Deir Yassin: The Battle for Truth

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No incident in Israeli history has been more hotly contested than that of April 9, 1948, in the small Arab village of Deir Yassin. Noam Weissman tries to uncover what really happened on that fateful day and asks why, with so many battles, so much war and so many disputes, this event will haunt Israel forever.

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Episode Transcript

Deir Yassin. I still remember the first time I heard these two words.

I was a junior in Yeshiva University. I had many years of Jewish education under my belt, and was visiting friends of mine at the University of Maryland. At the Shabbat meal, one guest kept on bringing up the story of Deir Yassin. She explained, “see, Israel committed so many atrocities. The Palestinians are right.” Another guest at the meal said, “Nah, this is all just a made up story…and if it did happen, it’s probably just an exaggeration.” They looked at me, and inquired, “Well, what do you think?”

I remember sitting there sweating. I was supposed to be the guy that knew this stuff. I was a history major, spent lots of time in yeshiva, and was supposed to know Jewish history. I was known as a big time Zionist, but they caught me red-handed, and so I surrendered. “Um, who is Deir Yassin”? That’s all I said. “I think you mean, what is Deir Yassin” they responded.

Fast forward 13 years, and I have learned a ton about Deir Yassin — and want to share what I’ve learned with you.

Deir Yassin was a small Arab village. And yet, according to many historians, what happened there on April 9, 1948 was one of the key events of the war known by Israelis and Jews around the world as the War of Independence and by many Arabs, and certainly Palestinians, as the Naqba, or catastrophe.

Like many other events of this war and many other wars throughout history, this story presents real challenges for anyone who wants to tell it honestly. Deciphering fact from fiction, history from narrative, and news from propaganda can be a fine line. Search for it online, and you’ll get all kinds of claims — some backed up by evidence, and some not. In this episode we’ll look at what the major reputable historians have to say about it, and we’ll check out eye-witness accounts from several different perspectives, and more.

The First Phase — taking a step back

In order to understand what actually happened at Deir Yassin, we need to go back a few months to November 1947. Of course we can go back way before that, but let’s start there. That’s when the United Nations voted to adopt Resolution 181, partitioning the Mandate for Palestine into two states — one Jewish and one Arab. This is not the episode to go into all the details, but the Jews accepted the proposal, and the Arabs rejected it. A new wave of violence was initiated by the Arabs with stabbings, shootings, road blockades and some bombings. This was the beginning of the first phase of the war — before the entire region was engulfed in an inter-state conflict in May, 1948. The Brits still were technically in control of the region. And at this point, it was actually more of a civil war than anything else.

From November to March, the Arab forces continued to increase their attacks. They had the upper hand, so much so that the American ambassador to the UN went back on the whole idea of a Jewish state and had proposed a trusteeship in Palestine instead of independence for the Jewish people there. The Arab forces organized a siege of Jerusalem, trapping 100,000 Jewish residents of the city and preventing shipments of food or supplies. They began to make an organized attempt to cut off the highway linking Tel Aviv with Jerusalem — the city’s only supply route. The Arabs controlled several strategic vantage points, which overlooked the highway and enabled them to fire on the convoys trying to reach the beleaguered city with supplies.

The effects were devastating. The main Jewish fighting force, the Haganah, made many attempts to break through the blockade, but couldn’t. If you’re curious you can check out the video we made about one specific mission — the Convoy of 35, “halamed hei” on the Unpacked Youtube channel. Anyway — nearly all of its armored vehicles were destroyed, and hundreds of its fighters were killed trying to bring supplies to Jerusalem.

“Operation Nachshon”

By April 5 of that year, the Haganah was desperate and Jerusalem residents were starving. Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Haganah decided to launch “Operation Nachshon.” The goal was to break the siege of Jerusalem by opening the road from Tel-Aviv. Like I mentioned, the Arabs had been able to block supplies to Jerusalem by controlling several strategic vantage points along the highway, from which they ambushed and fired on convoys.

