One of my favorite rabbinic leaders was R’ Menachem Mendel of Kotzk – aka the Kotzker Rebbe. Now, the Kotzker Rebbe wasn’t the cuddliest guy, but his genius was undeniable, characterized by aphorisms that wouldn’t be out of place on a psychology podcast. Like, take this saying of his: “He who thinks he is finished is finished.” Not a super pleasant concept, but an accurate one. Because we’re humans. And if there’s anything that unites all humans, aside from our love of pizza, it’s our desire for comfort and stability.
Which means that it’s easy for us to “think we’re finished.” We tell ourselves a story, or form a belief, and boom – we’re locked in. Eventually, our beliefs become so obvious, we don’t even notice they’re there. To put it in Kotzker terms: we stagnate. Or, as Jonathan Haidt says in his 2012 book “The Righteous Mind:”
“When we want to believe something, we… search for supporting evidence, and if we find even a single piece of pseudo-evidence, we can stop thinking. We now have permission to believe. We have a justification, in case anyone asks. In contrast, when we don’t want to believe something, we… search for evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it.”The Righteous Mind
I don’t know about you, but for me, hearing this both stings, and also resonates.
We’ve talked in previous episodes about how history is constructed. How the stories we tell came to be. And how important it is to interrogate those stories every now and again. To try them on for size, and see whether they still fit. To see if they broaden our understanding of the world, rather than narrow it.
I hope this revelation doesn’t shock you, but I’m kind of in love with Israeli history. With Israel itself. And yet, in every season of this podcast, I talk about what I call a “black eye” of Israeli history. The ugly stuff that no one wants to talk about. Just, you know, sweep it under the rug. In Season One, it was Deir Yassin. In Season Two, Sabra and Shatila. And today, in Season Three, it’s the story of Qibya. All of these were tough, complicated moments, stories that serve as important reminders that simply dividing historical actors into “good guys” and “bad guys” isn’t the most sophisticated way to think about history.
And that’s why these stories are crucial for us to talk about. I’m not here to rehash some tired narrative about how Israel is always the good guy, or always the bad guy, or whatever the prevailing and thus unassailable belief happens to be.
Because yeah, I’m in love with Israel. But it’s not some nostalgic, mythologized version of Israel. We’re not writing fanfiction here. We’re looking history in the face, warts and all. Because if you love something, you want to know it completely. The good, the bad, and all the shades in between.
Let’s talk about Qibya
Are you ready for a highly sophisticated historical analysis? Here it is: 1953 was kind of a weird year to be an Israeli. It’s barely been four years since the War of Independence ended, which killed one percent of the tiny country’s population. The state is so poor that the government has imposed austerity, complete with a state-appointed Controller of Food. Immigrants were still streaming in from all corners of the earth, stretching the country’s capacity beyond its limit.
And yet, despite these challenges, the Jewish people hadn’t experienced this much power in two thousand years. Just by virtue of its existence, a state – even a new, struggling one – can never be entirely without power. Not when it enjoys the recognition of most of the world. Not when it has an army, a government, an open-door policy for persecuted Jews across the globe.
Keep that context in mind. Because this story doesn’t make sense unless you remember the strange duality of Israel’s earliest days. The powerlessness of having porous, contested borders and neighbors hell-bent on your destruction. Coupled with the power of having an army, an unfailing dedication to state security, and a means of establishing deterrence.
In its 75 years, Israel has never had clearly delineated borders. The UN Partition Plan – which carved up Palestine into Jewish, Arab, and international zones – was rejected by the Arabs of the region. But Israel emerged victorious from its invasion by five, six, or seven Arab countries in 1948 (depending on who’s counting), with more territory than it had been allotted in the partition plan. Still, its borders remained ambiguous.
I want to be clear: the armistice lines with Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon were not borders. The Arab states flatly refused to recognize Israel’s existence, insisting – and I’m quoting from the agreement with Egypt right now – that “The Armistice Demarcation Line is not to be construed in any sense as a political or territorial boundary.” Pretty chutzpatic for a bunch of states that had their butts kicked by a newly-established country full of refugees.
