September 19, 2018

The Truth of Deir Yassin

Eliezer Tauber is an Israeli academic who specializes in the modern history of the Middle East. In the past decade, he dedicated a lot of time to writing a book about the so-called “massacre of Deir Yassin.” The result was a book arguing that there was no massacre in Deir Yassin. A detailed account of a fateful day, minute by minute, hour by hour. A convincing account. I’d be surprised to find any scholar whose familiarity with this event is more intimate. Tauber knows the names of everybody, he knows the time and the place where everybody was fighting, or hiding, or wounded, or killed.

What happened in Deir Yassin in April 9, 1948, became a seminal event of Israel’s War of Independence. This Palestinian village was located to the west of Jerusalem, and was attacked by Jewish fighters of the Irgun, one of Israel’s pre-state underground forces (the main force, Haganah, was the established force; Irgun was an opposition force, under the leadership of Menachem Begin).

The battle was bloody and many Arabs were killed, including women and children. It was followed by a propaganda campaign, claiming that what happened in Deir Yassin was a massacre. This campaign was very much responsible for the decision by many thousands of Arabs to flee their homes. Their decedents are today’s Palestinian “refugees.”

What really happened in Deir Yassin? Tauber is not the first scholar to argue that the large-scale massacre story is a myth. Professor Yoav Gelber, in “Palestine 1948: War, Escape and the Emergence of the Palestinian Refugee Problem,” makes a similar claim. Still, Tauber was more thorough than all of his predecessors in looking into this specific day of carnage. The result is a gripping narrative.

Was the massacre a myth? That depends on one’s definition of massacre.

Deir Yassin in Tauber’s account doesn’t depict a day of poorly organized battle, with confusion playing a role in making a bad day even worse. He counts one clear case of unjustified shooting. An Arab family evacuated a house in surrender. An Irgun fighter opened fire while his commander was shouting at him, “What are you doing? Stop it!” This incident, Tauber believes, gave credence to later overblown stories of larger-scale massacre, rape, mutilation and barbarity.

But the myth was perpetrated not because of confusion. It was a deliberate attempt by the Palestinian leadership to force the Arab militaries of surrounding countries to intervene in the battle over Palestine. The leaders of the Palestinians sowed a wind and reaped a whirlwind. More than convincing the Arab states to intervene (they eventually did), they convinced their fellow Palestinians to flee.

Why am I telling you this story? Because there is no other way for you — Americans — to know about it. Professor Tauber believed that his story would be of great interest to American publishers. He contacted university presses in the United States, and their response left him stunned. A representative of an elite university wrote back: “While everyone agreed on the book’s many strengths, in the end the consensus was that the book would only inflame a debate where positions have hardened.” Another one wrote: “We could sell well to the right-wing community here but we would end up with a terrible reputation.” Apparently, a book questioning the Palestinian narrative is not a book that American universities feel comfortable publishing.

One American media outlet found Tauber’s account worthy of a review: the online Mosaic magazine. The review rightly included the sober conclusion: “It’s hard to believe that Tauber’s book will put an end to the use of Deir Yassin for propaganda and political purposes. Myths take on a life of their own and historical facts are but background sets for them.” If you need any proof of that, just look at what an American publisher had to say about that review: “Of course Mosaic loved it, they tend to be to the right of Attila …”

Maybe.

Maybe Mosaic is to the “right of Attila.” Maybe Tauber is a right-wing hack. But what about his argument — the facts, the research? Is this a worthy contribution to the debate that will never end about Deir Yassin? As a reader of Tauber, and of all the many responses to his book and of many other books describing this event, I have no doubt that it is. Was the massacre a myth? That depends on one’s definition of massacre, and on having all the facts set straight. The facts that no one provides with as much detail as does Tauber (and yes, he is still looking for an American publisher).


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.