Israel at 60 (part 2): “Israel was a dream, since the time of Moses”

May 07, 2008

* I have split this dispatch into three for space reasons. This and the third dispatch contain articles concerning events around the time of Israel’s creation in 1948. For a general introductory note, please see the first dispatch Israel at 60: “Well done for surviving – and flourishing”. I also strongly recommend reading the Andrew Roberts article on that first dispatch.



1. Remembering the Jewish refugees from Arab lands
2. “Israel’s advent altered outlook for Middle East Jews” (Reuters, May 5, 2008)
3. “Mike Wallace interviews Abba Eban in 1957” (By Jonathan Mark, May 5, 2008)
4. “Book of Genesis” (By Abby Wisse Schachter, New York Post, May 4, 2008)

[Note by Tom Gross]


I attach three articles below.

The first, from Reuters, is a rare example of a mainstream media organization mentioning the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refuges driven out of Arab countries. Despite outnumbering the Arab refugees who left what became Israel, the media almost never mention these Jewish refugees. Reuters – amazingly – decided to dedicate an entire article to them as part of a special series it is running this week to mark Israel’s 60th anniversary. This is a generally fair account by Reuters which I suggest reading in full.

The second piece below is a remarkable half-century old Mike Wallace interview with Abba Eban that puts current anti-Israel sentiment into perspective.

This interview, from 1957, happened long before there were “settlers” or “occupation”. And yet even then, there were those hatemongers, such as Arnold Toynbee, who compared Israeli Jews with the Nazis.

In the third article below, Abby Wisse Schachter (a longtime subscriber to this email list) outlines some of battles Israel had to fight at the time of its creation, and takes us through some of the newspaper reports of the time.

(Those of you interested in reading some of the other headlines from May 1948, can do so here.)

-- Tom Gross



Israel’s advent altered outlook for Middle East Jews
By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent
May 5, 2008

(This is the first story in a special series Reuters is running this week to mark Israel’s 60th anniversary)

SIDON, Lebanon (Reuters) – A ruined cemetery lies by the sea in Sidon, the worn Hebrew inscriptions on the headstones a reminder of Lebanon’s once-thriving Jewish minority, which has all but vanished since the state of Israel emerged 60 years ago.

The graveyard sits in wasteland across the road from an unstable mountain of garbage piled over rubble collected from buildings destroyed in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

“The Israeli troops came and looked after the cemetery,” recalled Mohammed al-Sarji, a Sidon environmentalist and film-maker. “After they left in 1985, it was neglected.”

The 1948 war at Israel’s creation, which forced some 700,000 Palestinians to flee their homeland, hardened Arab attitudes to deep-rooted Jewish minorities across the Middle East.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews were displaced. Some migrated voluntarily from mainly Muslim countries to the newly proclaimed Jewish homeland. Others were forced out by dispossession, discrimination or violence. Thousands stayed on.

Israeli statistics show more than 760,000 Middle Eastern Jews had moved to Israel by 2006, with more than 40 percent arriving in the first three years of the state’s existence.

Over the last six decades of Middle East tension, Jewish communities have dwindled to insignificance in Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Yemen, but cling on in countries such as Tunisia, Morocco and non-Arab Iran and Turkey.

Iran, seen by Israel as its deadliest foe, hosts 22,000 to 25,000 Jews, down from at least 85,000 before the 1979 Islamic revolution, when many went to the United States. Today, it is the biggest Jewish population in the Middle East outside Israel.

Morris Mottamed, who formerly held the Jewish seat in Iran’s parliament, noted that post-revolutionary turmoil and economic factors had prompted emigration among other minorities too.

Discrimination was not behind the Jewish outflow, he argued, adding that Iranian Jews enjoyed freedom of worship, education and travel. Their numbers had been stable for five years.

“I’m sure in future also there will be a very strong community of Jewish people in Iran,” Mottamed told Reuters.

Asked about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s call for Israel to be “wiped off the map”, he said he disagreed with it.