This digression has a point, I promise. Actually, it has two. Firstly, when I was in high school, and teachers and textbooks were throwing around terms like “armistice lines” willy nilly, I’d nod vigorously to disguise the fact that I had no idea what the heck an armistice line was. (Seriously. The more intense the nod, the less I knew what was going on. I looked like a bobblehead.) So you heard it here first, folks: an armistice is a truce. And armistice lines basically say “yo, your army isn’t allowed past this point.”
And the second reason I’ve said “armistice lines” about seven times in the past minute? Well, it’s really important to understand that in 1953, despite winning a war, Israel still didn’t have borders. Instead, it had truce lines and a UN-appointed Mixed Armistice Commission that was technically responsible for ensuring that each side respected the truce.
But the Mixed Armistice Commission, or MAC, was pretty toothless. And I don’t want to shock you too much here, but neither Egypt nor Jordan seemed even remotely interested in enforcing Article I of the armistice agreement: “The right of each Party to its security and freedom from fear of attack by the armed forces of the other shall be fully respected.” I mean, what did you expect from states that refused to recognize the existence of their neighbor?
Throughout the first half of the 1950s, a seemingly endless stream of Arab infiltrators made its way into Israel. These gate-crashers were known as fedayeen, or “self-sacrificers.” Sometimes they came by to steal stuff. Sometimes to destroy property and infrastructure. And every so often, they’d indulge in a spot of murder. By mid-1953, fedayeen had launched thousands of attacks into Israel, murdering over 300 Israelis.
The Israeli public was incensed. What’s more, it was terrified. The army, which had won the 1948 war but somehow seemed incapable of protecting ordinary citizens, grew increasingly demoralized. So a brilliant, if hotheaded, young commander approached the top brass with a daring idea. He wanted to establish an elite commando unit trained to execute operations behind enemy lines. If you’ve listened to our episode on the Mossad, you already know that Israel excels at these kinds of risky, daring operations. So you’re probably not surprised that the top brass agreed, giving the 25-year-old commander free rein to design the training and hand-pick his men.
If you’re a longtime listener of the podcast, maybe you already have an inkling about this young commander’s identity. Maybe you already know he had been fighting for Israel since he was fourteen years old. That he had been severely wounded and most of his platoon destroyed in one of the most important battles in the 1948 War of Independence. Maybe you know that he would go on to a long and controversial career in both the military and the government, eventually rising to the position of Prime Minister in 2001.
But regardless of whether you knew any of that, I’m certain you’ve heard his name. Ariel Sharon’s controversial legacy begins here, with the establishment of the elite Unit 101. Here’s how he describes it in his 1989 autobiography, Warrior: “I… put these extraordinary people through the most grueling and realistic training I could devise. With the failure of diplomacy to stop the terror, the government had been trying to find an answer in a policy of retaliation and deterrence. …We now had the ability to implement that policy.”
In his 2018 book “Rise and Kill First,” Ronen Bergman explains that this policy meant “abandoning pinpoint precision for something more primal. Rather than kill prime Palestinian terrorists, they would avenge the killings of Isaelis by attacking and terrorizing the Arab villages from which the terrorists had set forth to harm Jews…”
Keep that in mind. And ask yourself: what’s the difference between deterrence and vengeance? And do such distinctions matter if the policy succeeds, averting more bloodshed?
It’s been a tough season on Unpacking Israeli History, but unfortunately, I have to give another warning. You might want to skip the next two minutes or so, particularly if you have little kids.
On October 13, 1953, a gang of fedayeen slipped across the Jordanian border to a small community southeast of Tel Aviv. There they chose a vulnerable target: a family of seven recently-arrived Turkish immigrants, sleeping together in one room. A kerosene lamp burned dimly, illuminating the scene. So the fedayeen could clearly see their victims. They lobbed their grenade towards the center of the room, where 39-year-old Susan Kanias, who was pregnant, slept with her four-year-old daughter Shoshanna and her eighteen-month-old son Binyamin. Also in the room were three of her other children and her elderly mother.
