jerusalem Corridor. Yigal Allon reasoned that
a frontal attack on the towns, which were known to be well defended, would
prove costly and success problematic. Instead, Allon decided to steal up from
behind. The plan called for the 8th Armored Brigade and two infantry battalions
under the command of Yitzhak Sadeh to come down from the north, capture
the airport at Lod and the German settlement of Wilhelma, along with several
villages farther east in the foothills overlooking Lod.
At the same time, another column, the Yiftach Brigade, under the command
of Moshe Kalman, would advance from the south. The plan called for the
two columns to meet at Ben Shemen and from there, the combined force would
advance on Lod from the east, where the town was most vulnerable to attack.
Once Lod had been captured, Ramleh was expected to fall without a struggle.
But military operations rarely play out exactly as planned and "Operation
Danny" was no exception. Kalman's troops, coming up from the south,
encountered no resistance and arrived at Ben Shemen earlier than expected.
Yitzhak Sadeh, working his way down from the north, took the Lod Airport
without much effort, but as he proceeded south, he ran into stiff resistance and
became bogged down at the village of Deir Tariff. As a result, the meeting with
Kalman did not occur as expected.
Kalman, having reached Ben Shemen ahead of Sadeh, was anxious to
press on. Without waiting for the others or informing his superiors, he sent a
party into Lod to test its defenses. The troops, upon entering the town, were
surprised at the complete absence of resistance. Unknown to Kalman, Glubb
Pasha had pulled his Legionnaires out of the town in order to reinforce his
troops in the Jerusalem Corridor, leaving the local militia alone to protect Lod
and Ramleh. The first hint that Lod was being defended at all came when the
patrol reached the center of town and was beaten back at the police station
which was manned by a small contingent of Jordanian soldiers.
Instead of returning to Ben Shemen, the leader of the patrol called Kalman
on his radio to tell him that he was encountering some resistance but assured
him that it was minor and that his small patrol could easily take Lod if he had
some help in capturing the police station, "One or two tanks", he said, "was all
that were needed".
The request was relayed through Mullah Cohen who radioed the 8th
Armored Brigade Headquarters, and Cohen, thinking that he was speaking
with Sadeh, had Moshe Dayan on the other end of the line. Without giving
Cohen a chance to describe his needs, Dayan told Cohen that he had a small
matter to take care of at Deir Tariff, but once that was done, he would be on his
way. As a result of this miscommunication, instead of the two tanks that he
requested, Kalman wound up with Dayan's entire commando battalion and one
of the most daring exploits of the war was about to unfold.
Dayan's battalion, along with its regulars from Palmach, was supplemented
by an entire complement of prisoners who were furloughed for the purpose
of joining the war. Their warden, having nothing to do without his prisoners,
came along with them. By the time Dayan showed up, however, the element of
surprise was gone. The Arab commander defending Lod, had time to rush his
troops from their dugouts on the outskirts into the town center, and the Israeli
army had a whole new fight on its hands.
Moshe Dayan, recognized as the boldest and most audacious of Israel's
commanders, led the attack. In the lead was an armored half-track that had
been abandoned in a ditch by the Jordanians and recovered by Dayan's men. It
had a turret with a five-pounder along with a quantity of shells that were left
behind with the vehicle. Dayan found an artillery man to figure out how to use
the gun and he named it the "Terrible Tiger". Having lost the element of sur-
prise, Dayan recognized that capturing the two towns now came with considerable
risk. In addition, all of his vehicles were open-covered and offered little
protection for the crews. So as not to become fixed targets, Dayan ordered his
men to race through the main street at top speed and keep firing. Even if they
didn't hit a thing, it would force the enemy to keep their heads down. Dayan
was out to create a maximum amount of confusion, capture a few strategic
points and hold on until Kelman's infantry brigade could join him and hold the
town. From Dayan's own description of the battle:
When the column was about one kilometer from the city,
encountered heavy fire. The Tiger would halt from time to time, and
return fire to the fortified positions, with the convoy continuing on
its way. With every shot of the Tiger - sandbags could be observed
crumbling into Arab positions and the clouds of dust would go up
into the air. Arabs were seen escaping from their positions.
Firing went on at full speed. The Jeeps, whose only armor
their weapons, their light machine guns, shot at windows, at fences,
at sand bag positions. From the junction at the entrance of Lod, the
column continued south toward Ramleh, then entered that city under
a hail of fire. Only the Tiger turned north and entered Lod. It roamed
its streets, firing in all directions, and then opened up a duel with the
In a sweep that took just 47 minutes the town of Lod surrendered
Ramleh followed suit without putting up a fight.
On the following morning the Arab Legion sent one tank and
vehicles into the unoccupied part of town on a reconnaissance mission.
