The Difference Between Israel's 1948 Generation and Today's

My uncle, who we buried this week, fought alongside other children of refugees who believed this was a war for the liberation of their nation. What does today’s 'war' of occupation have to do with that?

Israeli soldiers, May 1948.
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Yesterday we buried my uncle. I loved him very much. He was my boyhood hero. I admired him for being the coach of the Israeli handball team and for having fought in 1948. As a child in front of the mirror, I’d buckle on the military belt he kept from 1948. A belt that had belonged to his best friend who was killed, and after whom I was named.

He talked a lot about that war, like his friend from the 54th Battalion of the Givati Brigade, Uri Avnery, who devoted innumerable pages of his autobiography “Optimist” (Part II of which is now being published) to describing the war. They lived that war even decades after it ended. It was the formative experience of their lives. It was a war with all the war crimes, above all its systematic ethnic cleansing – it brought about the Nakba – yet nevertheless, when I would listen to my uncle and as I eagerly read Avnery’s book, I did not protest.

Nowadays it’s popular to claim that nothing has changed. That it all began back then. That behind the myths of Haim Hefer’s lyric “Dudu” and Haim Gouri’s “Comradeship Song” about brothers in arms lurked equivalents of Sgt. E., the executioner from Hebron. That there is no difference between the Shimshon Battalion from Hebron and “Shimshon’s Foxes” from Operation Nachshon that attempted to break the siege of Jerusalem in April of 1948; that Sgt. E. did in Hebron what Avnery did in Operation Paleshet. That Avnery and my uncle did in Isdud (before it was renamed Ashdod) what the Border Police are doing in Nablus. That there is no sanctified war and there is no purity of arms, so what is all the fuss about.

I wasn’t around in 1948 but nevertheless it seems to me that a lot has changed since then. The spirit of the age has been turned upside down. Avnery relates in his book that he would collect the identity cards of inhabitants who had fled from their villages. He has kept them to this day: His Arabs had names. The “terrorist” who was executed in Hebron had no name and no face.

Are we talking about a self-righteous mask that conceals the same crimes? Doubtful. Avnery, my uncle and members of their generation were not motivated by evil. It’s doubtful they hated Arabs, doubtful they were racists. Today the name of the game is evil. Hatred and evil, vengeance. And sometimes sadism as well. In those days, they were children of refugees who had fled for their lives from the conflagration in Europe, who believed this was a war for the liberation and rebirth of their nation.

Most of them did not relate at all to the people who had been living in this land before them and did not think about their rights. But they did think this was a war for existence and, as Avnery wrote in his book, it is not really important if that is how it was.

Most Israelis know that today it’s no longer a matter of any war for existence. They know that today their country is a regional power. That it is a matter of colonialism, of apartheid, of an occupation that no country in the world views as legitimate, of abuse and oppression of a people that has been living for 50 years now under the Israeli boot, only because Israel is strong, only because it can. What connection does this have to 1948?

All his life my uncle remained in 1948, somewhere in the convoy to Ben Shemen. With touching naveté he believed that the Israeli army was pure and its commanders saintly, like his esteemed commander Shlomo Avidan. That the state for whose sake he fought and for whose sake his friends died must be above all else.

For years he would threaten to throw me out of his car every time I dared question this. He thought that in a properly run state, as he defined it, people like me should be in prison. Sometimes he’d also mention execution. Even in this there was a measure of innocence.

Only towards the end of his life did his beliefs begin to crack. This was not easy. Like many of his generation he began to ask if this was the state he had dreamt of and fought for. For years I thought his opinions were medieval. Now that he has died, I miss their innocence, an innocence no longer seen in this cursed place, the establishment of which my uncle fought for in 1948.