Eli Kanias, then six years old, remembers: “I woke from the explosion. Everything had turned black. The light had been extinguished. Mom lay on the floor, completely torn up. Shaul and I stood above her, crying. The walls and the ceiling were spattered with flesh.” And Shaul, just a bit older than Eli, concurs: “The walls were covered in blood… I picked up the baby, but he wasn’t a body anymore. He was torn in half. I ran outside, but the infiltrators shot at me.”
The brutality of the murders horrified Israel. The next morning’s Jerusalem Post article read: “There was a sense of deep mourning in the village, mingled with violent anger.”
Unsurprisingly, that rage extended all the way to the top.
Moshe Dayan, who would soon be appointed Chief of Staff of the IDF, was livid. If Jordanians infiltrators refused to respect the armistice lines, then the Israelis would take matters into their own hands. And not by appealing to the UN-appointed Mixed Armistice Commissions, whose slaps on the wrist had absolutely no effect on either side.
No, the military’s new policy – which would later be known as the Dayan Doctrine – was this: “We can exact a high price for our blood, a price that an Arab community, Arab army, Arab regimes will not consider worth paying.” Or, as Dayan later put it in a 1972 interview with British TV: “ I wanted to say it very straightforward: Unless and until they do accept us, then we shall just have to force ourselves… We have no other choice.”
So it was decided. The murder of the Kanias family – which took place deep inside Israeli territory, striking at its most vulnerable populations – would be avenged. It would be made painfully clear to infiltrators that Jewish lives did not come cheap. Less than 24 hours after the murder of Susan, Shosanna, and Binyamin, the army launched Operation Shoshanna, named for the four-year-old who died in her mother’s arms.
Qibya: What happened
The target was a West Bank village named Qibya. Ariel Sharon, also known as Arik, wrote in his autobiography that “The police investigation indicated that the killers had infiltrated from the direction of Qibya, a Palestinian village on the border in an area that was subject to incidents of terror every day.”
Similarly, Moshe Dayan’s biographer Mordechai Bar-On claims that Qibya was “a village garrisoned by an Arab legion platoon.” (Side note, by the way, this biography of Moshe Dayan is amazing, check it out. It’s part of the excellent Jewish Lives series, and no, not just saying that because they’re a sponsor of this episode.) But Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman says in his 2018 book Rise and Kill First that “Qibya may or may not have been involved in the Yehud murders.” The truth is, we really don’t know why the army chose Qibya specifically.
The historical record is similarly divided on the mission’s orders. Bar-On claims that Sharon took liberties with the original order from HQ, which were simply to ensure the village was empty before blowing up a few houses. Sharon himself recounted later that Dayan counseled him that “If it turns out to be too difficult, just blow up some of the outbuildings and get out.”
And yet, he also wrote that “My orders were clear. Qibya was to be a lesson.” Sharon told his men – who entered the village armed with 1,500 pounds of explosives – to inflict “maximal damage on life and property.”
You may not be surprised to learn that everyone offers differing accounts of what happened next. And that matters, because each account will present Israel in a very specific light. From one perspective, you have a highly moral army that made a tragic mistake. Turn your head slightly, and that army becomes a bloodthirsty avenger raising hell on terrified children.
The Israeli story
Here’s former paratrooper Aaron Davidi in a 2011 interview: “They sent me with my squad to the Ben Shemen Forest, where I met with Arik.” “We went there and they opened fire when we were about 100 meters from the fence. We bent down and kept going.” As the paratroopers ascended to a fortified position outside the village, a firefight ensued, killing Jordanian soldiers among them.
Sharon recounts: “In a few more minutes we were in the village proper. As we walked through the streets an eerie silence hung over the place… A report came in from one of the roadblocks that hundreds of villagers were streaming by them along the road. Qibya seemed completely deserted.”
Davidi agrees: “In my opinion, Arik used the explosives because [another soldier] had told him that a large number of peasants had escaped. And I guess he thought that the entire village had fled.”
