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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

My Country, My Life

Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace

Ehud Barak

St. Martin's Press



Kibbutz Roots

I am an Israeli. But I was born in British-ruled Palestine, on a fledgling kibbutz: a cluster of wood-and-tar-paper huts amid a few orange groves and vegetable fields and chicken coops. It was just across the road from an Arab village named Wadi Khawaret, whose residents fled in the weeks before the establishment of the State of Israel, when I was six years old.

As prime minister half a century later, during my stubborn yet ultimately fruitless drive to secure a final peace treaty with Yasir Arafat, there were media suggestions that my childhood years gave me a personal understanding of the pasts of both our peoples, Jews and Arabs, in the land that each saw as its own. But that is in some ways misleading. Yes, I did know firsthand that we were not alone in our ancestral homeland. At no point in my childhood was I ever taught to hate the Arabs. I never did hate them, even when, in my years defending the security of Israel, I had to fight, and defeat, them. But my conviction that they, too, needed the opportunity to establish a state came only later, after my many years in uniform—especially when, as deputy chief of staff under Yitzhak Rabin, Israel faced a violent uprising in the West Bank and Gaza that became the first intifada. And while my determination as prime minister to find a negotiated resolution to our conflict was in part based on a recognition of the Palestinian Arabs’ national aspirations, the main impulse was my belief that such a compromise was profoundly in the interest of Israel, whose existence I had spent decades defending on the battlefield and which I was ultimately elected to lead.

Zionism, the political platform for the establishment of a Jewish state, emerged in the late 1800s in response to a brutal reality. That, too, was a part of my own family’s story. Most of the world’s Jews, who lived in the Russian empire and Poland, were trapped in a vise of poverty, powerlessness, and anti-Semitic violence. Even in the democracies of Western Europe, Jews were not necessarily secure. Theodor Herzl, a largely assimilated Jew in Vienna, published the foundational text of Zionism in 1896. It was called Der Judenstaat. “Jews have sincerely tried everywhere to merge with the national communities in which we live, seeking only to preserve the faith of our fathers,” he wrote. “In vain are we loyal patriots, sometimes super-loyal. In vain do we make the same sacrifices of life and property as our fellow citizens … In our native lands where we have lived for centuries, we are still decried as aliens.” Zionism’s answer was the establishment of a state of our own, in which we could achieve the self-determination and security denied to us elsewhere.

During the 1890s and the early years of the new century, more than a million Jews fled Eastern Europe, but mostly for America. It was only in the 1920s and 1930s that significant numbers arrived in Palestine. Then, within a few years, Hitler rose to power in Germany. The Jews of Europe faced not just discrimination and pogroms. They were systematically, industrially murdered. From 1939 until early 1942, when I was born, nearly 2 million Jews were killed. Six million would die by the end of the war. Almost the whole world, including the United States, rejected pleas to provide a haven for those who might have been saved. Even after Hitler was defeated, the British shut the doors of Palestine to those who had somehow survived.

* * *

I was three when the Holocaust ended. Three years later Israel was established, in May 1948, and neighboring Arab states sent in their armies to try to snuff the state out in its infancy. It would be some years before I fully realized that this first Arab-Israeli war was the start of an essential tension in my country’s life, and my own: between the Jewish ethical ideals at the core of Zionism and the reality of our having to fight, and sometimes even kill, in order to secure, establish, and safeguard our state. Yet even as a small child, I was keenly aware of the historic events swirling around me.

Mishmar Hasharon, the hamlet north of Tel Aviv where I spent the first seventeen years of my life, was one of the early kibbutzim. These collective farming settlements had their roots in Herzl’s view that an avant-garde of “pioneers” would need to settle a homeland that was still economically undeveloped, and where even farming was difficult. Members of Jewish youth groups from Eastern Europe, among them my mother, provided most of the pioneers, drawing inspiration not just from Zionism but from the still untainted collectivist ideals represented by the triumph of Communism over the czars in Russia.

