Dan and I, sleeping outside, feared the approaching rains and decided to find accommodation indoors. All the occupied rooms were stuffy so we chose an empty room in an out-house. Thick layers of blood covered the floor for the sergeant-major, a butcher in private life, had slaughtered a calf there. Dan and I moved in with disinfectants, shovels, brooms and water and in a few hours had the room spick and span. We installed electricity, scrounged chairs and tables and had a cosy little room.
Ravlevai, watching us work and impressed by the result, had dropped a hint that he would like our quarters and the sergeant-major approached us on his behalf but only to meet with a point-blank refusal. Since we had done the work we intended living there, commanding officer or no commanding officer. The authorities acquiesced.
The days passed. Dan and I came to know the surroundings well. We found well cultivated Arab gardens each with its own primitive well and irrigation system and containing an abundance of tomatoes, radishes, egg-plants, pumpkins and marrows. In Tel Aviv these articles were in short supply and expensive. And at Beit Jimal they were rotting in the fields. Yet there was nothing we could do about them. We could obtain no transport to carry the vegetables to the city - the army was not interested.
I came to know my fellow-soldiers better. Whenever I was on guard with one of them I’d encourage him to talk and interesting life was generally revealed. Many would be problem cases for Israel. Like Mensell. About twenty years of age, he had been in Israel for five months. For many years he had lived in Czechoslovakia and during the war he was interned in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Mensell said that he was no idealist. After his release from Auschwitz he had done well in Prague “in the currency and jewellery business” and made good money. And spent in on a gay life with many night-clubs. An easy life. He was due to be conscripted for two years service in the Czech army and to escape this had come to Israel - a Jew might as well be a soldier for the Jewish cause. “Lots of dollars” were confiscated when he left Czechoslovakia. “I want to move around,” he said.” “I must make up for the lost time in the camps.” People worked too hard in Israel. He, Mensell, would perhaps have to go somewhere else, always on the move.
The first Israeli national census was held on November 9th. We answered questions at Beit Jimal and those who could write Hebrew filled in the forms. The authorities were most inquisitive and their questions ran to two pages.
Rumours of peace talks circulated up and down Israel, originating from a variety ofof sources. But like most rumours they died a rapid death.
A peaceful lull in the air. Units moved back to base. We returned to Sarafand with loads of equipment and on arrival endeavoured to dash off to leave immediately. First, however, we had to fold all our tents. Then we were off to Tel Aviv.
Many Mahal members were returning home already for a variety of reasons, genuine and otherwise. Some left to complete their studies, others were recalled to sick relatives and many were simply tired of the army and often of Israel itself. Generally the Mahal who had come the latest were the first to leave.
Dan and I were tired of Tel Aviv and decided to spend our leaves in Haifa. We found fewer queues and a clean hotel. The food at the soldier’s restaurant was good and once, when we arrived late for a meal, we gained admittance and were given food by looking mournful and hungry and talking English.
U.N.O. continued discussing the situation in the Negev. Dr Ralph Bunche introduced a plan for the demilitarisation of the whole Negev. It seemed unlikely to be accepted by the contestants.
At Sarafand there were discussions on an impending artillery officers’ course and recommendation had been called for from the commanding officers. Ravlevai broached the subject to me. Was I interested? He said that I should have gone on a course before. He admitted that he had been selfish and apologised for keeping me back, but he had wanted me as an “ack.” Now he would not stand in my way.
Together we had an interview with the second-in-command of the regiment and as a result expressed my unwillingness to go on an officers’ course. The course was to be of six or seven months duration and many interesting things might happen during that time. I could not face the thought of being cooped up in a military school for half a year or more and after that being under moral obligation to remain on in the army longer than I might otherwise do. The whole course was to be in Hebrew and I did not believe my Hebrew to be sufficiently fluent to justify my taking the course.
With my refusal I made a request- that I be transferred to Jerusalem.
“But Len is no longer there” Ravlevai interjected.
The 2 i/c laughed. “On the contrary, while Len was there I would not send an English-speaking ‘’ack’ to Jerusalem for I wanted Len to learn Hebrew. Another problem was that we needed ‘acks’ here too.”
I presented my case. And shortly after that interview I was transferred to Jerusalem where, with short intervals of absence, I was to remain for five months, until my discharge from the army.