Another lieutenant testified: “The IDF was equipped with small flashlights left over from the British Army, something you could barely see with. We went in with a megaphone, shining flashlights and shouting ‘If there’s anyone here, come out, because we are about to blow it up.’ Some got up and came out. Then we’d apply the explosives and blow up the house. When we returned, we reported 11 Arabs killed. It wasn’t that we lied, we just didn’t know.’”
Because the village was not deserted. There were people hiding in the houses. And when the raid was over, 43 homes had been demolished, and 69 civilians – mostly women and children – had been killed.
Sharon insists that “Soldiers were sent to look through each house… We found a young boy in one of the houses and took him out to safety. Then we heard a cry, and a soldier ran into one of the other houses where the TNT fuse had already been lit and emerged with a little girl in his arms. Those two… were the only signs of life.”
The Palestinian story
Safia Hussein Teeb told the Guardian in 2001: ‘I was at home getting ready to go to sleep when I heard the shouting… Everything was confused and we hid downstairs where the animals were. All night we could hear explosions as the Israelis blew up houses. My daughter and her husband and my nephew were killed.” The article claims: “an inspection of ruined homes in Qibya last week revealed that all but the most cursory of checks would have found anyone hiding inside.”
And in a letter addressed to the president of the UN Security Council, the Jordanian envoy to the United States stated that the purpose of the raid was to kill civilians. He described the scene as follows: “The Israelis entered the village and systematically murdered all occupants of houses, using automatic weapons, grenades, and incendiaries; and dynamited houses over victims’ heads… Twenty-two cattle were killed and six shops looted. Approach roads from neighboring villages were mined.”
None of us were there. And all of us are savvy enough to recognize that everyone involved – victims, witnesses, participants – had their own sympathies and biases. So though I personally believe that Sharon and his men truly thought the village was empty, I also believe that this does absolutely nothing to change the reality that 69 people died that night.
Israelis were horrified. As historian Danny Gordis puts it: “Some were traumatized by what had transpired in Qibya… One member of the unit later recalled the questions that haunted him… ‘Is this screaming, whimpering multitude the enemy? How did these farmers sin against us?” Gordis writes that this was a period of “Profound soul-searching among Israelis about how they could best balance the need to fight for their survival and at the same time maintain the moral standards they believed were critical to becoming the society they ought to be.”
But if the Israeli public was shocked and embarrassed, public institutions were not. Israeli historian Benny Morris writes that the press near-unanimously “supported the operation and the retaliatory policy of which it was part.” Only a few criticized – in rather polite terms, to boot – what had transpired.
The sole exception was independent newspaper B’Terem, which published an article called After Qibya in December of 1953. Its author was scientist, professor, Torah scholar, and public intellectual Yishayahu Leibowitz, who compared Qibya to the Biblical story of Shechem in Genesis 34. Long story short: A guy named Shechem – who just happened to be the son of some big-shot chieftain – rapes Jacob’s daughter Dina. In revenge, her brothers Shimon and Levi kill every man in Shechem’s city. And in response, their father, Jacob, curses them: אָר֤וּר אַפָּם֙ כִּ֣י עָ֔ז וְעֶבְרָתָ֖ם כִּ֣י קָשָׁ֑תָה אֲחַלְּקֵ֣ם בְּיַעֲקֹ֔ב וַאֲפִיצֵ֖ם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל. “Cursed be their anger so fierce, And their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, Scatter them in Israel.”
Leibowitz writes: “The Shekhem operation… is an example of the frightening problematic ethical reality: there may well be actions which can be vindicated and even justified – and are nevertheless accursed.” Or, in short: sure, the murder of Susan Kanias was a horrible thing. But the revenge killings at Qibya? That’s an example of a “cursed” response. Something terrible. Something deserving of Jacob’s curse.
Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, however, did not agree.
Far from taking responsibility, the Israeli government insisted publicly that the Qibya attack had been perpetrated by rogue Israeli civilians. A 1953 article from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reads: “At a press conference, Mr. Eban [the Israeli ambassador to the US] emphasized that the statement made by Israel Premier David Ben Gurion to the effect that civilians were responsible for the raid is accurate. ‘Any other version is inaccurate,’ he stated.”