The United States says such hostility to Israel creates a threatening atmosphere for Iranian Jews. It also says they and other minorities suffer discrimination. Tehran denies this.


Morocco, which has warmer ties with Israel than most Arab countries, was home to around 400,000 Jews before 1948.

But after waves of migration, fewer than 4,000 remain, the residue of a 2,000-year history of peaceful, if unequal, cohabitation interspersed with episodes of bloody repression.

In the past, Moroccan Jews were considered subordinate to Muslims and discrimination was widespread. Every city has its Mellah, the poorest quarter to which Jews were once confined. Their residents were the first to leave when they could.

A Jewish cemetery, community centre and restaurant were among targets of Islamist suicide bombers who killed 45 people in Casablanca in 2003. But such violence against Jews is rare.

“There is no anti-Semitism in Morocco,” Simon Levy, 75, who chairs the Moroccan Museum of Judaism in Casablanca, told Le Soir daily. “There is a growing Islamist sentiment, and the Muslim has this certainty he is better than everyone else.”

But Morocco remains Levy’s home: “I made my choice long ago to stay in this country as a Moroccan, like my ancestors.”

Tunisia’s 2,000 Jews live in harmony with their Muslim neighbours, reflecting the policy of its secular government.

“We are doing our best to teach our children the Jewish religion as Muslims learn their religion,” said David Didoshim, headmaster of a Jewish school on the island of Djerba.

The community was jolted when an al Qaeda suicide bomber attacked a Djerba synagogue in 2002, killing 21 people.

Yet Hayim Haddad, a Jewish resident, said no Jews had left the island afterwards. “All the people know how much we are attached to our country Tunisia, whatever happens,” he added.

Tunisian Jews numbered 100,000 until the North African country won independence in 1956. Most then moved to France.


Conflict in Palestine in the 1930s made life harder for Egyptian Jews, as militant nationalist groups became active.

Israel’s advent in 1948 and the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952 added to their difficulties. In 1948, there were bomb attacks in Jewish areas and some Jews were killed in riots.

Jewish emigration accelerated after Israel attacked Egypt in 1956 and economic pressures mounted at home.

Many Jewish residents were entrepreneurs without Egyptian citizenship who opted to leave after the government nationalized their businesses and seized their wealth. Some were held in detention centres and coerced into leaving the country.

Egypt was home to 75,000 to 80,000 Jews in 1922. Today, only about 30 still live in Cairo, mostly ageing women with Muslim or Christian husbands. A few more than that survive in Alexandria.

Magda Haroun Silvera said she had often met bureaucratic obstacles when renewing her passport or identity card.

“My birth certificate says I was born in the Israeli hospital so they always ask me if I am really Egyptian. People have forgotten how big the Jewish community once was,” she said.

She said she had retained her Jewish identity despite marrying a Muslim and later a Catholic.

“My daughters are Muslims by their father. I tried to raise them with an open mind. In our household we do Ramadan, Christmas and then the Jewish feasts with my mother,” she said.

Silvera said the Jews of Egypt “do not relate to Israel” because they had mixed marriages and were attached to Egypt.


Only 200 to 300 Jews live in Yemen, remnants of a community that spoke a form of ancient Hebrew as a living tongue. About 50,000 moved to Israel thanks to an airlift begun in 1949.

Yemeni Jews say they have lived peacefully with their Muslim compatriots over the years, but in 2007 about 45 were evacuated from the north after attacks from rebel Zaidi Muslim tribesmen.

In Iraq, a Jewish community that traced its history back to Babylonian times has all but evaporated. Over 120,000 were flown to Israel after 1948 when government persecution intensified.

Some Iraqi and Syrian Jews made their way to Lebanon in the 1940s, boosting that country’s Jewish community to 14,000, and about 6,000 of them subsequently moved on to Israel.

Lebanese Jewish migration began in earnest after the 1967 Middle East war brought Palestinian guerrillas and more refugees to Lebanon, hastening its slide towards the 1975-90 civil war.

