When Barbara Tuchman Wondered How Conquest Will Affect the Jews

Historian Barbara Tuchman made a reporting trip to Israel right after the Six-Day War. Here's what she found

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Israeli soldiers celebrate their victory in the Six Day War, perched on half-tracks, 36 hours after the war began, June 8, 1967.
Israeli soldiers celebrate their victory in the Six Day War, perched on half-tracks, 36 hours after the war began, June 8, 1967. Credit: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
Nir Mann
Nir Mann

In the weeks leading up to Passover this year, Shosh Habas, 92, decided to go through her personal papers, and to transfer her private documents and letters connected to her government service to government archives. Habas was the bureau chief of the first two chiefs of staff of the Israel Defense Forces – Yaakov Dori and Yigael Yadin – in the army’s early years. Subsequently, she shifted her energies and bustling temperament to numerous volunteer projects.

Once Habas made the decision to give away her private papers, she began scanning them at home. During the digitization process, she discovered, to her surprise, a number of letters sent to her by the renowned historian Barbara Tuchman (1912-1989).

“Dear Shoshana,” Tuchman wrote in December 1967, “Thank you so much for the picture – I am delighted to have it as a memento of my adventures and of the kindness of you and your colleagues in helping me with all my arrangements. I hope you received the copy of my article (the first one), which I sent to you in September. I must have sent 20 or 30 copies to friends in Israel (including one to Col. Rappaport), but I often wonder if they were all received as I only heard in reply from very few.

“Please thank Col. Alroi for me if ever you have opportunity to write him and please send my best regards to Col. Rappaport if you should write to him. I am glad you are enjoying your work with the Agency and I hope to see you again when I come again someday to Israel. With very best wishes, Barbara Tuchman.”

What was your connection with Tuchman?

Historian Barbara Tuchman. Credit: BOB CHILD / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Habas: “During the Six-Day War, Colonel Ehud Rappaport-Efrat was appointed to be the liaison officer to foreign correspondents, under the aegis of the IDF Spokesman’s unit. He had an office at the Journalists House in Tel Aviv, and on the basis of our own friendship he asked me to assist him on a volunteer basis. When Barbara arrived in the country [after the fighting had finished], I was assigned to be with her, to accompany her, and she was extremely pleasant. Over the course of a few days she met with the generals and with Chief of Staff [Yitzhak] Rabin, and we were together the entire time. During her excursions around the country, a light plane was placed at her disposal, in order to be flown to IDF units, and wherever she went she asked the soldiers and the commanders a lot of questions. She was especially interested in hearing about the ‘waiting period’ [the days leading up to the outbreak of the war on June 5] and about the battles.”

Tuchman, the distinguished Jewish historian whose writing was much admired and respected by senior military officers here, did not make do with the guided tours she received along the front. The testimony of IDF soldiers, particularly the reservists, interested her no less than the briefings from commanders. The subject of a people’s army, with universal service, in a democratic state was very much on her mind, and at every such encounter she wanted to hear the voices of the simple soldiers. She spoke with them about the most elementary things – the sudden departure from home upon being called up, the concern of independent business owners about being able to provide for their families, the feelings of civilians who had overnight become soldiers operating within an occupied population, and about their thoughts regarding the future.

In the wake of her lengthy visit, which lasted several weeks, Tuchman published two articles that appeared in consecutive issues of the prestigious Atlantic Monthly magazine, entitled “Israel’s Swift Sword.” The subhead of the first article, which appeared in September 1967, three months after the war, noted that, “This report on the people, the planning and the mission of the Israeli armed forces comes with special appropriateness from the author of ‘The Guns of August,’ the memorable book about the opening of World War I.” That book, published in 1962, was not only a best seller, but had gained Tuchman fame in the worldwide community of historians.

“Mrs. Tuchman’s recounting of great plans gone awry and thousands sacrificed to human vanity and error in August, 1914, has become required reading among statesmen today,” the magazine continued. “Some of its chapters were included in training courses for the Israeli officers who engineered the victory over the Arabs. To compile this first of two articles for the Atlantic, Mrs. Tuchman went to Israel and interviewed Israeli officials and fighting men, from top commanders to privates.”

Indeed, “The Guns of August” and Tuchman’s 1958 book “The Zimmermann Telegram” (about a German diplomatic subterfuge meant to draw Mexico into World War I on its side) were “more or less required reading in the IDF’s Intelligence Corps, as well as at the Command and Staff College and the National Defense College, so I was very happy to get to meet the woman who wrote them,” reported the late Maj. Gen. Uzi Narkis, commander of the Central Command in the Six-Day War, in his autobiography, “Soldier of Jerusalem” (1991).

One year after the field trip that Narkis arranged for her along the Green Line (the cease-fire lines that constituted Israel’s border until the war) in 1966, during Tuchman’s post-war return trip, she met with him again, this time in the West Bank command HQ that had been quickly set up on Saladin Street in East Jerusalem. Several excerpts from Narkis’ comments in this on-the-record interview were quoted in Tuchman’s article.

