Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer
Map of Gush Etzion area, 1948.

The contemporary history of Gush Etzion, an area about 12 miles from Jerusalem and 1.25 miles west of the Jerusalem-Hebron Road, began in 1927, when a group of Orthodox Yemenite Jews established Migdal Eder (see Genesis 35:21), a small farming community built on land that became the first modern Jewish settlement in the Judean Hills. However, the pioneers discovered that the harsh physical conditions rendered their agricultural plans impractical, if not impossible, and the Arabs attacked and totally destroyed it during the 1929 Arab riots.

In 1934, Shmuel Holtzman, a charedi businessman, established the village of Kfar Etzion, but the settlers were again driven away by the Arab riots throughout Eretz Yisrael a year later. Exhibited here is a remarkable and historic document, an original October 10, 1934, contract of sale through which Holtzman transferred 25 dunim in Kfar Etzion to one Gershon Chokin for 250 lira. Holtzman is acting on behalf of El HaHar, a corporation whose stated purpose is to organize and assist intensive Jewish settlement in the mountain region between Hebron and Jerusalem, and the buyer stipulates that he will use the land for the purpose of developing fruit tree plantations and mixed farming.

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Seven years after the settlers were driven away by the Arab riots of 1936, the founders of Kfar Etzion, most of whom had been trained in Poland as members of the Religious Zionist movement, reestablished it as an agricultural kibbutz. Three nearby kibbutzim – Masuot Yitzchak (1945), whose members were Holocaust survivors from Eastern and Central Europe; Ein Tzurim (1946), founded by religious Bnei Akivah pioneers; and Revadim (1947), founded by Hashomer Hatzair Marxist youth – followed soon after and, by the end of 1947, these four settlements, collectively known as “Gush Etzion” (the Etzion Bloc), had a population of 163 adults and 50 children.

Orchard workers at Kfar Etzion (1947).

Although the Gush settlements had been established on land that had either been purchased by Jews or legally acquired by them, Palestinian Arabs viewed the Gush as an “alien intrusion” on their land. In its November 29, 1947, partition plan, the UN placed the entire Gush within the boundaries of the intended Arab state and forbade any Jewish settlement there.

In the wake of the partition resolution, the Palestinian Arabs doubled down on their determination to prevent the rise of a Jewish state, including particularly blockading Jerusalem and surrounding Jewish settlements, including the Gush. David Shaltiel, the district commander of the Haganah in Jerusalem, recommended that the entire Gush be evacuated and, indeed, women and children had been vacated to Jerusalem on January 5, 1948. However, Ben Gurion decided that no area would be evacuated without a fight for two reasons: first, because the Gush commanded an important strategic position on Jerusalem’s southern approach from Hebron and, second, because a withdrawal would dishearten the Jewish community.

On January 14, 1948, thousands of Arabs, led by Abdul Kader El-Husseini, attacked the Gush in what they expected to be an easy victory – but while they killed some Haganah guardians, they suffered massive casualties at the hands of the few Jewish defenders and were forced to retreat. After that humiliating defeat, El-Husseini adopted a new strategy: he would wage a battle for the strategically important roads between Hebron and Jerusalem.

Notwithstanding some emergency flights from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to the Gush, it still lacked sufficient supplies. Convoys bringing food and equipment were regularly attacked by the Arabs, who killed many of the fighters, but the most notable loss may have been on January 15, 1948, when an emergency reinforcement convoy traveling under cover of darkness was discovered and, after a fierce day-long battle, the Arabs murdered all 35 Haganah fighters and mutilated their bodies. The British, who sat passively by at the nearby police station, did not arrive until after the butchery had ended and even then did not send the bodies of “the 35” back to Jerusalem because they feared Arab retaliation. (Several decades later, a roll of film taken by a British soldier of the slaughter was discovered, but the decision was made not to publish it.)