Several leaders of Lebanon’s rapidly shrinking Jewish community were kidnapped and killed by pro-Iranian Shi’ite militant groups that sprang up after Israel’s 1982 invasion.

Today only a few dozen Jews are thought to remain.

(Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Tehran, Tarek Amara in Tunis, Tom Pfeiffer in Rabat, Jonathan Wright in Cairo, Lin Noueihed in Dubai and Peter Graff in Baghdad)



Remarkable half-century old Mike Wallace interview with Abba Eban puts current anti-Israel sentiment into perspective
By Jonathan Mark
May 5, 2008

Fifty years ago on the cusp of Israel’s 10th birthday, not its 60th, Abba Eban, then Israel’s ambassador to the United States, sat down for an interview with CBS.

“I’m Mike Wallace,” says the newsman. “The cigarette [I’m smoking] is Parliament.”

It was a time when journalists almost had to smoke, a haze drifted between the talking heads on an unadorned stage, draped in black.

The primitive black and white kinescopes of Wallace interviews from the late 1950s were recently made available by the University of Texas at Austin, where they’ve been archived.

The interview on that night takes us back to a simpler time, before settlers, before Israel’s control of Jerusalem or the West Bank, a time when “little Israel” was David, not Goliath. It was the year “Exodus” was published. Israel was a teen idol, or so we remember. But the young Wallace (40 years old) was tough and Eban was, well, Eban.

Here, condensed, is some of their exchange, which happened long before “settlers”, Israel’s control of Jerusalem or the West Bank.

WALLACE “Mr. Ambassador, in its ... 10 years as a nation, Israel has been involved in repeated violence... “

EBAN “Well, Mr. Wallace, the last 10 years have not only been years of violence. They have been incomparable years of joyous creation, of sovereignty restored, of the people gathered in, of a land revived, of democracy established, but there has also been violence imposed by the hostility of our neighbors.”

WALLACE “... You called Egypt’s President Nasser, Israel’s most perilous adversary. Now today Colonel Nasser would seem to be even stronger...”

EBAN “Well, at present, Nasser’s policy is one of acquiescence towards us, and there has been a relative tranquility on our frontier with him. Perhaps the memories of the Sinai expedition [in 1956] have had a salutary effect in causing him to avoid his previous belligerent provocations, but basically we have not changed our views on Nasser and Nasserism.” The word “Palestinian” is not heard on the broadcast. The West Bank was Jordan in those days; Gaza was Egypt.

WALLACE “... Arnold Toynbee has said, ‘The evil deeds committed by the Zionist Jews against the [refugee] Arabs are comparable to crimes committed against the Jews by the Nazis.’ How do you feel about that?”

EBAN “Well, about Professor Toynbee’s statement I can only repeat what I’ve written, that it is a monstrous blasphemy. Here he takes the massacre of millions of our men, women and children, and he compares it to the plight of Arab refugees alive, on their kindred soil, suffering certain anguish, but of course possessed of the supreme gift of life. This equation between massacre and temporary suffering which can easily be alleviated is, I think, a distortion of any historic perspective.”

WALLACE “Of course, the problem of the refugees is allied with the problem of territorial expansion on the part of Israel. A major Arab spokesman here in the United States ... says, ‘The area of the territories held by Israel today exceeds by about 40 percent the area of the territories given Israel by the United Nations. Most of this added area,’ he says, ‘was taken by force and should therefore be relinquished by Israel.’”

EBAN “Well, I think this gentleman need not to lose any sleep at night worrying about whether the State of Israel is too big. Really there is nothing more grotesque or eccentric in the international life of our times, than the doctrine that little Israel, 8,000 square miles in area, should become even smaller in order that the vast Arab Empire should still further expand.”

WALLACE “Well, as a member of the Judaic faith, which cherishes social justice and morality, do you believe that any country should profit territorially from violence?”

