First of all a few words of explanation. Machal is the English spelling of the Hebrew acronym for volunteers from abroad who participated in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Machalnik is the nickname given to a member of Machal.
Attending the premiere of the film in Tel Aviv last July was an especially moving experience. Even before the movie started it was heart-warming to meet up again with fellow Machalniks I hadn’t seen for many years and the absence of those who have passed on, reminded us of the aptness of World Machal chairman Smoky Simon’s description of Machalniks as an “almost extinct species”.
The title “804” may be regarded as a sequel to the late Henry Katzew’s seminal work “South Africa’s 800” which wouldn’t have seen the light of day but for a chance discussion I had with Hertzel Katz in 1997. Hertzel was then chairman of the SA Zionist Federation in Israel better known as Telfed. He asked me if, as a Machalnik, I was interested in seeing an unpublished manuscript of a history of Machal that was lying neglected in Telfed offices. I jumped at the opportunity and was fascinated by the wealth of historical information that had lain neglected for 22 years.
I learned that in 1969 the S.A. Zionist Federation in South Africa had commissioned journalist, Henry Katzew to research and record the story of South African Jewry’s participation in the 1948 War of Independence. Katzew spent six years on his research which included dozens of personal interviews.
I discovered a goldmine of history as told by the participants in the events themselves and I immediately convened a meeting of Machalniks comprising David (Migdal) Teperson, the late Boris Senior, Hymie Josman, Ralph Lanesman and the late Simie Weinstein, who all agreed that this was too valuable to remain unpublished.
My dear late wife Marcia transcribed the text into a word processor, using Wordstar in those days. Ralph Lanesman’s contribution was invaluable not only in supplying factual information but in administering the meagre funds we had gathered from our own resources and also in distributing copies of the book.
During this work, by good fortune I met Joe Woolf who was immediately enrolled as editor. He is a meticulous researcher into the War of Independence and performed a magnificent job of editing as well as researching and collating statistics of the various units.
The original content of Katzew’s raw manuscript was, on the whole, kept intact, but modifications included an honor roll, lists of volunteers collated from many sources including responses to a widely distributed questionnaire, graphics, layout and a cover designed by Saville Kaufman. So as not to infringe copyright we didn’t use published maps. Instead Saville and I prepared our own relevant maps. In addition I included a comprehensive album of photos gathered from Machalniks in Israel and South Africa. Corrections and addition of details related mainly to persons who participated in events, spelling of names of persons and places and explanatory footnotes. In addition a 25 page comprehensive index was prepared which will be of value to historians seeking information about personalities, battles, other historical events and in general, the authentic early history of various segments of Israel’s defence forces.
Many episodes in the book are based on diaries recorded while events were fresh in the minds of the scribes. Bearing in mind, however, that other personal recollections, related years later, may have been blurred by passage of time, Joe Woolf and I corroborated many details with persons who had actually participated in the events, some living in Israel, others abroad. In addition, Joe researched a great deal of documentary evidence in archives, libraries, museums and ships and aircraft passenger lists. Having done all we could to ensure accuracy of the text and the lists of persons, we apologiz for any errors and/or omissions, which may have eluded us.
The first edition was produced in time for Israel’s 50th anniversary and I treasure a letter I received from the late Henry Katzew saying that I had converted silver to gold.
Because we are becoming extinct, Machalnils have a duty to play our part in countering the distortion of facts by Israel’s “new historians” like Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe and Avi Shlaim among others whose distorted views about 1948 bolster the arguments of our enemies and are eagerly quoted by Israel bashers world wide.
An episode in the 804 film emphasizes an argument I have with these new historians. They have never bothered to interview persons like General Amos Horev, the late Sid Cohen, Shlomo Lahat, Smoky Simon, Joe Woolf or any of the very many others who played active parts in the events that the historians interpret negatively. The historians contend that personal interviews are unreliable because of the temptation to embellish and they prefer to rely on documents in the archives. Unfortunately they do not merely record the contents; they INTERPRET or MISINTERPRET them according to their preconceived opinions.
I contend that the documents they examine should at the very least, be evaluated in conjunction with personal interviews whenever these are available. If persons in two different localities describe the same event in a similar manner there is a very strong likelihood that the story is accurate. And this is where the 804 film bears this out.
The film shows interviews with Eli Isserow in Johannesburg interspersed with interviews with me in Herzliya in which we both described the same 1948 event in identical terms.
A while ago before submitting an article to the Jerusalem Post about Benny Morris’ history of 1948, I had a long telephone chat with him. I also spoke at length to Peretz Kidron the translator of Rabin’s memoirs who had leaked a censored paragraph to the New York Times which is quoted in Morris’ book. Both conversations convinced me that my version of events was more solidly based than theirs.
The very methodology of historiography requires critical analysis and authentication of source materials. Unfortunately bias creeps in when the historian adds his interpretation without substantiation. For example in “The Birth of the Palestinian refugee problem”, Morris quotes an order signed by General Ayalon which reads:
Outside the actual time of fighting, it is forbidden to destroy, burn or demolish Arab cities and villages, to expel Arab inhabitants from villages, neighborhoods and cities, and to uproot inhabitants from their places without special permission or explicit order from the Defence Minister in each specific case. Anyone violating this order will be put on trial.
That is very clear and substantiated The wording of the order dated July 6, 1948 is carefully quoted. But then Morris adds what is nothing more than unsubstantiated conjecture, vitiating all claims to impartiality. This is what he wrote:
The order was a grudging response to left-wing political pressure, and, at least in the higher echelons of the IDF, may have been understood as such, rather than as a reflection of Ben-Gurion’s or the CGS’s real thinking.
Another example. In a footnote about the capture of Lydda, Morris quotes historians Kadish, Sela and Golan as referring to the OC of the 3rd battalion late Moshe Kelman speaking of being fired on by thousands of weapons. Morris refuses to accept the version of Kelman who was there. He gives his own unsubstantiated opinion that Kelman’s figure was nonsense and that no more than several dozen townspeople participated in the (brief) firefight.
Certainly documents are important, but a valuable opportunity has been lost to learn from the people involved, the context and circumstances surrounding the documents. The personal interviews in 804 with participants in the War of Independence serves as a valuable historical record.
May I express the hope that before it is too late it will be followed by a broader set of interviews not only with Machalniks, but with all veterans of the 1948 war focusing on establishing the truth about events which have been misreported by the “new Historians”