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Arab Cleansing of the Old City – 1948

By Joseph I. Ungar

“The Jewish Quarter has been destroyed. Nothing remains there that has not suffered serious damage, which makes the return of the Jews to this place impossible.” Thus spoke Abdulla El-Tal, Jordanian commander of the force capturing the Old City of Jerusalem in 1948. After the surrender, signed on May 28th, he further stated, “I consider this defeat of the Jews to be the most serious blow to have befallen them, particularly in terms of their morale, since they were cut off from the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter for the first time in fifteen generations”. He had accomplished his mission.

Today, when the revision of history has become fashionable, we have a responsibility to remember, and if necessary, to publicize the facts surrounding this battle. They are well documented. John Phillips, reporter and photographer for Life Magazine, was there. His pictures and comments were recorded for posterity in the June 7th and June 28th editions. A telling representation of his work also appears in the exhibit “One Last Day”, displayed in the Cardo, the main commercial area of the new Old City.

For one-hundred fifty days, from December 1947 to May 1948, with British consent and supervision, the Jewish population of the Old City was held under siege. During this period of extreme hardship, many Jews left, and eventually only a small remnant of the original fifteen thousand remained. Then, on May 17th, the Arabs fired heavy artillery shells from the west. On May 18th Jordan’s Arab Legion invaded from the north and its 6th regiment entered from the east. On May 19th the 3rd and 5th regiments attacked. Recruits from other Arab nations, plus one-thousand five-hundred Jerusalem Arabs joined the onslaught.

Against these overwhelming odds stood one-hundred fifty Jewish defenders, including teen-agers and the elderly. With one-hundred thirteen weapons and limited ammunition, they strove to protect seventeen-hundred helpless residents.

Driven from house to house, the Jews fought valiantly for thirteen days. The Arab Legion was supported by an anti-tank artillery battery which blew up the houses. Rabbis Hazzan and Muitzberg went to the legion headquarters requesting a cease-fire for removal of the dead and wounded. Abdullah El-Tal refused.

By May 28th, the Jewish-held Quarter was restricted to five acres, into which crowded the surviving citizens and a few dozen defenders. They surrendered. At the surrender signing in the Batai Mahseh compound, Abdullah El-Tal shouted, “Let all the soldiers stand apart.” The first to step forward was Reb Moshe Yitzchak, an old man of seventy-eight.

The surrender terms allowed civilians to remain in the Quarter if they recognized the sovereignty of King Abdullah. Commented John Phillips, “Had any Jew decided, to remain in the Old City, he would have been homeless within hours and probably dead by nightfall.” Phillips continued with both objectivity and compassion.

“It was strange photographing a people who were being uprooted once again. Two-thousand six-hundred years ago it had been the Babylonians who first drove the Jews out of Jerusalem. After them came the Romans, the Persians, the Crusaders. Now it was the Arabs.”

“I stalked the dazed civilians while they assembled their belongings and trudged toward Ashkenazi Square . . . One hour was all they had to gather up the possessions of a lifetime.”

“Swarms of Palestinian irregulars and hangers-on burst in and reduced it [the Jewish Quarter] to a smoking ruin soon after the beaten Jews gave in. . .There was terror in the Old City and a frantic rush to grab prized possessions as women, children, and the aged were herded across the lines.” (The younger men were taken into captivity by the Arabs.)

Life Magazine titled the report, “Arabs Sack the Old City”. It stated that “Muslim censors, not only in Palestine but in neighboring Arab countries, tried for a fortnight to keep the news from leaking out.”

As recorded through the camera lens of John Phillips, the scene resembles a pogrom. A young girl, aged eight or nine, runs through the burning streets carrying a bundle of clothes. Elderly men and women, their faces dulled with fear, haul away mattresses. A grimacing sorrowful crowd of women, children, and bearded old men, is forced out of the Quarter through the Zion Gate. A woman attempts to feed her toddler a piece of matzah. In the midst of it all, an Arab soldier clutches his booty – a silver Torah crown.

Phillips managed to capture a “before and after” scene. We see a crowded street filled with exhausted residents who had been given one hour to gather their goods and leave. Then, the same area, now totally deserted, is pictured after plunder by the ensuing mob. Walls are blown out of the bordering houses. Stones and rubble cover the street. Smoke and a haze of dust cloud the air. A large crock of flowers which previously adorned a door-way, lies smashed.

“Holy Jerusalem has been cleansed of Jews. For the first time in over a thousand years not a single Jew remains in it,” said Abdullah El-Tal at this point.

Within a short while, twenty seven synagogues met destruction. In following days, fifty-three of the fifty-four synagogues in the Old City were ransacked and blown apart. Looters held sway, and Phillips photographed Arabs carrying away not only furnishings, but even doors and windows.

Today in the news media, whenever the subject of the Old City arises, we are informed that Israel captured it from Jordan in the 1967 war. Never is the 1948 Arab conquest and reign of destruction even mentioned. By now, large segments of the American public may well believe the converse, that in 1967 the Jews captured and destroyed an ancient Arab Quarter. One reporter inferred as much a couple of years ago when he remarked that all the dwellings in the present Jewish Quarter appeared newly built.

The revisionists must not be granted a toe-hold. Israel’s reconquest in 1967 of the oldest Jewish neighborhood in the world is a compelling historic fact, and the subsequent conversion of rubble heaps into a gleaming new Quarter is a matter worthy of pride. Jews from around the globe now come to cherish and traverse the pathways of their ancestors.

As Jews, however, we can take nothing for granted. Here too is an epoch in history which the world seems inclined to forget. We know the story too well. Adherence to the facts is essential, and there is no room for compromise.

Therefore, we must not forget the devastating bombardment of the Old City in 1948, the plundering and looting and burning, and the ultimate destruction and ruin. Furthermore, we dare not forget the arrogant declarations of Abdulla El-Tal, for sadly, his echoes still resonate in many parts of the middle east.

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