On May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, declared the establishment of Israel, a Jewish state in the biblical homeland of the Jewish people. Immediately following Israel’s birth as a nation, five neighboring Arab nations – Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan and Iraq – declared war on the fledgling state and thus began Israel’s War of Independence.
Although Israel emerged victorious, the costs were high. More Israelis died during Israel’s War of Independence than in any of the other wars against the Jewish State. Indeed, 4,000 Israeli soldiers and 2,000 Israeli civilians lost their lives fighting for Israeli independence. That number amounted to one percent of the Israeli population at the time. Considering the size of the Israeli population back then, this number amounted to triple the percentage of American causalities during World War II.
As Israelis and Jews around the world commemorate Yom Haziikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, it is important to remember the tragedies as well as the stories of bravery and heroism.
One of the greatest massacres that the Arab forces perpetrated against Jews during Israel’s War of Independence was the massacre of a convoy of doctors and nurses at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem on April 13, 1948, when 79 innocent people, many who were working to save other lives, were slaughtered. Tamar Fuchs, who was 12 at the time, remembers the massacre vividly.
“At about 10 a.m., a neighbor burst in shouting, ‘They’re attacking the convoy to Mt. Scopus.’ From the roof, we saw black smoke and passing British cars which did not offer help,” Fuchs said, recalling “the sharp smells of burnt flesh drifted with the eastern winds in our direction. Until 2 p.m. we saw smoke and heard explosions. My friend’s sister, Nurse Ziva Barazani, was in the convoy. Her remains were not found.”
Another horrific event was the Gush Etzion massacre on May 13, 1948. All 133 inhabitants of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion were slaughtered, although after several days under siege they had emerged with white flags. This did not prevent the Arab forces from opening fire at the group and stabbing the ones who survived that attack with knives. Nor did they spare the women of the kibbutz. The kibbutz was then looted and burned.
Yet out of all of the tragedies that occurred during the 1948 war, the largest was the loss of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem following a siege during which the Jews living there had suffered immensely. In his book, Genesis 1948, author Dan Kurtzman describes what Judith Jaharan, one of the female defenders of the Jewish Quarter during the 1948 war, witnessed when she took a break from the fighting to visit her parents inside a synagogue where they took shelter:
“She found herself in a cage of terror in which women, children, and old men, all white-faced and trembling, clung to each other on dirt-encrusted blankets and mattresses spread over the floor, weeping, praying, shouting hysterically, or—-most horrifying of all—just gazing vacantly into a world far distant from the insane reality of explosions and machine-gun fire that shook the building like an earthquake.”
During this war, 22 of the 27 historic Jewish synagogues within the Old City of Jerusalem were destroyed. Sixty-eight residents of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City were killed during six months of war. After the Jewish forces surrendered, Jewish homes within the Old City were looted and burned, while dead Jewish bodies were put to the flame. The Arab Legion took 340 Jewish prisoners, while the rest of the Jewish population, consisting of 1,400 souls, was forcefully expelled from their homes. Thus, while Israel did succeed to gain her independence after the 1948 war, it came at a tremendous humanitarian cost.
On Yom HaZikaron we recognize the brave soldiers who fought so that Israel could become a state.
Nissim Gini was merely 10 years old during the 1948 war. Despite his age, due to the desperate situation within the Old City, he worked as a messenger. He was the youngest Israeli soldier to be killed in any Israeli war.
Over a thousand Canadian and American Jews volunteered to serve in the Israeli Armed Forces during the 1948 war; 40 lost their lives fighting for the State of Israel. On this important day, let us remember their courage and dedication.
By Rachel Avraham