EBAN “Mr. Wallace ... I am not going to analyze how the frontiers of countries which I have seen or in which I have served were achieved [but it is the Arabs] who decreed the method by which the present frontiers were achieved. They rejected the 1947 recommendation.”

WALLACE “Now then, Mr. Eban, regarding the American Jew and the State of Israel, the anti-Zionist rabbi, Dr. Elmer Berger [a Reform rabbi, not Satmar or Neturei Karta] has written, ‘the Zionist-Israeli axis imposes upon Jews outside of Israel, Americans of Jewish faith included, a status of double-nationality,’ a status which he deplores. What’s your answer?”

EBAN “Well, Mr. Wallace, I have so many pressing duties that I don’t follow the wisdom of this gentleman perhaps as closely as I should. I will only say this, that we ask no allegiance, we seek no loyalty from anyone who is not a citizen of Israel. There is a kinship of spirit, of emotion, of historic memory between us and those who share our faith throughout the world ... We believe that Israel’s emergence is the greatest collective event in the history of the Jewish people, and that there is no pride and no dignity for a Jew such as those to be found in giving aid and sustenance to Israel in the great hour of her resurgence.”



Book of Genesis
By Abby Wisse Schachter
The New York Post
May 4, 2008

On May 20, 1948 – six days after the Jewish State of Israel declared independence – Syrian troops attacked the nation’s oldest communal settlement, or kibbutz, Degania. The Syrians had eight tanks and 10 armored cars. The settlers had homemade machine guns and some bombs.

As one of the tanks rolled in, two Molotov cocktails struck it from a nearby trench, reported Arthur Koestler, a foreign correspondent for The Guardian.

“One was thrown by Shalom Hochbaum,” Koestler wrote, “who arrived two years ago after spending altogether five years in 13 different concentration camps, including Belsen. The second was thrown by Yehuda Sprung of Cracow, 12 years in Degania, before that a student of law at Cracow University. He is a thin, timid little man who looks like a tailor. Neither of them had seen a tank before in his life.”

It took weeks, but this group of tailors, refugees and Holocaust survivors fought off the Syrians and a 2,000-year-old wish – “next year in Jerusalem” – was fulfilled. Out of fire and desire, a country was born.

By reading through the newspaper reports of the time, from correspondents and the local Palestine Post, one sees how fragile those first months were. The Israeli fighters were a ragged bunch, many just off the boat from Europe, handed a rifle at the port of Haifa. But they learned early the importance of training; that everyone, no matter their profession, would have to learn the ways of war.

In the New Republic, writer Lawencer Lader wrote about the rise of the Palmach – young men and women of the kibbutz who were trained as an elite strike force. The commander of one of these brigades, Moshe Kellman, told Lader: “None of us is a soldier by profession. Most of us have come from the kibbutzim. Our purpose to go back and someday start new kibbutzim of our own. The Palmach grew out of the kibbutzim because from 1941 on, we realized that it was more important for a boy of 17 to devote his full time to defending his home and people than to plow the fields or tend the vineyards.”


Israel was a dream, since the time of Moses, yes, but given urgency by the work of Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl, who in 1897 called for “normalizing” the Jewish condition by a return to the homeland.

From the 1880s to the 1930s, the movement to establish the Jewish State proceeded in two ways: Practical settlement and political advocacy. The Jewish population of Palestine grew from about 25,000 in 1882 to between 85,000 and 100,000 just prior to World War I, while political advocacy on behalf of the establishment of a Jewish state met with mixed results. The Ottoman empire controlled the area until 1919 and allowed land to be purchased for Jewish settlement, while refusing to grant any specific Jewish claim to the land.

After WWI, dominion over Palestine passed from the Turks to the British, who established a Mandate over the territory. Jewish political fortunes looked brighter. After all, it was the British Lord Balfour who declared in 1917 that the British government “view with favor” the establishment in Palestine of “a national home for the Jewish people.”