It is hard for people who didn’t live through that time to understand the mind-set of the kibbutzniks. They had higher aspirations than simply planting the seeds of a future state. They wanted to be part of transforming what it meant to be a Jew. The act of first taming, and then farming, the soil of Palestine was not just an economic imperative. It was seen as deeply symbolic of Jews finally taking control of their own destiny. It was a message that took on an even greater power and poignancy after the mass murder of the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust.

Even for many Israelis nowadays, the physical challenges and the all-consuming collectivism of life on an early kibbutz are hard to imagine. Among the few dozen families in Mishmar Hasharon when I was born, there was no private property. Everything was communally owned and allocated. Every penny—or Israeli pound—earned from what we produced went into a communal kitty, from which each one of the seventy-or-so families got a small weekly allowance. By “small,” I mean tiny. For my parents and others, even the idea of an ice cream cone for their children was a matter of keen financial planning. More often, they would save each weekly pittance with the aim of pooling them at birthday time, when they might stretch to the price of a picture book, or a small toy.

Decisions on any issue of importance were taken at the aseifa, the weekly meeting of kibbutz members held on Saturday nights in our dining hall. The agenda would be tacked up on the wall the day before, and the session usually focused on one issue, ranging from major items like the kibbutz’s finances to whether, for instance, our small platoon of delivery drivers should be given pocket money to buy a sandwich or a coffee on their days outside the kibbutz or be limited to wrapping up bits of the modest fare on offer at breakfast time. That debate ended in a classic compromise: a little money, very little, so as to avoid violating the egalitarian ethos of the kibbutz.

But perhaps the aspect of life on the kibbutz most difficult for outsiders to understand, especially nowadays, is that we children were raised collectively. We lived in dormitories, organized by age group and overseen by a caregiver: in Hebrew, a metapelet, usually a woman in her twenties or thirties. For a few hours each afternoon and on the Jewish Sabbath, we were with our parents. Otherwise, we lived and learned in a world consisting almost entirely of other children.

Everything around us was geared toward making us feel like a band of brothers and sisters, as part of the wider collective. Until our teenage years, we weren’t even graded in school. And though we didn’t actually study how to till the land, some of my fondest early memories are of our “children’s farm”—the vegetables we grew, the goats we milked, the hens and chickens that gave us our first experience of how life was created. And the aroma always wafting from the stone ovens in the bakery at the heart of the kibbutz, where we could see the bare-chested young men producing loaf after loaf of bread, not just for Mishmar Hasharon but small towns and villages for miles around.

Until our teenage years, we lived in narrow, oblong homes, four of us to a room, unfurnished except for our beds, under which we placed our pair of shoes or sandals. At one end of the corridor was a set of shelves where we collected a clean set of underwear, pants, and socks each week. At the other end were the toilets—at that point, the only indoor toilets on the kibbutz, with real toilet seats rather than just holes in the ground. All of us showered together until the age of twelve. I can’t think of a single one of us who went on to marry someone from our own age group in the kibbutz—it would have seemed almost incestuous.

Mishmar Hasharon and other kibbutzim have long since abandoned the practice of collective child rearing. Some in my generation look back on the way we were raised not only with regret, but pain: a sense of parental absence, abandonment, or neglect. My own memories are more positive. The irony is that we probably spent more waking time with our parents than town or city children whose mothers and fathers worked nine-to-five jobs. The difference came at bedtime, or during the night. If you woke up unsettled, or ill, the only immediate prospect of comfort was from the metapelet or another of the kibbutz grown-ups who might be on overnight duty. Still, my childhood memories are overwhelmingly of feeling happy, safe, protected. I do remember waking up once, late on a stormy winter night when I was nine, in the grips of a terrible fever. I’d begun to hallucinate. I got to my feet and, without the thought of looking anywhere else for help, made my wobbly way through the rain to my parents’ room and fell into their bed. They hugged me. They dabbed my forehead with water. The next morning, my father wrapped me in a blanket and took me back to the children’s home.