It was one of the finest areas in which to be stationed. The enemy were on most sides but the people and the soldiers were confident and strong and not perturbed. We were like one big garrison, knit together by a common danger and an excellent spirit reigned amongst the defenders of the Holy City. One big, happy family with Arabs here and Arabs there, but life continuing very much as usual. One faced the Arabs and held one’s positions and not many yards behind and not many minutes away lay a big city with culture and music and life, where snatches of leave could be profitably and pleasantly spent.
A city in a front-line. A front-line in a city.
I grew to love Jerusalem, New Jerusalem, modern Jerusalem and its peoples and became embittered at the proposals to take it away from the Jews.
The front-line in Jerusalem was jagged, but definite. In some buildings; Jews; in buildings opposite, Arabs. On one side of a street, Jews; on the other side, Arabs. The walled Old City, in Arab hands, stood out in relief, something like a cardboard model. But it was alive and dangerous. Snipers shot at the Jews in the New City, guns shelled them, mortars pounded them. Arab Legionnaires with their red “Keffiyehs” and black-coated Palestinian Arabs opposing us. In the South, around Ramat Rahel, were the Egyptians.
I was senior “ack” in Jerusalem; a mobile “ack,” moving from position to position to observe. At places we were very close to the Arabs. So close that you could hear them talk and laugh and watch their movements wit ease.
On November 30th, 1948, a “real truce” was a signed between the Israeli and Transjordan commanders and from December 1st there was supposed to be genuine peace on the battle-front, no shelling and no sniping.
With few exceptions this truce was honoured to the very letter. But once or twice our men were fired at. The difficulty was that one never knew when some enemy soldier was going to violate the truce. So one had to be careful all the time. The early days of December were halcyon days at the Jerusalem front-lines. Momentarily everyone was suspicious.
It was difficult to trust t party who had continued shooting and shelling for many months after the U.N.O. truce. One or two brave spirits ventured forth and drew no answering fire. Others followed. Jews spoke to Arabs and Arabs spoke to Jews. A bizarre situation. Jews and Arabs started at each other, arose from their dug-outs, stood erect, laughed and chatted. Cigarettes and other little items were exchanged. It was reported that friendly football matches were played, but I cannot confirm this story and believe it to be a bit far-fetched.
On the wall of the Old City the Arabs played cards, drank tea and sunned themselves. Within the Old City, under our very eyes, they drilled, without arms, and danced their folk dances. Around lay the ruins from bitter, close fighting. Ravaged, twisted, junk-heaps of stones and ash, debris and metal. To get to some of our positions, without being observed, we had cut holes through walls of buildings with ropes to lead the way at night, along ruined rooms, up steps and down steps, twisting and turning. Empty, gloomy houses, holed and defaced, dirty, burnt and scarred. Barbed wire, sand-bags and spent cartridges and empty cases. Quiet and dead. No souls!
And we were waving and talking to one another. It seemed so unreal and so untrue. The reality was fascinating. I never tired of visiting the position, of seeing the Arabs and of photographing scenes - although the Arabs didn’t like that.
Later our commander, Moshe Dayan , and the Arab Legion commander, Abdulla el Tel, had frequent meetings to discuss matters of mutual interest. It was said that a direct telephone line had been laid between Jewish and Arab lines and that each commander simply had to lift the receiver to speak to his counterpart. Indeed a queer war!
Jerusalem has a variegated community. From all four corners of the world, of different races and religions, of different thoughts and creeds, I came to know Jerusalem very well and found some of its areas most interesting, particularly Mea Shearim inhabited by very orthodox Jews. Inquisitive and seemingly hostile eyes followed strangers. Closely packed older buildings, often squalid. Little children with forelocks under peaked caps or wide-rimmed, black hats.
Dingy shops cluttered with musty goods. Narrow alleys, market-stalls laden with favourite Jewish foods, pickled and spiced. Yiddishe Mamas, heads covered with kerchiefs. Untidy streets. And everywhere bomb damage. These citizens refused to be moved by Arab guns and shells. Their parents had lived and died there and they would too. Nothing could move them. Only the Messiah would stir them.
Talmudical colleges in every street with pupils from bearded, muttering aged men, to squeaky, soft-faced youths. Pupils and teachers, praying and studying.
Our unit in Jerusalem was one happy family, hardworking and full of initiative and, fortunately, not hidebound. All friends. Living together, eating together, no saluting, no parades, no unnecessary regulations.
Our quarters were in the German Colony, in a large stone building formerly belonging to the Arab Higher Committee, well furnished, large and spacious.
The O.C. was an English Jew who had been in Israel for a few years. An excellent organiser. Noach, fat and fatherly, was the sergeant-major. He would have broken a stereotyped, regimental sergeant-major’s heart.