The IDF high command placed its heaviest guns – in terms of officers – at Tuchman’s disposal in order to represent its grand victory. It may be noted that the approval and praise of the person so identified with her descriptions of the foolishness of war-making over the generations, imbued the sweeping victory with added academic value, something that enthralled the Israeli army generals and raised their military prestige.

Shosh Habas.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

One of the high points of the visit was a group interview with several generals conducted by Tuchman during lunch at the home of Military Intelligence chief Aharon Yariv. “We ate and we talked,” recalls IDF General (res.) Amos Horev today. “Ahraleh Yariv, Avraham Yoffe and others. Through the questions she posed, she demonstrated complete mastery of the material and she was very fundamental in her focus placed on the significant issues. She dug deep into the subject of geography and was inquisitive about what I had to say about the arms embargo imposed on Israel, and its diplomatic aspects. I was astonished at the high level of her expertise when she related to the war from a position of research observation.”


Horev: “The feeling was that we could not compare to her, when it came to the overall historic perspective with which she assessed the global strategy. Some historians criticized her because she was a journalist who never earned more than a bachelor’s degree, but her status as a scientific researcher was at a peak within the community [of professional historians]. When I was president of the Technion [Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa], I witnessed this with my own eyes, when I sat with her on a panel at an academic conference in Boston.”

In her Atlantic article, Tuchman wrote that on the eve of the Six-Day War, geography was working against the Israelis. “They had no natural obstacles on which to base a defense, no territory to yield, and no room to retreat. Unlike larger countries, they could not afford mistakes like that of France in 1914 or rebound from an initial disaster like Dunkirk or Pearl Harbor. This fact dictated a strategy, should it become necessary, of carrying war to the enemy, and the initial strike could not be allowed to fail.”

Wrote Tuchman: “‘Once inside Israel,’ said General Amos Horev, Deputy Chief Scientist of the IDF, who looks more like a Yale oarsman than a general officer, ‘the Arabs would have cut us to ribbons.’”

Power of the Jewish mind

In the article’s preface, the historian wrote, “A people considered for centuries nonfighters carried out in June against long odds the most nearly perfect military operation in modern history. Surrounded on three sides, facing vast superiority in numbers and amount of armament, fighting alone against enemies supported and equipped by a major power, and having lost the advantage of surprise, they accomplished the rarest of military feats, the attainment of exact objectives – in this case the shattering of the enemy’s forces and the securing of defensible lines – within a given time and with absence of blunder. The war, which taken as a whole was the greatest battle ever fought in this area, shook the world, leaving local and international balances in new focus, incidentally rescuing the United States from a critical position, and, not the least of effects, exposing a profound failure of Russian calculations and presumably of military intelligence.”

“What furnished capacity primarily was that the brain power with which this people was endowed was channeled for the first time since the Exile into the military art in defense of their own homeland,” she continued.

Later, she noted, “The IDF is the nation, not a section of it. Bus drivers became tank drivers and are now back on their local routes. A supermarket manager who commanded a battalion in Sinai and captured an Egyptian general has returned to his groceries. Even one divisional commander was a reservist – General Avram Yoffe, who is Parks Commissioner in civil life. The kibbutzim, representing six to seven percent of the population, with their long commitment to the land and strong ideological tradition, provided fifty percent of the officers and twenty-five percent of casualties....”

“The major surprise was the performance of the ‘espresso’ generation in their twenties, mistrusted by their elders, who considered that they had discarded the old ideals and sat around in the cafés over espresso, long on apathy and short on dedication. In the test it was these young men who carried the bulk of the combat with a fierce commitment that was as important to the nation as the victory itself.

A letter Barbara Tuchman sent Shosh Habas in December 1967.

“Regional organization of units gave added incentive in battle, as in the Northern Command, when men fighting the Syrians were defending or avenging their own frequently shelled villages. Wherever they came from, said one officer, “whether from the Galilee, Tel Aviv, or the Negev, each man fought as if everything depended on him.”

“Its spearhead was the Air Force,” Tuchman wrote later in the article, “which established the conditions of victory – Air Chief General Mordecai Hod prefers to say ‘won the war,’ but that seems unfair to the ground forces – in eighty minutes. ‘We planned and trained eighteen years for those eighty minutes,’ he says, sparkling with pride. As commander of a performance of spectacular brilliance and sensational success, he cannot hold in his delight.... Before succeeding to the command, Hod was for five years deputy commander under his no less exuberant predecessor, Ezer Weizman, and they are much alike in style. Weizman, nephew of Israel’s first President, was born in Tel Aviv and [Mordechai] Hod in Israel’s oldest kibbutz, Degania A in the Galilee. At forty, [Hod] still flies every week with one of his squadrons, feeling that he must be able to do himself whatever he demands of them.”