Deir Yassin was one of those strategic locations — it was less than a mile from the Jerusalem suburbs, and was on a hill that overlooked a large portion of the city. Operation Nachshon meant gaining control of this location. And this operation would become what prominent Israeli historian Anita Shapira called, “the war’s greatest turning point.”

To accomplish this, the Haganah planned to take the lead with their rival pre-IDF paramilitary groups — the Irgun and Lechi — who would also join the offensive. Both the Irgun and Lechi were more to the right of the Haganah on the political spectrum and were known for using harsher measures against both the British and the Arabs.

Daniel Gordis, in his book, “Menachem Begin, The Battle for Israel’s Soul,” notes that the Irgun decided Deir Yassin needed to be captured because “it lay next to a flat stretch of land that could be used as an airfield and would be strategically useful for the looming battle for Jerusalem.”

At 4:30 am on April 9th, the battle began.

And….. that’s all we can agree on. Seriously. Sounds like a joke, but it’s not. From here on, there are conflicting stories of what took place, and it becomes so difficult to know what actually happened.

In life, we often ask, what happened? For real. Be clear. Be simple. What happened?

Let’s go through several different accounts of what happened. I won’t offer commentary as I read them, but I want you to hear these and internalize them. First, I will read you accounts from the time itself.

The first account is from Menachem Begin, in his autobiography, “The Revolt.” I should mention to you that he was not actually there.

“The Arab troops suffered casualties three times as heavy. The fighting was thus very severe. Yet the hostile propaganda, disseminated throughout the world, deliberately ignored the fact that…Deir Yassin was actually given a warning by us before the battle began. One of our tenders carrying a loudspeaker was stationed at the entrance to the village and it exhorted in Arabic all women, children and aged to leave their houses and to take shelter on the slope of the hill…A few did not leave their stone houses perhaps because of the confusion. The fire of the enemy was murderous-to which the number of our casualties (5 killed, 31 wounded) bears eloquent testimony. Our men were compelled to fight for every house; to overcome the enemy they used large numbers of hand-grenades. And the civilians who had disregarded our warnings, suffered inevitable casualties…The education which we gave our soldiers throughout the years of revolt was based on the observance of the traditional laws of war. We never broke them-unless-the enemy first did so and thus forced us, in accordance with the accepted custom of war, to apply reprisals. I am convinced, too, that our officers and men wished to avoid a single unnecessary casualty in the Deir Yassin battle.”

Account #2 looks very different.

On 14 April, Assistant Inspector-General Richard Catling of the British Palestine Police wrote: “Many young schoolgirls were raped and later slaughtered. Old women were also molested. One story is currently concerning a case in which a young girl was literally torn in two. Many infants were also butchered and killed. I also saw one old woman who gave her age as one hundred and four who had been severely beaten about the head with rifle butts.”

Account #3 is pretty hard to hear as well, from an Arab whose mom was there:

“My mother escaped with my two small brothers, who were one year old and two years old. My aunts and their small children were also with her. When the Jews met them on the road, they wanted to kill my small brothers and my cousins. My mother and my aunts started to beg them and said: “We will give you all the gold and the money we have, but do not kill our children.” The Jews did not listen to their pleas and killed my brothers and cousins in cold blood and told them” “Now go away and tell everyone what you have seen.”

But, it’s not as simple as the Palestinian narrative vs. the Israeli narrative.

The Jerusalem commander of the operation, Yehoshua Zettler, the Jerusalem commander of Lehi, described it this way. “I won’t tell you that we were there with kid gloves on. House after house … we’re putting in explosives and they are running away. An explosion and move on, an explosion and move on and within a few hours, half the village isn’t there any more,” he said.

