Two books give insight.
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May 14 marked the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the modern State of Israel and many commemorations and celebrations have taken place in Israel and around the world. Indeed, there is a lot to celebrate, but it is good to remember that Israel was only secured after it successfully defended itself in the 1948 War of Independence.
That war is still, by far, the most devastating war in Israel’s history. Nearly 6,400 Israeli military personnel and civilians, or 1 percent of the nation’s citizens, lost their lives. More than 15,000 were wounded. In the Yom Kippur War, for comparison, the casualties were roughly half that of 1948.
There are many books on the War of Independence, but two have received acclaim, and one of those books, a lot of criticism. In these two volumes, however, a reader can find an excellent overall perspective of this crucial Israeli conflict.
1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War by Benny Morris (Yale University Press, 2008) is, perhaps, the best single volume of the military history of the war. It is a lengthy, scholarly read. Morris narrates the war in detail from its beginning in November 1948 until armistice agreements concluded in July 1949.
A self-proclaimed “new historian,” Morris reaches some controversial conclusions. He believes the war soon developed a religious and cultural dimension and that if the Arabs surrounding the nascent state had their way, they would have eliminated any trace of a Jewish state in Palestine. This was a supreme motivator for Israel’s soldiers and sailors. But, Morris also concludes that by the end of the war, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had developed from a militia into the most powerful, well-equipped, best-organized and best-led military in the Middle East.
This dispels a historic notion of a rag-tag Israeli military.
Along the way, Morris also shows that, while few in number, Arab forces, and in some instances Israeli forces, had committed war crimes against civilians. A good history should evoke questions and critical thought, and Morris’s work certainly does that.
One of the best memoirs of 1948, a best-seller in Israel in 1962, is now available in English: Days of Lead: Defying Death During Israel’s War of Independence by Moshe Rashkes (Apollo Publishers, 2017). Moving away from the big picture of strategy and state politics, Rashkes writes about the war in an immediate sense — the war on the ground where a soldier is faced with two primary missions: to survive and to fight for the man standing next to him.
Rashkes’ narrative is that of an 18-year-old soldier facing the bitter fighting early in the war, on the road to besieged Jerusalem. This is a most personal story. Rashkes was indeed a soldier who was seriously wounded in the war; he later became chairman of the IDF’s veterans’ organizations. Rashkes’ rendition of how it feels to be in combat, see the deaths of his comrades and have the pain of wounds is, to say the least, deeply moving. One cannot read this rather brief book without thinking of one question: How did the IDF do it? How did they overcome the suffering, the deprivations and the deaths they witnessed?
The 1948 War for Independence was monumental, and the modern State of Israel stands as a testament to the war’s impact and result. Reading these books provides good insight into the nature of the war itself and how it affected the participants.