Zionism’s original sin? Deir Yassin, Passover, and the long road to Jerusalem

In this year, 2017, April 9 is the day before our liberation. It is much more than that, though. It is a day that should be living in infamy for us, the Jewish people. Alas, it is not — and that is proof as much as any that this is Zionism’s original sin, our original sin. The sin whose stain we can’t wash away and whose harm we can’t undo, because we barely even acknowledge its reality.

Sixty-nine years ago, some 120 fighters from the Irgun and Lehi – paramilitary groups from the Revisionist Zionists (followers of Zev Jabotinsky) – launched an attack on the village of Deir Yassin. They killed over 100 Arab people — men, some of them combatants, along with a smaller number of women and children. Some during battle, and, a few witnesses and scholars claim, some after the battle. Some by bullets, and some by grenades thrown into homes to “clear resistance”. Four Jewish militiamen were also killed.

It would have been almost a Keystone cops kind of scene, if not for the fact of murder. On April 9, 1948, a truck with a loudspeaker started to make its way into Deir Yassin with loudspeaker blasting, telling residents that they should flee an imminent Jewish attack. It drove into a ditch. The Jewish “soldiers” were trying to follow a Torah law requiring a Jewish army to give civilians a chance to escape any siege. They failed.

That wasn’t the only or the most horrific failure. Much much worse was the fact that of all the Arab villages they could have attacked, Deir Yassin was one of the villages that had made a peace treaty with the Jews of the Yishuv, and in particular, with the Haredi community of Givat Shaul, just across the valley. According to Meir Pa’il, a Palmach officer, a crowd from Givat Shaul even intervened on behalf of the villagers. He says they “came into the village and started yelling ‘gazlanim, rotzchim‘ — thieves, murderers — ‘we had an agreement with this village. It was quiet. Why are you murdering them?'” Some people say Pa’il was never there – but no one denies that Givat Shaul and Deir Yassin had a real peace agreement.

After the truck drove into a ditch, the attack went on anyway. And, no one should be surprised, the Arab villagers actually tried to defend their village. With their old guns and limited ammunition. Even then, they were almost a match for the Irgun, at least enough so that the Palmach (the elite force of the Haganah) — which did not initially give tactical support to the attack — was forced to start shelling the village in order to make sure that the Irgunists won the battle. (It’s not clear whether the Palmach supported or opposed the Irgun’s plan to attack, though David Shaltiel supposedly gave as a condition that the Irgun not empty the village of its residents. Menachem Begin, the Irgun leader, was not involved with the attack, but he also had to come out in opposition to Irgun soldiers who wanted to kill the male villagers for the sake of terrorizing the Arabs.)

Jewish Military Briefing, Deir Yassin, from the Etzel Museum (public domain)

Most of the villagers fled, while the remnant who remained and survived were marched through the streets of Jewish Jerusalem to be jeered. It took the Chief Rabbinate three days of investigation, after which Rabbis Isaac Herzog and Ben-Zion Uziel released their condemnation, which began, “The Chief Rabbinate is horrified to learn that the rumours of a foul crime committed in Deir Yassin…which it could not bring itself to believe, have alas proved true.” But the words and the discernment of the Chief Rabbinate, and of Jews in the diaspora, amounted to nought soon after.

Even though the Palmach was swift to use the incident to discredit the Irgun, Zionism soon made its choice. A month and a half after Deir Yassin, the IDF (Israel Defense Force) was officially formed from the Palmach, Irgun, and Lehi. Two months later, “Operation Larlar” — the campaign Ben Gurion approved to expel the residents of four important Arab towns on the road to Jerusalem (Lydda, Ramle, Latrun, and Ramallah), began to be carried out. On July 12, the occupying IDF battalion in Lydda killed somewhere between 70 and 100 civilians after they were attacked by grenades and shot an anti-tank shell into a mosque to pacify any resistance. Six and a half months later, the IDF committed an undisputed massacre in Al-Dawayima, in a village that offered no resistance to its being occupied. (The number of people killed, however, is highly disputed.)

Anyone who knows the history of Zionism will be screaming out at this point — and rightly so: What about the massacre of the village of Kfar Etzion? That was May 13, 1948. It’s why so many people opposed to the occupation of the West Bank agree that Gush Etzion should be annexed in any final peace agreement. What about the massacre of the combined military and medical convoy to Hadassah hospital on April 13, just four days after Deir Yassin? Would these massacres have happened without Deir Yassin? It’s hard to know, but most people on the Israeli side assume so, just as they assume that the Arabs would have massacred all the Jews if they could have, just as so many (but not all) of the Arabs in Hebron did in 1929. But the Arabs of Deir Yassin did not and would not have massacred anyone. Why were the innocent sacrificed by the guilty?

And they were sacrificed by both sides, it turns out. Another, more convoluted sin, unfolded after Deir Yassin. A kind of original sin not just of the Irgun or the Zionists, but also of the Arab armies and Arab propaganda.

The Arabs wanted to make the Jews look like monsters, so they wildly exaggerated the numbers of villagers killed, making up stories of rampant rape and torture. And the Zionists soon stopped contradicting them — because the rumors started by the Arab leaders increased a mass exodus of Arabs from other villages. A convenient outcome, one which made the Irgun proud of their deed — so many enemies were removed with so few lives lost. One could even argue that the massacre in Deir Yassin led to far fewer Arabs being killed in later battles, wherever the IDF took over Arab villages. But this event, as much as “Operation Larlar,” is responsible for the enormous refugee crisis that continues today, and to the full dimension of what Palestinians call the Nakba, the disaster that changed their lives and culture and communities forever. It’s the sin that Jews are distorting when they lie to themselves and say, “The Arabs left of their own accord.”