Mistaking this for a counter attack, Arab irregulars came out of their hiding
places and opened fire on the Israeli troops. Fighting broke out all over town,
with the Arabs firing from windows, house tops, and alley ways. It was an
uprising by a people who only the day before had asked to surrender. Given the
odds against him, Kalman ordered his troops to give no quarter and to fire at
anything that moved. It worked, and in less than two hours, the insurrection
was crushed. Again, the town elders asked to surrender, but this time the terms
were different. All of the residents of Lod were ordered to leave.
While the battle for Lod and Ramleh raged on, another force
in widening the land corridor between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Through a
series of short, sharp and decisive operations, Tzahal seized a score of villages
situated on either side of the Jerusalem road and forced some 50,000 Arabs,
who had long harassed Jewish traffic, to flee into Jordanian held territory. The
operation also left Latrun completely surrounded by the Israeli Army. While
Burma Road was already in use, considerably reducing Latrun's strategic
importance, it suddenly emerged as a target of opportunity.
With only hours remaining before the second truce was to
go into effect, a
decision was made to press on with the attack and capture the fortress atop the
hill. A small column of tanks and half-tracks advanced on the fortress to provide
cover for an infantry unit that was following close behind. The lead tank
was commanded by a Britisher with the unlikely nickname of "Tex" who had
deserted from his army to join the Jewish side.
The advance was proceeding well when Tex's turret gun jammed
amount of prying would dislodge the shell that was stuck in the chamber. With
his gun disabled, the Englishman jumped out of his tank, ran over to the one
following behind, explained his problem to the tank commander and told him
to proceed on to the fortress without him. As it happened, the driver of the second
tank was a Russian immigrant who did not understand a word he said.
Upon arriving at Lod, Tex discovered to his horror that the Russian, instead of
proceeding up the hill to the fortress, had followed him to Lod, leading the
entire column of tanks behind him. By then, there was little time remaining
before the second ceasefire was to go into effect, and the third and final attempt
to capture the elusive fortress at Latrun was abandoned.
By November, the grading and paving of Burma Road was complete
all traffic to and from Jerusalem flowed through the bypass. Thus Latrun
became irrelevant, and no further attempt was made to take it. It remained in
Arab hands for the next nineteen years, when it was abandoned to the IDF during
the Six Day War. Today Burma Road has been replaced by a four lane high-
way, and the fortress high on the hill that overlooks it has been dedicated as a
memorial to the men and women who gave their lives in a futile attempt to subdue
Fawzi el Kaukji, Commander of the Arab Liberation Army, had
show for his effort in the war and was desperate for a victory. There was a
group of settlements in the central Galilee that attracted his interest. The largest
of these was Sejera, the site of a road junction through which the Tiberius-
Nazareth road passes. It formed the only link between the Jordan Valley and
the rest of the country. By conquering Sejera, he reasoned, the three other settlements
in the group would fall along with it and a large portion of northern
Israel would be cut off from the rest of the country.
During the truce, Kaukji took up positions no more than 300
of Sejera to be ready the moment fighting resumed . On July 9, he launched his
initial attack, and on the next day, followed up with several more, all of which
were repulsed. At the same time, units from Golani were launching commando
raids to the rear and against both of his flanks.
On July 14, Kaukji made one final sweep to do away with Sejera
too failed. His men charged the settlement eight times on that day in waves of
infantry supported by armor and artillery, and each time, the attacks were
repelled. Having lost confidence in their leader, some of his men began to leave
the field of battle and a number deserted. Encouraged by these developments,
Moshe Carmiel, Commander in the north, decided that the time had come to
deal Kaukji a final blow - conquer Nazareth, his base of operations, and crush
what remained of the Arab Liberation Army.
The man chosen for the Nazareth campaign was a Canadian by
of Ben Dunkelman - a big hulk of a man and a talented strategist. The most
direct approach to Nazareth, and that favored by the Northern Command, was
from the direction of Afula, a Jewish town just six miles to the south. But after
some reconnaissance, Dunkelman had his doubts. The road crossed through a
number of mountain passes, making it perfect ambush country. In addition, the
Arabs occupied an abandoned British police station that controlled the town's
After weighing a number of factors, Dunkelman decide to attack
east, over a road that was longer but less problematic. In addition, since Kaukji
was expecting the Israelis to come from the south, he had concentrated the bulk
of his forces facing toward Afula.
Dunkelman's first objective was to capture Shefa-Amer, a
town of approximately
four thousand, shared by Arabs and Druze, each living in its own separate
quarter of the town. Once that flank was secured, the column would proceed
to capture the two villages of Safuria and Ilut, six miles beyond. That
done, Nazareth would be encircled.
Shefa-Amer is a walled city that is virtually impregnable.
two Israeli officers, serving under Dunkelman, had dealings with a number of
the Druze who lived in Shefa-Amer since before the war. Under utmost secrecy,
they arranged a meeting with the leaders of the Druze and persuaded them
to allow a party of Israeli troops to enter through their side of the town. The
Druze, confident that the Jews would eventually win the war, and wanting to
be on the winning side, agreed to cooperate.