Zettler continued, “Our guys made a number of mistakes there that made me angry. Why did they do that?” he said. “They took dead people, piled them up and burned them. There began to be a stink. This is not so simple.”
Professor Mordechai Gichon, a lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces reserves, was a Haganah intelligence officer at the time. He was sent to Deir Yassin when the battle ended and said, “To me it looked a bit like a pogrom,” “If you’re occupying an army position it’s not a pogrom, even if a hundred people are killed. But if you are coming into a civilian locale and dead people are scattered around in it, then it looks like a pogrom. When the Cossacks burst into Jewish neighborhoods, then that should have looked something like this.”

And, at the time, the Haganah high command expressed “deep disgust and regret.” And, they even referred to this as a “premeditated act which had as its intention slaughter and murder only.”

This is the challenge with history and reading from eyewitnesses. The effort to determine MOTIVE.

Here’s the thing though .Each group had reasons to falsify/exaggerate their stories. The Arabs wanted international support. It was hoped that the image of atrocities committed by Jews against the Arab population would mobilize the Arab countries to intervene in the conflict. For example, Arab leader Hussein Khalidi told a Palestinian news editor at the time: “We must make the most of this.” AND, on the Israeli side, there was a lot of distrust and fighting even between the different military groups. Haganah wanted to discredit the Menachem Begin led Irgun as well as Lechi so they denounced it, and Irgun/ and Lechi wanted to use this to scare the hell out of everyone.

So maybe we need to go to the historians. Maybe they can clear some things up. If history is so simple and clear, let’s have the historians describe what happened…Right?

Benny Morris, a prominent Israeli historian who was part of what is called the “new historians” described the events like this:

“Early on April 9 the Irgun and Lechi troops, all together about 120 men, advanced on the village from the western edge of Jerusalem in two columns with a van carrying a bullhorn between them. The van blared a message calling on the villagers to put down their weapons and flee. But the van quickly overturned in a ditch; the villagers may not have heard the broadcasts. As the attackers moved in, they encountered unexpectedly strong fire from the village’s stone houses and were repeatedly pinned down… the Irgun and Lechi troops moved from house to house, lobbing in grenades and spraying the interiors with small arms fire. They blew up houses and sometimes cut down those fleeing in the alleyways including one or two families. The operation lasted into late afternoon. The attackers suffered four dead and several dozen wounded including the operations commander.”

Anita Shapira, who I quoted earlier described it like this:

“Propaganda disseminated both by the Etzel, (The IRGUN) which was the main actor in the attack, and the Palestinians magnified this event..of terror and atrocity far beyond what actually happened, which was bad enough.”

Meanwhile, Sari Nusseibeh, public intellectual in the Palestinian world and former president of Al Quds university wrote in his “Once Upon a Country”:

“In collaboration with the Haganah, 132 soldiers of the Stern Gang (the derisive name many used for the Lechi) and Irgun (also known as the Etzel), led respectively by the future Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzchak Shamir and Menachem Begin, launched an assault on the village, butchering more than 250 villagers.

He then refers to Deir Yassin as a “bloodbath.”

Finally, Uri Millstein, also an Israeli historian sees it unlike any of these historians and describes Deir Yassin not as a massacre, but a blood libel. He refers to this all as a “mendacious myth” and the Arabs who were killed were killed in “a battle in a built-up area.” Like Millstein, Eliezer Tauber, argues that Deir Yassin was not merely a poorly-organized battle which led to massacre. Instead, he suggests it was a myth perpetrated by the Palestinian Arab leadership, whose purpose was to bring the surrounding Arab armies into the battle.

Ahhh, what happened? Was there indiscriminate killing or not? Was there rape or not? How many people were killed? 110 or 250? It’s important to inquire about these details which shaped an important event of 1948

Let’s try to break it down. We know that the Lechi and Irgun fighters brought a van with a bullhorn to deliver a message in Arabic that the villagers should put down their weapons and flee. We don’t know if the Arabs heard it.

All seem to agree that the Arabs who stayed offered fierce resistance, which surprised the amateur Irgun fighters.

