Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

Remember Deir Yassin!

Historian Eliezer Tauber explores how Palestinian propaganda backfired by turning a bloody battle into a fateful blood libel

by
Gil Troy
January 21, 2022
Mario Geo/Toronto Star via Getty Image
A demonstrator in Toronto, 1967Mario Geo/Toronto Star via Getty Image
Mario Geo/Toronto Star via Getty Image
A demonstrator in Toronto, 1967Mario Geo/Toronto Star via Getty Image

Deir Yassin. For decades it was the main count in the Palestinian indictment against Zionism and Israel. In the 1970s, when Palestinian terrorists butchered schoolkids and Olympic athletes, they and their supporters cried “remember Deir Yassin!” In the 2000s, when Palestinian leaders blew up the Oslo Peace Process by dispatching suicide bombers to Israeli buses and cafes, they and their supporters cried “remember Deir Yassin!” Even today, the massacre of 254 Arabs, including 25 pregnant women, 50 breastfeeding mothers, and 60 other women—followed by mass rapes and other atrocities in this pastoral village just outside Jerusalem—remains one of the prime movers of anti-Zionism, an often-invoked justification for the rejectionism and crimes of Palestinian extremists. In their still-defining book on 1948, O Jerusalem, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre describe Jews cutting open a pregnant woman’s stomach “with a butcher’s knife,” and slashing at least two people “from head to toe,” as they “killed” and “looted,” then, “finally they raped.”

But what if, as professor Eliezer Tauber argues in his new book, Deir Yassin is The Massacre That Never Was?

Tauber’s book, subtitled The Myth of Deir Yassin and the Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, may have been 2021’s most snubbed yet significant scholarly work. Originally published in Hebrew in 2017 as Deir Yassin: Sof Hamitos ­(Deir Yassin: The End of the Myth), it was ignored then, as it is being ignored now.

Tauber, who founded Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Middle Eastern Studies, is a tenacious researcher, offering nearly 100 pages of Arab, Israeli, and British sourcing to back 208 pages of text. He painstakingly recreates the battle of Deir Yassin, noting who fought where, who had how many guns, and who died. Sixty of the Arabs who died were men, and 41 were women—some dressed as men and armed to fight. Tauber concludes that 61 of the 84 Arabs whose circumstances of death were ascertained “were killed under battle conditions.”

The battle began early on Friday, April 9, 1948, five weeks before David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel. Since the United Nations had voted a Jewish state into existence on Nov. 29, 1947, Arab extremists in Palestine had launched a guerilla war against their Jewish neighbors. The British, who controlled Palestine under the 1920 Mandate, were counting down to their U.N.-mandated departure on May 14. Jews and Arabs were scrambling for strategic advantage—and starting to clash over land. Arab irregulars were besieging Jerusalem, and three different fighting forces were defending the Jews while competing aggressively with one another, too.

The most established, disciplined fighting force in the Jewish-state-to-be was the Haganah. In 1931, militant Zionists renounced the Haganah to found the Irgun Tzvai Leumi: the national military organization, also known by its acronym “Etzel.” Nine years later, Yair Stern and other militants splintered from the Irgun. Detractors called these “Lehi” rebels—a Hebrew acronym for the Freedom Fighters of Israel—the Stern Gang.

The Irgun and Lehi united for this operation. Attempting to transition from guerilla fighters to proper soldiers, they hoped that seizing Deir Yassin, a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, would break the siege. Beyond the usual battlefield fog, therefore, rival hit-and-run-type fighters were cooperating awkwardly, using unfamiliar military tactics with an objective they had never achieved—actual conquest of territory—and which the Arab defenders also did not expect.

Predictably, chaos followed.

The Irgun and Lehi forces arranged for an armored car with a loudspeaker—secured with a deposit of 57 Palestine pounds, Tauber discovered—to warn villagers to leave. The Irgun insisted on forgoing a surprise attack to minimize civilian casualties. But the car tumbled into a defensive trench the villagers dug. The defenders’ fusillade that followed, and the trench’s distance from the village’s center, muffled the message. Nevertheless, “within minutes of the start of the battle, a stream of villagers could be seen running over the hills.” Eventually, three-quarters of the villagers, some 730 people, escaped.

The Jewish fighters encountered more resistance than they had expected. The intensity of combat, the warning they gave (no matter how futile), and the flights they witnessed, all fed their impression that the civilians were gone and only fierce fighters remained.

Jewish soldiers are briefed at Deir Yassin, April 9, 1948

Jewish soldiers are briefed at Deir Yassin, April 9, 1948Wikimedia Commons

House-to-house fighting erupted. Too many noncombatants were killed by the panicked, inexperienced fighters. But there is no credible evidence of systematic slaughter, of any rapes, of any torture of any kind. There simply is no physical evidence. There are no photographs. And Tauber’s thorough, witness-by-witness scrutiny uncovers a revealing pattern. “The testimonies of both Etzel’s and Lehi’s combatants and the Arab survivors were surprisingly similar, sometimes almost identical,” he reports, “as both were there when it happened.” Clearly, there “is a substantial difference between people killed during fighting and a massacre,” Tauber explains. These “narratives,” however, “could not prevail” over the propagandists’ subsequent spin.