In the middle of the night the gate to the Druze quarter
swung open and
two companies of Israeli soldiers passed through and proceeded to the Arab
quarter. By the time the Arabs realized what had happened, the town was in
After securing Shefa-Amer, the main column continued on to
but because of darkness and the difficult terrain, scouts were required to walk
ahead of the vehicles to keep them from straying off the road. This slowed the
column down and it took the better part of the night to cover a distance of
eleven miles. By dawn the men of the 7th Brigade had reached the Ilaniya
Junction. Beneath them lay Nazareth, gleaming in the early morning's light.
Entering the town itself, however, posed a unique problem. Nazareth, being the
childhood home of Christ, contains many Christian shrines and great care had
to be taken to avoid harming them. On the eve of the attack, Dunkelman issued
an order to his troops:
We are advancing on a city which Kaukji has used for his
but which is the cradle of Christianity. The city is sacred to
millions. The eyes of all sects of Christians, in all lands are turned
towards it. It has many churches, holy places and monasteries. You
will be met by gangs and units who you will combat. But you are
ordered in the strictest terms to refrain from doing any damage to the
holy places. Our soldiers will not enter churches, will not fight from
them nor fortify them except out of the direst necessity and only on
a specific order. No soldier will take any spoil whatever in this city.
The commanders have been ordered to take the strictest measures
against anyone infringing this order. Our fighters are enlightened
men who are expected to show respect and understanding for the
religious beliefs of others. If any offender be found among you, he
will face summary trial and strike speedy punishment. Forward,
attack the enemy, storm the city and conquer it.
As it turned out, the order wasn't necessary. When the troops
town they found the streets deserted. Kaukji and his men had escaped toward
the Lebanese border. In the town center a group of Christian clergymen was
waiting to greet the Israelis and asked that Nazareth be declared an open city.
Kaukji's stronghold was now in Israeli hands.
Meanwhile, back at Whitehall, Ernest Bevin, who was still
hoping for an
Arab victory, was alarmed. The war was not going as he had expected, and as
the advantage passed to the Jews, his only remaining option was to stop the
carnage while he figured out what to do next. On July 15, Britain introduced a
resolution calling for another cease-fire. With that, the "Ten Day Offensive"
came to an end. In a breathtaking reversal of fortunes, Israel used the ten days
between the ceasefires to overrun close to the whole of the Western Galilee.
Lod and Ramleh were occupied, and the Arabs had been pushed back into the
hills, thereby removing the threat to Tel Aviv. Jerusalem was no longer isolated
and, for the first time since its founding, Israel's future was no longer in
While the first war between Arabs and Jews was being waged
on the battlefield,
a struggle of a different kind was being played out in the Security
Council. Directly after the Arab invasion, the United States introduced a resolution
calling for an immediate end to hostilities. But Great Britain, which was
counting on a swift Arab victory, blocked any attempt on the part of the UN to
interfere. Only when their Arab charges were doing poorly on the battlefield
did Britain alter its position and introduce a motion for a ceasefire.
The British ambassador to the United Nations, Sir Alexander
whom Abba Eban once described as having all the qualities of an iceberg
except for its ultimate capacity to melt, showed his contempt for the Jewish
state by studiously avoiding the use of the word "Israel" using instead: "The
Jewish Authority in Palestine".
Under American pressure, Cadogan agreed to refrain from blocking
further resolutions to end the fighting, but that merely led to a change in tactics
rather than a change of heart. On his own initiative, he introduced a resolution
calling for the appointment of a United Nations mediator, "with power
to recommend a settlement". He then proceeded to draw on his considerable
parliamentary skills to ensure that the person chosen for the job would be
favorable to Great Britain.
The man appointed to the position was Count Folke Bernadotte
His credentials were impressive. A member of the Swedish royal family, he
was an experienced diplomat and head of the Swedish Red Cross. He was also
credited with saving thousands of Jews in Hitler's Death Camps (although this
had never been proved). Yet his appointment made the Israelis uneasy. First,
his name was placed in nomination by the British Ambassador who was anything
but neutral, and there were other reasons for concern. The Count had in
the past made known his opposition to the United Nations Partition Plan,
favoring instead the creation of a single Arab state in Palestine with a Jewish
minority. He had no expertise in Middle Eastern affairs and relied heavily on
the advice of officials in the British Foreign Office, which was notoriously pro-
Nonetheless, in appointing Bernadotte, it was generally assumed
would rise above personal prejudice and operate within the framework of the
United Nations Partition Plan. But Bernadotte was not satisfied to merely act
as an arbitrator in negotiating a truce agreement between two warring factions.
He saw himself as one destined to bring about a lasting peace to the region, and
was convinced that those who came before him failed because they did not
share his vision. His reason for repudiating the Partition Plan is contained in an
entry in his diary in which he wrote:
The experience I had during the past month, had gradually
strengthened me in my view that the resolution adopted by the
United Nations General Assembly on 29 November 1947 had been
an unfortunate one. . . .The artificial frontiers given to the State of
Israel and the resistance put up by the Arab world against the partition
of Palestine and the creating of a separate Jewish state were
bound to result in warlike complications.