However, despite their general ineffectiveness at maintaining the armistice, the Jordanians and the Mixed Armistice Commission weren’t idiots. The global powers saw through this lie and censured Israel heavily. But international criticism rolled off Ben Gurion’s back. He told Sharon: “it doesn’t really matter what they say about (the village of) Qibiya in the world, what’s important is how it will be looked at here, in this region. That’s what will give us the possibility to live here.”
And – sadly – he wasn’t entirely wrong. There were more cross-border raids, both before and after Qibya, the most famous of which would be led, again, by Ariel Sharon in 1956. But historian Howard Sachar writes that “Taking note of the growing harshness of these Israeli expeditions, Amman sought urgently to restrict further infiltration. In 1954, as a result, the number of Israelis killed by infiltrators declined to 33, and in 1955, to 24.” Georgetown professor and Brookings Fellow Daniel Byman comments that “The attack on Qibya – controversial, brutal, and boody – worked. After the raid Jordan arrested more than a thousand infiltrators and its Arab legion stepped up its patrolling. Elmo Hutchinson, who oversaw the border commission for the international community, declared ‘After Qibya, I watched Jordan’s attitude towards border control change from one of mild interest to a keen determination to put a stop to infiltration.”
This is the legacy of power. The heavy responsibility of uniting two disparate ideals: maintaining our national morality, and establishing an effective deterrent. Yishayahu Leibowitz wrote in After Qibya that Israel didn’t choose to wage war against its neighbors. But it has been “six years… of a constant nightmare of horror, theft, and murder.” And while that didn’t justify the “cruel blow” of Qibya, it might have explained it somewhat.
Five Fast Facts
So that’s the incredibly important story of Qibya, and here are your five fast facts.
- In the early 1950s, the new state of Israel was infiltrated constantly by fedayeen, or ‘self-sacrificers,’ from Jordan and Egypt, who murdered hundreds of Israelis between 1951 and 1956. In response to these infiltrations, the IDF established Unit 101 – trained to go behind enemy lines and remind Arab nations that Jewish blood came at a steep price. Unit 101 was disbanded after Qibya.
- Its most infamous operation took place in October of 1953, after the brutal murder of the pregnant Susan Kanias and her two youngest children. The operation? A reprisal attack in the village of Qibya, in the Jordanian-occupied West Bank.
- The commander of Unit 101, Ariel Sharon, led 130 men into the village, which appeared deserted. Participants claim they checked houses thoroughly; victims contend that they did not. Both agree that Unit 101 leveled 45 houses in three hours, and that nearly 70 civilians were killed.
- Condemnations streamed in from every corner. The UN. The United States. The Arab nations. And within Israel itself, ordinary people confronted the legacy of the massacre. But Ben Gurion doubled down, saying “It doesn’t make any real difference what will be said about Qibya around the world. The important thing is how it will be looked at here in this region.” He was sort of right: After Qibya, infiltrations from Jordan went down significantly, though the region was not remotely peaceful. It would take some years for the state of Israel to enjoy moderately secure borders.
- The story of Qibya shows us two things. One, it shows us that in 1953, Israelis were desperate. Surrounded by enemies on all sides, sick of constant infiltrations and murdered civilians, keenly aware of the MANY threats to their continued existence. Qibya was meant to establish a deterrent, not to be a massacre of civilians. But this story also shows us how the Palestinian narrative – of the terrifying, bloodthirsty Israeli soldier – came to be. And that’s really important to understand. Because if we’re ever going to be at peace with one another, we need to understand each other’s stories.
Here’s one enduring lesson as I see it.
Our beliefs are shaped by the stories we tell ourselves. Or, in the words of 20th century American rabbi and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel:
“We do not see the world as it is but as a projection of ourselves, and so we are prisoners of delusions that hold us in their spell even after we become aware of their deceptiveness.”
That mythologized version of an Israel that can do no wrong is an enticing deception. But you and I know that history is a lot more complicated than the easy stories we tell ourselves. Yes, there are soaring moments of heroism. And yes, there are moments where we went wrong. To deny that is to deny ourselves a real, deep, meaningful relationship with our history.
