To read the epilogue of this book about the siege of Jerusalem during the war that created the State of Israel one would almost think it was written today. Unfortunately, it was written in 1972.
“The Arab states displayed no haste to succor their suffering brothers. The Lebanese, afraid that the predominantly Moslem refugees would upset their nation’s delicate balance between Christian and Moslem, persistently refused them. The Egyptians kept them crowded into the Gaza Strip. Syria and Iraq, whose resources made them the countries best equipped to receive the refugees, turned their backs on them. Only Jordan, poorest of the Arab states, made a genuine effort to welcome them into its ranks.”
The balance in Lebanon is today mostly historic. As with the Syrian refugees today, the Jordanians were relatively welcoming. The same cannot be said for Europe’s and the U.S.’ acceptance of Jewish refugees. In 1946 Congress permitted only 4,767 Jewish refugees. Israel was a convenience. Ironically, it is part of Hitler’s legacy.
Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre at the outset of “O Jerusalem” quote from Hebrew Psalm 137, Christian Matthew 23:37, and The Hadith of Mohammed. Each sanctified Jerusalem as an inseparable core of faith, culture and history. It is a pawn in a continuing global power play.
While the book is balanced and does not shy away from the Irgun’s crimes against humanity at Deir Yassin, it is predominantly told from the perspective of the Jews. The Arab sources are principally government and military, without direct narratives from Arab villagers. Both sides suffered from internal infighting and lack of organization. Each were reasonably adept as terrorists, and less so as a military force. In most cases each seem to snatch defeat from victory. The authors consistently attribute the Arab failure to the irregular Arab forces who were more intent on looting then on achieving their intended goal. The Arab leaders were incompetent. Substituting hyperbole for planning. The Arab Legionnaires, substantially backed by the British, are comparatively well-regarded. The Israelis also had their issues with the terrorist Irgun and the Stern Gang. Unlike the more disciplined Palmach, their interest was supplanting the Haganah. This ultimately led to a battle between the two, when Menahem Begin sought to displace Ben-Gurion.
The politics in “O Jerusalem” is the most interesting. The British aligned with the Arabs. They shared a history and oil reserves and the Suez Canal held more sway than Jewish refugees from concentration camps. The U.S. was split. The State Department was against the establishment of Israel. It too had less interest in refugees, particularly given it historic negativity toward Jews. President Truman was indecisive, but as history spun from personalities and accidents, Truman ultimately favored support after meeting with his Jewish partner from his Missouri haberdashery. The U.S. in the end leaned on the British, who at a critical time for the Arabs,agreed to a cease-fire between the combatants and withheld munitions when the Israel was being replenished from desperation to dominance. King Abdullah ibn-Hussein el Hashimi, the King of Transjordan, was not adverse to the State of Israel. In part, because he wanted to consolidate his holdings and obtain a port, and in part, because he did not believe that the other nations (Egypt, Syria, and Iraq) had the capacity to win. Golda Meir and the King met in secret before the war to try to negotiate a settlement. Having successfully raised vital funds for Israel to buy munitions, she could not achieve an agreement, in part due to the Jerusalem issue.
Fiction is often dwarfed by history. In the book the irony and strength of the human condition is illustrated numerous times. The Jewish inhabitants in the Old Quarter, survivors of the death camps, come to Israel for salvation, but during the siege have their rations cut to that which they lived on in the camps. The refugees who sold everything they owned to come to Israel, without knowledge about where they are being sent, and without military training, are sent unprepared into battle to be slaughtered.
The book conveys interesting facts. General Walter Bedell Smith, General Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff during WWII, and other U.S. military officials volunteered to go to Israel to aid it. The Defense Department vetoed the trip. General Smith had been Ambassador to Russia, and was later Director of the CIA and Under-Secretary of State. A traditional Catholic, it is hard to imagine him volunteering without some operational reasons. The authors’ source for this fact is not stated in the notes.
Given the right of return issue, how many Arabs left Jerusalem in the first weeks following partition remains in dispute. The numbers range from 350,000 to 1,000,000. Ben-Gurion had agreed to the return of 100,000 upon the signature of the peace treaty. Some who left were upper and middle class, who went to Lebanon believing it to be temporary and preferring to avoid the fight. Like them but for religious reasons the Orthodox Jewish community had no interest in fighting. They did not, and many still do not, believe Israel is the Jewish State and were relatively comfortable living with their Arab neighbors. Several times they were intent on surrendering Jerusalem and were told by the Haganah they would be shot if they tried to do so. These tensions with certain elements of the Orthodox community still exist. It provides some support to Iranian distinction between Zionism and Judaism from a cultural vantage point.
There is a certain cynicism that comes from reading this history. Is the conflict a mere convenience for States in need of political distraction and markets for weaponry. Can the Arab States afford to have Israel not exist? Will the instability of the Arab States erode the Faustian bargain to the Arab masses?
For Israel the next few years may be its most treacherous. It knows that it cannot rely on any other country, including the U.S., upon which it is dependent. Europe and China need Iranian and other Middle Eastern resources and have no natural lobby for Israel as the U.S. does. Israel’s military superiority while partly a strategic decision of U.S., Europe and Russia is less accountable for its success than the lack of discipline and infighting of the Arab States. It has a temporary reprieve in Egypt and Syria, but that could rapidly change. Demographics are against it. The occasional tolerance that existed between Arabs and the minority Jewish population will likely not return between Palestinians and Israelis. When war is local, the family hatred becomes generational.
“O Jerusalem” is an interesting read and brings perspective to current events.