To the extent that I was aware my childhood was different, I was given to understand it was special, that we were the beating heart of a Jewish state about to be born. I once asked my mother why other children got to live in their own apartments in places like Tel Aviv. “They are ironim,” she said. City-dwellers. Her tone made it clear they were to be viewed as a slightly lesser species.

* * *

Though both my parents were part of the pioneer generation, my mother, unlike my father, actually arrived as a pioneer, part of a Jewish youth group from Poland that came directly to the kibbutz. In addition to being more naturally outgoing than my father, she came to see Mishmar Hasharon as her extended family.

Esther Godin grew up in Warsaw. Born in 1913, she was the oldest of the six children of Samuel and Rachel Godin. Poland at the time was home to the largest Jewish community in the world, more than 3 million by the time of the Holocaust. While the Jews of Poland had a long history, the Godins did not. Before the First World War, my mother’s parents made their way from Smolensk in Russia to Warsaw, which was also under czarist rule. When the war was over, the Bolshevik Revolution had toppled the czars. Poland became independent under the nationalist general Józef Pilsudski. The Godins had a decision to make: either return to now-Communist Russia or stay in the new Polish state, though without citizenship because they had not been born there. No doubt finding comfort, community, and a sense of safety amid the hundreds of thousands of Jews in the Polish capital, they chose Pilsudski over Lenin. They lived in what would become the Warsaw Ghetto, on Nalewski Street, where Samuel Godin eked out a living as a bookbinder.

My mother came to Zionism as a teenager, and it was easy to understand why she, like so many of the other young Jews around her, was drawn to it. She saw how hard her parents struggled economically, on the refugee fringes of a Jewish community itself precariously placed in a newly assertive Poland. She saw no future there. Though she attended a normal state-run high school, she and her closest friends joined a Zionist youth group called Gordonia, which had been founded in Poland barely a decade earlier. She started studying Hebrew. Each summer, from the age of fourteen, she and her Gordonia friends would retreat deep into the Carpathian Mountains, where they worked for local Polish landowners and learned the rudiments of farming and the rigors of physical labor. Late into the evening, they would learn not just about agriculture but Jewish history, the land of Palestine, and how they hoped to put both their newfound skills and Zionist ideals into practice.

She had just turned twenty-two when she set off for Mishmar Hasharon with sixty other Gordonia pioneers in the summer of 1935. It took them nearly a week to get there. They traveled by train south through Poland, passing not far from the little town of Oswiecim, which would later become infamous as the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Then, on through Hungary and across Romania to the grand old Black Sea port of Constan?a; by ship through the Bosphorus, past Istanbul; and on to Haifa on the Palestinian coast, from where they were taken by truck to their bunk-bed rooms in one of a dozen prefab structures on the recently established kibbutz. Though the water came from a well and the kibbutz lacked even the basic creature comforts of the cramped Godin apartment in Warsaw, to my mother, it was just part of the challenge and the dream she’d embraced, which had come to define her. It was, she confided to me many years later, as if only then was her life truly beginning.

That feeling never left her. Yet it was always clouded by the memory of the family she left behind. When the Second World War began in September 1939, the Germans, and then the Soviets, invaded, overran, and divided Poland. Two of my mother’s three sisters fled to Moscow. Her teenage brother Avraham went underground, joining the anti-Nazi partisans. All three survived the war. But in the autumn of 1940, the rest of her family found themselves inside the Warsaw Ghetto with the city’s other 400,000 Jews. My mother’s parents died there, along with her thirteen-year-old brother Itzik and her little sister Henya, who was only eleven.

When my mother arrived at the kibbutz, her Gordonia friends assumed she would marry a young man named Ya’akov Margalit, the leader of their group back in Warsaw. But the budding romance fell victim to the Zionist cause. As she embarked on her new life, Margalit was frequently back in Poland training and arranging papers for further groups of pioneers. He continued to write her long, heartfelt letters. But the letters had to be brought from the central post office in Tel Aviv, and the kibbutznik who fetched the mail was a quiet, diminutive twenty-five-year-old named Yisrael Mendel Brog—my father. Known as Srulik, his Yiddish nickname, he had come to Palestine five years earlier. He was an ordinary kibbutz worker. He drove a tractor.

