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A visit to the doomed: Gush Etzion, 1947


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This letter by Zipporah Porath, from her book, Letters from Jerusalem, 1947-1948, was written to her parents from Jerusalem in October of 1947, just prior to the Israel War of Independence.

The letter begins by relating the ceremonies marking the opening of the academic year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The President of the university, Professor Judah Magnes, a proponent of peaceful relations with the Arabs of Palestine and founder of the Brit Shalom movement, made a speech favoring coexistence. Peace was not to be, however. 

Original bus ticket to Hebron, 1947

Most of the letter is devoted to a trip that Zipporah  took with friends, to see some typical kibbutzim (communal settlements). Her friends took her to Gush Etzion, a bloc of new settlements on land purchased south of Jerusalem, near Hebron. She describes the arduous work required to turn the unwilling land into a place that will support human habitation and a modern standard of living. Each of the kibbutzim was at a different stage of development. All were poor, and counted their achievements building by building, tree by tree, tomato by tomato. A children's house, a library, real homes instead of tents, were all major accomplishments and sources of pride. She concludes her observations about Gush Etzion with the ominous observation:

The only problem is that they are smack in the heart of Arab territory. So what sense of security can there be?  

Indeed, that was the problem. The United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, UN General Assembly Resolution 181, adopted two months later, placed Gush Etzion in the area assigned to the Arab Palestinian state. A few months later, in May of 1948, the settlements of Gush Etzion were destroyed by the British-officered Arab Legion, aided by Palestinian Arab irregulars, in an orgy of massacre and ethnic cleansing. The inhabitants and defenders were massacred or expelled, and the settlements were looted even before the battle had finished. (see Gush Etzion Remembered - The Kfar Etzion Massacre).

Palestine Airletter 1948

Zipporah ("Zippy") arrived in Mandatory Palestine in Oct. 1947, as an American student, for what was intended to be a year of study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  But, caught up in Israel's War of Independence, she served first as a medic in the underground Haganah defense forces, and then in the nascent IDF and the fledgling Israel Air Force. These volunteers from abroad were later recognized as part of the MACHAL volunteer corps.

The letters Zippy wrote to her parents and sister capture the historic events as they occurred. They are compiled in the book, Letters from Jerusalem, 1947-1948. You can order it from zip(at)netvision.net.il (Israel) or click here for review and order information

Jerusalem Palestine Air mail letter, 1947


October 30, 1947

Dearest Mother Dad and Naomi,

The Hebrew University held its official opening exercises yesterday morning. Donned my best duds and boarded the No.9 bus to Mount Scopus only to discover -- admission by ticket or not at all. Very solemn and formal these official occasions. I managed to get the ticket but the doors closed promptly at 10:30 with me still outside. Missed most of President Magnes' speech which I am told was very political -- out on a limb for Arab- Jewish brotherhood. He was followed by the Rector, then everyone sang Hatikva [the Zionist Anthem] and shuffled out of the hall.

The university is still discussing arrangements for the special courses I selected: nothing moves very fast or efficiently in this country. So I have time to take off for some sightseeing.

Oh I forgot to tell you about my tour to Gush Etzion. I went with G.I. Dov and Oded, a Sabra [Native-born Palestinian Zionist Jew]  who lives in our student house and goes out of his way to bring the Americans closer to what he calls the real Eretz Yisrael [Land of Israel]. We set out at about five in the morning for town where we caught an Arab bus and headed for Hebron. The interesting thing about the tour was that each of the settlements we visited was progressively older than the previous one so we were able to see the patterns of development in kibbutzim (communal agricultural settlements) and the way each added its own distinctive mark.

Our first stop was Kibbutz Revadim which is only about four months old. Oded, who served as our guide, joined the group when it went on hityashvut [settlement on the land] and was able to point out what had been accomplished in the two months since he had been there. There were two miserable huts serving as temporary living quarters: all the other physical amenities were equally makeshift. The only permanent fixtures were the security facilities -- a barbed wire fence to designate the boundaries, a concrete water tower and sand bag barricades. In a word. their lifestyle was stark simple. The youngsters who had come on hityashvut  with Oded were from the non-religious Hashomer Hatzair movement.

After tramping a couple of miles over the hills of Judea. we arrived at a religious kibbutz, Ein Tzurim, which is about a year old. It already has a dining room that also serves as a synagogue, the beginnings of some industry, a leather tanning shed and a machine shop and , of course, cows and a chicken run. The kibbutzim in the hilly regions have less cultivable land and practically no sources of water so they must industrialize to some degree. Ein Tzurim is preparing for the rainy season with ingenuity. Trenches have been dug in a V-shape which slope down the hills directing all rainwater to a central concrete drum where the water is filtered for impurities and will serve as a year round reservoir.

By 10:30 a.m. we were headed for Masuoth Yitzhak, but instead of keeping to the road, which would have meant a hike of about 10 miles, we took a shortcut over the mountains, literally mountain-climbed two huge steep hills which emptied into wadis. Looking up from the very bottom, all I could see was a ring of sky marked by the radius of the mountain brim. Oded called our attention to the fact that one of these mountains had been the scene of an ancient Maccabean battle. Scrambling up the loose earth, holding my breath for fear of losing my balance and scaling down the other side with the same cautious steps, I began to appreciate the heroism of those biblical warriors. Imagine running on foot or horseback-riding over that dangerous terrain, throwing stones or hurling spears as you went.

We came to two-year old Masuoth Yitzhak in time for lunch, which consisted of soup, stuffed peppers and clementina, a kind of tangerine. The first person we met there was a fellow student who showed us around. The houses were beautiful, surrounded by gardens and landscaped paths. In summer, the kibbutz members make a tidy sum by moving into tents and renting their houses to city vacationers. Vegetables had already been planted to make the kibbutz self-sufficient, to some extent.

About two miles further was our final stop, Kfar Etzion, which should be on your map because it is about four years old. A beautiful spot. Modern dining room, children's house, a real bathroom and shower house, culture hall and a fine library. They have a bee farm and furniture shop and a chicken run with the latest equipment. Very impressive. The pace has slowed down and every split second has ceased to be of urgency. Now they have time to talk, to point with pride to every little feature and to begin to enjoy life. The only problem is that they are smack in the heart of Arab territory. So what sense of security can there be?...




From  Zipporah Porath,Letters from Jerusalem, 1947-1948. Order it from zip(at)netvision.net.il (Israel) or click here for review and order information

Other letters from the book: Israel: This is my home - 1948; Palestine Partition - November 29, 1947 Palestine: Ben Yehuda Street Bombing


Letter copyright 1987 by Zipporah Porath. Introduction copyright 2008 by Zipporah Porath and Zionism-Israel.com. All rights reserved. This document may not be reproduced without express permission of the author and the publisher.

See also:Palestine Partition - November 29, 1947 Memoirs of a Palmach volunteer, 1948 , Was there Ethnic Cleansing in Palestine in 1948?
Israel - Birth of a Nation - The struggle for Israel's independence 
1948 Israel War of Independence (First Arab-Israeli war) Timeline (Chronology) MACHAL In Israel's Wars MACHAL in Israel's War of Independence MACHAL - in illegal immigration to Palestine and Israel War of Independence

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