Machiavelli wrote that “Wars begin when you will, but they do not end when you please.” That’s certainly true of the Six-Day War of 1967. When fired upon in Jerusalem some months after the passage of those six days, Graham Greene commented that it was perhaps an inaccurate name for the conflict. Indeed the battle that Israel won continues to be waged, sometimes simmering, sometimes seemingly in a deep freeze, but never entirely settled. Which is why Abraham Rabinovich’s book,The Battle for Jerusalem: An Unintended Conquest That Echoes Still, first published 40 years ago, is now available in an expanded e-book format. Here he chats about how he researched the book back in the late 1960s and now reissued it.
Would you recommend any books on writing?
The best books on writing are well-written books. Anything by Conrad, Naipaul’s ‘A Bend in the River’, Bruce Catton’s ‘A Stillness at Appomatox’.
How did you come to write The Battle for Jerusalem?
I was working at a newspaper on Long Island in May 1967 when things in the Middle East began to heat up. Egypt moved troops into Sinai, Israel mobilized its reserves. It reached a point where war seemed to me inevitable. I drove up from New York to the country on a Sunday and spent an hour walking back and forth on a dirt road to think out my options. I had been in Israel once before, in 1956, and had left the country just a week before the Sinai Campaign. I decided now that I wouldn’t miss the next war. The next day I went into the editor’s office and asked to take my two week’s annual leave as of the next day. I had started working at the paper just half a year before and wasn’t yet entitled to leave. But I put my request in such a way – “I’m planning to fly to Israel and would prefer that you consider this my leave” – that he agreed. We agreed that if there was a war I would file stories. But, war or no war, I was to be back in two weeks. I arrived in Israel five days before the war. I had a sister here, Malka, who was a copy editor at the Jerusalem Post so I fell right into a newspaper and social milieu.
Where were you during the war?
In Jerusalem. I spent most of the two days of fighting in the city roaming the border area. It was very exciting and I could say I ‘covered’ the war, in the sense of writing articles about it, but I had no idea what was going on. The last night I didn’t return to my sister’s apartment to sleep. I didn’t want to waste the time. I just laid down on the grass in a park and slept for a few hours when the Jordanian shelling had stopped. When I got up I wandered over to the Jerusalem Post. One of the editors said there were rumors that Israeli troops were inside the Old City. I suggested we try to get there. We walked to Mandelbaum Gate, the only crossing point between Israeli and Jordanian Jerusalem, to see if we could talk our way past the border guards. But there was no one there, no police, no soldiers. So we just crossed the intersection and found ourselves in Jordanian Jerusalem. There was no one visible but at one point we passed a truck with a dead Jordanian soldier at the wheel. It began to feel spooky but we soon saw Israeli soldiers. They told us to walk around the Old City wall and enter through Lion’s Gate. It was like walking into a particularly dramatic page of history. Unreal. The moment was so enormous you feel outside yourself. The Temple Mount was full of unshaven soldiers, men cheering, officers giving orders, rows of prisoners, planes flying low overhead and then circling over the Jericho road beyond the Mount of Olives. My colleague from the Post continued on to the Western Wall. I stayed behind to talk to half a dozen paratroopers who were drinking bottles of soda they had found in a small Jordanian army enclosure. When I asked them “what now?” one said we should give back all the territory captured in Sinai and the West Bank in exchange for peace (the fighting on the Golan hadn’t started yet), another said we won’t give up anything, another said give them everything except our holy city. The debate which has split Israel in the half century since had begun.
What did you do after the war?
I remember sitting in a café on Agron Street on the last day of the war, summing things up. I had arrived five days before the war. The war had lasted six days. That’s 11 days. I still had three days before I had to return, time enough even for a quick tour of the country. The air over the asphalt in the street was shimmering from the heat but it seemed to be from the excitement. I decided then that I can’t go back, at least not yet. I couldn’t leave this incredible drama at the center of the world for school board meetings and small town politics on Long Island. I sent a telex to the paper apologizing but saying I wouldn’t be returning. I just hung around. That was enough. Soaking everything up. Staying at my sister’s. After a few weeks I saw that I needed a cover story. People kept asking ‘what are you doing?’ what do you intend to do? I decided to say that I’m working on a book. That satisfied everybody. I had never written one and as far as I can remember I didn’t have a particular ambition to write one then. But I felt a need to legitimize myself. The only book I could think of writing was one on the battle for Jerusalem which I had witnessed but didn’t understand. The problem was that all the sharks in world journalism were here. Every one. From every major paper. I was certain there were several Big Names already at work on a new O Jerusalem. I didn’t have a chance against them so I decided that I would aim at the most modest niche I could think of – how civilians in the city had experienced the war.
How did you go about reporting that?
First, I enrolled in a Hebrew language course. There were mostly new immigrants there but also quite a few Arabs from east Jerusalem. The Jews and Arabs got along very nicely. My interviews with civilians began with people I knew through my sister. It didn’t take long to understand that this might add up to a newspaper article but not a book. I needed some input on the battle as well to give a shape to things. I began interviewing local men who had served in the Jerusalem Brigade, a sort of home guard. But there had been two other reservist brigades involved as well – an armored brigade and a paratroop brigade – and most of their men lived elsewhere in the country. They had done the hardest fighting. The story didn’t make sense if I didn’t include them. I began to gather anecdotal information about individuals and small units but this didn’t hang on any stout framework. I needed a broader picture. It wasn’t long before I forgot about a niche. Driven now by my own curiosity I decided to tell the story properly, from the top down and bottom up. It meant intensive traveling around the country. I visited 35 kibbutzim and farming villages, in addition to cities, mostly to speak to paratroopers. That was a great privilege. They were salt of the earth. All the men who fought in Jerusalem were reservists. Sometimes I would be told that the man I was looking for was in the fields and I would be guided to him by the sound of his tractor. I’d get out of the car and walk across the fields to him and fix a time to meet. In all, reporting for the book was one of the richest professional and personal experiences I’ve had. I did 300 interviews, mostly soldiers. I found after awhile that for all their integrity, the soldiers’ testimony could not be relied on blindly. The trauma of war distorts memories. People forget things that happened, sometimes remember things that didn’t happen. Time is often telescoped or reversed. The Rashomon effect. My object was to get overlap. When two men separately tell more or less the same story you can pretty much rely on it. I was putting the pieces of a giant puzzle together. It reached a point where I knew more than they knew – that is, I understood the context better than the person I was talking to because I had spoken to people above him and either side of him.
How long did the project take you?
About two years.
What did you do afterwards?
I married a Hebrew teacher (from another class) and started working as a reporter with The Jerusalem Post.
What kind of reception did your book get?
Almost none. The publisher was the Jewish Publication Society which is not a commercial organization. I don’t believe the book was reviewed by a single non-Jewish paper. There were two or three reviews in small Jewish papers, as I remember. Still, I don’t know how many copies they printed but it sold out. As the 20th anniversary approached, I suggested doing a second edition. They agreed. This time I could give officers’ second names and make corrections. The one problem was that they forgot to include the maps which had been included in the first edition, making the battle hard to follow.
Why did you decided to make still another edition now, 25 years later?
Well, the book was again out of print and I thought that a shame. When I began reading about eBooks I heard a click. This is the way to go. I found a company in England that would do it for a reasonable fee. I decided that this would not just be an electronic reprint. I would add what was missing from the earlier edition – a proper political context, which was not clear immediately after the Six Day War, and to describe the Arab side. I feel I have done the definitive account of a major event in modern Middle East history, not to mention Jewish history.
Did you ever think of writing fiction?
I’ve actually done one, a Middle East shoot-em-up with some archaeology and a bit of mysticism. It failed to interest the three or four people I sent it too. It’s now in my drawer, waiting for courage to return.
Perhaps as an ebook…?