My father’s initial impulse in coming to Palestine was more personal than political. He was born in 1910 in the Jewish shtetl of Pushelat in Lithuania, near the mostly Jewish town of Ponovezh, a major seat of rabbinic learning and teaching. His own father, the only member of the Pushelat community with rabbinical training, made his living as the village pharmacist. Many of the Jews who lived there had left for America in the great exodus from Russian and Polish lands in the early 1900s. By the time my father was born, the community had shrunk to only about 1,000.

When he was two years old, a fire destroyed dozens of homes, as well as the shtetl’s only synagogue. Donations soon arrived from the United States, and my paternal grandfather was put in charge of holding the money until rebuilding plans were worked out. The problem was that word spread quickly about the rebuilding fund. On the night of September 16, 1912, two burglars burst into my grandfather’s home and stole the money. They beat him and my grandmother to death with an axle wrenched loose from a nearby carriage. Their four-year-old son Meir—my father’s older brother—suffered a deep wound where the attackers drove the metal shaft into his head. He carried a golf-ball-sized indentation in his forehead for the rest of his life. My father had burrowed into a corner, and the attackers didn’t see him.

The two orphaned boys were raised by their paternal grandmother, Itzila. Any return to normalcy they may have experienced was cut short by the outbreak of the First World War, forcing her to flee with them by train ahead of the advancing German army. They ended up some 1,500 miles south, in the Crimean city of Simferopol. Initially under czarist rule, then the Bolsheviks, and from late 1917 until the end of the war under the Germans, they had to deal with cold, damp, and a chronic shortage of food. Uncle Meir quickly learned how to survive. He later told me that he would run after German supply carriages and collect the odd potato that fell off the back. Realizing that the German soldiers had been wrenched from their own families by the war, he began taking my father with him on weekends to the neighborhood near their barracks, where the soldiers would sometimes give them cookies, or even a loaf of bread. But they were deprived of the basic ingredients of a healthy childhood: nutritious food and a warm, dry room in which to sleep. By the time Itzila brought them back to settle in Ponovezh at the end of the war, my father was diagnosed with rickets, a bone-development disease caused by the lack of vitamin D in their diet.

In another way, however, my father was the more fortunate of the boys. The lost schooling of those wartime years came at a less formative time for him than for his brother. Meir never fully made up the lost ground in school. My father simply began his Jewish primary education, cheder, a couple of years later than usual. He thrived there. Still, when it was time for him to enter secondary education, he decided against going on with his religious education. Meir was preparing to leave for Palestine, so my father enrolled in the Hebrew-language Zionist high school. When he graduated, one of the many Brog relatives who were by now living in the United States, his uncle Jacob, tried to persuade him to come to Pittsburgh for university studies. But with Meir signing on as his sponsor with the British Mandate authorities, he left for Palestine shortly before his twentieth birthday. Jacob did still insist on helping financially, which allowed my father to enroll at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

He did well in his studies—literature, history, and philosophy—but abandoned them after two years. His explanation for not staying on, when I asked him years later, was that with the accelerating activity of the Zionist pioneers, it felt wrong to him to spend his days going to lectures, reading books, and writing essays. I am sure he also felt isolated and alone, with Meir, the only link to his life before Palestine, working in Haifa on the coast, four hours by bus from Jerusalem. When he began looking for a way to become part of the changes going on around him, Mishmar Hasharon didn’t yet exist. Its founding core—a dozen Russian Jewish pioneers—was still working on agricultural settlements near Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv, until they found a place to start their kibbutz. But they had been joined by several young men and women who, though a year or two older than my father, had been with him at the Hebrew High School in Ponovezh. He decided to join them.

Late in 1932, the Jewish National Fund, supported financially by leading Jewish figures in Western Europe and the United States, bought 2,000 acres from an Arab landowner near Wadi Khawaret. The area was set aside for three Jewish settlements: a moshav called Kfar Haim, where the land was divided into family plots, and two kibbutzim. One was called Ma’abarot. Next to it was Mishmar Hasharon. My father was among the seventy youngsters who set off in three trucks with everything they figured they would need to turn the hard, scrubby hill into a kibbutz. They built the core from prefab kits: wooden huts to sleep in and a slightly larger one for the dining hall. They dug a well and ordered a pump from Tel Aviv, at first for drinking and washing, but soon to allow them to begin a vegetable garden, a dairy with a dozen cows, and a chicken coop with a few hundred hens, and to plant a first orange grove and a small vineyard.

Still, by the time my mother arrived three years later, there were not enough citrus trees, vines, cattle, and chickens to supply a membership that now numbered more than 200. Along with some of the others, my father worked outside the kibbutz, earning a regular paycheck to help support the collective. On his way back, he would stop at the post office in Tel Aviv to pick up letters and packages for the rest of the kibbutz—including Ya’akov Margalit’s love letters to my mother. That was how my parents’ friendship began, how a friendly hello led to shared conversation at the end of my father’s workday, and how, a few years later, my mother decided to spurn her Gordonia suitor in favor of Srulik Brog, the postman. It was not until 1939 that they moved in together. They didn’t bother getting married until the summer of 1941. Perhaps because this was less than nine months before I was born, my mother always remained vague when asked their exact wedding date.

My parents were an unlikely pair. My mother—bright, lively, and energetic—was a doer, who believed passionately in the grand social experiment of kibbutz life. Having helped her mother raise her siblings in Warsaw, and with a natural affinity for children, she became the main authority on issues related to childbirth and early childcare. She actively partook in the kibbutz’s planning and politics, and reveled in its social life. My father was more detached both politically and socially. He was more contemplative, less assertive, less self-confident. Though he agreed broadly with the founding principles of the kibbutz and wanted to play his role in making it a success, I could see, as I grew older, that he was often impatient at what he saw as its intellectual insularity and its ideological rigidity.

As a result of his childhood illness, my father never grew to more than five foot four. Still, he was a powerful presence, stocky and strong from his work on the kibbutz, with a deep, resonant voice and wise-looking, blue-gray eyes. It was only through Uncle Meir that by the time I was born, he had moved on from driving a tractor to a more influential role on the kibbutz. Meir worked for the Palestine Electric Company, and when Mishmar Hasharon installed its own electricity system, the PEC was in charge of the work. Meir trained my father and put him forward as the kibbutz contact for maintaining and repairing the equipment. He was well suited for the work: a natural tinkerer, a problem-solver. He was good with his hands, and his natural caution was an additional asset as the kibbutz came to grips with the potential, and the potential dangers, of electric power. Once the system was installed, he became responsible for managing any aspect of the settlement that involved electricity: water pumps, the irrigation system, the communal laundry, and our bakery.

My parents were courteous and polite with each other, but they never showed any physical affection in our presence. None of the adults did. This was part of an unspoken kibbutz code. Not only for kibbutzniks but for all the early Zionists, outward displays of emotion were seen as a kind of self-indulgence that risked undermining communal cohesion, tenacity, and strength. Because I’d known no other way, this did not strike me as odd. Only in later years did I come to see the lasting effect on me. It would be a long time before I became comfortable showing my feelings beyond my immediate family and a few close friends. When I was in the army, this wasn’t an issue. Self-control, especially in high-pressure situations, was a highly valued asset. But in politics, I think that it did for a considerable time inhibit my ability to connect with the public, or at least with the news media that played such a critical intermediary role. And it caused me to be seen not just as reserved or aloof, but sometimes as cold, or arrogant.

I got much that I value from my parents. From my mother, her boundless energy, activism, her attention to detail, and her focus on causes larger than herself—her belief that politics mattered. Also her love for art and literature. When I would come home from the children’s dormitory to my parents’ room—just nine feet by ten, with a wooden trundle bed to save space during the day—there was always a novel or a book of verse sharing the small table with my parents’ most prized possession: their kibbutz-issue radio.

As a child, however, I spent much more time with my father. He was my guide, my protector and role model. Like my mother, he never mentioned the trials they and their families endured before arriving in Palestine. Nor did they ever speak to me in any detail about the Holocaust. No one on the kibbutz did, as if the memories were scabs they dared not pick at. Also, it seemed, because they were determined to avoid somehow passing on these remembered sadnesses to their sons and daughters. Still, when I was ten or eleven, my father—once, inadvertently—opened a window on his childhood. Every Saturday morning, we would listen to a classical music concert on my parents’ radio. One day, as the beautiful melodies of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major came through the radio, I was struck by the almost trancelike look that came over my father’s face. He seemed to be in another, faraway, place. When the music ended, he turned and told me about the first time he’d heard it. It was on the train ride into Crimean exile with Itzila and Meir in the early days of the First World War. The train took five days to reach Crimea and sometimes halted for hours at a time. Every evening, a man at the far end of their carriage would take out his violin and play the second movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto.

I have heard the piece in concert halls many times since. When the orchestra begins the second movement—with the violin notes climbing higher, trembling ever so subtly—it brings tears to my eyes. I can’t help thinking of the railway car in which my then-four-year-old father and other Jews from Ponovezh escaped the Great War of 1914. And of other trains, in another war twenty-five years later, carrying Jews not to safety but to death camps.

My father encouraged me, when I was eight, to learn the piano. I took lessons once a week throughout my childhood along with several other kibbutz children. When we got old enough, we took turns playing a short piece—the secular, kibbutz equivalent of an opening prayer—at the Friday night meal in the dining hall. I have always cherished being able to play. Sitting down at the piano and immersing myself in Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, or Chopin never ceases to bring me a sense of calm, of freedom, and—especially nowadays, when I have finally worked to master a particularly intricate piece—a feeling of pure joy.

* * *

As a young child, I spent most of my waking hours in the company of my several dozen kibbutz “siblings” in the children’s home, in the dining hall, or running through the open spaces in the center of the kibbutz with our metapelet, Bina, who would often take us through the orange groves in the afternoon, and sometimes across the main road to the Arab village.

Wadi Khawaret consisted of a few dozen concrete homes built back from a main street bordered by shops and storehouses. Bina would buy us sweets in the little grocery store. The man behind the counter had a kindly, weathered face and a dark mustache. Dressed in a gray galabiya and a keffiyeh, he smiled when we came in. There was always a group of Palestinian women, in full-length robes, seated on stoops outside breastfeeding their babies. We saw cattle, bulls, even the odd buffalo being led to or from the fields. I sensed no hostility, and certainly no hatred, toward us in the village. The people seemed warm and benignly indifferent to the dozen Jewish toddlers and their metapelet. My own attitude to Wadi Khawaret was of benign curiosity. I did not imagine that within a couple of years we would be on opposite sides of a war.

I enjoyed these visits, as I enjoyed every part of my early childhood. Each age group on the kibbutz was given a name. Ours was called dror. It was the Hebrew word for “freedom.” But dror was also the name of one of the Jewish youth movements in the Warsaw Ghetto, heroes in their doomed uprising against the Nazis. Little by little, from about the age of five, I became more aware of the suffering the Jews had so recently endured in the lands my parents had left behind, the growing tension around us, and the sense that something momentous was about to happen as the prospect of a state got closer.

The memories remain with me to this day, like a series of snapshots. On a spring morning in 1947, I got my first real sense that the Jewish state was something we would have to fight for, and that youngsters not that much older than me would play a critical role. I got a close-up look at the elite of the Zionist militias, the Palmach. It numbered something like 6,000, from a pre-state force totaling around 40,000. The Palmachniks were highly motivated activists, almost all of them in their late teens. They had no fixed base. Each platoon spent five or six months at a time on various kibbutzim. For the first two weeks of each month, they would earn their keep by working in the fields. They spent the other weeks training. I had just turned five when I watched three dozen Palmach boys and girls, in their T-shirts and short khaki pants, rappel confidently down the side of one of our few concrete buildings. The building was only twenty-five or thirty feet high, but it looked like a skyscraper from my perch on the grass in front, and the feat of the young Palmachniks seemed nothing short of heroic.

