Testament of Youth

"Gadna Jerusalem in 1948," edited by Yehoshua Arieli, Defense Ministry Publishing House, 208 pages, NIS 69; "The Gadna in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem" by Shaul Tuval, Zionist Library, 114 pages, NIS 50.

Uri Dromi
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Uri Dromi

For years, the story of the events of the 1948 War of Independence in Jerusalem was dominated by the Palmach, the pre-state commando unit of the Haganah defense force. The battle of San Simon, the Castel, the attempt to enter the Old City - these were the dramatic benchmarks that posited the Palmach as the savior of Jerusalem and overshadowed the rest. Haganah veterans in Jerusalem felt all along that they did not get the recognition they deserved because their part in the campaign in the city had been played down. They felt their important contribution - even if it was not as glamorous as that of the Palmach - had been downplayed, not least because of the ability of the Palmachniks ("We are always first," as their marching song went) to situate themselves effectively in the front line of the war's historiography.

The two volumes of "The Haganah in Jerusalem" did not appear until 25 years after the war, and by that time could not easily make inroads into the historical consciousness that had long since been shaped and entrenched. They were unable to improve the perception that the Haganah forces in Jerusalem - the field force and the guard force - were less effective, that they had the role of doing the dirty work of "holding the ground" after the Palmach charged, burst through and conquered the site.

Some justice was done to the Haganah effort in Jerusalem, albeit very late, with the publication in 1986 of "Tisha Kabin" by Yitzhak Levy, who was the head of Shai (the Haganah's intelligence unit) in Jerusalem and afterward the commander of the Jerusalem Brigade. Levy had personal reasons to be angry with the Palmach: Near Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim, outside Jerusalem, a group of Palmachniks relieved him of his jeep and even beat him up. Nevertheless, he succeeded in creating a balanced picture in which, alongside the tremendous weight of the Palmach in the battle for Jerusalem, the saga of the Haganah forces in those trying times is described in full.

Lack of documentation

Not long ago, memoirs of Haganah veterans in Jerusalem were published ("Jerusalem in 1948: Accounts of Haganah Veterans"). The female fighters in the city also told their story ("In the Haganah and the Women's Corps: The Female Fighters in Jerusalem in the War of Independence"). Only one aspect of the battle for Jerusalem was left without proper historical documentation: the story of the Gadna (pre-military youth battalions) as a fighting force in the city. The two books under review set out to fill that gap.

The late Yehoshua Arieli, the commander of the Gadna in Jerusalem in 1948 and later a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, devoted his last years to collecting the material for the book, and when he felt he was no longer up to the task, he entrusted its completion to his former subordinates: Prof. Mordechai Rotenberg, Eli Zohar (Lichtenstein) and Eliezer Shmueli. Arieli died before the book was published, and the editors have dedicated it to their admired commander.

When the war erupted, Jerusalem was able to commit about 3,000 men and women to the fray; so 3,000 trained youngsters (half of them from the Gadna, the others graduates of Hagam, or "reinforced physical education") constituted a substantial boost. From his headquarters at Sheikh Badr - adjacent to the site of the present-day Knesset building - which was known, and is still known, as Givat Ram (ram being the Hebrew acronym for "concentration of commanders," and also meaning high point, while giva is a hill), Arieli fought with school principals to permit their students to take part in the unit's activity; with the district commander David Shaltiel for materiel; and with the Haganah, which constantly siphoned off his best instructors. He also made every effort, like a mother bird protecting its newborn, not to expose them to unnecessary danger.

One of the most interesting efforts of the Gadna in Jerusalem was the Sela battalion, headed by Eliezer Shmueli, who later became director general of the Education Ministry. The battalion consisted of youngsters from underprivileged neighborhoods. Writing in the battalion's bulletin, Avraham Artzi noted the event: "Look! A revolution has occurred. Youths from the [poor] neighborhoods, working youths, are marching among the ranks of the affluent. Let us not belittle the youths from the city's suburbs! They work hard and their living conditions are harsh. Let us not set them apart! We shall accept them with love into the ranks of the Gadna and with united forces, we shall strive for a happy future for us all in our free country."