With that, he shelved the Partition Plan and appointed himself
of one to draft an alternative plan that would be more to his liking. Thus,
in a single act of uncommon arrogance, he set aside a year and a half of
painstaking work performed by UNSCOP and treated the United Nations
Partition Plan as if it did not exist.
Nor did Bernadotte calm Israel's fears when on his way to
the Middle East,
he made a stopover in London to consult with representatives of the British
Foreign Office. There, he was told that the price for Britain's support was that
the Negev not be allowed to fall into Jewish hands. Beyond that, and as a gratuitous
offering to Abdullah, it was suggested that Jerusalem become an Arab
city and that it be annexed to Trans-Jordan.
The British knew beforehand of Bernadotte's leanings, yet
at how amenable he was to their suggestions. After consulting with the other
parties to the conflict, Bernadotte and his staff retired to his headquarters on
the Island of Rhodes to draw up a new plan for Palestine and draft a report.
The report which emerged from this effort was carefully titled:
"Suggestions for the Future of Palestine" and went to considerable lengths to
emphasize its transitory nature, assuring the recipients that its sole purpose was
to "explore the possible basis for further discussion and mediation". Yet, he
concluded with the admonition that "If. . . . these or subsequent suggestions, if
any should emerge, are rejected as a basis for discussion, I shall appropriately
report the circumstance fully to the Security Council and shall feel free to submit
such conclusion to the Security Council as I may consider appropriate".
As it turned out, Bernadotte's plan was a total re-make of
Partition Plan. It did away with the creation of two autonomous states and proposed
instead an Economic Union of Arabs and Jews - the setting of boundaries
to be negotiated by the parties. Whereas immigration under the UN
Partition Plan was to be treated as a sovereign right of the autonomous states,
under Bernadotte's plan, each member to the union would be free to set its own
immigration policy for the first two years, after which time either side could
challenge the immigration practices of the other and request a review by the
Council of the Union. Should the parties fail to reach an agreement, the matter
would then be "referred to the Economic and Social Council of the United
Nations whose decisions, taking into account the principle of economic
absorptive capacity, would be binding on the member whose policy was at
issue." Since the Arabs had little interest in migrating to the area while to the
Jews it was a matter of major importance, the provision was taken by the Jews
to be an oblique way of restricting Jewish immigration.
The same denial of reality shows up in the annex to the report
territorial arrangements. The Negev, the apple of Ben-Gurion's eye, which was
allocated to the Jews under the Partition Plan, would be removed from the
Jewish part and given to Trans-Jordan. In exchange for the Negev, the Jews
would receive an additional slice of the Galilee. Jerusalem, which was designated
an international city to be administered by the United Nations, would
become an Arab city annexed to Trans-Jordan, with the Jews being given
municipal autonomy and special arrangements would be made to protect the
Holy Places. Haifa and the Lod Airport would become free zones.
It came as no surprise that Britain received the plan with
too got what he wanted. By annexing Jerusalem to Trans-Jordan, it would
greatly enhance his standing among the Arab countries. The Negev was of less
importance to him. It was just another desert in a part of the world where there
was no scarcity of deserts. But to the Jews, who had a vision of making the
desert bloom, Bernadotte was about to crush a long held dream.
Drew Pearson, the American journalist, claimed that the ideas
the report came directly from Whitehall as a price of Britain's support of the
Bernadotte Plan. This was partially confirmed by Sir John Troutbeck who
headed the British Middle East Office in Cairo, when he disclosed that he was
reminded by Bevin of the strategic importance of the Negev to Great Britain,
and was instructed not to support any plan that included it as part of the Israeli
state. Whether or not Bernadotte was doing Bevin's bidding, his proposal to
give the Negev to Britain's patron Abdullah assured Britain a position of influence
in the politics of the Middle East.
The plan was rejected by Israel because it gave the Jews
too little, and by
the Arabs, because it gave the Jews too much. The first public reaction to the
report came from the Arabs. Their spokesman, Azam Pasha, speaking for the
Arab League, told Bernadotte that "the Arab world would rather go under than
give up the fight." In their official reply they restated their original positions
from which they had never deviated - the entire territory of Palestine shall be
a single Arab state leaving some vague and undefined safeguard for a Jewish
The swift rejection by the Arabs spared Israel the onus of
being the first to
officially turn the plan down. But on July 6, Moshe Sharett gave Bernadotte
Israel's formal response. He opened by stating in unmistakable terms that the
plan was an unauthorized repudiation of the UN Partition Resolution approved
by the General Assembly on November 29, 1947. It went on to state that Israel
entered the war to defend itself against Arab aggression, and the territorial
gains made in the war had to be recognized. Bernadotte was told by Sharett that
Israel considered any restriction of immigration as a violation of her sovereignty,
and that the Negev was allocated to the Jews by the United Nations and that
Israel had no intentions of giving it up.
Of all the recommendations contained in the report, the one
Jerusalem was particularly offensive to the Christian World. While on his way
to the Middle East, Bernadotte discussed the possibility of making Jerusalem
an Arab city with George Bidault, the French Foreign Minister, and asked if the
French would have any objection. Without hesitating, Bidault told him that if
Jerusalem were given to the Arabs, the whole Christian World would join in
The outcry over Jerusalem was so vehement that even Bernadotte
thoughts. When his final report was submitted to the Security Council on
September 18 he had backed away from his initial position and recommended
instead that: "Jerusalem should be placed under effective United Nations control,
with maximum feasible local autonomy for the Arab and Jewish communities
and safeguards for access to the Holy Places".
Bernadotte, while admitting that he expected some challenges
to his report,
did not expect the rejections to be so violent. In his diary he wrote about the
Jewish reaction: "From the expressions on the faces of many of those who sat
near me," writing about a conference he held in Tel Aviv, "I realized that they
strongly disapproved both of my proposals and myself. The Jews had shown a
blatant unwillingness for real cooperation and the Arabs had asked me to leave
them in peace for a few weeks, so as to allow time for popular excitement in
their countries to die down."
Sobered by the hostile reception by both sides, Bernadotte
decided to take
the advice given to him by the Arabs and lie low for a while. He flew back to
Sweden for a rest and time to think and then back to the Island of Rhodes to
consult with his staff. By the time he returned to Jerusalem, the Jews had made
additional gains on the battlefield which presented him with a new set of facts
to deal with. But by then he had softened his position on a number of stands
and the document that was submitted to the United Nations only remotely
resembled the original draft. He conceded that "…the Jews had established
their state and that Israel was a living solidly entrenched and vigorous reality."
His report said nothing of his vision of a political and economic union. Gone
was the scheme for transferring Jerusalem to the Arabs and limiting Jewish
immigration. The only proposal of significance to survive was that of giving
the Negev to the Arabs. Yet for all of his attempts to achieve some semblance
of balance, the plan remained anathema to both sides.
On Friday, September 17, Count Bernadotte and an advisor
through a quiet section of Jewish Jerusalem. Standing at a corner was a man
with a gun. He was a member of the small, fanatic, anarchistic Stern Gang. As
the car drove by, he leapt out into the road and fired at the Count who fell back
in his seat, dead. The admission records at the Hadassah Hospital contains the
simple entry: "At approximately 5:15 pm Count Folke Bernadotte and Colonel
Andre Pierre Serot were brought in dead to the casualty clearing station of
On September 21, Bernadotte's report was submitted to the
Nations. It came as no surprise that Lord Cadogan endorsed the report before
the Security council as " . . . .the way out of the proved impossibility of enforcing
partition". Andre Gromyko, the Soviet delegate to the United Nations
expressed the general feelings of the other delegates in his address before the
"…in making those proposals the mediator and
those whose interests
were served by them absolutely ignored the fact that a resolution on
the future of Palestine already exists, in other words, they ignored
the General Assembly resolution of November 29, 1947. It may be
said that in discussing the comparatively narrow question of the
truce, that fact can be left aside: But that is not so, because the publication
of those new general proposals in connection with the truce,
added fuel to the flames and went a long way to encourage those
who started the fighting in Palestine. Such proposals increase the
chaos in Palestine, inflaming the struggle taking place there and by
inciting the Arabs still more against the Jews, exasperate national
feelings on both sides; and those who may be interested in prolong-
ing the fighting in Palestine, though they may stand aside from the
whole matter, are warming their hands at the flame
The tragedy of Bernadotte's assassination lent more weight
to his report
than it would otherwise receive. It was referred to by one delegate as a political
testament of a man who had sacrificed his life for peace in the Holy Land.
George Marshall, hoping to exploit the sympathy of a world filled with revulsion,
addressed the United Nations on the subject of the Bernadotte plan: "The
United States" said Marshall, "considers that the conclusions contained in the
final report of Count Bernadotte to offer a generally fair basis for settlement of
the Palestine question and strongly urges the parties and General Assembly to
accept them in their entirety as the best possible basis for bringing peace to a
Truman, upon hearing of Marshall's statement, was livid.
This was a repetition
of the events of some months earlier when Warren Austin took it upon
himself to discredit the Partition Plan before the United Nations. Not only was
this latest public rejection an embarrassment to the president, but in setting the
record straight, Truman was again faced with having to contradict his own
Secretary. If Marshall had hoped by his speech to kill the Partition Plan, it
Truman, as it happened, was in the midst of a difficult re-election
and needed the Jewish vote to win New York State. This was not an issue
that could be settled behind the scenes between the President and his Secretary
of State. Two days after Marshall's address, Truman, in a speech in New York,
stated flatly: "No matter what you read in the papers, the United States will
never vote to take away any land from the State of Israel without the consent
of the people of Israel". With that affirmation of United States policy
Bernadotte's revision to the Partition Plan became irrelevant.