The Mandate period (1920-48) was marked by growing Jewish immigration into Palestine, while demands for further immigration grew with Hitler’s rise to power in Europe. The British authorities, meanwhile, tried to manage Jewish political aspirations while also attempting to quell majority Arab unrest at the growing Jewish presence. Deadly Arab riots against Jews in 1920, 1929 and 1936-39 convinced Jews that self-defense, military service and self-reliance was their only option.

Jewish self-defense evolved as the settlements grew. Initially, immigrants were hired to guard Jewish settlements for an annual fee. After the 1920 Arab riots, a Jewish military, or Haganah, was formally organized and established. For those young men and women living on communal farms, military training became part of the residency requirements.

From 1939-1945, the Jews of Palestine fought on two fronts – alongside the British against Hitler, and at home defended themselves against Arab attacks. In an effort to save the Jews of Europe, the Haganah organized the transport of hundreds of thousands of them into Palestine on illegal ships, since the British had banned further immigration. After the war, the British began looking for a way out of Palestine, finally opting for the newly formed United Nations to vote on a plan to partition Palestine into two states – one Jewish and one Arab – on November 29, 1947.

The Jews were elated, the Arabs defiant and the fight for Israel’s independence had begun.


Hostilities began as a series of attacks and counter attacks between Arabs, Jews and the British Mandate authorities that continued from December 1947 until May 1948. The day after Israel’s declaration of independence, May 15, five Arab armies invaded: Syria, Egypt, Transjordan, Iraq and Lebanon.

But one of the worst Jewish defeats came before the state was even officially at war, in early May at the settlements of Gush Etzion, 20 kilometers southwest of Jerusalem, on the hills between Hebron and Bethlehem. The series of four settlements were strategically located on the road used by the Arabs to transport weapons and supplies to Jerusalem.

On May 4 and again on May 12, poorly-armed Jewish settlers, reinforced by better-trained Haganah and Palmach fighters, were attacked over several days by Arab Legionnaires commanding thousands of Arab irregulars.

After three days of fighting, 30 Jewish fighters had been killed and the remaining settlers surrendered. Polish-born, Palmach fighter Eliza Feuchtwanger radioed Jerusalem. “The Arabs are in the Kibbutz. Farewell.”

The Arab Legion commander, Abdullah Tell, later admitted that the Jews “fought with incredible bravery.”

Following the surrender, the Arabs entered the settlement, looted the buildings and massacred 127 men and women. Only five Jews survived. Slaughtered bodies, both men and women, remained in place for a year and a half before Transjordanian authorities allowed Israel to retrieve the corpses.


Israel’s fortunes started to turn in the settlements in the Galilee region.

Correspondent Koestler described the Syrian military’s uneven advance on Degania as an example of how the settlers were getting the upper hand.

“The Syrians advanced in a hesitating and undecided sort of way. They sent out several waves of infantry which as soon as they came within range of automatic fire, turned tail and swarmed back instead of digging in.” Then “eight tanks arrive at the outer fence of the settlement. The first one, on the flank nearest the lake was incapacitated by a Molotov-cocktail which hit its caterpillar chain. The third broke through the fence, reached the slit trench, then slowly veered south as if to progress parallel to the trench.”

In the New Republic, Lader wrote of how until May 10, “the city of Safed which controls the Upper Galilee valley was considered one of the impregnable strongholds of the Arabs in Palestine.”

Not for the Palmach fighter, however. They spent a week prior to May 10 quietly bringing supplies and ammunition each night through the valley below the city. “Then a force of 200 men, each armed with only 50 rounds of ammunition,” Lader recounts, “attacked at night, taking the Arabs by surprise. Another Palmach unit fought for 11 hours in the police station, and after three hours rest, stormed the remainder of the city. By noon, the supposedly impregnable Safed was safe in Palmach hands.”


Jerusalem was the center of major confrontations before and after the formal declaration of war. Indeed, the old city was under siege for five-and-a-half months ending finally on May 19, 1948.

As Mordechai Chertoff reported in The Palestine Post, “instead of breaking their spirit, the siege had turned the residents of the [Jewish] Quarter into soldiers.”

