To the editors:

Blood libels against the Jewish people are as old as Jewish history. They go back to the accusation that the Jews are a deicidal people who killed Christ two millennia ago. Nevertheless, I was surprised and angry to find the latest version of this accusation, and in its purest form, not in the pages of a neo-Nazi or radical Muslim publication but as the lead feature of the Chicago Reader–a weekly with a reputation for scrupulous reporting (“Swept Away,” November 12, ’99). Thus, Nadia Oehlsen, your reporter, repeats the myth of the Palestinian refugees in its most egregious form. Without much evidence of fact checking, Ms. Oehlsen assures us that in their 1948 war of independence the Palestinian Jews displayed great brutality and deployed overwhelming force to dispossess the Palestinian Arabs–an innocent pastoral people–from their ancestral lands. Clearly, this is a lie whose time has come–or come round again. The old blood libel has mutated and metastasized: from Deicide to Genocide–those Jews are up to their dirty tricks in Palestine again, this time murdering a third world people rather than a God.

What gives me the credentials to challenge Nadia Oehlsen’s report? Only this: that I was an eyewitness to the times and to some of the particular events that she misrepresents. Thus, from late 1947 until after the founding of the state of Israel in May 1948, I trained with a battalion of the Palyam, a marine strike force that became the nucleus of the infant Israeli navy, and I subsequently served as an engineering officer in that branch. I make no apologies for my own pro-Israeli biases, but I do not indulge them here. Unlike Ms. Oehlsen, who relies on mostly Palestinian secondary and tertiary sources, I will stick to the witness of my own eyes.

For starters, Ms. Oehlsen’s account contains gross omissions which invalidate most of what she chooses to include. Thus, while she dwells on the barbarities of “Zionist soldiers,” nowhere does she mention that the Palestinian Naqbah (their “catastrophe”) followed closely on the UN decision to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. It began with a war that was confidently launched by their own Palestinian leadership and that was forced on the Palestinian Jews. In 1947 there were approximately 600,000 Jews in Palestine (about one-fifth of the present-day population of greater Chicago), and having already fought the Palestinian Arabs from 1936 to 1939, then Hitler, and finally the English, they were tired of struggle. They were eager to build the state in which they could receive their European kin–the survivors of the Holocaust; and the last thing they wanted was another war, this time against the whole Arab world.

But the Arabs reacted to Jewish sovereignty as a living body reacts to an alien implant: they mobilized to destroy it in its nascent form. The UN had barely voted for partition before the Palestinians, abetted by well-armed volunteers and mercenaries from Syria, Jordan, Iraq (as well as veterans of Hitler’s SS), opened fire on Jewish towns, on Jewish kibbutzim, and on the roads that connected them. Oehlsen reports that Arab atrocities against Jews were always preceded by Jewish provocations against Arabs. In some cases, perhaps so; but the war itself, the war in which each military act, by each side, was both provocation and reprisal, was started by the Arabs, and was continued by them until they were either driven out or pacified.

Of course there were Zionist atrocities: war is not beanbag, and once they were roused to fight, 600,000 post-Holocaust Jews, alone in a hostile Arab sea, were not feeling kindly towards proven, dedicated Jew killers. Consider: we had just begun to realize the extent of the Holocaust, in which every Ashkenazi family had lost European kinfolk, and now the official broadcasters of the surrounding Arab states promised us, day after day, that we were about to share their fate. Their spokesmen gloated over the prospect of Jews driven into the sea, while triumphant Arabs “drink your blood.” Jews could no longer kill Nazis–that war was over; but in the war that the Arabs had initiated, Jews could kill–in some cases with cold fury and pleasure–those who had inherited Hitler’s rhetoric and genocidal mission. In the early days of the war we had few weapons–going out to open the road from Tel Aviv to besieged Jerusalem, men of my unit were told to look for their weapons among the dead. But those few guns that we did have were used with daring and imagination. And this is the part of their history that the Palestininans–now with the help of the Nadia Oehlsens of this world–have conveniently omitted. They are quick to remind us that they are Israel’s victims, but they have shoved deep into Orwell’s Memory Hole the record of their own complicity in bringing about their own Naqbah. But once you let slip the dogs of war they will very likely bite you in the ass. To blame the Jews for what happened to the Palestinians is like blaming the Allies for the bombing, late in WWII, of Dresden, while conveniently omitting any mention of the earlier Luftwaffe terror bombings of Guernica, Warsaw, Rotterdam, and London. Or, it is like condeming the U.S. firebombing of Japan, without any reference to Pearl Harbor, or to the rape of Nanking.

Why do the Palestinians need this falsified story–one that presents them as passive but innocent victims? The surviving Palestinians’ accounts as reported in Swept Away point to the answer: in many cases, they had been prudent rather than brave. Even before the war reached them, they had run away: “Who wants to stay to kill or be killed? We packed a little bit of our gear for a short trip outside until things settled down. We locked the door and took the key.”

My own wartime experience supports such refugee reports. Training in the Sharon plain, my unit would patrol through the abandoned Arab village of Sidn’a Ali. The inhabitants had left a caretaker, and even camels, as signs that they meant to return, but they had taken off long before our troop constituted any kind of threat. In those early days of the war we could not use our motley collection of largely antique rifles and homemade stens: British troopers in the vicinity would have shot to kill if they found us carrying guns. In short, even if we had the intent to drive out the people of Sidn’a Ali we could not have acted on it. But still they fled–not from our power (they probably had more concealed weapons than we did) but from the rumor and fear of war itself. They assumed, and with good reason, that the Jews and their nasty little state would soon be destroyed by the surrounding Arab armies; after that, they could return to claim their homes–and some choice Jewish real estate, as well. Like the refugees from many other villages, the Arabs of Sidn’a Ali were not the victims of our Zionist brutality but of their own failed gamble with history. Nevertheless, refugees from that town are probably assuring some gullible Ms. Oehlsen that they are bona fide victims; that after a valiant defense they finally had to abandon Sidn’a Ali in the face of genocidal and overwhelming Zionist assaults.

So we can see why the Palestinians need their great lie: it protects them from their deep sense of collective shame. As refugees, the Palestinians had to endure the taunts of their Lebanese, Syrian, or Jordanian hosts: “you Palestinian whores who sold your land to the Jews, and then ran away!” They ran away from Palestine, they compromised their Arab pride, and now they stave off shame by denying their own history: “we did not run. We were pushed out–but only after a heroic struggle–by Zionist murderers in tanks and airplanes.”

To repeat, there were atrocities and expulsions on both sides (our Hagana officers were not hysterical men, but they advised us to always keep a grenade or bullet for ourselves, so as to avoid capture by sadistic Arab mercenaries). The big difference between the Palestinian Arabs and Palestinian Jews is not degrees of brutality, but this: that the Arabs ran away, while the Jews stayed in place, faced the very real threat of genocide, and paid the butcher’s bill of history–6,000 young men and women killed (over two million dead, in U.S. population equivalents). Even with all the incidental brutality, the Israeli war of independence is a story that ranks with the Greek stand against the Persian host at Marathon; the Reader should not have joined the ranks of those who dishonor the dead, and turn that great fight into another blood libel of the Jewish people.

David Gutmann, PhD