The ghosts of Deir Yassin
By YEHUDA AVNER
In October 1952, I attended a debate at the Oxford Union between a Dr. Ali el-Husseimi, adviser to the Secretary General of the Arab League Abdul-Khalek Hassouna, and Dr. Gershon Levy, adviser to prime minister David Ben-Gurion. The motion was, "This House Condemns Zionism as Imperialism."
Gershon Levy I knew. He had lectured at a course I attended in Jerusalem some years before.
As their war of words mounted, the contenders, fighting fire with fire, sought to clinch their arguments with every verbal device they could muster in an effort to vanquish the other over the slaughter that had occurred in a place called Deir Yassin.
Deir Yassin - now Har Nof - was an Arab village on the western outskirts of Jerusalem. It was located across the valley from Beit Hakerem where I was lodging. In the early spring of 1948, Deir Yassin gunmen began taking potshots at Beit Hakerem and other nearby neighborhoods, and at dawn on Friday, April 9, Menachem Begin's Irgun Zvai Leumi, assisted by members of the Stern Group, attacked the village.
I was 18 at the time, and this is what I scribbled in my diary: "Practically knocked out of bed by big explosion at 5 a.m. and then another at 7 a.m. They were explosions from Deir Yassin, a village across the valley. Told that IZL and Lehi attacked the village. Had always been very quiet and quite friendly. Told that Arab gangs had pushed themselves in. Went at 10 a.m. to investigate. Crawled down valley behind rock. Could see Jews maneuvering into positions. Crashed Jewish lorry on hill.
"Hagana asked for reinforcements for wounded etc. Village captured by 2 p.m. Jewish flag raised over destroyed mukhtar's house.
"Prisoners taken around town by terrorists [sic] in lorry with their hands up. Idea is to bolster morale. Rumored they were to be shot.... Walking home we saw the captured women and children in a truck. They just stared. Many Jews around. I felt ashamed the way they cheered. Told that Hagana were going to hand them over to the British."
AND NOW, more than four years later, there I sat crammed into the spectators' gallery of the Oxford Union, looking down on a chamber packed with students listening to Dr. Ali el-Husseini lashing out at Dr. Gershon Levy over what he asserted was a deliberate Jewish massacre at Deir Yassin.
"Menachem Begin," he raged, "stands indicted as a war criminal for the deliberate brutal massacre of 254 innocent men, women and children at Deir Yassin. He ordered his thugs to descend upon this quiet village, savage its women, throw scores of mutilated bodies down the village wells, and burn the rest. Those who survived the massacre were, at Begin's command, loaded onto trucks and paraded throughout Jewish Jerusalem, to be stoned and spat upon, before being taken to a nearby quarry to be shot."
Then, thunderously, bitterly, in a tear-smothered voice:
"What happened at Deir Yassin was emblematic of the notorious and horrific totality of Zionist massacres and imperialist crimes committed against the Palestinian people. The Deir Yassin massacre and the resultant terror that seized the Palestinian people marked the beginning of the depopulation of Arab Palestine. For millions upon millions of Arabs this tiny village has become a symbol of Zionist imperialistic perfidy, brutality and aggression."
WITH THAT, he sat down and Gershon Levy jumped up. In an incensed voice that lifted to a shout stopping all applause dead, he fumed, "What this House has just heard is an elaborate exercise in Arab myth-making. On trial here is not what happened at Deir Yassin but what has been invented about Deir Yassin."
And now, tersely, vigorously, powerfully, as an attorney might address a jury, he made his points - that Deir Yassin, high on a ridge overlooking the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, was a place of strategic importance in a life-and-death struggle for Jewish survival; that on Menachem Begin's orders a loudspeaker mounted on a truck had forewarned its inhabitants of the impending assault, thereby surrendering the element of surprise; that the fighting was house-to-house and, therefore, murderous, causing heavy civilian casualties; and that the number of dead was less than half of what Arab propaganda alleged.