In March 1948, the Haganah sent the “Nebi Daniel Convoy,” a large fleet of 51 armored vehicles, to the Gush. It was ambushed upon its return from Kfar Etzion to Jerusalem, 15 Haganah fighters were killed during the ensuing 30-hour battle, and the remainder held out until they were extricated when the Haganah was able to secure British intervention. However, all 51 vehicles were lost, a monumental blow to the Haganah and to the defenders of both Jerusalem and the Gush, and many of them were later used by the Arabs in their final attack on Gush Etzion.

The Gush conducted several retaliatory ambushes against Arab Legion units on April 12 and May 4 that, according to the Haganah’s own analysis, were responsible for changing the Legion’s strategy from isolating the Gush to wiping it out. Accordingly, a joint force of Arab Legion troops armed and trained by the British launched a major attack on Kfar Etzion and, although the Haganah resisted and the attack ultimately failed, the already thin Haganah forces sustained the loss of 12 soldiers, with 30 others wounded. However, the failure of the Legion’s attack made the Arabs even more determined to destroy the Gush and, as such, the Gush Etzion Massacre was launched on May 12, 1948, when two Arab Legion companies and hundreds of local Palestinian Arabs attacked Kfar Etzion.

Kibbutz residents, with the support of Haganah soldiers, held out and defended the settlement for three days before being massacred by the combined forces of the British-supplied Arab Legion and a host of local Palestinian Arabs. When Ben-Gurion announced the birth of Israel on May 14, having just learned that morning of the Etzion Massacre, he said: “The nation is jubilant – but I mourn in the midst of the rejoicing.”

There are varying accounts of the precise course of events regarding the massacre of the Jews at Kfar Etzion, but the essential narrative of the Palestinian Arab war crimes varies only in some relatively unimportant details. Perhaps the most credible account are the testimonies of Yaacov Edelstein, Alisa Feuchtwanger, and brothers Nachum and Yitzchak Ben-Sira, the only four survivors who lived to tell the tale.

When the utter hopelessness of their position became evident to the 133 Haganah fighters and Jewish kibbutzniks at Kfar Etzion, they laid down their arms, put out a white flag, and lined up to surrender at the front of the German monastery. After photographing them, the Arab Legion and its local Palestinian Arab allies opened fire and killed many of them, and a group of 50 defenders who managed to escape to a cellar of the monastery were murdered when the Arabs tossed grenades into the cellar and blew up the building.

After Kfar Etzion was looted and razed to the ground, the Arabs turned their attention to an assault against the remaining three Gush settlements. Fearing – with good cause – that the Jews of these settlements would suffer the same fate as those at Kfar Etzion, Zionist leaders in Jerusalem negotiated a deal for the surrender of the settlements on condition that the Arab Legion protect the residents. The Red Cross was permitted to remove wounded Jews from the three settlements, and the Arab Legion took the remainder as “prisoners of war,” who were later released from the Jordan POW camp at Mafrak in March 1949.

In an astonishing bald-faced lie, the British ambassador in Amman advised London that “the Arab Legion prevented [the] massacre of inhabitants and looting of colonies which would otherwise have been their fate at the hands of the local Arabs.” The British commanding general of the Arab Legion, General John Glubb, offered several different versions regarding the events at Gush Etzion, each more ludicrous than the next. In A Soldier with the Arabs (1957), he wrote that “the Arab Legion treated all Jews as prisoners of war” and, incredibly, that “these colonies had been so aggressive that they had deliberately compelled Arab retaliation” (emphasis added). Later, writing in the July 2, 1968, London Times, he had the monumental gall to claim that “not a single Jew was massacred at Kfar Etzion.”

The Red Cross reported that the Arabs had buried all the Jewish dead three days after the battle at Kfar Etzion but, when Rav Shlomo Goren, chief rabbi of the IDF, was permitted to tour the Gush in October 1949, he found that the Arabs had buried only their own fighters and had scattered the bones of the Jewish victims. In violation of every conceivable standard of morality and decency, the Arabs prohibited the burial of the bodies of the victims until the Jordanian government permitted Rav Goren to collect the remains. On November 17, 1949, half the population of Jerusalem – some 50,000 people – stood silently along the route of the procession up to Mt. Herzl, where the remains of the Jews of Kfar Etzion were buried in a mass grave, the first burial in what is today the military cemetery on Mt. Herzl.