We would call the tens of thousand of people who fled Palestinians now, but a separate Palestinian national identity had hardly formed at that point. Some Jews still like to use that as an excuse, to say there is no Palestinian people. But Deir Yassin was one of the moments that turned the Arabs of Palestine into the Palestinian people. And it was one of the turning points that led us on this long road to a Jerusalem rebuilt in the distorted way it is, where so many in the Israeli government hope to make it “one city for one people”, as the slogan we were taught as kids goes, instead of one city for two peoples.

The Chief Rabbinate’s rearguard effort ultimately failed to save us. It’s not so hard to understand why. Their words of condemnation continued like this:

The general deterioration of moral values throughout humanity is no excuse for Jews to forsake the basic principles of the moral heritage of mankind which stems in so large a measure from Hebrew teaching. The Chief Rabbinate calls upon those responsible to realise the depths of the shame which they have inflicted on the Yishuv…The Chief Rabbinate prays that a Spirit from on High may cleanse the hearts of those Jews who have become frenzied by the Jewish tragedy into behaviour which casts a slur upon the Jewish struggle for survival.

What concerned the rabbinate was not, first, the human lives destroyed by the attack on Deir Yassin, but the “slur cast upon our struggle, the shame inflicted”. Of course that’s code for saying, stop killing innocent people. But it’s code too easily ignored, misconstrued – because anyone can say, why should we be better than they are, when they want to kill us? It’s a kind of moral purity that can stink – in the way that the frogs that died after the second plague in the land of Egypt were gathered into heaps and “made the land stink”.

There are other kinds of moral purity that don’t work, too. Everyone my age who was raised in the Jewish community has positive images about Zionism and Israel and the ideal of tohar neshek, purity of arms. The events of Deir Yassin, and similar sins, don’t change that ideal, and they don’t make believing in it a lie. But we don’t uphold the idea of tohar neshek by denying that such massacres took place.

Look where such denials have led us. We have Israeli Jewish settlers who celebrated the killing of a baby. And Israeli Jews who champion a medic who shot a man on the ground in the head. If you want to see denial in action, you don’t even have to go to right-wing websites, or read articles by fascists who don’t think Palestinians deserve human rights. Just go to Jewish Virtual Library. You’ll find out that there wasn’t a massacre at Deir Yassin at all, because the Arab nations told exaggerated lies about it, because the Arab villagers fought back, because some the Jewish soldiers were “crazed with anger,” because they didn’t intend to massacre people. The reasons for excuse given there are actually that absurd, though you have to pay attention to what’s being said to catch the wool being pulled over your eyes.

In 1951, some of the buildings from Deir Yassin were incorporated into the newly built Kfar Shaul Mental Health Center. Imagine that: turning a site of murder into a psychiatric hospital. Could there be a better metaphor for repression and denial?

Eventually, the area became the locus of the Haredi Har Nof community. I had my own personal connection to Deir Yassin, without ever knowing it. Long before Har Nof was built up, during my first stint in yeshiva, I would take a bus out that way to a farm there where I took horseback riding lessons. No one ever discussed what happened, and no one on “our side” does still, except for the leftist Jewish stalwarts who join with a handful of Palestinians to hold an annual march commemorating the dead, and who are probably marching today.

This year, April 9, is different though, because they will be marching on the eve of Passover, our time of liberation. A liberation from tyranny that is turned into a lie if we refuse to face tyranny today. And our liberation leads us from here to Shavuot, to the revelation of the laws of justice, which this year falls just a few days before the 50th anniversary of the Six-day war, the war that gave us the occupation, that special world in which laws are used to create a very different reality from one of justice.

In 1948, April 9 was the eve of the new moon of Nissan, the New Year of the Jewish people according to the Mishnah. Every New Year is a point at which we are judged, the Mishnah tells us. Thousands of years ago in Egypt, Nissan also became “the beginning of months for you” – for us, the Jewish people. The same thousands of years ago, the Jewish people carried out their first act of nationalism, their first act not just as a family but as a people, by painting their doorposts with lamb’s blood. And God responded by sparing us and killing our enemies. After centuries of enslavement, it took one night of resistance to complete our transformation into a nation. After a millenium and a half of struggle, the rabbinic revolution turned us into one of the most morally visionary of all nations on the planet, not just in theory but in practice. But it took far less time to turn us into a people whose moral vision is filled with the cataracts that form when one people rules over another.

The road to Jerusalem was endangered in the days before and after independence. There were good reasons to take control of the road adjacent to Deir Yassin. But no good reason for how it happened, nor for forgetting how it happened. God knows what kind of attacks I will get for even talking about Deir Yassin, but if we never expose it, how will it stop poisoning us and condemning future generations to failure?

The road to the real Jerusalem is more endangered today than ever. Let this be a year of remembrance. Let us remember Deir Yassin as we remember our own tribulations on the road to freedom. Tonight and tomorrow, when we search for and burn our chametz, our leaven, let us also search out and burn away what stops us from understanding Deir Yassin.

Let’s do this now, so that when we declare “Next year in Jerusalem rebuilt!” at the end of the seder, we are not just engaging in a twisted fantasy. Let us not lie to ourselves about the road in 1948, or the road today. There is a road, no simple highway, that leads towards peace and redemption and justice, for all peoples. That road that leads towards the city of Peace, towards Yerushalayim shel ma’alah. That road calls us to remember, as the ancient rabbis commanded us to do in the seder, both degradation and praise.

About the Author
Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a liturgist well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting. David is also an avid dancer.
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