Will We Ever Find Out What the Censor Left Out?

In Tom Segev's final column, he continues to shine a light on missing chapters of Israeli history.

On September 26, 1948, the Israeli cabinet discussed Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion's proposal that the Israel Defense Forces capture the southern portion of what is now called the West Bank - specifically, from Ramallah to Hebron and west to Latrun, as well as the Jericho region. The minutes of that cabinet meeting are available to the public and can be viewed in the reading room of the Israel State Archives in Jerusalem. Some lines in the minutes are still classified, so the words have been replaced by rows of dots.

Rabbi Yitzhak-Meir Levin, leader of the Agudat Yisrael party and Israel's first minister of social welfare, participated in the discussion. Two lines of what he said are classified. What could this ultra-Orthodox politician have said that warrants those lines being considered top secret even today?

For years, the archive has been publishing documents stored in its files, and the books it puts out are noteworthy for their careful scholarly editing. Recently, the archive has also begun disseminating selected materials on the Web. This is, of course, an admirable initiative and is also the practice of the national archives of other countries. In order to preserve democracy in their country, its citizens must know their history. Thus, there must be a good reason why the archive is keeping the words of politicians such as Rabbi Levin classified.

Although it is not easy to obtain uncensored minutes of cabinet sessions, the mission is by no means impossible. In this particular instance, an examination of the uncensored minutes that the state decided to conceal from the eyes of history reveals what Levin said: "True, all the Gentiles absolutely hate us. The words of the verse 'Pour out Thy wrath upon the nations that know Thee not' [Psalms 79:6] became a reality on one occasion. This is the verse we recite each year on Passover [during the Passover Seder]."

"Wow!" an amazed historian might be expected to exclaim. "So that's what Social Welfare Minister Levin actually said!" If Levin used this argument in order to explain his support for Ben-Gurion's proposal to have the IDF capture the southern portion of the West Bank, there might perhaps be justification in censoring his remarks so that it would not appear that he was calling for a Jewish holy war against the Arabs. However, Levin voted against the proposal - as did the majority of the members of cabinet. The fact that his remarks are still classified is even more interesting than the actual statement he made, although, in those same cabinet minutes, an entire section of what Ben-Gurion said is censored and its classification as top secret distorts the history of Israel's War of Independence.

In his war diary, Ben-Gurion writes: "There was a discussion of our situation vis-a-vis the UN [United Nations] and my proposal for the capture of Latrun." The cabinet rejected the proposal, by a majority of one, and Ben-Gurion angrily comments: "Fortunately, these people were not required to vote on most of the actions that were undertaken that year." He would later describe the rejection of the proposal as a decision that "will be regretted for generations."

This story was made public in 1962. Ben-Gurion was already nearing the end of his political career, and his nerves were stretched tight over the endless debates concerning the "Lavon Affair" of 1954, the fiasco of the failed covert Israeli mission in Egypt. The story's publication, which was apparently intended to bolster Ben-Gurion's status in comparison with his colleagues' weak-kneed approach, led to an exchange of letters with Haaretz journalist Dr. Shlomo Gross, who wrote under the pseudonym "Poless."

"You are not like those journalists who show a lack of responsibility and fair play," Ben-Gurion writes Gross, with justification, and explains the nature of his proposal. "Although it was not absolutely certain, there was sufficient likelihood," he notes, in his assumption that most of the Arabs in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron and Jericho would flee. However, Ben-Gurion was not telling Gross the whole story.

From his letter, the impression is that Ben-Gurion's description of the rejection of his proposal as a decision that "will be regretted for generations" refers solely to the idea of capturing Latrun and the southern portion of the West Bank. Actually, Ben-Gurion proposed an end to the war's second truce, which had gone into effect in late July 1948, and a renewal of the fighting. "I would not have regretted it if it [the battles for Latrun, that spring and summer] would have led to battles all over the country," he writes.

Ben-Gurion's words at this cabinet session are recorded on five of the pages of the minutes and are available for public scrutiny. Eight lines of what he said then remain classified and have been replaced by rows of dots. History is not being allowed to know what Ben-Gurion said at that cabinet session about the Galilee's 100,000 Arab residents, some of whom were refugees of villages that witnessed the departure of their inhabitants: "If war broke out, we would then be able to clear the entire central Galilee with one fell swoop. But we cannot empty the central Galilee - that is, including the [Arab] refugees - without a war going on. The Galilee is full of [Arab] residents; it is not an empty region. If war breaks out throughout the entire country, this would be advantageous for us as far as the Galilee is concerned because, without having to make any major effort - we could use just enough of the force required for the purpose without weakening our military efforts in other parts of the country - we could empty the Galilee completely."

Contrary to the impression created by Ben-Gurion, what the cabinet rejected was not a limited military action in Latrun and the southern part of the West Bank but rather the renewal of fighting all over the country and the deportation of 100,000 Arab residents.

In his letter to Gross, Ben-Gurion argues that the opposition of cabinet members to his proposal was political, not military, in nature. "As far as I can recall, no one said that we could not carry out such a mission," he writes.

Here again, he is not precise. Interior Minister Haim-Moshe Shapira, leader of the religious Zionist movement and head of the National Religious Party, was not certain that an Israeli victory was assured, and asserted, "If, in all the wars conducted on this planet, it were possible to lead all the armies according to plan, no nation on earth would ever lose a war."

The tragedy of the Arabs of the Galilee was postponed for another few weeks, but there is some consolation - even if it might be tinted with illusion - in the fact that Ben-Gurion's proposal to deport 100,000 human beings was rejected by the cabinet. This is a fitting thought on which to end the writing of this column. To my readers, I want to say: "I have very much enjoyed your company. Thank you."

David Ben-Gurion at his home in Sde Boker in 1968.
Fritz Cohen / GPO