Sixty years ago, the Jews of Israel and the world learned one of the harshest lessons in political realism and the ethics of war. It was a tragedy that forced them to abandon their moral naivet? and acknowledge the harshness and brutality of military reality. And it is a lesson that Israeli politicians and the leftist media would have the country forget today.
The United Nations in November 1947 had approved the partition plan for the creation of a Jewish state and an Arab Palestinian state in Western Palestine. A different Arab state had already been constructed in the eastern two-thirds of Mandatory Palestine and was named Jordan (earlier, Transjordan). Western Palestine at the time was ruled by the British, under the mandate granted by the League of Nations after Britain drove the Ottomans out of Palestine in World War I.
In 1920, the territory of Palestine had been separated from Syria by French-British agreement, so that France could rule Syria and Britain could rule Palestine. The Arabs of Palestine rioted because they considered themselves Syrians and demanded not to be cut off from their actual homeland. Those some Arabs would later be misnamed “Palestinians.”
After the 1947 UN partition vote and before the Jews officially declared independence (which would occur in May 1948), the Arabs of the territories earmarked for the Jewish state launched an all-out war against the Jews, complete with mass massacres of Jewish civilians. They were openly supported by the surrounding Arab states, which sent arms and “volunteer” troops and later invaded Israel with their own armies.
Because the Jewish towns and settlements were scattered, some of those outside the main Jewish population centers were cut off and besieged by the Arab militias. One such besieged set of four Jewish villages was known as Gush Etzion, located south of Jerusalem. The first of its settlements had been established in 1927 by Jews from Yemen. It had been attacked during the 1936-39 pogroms carried out by Palestinian Arabs against Jews.
In January 1948, Gush Etzion was surrounded by Arab militias. Jerusalem itself was also besieged and would soon be cut off and starved. An Israeli army did not yet exist; instead, a number of ragtag and poorly equipped Jewish militias attempted to defend the Jewish areas against the attackers. In cases where the Jewish militias failed, captured civilians were generally massacred by the Arabs. Many of the murdered Jews were Holocaust survivors.
The Jerusalem militias sent out a company of 38 young men, half of them students from Hebrew University, to relieve the besieged Gush Etzion villages. It shows the desperation of the Israeli Jews at the time that a company of 38 people was considered a major reinforcement. The fighters carried heavy packs of food and ammunition, and so proceeded slowly. On the way to Gush Etzion, one militiaman fractured his ankle and was taken back to Jerusalem by two others, leaving the company with 35 fighters.
They marched by night, led by two experienced scouts. But before reaching their goal, they were discovered by an elderly Arab shepherd. (A British version of events later had them detected by two Arab women shepherds.)
The militiamen grabbed the shepherd, but were then faced with a moral dilemma. Some proposed shooting him on the spot, because, they said, if he were released he would immediately alert the Arab militias in the vicinity, who would attack the relief company. War is war, they argued, and the lives of hundreds of people depended on the success of their operation.
Others among the Jewish militiamen objected. We cannot just kill him in cold blood, they said. Our military operation must be ethically pure. And we can’t even tie him up and leave him in a cave – he might die there slowly, or he might escape and alert the Arabs.
The shepherd (or shepherds in the alternative version) swore on all that was holy that if released, he would not breathe a word. In the end, the Jewish militiamen decided to release the shepherd.
The shepherd immediately ran to the nearest village housing the Arab militias and alerted them to the presence of the Jews. The Arabs attacked the outmanned and outgunned Jews. Every single Jewish militiaman was massacred. Their bodies were horribly mutilated. Later, the Arabs demanded money from the British in return for the corpses.
Even worse, the Gush Etzion villages were never relieved or reinforced. Without reinforcements, those villages eventually fell to the onslaught of the Arab marauders and the regular Jordanian army (the Arab Legion). When Kfar Etzion, the largest of the villages, fell, virtually the entire Jewish civilian population was massacred, 250 people in all. Only three Jews survived. The residents of the other three villages were luckier – after their surrender the Jordanians took them prisoner and later released them.
Jews had long engaged in sterile, scholarly debate over military behavior without the hazard of being mugged by reality. Prior to the struggle for Israel’s independence, Jews hadn’t run an army of their own (as opposed to participating as soldiers in armies of other countries) since the seventh century, when a small Jewish militia aided the Persian invaders attempting to drive out the Byzantine occupiers of Palestine.
But then, in the late 1940’s, Jews were suddenly confronted with the necessity of propounding ethical rules for dealing with real-world military dilemmas.
There are lessons to be learned from the massacre of the Gush Etzion Thirty-Five. The only way to avoid undertaking military actions that might possibly result in the death of innocent non-combatants is to surrender and capitulate. Squeamishness in the midst of battle always results in far worse bloodshed.
Rabbinic tradition teaches that those who are compassionate in situations where cruelty is called for will end up being cruel in situations where compassion is called for.
Our Sages could have thought a thing or two to the armchair critics of Israel’s targeted assassinations and other military actions, and to the practitioners of recreational compassion who love to whine about the “brutality” of the American military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.