The Makings of History / Masada of the North

From the summer through the winter of 1942 it looked like the forces of the German general Erwin Rommel might breach the British army lines in Egypt and invade Palestine. Had happened, the Germans would presumably have sent the Jews then living in the country to their annihilation, as they did in the countries they occupied in Europe. A few of the leaders of the Jewish public, among them Berl Katznelson and Yitzhak Tabenkin, and with them several leaders of the Haganah, convened to discuss what to do. They agreed that surrender was by no means a possibility. Thus was born the Northern Plan, also known as the Haifa Plan. The idea was to hole up on Mt. Carmel with the hope of hanging on until British forces could take back the country.

One of the fathers of this idea was Yaakov Dori, supreme commander of the Haganah and later the first chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Mordechai Naor, who has just published a comprehensive biography of Dori in Hebrew ("The First Chief of Staff," from Modan Publishing and Ma'arachot Press ), repeats the story of the Northern Plan as though it was an actuality.

Yaakov Dori - Eldan David - 20012012
Eldan David

He is not the only one: On the website of the Center for Educational Technology you can read that the plan was that if the British left the country, "the Jewish population would be consolidated in the Carmel region and defend itself there." The website reflects much of what the children of Israel learn in school. In this case they learn that had the Wehrmacht invaded Palestine, it would have encountered resistance, in the spirit of the principle that you must neither surrender nor retreat. The implication is that it was only because the Germans in the end did not reach the country that they were spared defeat at the hands of the Hebrew defending forces. Several Haganah members committed to paper all sorts of ideas that looked like fortification plans, and they even went out to inspect the Carmel. Meanwhile there was much talk of the brave stands of the cities Tobruk and Sevastopol, in Libya and Ukraine respectively, which the Nazis had trouble conquering. Again and again there was mention of the heroic Armenians who entrenched themselves on Musa Dagh in 1915, and there was also talk of Masada, of course. Yisrael Galili wrote: "This idea has in it to excite and establish a large Hebrew fighting force. There is a political and historically symbolic significance of great value and grandeur to the war of the Jews, together with the British, for the defense of Haifa."

The Northern Plan bequeathed to subsequent generations a myth of determination and bravery, but as the historian Yoav Gelber has shown, it was a fantasy. The Jewish public in the country would have been utterly helpless to block the German advance on its own. No one knew whether to prepare for an invasion from the south, through the desert, or from the north, through Syria, or from the sea.

There was no surety that the British would be able to regain control of the land, if it did fall into the Germans' hands, and there was no certainty that they would make its conquest a high priority. In the meantime, the leaders of the Haganah focused on the danger that the Arabs of the land would aid the Germans, more than on the German invasion itself.

Part of the paperwork that documented the discussions of "the plan" was lost over the years, and so there remained primarily the memories of people who were connected to it. Most of them reconstructed the story after the War of Independence, and after Israeli mythology had internalized the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In the nature of things, the need arose to praise also the readiness of the Jewish public in Palestine to make a brave stand against the Nazis. Everyone agreed that it would be preferable to die with honor than in disgrace, even in a "war of despair," as Yaakov Dori said.

As happens, quite a few discrepancies were discovered in the process , and two main questions remained without authoritative answers: Who was meant "to entrench themselves" up north, and where? It is unclear whether the plan was indeed to relocate "the Jewish populace" up north, as it says on the CET website, or to include in the entrenchment only residents of that region, "for the defense of Haifa," as Galili put it. Some had spoken about the possibility that only combat forces would hunker down, with the civilian populace being abandoned to its fate.

No one knows whether the intention was to take a defensive stand on the Carmel itself, or in a broader area. The CET website contains a map that shows "the area intended for fortification": from Rosh Hanikra eastward to the shore of Lake Kinneret, southward to Beit She'an, and from there westward up to a point north of Hadera. There you have it then, a story about a helpless populace and a resplendent myth that keeps building itself up as time goes by.