Turning now to Ali el-Husseini he said to him in a voice as cold as his eyes:
"I would advise you, sir, not to don the cloak of hypocrisy before an audience as perceptive as this. You cannot pull wool over their eyes, as the show of hands shall presently reveal. For they know it to be true that we Jews, unlike you Arabs, are not a martial people. And unlike the Arab nation" - he was talking to the students again - "the legendary heroes of the Jewish nation are not warriors and conquerors, but prophets and scribes. There never was, never could be, a Begin policy of deliberately attacking civilians as there has been a consistent Arab policy of doing just that. I speak of the policy of massacre and mutilation of Jews in the riots of 1920, in the riots of 1921, in the riots of 1929, in the riots of 1936 to 1939, and in the recent 1947-1948 war in which the Arabs set out to massacre and mutilate the Jewish state at birth; a war, in the course of which a convoy of 77 Jewish doctors and nurses, in clearly marked ambulances en route to the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, met with massacre and mutilation. I speak of the massacre and mutilation of the 35 ambushed in a convoy en route to the Etzion Bloc. I speak of the massacre and mutilation of all but four survivors of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion. I speak of the massacre and mutilation…"
Cries of revulsion and nausea suddenly cut him short as a foul stench inexplicably suffused the hall. Outrageously, an unseen blackguard - or a mere prankster, perhaps - had hurled a fistful of stink bombs in the direction of the president's chair. They fell at his feet, and the reek was so pungent people held their noses, their faces screwed up as though biting into lemons. The Oxford Union president, handkerchief over his nose, began yelling, "Order! Order!" but his audience was fleeing in such droves he declared the debate null and void.
THIS EXPERIENCE came to mind almost 30 years later, in 1980, when I found myself working closely with the man who had actually assumed command of the IZL attack on Deir Yassin. His name was Yehuda Lapidot, a soft-spoken professor of biological chemistry at the Hebrew University. He had taken a leave of absence to head up a unit in the Prime Minister's Office called Lishkat Hakesher, a semi-covert operation that maintained contact with Jews locked behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.
One day, over coffee, I shared with him my diary notes of that bloody Friday of April 9, 1948. He mulled over the pages trying to decipher my boyish handwriting, and when he spoke there was a tinge of sadness in his voice.
The battle had not gone as planned, he said. They had been repeatedly hit, sustaining heavy casualties from the start. He had taken command after the officer in charge, a fellow called Ben-Zion Cohen, went down early in the fighting.
Menachem Begin had ordered that bloodshed be avoided as much as possible, which was why he had insisted upon the use of a loudspeaker to forewarn the villagers, giving them a chance to flee. Many did. The intention had been to smash right into the center of the village with the truck and blare the announcement: "You are being attacked by superior forces. The west exit of Deir Yassin leading to Ein Karem is open to you! Run immediately! Don't hesitate! Our forces are advancing! Run to Ein Karem!"
But the loudspeaker vehicle plunged into a ditch at the village outskirts. The overturned vehicle I had seen on the crest of the hill mentioned in my diary was probably that loudspeaker truck, and its breakdown marked the beginning of the calamity.
The Arabs chose to stand and fight. They were better armed. The 120 Jewish attackers had, between them, something like 20 rifles, three Bren guns, 30 to 40 Sten guns - most of which proved defective - and grenades.
None of them had house-to-house battle experience, and all they could do was toss grenades and spray gunfire. A few buildings were dynamited, and those were probably the explosions I had heard in Beit Hakerem. Thus it was that instead of smashing right through to the heart of the village as planned, it took them two hours of horrific fighting to reach and capture the mukhtar's house and raise the flag.
"No! No! No!" insisted Prof. Yehuda Lapidot, with emphatic conviction. "Absolutely no! There was absolutely no deliberate massacre at Deir Yassin. It is a lie!"
"But what of those dazed and shaken Arabs I had seen being driven through Jerusalem on trucks that Friday afternoon?" I asked. "Were they not being taken away to be shot?"
"That is a pernicious lie, too," answered Lapidot, his face frowned with fury. "It was part of a smear campaign spread by the Ben-Gurion camp which would stop at nothing to slander Menachem Begin. Those Arabs were being taken to the Arab side of town where they were released among their own people."
And so it is that that the cant of Deir Yassin lives on. Like Scheherazade narrating one of her never-ending tales of the Arabian Nights, Arab storytellers continue to weave their gory fiction, resurrecting the ghosts of Deir Yassin from generation to generation.
Surf the Internet and see.
The writer is a veteran diplomat. firstname.lastname@example.org