No parades for Noach, no drill, no orders. Instead a friendly but firm request. An appeal to a spirit of co-operation. Industriously he showed the way with tireless effort and example, carrying on for hours and days on end, without respite or sleep. Roaring and shouting and threatening when he was angry. Hearing him for the first time, watching his bulk shaking and his hands gesticulating, a novice would be sore afraid. But those who understood Noah’s ways and moods knew that his bark was worse than his bite.
Gideon, the second-in-command, was even more taciturn than Guya. Strict yet fair. True to the word of the army code concerning leave and privileges and perfectly just and honest. Zaav, the chief signaller, who spoke a perfect Hebrew, a perfect German and a perfect English; Yehuda from Budapest, talented and ambitious, learning English and writing good Hebrew plays although he had only been in Israel for a year or two. And the young sabras, fresh from the schools, conscripted before the conclusion of their studies, keen as mustard and willing to take on all comers.
A free and easy spirit reigned. Provided you did your job efficiently you were allowed complete freedom. A contented atmosphere.
At times they came from Sarafand on tours of inspection. They could find nothing wrong with our work but they didn’t like our spirit. Too comradely and not like an army. Too democratic and unfettered. They wanted more parades and routine orders and restrictions.
So in our daily orders we included parades and routine orders and restrictions - and ignored them at Jerusalem. But down in Sarafand, reading them, they assumed that we carried them out and they must have been very happy.
We availed ourselves of the truce to intensify our training. Courses were held so that specialists in one branch could also quality in other branches. Signallers learnt driving and gunnery; drivers learnt gunnery and signalling and gunners learnt signalling and driving.
A community spirit reigned amongst the soldiers in Jerusalem. We came to know one another. Anglo-Saxons never numbered more than a handful and no Mahal clique arose. The residents were very hospitable on the whole, more so than in Tel Aviv. Soldiers were made to feel at home and clubs were organised for them. I was a regular frequenter of these clubs and sometimes spent hours at a stretch there, chatting, meeting friends, listening to music, drinking tea and coffee, eating cakes and sandwiches. But in the evening I could not tolerate the noisy, smoky and stuffy atmosphere of some clubs for more than a few minutes. One could hardly move in the crush and felt suffocated and confined.
“Nachson” was the largest club, open throughout the day and serving refreshments. About once a week “quiz contests” were relayed from “Nachson” over the army radio programme of the “Voice of Jerusalem.” Some of the soldiers participating were very bright; others not so. One thought Belgium was in Scandinavia.
A Mrs Atlas presided over the “Chocolate Box”, which served as a civilian café in the day-time and a soldiers’ club in the evening. She was the perfect hostess and possessed the knack of unearthing Mahal and Gahal soldiers from the crowd, assisting them and making them feel at home. Speaking seven or eight languages fluently she had no difficulty in conversing with them. And Mrs Atlas was tireless in her efforts. Without fail, every evening, after a hard day’s work in the café, she was in attendance at the club. Once I asked her whether she never tired and why she didn’t take a rest. Her answer was typical: “I am tired but when soldiers are risking their lives the least I can do is to give up my time.”
Through the soldiers’ hospitality committee soldiers not resident in Jerusalem, but only stationed there received invitations to meals, to parties and to tea at private homes. It made a big difference to one’s morale and all the efforts were deeply appreciated, the more so since we knew the difficulties under which the housewives had to work. The shortage of water and food. Water was a big problem in Jerusalem, even after the siege had been raised. There was enough to drink but only limited quantities for washing and cleansing purposes, particularly on the out skirts of the city. I found it most awkward. One never had enough water and such water as what there was obtainable in our quarters was not even sufficiently clean to drink.
The people managed somehow or other. Soldier-guests lent a helping hand. After a meal it was our custom to clear the table and wash the dishes, ignoring the protests of the hostess.
There were many parties in Jerusalem. The festival of Chanukah saw one every evening for a week as each unit had its own dance with many guests from other units.
Politics made our social life easier. Before the elections, the major political parties vied with one or other in opening clubs in the hope of wooing votes and support. One went to any club that was pleasant, however, irrespective of whether one agreed with the views of that political party or not.
Chanukah was a joyous festival. Once before, hundreds of years ago, Jews fighting for independence had resisted and subdued foreign invaders. History was repeating itself. Torch light processions and massive, illuminated candle-sticks are the order of Chanukah in Israel, but there was a blackout which spoilt the colour and the display. Illuminations could not only play their part in the short period of semi darkness between sunset and dusk.
