On Israel’s first day (15 May ’48)

by Sarah Honig

Because its ragtag army stood its ground, despite the worst of odds, Israel is today accused of the crime of surviving and is portrayed as a menacing ogre for having dared to come into the world rather than surrender.

‘It is with great joy that I hereby close the Mandatory Police record book,” wrote an anonymous duty officer at Tel Aviv’s central precinct precisely as David Ben-Gurion recited the renascent Jewish state’s Declaration of Independence.

Just below that spontaneous hand-inscribed historic annotation, appears the first criminal entry ever in sovereign Israel’s annals. It documents the capture of a thief. He stole a book, perchance pointing to preferences peculiar to the People of the Book.

Several hours later, the first ship docked in the new state. It began its journey furtively five days earlier in Marseilles when Israel was still under British rule. Its 300 young passengers were outfitted with fake IDs, forged at the Hagana “laboratory” in France.

But the Teti would claim special distinction – it became simultaneously the last “illegal” aliya boat and the first legal one. The counterfeit visas proved superfluous. The vessel proudly hoisted the Israeli flag as the new day dawned. Because it was the Sabbath, the newcomers were issued their new country’s entry permits only at sundown.

With such seemingly ordinary bureaucratic yet emotionally charged tasks, the Jewish state adeptly began the business of self-determination. In time that would be presented to world opinion as inherently sinful. By its very brazen determination to be born, it would be asserted, Israel had displaced the Palestinians, condemning them to miserable refugee subsistence.

According to the Arab narrative, Jewish independence, in and of itself, constitutes aggressive belligerence. Incredibly, this perception sank sinister roots. It takes stronger hold abroad now than it did 64 years ago. We may speculate why. We may point to two millennia of merciless anti-Jewish hate-mongering on religious and other mundanely lucrative grounds. But whatever the motive, our legitimacy, alone among the nations, is undermined assiduously.

Expediently forgotten is the fact that never, not for a single solitary day, were Israelis allowed to savor the elation of their newfound freedom. Behind the aforementioned two matter-of-fact exemplars of sovereignty, a frightening reality festered malevolently.

Israel’s birth was legally ordained via the UN Partition Resolution of November 29, 1947. Two states – Jewish and Arab – were to be established between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Jews cheered the patchy territorial crazy-quilt they were accorded, existentially untenable though it was, and proceeded to meet all UN prerequisites for independence. The Arabs vehemently rejected the offer of a Palestinian state and, in vituperative defiance of the UN, set out to destroy the embryonic Jewish state rather than construct one of their own.

On Israel’s first day, Arab League secretary-general Abdul-Rahman Azzam Pasha, articulated Arab priorities. Sending forth seven Arab armies to slay the newborn “Zionist entity,” he declared: “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.” The Arab agenda and intentions were unmistakable. New Israel’s citizens harbored no misconceptions.

The Arabs had already violently opposed the Jewish community which existed in this country pre-WWII and which was ripe for statehood before the Holocaust. The “Great Arab Revolt” of 1936-39 – fomented by the still-revered Haj Amin al-Husseini and financed by Nazi Germany – merely delayed Jewish independence. The Arabs denied asylum here to desperate Jewish escapees from Hitler’s hell. Thereby they doomed these refugees to death. The blood of numerous Holocaust victims indelibly stains Arab hands.

But that’s not all. Husseini, in the role of pan-Arab prime minister, spent the war years in Berlin, where he hobnobbed with Hitler, Himmler, Eichmann, et al. He broadcast Nazi propaganda, recruited Muslims to the SS and actively foiled the rescue of any Jews, even children, during the Holocaust.

The Arabs of this country were avidly pro-Nazi, saluted each other with Heil Hitler, flaunted the swastika, hoarded arms, harbored German spies and planned to heartily welcome Rommel’s invading Afrika Korps.

The war that the entire Arab world launched against newborn Israel, three years post-Holocaust, was explicitly geared to complete Hitler’s unfinished mission. Not only was there no attempt to camouflage this genocidal goal, but it was broadcast boastfully for all to hear and be intimidated. Clearly Israeli independence was fraught with the most extreme and tangible danger.

Hence no fanfare could conceivably accompany the official inauguration of the state, and with good reason. Independence was to be proclaimed at 4:00 p.m. on the 5th of the Hebrew month of Iyar, which in 1948 fell on May 14. The venue – Tel Aviv Museum’s tiny auditorium on 16 Rothschild Boulevard, in what previously was the home of the city’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff – was no one’s top choice. Jerusalem was besieged, while Tel Aviv’s Habima Theater was ruled out precisely because it was bigger and could accommodate more participants.

Even a marginally larger affair was reckoned undesirable for fear that publicity about when and where the Jewish state’s birth is slated to be announced would invite Egyptian air strikes. It was, therefore, thought advisable to keep everything hush-hush, make do with fewer honorary guests and cram them all into a minuscule hall (although the secrecy was quickly breached anyhow, in keeping with local proclivities).

The invitation (including a request to keep it confidential) was mimeographed and sent unsigned. The declaration itself was placed for safekeeping in a bank’s basement vault, lest it be destroyed by enemy bombardments. These indeed came, just hours afterward, at daybreak (of May 15, 1948).

As Israel’s masses danced in the streets on the night that followed the declaration of independence, Abdullah I, King of Transjordan (this brainchild of British imperialism now parades under the moniker of Jordan) positioned himself dramatically at the center of Allenby Bridge over the Jordan River. At the stroke of midnight, he pulled his ornate gilded pistol from its holster, held it up in the air and fired to signal the start of the Arab invasion. Its aim was to ethnically cleanse the land – or as it was then phrased non-too-diplomatically, to “throw the Jews into the sea.”

Israel’s thwarting of the genocide plotted against its people is now presented as a premeditated Israeli-instigated ethnic cleansing of Arabs. The capacity of the human mind to tolerate falsification cannot apparently be underestimated.

The battle plans called on the Jordanian-led Arab Legion, the Iraqis, Syrians and Lebanese to converge on the Jezreel Valley and from there move in a concerted offensive on Haifa. The Egyptians were assigned to take Tel Aviv from the south, with Yemeni and Saudi participation. But hubris caused deviations. Abdullah coveted Jerusalem and the Syrians focused on the Jordan Valley.

Still, the Arab generals who drew up the blueprints for neonatal Israel’s annihilation figured it would take two weeks to complete the job, deviations notwithstanding. They had compelling reason for optimism.

The infant state, assaulted ferociously from every direction and furiously fighting for its very life, possessed no resources or military hardware. Its population of 600,000 also comprised the old, the infirm and the very young – all hardly combat-worthy.

But these noncombatants nevertheless became the enemy’s primary targets. For three days, from May 15, Tel Aviv was mercilessly bombed by the Egyptian Air Force. Spitfires swooped down on the very section of Tel Aviv, where the Teti was moored. The first aerial pounding lasted three days. Its worst came on May 18 when the central bus terminal was bombarded, killing 41 civilians in only that one incident, wounding hundreds of others, inflicting severe damage in the heart of town and even hitting Tel Aviv’s beloved attraction – its one double-decker bus.

The Egyptian planes were back two days later. They would hound Tel Aviv well into late July. Fifty Tel Avivians were killed between July 13 and 16. Hadassah Hospital was among the targets, as were queues of shoppers – housewives and children. Even the Red Cross complained about “indiscriminate bombing of non-military targets.”

Hot on the heels of independence, the makeshift Israel Air Force challenged Egyptian pilots for supremacy of the skies. This, despite the fact that the IAF was assembled from an improvised mishmash of light civilian aircraft requisitioned from or contributed by their owners and precariously adapted for military purposes.

A curious assortment of outmoded and surplus WWII planes – as well as prewar antiques – were additionally acquired, mostly from Czechoslovakia. Israel’s air fleet was more than anything powered by ingenuity and sheer pluck – like the rest of the IDF.

Because its ragtag army stood its ground, despite the worst of odds, Israel is today accused of the crime of surviving and is portrayed as a menacing ogre for having dared to come into the world rather than surrender.

But it wasn’t without a terrifying price. Besides the hundreds of Tel Aviv’s casualties, the entire country bled profusely. The Old City of Jerusalem fell to Abdullah’s legionnaires on May 29 (the 1967 Israeli reversal of the Jordanian conquest is now dubbed “occupation”). The attempts to open the bottleneck blockade on the road to Jerusalem at Latrun loomed as young Israel’s most painful failure of the War of Independence.

The British had turned their hilltop Taggart Fort at the crucial Latrun junction to the Arabs who used it to besiege Jerusalem with an eye to emptying West Jerusalem too of its Jews.

When the War of Independence was finally over a year-and-a-half later, Israel mourned 6,000 dead, a full one-percent of the fledgling state’s population. But perhaps the most tragic sacrifice – alas, hardly atypical for that era – was epitomized by the Teti’s passengers. Many of them gave their lives for their country just one week after arriving on that fateful first day of independence.

The next morning they made their way to the encampment at Tel Aviv’s Kiryat Meir (at the end of today’s Zeitlin Street) where they enlisted in the IDF. Most – fresh off the boat, with Holocaust horrors still fresh in their minds – ended up in the Alexandroni Brigade and Division 7, which were dispatched to Latrun. The battlefield training they received consisted of a few instructions, generally incoherent to them, on the way to the front line.

April 24, 2015 | 2 Comments »

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  1. “ISRAEL always was a tiny country, home to a tiny people, yet what our ancestors achieved there transformed the spiritual horizon of humankind. It was there the prophets taught the worship of the one God whose children we are; there that Elijah spoke truth to power, Hosea told of God’s love, and Amos of His justice; there that Micah said: What does God ask of you but to act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with your God. It was there that King David sang psalms, and his son Solomon built the Temple. And though the people often fell short of the high ideals to which God had summoned them, in generation after generation there arose visionary men and women who recalled the people to their destiny as a holy people in the holy land. Their teachings never died, and have the power to inspire us still.”

    “JEWS have lived in almost every country under the sun. In four thousand years, only in Israel have they been a free, self-governing people. Only in Israel are they able, if they so choose, to construct an agriculture, a medical system, an economic infrastructure in the spirit of Torah and its concern for freedom, justice and the sanctity of life. Only in Israel can Jews speak the Hebrew of the Bible as the language of everyday speech. Only there can they live Jewish time within a calendar structured according to the rhythms of the Jewish year. Only in Israel can Jews live Judaism in anything other than an edited edition. In Israel, and only there, Jews can walk where the prophets walked, climb the mountains Abraham climbed, lift their eyes to the hills that David saw, and continue the story their ancestors began.”

    “IT is so ironic that Israel should be called an imperialist power. Israel is the only nation to have ruled the land in the past four thousand years that has not been an empire and never sought to become one. Israel has been ruled by many empires: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, the Ptolemies, Seleucids and Romans, the Byzantines, Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatimids, Crusaders, Mamlukes and Ottomans. The only non-imperial power to rule the land was and is Israel.”

    “ISRAEL remained the focus of Jewish hopes. Wherever Jews were, they built synagogues, each of which was a symbolic fragment of the Temple in Jerusalem. Wherever they were, they prayed about Jerusalem, facing Jerusalem. They remembered it and wept for it, as the psalm had said, at every time of joy. They never relinquished their claim to the land, and there were places, especially in the north, from which they never left. The Jewish people was the circumference of a circle at whose centre was the Holy Land and Jerusalem the holy city.”

    “THOUGH Israel has had to fight many wars, from the very beginning it sought peace. The Hebrew language has two words for strength: koach and gevurah. Koach is the strength you need to win a war. Gevurah is the courage you need to make peace. Israel has shown both kinds of strength. But peace is a duet not a solo. It cannot be made by one side alone. If it could, it would have been made long ago.”