In this agonizingly beautiful March 3, 1949, correspondence on his Chief Rabbi letterhead, Rav Yitzchak Isaac Halevi Herzog blesses the wives and children of the Jews massacred at Gush Etzion, whom he lovingly characterizes as “the redeemed of Gush Etzion,” and sends his regrets that he will be unable to join their public gathering:

Rav Herzog’s letter regarding the public gathering of the redeemed of Gush Etzion.

My Dear Brothers

I very much wanted to be amongst you next Sunday, may it come upon us for the good, for the public gathering of the redeemed of Gush Etzion. However, this is not possible and I ask forgiveness, and I call to them [author’s note: this verse is from Isaiah 51:11]: “Those redeemed by Hashem will return and come to Zion with singing and with everlasting joy upon their heads, they shall attain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee.” The Malbim explains: Why does [the verse] say “those redeemed by Hashem? [Because] even though we do not merit it, they will return “by the grace of Hashem.” But I explain it in a different manner. Because the beginning of the Ultimate Redemption will seem to be natural [i.e., non-miraculous], therefore the prophet [Isaiah] was required to emphasize that they nonetheless will be “redeemed by Hashem,” because [author’s note: this verse is from Psalms 118:23] “This came from Hashem, and it was miraculous in our eyes.” [And as to] “and with everlasting joy upon their heads,” what is the joy that is atop the head? [It is] joy that fills the heart, yet is revealed in one’s face! I raise these matters with respect to the Ultimate Redemption that is yet to come in the future, the eternal joy that is yet hovering over the heads of the redeemed [of the Gush], but it is not merely close to arriving, it is already hovering over the heads of the redeemed and over all of us.

With blessings of the Torah and blessings of Zion and Jerusalem.

After Israel recaptured the Gush area during the 1967 Six-Day War, the women and children who had been evacuated from the Gush 19 years earlier mounted a public campaign with broad popular support to reestablish Gush Etzion, and they petitioned Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to authorize it. Although the Gush was considered to be a “special case” even amongst many Israelis who generally opposed settlements in Judea and Samaria, Eshkol procrastinated in issuing a response. However, when the September 1, 1967, Arab summit in Khartoum ended with the adoption of the infamous “three nos” – no recognition of Israel, no negotiations, no peace – he advised the Gush activists that he would approve their petition. In a deeply emotional statement, he told them, “Children, you may return home,” and advised them that they would be able to pray there on Rosh Hashanah, only a month later.

Kfar Etzion was re-established as a kibbutz in September 1967 as the first Israeli settlement in Judea and Samaria after the war, with the core of the new settlement comprised of 71 “children of Etzion” who had lost parents during the Massacre. As Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Alon announced, “We are back at Gush Etzion not as conquerors, but because this is part of our forefathers’ land.” Not surprisingly, the U.S. State Department and the UN snapped into action . . . by condemning Israel for allowing Jews to live on their own historic land.

Although, at the end of the day, the defense of the Gush in 1948 failed, the half year that its defenders held their ground and withstood Palestinian Arab attacks proved crucial to Israel’s success in its War of Independence and to the birth of the Jewish state. For many months, substantial Arab forces were drawn away from Jerusalem, which is credited with saving the Jewish half of Jerusalem. As Ben-Gurion said: “I can think of no battle in the annals of the Israel Defense Forces which was more magnificent, more tragic, or more heroic than the struggle for Gush Etzion … If there exists a Jewish Jerusalem, our foremost thanks go to the defenders of Gush Etzion.”

Much as, almost two centuries after the Mexican army slaughtered the Texan defenders at the Alamo, all Texans know the phrase “Remember the Alamo!” so does the Gush have broad and continuing emotional resonance as an eternal symbol of Zionist heroism and martyrdom. The date of the Gush Etzion Massacre was enshrined as Israel’s Day of Remembrance, and the Jewish martyrs of the Gush will live on forever in Israel’s pantheon of heroes.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.