The civilian cafes were focal points of attraction in Jerusalem, but most of them lacked orchestras and music and closed rather early. Jerusalem was quiet and almost dead after even o’clock at night and coming home from late parties I was once or twice stopped and questioned by the police. They asked for my papers and were satisfied. Anyone around Jerusalem in the small hours of the morning was regarded with suspicion. It would only happen in Jerusalem. People in Tel Aviv considered Jerusalem so sedate and much too quiet.
Special performances of plays, operas and orchestral concerts were held for the soldiers at reduced prices. The Opera company, the “Ohel”, the “Habimah”, “Matate,” and “Chamber Theatre” companies came from Tel Aviv and generally presented performances for soldiers at 6p.m. and again at 9p.m. that same evening and repeated the performances for civilians the following evening. It must have been tiring for the cast since the last performance often ended well after midnight.
Israelis have an extraordinary mature and talented appreciation of music and the few occasions that the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra came to Jerusalem were red letter days. Soldiers’ concerts were generally held in the mornings and everyone who could get away from the camps and bivouacs was there. Complete silence reigned while the orchestra played. Row on row of khaki-clad figures in a variety of poses, listening intently, absorbed and critical. After the performance they poured through the doors exchanging critical remarks and analysing the performance of the orchestra and soloists.
There is a Hebrew University in Jerusalem, situated in imposing buildings on Mount Scopus. The Arabs cut the buildings off from the New City and the students and staff turned their attention to more urgent martial duties and studies ceased. In Jerusalem’s New City the spirit of the students and their associations still made themselves felt. The cultural life of the city revolved around the staff and students. Time was found for lectures, studies and discussions. And music. Record recitals were held thrice weekly in the Students’ Club. Lectures on literary and philosophical subjects provided a soothing change amidst the hardness and harshness of war.
It tempered the reality without being unreal. I have vivid recollections of one in particular. Professor Leon Roth delivered a lecture in Hebrew on Wordsworth. Discussion followed, we were a small audience and a diverse one. Professor Klausner, who the day before had been an unsuccessful candidate for the presidency of the state of Israel, made a moving little speech. In times of stress and travail he had found Wordsworth soothing, he said. His voice was soft and itself soothing. A young girl followed him. She spoke in a strong, emotional voice and begged to differ. The audience listened intently. The Arabs outside were forgotten. Here was culture in the midst of strife.
The students were keen to recommence their studies. Most of them had obtained commissioned rank by then, however, and the army was very reluctant to release officers. So negotiations continued. I attended the conference of students. Professors and students were overjoyed to meet but their joy was sobered by the irrevocable absence of their comrades who had died for Israel.
The discussions were sincere and appealing. They wanted to study. But was the war over? Many thought so. Students had been conscripted the earliest, months before the state had been proclaimed. They had fought in some of the hardest and toughest battles.
There were conflicts in Jerusalem between the army and the more orthodox elements in Jerusalem. Soldiers felt that the strict demands of religion imposed a heavy burden on those of them who were not religious. The soldiers’ clubs served no refreshments on Saturdays and the one or two cafes open in Jerusalem were too expensive for the average soldier on leave to eat there. So he had to go hungry.
The route to some of the Israeli forward positions passed through one or two very religious quarters. On Jewish holy-days members of the extremer sects sometimes stoned drivers and endeavoured to stop military trucks passing through on duty, carrying rations, supplies or Israeli representatives to attend discussions with the Arabs.
Once I witnessed a little incident outside a soldiers’ club in Jerusalem, which typified the conflict. It was a Friday afternoon and nearing the Sabbath. As they were wont, black-coated orthodox men were going from business to business warning the owners to cease trade for the day and close their doors. A boot-black, squatting outside the club, was engaged in cleaning a soldier’s boots. A man in black coat and broad-rimmed black hat loomed over him, hands folded, urging him to hurry for the Sabbath was approaching. The soldier became annoyed.
“Leave us in peace,” he said. “Is this not a free country?”
“The Sabbath is approaching and you cannot violate the holy laws. It is my duty to stop you.”
“If you wish to be religious you may; if I wish to be irreligious leave me in peace to be so.”
“It is my duty to save you from sin.”
“You save me! What did you religious people do when Jerusalem was being shelled and attacked? You prayed but we fought and had hard times and some of us lost our lives.”
“We saved Jerusalem. If we had not prayed to the Almighty He would not have spared Jerusalem.”
