Thursday, April 19, 2007

The "Memory War"

The article of April 19, 2007 on The war for memory by Yair Sheleg

The Gelbgiser family lost twin sons, Shlomo and Menachem, in the War of Independence. Both were members of the Irgun, the pre-state underground militia. Shlomo was killed before the Irgun was incorporated into the Israel Defense Forces, and Menachem was killed afterward. And so Menachem was included in the official Yizkor memorial book of IDF fallen soldiers, whereas Shlomo, an Irgun fighter at the time of his death, was not.

Yaakov, their father, angrily returned the condolence postcards he received from prime minister David Ben-Gurion over the loss of his son Menachem. He wrote in a letter to the Defense Ministry: "I lost two beloved sons in the War of Independence, and the respect for the memory of one alongside the boycotting of the memory of the other cannot be considered genuine sharing in the sorrow of bereaved parents, nor even understanding for their aching souls, but rather adds anguish to the anguish they already feel."

This incident is cited by Dr. Udi Lebel, a political science lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, as an example of the Ben-Gurion era state's intentional omission of the fallen soldiers from the Irgun and Lehi militias. Lebel has written a book, "Haderech el Hapantheon: Etzel, Lehi Ve'gvulot Hazikaron Hayisraeli," (The Road to the Pantheon: The Irgun, Lehi and the Limits of the Israeli Memory) about this phenomenon. It is now being published jointly by Carmel Publishing, Sapir College and the Menachem Begin Heritage Foundation.

Lebel argues that the case of the Gelbgiser brothers represents a broad phenomenon. Other notable cases relate to the Irgun's Altalena weapons ship, sunk on order of the State of Israel in June 1948. Zvi Reifer, a Givati brigade soldier originally from the Irgun, went AWOL to assist his comrades on the Altalena. Reifer was killed in a clash with IDF soldiers on his way to the ship. At first his mother, Miriam Reifer, was recognized as a bereaved mother and received the standard compensation, but then the newspaper Herut published an obituary and an invitation to a memorial service for the boat's casualties, including Reifer. Following the notice, the Defense Ministry stopped paying compensation, claiming Reifer had not been killed in his capacity as an IDF soldier. His mother decided to submit an appeal and won. Haya Lifshitz, the widow of Itamar Lifshitz, an IDF soldier who was among those killed on the boat itself, filed a similar appeal and won.

Lebel says the Service Law, which determined who is an IDF soldier - and therefore who is an IDF casualty - was intentionally worded to exclude Lehi and Irgun members. So, for example, the law stipulates that pre-IDF military service will be considered "service in the Haganah and any organized activity against the Arab gangs and invading armies from November 30, 1947 (the day after the UN Resolution to establish the state - Y.S.) to December 31, 1948.

"The law specifically defined soldiers only as Haganah members," says Lebel. "It defined the war with dates that omitted most of the Irgun and Lehi members who earlier fought the British (they demanded recognition for anyone who fell in the war against the British, starting from the White Paper of 1939 - Y.S.); it defined as a soldier only those who fought the Arabs (and not the British - Y.S.), and only those who did so as part of an 'organized operation,' i.e., one under the auspices of the authorized institutions of the Yishuv."

Lebel notes another aspect that he believes highlights the omission of Irgun and Lehi members: "The cutoff date chosen also excluded many Haganah members from receiving recognition. In order to prevent this, the law included a special amendment authorizing the defense minister to decide to include people who fell before the cutoff. In practice, this amendment was used to retroactively enlist all the Haganah members and grant them rights. These were rights that of course were not granted to Irgun and Lehi members."

In 1954, when the handicapped persons law was revised to include compensation for those who were injured before the outbreak of the War of Independence, it specifically stated that the beneficiaries would be only those who served "in accordance with a call-up from the national institutions of Eretz Yisrael," that is, not in the Irgun or Lehi.

