On May 15th, 1948, the day after the departure of the British Empire from Palestine, the fledgling State of Israel, only a few hours old, was invaded by Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Israel was woefully underequipped. In the Jordan Valley, just south of the Sea of Galilee, within three days the Syrian Army was at the gates of Degania, the settlement that proudly carried the nickname “Mother of the Kibbutzim.” Degania, having been founded by a group of socialist Zionists in 1910, was a living symbol, the Plymouth Rock of Labor Zionism.
A column of six Syrian tanks reached the kibbutz, which needless to say, had no tanks. A small community of farmers on the shores of the Kinneret, they were lucky to have some guns and a hundred fighters. In an act of legendary bravery, a Polish-born chicken farmer named Shalom Hochbaum ran out from the front lines hurling a Molotov cocktail, which rolled under the lead tank and burst into flames, disabling the tank. This was a turning point in the battle. The Syrians stalled, ultimately retreated, leaving the shell of the disabled tank behind them where it sits to this day at the gates of the kibbutz, testifying to the bravery of the members of Degania.
Eventually the entire Syrian Army progressed no further than the international border along the eastern bank of the Sea of Galilee. Shalom, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen, had helped to turn the tide of the battle. This was a man who had been to hell and back and his home was right behind him in Degania. He had nowhere else to go.
The children of Degania have been raised on this legend for several generations. My neighbor, Leora, a daughter of Degania and the granddaughter of two of the 12 founders, tells of playing as a child with her friends on and around the tank. The premise of their children’s game was that the Syrians were invading from right across the border. This is a particularly powerful image when one considers that throughout her childhood the Syrian Army was, in fact, right on the other side of the valley, and constituted an existential threat to those children.
According to Leora, Shalom was not some legendary figure like Johnny Appleseed, but the father of her friend, someone who gave her cookies when she came to play and whom she saw every day in the kibbutz dining hall. To the rest of the country, he was a well-known symbol of bravery, to the children of Degania, he was a neighbor.
Recently, however, Israeli military historians have revised the story. Apparently three tanks made it through the defenses of Degania: One had engine trouble, one was damaged by a grenade, and the one that sits at the entrance to the kibbutz was indeed hit by a Molotov cocktail, but only after it had been disabled by artillery fire. Further research, interviews and investigation have revealed no fewer than five different versions of how the tank was stopped and the battle was won.
As time passes and the memories of the battle grow blurry, it will ultimately be impossible to know precisely what happened. The legend of Shalom the chicken farmer becomes just that and it becomes harder to claim with certainty that this version of the battle is fact.
Historical legends, however, are not useless anecdotes to be tossed aside like stale bread. Did Archimedes actually run naked through the streets of Syracuse shouting “Eureka!”? Did Marie Antoinette actually say “Let them eat cake?” Did Henry Ford invent the automobile? The answers to those questions are “who knows?”, “probably not” and “definitely not” but regardless we still learn from them of the joy of scientific discovery, the obliviousness of the French aristocracy, and the changes brought on by mass production. They each illustrate a historical reality, even if they do not actually record one.
The tank, and the very real story of Shalom Hochbaum, and many others like him, are a concrete reminder of just how vulnerable the country was and just how much was at stake. At the outbreak of the War of Independence, the combined Arab armies that invaded Israel had 240 tanks and armored vehicles. The Israelis had four. The combined Arab armies had 74 fighter planes. Israel had only one. With those numbers, the surprise is not that the Israelis won the war but that they bothered fighting at all. But, as we know, they had no choice, and the fact that civilians were throwing Molotov cocktails at tanks, regardless of how effective they were, is a chilling illustration of that. So there’s no photographic proof of precisely what happened, but there is an iconic image. And sometimes an icon can teach us more than a photograph.