Round 2: It's Benny Morris vs. Martin Kramer ... Was there a massacre in 1948 in Lydda?

Historians in the News
tags: Middle East, Israel

Benny Morris

I have to admit that, prior to reading his essay, “What Happened at Lydda,” I had never read anything by Martin Kramer. But I had heard that he was a serious Middle East scholar, albeit of subjects far removed from the 1948 war. His essay, however, is imbued with clear political purpose—“Israel is defined by much of liberal opinion as an ‘occupier,’” Kramer writes at one point in an essay that ostensibly deals with July 1948—and thus smacks more of propaganda than of history (even though the minutiae of his criticism of Ari Shavit’s manipulation of texts and facts regarding one minor episode in the war—what happened at a mosque in Lydda on July 12, 1948—are illuminating, if not so much about the war as about Shavit).

In my response in Mosaic to Kramer’s essay, I argued that “disproportion” speaks “massacre.” Kramer has now replied to my argument in a manner disingenuous if not forthrightly mendacious. Yes, in contemporary warfare between advanced technological societies and Third World societies—the U.S. versus Iraq, for example, or Israel versus Hamas—the application of air power and sophisticated artillery by a Western power can lead to completely disproportionate losses on the part of ill-armed Arab ground forces, and these do not necessarily speak of massacre. But in the Israeli-Arab war of 1948, two or more relatively primitive armies came to grips. When, in a specific battlefield, one side was more powerful than the other, a “disproportion” in losses might arise. That happened, for example, in the successive battles between the Haganah/IDF and Jordan’s Arab Legion at Latrun in May-June 1948, where many more Israelis died than Jordanians due to the Legion’s efficient use of its mortars and 75-mm artillery batteries and to Israeli paucity in or misuse of heavy weaponry. But when the disproportion is 250:0 or 250:2, as occurred, according to contemporary IDF documents, between the IDF and the Lydda townspeople, some of them armed, on July 12 of the same year, then “battle” is surely not the name of the game; “massacre” is more like it.

To Kramer, this was a “battle with two sides.” And now, to mislead his readers, he says in his reply that there was indeed a “battle”—between the Yiftah-brigade soldiers and the two or three Jordanian armored cars that had penetrated Lydda. But that is not at issue. Sure, there was an Israeli-Jordanian battle (or, more accurately, a skirmish, in which there were Israeli casualties) around noon on July 12. But the question is whether what transpired afterward, between the townspeople, some of whom sniped at the Israelis, and the Yiftah troops—an action that ended in 250 dead townspeople–was a battle. Given the vanishingly small number of Israeli losses, “battle” is a tendentious misnomer, Kramer’s sophistry and verbal acrobatics notwithstanding.

In his reply, Kramer dredges up new oral testimony about what happened at the small mosque. (I bow to Kramer’s expertise in Arabic as to how the name of the mosque should be transliterated.) But this testimony still fails to prove that anyone from within the mosque threw a grenade at the Israeli troops outside, triggering the IDF rocketing of those inside. Anyway, the event at the mosque was merely one (small) part of the Lydda massacre that afternoon (“small” insofar as it accounted, reportedly, for only 30 to 70 of the 250 Arab dead).

Kramer may be right in saying, as he now does, that “250″ as recorded in the IDF documents was a rough estimate. I doubt that the IDF soldiers actually counted the bodies as they gathered and buried them, or that they recorded the process. But even if the ratio was 200:0 or 200:2, it would still point to a massacre. Kramer, incidentally, writes of 250 “casualties” when the document actually says “some 250 dead . . . and many wounded.” Historians—indeed, English-speakers—should know the difference between “dead” and “casualties.”...

Martin Kramer

First, a word of thanks to Benny Morris. His work wasn’t the subject of my essay, but he accepted an invitation from the editors to wade in as a respondent. Were it not for him, there wouldn’t have been any debate in Mosaic at all. Ari Shavit, the author of My Promised Land, whose account of Lydda was the subject of my essay, remains silent. So do those who boosted Shavit’s book while shedding belated tears of contrition over Lydda. They haven’t so much as tweeted the existence of the essay or the exchange that followed. What are they waiting for?

Here once again, as in his original response, Morris would distract us from his dubious claim (elaborated by Shavit) that Israeli troops committed a “massacre” in Lydda by reverting to the subsequent expulsion of the town’s Arabs. He even calls me an “expulsion denier.” So I will state my view more plainly for his benefit. On July 12, after the aborted Palestinian uprising in Lydda, an order came down from on high—just how high is debated—to expel the Arab inhabitants. But there were many thousands of Arabs on the road out of Lydda who didn’t wait for an order to leave, and never heard one. As I wrote, “the word ‘expulsion’ cannot suffice to describeeverything that happened in Lydda” (emphasis added). Whether that makes me guilty of “expulsion denial” (which, like “Nakba denial,” draws an abhorrent analogy to Holocaust denial), I leave to readers to decide.

Now back to the Lydda “massacre.” Morris thinks the aim of my essay was to “create or enhance a white-as-snow image of Israel.” In a summary of my essay that appeared elsewhere on July 1, I wrote this: “My motive hasn’t been to protect Israel’s honor against the charge of massacre. There are some well-documented instances from 1948. It’s just that Lydda isn’t one of them.” Morris now speculates that I might dismiss those other instances “as anti-Zionist propaganda as they are based on IDF/Israeli government/Western diplomatic documentation from 1948 rather than on oral testimony.”...

Read entire article at Mosaic Magazine

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