Passover, 1948 the Time of Our Liberation
By Amos Ben Ami
Passover is always a memorable holiday in which we conclude the festive meal with a prayer that we should be next year in Jerusalem. But for those who were in Jerusalem in 1948, the memory was never forgotten.
The British had promised the Jews a homeland in Palestine in 1917 via the famed Balfour Declaration. However, as the years passed, the British slowly turned their favor towards the Arabs, at the expense of the Jews in Palestine. During the holocaust years, the British imposed strict immigration requirements that basically hermetically sealed off entrance to Israel and completely shut out a safe haven for those unfortunate Jews being murdered by the Nazis. The British desired to pacify the Arabs in order to win influence with them at the expense of Jewish blood.
Enduring the partial British rule which favored almost openly the Arabs at the Jew's expense, the Jews were anxious to have their own state. Because of the political climate, Britain decided to end their rule over Palestine. The year 1948 was the year that the British forces finally pulled out of Israel.
The British were desirous of exiting Palestine. It was a costly business and politically not profitable. They asked the United Nations to offer a solution and announced that they were committed to pulling out. However, the General Assembly voted not to be responsible for Palestine and Jerusalem.
The Jews lived in the old city of Jerusalem as well as the new city. Both areas received their food supplies from the single road from the coast, known as the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road. This narrow road which was the single source of supplies, ran up the mountain side and passed Arab villages. Supply trucks were easy targets for Arab snipers who found shelter in the neighboring villages and who lay in wait to ambush the supply convoys to the Jewish capitol.
The British, who were supposed to be the policing authority, ignored the Arab snipers. They concentrated their searches in seeking out the Jewish "terrorists" who sought to even scores with British partiality.
Already in March of 1948, bread rationing was introduced in Jerusalem due to the difficulty of bringing in supplies from the coastal region. Even during Purim, a month before Passover, there was sporadic shooting from snipers who the British ignored.
Buses and supply trucks came up the mountain side in convoys. They were routinely stopped and searched for arms. The Haganah, the Jewish defense league, was engaged in smuggling arms up to the Holy City. The British were adamant that the Jews should be defenseless when they pulled out. It was part of their "fairness" policy.
As the British planned their pull out, the Arabs slowly began to tighten their grip on the mountainous road. They knew very well that this road was the key to the Jewish success or failure to hold onto Jerusalem. In numerous other parts of Israel battles were breaking out.
Slowly, the intensity of the battles gained in intensity. And as the battles raged, the shooting in Jerusalem increased. The food stocks diminished, fuel for cooking and heating was rationed and electricity was becoming sporadic.
The UN broadcasted a request for a cease fire, but the Arabs rejected it. Slowly the Palmach, the crack unit of the Haganah, was attacking the various Arab villages which surrounded the narrow road.
The Castel, a fort which presently sits on the top of modern Mivazaret Zion, was captured but subsequently lost. The Jews lacked the manpower to hold it. After clearing one target, the army moved to the next, unable to dedicate men to hold the captured target. The fighting grew in intensity, but no victory gave secure passage to the relieve trucks that waited to bring food to the hungry residents of Jerusalem.
As Passover approached, both the old Jewish area in the Old City and the New City were being constantly shelled. Fierce fighting in the Old City began for the capture of the Old City. The British trained troops of the Jordanian Army, know as the Arab Legion, brought in their heavy guns to Jerusalem, all with out any interference from the British. Yet the British maintained road blocks to prevent the Jews from bringing in ammunition.
The residents of Jerusalem would run through the streets, keeping close to the walls of the buildings to avoid sniper fire. Standing in line to buy their rationed food, they discussed who was killed the previous day, and who was wounded.
Rumor spread about the horrible onslaught that the brave residents of the Gush Etzion Block held against heavy odds. People looked tense; sleep was hard to come by due to the nightly shelling. Most people had abandoned their houses and shared nights with their neighbors in local basements which doubled as shelters. Each brought his mattress, and here he tried to sleep. In the morning, they would wander out to access the damages.
Finally on April 17, news came that a convoy bringing in needed supplies to Jerusalem had broken through by night. Five more Arab villages had been taken; rumor had it that some 350 Arab fighters had been killed. Crowds came down to the Romema road block to greet the convoy. Over 250 lorries bringing a thousand tons of food and arms and ammunition came streaming into the entrance to the city.
Written on the first lorry were the words: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning".
With in an hour the whole city knew. On this Shabbat morning, cheering people lined the convoy's route to the Schneller compound headquarters. People came, with tears in their eyes, to see the wonderful sight. It gave them the feeling that Jerusalem is not isolated; we are united with the rest of Israel!
Unfortunately, the battles raged on in the rest of the country and the Haganah did not have the man power to hold on to the road. Three days later, the bad news came in with a new convoy. Six of our men were killed, 24 wounded, 36 trucks destroyed or badly damaged.
As each day passed, the city looked more like a theater of war. New concrete fortifications were built, trenches dug, streets were torn up to prevent tank attacks. Old and young were being mobilized to work. Even children, after their school hours were being utilized to help build defenses.
Shooting would continue through out each the nights. During the days people whizzed through the streets avoiding open spaces, and the festival of freedom was only a few days away. People are more concerned with their defenses than with making a Seder.
Two days before the Passover holiday, the news reached Jerusalem that the Arabs have fled Haifa. Haifa is ours! A miracle! Who would have imagined that 20,000 Arabs would desert their homes from the threat of such a small Jewish force!
Rations were given out in Jerusalem for Passover: 2 lbs. of potatoes, ½ lb of fish, 4 lb. of matzo, 1 ½ oz. dried fruit, ½ lb. meat, and ½ lb. of matzo flour. For the trapped citizens of Jerusalem, who had become accustomed to privation, the Passover provisions seemed like a banquet.
Seder evening was especially festive, the news of the Israeli advances and the retreat of the Arab forces in the Gallil and in the Haifa areas lifted up the spirits of the besieged residents of the Jewish capitol.
The Passover Seder fell on April 23 that year. It was not a particularly merry affair. On the verge of their national freedom, the inhabitants of Jerusalem sat somberly around their tables. This was the first time since the nightly shellings that the city's citizens had come together in assembly in the various homes through out the city that had been the dream of two thousand years' Seders. Tonight is a holiday, but tomorrow the struggle will go on.
As they sat to begin the Seder, they heard the beginning of the snipers bullets looking for a straggler in the streets. But tonight was different. As they opened the door, as they had done for scores of generations, to welcome in Elijah, there was no fear. Tonight is a night of divine protection. As the Holy One protected the Jews in Egypt, so shall he protect us here in the war torn city of Jerusalem.
"Once we were slaves, but today we are free men" recited in the Hagadah, took on new meaning. The British are leaving, the Arabs are attacking, and we are beginning our new national lives as free men in our own country. "Next year in Jerusalem" had a meaning that we never before understood. We meant it; we would not relinquish our dream to return to our homeland, to the city that has been in our hearts through out the two thousand year exile.
Now we are free men, tomorrow we must continue the fight to remain free.
from the April Passover 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine