Review: Genesis, 1948: The first Arab Israeli war

Israel’s War of Independence, the eighteen month conflict it fought against the Arabs from 1947-1949, has been told hundreds of times in tens of styles and themes.

Many histories on the war itself, the battles, the social history with the populations being forced to leave their homes on both sides, and the social and political ramifications this caused afterward has been explained and re explained. The War of 1948 actually rivals World War II prolifically in published books and articles.

Dan Kurzman’s “Genesis 1948: The first Arab Israeli War”  is unique from all of the others in that it stands alone as a non fiction novel about the entire war, from the UN partition vote to create two states out of Palestine, one Jewish and one Arab to the final armistice negotiations with Syria, the last Arab country to sign a cease fire agreement, essentially initializing one the great victories of history, the return of the Jews to their historic and now sovereign homeland after 1800 years of dispersion.

What makes Kurzman’s treatment different from all the others is that he tells the story from the point of view of the

Not sure which battle this is but I think it was late in the war, maybe against the Egyptians, September or October 1948

Not sure which battle this is but I think it was late in the war, maybe against the Egyptians, September or October 1948

participants. Written as a novel in epic form, the cast is quite large but each character has a significant speaking part to tell what they felt, saw and did during the frightening moments of battle, how they slept when it was calm, even amusing themselves with sports to relieve the tension between confrontations with the enemy.  He uses extensive interviews as his main source to build his story which both he and his reader already know how it comes out in the end.

Although first published in 1970, the edition that I read for this review was the 1992 soft cover edition by DeCapo Press. That one is pretty cool because it has an introduction by Yitzhak Rabin, just before he took office as Prime Minister. This was the time we almost thought we might have ended the conflict with the Palestinians.

A format like this gives the author the latitude to reach deep into the thinking of both major and minor players, and how people behaved when confronted with the many morbid states of war for both sides. It is like watching it through a window, reading what happened in that stitch of time, the Jews struggling to create the first Jewish State in 1800 years and the Arab states surrounding it, willing to do just about anything to keep that from happening.

What makes a format like this so valuable is the larger meaning behind a story like this, beyond just the Jews winning their independence and the Arabs humiliated by it. Reading their actual words before during and after battle, you get a sense of what war does to the human psyche, how it affects a person to be shot at, to be hit or to kill another human being.

You are treated to real valor, courage, and what it means to die for something you really believe in.

 

For example:

The runner who had been crawling from position to position with a helmetful of dirty water dredged from a small pool, handed the helmet to the Bren gunner for a sip , then started firing again.

“I can’t go,” the gunner said suddenly, as he again loosened his grip on the gun.

“why not?”

“I ‘ve been hit in both legs, I can’t move.”

“We’ll carry you.”

“You’ll be lucky to get out with the wounded you have. Leave me here and I’ll cover you.”

“but we can’t leave you…”

“Never mind! Take off! I’ll be all right”

As Gandhi and his men struggled southward carrying their wounded, the echo of the bren gun fire from the crest of the hill rattled in their ears like the angry voice of God—until the voice was suddenly silenced.(p. 327)

 

War stories just don’t get any better than that. The names here are not mentioned. That is for a reason. You might

Israeli woman soldier in the act of throwing a hand grenade. Cool huh? Sort of reminds you of those battling broads of today's Kurdish assault on ISIS. One of many similarities between that time in Israel and today in Kurdistan redeemed.

Israeli woman soldier in the act of throwing a hand grenade. Cool huh? Sort of reminds you of those battling broads of today’s Kurdish assault on ISIS. One of many similarities between that time in Israel and today in Kurdistan redeemed.

find out before or after  who the “Bren gunner,” or the “runner” was, or even why the men are commanded by someone named “Ghandi” later,  but for this section it just does not matter. The fighting spirit is loose in Kurzman’s words. The thought that one man would sacrifice himself like that is the stuff of Hollywood movies., but this happened during the war of 1948.  You can turn to virtually anywhere in this book and find passages like that. Just to give this example all I did was open the book.

Page after page you are treated to this insight. It is kind of a” you are there” concept in non-fiction novel writing.

Egalitarian to the core, Kurzman devotes the same attention and space to the famous names of that time, Ben Gurion, Mickey Markus,  Abd el-Kader as he does to the lesser known names, right down to the universal faceless, nameless soldier without whom this war could not have been fought.  As you move through this book you live alongside the exact people who lived through those terrifying days and nights for a year and half at the end of the most bloody decade in modern history. The ones whose names you never knew, feel their fears, their triumphs, their defeats, almost their very essence transcends you back and forth through time from 1948 to the spot in your living room where you are reading it.

Kurzman’s treatment in Genesis 1948 sets itself apart from the dry, sterilized accounts from historians that now have access to government documents and have had thirty years or more to analyze the war on every issue. And, that brings me to a special criticism I personally have against those historians, not their work, but their  completely dismissive and rather snobbish attitude toward histories like Kurzman’s.

Avi Shlaim, one of these historians scoffs at this kind of history claiming that isn’t history at all. “Most of the voluminous literature on the war (1948) was written not by professional historians but by participants, by politicians, soldiers, official historians, and a large host of sympathetic chroniclers, journalists, biographers, and hagiographers and should therefore be rejected.” Shlaim goes deep into this arugment in “The Debate about 1948” by Avi Shlaim, The International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 27, No.3, (August 1995) p. 287-304.  That only his type of meticulous reading and interpreting evidence can provide a quality rendering of the history especially of the war of 1948 of which Shlaim is an expert. I almost feel sorry for him, that he and his colleagues cannot understand how close to the real thing a Kurzman treatment can be.  It is what every historian craves for to have been there. Reading Kurzman’s account is a much broader, refreshing, more human, definitely a more realistic way of looking at this all important war.

In the ensuing years “Genesis 1948: the first Arab Israeli war”, has largely been forgotten as the epic novel that it is. If you have the slightest interest in that war, on either side, or if you are just a fan of military history and this book has somehow past you by, put it on your list. You will not be disappointed. I promise you.

This is a pretty good little film of the Jewish side of the war. Produced by the History channel in conjunction with the Martin Gilbert, a Jewish historian, who also narrated the film. It is in two 45 min segments, the first taking you up  to the Declaration of Independence and into about the first week of the war. The second part covers everything else that happened after, through negotiations for an armistice and as a bonus the months of March and April 1949 in Israel shown in color, the country beginning to normalize itself in the wake of victory. Israel becoming Israel after the war. It is fascinating to watch. Since it covers the war almost week to week finding places in the book to correspond with Gilbert’s narrative is not difficult to do. If you are really interested in history it could be a fun thing to do.  If you are on the other side, a supporter of the destruction of Israel, or just a supporter of the Arab narrative of 1948 you will not like this film. Just skip it, because it isn’t for you.
Photo at the top courtesy of Ynet.news.com.

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