A conflict which appeared irreconcilable.
On December,22nd, 1948, fighting again flared up in the Negev.
The Egyptians had not been silent and had launched a few minor attacks against the Jews. On December 1st, the Jews had agreed to allow a “relief convoy” to go to Falujja to supply the Egyptians trapped there. On the discovery of arms amongst its contents it had been turned back.
The fighting waxed fierce in the Negev. Jewish columns struck far and wide, hard and fast. In Jerusalem the situation was quiet. The Arabs were letting the Jews tackle them one by one. Watching their own interests, divided by their own feuds in the midst of their “Holy War” with the Jews. In Jerusalem we felt like idle spectators and were sorry that we were not in the Negev. Three or four days before the new outburst of hostilities in the South we had been placed on a standby in Jerusalem and had been awaiting events in our own area.
Nothing exciting happened. It was a phoney war. In the South the Jews were fighting Egyptians, but on the Jerusalem front peace reigned. All were “pals” even those Egyptian soldiers facing Ramat Rahel, who were so close that we could hear them talking.
Yet the Egyptians from Egypt did not allow us a perfect peace. It was the night of January 2nd, 1949 and I went to visit some friends on the Western fringe of Jerusalem - an area I rarely had occasion to visit at night. Nearing their house I heard the hum of an aeroplane engine overhead. Since no air-raid siren had sounded I presumed that it was “one of ours” and continued on my way.
I rang the bell of the house. The effects of the manipulation of the button were more drastic than one could have expected, but the events were unrelated. Explosions and bursts rent the air. The lights inside the house went off in a flash and there was a muffled sound of movement of furniture and people. The door opened suddenly and I was dragged inside. We all waited in expectation. Jerusalem had been bombed and I had pressed the button at the same moment that the bombs had fallen.
The siren whirred through the night followed by the all-clear half an hour later. On my return I saw the damage. The bombs of 250 and 500 pounds had injured seven people, damaged a road and some buildings including an old-aged home and a synagogue. Later that night another alert was sounded followed by explosions from the Old City. Were the Egyptians trying to involve Transjordan in the war too?
Israeli troops smashed the Egyptian armies in the Negev. By January 7th, 1949 the operation had concluded. In 15 days’ battle the Egyptians had suffered an estimated 2500 casualties of which 700 were known dead and another 700 prisoner. An Egyptian brigade had been wiped out, the enemy’s armoured forces destroyed and large numbers of armoured vehicles captured by the Jews. The enemy had been surprised and outmanoeuvred. Israeli forces spent two or three days in Egyptian territory penetrating inwards for 50 or 60 kilometres. Enemy installations were destroyed, aerodromes raided, military trains derailed. Israeli ships controlled the coast and Israeli fighters and bombers ruled the skies.
Headline news was the shooting down of five R.A.F ‘planes over the Negev and the capture of two R.A.F. pilots inside Israeli frontiers. The mighty R.A.F. Served them right, the people said. The Israeli government charged that the British had to bear the blame for the loss of the planes since the aircraft had carried out, undeniably over Israel territory, a reconnaissance of Israel positions in a battle area in co-operation with the Egyptian air-force. They had no right to be flying over Israeli battle positions and had to accept responsibility for any untoward results.
British activities were hitting the headlines and causing alarums and excitement. We Anglo-Saxons were especially involved. In December England charged the Jews with incursions into Transjordan and issued a warning that she would be obliged to take action. Yet when the Arab states invaded Israel, against the orders of the United Nations, England was silent. In January she announced that her troops had landed at Akaba. Rumours were ten-a-penny. The British were supposed to be near Bethlehem and Hebron. Tension was heightened. At times it seemed as if we and the British might come to blows. No Israeli would have flinched despite Britain’s might.
The young Sabras were quite keen on the idea. They’d teach them to interfere in other people’s affairs. One or two Anglo-Saxons were mooting a plan for Anglo-Saxon units, which would volunteer to fight specifically against any British units which might attack the Jews.
Personally I was not keen to witness any such conflict. While I found the British Middle East policy wicked, unprincipled and dishonest, I was not happy to see young Jews and young Britons, (with whom we had no real quarrel for they were mere puppets) lose their lives for power politics. But if Great Britain tried to sabotage a little stage and a people deserving of independence Israel would fight to the bitter end and inflict grievous losses on the encroacher.
Fortunately nothing happened. Bevin received such an attack in the House of Commons from Britons that he modified his policy. Perhaps a new era of British - Israeli relations had dawned?