In response, the Jewish troops used hand grenades, killing many — including both armed and unarmed civilians. Why? According to Begin, the clash was a house-to-house battle in which the use of hand grenades was necessary. Daniel Gordis argues that the ill-prepared Irgun fighters used the grenades in panic when their communications equipment failed and they were fired upon by residents.

  • In total, among the Jewish forces, five were killed and forty wounded.
  • Regarding the residents of Deir Yassin, the numbers aren’t clear.
  • At the time, all the media outlets at the time said the death toll was closer to 200 or 250.

Today, these numbers are regarded as highly exaggerated. The accepted figure of 107 for the Arab death toll comes from a 1987 investigation by two Palestinian scholars in Beir Zeit university. These scholars reported that after speaking with many witnesses this is the precise number, and their report includes absolutely no mention of rape.

With so many battles, so much war, and so much dispute, why is the story of Deir Yassin so important?

For one, Benny Morris notes in his book “Righteous Victims,” “Deir Yassin had a profound demographic and political effect: It was followed by mass flight of Arabs from their locales.” Nusseibeh, who we spoke about earlier, also points out that the story of Deir Yassin helped bring the Jordanians into their fight for Jerusalem. So, there’s that.

Secondly, this really hit Begin’s reputation. Hard. Interestingly, Begin was actually not there at the time, as he was still being hunted by the British, and hiding in Tel Aviv. As was Begin’s way, he took personal responsibility by publishing a wall poster, saying, “We express our great sorrow that among the wounded were women and children.”

But, fair or unfair, Deir Yassin would become synonymous with Menachem Begin and Begin with Deir Yassin. Begin had planned a trip to the U.S. to raise funds, and in a December 4, 1948 letter to the editor of the New York Times, Begin is described in this way.

“Most of the Jewish community was horrified at the deed, and the Jewish Agency sent a telegram of apology to King Abdullah of Trans-Jordan. But the terrorists, far from being ashamed of their act, were proud of this massacre, publicized it widely, and invited all the foreign correspondents present in the country to view the heaped corpses and the general havoc at Deir Yassin. The Deir Yassin incident exemplifies the character and actions of the Freedom Party.”

This was signed by two dozen prominent American Jews, including Albert Einstein

Third: Deir Yassin entered the collective memory of the Palestinian people, so much so that when Fatah was created in 1964, the Palestinians claimed that its goal was “vengeance against Deir Yassin”. We can never know all the details of that day, but we can understand why it was a very important event during a very volatile time.

So, let’s try to wrap this up: Who are the liars? Who are the truth tellers?

We now know that there were closer to 100 deaths and there was no rape. But, what are we to make of the totally conflicting reports?

Let’s be clear. There were some absolute lies like I stated above, but maybe the inconsistencies in the story are less about lying and more about something else. In Malcom Gladwell’s podcast, he talks about Brian Williams, you know the whole story where Williams makes up that he was in an airplane…but he actually wasn’t. I know, weird. IF you don’t know, that’s a great podcast too.

Gladwell explains that it is possible to remember a traumatic event one way then a couple of years later to start remembering that same event a different way and the assumption of virtually everyone who weighed in on the case was this: If someone changes their original story then they must be lying.

Everyone assumes memory is a kind of time-stamped video of what happened in your life and that if you contradict the evidence of the video, you’re up to no good.

For example, he explains, “9/11 is what’s called a flashbulb event, a big dramatic incident that sears itself into our memories. And as a whole sub-specialty in psychology devoted to the study of flashbulb memories, you ask someone where they were right after something dramatic or historic happened. Then you come back to them months or years later and ask them again and measure how accurate their memories are.

There have been countless studies like this over the years. One was done after the death of Princess Di, another after the resignation of Margaret Thatcher, the Challenger explosion, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the election of Barack Obama, the OJ Simpson verdict. Not surprisingly, there was one done after 9/11 as well.