Despite a heroic attempt by Great Britain to breathe life
report, it died a natural death in the General Assembly. But the experience
shook Ben-Gurion's confidence in the United Nation's resolve to enforce its
own resolution. "The land given to the Jews by the United Nations" he said,
"would go to whomever had the strength to claim it". With that, Ben-Gurion's
determination to rid the country of all remaining foreign troops took on a
heightened sense of urgency, and liberating the Negev was now the number
The Egyptian Expeditionary Force was the largest of the Arab
was of division strength split into three brigades, each deployed in a different
region. The main force was positioned along the coast from Rafa to Ashdod
and took in the city of Gaza. A second brigade was deployed along a strip
stretching from Al-Auja and up to Beersheba, Hebron, and Bethlehem. A third
brigade was dug in along the lateral road running from Majdal on the coast
through Faluja and on to Beit Guvrin and isolated the Negev from the rest of
The Egyptians were well entrenched and adequately supplied
weapons. Their arsenal contained more than a hundred tanks and a large
amount of field artillery. Their soldiers were adequately trained, disciplined,
and capable of executing complex military maneuvers with uncommon
courage, especially when entrenched in defensive positions.
The Israel Defense Force, in turn, had grown impressively
since the beginning
of the war. It numbered close to 90,000 ground troops, most of whom had
combat experience and were backed by a small but effective Air Force that was
about to play a major role in the battles that lay ahead.
Under the command of Yigal Allon, the objective of Operation
to relieve the isolated settlements in the Negev and to drive the Egyptians from
the area. No longer in a position of having to fight simultaneously on several
fronts, Tzahal was now in the uncommon position of being able to dedicate a
large part of its force to this single operation. With everything in place, Israel
needed only a reason to attack without violating the UN truce agreement that
took effect after the 10 days of fighting in July. Under its terms, Israel had the
right to pass through Egyptian lines to deliver supplies to the outlying settlements.
Egypt objected, and even though she was overruled by the UN, continued
to block Israeli traffic.
On October 15, Israel informed the UN of its intentions to
send an unarmed
convoy through Egyptian lines for the sole purpose of provisioning the
settlements that were cut off in the Negev. On the following day, with UN
observers present, the Egyptians allowed the convoy to pass through, but when
it reached the first settlement along its route, the Egyptians opened fire and one
of the vehicles was hit and set on fire, while the others were forced to turn
back. This was the pretext Israel needed to launch Operation Yoav and the
speed with which the IDF reacted caught the Egyptians completely off guard.
At the airfield at El-Arish, Egyptian Spitfires were parked
in a neat row
along the exposed tarmac like so many sitting ducks, while on the Israeli side,
pilots were on the alert to move out at a moment’s notice. The plan was to
strike quickly and hit as many enemy planes as possible while they were still
on the ground. Flying their WWII Messerschmitts at low altitude to elude
enemy radar, the planes came upon the airfield without being detected. With
cannon and machine guns blazing, they caught the Egyptians completely by
surprise. When it was over, enemy planes lay destroyed or damaged on the
ground and Israel started the battle for the Negev with clear air superiority.
The Faluja crossroads was the vital junction that controlled
the network of
roads serving the Negev. In two fierce battles, units of the IDF captured the
Egyptian fortifications at Iraq al-Manshiya and Huleiqat, trapping an Egyptian
force of 35,000 men under the command of Sudanese General Sayed Taha, in
an area no larger than three square miles. Cut off from the rest of the Egyptian
army, Taha was left with two choices. He could fight his way out of the pocket
or surrender. Taha, an unusually brave soldier, considered his options. To
fight his way out would be suicidal, yet surrender was not in his nature. Given
these choices, Taha decided to stand pat, at least for now.
Glubb Pasha offered Taha the use of two Iraqi battalions
and one from his
Arab Legion to attack the Israeli position at Beit Guvrin. While the Israelis
were being distracted, Major Lockheed, a British officer attached to the
Legion, would lead Taha's fighters out of their trap at night by way of a secret
trail. But Taha was not interested, explaining that he would have to destroy or
abandon all of his heavy equipment, leaving him helpless to defend himself
should the plan fail. A more plausible explanation was that relations with
Abdullah had deteriorated to a point where the Egyptian High Command
would not trust anyone associated with the King.
Meanwhile, Yigal Allon arranged a meeting with Taha at Kibbutz
outside the "Pocket". Taha, a gracious and soft spoken officer, with a winning
smile, congratulated Allon on his victory and admitted that his position was
extremely grave. But that said, he became very businesslike. "One thing that I
shall be able to salvage from this predicament", he told Allon, "the honor of the
Egyptian army and therefore I intend to fight to my last bullet and my last
As the Arab military position deteriorated, its leaders,
who at no time held
to a unified strategy on Palestine, took to squabbling among themselves. The
one unifying force, the one thing that they could all agree on, was the destruction
of Israel. Beyond that, each country had its own reason for being in the
war. There was a unified command, with King Abdullah at its head, but there
was very little coordination among the Arab armies. And now, with the recent
hammering that the Egyptians took at the hands of the IDF, all of this came out
into the open.