And our history is pretty unique. Because for 2,000 years, the Jewish people had no power. We were stateless. Wanderers. Exiles. And so, as Professor Yishayahu Leibowitz writes, we developed our concept of morality “in an artificial hothouse.” If your power is merely theoretical, then so are your moral dilemmas.
Because Qibya is a story about reckoning with your power. In 1953, Israel was barely five years old. Sure, Israelis had built a country out of sand and duct tape and fought off a bunch of invaders. But they, and their country, were still fundamentally insecure. And the murder of the Kanias family made the entire government look inadequate. Weak.
Listen, my doctorate is in educational psychology, and I studied identity development quite seriously, so I’m more or less obligated to put this in psychological terms. The German-American psychologist Erik Erikson posited that identity develops in distinct stages. And if Israel were a five-year-old kid in 1953, it would be in its “initiative v. guilt” stage. A kid at that stage wants to be independent. To make his or her own choices. And yet, when those choices go wrong, the kid feels guilty. Inadequate. Unprepared to be on his or her own.
Israel wasn’t a kid, obviously. It had a government and an army full of grown adults. But none of those adults had ever been in this position before. Their most recent example of Jewish power was from the Hasmoneans! (Do you know anything about the Hasmoneans beyond, “something something Hanukkah”? Yeah, point made.)
So the men and women in the Israeli government and army were trying to figure out what it means to have power. Because they believed – as editor and columnist Brett Stephens does – that “thanks to Jewish power, there is a Jewish future.” And that is the framework through which I view Qibya. It was a show of power that seemed wise, even necessary, at the time.
It’s easy for us to pass judgment, all the way from 2022. But our vantage point is shaped by a history in which Israeli military leaders flaunted their power. In 1953, the Israelis were desperate. And reprisals seemed to work, at least for a while.
You and I know more now than Ariel Sharon and Moshe Dayan and David Ben Gurion did in 1953. The surviving Kanias children could not have fathomed that peace with Jordan would come within their lifetimes. And yet, that’s exactly what happened. In 1979 and then in 1994, Israeli PMs Begin and Rabin reached out to the enemy – the enemy that had killed the Kanias family – and brokered peace. Because they had the benefit of knowing more of Israel’s story. They no longer feared the existential threat of another full-scale invasion. They no longer worried – or at least, they worried less – about another murder like the one of Susan, Shoshana, and Binyamin Kanias.
And I think it’s because they had lived through enough history to understand what real power looked like. Not endless bloodshed. Not vengeance. Not living by the sword. And so I’m not totally surprised that by 1972, Moshe Dayan – once an advocate of reprisal attacks like Qibya – was able to make this statement about Israel’s Arab neighbors: “They are driven by their hatred and hostility of us. So I don’t think we shall overcome that just by winning the battle. There are two stages. One is, win a battle if you are attacked, but then once you are not killed, you have to do something in order to live, to live together with the Arabs. And I think that that cannot be achieved by phantoms and centurions…. I don’t think that we can flatter them or bribe them, but I think we should be such neighbors that they should feel that it’s nice to live with us, and I think it can be done.”
That quote demonstrates Israel’s maturation as a country. And I’m saying that with pride. Because only 26 years separated the Qibya attack from the peace accord with Egypt. And only 41 years separated the murder of the Kanias family from the peace accord with Jordan. And that gives me hope that I’ll be sitting here in 40 years, talking into my podcast microphone from my studio in space, remembering that dark, faraway time before the peace accords with the Palestinians.
Sure, I still ask questions about Israeli power and what it means. After all, the Kotzker Rebbe reminds us that no one should ever really be done grappling with big ideas. But I also look at the maturation of Israel with very real pride. I am proud of Israeli soldiers who make extremely difficult decisions in high-risk, complex situations. And, my relationship with Israel is not entirely dependent on expectations that human beings in really difficult situations will always make decisions I personally agree with each time. And, that’s ok. I recognize that Israel needs to be strong enough to defend itself. Strong enough to deter attacks. AND humble enough to seize the next opportunity for peace, whenever it presents itself. Because that’s what it means to face your history – to learn from it.