The Rashomon effect

In writing a book about the battle for Jerusalem after the war, I encountered for the first time the Rashomon effect in which participants in the same event have markedly different - sometimes contradictory - memories of it.

old city bw 88 (photo credit: )
old city bw 88
(photo credit: )
In writing a book about the battle for Jerusalem after the war, I encountered for the first time the Rashomon effect in which participants in the same event have markedly different - sometimes contradictory - memories of it. Sometimes a person interviewed a second time to clarify a minor point would contradict basic aspects of his own original story. Because of the stress of battle, war memories are often distorted, time telescoped, chronology reversed. A researcher seeks testimony from witnesses that overlap. But often there were no other witnesses or none who survived. Sometimes a researcher is better positioned to reconstruct an event than the participants themselves. One such instance involved the very last skirmish in Jerusalem, when a paratroop force was making a sweep of the Christian Quarter. As the column passed the Knights Palace Hotel adjoining the Latin Patriarchate, a shot rang out and a soldier fell dead in the narrow lane. The shot had come from the hotel and a platoon led by a young, redheaded farmer, Lt. David Brown, blew open its locked door. Brown started up the staircase from the lobby, but bullets from the second floor landing hit the steps in front of him. Several times he threw grenades around the bend in the staircase and tried rushing, but each time he was driven back. He was joined by the battalion commander, Lt.-Col. Uzi Eilam, who tried mounting the staircase himself but was likewise driven back. Other paratroopers, climbing the parapet of the adjacent Old City wall, fired into the second-floor rear windows of the hotel. Eilam, a future head of the Atomic Energy Commission, reached the second floor through a side window and fired at Jordanian soldiers down the corridor. The joint attack drove the defenders up to the roof. The roof door had cracks through which men could be seen on the other side with guns facing the doorway. Eilam called forward a soldier with an automatic rifle who fired a long burst through the door. Brown moved forward and kicked it open. As he would remember it when I interviewed him about a year after the event, there were two Jordanians in front of him. He fired at them from the head of the stairs and shouted to his comrades, "It's over." However, when he stepped out on the roof, he saw three more Jordanians a few feet away and emptied his Uzi into them. All were wearing helmets except one opposite the doorway, a big man with graying, crew-cut hair. Going through his pockets, Brown found a lieutenant's insignia. Eilam meanwhile killed a sixth soldier behind a water tank. Brown's action was not only incredible, as in "wow"; it was not credible, as in can't be believed. The Jordanian soldiers in the hotel were clearly a brave lot. They were almost certainly aware that 80 of their number had taken shelter in the nearby Santa Rosa Convent. Yet, they themselves had stayed in the fight and sealed their fate by firing on the paratroopers instead of seeking safety or surrendering. It was highly unlikely, after the effective fight they had put up, that they would be waiting for an Israeli soldier to come through a door at which their five guns were pointing and then let him shoot them all dead. Yet Brown himself was highly credible. I interviewed some 200 soldiers for the book (The Battle for Jerusalem) and in perhaps four or five cases was told stories of personal derring-do that proved unconnected to reality. In almost all these instances, the soldiers who told the stories about themselves were apparently compensating for some error that haunted them (like accidentally killing another Israeli soldier) which I learned about from others. Brown did not fall into this category. The feisty redhead had been at the cutting edge of his battalion during much of the battle, as attested by his comrades. I filed the story away, not quite sure what to do with it, as I continued my interviews. About a year later, nearing the end of my research, I talked to a sniper from the Jerusalem Brigade named Ariel Fisher, an economist at the Bank of Israel in civilian life. Toward the end of his account, he said that on the Wednesday afternoon when the Old City fell, he and three other snipers posted in the Notre Dame Hospice had seen the Israeli flag going up on David's Tower at Jaffa Gate and assumed the war was over. They had descended to eat lunch when a soldier came down from the roof shouting that he could see Jordanian soldiers inside the Old City across the road. From the top of the hospice, the snipers saw five soldiers on a roof 150 meters away. The five seemed to be firing periodically down a stairwell. It was not clear if they were Jordanian or Israeli. Fisher borrowed a 60-power telescope from his partner. The five men on the roof wore helmets used in the Jordanian army, but some IDF troops also wore such helmets. However, he noted that their canteens were not hung from the belt, as in the IDF, but from their equipment webbing. In addition, their rifles, all with fixed bayonets, were British and unlike any in service in the IDF. Fisher was convinced that they were Jordanians, especially since they were plainly besieged. The paratroopers would be attacking, not defending. Fisher had only a regular rifle, not the Lee-Enfield the other snipers used, and it had no telescopic sight. He took aim at the man who appeared to be the leader and fired. Looking through his partner's telescope, he saw his target holding his hand to his cheek, which had apparently been grazed. The man was still giving orders. Fisher aimed for his chest and squeezed off another shot. This time the target went down. One of the snipers refused to fire because he was not convinced that the men on the roof were Jordanian. The other two snipers fired and two more men on the Old City roof went down. It was not clear if they had been hit by the snipers or by a burst of fire that appeared to come through the roof door from below at the same time. Fisher hit the two men still on their feet and they too fell below the low wall surrounding the roof. He was certain from the way they fell that all five men had been hit and, if not dead, were wounded. Shortly afterward, he saw paratroopers come through the roof door. I did not make an immediate connection with Brown's story a year before. But when the connection did occur to me, I called Fisher and asked if he would go with me to the roof of the hospice. The wing of Notre Dame, opposite New Gate, had been taken over by the army before the war and returned afterward to the Assumptionist order. A monk let us climb to the roof. Fisher was able to quickly identify the building where he had seen the five Jordanians. We descended and he led the way into the Old City. Taking his bearings from adjacent structures, he moved through the alleys and paused before a low building. "This is it," he said. It was the Knights Palace Hotel. We went up to the roof where he recalled the first man he had shot, the commander. "He was the only one not wearing a helmet. His hair was grayish and he had a crew cut." Brown could have had no way of knowing that the five Jordanians confronting him, whether he remembered them prone or standing, had been struck down by an unseen hand moments, perhaps seconds, before he stepped out on the roof. It did not diminish one whit his courage in going through that door. There can be little doubt he would have been killed if the five Jordanians had not been hit. He may still not know that his life was saved that day, and not by a fellow paratrooper but by a foot soldier - an economist, no less, from the Bank of Israel.