A student fighter

His unit was made up of intellectuals and all of his comrades who survived went on to become professors.

Prof. M.A. is a very modest man, characterizing himself as a "man of Jerusalem." Thus, says the historian, his memories of the establishment of the state are only meant to describe the times - not himself. Just the same, his descriptions are based very much on his personal circumstances. M.A. was born in Izmir, Turkey, in 1920. He studied in a French school there and continued his education in France. After returning to Turkey, a compound of reasons made him into a Zionist and he snuck illegally into Palestine on foot in the winter of 1944, via Syria and Lebanon with the help of a smuggler in Beirut. He spent two years at Kibbutz Givat Brenner and then moved to Jerusalem to study at the Hebrew University. When the UN passed the partition plan on November 29, 1947, he and his university friends heard it on the radio like the rest of the country. They went outside and danced and celebrated all night; the next day, they decided to enlist. There was no question, really, as M.A. explains; if no one fought, everyone would die. M.A. and his friends were assigned to a student unit of the Hagana. They underwent a short training course to learn to use their hodgepodge of guns and were sent to do patrols around Jerusalem. Now almost 90, with dark bushy eyebrows, a full head of gray hair and age spots marking his face and arms, he laughingly recalls that during the fighting, he was not very big or macho. His unit was made up of intellectuals, students. Interestingly, all of his comrades who survived went on to become professors. Despite their preference for books, they fought because "it was natural, it was necessary." At the beginning, he did patrols around the Arab areas beyond Bayit Vegan and Deir Yassin. During the siege of Jerusalem, food was scarce; convoys would come through and bring the inhabitants a few slices of bread and water was rationed. "Those were hard days," he recalls. Information came through on Hagana radio and the Jerusalem newspapers - The Palestine Post and B'tochechei Yerushalayim. One standout memory he recalls was the unease between the various militias; after the British left on May 13, 1948, M.A. and his buddies went toward the Russian Compound where the British police headquarters had been. Standing on a rooftop on Jaffa Road, they watched as some Irgun Zva'i Leumi men who had tried to enter the Old City through the New Gate were brought out, wounded. But the Hagana men kept their distance, because the alienation between the groups was so strong. At one point, while he was guarding the Beit Hatanach (near Notre Dame outside the Old City), he got into a gunfight with some Arabs. They shot at him, but missed - hitting the wall beside him and causing fragments to splinter off. A bit of the shrapnel hit him in the forehead, so he bandaged himself up, put the bit of rock in his pocket and kept guarding. Later, when his officers found him standing there with a bloody bandage on his head, he got the reputation as a hero - even though he insists "nothing happened." Without ever taking a course, he became a squad commander. He and his men were guarding the border from the Jordanian Arab Legion in the Pagi (Poalei Agudat Israel) neighborhood, a haredi area. "I've never been religious," says M.A., but he recalls with admiration the behavior of the yeshiva students. "Two men came and said they were yeshiva students. We asked, 'What do you want?' They said, 'We don't know how to fight, but we want to help you.'" He said that during the course of two days, around May 20, the two young men evacuated the wounded to ambulances, "no equipment or anything." They just kept evacuating the wounded, their black suits soaked with blood, and never asked for a thing in return. He laments that he doesn't know what happened to them. He remembers one of the tougher images he witnessed during those months of fighting in Jerusalem, at the end of May 1948. Part of the Palmah's 4th Battalion had broken into the Old City through Zion Gate, but then the Jordanians captured the Old City. A deal was struck to allow the approximately 1,700 Jewish residents to flee in return for soldiers being taken captive. And M.A. was on hand at Zion Gate when the elderly were fleeing. "It was one of the most awful sights I'd seen. Just old people came out, with their walking sticks, limping. And they came carrying packages: clothes, food, dishes. They were barely dragging it all. A girls' unit came to help the women… There were people who had lived there the whole time… I remember them carrying bits of bread, Primus stoves, kerosene lanterns. This exodus created… this unbearable picture." During June 1948, M.A. joined the Palmah's 5th Battalion and went on to fight in the Jerusalem Corridor and the Negev. Things there were better organized, as until then, the fighting had been a "balagan." Sixty years later, sitting in his living room in a central Jerusalem neighborhood surrounded by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and photos of his family, he repeatedly comments on how few of his friends are alive anymore. He retired from teaching history 20 years ago, and notes that some of his students have already retired as well. His current hobby is music: He's got CDs and videocassettes, and books about great composers and opera. He still has a few friends, a son and a daughter and seven grandchildren. M.A. calls attention to the history books on his shelf that he's written, and those that his students and colleagues wrote. His eyes glisten when he points out the photograph of his late wife holding an infant - his eldest grandson, now 18. That grandson will be drafted soon, but he says that as in 1948, there is no questioning military obligations. "A lot of good people died by my side… I had at least 10 wonderful friends in the '35' [who were massacred en route to Kfar Etzion in 1948]... but I came out with only two scratches," he concludes reflectively.