The way they were: The generation of '48

Forum marks Lehi, Etzel long battle for fair recognition

Although she had probably heard a lot of the story before, Geula Cohen - the chief broadcaster for Lehi toward the end of the British Mandate - sat mesmerized as historian Dr. Udi Lebel, an adviser to several television channels, spoke about the politics of memory and how the official history of events leading up to the creation of Israel had been distorted to exclude the exploits of the Lehi and Etzel underground movements. The occasion was Wednesday's seminar on "The Generation of 1948 and the War of Independence," organized by The Jerusalem Friends of the Hebrew University. When it came to fallen soldiers, Ben-Gurion recognized only those who had fought with the Hagana, said Lebel. He refused to recognize those from other organizations. He even wrote in his diary that he would not recognize Etzel and Lehi because they could not be put on a par with the Hagana. In recognizing soldiers who fell in the War of Independence, Ben-Gurion stipulated that only those who fell between November 30, 1947 and March 1949 would be acknowledged and their families entitled to benefits. The bereaved families of Lehi and Etzel fighters were given no consideration whatsoever. After objections were raised in the Knesset, Ben-Gurion relented slightly and added a codicil giving the defense minister the right to recognize a specific fallen soldier. When former Lehi and Etzel activists started putting up their own monuments to the fallen, Ben-Gurion ordered such monuments destroyed and even sent people to the cemeteries to check the tombstones of Etzel and Lehi fighters to make sure there were no emblems of the state or the IDF. It was not until Levi Eshkol became prime minister that there was any change. Eshkol permitted Jabotinsky's remains to be brought to Israel, provoking vitriolic newspaper articles by Ben-Gurion. Nonetheless, with few exceptions, there was no comfort for bereaved Lehi and Etzel families. When Menachem Begin came to power in 1977, they thought their loved ones would finally be validated. A woman who for 25 years had relentlessly been writing letters to government leaders and the army to have her son's name engraved on the wall of a Yad LeBanim monument to fallen soldiers, was rebuffed again and again, even in the early years of the Begin administration. It wasn't until 1980 that she succeeded. Historian and prize-winning author Prof. Yehiam Weitz reminded his audience, which included a large number of veterans of the War of Independence, that the country's first president, Chaim Weizmann, had been inclined to vote against the establishment of a state and that Ben-Gurion had forced Moshe Sharett, who later served as the first foreign minister, to vote in favor. Moreover, once the state was established, Ben-Gurion declared Jerusalem the capital and the headquarters of all national institutions. Ben-Gurion opposed writing a constitution, observed Weitz, and 60 years later, Israel is still without a constitution - not such a bad thing, in Weitz's estimation. Cohen, who had spoken earlier in the day and who made her peace several years ago with Ben-Gurion and others on the left, said the bitter rivals of yesteryear had the same characteristics, albeit a different political outlook. They were all idealists with a love for the land of Israel, and they were romantics who loved to sing. In comparing the generation of 1948 with that of today, sociologist Prof. Oz Almog said the generation of 1948 was one that didn't age. "It remains a generation that is energetic and young in spirit. It had a Sabra culture in that it toured the Judean Desert. My generation went abroad." Mostly, people born from 1980 onwards are "a different breed," said Almog. "Today, the big dream is not liberty as it was in 1948," he added. "The big dream is to be the winner of A Star is Born." There are wide gaps between what people remember, what they think they remember and what actually occurred, said historian Prof. Israel Bartal. "People have selective memories."