    “THROUGH Israel, Hebrew, the language of the Bible, was reborn as a living tongue. Jewish communities under threat have been rescued, including those like the Jews of Ethiopia who had little contact with other Jews for centuries. Jews have come to Israel from over a hundred countries, representing the entire lexicon of cultural diversity. A desolate landscape has bloomed again. Jerusalem has been rebuilt. The world of Torah scholarship, devastated by the Holocaust, has been revived and the sound of learning echoes throughout the land. Economically, politically, socially and culturally, Israel’s achievements are unmatched by any country of its age and size. The sages said that, at the crossing of the Red Sea, the simplest Jew saw miracles that the greatest of later prophets were not destined to see. That, surely, was the privilege of those who witnessed Israel’s rebirth and youth. The messiah has not come. Israel is not yet at peace. The Temple has not been rebuilt. Our time is not yet redemption. Yet many, if not all, of the prayers of two thousand years have been answered. No one, reviewing this singular history, can doubt that faith makes a difference; that a nation’s history is shaped by what it believes.”

    “HOW do you live with the constant threat of violence and war? That takes faith. Israel is the people that has always been sustained by faith, faith in God, in the future, in life itself. And though Israel is a secular state, its very existence is testimony to faith: the faith of a hundred generations that Jews would return; the faith that led the pioneers to rebuild a land against seemingly impossible odds; the faith that after the Holocaust the Jewish people could live again; the faith that, in the face of death, continues to say: choose life.”

    “SOMEHOW, in ways I don’t fully understand, the Jewish people has been touched by a power greater than ourselves, that has led our ancestors and contemporaries, time and again, to defy the normal parameters of history. Somehow heaven and earth met in the Jewish heart, lifting people to do what otherwise seemed impossible. Descartes said: I think, therefore I am. The Jewish axiom is different. Ani maamin. I believe, therefore I am.”

    “THE journey is not yet over. Israel has not yet found peace. And after four thousand years Jews still find it hard to live their faith without fear. There is only one Jewish state, a country less that one quarter of one per cent of the land mass of the Arab world; the only place on earth where Jews form a majority, the only place where they are able to do what almost every other people takes for granted, to construct a society according to their values, and to be able to defend themselves. For every Jew alive today there are 100 Muslims, 183 Christians. Yet still we have to fight for the right to be.”

    “THE day will come, when the story of Israel in modern times will speak not just to Jews, but to all who believe in the power of the human spirit as it reaches out to God, as an everlasting symbol of the victory of life over death, hope over despair. Israel has achieved great things. It has taken a barren land and made it bloom again. It has taken an ancient language, the Hebrew of the Bible, and made it speak again. It has taken the West’s oldest faith and made it young again. Israel has taken a tattered, shattered nation and made it live again. Israel is the country whose national anthem, Hatikva, means hope. Israel is the home of hope.”

  2. Happy Independence Day!
    May you have many more.

    Ze’ev Jabotinsky understood the Arabs.


    . We may tell them whatever we like about the innocence of our aims, watering them down and sweetening them with honeyed words to make them palatable, but they know what we want, as well as we know what they do not want. They feel at least the same instinctive jealous love of Palestine, as the old Aztecs felt for ancient Mexico, and the Sioux for their rolling Prairies.

    To imagine, as our Arabophiles do, that they will voluntarily consent to the realisation of Zionism, in return for the moral and material conveniences which the Jewish colonist brings with him, is a childish notion, which has at bottom a kind of contempt for the Arab people; it means that they despise the Arab race, which they regard as a corrupt mob that can be bought and sold, and are willing to give up their fatherland for a good railway system.

    Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonised.

    Those are Jabotinsky’s words not mine.

    To you, the Jews, you see this as a promise fulfilled by God, brought about by the hard work of the Jewish people.

    As Jabotinsky noted, the Arabs saw themselves as being “colonised,” and as he noted, “Every native population in the world resists colonists.”

    What amazes me is that you would expect the Arabs to do anything else but resist.

    As Jabotinsky noted, “To imagine … that they will voluntarily consent to the realisation of Zionism … is a childish notion, which has at bottom a kind of contempt for the Arab people.”

    Again, Jabotinsky’s words, not mine.

