Eliezer Tauber, the founder and first chair of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Bar-Ilan University and author of The Massacre That Never Was: The Myth of Deir Yassin and the Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, spoke to a November 21st Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the founding myths of the Palestinian narrative regarding the battle in Deir Yassin.
Tauber said that according to the Palestinian narrative, in 1948 two Jewish paramilitary organizations attacked Deir Yassin, a "peaceful village" west of Jerusalem, and "massacred almost all of its inhabitants," committing a host of atrocities in the process. For the past seventy years, this narrative has served to support Palestinian accusations of the "inhumanity of the Israelis." Tauber began researching the event as a young Ph.D. student three decades ago, concluded that "you don't have two versions which say the same thing," and proceeded to undertake a "full scale" investigation into the Deir Yassin affair.
As his expertise in research methodology grew over the years, Tauber noted that "there was some very important sources that were available only during these last decades." He was able to access important documents in the archives of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which the Israeli Supreme Court had made unavailable to the public. Israeli historian Benny Morris, who had photocopied the critical documents from the IDF archives during the brief period of time the court made them accessible, turned the copies over to Tauber. Tauber said he also used the treasure trove of testimonies given by the ninety percent of Deir Yassin's population who survived.
Tauber approached his project with the aim of establishing whether a "massacre" had actually taken place in 1948. As a researcher who "masters Arabic," he investigated the testimonies by first finding all the names of the people killed in Deir Yassin, and then by verifying the "exact circumstances" of all those killed. Despite the seven decades that have passed, Tauber was able to collect and examine the testimonies of both Arab survivors and Jewish fighters. After deciding that his research would "lay heavily on the evidence given by the Arab sides," he was "surprised" to discover that the testimonies from each side were "very similar ... at times, even identical." To find the truth of what occurred that day, Tauber combined both versions to "yield one combined narrative."
Deir Yassin was not a "peaceful" village, he noted, but was "fortified" with a large cache of machine guns and automatic weapons. The Jewish fighters had extremely poor intelligence on Deir Yassin, wrongly believing there were Iraqi fighters among the villagers. In reality, all the fighters were local. Tauber said it was "unlucky" that the population had received the arms shipment from Egypt five days before the attack, for without weapons, the people, whom the Jews had warned in advance through a loudspeaker, would have "run away." Similarly, according to a Jewish fighter's testimony, had they understood the situation fully, they might not have attacked. Instead, the battle went forward, and the locals decided to stay and fight.
The testimonies proved that the ten-hour battle, which raged while civilians remained in place, ended with the Jewish military's success. Importantly, "when the battle ended, the killing stopped." Of the hundred people that were killed, Tauber verified that half were women and children and half were fighting-aged men. Of those killed, a quarter were "armed combatants." Tauber concluded that "there was no massacre, but a battle and only a battle." He said that from the thousand people of Deir Yassin, seven hundred heeded the loudspeaker warnings to vacate, one hundred were killed, and two hundred were captured by the Jews and "safely released" to the Arab area of Jerusalem. The civilians who died were killed, as Tauber described, because the Arab fighters were located among them, and it was not possible for the Jewish fighters always to distinguish between the two while fighting effectively. He described two instances showing how this reflected itself in the testimonies of fighters and residents.
The question remains: If this was a battle, why has the "massacre" myth endured? Then-Secretary General of the Arab Higher Committee, Husayn Fakhri al-Khalidi, made the fateful decision "to intentionally ... invent the massacre narrative," even though the Deir Yassin survivors opposed it. Tauber read the thirty-two-page transcript of an interview from a British television program in 1998 with al-Khalidi's assistant, Hazem Nuseibeh, who later became foreign minister in Jordan. Nuseibeh said al-Khalidi was "practical" and knew that the Arab fighters in then-Palestine would likely be overrun. Al Khalidi believed that the massacre narrative would pressure the surrounding Arab countries to invade.
The Deir Yassin survivors said they fought "until the last bullet" and objected to the massacre narrative. Al-Khalidi overrode their objections, believing that recasting the defeat of the Deir Yassin Arabs as a slaughter of innocents would best serve their interests. Nuseibeh spread the massacre narrative in Arabic broadcasts over the Palestine Board Corporation. It was so effective, Tauber said, that it "boomeranged." In one of the testimonies, a Deir Yassin survivor said "al-Khalidi caused ... the Nakba [catastrophe]," the term used by Arabs to describe their defeat in Israel's War of Independence. Although al-Khalidi thought he was serving the Palestinian Arab cause, the Palestinians "believed the massacre narrative, and they started to run away."
Regarding al-Khalidi's lie, Tauber has a more "liberal" opinion: "I'm not saying that he caused 'the catastrophe.' I'm saying that he wanted to prevent the catastrophe, but eventually ... caused one." The propagated myth has been used to "smear Israel" for the past seventy years. Tauber discovered that there is even an organization in the U.S. that is engaged in promoting the massacre myth.
Tauber's book was initially rejected by a leading American university press "precisely" because it "might harm Palestinian interest[s]." Eventually accepted by a trade publisher, Tauber said his book "was not received positively by American professors." Even Haaretz, "the most leftist newspaper" in Israel, published three positive reviews, with one written by a Palestinian. "Basically, [in the U.S.] we have academic professors betraying the profession in deciding to try to conceal a book because of political consideration[s], which is ... ridiculous."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.