Fifty years after the article was composed, the concluding sentence of that first part is evidence of Tuchman’s greatness as a historian blessed not only with brilliant analytic skill, but also, and primarily, with a rare capacity to foresee future core issues. After having bestowed praise on the military accomplishments of the IDF, she uncannily identified the long-range strategic perspective of its chief of staff. “General Rabin, the quiet, thoughtful man who led the IDF in this attainment, was the first to recognize its burden. In his speech on Mount Scopus after the victory, he said, ‘The Jewish people are not accustomed to conquest, and we receive it with mixed feelings.’ What they will make of it and what conquest will make of them is the question that remains.”

Captain Shosh

Shosh Habas, née Teplitz-Tamir, born in the winter of 1925, is a lifelong Tel Avivian, who sat on the lap of poet Haim Nachman Bialik as a young child. “In my youth, I enlisted with my friends in the Haganah,” she says, referring to the pre-state Jewish defense force, “and simultaneously we were drafted into the British Mandate police force. As we swore allegiance to the king of Great Britain, George VI, at the police headquarters on Mohilever Street, we silently hissed that he should go to hell. In 1946, I left for art studies in Geneva, and stayed there for two years. During that time, I worked at the Jewish Agency secretariat in the city, including at the Zionist Congresses, and I acquired knowledge and experience in office work. At the outbreak of the War of Independence, I was drafted into the Home Guard, and underwent in-service training in first aid and weapons use. At the hand-grenade range in Husmasa, in the sand dunes east of Holon, I threw a live grenade a distance of four meters, and Yitzhak Pundak, the instructor at the range, yelled at me for having nearly killed everyone.”

Following a platoon commanders course in Ben Shemen, Habas was assigned to the Haganah’s recruiting office, in Tel Aviv. The battalion commander of the Home Guard, Tze’ira Lehrman, who was acquainted with Habas’ office skills, transferred her to the secretariat of the Supreme Command at the “Red House” on Hayarkon Street. “Arranged around the secretariat on the entrance level were the rooms of [then-Jewish Agency chairman David] Ben-Gurion, Israel Galili – head of the national headquarters – and commanders on the General Staff of the Haganah. I remember Col. David Marcus [‘Mickey’ Marcus, a former U.S. Army officer who assisted the nascent IDF until his death in an accident in June 1948], who was so sweet and polite. Following the declaration of independence, we moved to ‘the Hill’ in Ramat Gan, and in August 1948, Yaakov Dori, the [first] chief of staff, arrived in the General Staff camp.”

Where was he until then?

“He had an ulcer and he was lying in bed at his home, in Haifa. For the nine most critical months of the war, there was no chief of staff, and Galili and Yadin in effect ran the General Staff. I was appointed to set up the bureau of the chief of staff, and Ezra Omer was appointed to be the adjutant to the chief of staff. I was given four clerk-soldiers for the office, an older stenographer, two switchboard operators and a driver. Later on they also added a young messenger boy. The messenger, Yeruham, was a boy of 16 from the Yemenite quarter of Tel Aviv, who used to freely enter the General Staff meetings, in the middle of a discussion, and ask the chief of staff, ‘Yigael, want tea?’”

What did you do as bureau chief?

“When Dori was there, I filled all of the roles in the bureau. Once Yadin arrived, he put things in order, and in April 1950 he learned that there was no documentation in his bureau about the battles of the War of Independence. The IDF Archive was in the cellar of the Kupat Holim [HMO] building near Dizengoff Square, because once the state was established, the infrastructure of the General Labor Federation’s buildings served for the formation of the IDF and the defense establishment. Yadin instructed me to gather material about the battles from all the heads of the divisions in the General Staff, from the brigade commanders and from the IDF Archive, and to organize the dated files in a special room within the bureau of the chief of staff. Subsequently, this material served the historian Netanel Lorch in writing his book on the history of the War of Independence.”

Shosh Habas (center back) with Yigael Yadin and David Ben-Gurion in Eilat.

Capt. Shosh Tamir-Habas served for three-and-a-half years on the General Staff, during which time she married the chemist Abraham Habas, who was working on his PhD at the Sieff Research Institute (predecessor of the Weizmann Institute) in Rehovot under Chaim Weizmann, who in addition to being a Zionist leader who became Israel’s first president, was also a world-class chemist. Habas did not complete his doctorate because he was drafted into the Haganah; he later became one of the founders of the IDF Science Corps. Shosh Habas resigned from the army during her fifth month of pregnancy, in 1952, and thereafter devoted herself to her family and numerous volunteer activities.

“When I was young, I attended the debut concert of [what became the Israel] Philharmonic Orchestra [in 1936], conducted by Toscanini at the Levant Fair,” she recalls, adding that she also worked as a volunteer for many years in the orchestra’s archive.

"Art plays a significant part of my life," adds Habas. "I was interested in continuing the studies that I began during my youth in Geneva, but there were no appropriate tracks available for working women. Remarkably, I discovered a group of kibbutzniks who studied one day a week at the Avni Institute [of Art and Design]. I studied painting with them for 16 years under Yehezkel Streichman, Moshe Proppes and other acclaimed painters.”

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