    Yes, you saw the rebirth of Israel as the beginning of the redemption. The Arabs – as Jabotinsky noted – see it as “being colonised.”

    So, I ask you … who was right in their assessment of the Arab: The starry-eyed Zionists, or Jabotinsky who was a better judge of human nature?

    You may blame the Arabs who are responsible for cutting off the Jews lifeline of escape by forcing an end to Jewish immigration.

    There was nothing stopping the USA from taking the Jews, or South America, or Canada (Ask Ted how Canada cut off immigration) or England. These nations could have taken in Jews without surrendering their culture or sovereignty or becoming immediate minorities in their own countries.

    The Arabs of Palestine could not.

    To the Arab in Palestine (as it was called at that time) to take in Jews meant to accede to a surrender of sovereignty – as they perceived it. I know Ted will say they never had sovereignty, but Jabotinsky read the Arabs better. The Arabs perceived themselves as sovereign and would fight, as anyone would.

    It would have cost the USA, South America, Canada, Australia, very little to take in Jews, but the local Arabs in Palestine would have had to submit to being made an immediate minority. No one would agree to that.

    I am NOT defending the Arab, but just pointing out that other nations could be held more morally culpable. It would have been easier to America’s FDR to let in a million Jews than for the Arabs of Palestine.

    As Jabotinsky would have told you, the Arabs would not “voluntarily consent. … Every native population in the world resists colonists.”

    Hajj Amin al Husseini was a complete pig, but he did not speak for every Arab. Most Arabs did not like him. The Nashashibi clan – which were more compromising with the Zionists – despised al Husseini; and he had some of the Nashishibi clan killed.


    The Nashashibi family was considered to be politically moderate compared to the more militant views of the Husayni family. The Nashashibis favoured political, rather than violent, opposition to the British mandate and Zionism.[5] They were also willing to compromise in some areas that many Palestinians were not.

    Remember, it was the British Jew, Herbert Samuel , who put al-Husseini in power, not the Arabs.

    Did the Arabs like Hitler?

    Yes, so did Mannheim of Finland, which was a democracy. Russia has stolen Finnish territory and Mannheim of Finland allied with Hitler just to get back what Russia had stolen. Mannheim refused to turn over Finnish Jews to Hitler. Mannheim was not a tyrant. He just wanted back what Russia had stolen.

    Likewise, the Arabs were not in love with Britain. Neither was Avraham Stern.

    During the war, the Palestinian mobs were quiet for the most part, because of the White Paper. They felt that Britain had given the Arabs most of what the Arabs had wanted. Had it not been for the White Paper, the Palestinians would have revolted during the war inside Palestine, which would have been a disaster. Much of British oil came through Haifa. It would not have taken much effort for the Arabs to have destroyed the British war effort. For the most part, the Arabs kept quiet, as they saw the White Paper as an Arab victory. The British promised to leave them an Arab majority state in 1949.

    Believe it or not, some Palestinians joined the British Army. Yes, there were some Germans spies. They did not get far, and were turned in. They did less trouble to the British than the Stern gang.

    But the Palestinians were quiet during WWII because the British had given in. It was the Jewish underground which was violent during WW II.

    The attitude you have towards the Arabs is almost identical to the attitude Rome had towards the First century Jews. It is amazing.

    I am glad Israel won. May you have many more years to celebrate in peace.

    But do not condemn the Arab for being human. Jabotinsky did not.

    You can condemn the Arabs for their methods of resistance. But as Jabotinsky noted “Every native population in the world resists colonists.”

    Again, these are Jabotinsky’s words, not mine.

    I am glad Israel won, but what do you expect the Arab to do?

    Did the ancient Hasidim accept Greek or Roman colonization? The Zealots/Sicari murdered/killed/punished Romans and compromising Jews in the street. The Romans considered it terrorism.

    A dagger could worm its way through the crowd and kill a Jew who worked with the Roman, or kill a Roman official. In the mix, the hand which held the dagger retreated into the mob, and the hero/villain/freedom fighter/terrorist/murderer/avenger would get away in the panic.

    Sounds similar … huh?