If during the period of the British Mandate the Gadna engaged in sticking posters on city walls and in training, once fighting erupted its members were called upon to go into action. One of the first targets they were sent to, in April 1948, was the village of Deir Yassin, on the western edge of Jerusalem, which had just been attacked by the Etzel and Lehi Jewish underground groups. Arieli, one of Jerusalem's great humanists, had to walk through the homes in the village and survey the bodies, and then have the youths in his units bury them. Gadna units also took part in guarding checkpoints and were used as messengers, often at great risk: Gadna member Tova Beck (Goldman) lost part of her arm in a shelling attack by Jordan's Arab Legion, on the way to delivering a message from the Beit Yisrael neighborhood, near the Old City, to the Jewish Agency's headquarters in the city center.

Greatest test

The Gadna's greatest test came following Israel's establishment, in May 1948, when the Arab Legion entered the city. From Mandelbaum House and nearby Rosenthal House, on the border with East Jerusalem, Gadna forces opened fire at armored vehicles of the Legion that made their way toward the new city. The armored vehicles retreated, and the next day's papers announced with great excitement: "The Gadna saves Jerusalem!" The Gadna also scored a great achievement at Notre Dame, a monastery opposite the Old City walls, near city hall, when, together with a guard force unit under the command of Netanel Lorch (later a military historian), its forces repulsed an Arab Legion assault in a battle that involved hand-to-hand combat and an exchange of grenades. Twenty-nine Gadna instructors and members were killed in the fighting in Jerusalem.

One of the most extraordinary episodes involved the fighting of the Gadna in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City - the subject of the book by Shaul Tuval (Tawil), a teacher in a Sephardi religious school in the Old City and the organizer of the Gadna force in the Jewish Quarter. Along with describing the fighting, he seeks to redress the wrong that he feels was done to "the children of the Old City," a phrase that was synonymous with poor children who were perceived as being economically, socially and culturally inferior. He dedicates the book to the group of youngsters "that did the work and recorded a magnificent chapter of dramatic heroism in the difficult battle for Jerusalem in 1948."

Indeed, the descriptions of the participation of the Gadna youngsters in the defense of the besieged Jewish Quarter - and more especially, the 16 days of fighting until the fall of the Old City - are moving. These boys and girls were the No. 2's of the soldiers, and manned the handful of machine guns in the Jewish Quarter, evacuated the wounded to Misgav Ladach Hospital, relayed messages and served the fighters hot meals under fire. Tuval maintains that the fierce and relatively protracted fighting pinned down the Arab Legion in the Jewish Quarter and prevented it from beefing up its forces across from the new city, thus determining the eastern boundary of Jewish Jerusalem. When the Jewish Quarter fell and Tuval, along with a few of his cadets, was taken captive by the Jordanians, they were able to look the fighters of the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements in the eye, because they had fought no less heroically.

In his memoirs, Field Marshal Montgomery noted that most official histories of wars are written in a fine style that charms the reader, but leave out many crucial matters - especially anything liable to hint that the commanders made even the smallest of mistakes. As a result, one can learn nothing from them, Montgomery concluded.

In fact, the official history of the war in Jerusalem did not single out anyone as being to blame for the fall of the Jewish Quarter to the Arab Legion, or for other mistakes in the conduct of the fighting. For that, it was necessary to wait for two non-Israelis, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, whose book "O Jerusalem" pointed to the "bad guy" in the story: district commander David Shaltiel. According to Collins and Lapierre, the person whom David Ben-Gurion chose for one of the most sensitive positions in 1948 had never commanded a force larger than a platoon, and the first serious engagement he fought was not with members of the gangs of Abd al-Qader al-Husseini, but with officials of the Jewish Agency in order to get more rooms allocated to his headquarters. Yitzhak Levy is even blunter: "He was not a genuine commanding officer."

Tubal, too, is not writing an official history, but because he was in the Jewish Quarter at the time, he was cut off from developments outside and did not know that Shaltiel had failed to exploit the fact that the Palmach had breached Zion Gate in order to push into the Jewish Quarter. He therefore points the finger of blame at a closer target, the leadership of the Jewish Quarter, which already on the first day of the attack by the Palestinian irregulars - even before the appearance of the Arab Legion - was quick to "implore the district command and asked three times within 20 minutes (4:10 P.M.-4:30 P.M.) for permission to surrender and for instructions on how to surrender." The leadership was not worthy of its fighters, including Tubal's Gadna forces.

The two books are riveting testimony to the mobilization of young people and to their readiness to sacrifice all, including their lives, for a just national cause.

Uri Dromi is director of publications for the Israel Democracy Institute.