Ben-Gurion's statehood

Lebel attributes this policy of omission to one man: David Ben-Gurion. In Lebel's view, this was not just the continuation of the historical hostility, but political manipulation intended to minimize and suppress the status of the political parties then identified with "the breakaways" (primarily, Menachem Begin's Herut party).

"Ben-Gurion was a genius at cultural engineering, and understood very well the significance of the culture of memory in creating political status," says Lebel. "It was clear to him that if the right was not part of the national memory, then its political standing would also be affected."

Lebel even questions Ben-Gurion's entire view of statehood: "In my opinion, even 'statehood' is a form of manipulation. It's an ideology that takes the basic value of nationalism and cuts it according to the fabricated criteria of statehood. Anyone defined as 'statist' is in, and everyone else is left out."

Prof. Yehiam Weitz, an expert on the history of the Herut movement, confirms Lebel's arguments. Weitz, referring to a master's thesis written by his student Dr. Amir Goldstein on a similar subject, also raises an interesting theory regarding Ben-Gurion's motives: "Ben-Gurion knew the Mapai was a strong movement, but that it was gray and lacking an aura. He was also worried about the aura of underground fighters from the right and Palmach fighters on the left. Therefore, it was also very important to him to get the writer S. Yizhar on the Mapai slate of Knesset candidates. Yizhar was the literary symbol of the Palmach generation, and having him on the party slate gave it the lacking cultural aura."

On the other hand, former Palmach member Dr. Meir Pa'il does not understand why Irgun and Lehi members are complaining: "All in all, it's fairly natural that those who fought separately are memorialized separately and even buried separately. No one dishonored them, they were buried properly, and in the end, they have more monuments and more memorial books than they deserve relative to their actual contribution. They certainly knew how to commemorate themselves."

Entering the pantheon

In response to the establishment's intentional omission, Begin commissioned a special Yizkor memorial book for Irgun and Lehi casualties designed to look just like the official state book. He also set up an organization called Shelah (Rehabilitation for Freedom Fighters) to commemorate and aid Irgun and Lehi members. Herut MKs contributed every third salary to the organization, and Begin donated all his earnings from the publication of his book "The Revolt."

Of course, a sizable part of the fight for the national memory relates to the monuments. Irgun and Lehi members very much wanted such monuments, especially for the 12 who were hanged, but Lebel says the state tried to thwart private efforts to build them. "Only in cities that were not controlled by Labor members could such monuments be built locally," he says. So, for example, in 1954 a monument in memory of Dov Gruner was built in Ramat Gan, a city controlled by the General Zionists.

Lebel refers to the time between Ben-Gurion and Begin as the "ambivalent period" for fallen members of the Irgun and Lehi. They were no longer omitted, but various official authorities still alienated them in practice. The dramatic change came after Begin joined the national unity government in 1967. In 1968, the government started commemorating all "casualties of Israel's wars" on Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers, with the intention being the unstated inclusion of underground fighters and all those who fell prior to the establishment of the state.

That year, the Chief Rabbinate changed the wording of the Yizkor memorial prayer to include the fighters in the underground. From that point, Memorial Day also included official ceremonies beside the graves of the 12 Irgun members who were hanged. An agreement was reached on the "retroactive drafting" of the Irgun casualties, and an IDF insignia was affixed to their graves. However, Lebel relates that there were disputes with local branches of the Yad Labanim organization, which refused to commemorate fallen underground fighters.

Begin's rise to power in 1977 changed things for good. New laws applied IDF casualty status and the right to be buried in military cemeteries to those who fell in the fight to establish the state prior to November 30, 1947, and the name of Memorial Day was officially changed from Memorial Day for the Fallen of the War of Independence and the IDF to Memorial Day for the Fallen of Israel's Wars. The Irgun and Lehi museums were transferred from the private organizations that operated them to the Defense Ministry, a step that definitively brought the fallen of the Irgun and Lehi into the national pantheon.