On October 23, heads of the Arab Governments met in Amman,
to discuss the means, to help Egypt out of its predicament. The Hashemite
King recalled later; "Directing my words at Nukrashi Pasha, I said: 'Let us hear
what His Excellency has to say.' His reply, 'God, I have come to listen, not to
talk'. I answered, 'I think that Your Excellency should do the talking under the
present circumstances, in view of the fact that Beersheba had been lost and al-
Faluja is besieged. 'Who says so?' he inquired. 'The Egyptian forces are still
holding their positions. The Egyptian Government has no need of anyone's
assistance. But where are the Royal Jordanian and Iraqi forces? And we all
know that the Syrian forces are useless."
The animosity between Egypt and Trans-Jordan could no longer
Egypt, determined not to allow any part of Palestine to fall into
Abdullah's hands, opened a campaign to promote the plight of the Palestinian
people and announced plans for the establishment of an independent
Palestinian government, with a provisional capital in Gaza, and the Mufti Haj
Amin as its president. The Mufti, eager to claim his throne, made an unauthorized
trip to Gaza but was immediately detained by the Egyptian authority and
whisked off to Suez where he was placed under surveillance.
While Arabs were bickering among themselves, Abdullah informed
that Gaza was Hashemite territory and was being used by Egypt without his
permission. He then organized a Palestinian conference of his own in Jericho
and appointed delegates from among Palestinian refugees living in Amman.
This infuriated King Farouk who issued a statement condemning the quasi-
Palestinian government, stating that the Egyptian army did not shed its blood
to leave the destiny of the Palestinian people in the hands of the Jericho
Yigael Yadin and Yigal Allon considered the relative positions
of the two
armies carefully. They reasoned that the Egyptians would expect a ground
attack from Israel against their coastal flank because it was closest to the
Jewish population centers. Based on that assumption, they decided to do the
unexpected. The plan they devised was to make a sharp thrust through the center
of the Negev, capture al Auja, and from there, fan out across the Sinai
Peninsula toward the coast, and in one large encircling maneuver, cut the
Egyptians off from their only escape route. But reaching al Auja presented a
The British had built a road leading to the desert outpost,
but it was heavily
mined and defended by a large Egyptian force. Yadin, an archeologist in private
life, knew from his studies that the Romans had built a road between
Alexandria and Beersheba circa 70 CE that ran through Auja. As a result of this
injection of history and archeology into his operational planning, the Egyptians
were about to be attacked from a direction that could not be expected by any
military logic. If the old Roman road could be found under layers of desert
sand built up over the centuries, the Israelis could bypass the main road and
avoid any contact with the Egyptian army until they reached al Auja.
The hunch paid off. Yadin's scouting party explored the area
and in an
enthusiastic report confirmed that they had located the road almost exactly as
it was described in the ancient chronicles. During the next several days the
entire 25 miles were surveyed, undetected by the Egyptians, who were only a
short distance away. Using heavy timbers and sections of Bailey Bridges, damaged
sections of the stone-knuckled road where Roman Legions marched was
made ready for a modern, mechanized army.
On the night of December 22, Operation Horev opened with
assaults. One was directed at Gaza and another against Bir Asluj. While the
Egyptians were rushing reinforcements to the Gaza Strip, an Israeli column of
tanks and armored personnel carriers was working its way down the Roman
road to al Auja.
On the morning of December 26, the column reached its destination.
Egyptians, whose defenses were oriented in the opposite direction, were
caught by surprise. The officer in charge was in bed when the attack came and
while still in his pajamas, managed to organize an effective defense against the
Israeli force. His troops fought bravely for a full day and a night but in the end
surrendered the town.
With al-Auja in Israeli hands, Allon was now ready to cross
Egyptian Sinai. On December 28 a unit of the IDF occupied Abu Ageila, a
major crossroads in the northern Sinai, while a larger force moved northward
in the direction of el-Arish, the main base of the Egyptian army. Within five
days of the onset of Operation Horev, the IDF had overrun the Egyptian positions
in the central Negev, blocked all escape routes and were now at the gates
of El-Arish. Stunned by this latest setback, Cairo frantically called upon its
Arab partners for help to stem the Israeli tide but no one was listening.
Abdullah had enough of the war and was busy normalizing relations with
Israel. The Iraqis, who had very little to claim for their effort in the war, were
more interested in declaring "victory" and going home.