A few months later, on a Saturday afternoon in November 1947, I crowded into my parents’ room as the Haganah radio station crackled out its account of a United Nations debate on the future of Palestine. The session was the outcome of a long train of events starting with Britain’s acknowledgment that its mandate to rule over Palestine was unsustainable. The British had proposed a series of arrangements to accommodate both Arab and Jewish aspirations. Now, the UN was meeting to consider the idea of splitting Palestine into two new states, one Arab and the other Jewish.

Since the partition was based on existing areas of Arab and Jewish settlement, the proposed Jewish state looked like a boomerang, with a long, very narrow center strip along the Mediterranean, broadening slightly into the Galilee in the north and the arid coastline in the south. Jerusalem, the site of the ancient Jewish temple, was not part of it. It was to be placed under international rule. By no means were all Zionist leaders happy with partition. Many, on both the political right and the left, wanted a Jewish state in all of Palestine, with Jerusalem as its centerpiece. But David Ben-Gurion and the pragmatic mainstream argued that UN endorsement of a Jewish state—no matter what its borders, even with a new Palestinian Arab state alongside it—would represent a historic achievement. The proceedings went on for hours. At sundown, we had to return to the children’s home. But we were woken before dawn. The vote for partition—for the Jewish state Herzl first dreamed of fifty years before—had been won. A huge bonfire blazed in front of the bakery. All around us the grown-ups were singing and dancing in celebration.

On the Arab side, there was no rejoicing. Every one of the Arab delegations at the UN voted against partition, rejecting a Jewish state even if it was created along with a Palestinian Arab one. Violence erupted the next day. An attack on a bus near Lydda, on the road up to Jerusalem, left six Jews dead. Similar attacks occurred around the country. Shooting broke out in mixed Arab-and-Jewish towns and cities: Jaffa on the southern edge of Tel Aviv; Safed, Tiberias, and Haifa in the north; and in Jerusalem.

I followed all this with curiosity and trepidation through my halting attempts to read Davar le Yeladim, the weekly children’s edition of the Labor Zionist newspaper Davar. We children felt an additional connection to what was going on. One of our former housemates, a boy named Giora Ros, had left the year before when his father took a job in Jerusalem. As the battle for the city raged through the end of 1947 and into 1948, its besieged Jewish residents fought for their lives. Throughout the yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, food was being collected to relieve the city. We sent our friend packages of clothing and food, which we saved up by eating only half an egg at breakfast and smaller portions at dinner.

The mood darkened further at the end of January 1948, four months before the British departed. A cluster of settlements known as Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem near the hills of Bethlehem, also came under siege. Around midnight on January 15, a unit of Haganah youngsters—they would become known as “The 35”—set off on foot to try to break through. Marching through the night, they made it only within a couple of miles of Gush Etzion before they were surrounded and attacked by local Arabs. By late afternoon, all of them were dead. When the British authorities recovered their bodies, they found that the enemy had not simply killed them. All of the bodies had been battered and broken. Rumors spread that in some cases, the dead men’s genitals had been cut off and shoved into their mouths. Since I was still a few weeks short of my sixth birthday, I was spared that particular detail. But not the sense of horror over what had happened, nor the central message: the lengths and depths to which the Arabs of Palestine seemed ready to go in their fight against us. “Hit’alelu bagufot!” was the only slightly sanitized account we children were given. “They mutilated the corpses!”

Even after the partition vote, statehood was not a given. In the weeks before the British left, two senior Americans—the ambassador to the UN and Secretary of State George C. Marshall—recommended abandoning or at least delaying the declaration of an Israeli state. Ben-Gurion, however, feared that any delay risked the end of any early hope of statehood. After he managed to secure a one-vote majority in his de facto cabinet, the state was declared on May 14, 1948.

And hours later, the armies of five Arab states crossed into Palestine.

Copyright © 2018 by Ehud Barak