One Man's Legacy

Uri Avnery accepting Yesh Gvul's Leibowitz Prize
I'll be blogging intermittently over the next three weeks. We'll be traveling to the US and Russia, returning to Jerusalem toward the end of February. And as a kind of going away present to ourselves, we went to Tel Aviv a couple of nights ago, to see Uri Avnery collect Yesh Kvul's Yeshayahu Leibowitz prize for his peace work over the past 60 plus years. I won't say more about him now. Uri is an icon. I will recount a story he told, apparently well known by now to historians, but which I had managed never to have heard before.

It seems that the IDF military officer who accepted the surrender of Nazareth in 1948 was one Ben Dunkelman, a Canadian who had fought in the Canadian Army during WWII and then came to Israel to fight for the nascent Jewish state. Once in command of the city, which was entirely peaceful, Dunkelman received an order to expel Nazareth's inhabitants--a direct order from the future Chief of Staff, Haim Laskov--much as the populations of Ramle and Lod were then being expelled.

"I was shocked and horrified," Dunkelman wrote. "I told him I would do nothing of the sort--in view of our promises to safeguard the city's people, such a move would be both superfluous and harmful. I reminded him that scarcely a day earlier, he and I, as representatives of the Israeli army, had signed the surrender document in which we solemnly pledged to do nothing to harm the city or its population. When Haim saw that I refused to obey the order, he left."

The order had been oral. Dunkelman, it seems, insisted that it be in writing, which no senior officer was prepared to do. (Neither would David Ben-Gurion put in writing the order to evacuate Ramle and Lod, by the way; Yitzchak Rabin and Yigal Allon complied with a wave of Ben-Gurion's hand.) Twelve hours later a new commander was appointed for Nazareth, Avraham Yaffe. "I complied with the order, but only after Avraham had given me his word of honour that he would do nothing to harm or displace the Arab population. [....] I felt sure that [the order to withdraw from Nazareth] had been given because of my defiance of the evacuation order."

We fell silent in the hall as Avnery told the story, reflecting on Dunkelman's heroism. You don't need unusual courage to fight your enemies, Leibovitz (and Orwell) taught, but you do to risk being called a traitor or a fool by your friends. Rabin described the evacuation of Lod and Ramle in poignant detail in his memoirs (pages the censor first tried to suppress, but which Avnery printed in his now defunct magazine Ha'Olam Hazeh). Rabin supposed the act was justified. But was it, even for strictly "security" reasons?

Nazareth is a hybrid city that, for all of its tensions, portends the democracy Israel must become. It has never been the source of violence. But among the youths expelled from Lod and Ramle 1948 were Khalil Ibrahim al-Wazir, or Abu Jihad, and George Habash--eventually, leaders of political organizations willing to engage in grotesque acts of terror. What was cause and what effect? Again, men and legacies.