In an effort to win control of Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest city, the Israeli forces fought a long battle along the single roadway to the city. One of the fiercest fighting took place 15 kilometers west of Jerusalem, at Latrun. As British troops departed the police fort on May 14, Arab Legionnaires tried to take it over and fighting broke out for the strategic outpost.

One report from Jon Kimche in the Palestine Post on June 1, 1948 captures the intensity of the fighting. “By 4 o’clock the attacking force has reached the perimeter of the police station from which heavy fire was directed at them. With a sudden rush in the face of a strong searchlight shining on the attackers, one group of Jews set fire to the building while another group attacked with small arms. A number of Arabs escaped from the inferno, but for the majority there was no getaway.

“By dawn, the operation was completed and the Jews withdrew to their previous positions. The Arabs remained in possession of Latrun, but it had again been destroyed.”

But even with some relief in May, the Arab stranglehold over Jerusalem remained a serious problem for the Jews. With no other way of getting supplies, food and arms to the Jewish resident of the city, the newly established Israeli Defense Forces took on the task of digging a new road into Jerusalem. On June 14, writer I.F. Stone was the first reporter to be taken into the city by military convoy on the new “Burma” road.

“The hastily improvised new road,” he reported in the Palestine Post, “rough-hewn by bulldozer and tractor across trackless fields, hills and valleys is one of the engineering feats of the Jewish war of independence. Even more impressive are the working men from the docks of Haifa and the workshops of Tel Aviv willing to serve as coolies and human mules over dark and hazardous mountain trails in order to turn the flank of the Jerusalem siege and bring up badly needed supplies.”


“From the GI’s point of view this war seems about like any other war,” reported The Chicago Sun-Times’ Keith Wheeler who was with the Haganah on the Lebanese border, June 14, 1948, “99 percent griping and waiting and one percent action.”

“One discovers,” Wheeler observed, “that the Jewish soldier resembles any other soldier. He loves to brag. He holds his enemy in vast contempt. He collects souvenirs as ardently as a United States marine. On the slightest provocation he whips out snapshots of children, wives and sweethearts. He is hospitality personified.”

On the other hand, as Wheeler observed there were some serious differences between Israeli GIs as compared, say, to their American counterparts. The Jewish soldier “doesn’t want his name in the papers. By habit of many years he yearns almost pathologically for anonymity. He is completely without rank consciousness and if so moved, never hesitates to call a company commander ‘fathead’ in his presence. There is no ‘brass’ in the Haganah. Nobody salutes anybody and nobody wears any insignia of rank. ‘The only difference is authority, and that is never questioned,’ the commander of an outfit on the border told me.”


Kenneth Bilby of the International Herald Tribune was another witness to Jewish ingenuity and resourcefulness. He was taken first by transport plane (flown by a “youthful American pilot”) and then by jeep to relieve the Egyptian siege of isolated Jewish settlements in the Negev Desert. “The Israel air-transport service provides one of the Jewish answers to the Egyptian effort to besiege and throttle Jewish settlements in the Negev,” he reported on Aug 8. “With Egyptians menacing the sole supply route to the Negev, the Jews rely on their air force as much as the Western powers in Berlin.”


Throughout 1949, armistice agreements were signed between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria,, ending the Independence War. These agreements temporarily put an end to hostilities and established armistice lines between Israel and Jordan on the West Bank of the Jordan River – known until the Six Day War in June 1967 as the Green Line.

What Israel could not achieve diplomatically, it achieved through force of arms. Instead of three non-contiguous areas of Jewish sovereignty, as declared by the UN partition plan of 1947, the newly established state controlled one single territory bordering Syria and Lebanon in the North, Transjordan to the East and Egypt to the southwest. The country’s capital, Jerusalem would remain divided between Israel and Jordan for proceeding 19 years, with Jews cut off from their religion’s holiest site, the Western Wall, until 1967’s Six Day War.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.