Repairing the old Roman road
A convoy of military vehicles travels the road that Titus
built for his Roman
In Egypt, popular support for the war had evaporated. King
hoped that by entering the war he could draw attention away from Egypt's
internal problems and undermine popular support for his nemesis, the Wad
Party. With an effective propaganda machine grinding out press releases of
Egyptian victories, it appeared for a time that he had succeeded. But his fortunes
changed when recent defeats could no longer be concealed from the
Starting in November, opposition to the war turned violent.
Brotherhood, not only turned its anger against the Government but took it out
on foreigners as well. Jewish communities in Cairo and Alexandria were particularly
hard hit. Riots erupted in the streets, with the masses shouting antigovernment
slogans aimed at Nuqrashi Pasha's government. The government,
in turn, reacted by outlawing the Brotherhood and an outbreak of civil disobedience
reached its climax with the assassination of Nuqrashi Pasha. This was a
crushing blow to King Farouk, who saw his nation on the verge of civil war,
while Whitehall viewed with alarm the unravelling of its Master Plan for the
Britain had a mutual defense pact with Egypt that obligated
her to come to
Egypt's aid in the event of an attack by an outside power. On December 29, the
same day that another of her cease-fire resolutions was passed in the UN,
Britain issued a warning to Israel that unless she obeyed the Security Council
resolution, Britain would come to Egypt's defense. The ultimatum had a chilling
effect. On the day following the New Year of 1949, Ben-Gurion ordered
Yigal Allon to withdraw from the Sinai, but by then Bevin was in no mood to
For weeks, the RAF had been flying sorties with the Egyptians
international border with Israel, occasionally crossing over into Israel's air
space. On January 7, four RAF planes came nosing over into Israel and all four
planes were shot down by the IAF. Bevin, secure in the belief that he now had
the pretext to take direct action against Israel, announced in Parliament that the
Jews were guilty of "unprovoked aggression".
If Bevin had hoped to use the loss of the British planes
to sway pubic opinion
against Israel, he was in for a surprise. In a stormy session in the House of
Commons, the Government's Middle East policy was severely denounced and
there were a number of MP's who called for a prompt recognition of Israel.
Bevin, it seems, was out of touch with the British public.
By then, King Farouk was ready to end his involvement in
the war and on
January 12, 1949, the Egyptian Government made an overture to Israel to enter
into armistice talks, provided Israel leave the Rafa Heights and allow its troops
to withdraw to Egypt. Yigal Allon, feeling that Israel, having the upper hand,
should not settle for anything short of a peace treaty, flew to Tel Aviv to urge
Ben-Gurion not to give in to Egyptian demands. To surrender the Heights, he
insisted, would ensure the safe passage of the entrapped Egyptians back to
Egypt while giving up Israel's only bargaining chip to force her to the peace
Ben-Gurion , whose desire for a peace treaty was no less
than Allon's, was
not willing to risk all that Israel had achieved during a year and a half of fighting.
With the other Arab countries indicating a willingness to join Egypt in
armistice talks, he reasoned that it would be best to exercise a measure of discretion
and allow the Egyptians a chance to save face. With that, Ben-Gurion
overruled his general and ordered Allon to abandon the Rafa Heights. Two
weeks later, Sayed Taha was marching his army off to Egypt. In retrospect,
Ben-Gurion was right. Egypt could not bring herself to enter into a peace treaty
without provoking the proverbial "Arab Street" that, in all likelihood, would
have toppled Farouk's Government. For now, Israel would have to settle for an
armistice agreement with the hope that peace would follow.
A number of factors that account for Israel's survival cannot
be reduced to
simple arithmetic. For one, the Jews had to fight or die - there was no retreat.
Their physical and mental conditioning was well ahead of the rank and file of
the enemy while their stamina made up for the disadvantages in their numbers
and disparity in arms. They used their Stens, the most primitive of automatic
rifles, to better advantage than the Arabs used their English Brens, and their
sappers did more damage with well-placed explosives than the Arabs could
with their tanks and artillery. It was a war that consisted of thirty-nine operations
that were fought all the way from Lebanon in the north to the Gulf of
Aqaba in the south. It brought about the transformation of a rag-tag citizen's
militia into a modern army that earned the respect of freedom-loving people
everywhere. It was a war that confirmed the determination of a people who had
just experienced the unspeakable atrocity of the Nazi genocide and swore that
it would never happen again. And in the final reckoning may well have decided
the final outcome of the war.
With the expulsion of the Egyptian army from the Negev, war
came to an
end. The price Israel paid for its independence was high. Six thousand lives
were lost. Much of her farmland lay fallow and 20,000 civilians and veterans
of the war were recovering from their wounds. Yet in spite of it all, the country
was alive and hope was in the air. The rebirth of a Jewish State, after two
thousand years in the wilderness, was a reality.
With its borders established, Israel became eligible for
membership in the
United Nations. As the Star of David was raised to take its place among the
flags of the other nations, it was difficult to imagine that only five years before,
it was this same Star of David that Jews were forced to wear as a mark of
It seemed, somehow, that mankind had entered a new era.