When the fighting ended, the 120 Jewish soldiers deployed had secured the village, despite suffering a high casualty rate of about 30%, with 30 to 40 injuries, and five deaths. Tauber carefully and credibly lists the names of the 101 dead villagers, estimating that another 100 were injured, with 150 to 200 imprisoned, then released. Ayish Zeidan, who was a teenager living in Deir Yassin in 1948, told a reporter 50 years later: “I believe that most of those who were killed were among the fighters and the women and children who helped the fighters.” As for the rape accusation, Zeidan insisted: “This is not true.”

Careful not to fight propaganda with more propaganda, Tauber acknowledges that the Lehi and Irgun victors looted the village. They justified their actions by distributing much of their plunder to Jerusalem’s besieged residents. The morality of those actions is worth debating but without exaggerating, as Collins and Lapierre did, by claiming that, “Women had bracelets torn from their arms and rings from their fingers and parts of some of the women’s ears were severed in order to remove earrings.”

How, then, did this rather typical example of the intense fighting that characterized Israel’s 1948 War of Independence turn into an apparently mythical massacre?

Here’s where Tauber’s meticulous, trilingual research abilities add value to the historical record. He quotes the Arab Higher Committee’s Husayn Fakhri al-Khalidi instructing Arab newspaper editors to give the battle “the utmost propaganda possible,” explaining: “We are forced to give a picture—not what is actually happening—but we had to exaggerate a little bit so that maybe the Arab countries would become enthusiastic to come and join us.” In that spirit, when the Arab Higher Committee published photos of mutilated bodies, Tauber reports, a “Haganah intelligence man identified the bodies as actually being Jewish victims of mutilation by Arabs.”

Al-Khalidi coached Deir Yassin’s refugees, saying: “We want you to say that the Jews slaughtered people, committed atrocities, raped and stole gold.” Some refugees obliged, while others resented the attempt to humiliate Deir Yassin’s women.

The rape libel quickly backfired.

“We did not understand the mentality of our own Palestinian people,” the Arabic editor of the Palestine Broadcasting Service, Hazim Nusayba, admitted. The rape allegations touched “a raw nerve in the Palestinian psyche.” Refusing to sacrifice their women’s honor for land, most Arab men fled. “This turned out to be the highest, most expensive mistake that we made,” Nusayba realized.

“We are not afraid of death,” one mukhtar (a village leader) exclaimed, “but we will not accept that our women be raped.” “The other villages started to leave one after the other, without resistance, out of fear and apprehension of another similar massacre,” Yunus Radwan, another Deir Yassin refugee, wrote five years later. It happened “because of a mistake committed by our leaders and those responsible for the spreading of rumors who overstated the crimes of the Jews.” An estimated 60,000 Arabs in Palestine fled their homes before April 9. More than 350,000 would flee in the ensuing five weeks. Adil Yahya, a Palestinian researcher who interviewed many refugees in the late 1990s, concluded: “The Deir Yassin affair was the main cause for the 1948 exodus.”

Appalled by the civilian casualties, some Haganah leaders exploited Deir Yassin to delegitimize the Irgun and Lehi. Haganah’s regional intelligence officer Mordechai Gicherman, declared: “There is an urgent need to exploit this for a widespread propaganda campaign to undermine confidence in the dissidents, both with regard to their military ability and moral stature.”

Meanwhile, leading British officials, fed up with the Jews, interwove this massacre myth with deeper antisemitic tropes, ones that still resonate today. Romanticizing the villagers as Christ-like innocents, they overlooked the Arab stockpile of 60 rifles, at least 20 pistols, and numerous explosives, including hand grenades. This distortion helped sketch the now-ubiquitous caricature of evil Zionists bullying pure, passive Palestinians. And, instinctively, these Mandatory leaders Nazified the Jews, denouncing this “beastly Holocaust” while insisting that Hitler’s concentration camp at “[Bergen] Belsen pales” beside Deir Yassin.

No wonder Tauber’s book is too threatening to be taken seriously. It details how the anti-Israel propaganda armada was first launched, revealing just how rooted modern anti-Zionism is in traditional antisemitism. It exposes how the Palestinian national movement hasn’t come to terms with some legitimate grievances about its history of exaggeration and demonization. And, most significantly, it refutes the foundational myth of that movement, which continues to convince millions of people that it is the only one in the world that should never be criticized.

The perverse marriage of official Palestinian lies and Western antisemitism continues to distort the discourse about Israel to this day, while chaining the Palestinian leadership to an ultimately self-destructive addiction to anti-Zionism and Jew-hatred. If Deir Yassin is less central to the Palestinian narrative today than it was several years ago, it is only because decades of delegitimization have paid off. But the Palestinian national movement continues to wallow in totalitarian paralysis, often seeking “justice” for similarly counterfeit crimes.

In this historic, underappreciated boomerang that scarred Palestine’s Arabs more than it scarred the Jews, lies a cautionary tale for all political movements. Demonization and fear-mongering are the crack cocaine of politics, the fleeting highs often leaving lasting damage. Tauber’s epitaph for Deir Yassin sums up this enduring lesson, and the past 74 years of Palestinian history: Seeking “to prevent a catastrophe,” Arab hyperbole “instead created one.”

Gil Troy is an American historian. He has written nine books on the presidency, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s and Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky.

Join Us!

All of Tablet’s latest stories—in your inbox, daily. Subscribe to our newsletter.

Please enter a valid email
Check iconSuccess! You have subscribed to the Tablet newsletter.