The young man smiling in this picture, his eyes half shut from the sun, is Mordechai Ben-Uziyahu. It’s strange to call him my great uncle, since he died more than 40 years before I was born, and even my father rarely refers to him as an uncle. He was my grandma’s younger brother, and he was a member of the pre-state Lehi paramilitary organization.
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This week’s Israel’s memorial day commemorates many pre-state militia members like Mordechai ahead of Tuesday’s celebration of Israel’s Independence Day. The two national holidays are joined on the calendar as a reminder that independence required heroic sacrifice. But Mordechai’s story is also a reminder of the violence that went hand-in-hand with the creation of the state.
During this same month, Palestinians commemorate Nakba Day, remembering the violent expulsion of their families. My relative Mordechai participated in the massacre of Palestinians at Deir Yassin, one of the most extreme of the atrocities committed during the Nakba and one of the most infamous acts of Zionist terrorism.
How does one reconcile with having a terrorist in the family? Had he not been killed, would we sit by my grandma's table, sharing a tray of burekitas? What would I say to him? And how much of him is in us?
For me, telling Mordechai’s story is an important part of wrestling with our history.
Mordechai was born in Komotini, northern Greece, to a Ladino-speaking Jewish family. The family immigrated to mandatory Palestine in the 1930s. They settled in Florentin, a bustling working class neighborhood in south Tel Aviv, where many migrant small business owners like themselves formed part of a diverse community.
Three Jewish paramilitary organizations operated in Palestine at the time: The Hagana (“the Defence”) was by far the largest and was composed mostly of members of the socialist agricultural settlements and socialist youth movements alumni. The Etzel (also known as Irgun; “National Military Organization”) was a right wing, ultra-nationalist organization. In 1939, the Etzel was split: some members opposed the organization’s support of the British colonizer during their war with the Nazis, and held that the fight against the British must continue even during WWII.
The splinter group was named the Lehi (“Fighters for the Freedom of Israel”). The Lehi developed into a diverse group, composed of fascists as well as Marxists, with the binding element being a commitment to ruthless violent struggle, including terror attacks against civilians. While all Jewish paramilitaries executed acts of terrorism, for the Lehi it was a daily state of affairs.
Like many pre-state Israeli teens, Mordechai joined a youth movement. Palestine-born kids from the kibbutzim and moshavim were likely to join the Zionist-socialist movements that were affiliated with the mainstream Zionist institutions and with the Hagana. Mordechai, like many first generation immigrants, was alienated from these movements, and joined another youth group, where he was recruited by the Lehi in the mid-40s. Was he an ideological extremist? Probably not. When my father interviewed his commander, and asked what was Mordechai’s ideology, the commander said that Mordechai mostly listened.
Starting by hanging posters and distributing flyers, he quickly rose in the ranks to become a soldier. He was given the codename Dror (“freedom”) and started to be involved in actions around Tel Aviv. As war broke out in 1947 he was transferred to Jerusalem. Mordechai spent the war in Jerusalem, fighting the Arab Legion and attacking local Palestinian civilians. He even devised a specific terrorism tactic: driving a truck up Jerusalem’s sloped streets and rolling a barrel filled with explosives through the back door, down the slope and into markets and crowds.
On the Lehi website, he is commemorated as a bright, talented and humble young man. Attributed to him is participating in the planning on an attack of a Palestinian village near the city, though according to my dad’s research this is unlikely: he was not important enough to plan it, but he certainly participated. This village was Deir Yassin.
On April 9 1948, a combined force of Etzel and Lehi troops invaded the village, which had no strategic importance. They overpowered the village’s small defence force and occupied it. What followed was the most extreme of the atrocities committed during the Nakba and one of the most infamous acts of Zionist terrorism. The Lehi and Etzel combatants massacred the villagers, captive soldiers and civilians, men women and children. The estimates of the numbers of people killed varies, and are likely somewhere between one and two hundred. Women were raped, property was pillaged, and survivors were expelled, never to return. It was a deliberate act of ethnic cleansing, aimed at terrorizing other Palestinians into escaping.
Mordechai was killed soon after in a training accident, at the age of 22. The family knew that his was involved with the Lehi but had no idea what he was doing. His mother never recovered. My dad tells of his grandmother as a woman who lost interest in the living, never living her house and rarely talking. The family was broken forever.
Mordechai Ben-Uziyahu’s name was read every year in my school, his school. The Lehi and Etzel’s commanders have streets and squares named after them. Nobody was arrested for the massacre of Deir Yassin, but the survivors and their descendants are still not allowed to return.
For those of us who dare to look at history with open eyes, the conjoined dates force us to reflect on the difficult truths of our personal loss. Many Israelis, perhaps the majority of us, have a family history of terrorism, ethnic cleansing and other war crimes. Many fallen heroes are murderers. But that doesn’t mean we need to forget them. On the contrary: we must remember them for the humans they were, for the love that they gave and received, and for their crimes, for these are no less a part of their humanity.
Remember Mordechai, because genocide has a face. Humans commit massacres, not demons. Remember his family, my family, and the love and loss of his mother, because grief knows no judgment. Remember his victims, those whose names we know and those that we will never know. Remember the Nakba.
May he rest in peace, and may we all find peace, when his victims' relatives are allowed return, reparations and justice.
Asaf Calderon is an Israeli activist living in New York and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace.