Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Eliezer Tauber's Treatment of Deir Yassin

My own post on Eliezer Tauber's book on Deir Yassin is here.

I quote from Yoav Gelber's review

"...Tauber deserves every kudo for his meticulous work, which is exemplary for this genre of historiography. He left no stone unturned and used all the available sources, written and oral, Arab, Jewish (Haganah, IZl, LHI, and political), British, and Red Cross. This resolution of microhistoriographic analysis requires a massive use of oral testimonies, extracting the valuable material from the rubbish and a careful scrutiny of the findings. His expertise in Arabic and on Palestinian society equipped him with vital tools for conducting such a study.

In examining the oral testimonies about the battle in Deir Yassin, Tauber has shown how the stories of witnesses on both sides, Arab villagers and IZL and LHI combatants, are close to each other. Of course, each witness speaks from his individual and national perspectives, but it is clear that they all speak of the same battle and that their stories are supplemental rather than contradictory. At the same time, the narratives that were circulated by both sides’ higher echelons immediately after the fighting was over are propagandist and conflicting.

...At that stage of the war, occupying an Arab village was something new, still without precedent. Under the circumstances of the inter-communal civil war overshadowed by waning British sovereignty, it was also impossible to hold people in captivity and POWs should have been either released or killed. This axiomatic assumption forecasted the flight of the non-combatant population at the beginning of the raid. In the case of Deir Yassin, the axiom proved mistaken for various reasons analyzed by Tauber.

Seven IZL and LHI fighters were killed in Deir Yassin. There are various figures of wounded, fluctuating between 10 and 40. Tauber tends to establish the number as a little above 30. There are several estimates and nominal lists of Arab fatal casualties. Arab informers for the SHAI (Jewish intelligence) reported from the beginning on 100 to 110 killed. The conquerors boasted that they killed 240 Arabs and the foreign press as well as the Haganah adopted this figure for polemical or political reasons of their own. This figure was generally accepted, though Arab propagandists inflated the number up to 400. In the 1990s, the anthropologist Sharif Kan’ane published the findings of his research that put the number back at 107, based mainly on Arab lists and survivors’ testimonies. After reviewing all the existing lists and comparing them, Tauber compiled his own list that includes 101 names and is probably the closest to the real number.

Although the onslaught on Deir Yassin was not a glorious operation by any standard, a wide gap separates what happened in the village and the rumors that spread at the time and have persisted to the present. It was a bloody battle fought in the midst of the civilian population, but in 1948 there were bloodier encounters such as the fall of the Etzion Block and the conquest of Lydda. In Deir Yassin there was no pre-planned, deliberate massacre as the prevalent Arab narrative, backed by Israeli radicals, naïve or ignorant, has claimed ever since. Tauber skillfully disproves the massacre myth and refutes the allegations of atrocities such as rapes or executions.

The myth was created during the war of propaganda that followed the occupation of the village. The IZL and LHI inflated and glorified their accomplishment. The Haganah preferred the version of the SHAI’s Dissidents Section over the far more accurate version of its Arab Section, and the Jewish Agency panicked because of the possible diplomatic consequences and hurried to condemn the perpetrators and apologize to King Abdullah of Transjordan and to the world in general. The British were apologetic and apparently had some compunctions about their indifference, but they stuck to the plan of evacuation and refused to get involved in combat.

Hitherto, the bulk of the Arab population had looked on the fighting from the sidelines. The local Arab leadership in Jerusalem strove to excite the Palestinians, and bolster up their motivation to fight. This was the main purpose of the propaganda campaign that Hussein Khalidi, the only member of the Higher Arab Executive present in the country, and his associates launched in the following days. They achieved the opposite outcome: instead of inspiring the Arabs’ stamina and will to fight, the inflated numbers of casualties and faked atrocity rumors shocked and intimidated the non-combatant population and considerably encouraged the mass flight.

Nonetheless, I think that Tauber overstates the part of Deir Yassin in causing the Arab mass flight. Before Deir Yassin, about 100,000 Arabs left their homes, huts, or tents and wandered to the neighboring countries or to purely Arab regions in the depth of the country. The Palestinians have tried to minimize the scope of this early wave of refugees and claim that only members of the elites fled, but the flight was more varied and its scope was bigger. The early refugees did not consist exclusively of the elites and included additional categories, such as residents of frontier or mixed neighborhoods in the cities, Bedouins who camped in Jewish areas, or first generation immigrants from the countryside who lost their jobs in the towns and returned to their villages. Deir Yassin and the following propaganda campaign did not cause the mass flight and at most stimulated an already existing process. Indeed, they strongly affected the villages around Jerusalem and the Arab quarters outside the city’s walls, but their impact diminished in more distant villages and was marginal in the Arab and mixed towns from where the majority of the refugees fled.

Tauber is wrong in connecting the Arab armies’ invasion to Deir Yassin. Truly, the news shocked the Arab masses abroad but hardly affected the debates of the Arab League’s Council that convened in Cairo two days later. Hitherto they objected to invasion and relied on the Arab League (or Liberation) Army to defeat the Jews after the end of the mandate. The collapse of the ALA in Mishmar HaEmek and the defeat of the Palestinian militias and ALA detachments in the towns left them no alternative but invasion. The purpose was to save what was left of Arab Palestine rather than “throwing the Jews into the Mediterranean,” but Deir Yassin had little, if any, part in the decision.

One of the explanations of Deir Yassin survivors for the onslaught on their village was the participation of several villagers in the Arab attack on the nearby village of Qastel the day before. This is a lame excuse and probably no one on the Jewish side knew about their participation...



Tauber gave a presentation at the ASMEA conference in November 2021. Recording is here:


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