The participants were asked the same questions a year later and two years later and finally on the 10th anniversary of the attack in 2011. So what did the researchers find? Well, first, that everyone knows where they were when they heard the towers fell… But are those memories accurate? No, they’re not, especially in the first year after a flashbulb event, all kinds of discrepancies creep in. One of the respondents first said she was in the kitchen making breakfast when she heard about the attack. A year later, she swore she was in the laundry room folding her clothes. Another said in 2001 that she saw the attack while watching the Today show. A year later, she was convinced that a girl in her dorm had rushed into her room and told her.

Now, why are we so adamant about the subject of memory? Because we’re memory fundamentalists. We think our memory is a camera recording our life in real time with a video time stamped and stored for later retrieval.

This idea really helps us understand that when there is a traumatic event, it is possible that people’s recollections can often be imprecise. Multiple narratives does not mean there is no such thing as truth. It means people often see the same event differently.

Secondly, when understanding history, we need to zoom in, zoom out, and zoom out again.

Let’s remember the context of Deir Yassin, the Arab snipers, the Jews who were being picked off one by one and the Jews in Jerusalem who were getting starved by the siege. The story of Deir Yassin is not one that the Jewish people should feel proud of. I don’t. But I also choose to look at it in context. And here’s a piece of context I think is important: it’s what happened right after Deir Yassin.

Four days after Deir Yassin, in an act of vengeance, a medical convoy on its way to Hadassah Hospital, 78 people were ambushed, killed by gunfire and burned. 78 doctors, nurses, students, patients, faculty members, and Haganah fighters were killed. Again, this is another episode of what seems to feel like an endless cycle of violence. It is perhaps, really hard to relate to, but the only way to fairly look at this history is to look at all of the players, and all of these painful moments. None of them exist in a vacuum.

To this day, there are Palestinians and people who go way too far in criticizing Israel who use Deir Yassin as part of their claim that Israel was “born in sin.” I reject this notion. Emphatically. The fact that to this day, Deir Yassin is mentioned in the ongoing delegitimization of Israel does not do nearly enough to put the multiple perspectives of what happened on that fateful day, and does not do nearly enough to be honest about what the Palestinian Arabs were doing to hurt the Jews before this day, and what they did at the Hadassah Medical Envoy massacre.

Deir Yassin is not an easy conversation topic for some chatter at a party. We covered a lot of different narratives and recollections of that day, and I think we should all formulate our own opinions.

Five Fast Facts

  1. The objective of the attack on Deir Yassin was to break the siege of Jerusalem where 100,000 Jews were trapped.
  2. In many ways, the story of Deir Yassin, specifically the Arab propaganda and exaggerations around it led to thousands of Arabs fleeing their homes, becoming refugees.
  3. Approximately 107 Arabs were killed in the battle of Deir Yassin. The numbers of Arabs was debated for many years as media outlets exaggerated a much larger number.
  4. Historians, testimonials from soldiers and eye-witnesses have corroborated and supported different versions of the same story — but all agree what day and time the fighting began.
  5. When Fatah was created in 1964, the Palestinians claimed that its goal was “vengeance against Deir Yassin”. 

Not easy stuff. This is Israel — the land and people I know and love. Seriously, I love it enough to speak about it, like all the time. Including on this podcast. So it really hits me when I deal with moments like Deir Yassin — I’m hit in the face with the question:

How do we emotionally deal with negative aspects of our history?

We don’t need to deny the negative moments outright claiming that they are a fabrication or lie, nor do we need to demonize Israel. Both reactions are hysterical. Admitting mistakes is not a sign of weakness, but strength. Acknowledging our blemishes is the best way to truly gain credibility and trust from the other. It is not by bragging about accomplishments, but in sharing our personal challenges, our most intimate vulnerabilities. Just like all other peoples, countries and nations, we are entitled to admit we’ve had an imperfect past — as long as we strive for a better, fair and just future.

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