Human spirit: An open letter to Gordon Brown

In 1948, British authorities wouldn't stop the Hadassah convoy massacre; in 2008, they try to stop its commemoration.

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
Dear Prime Minister Brown, In Jerusalem, the ebullient commemoration of Israel's 60th birthday is winding down. I want to tell you how much I appreciated your praise of Israel as one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century, and the photos of you visiting the Finchley Synagogue. This was particularly welcome because a major part of celebrating 60 years of independence is reviewing history, and the role of your representatives in pre-state Israel often looks reprehensible - Lord Balfour's declaration notwithstanding. I'm sure you're aware of this. But before you close your files on Israel's current celebration, I feel compelled to tell you about a troubling incident that took place in this recent period of remembrance and salutation. It took place on April 9 and although more than a month has passed, I'm still nettled by it. ON THAT date, which corresponds to the Hebrew date of 4 Nisan, I took part with my fellow Israelis in a commemorative walk, from the Mandelbaum Gate on the old seam line that once divided Jerusalem to Mount Scopus. We were following the path taken by the medical convoys which brought staff, patients and critical supplies to the Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. As walks go, it wasn't too strenuous - less than two miles along paved highway. But 60 years ago on 4 Nisan (then April 13, 1948) the last convoy never arrived at the hospital. One hundred and five men and women gathered on downtown Rehov Solel, today called Rehov Havatzelet. A lightly armored Ford truck led the way, followed by a clearly marked ambulance, two buses, another ambulance, four trucks and, finally, another so-called armored car. The hospital, built during the years of the Arab revolt, had been opened nine years earlier to provide Western medical care to all. Renowned ophthalmologist Chaim Yassky, director-general of the hospital, took the seat beside the driver of the first ambulance. Next to him sat his wife Fanny. Hanna Cassouto, an Italian Holocaust survivor, needed to get to the pathology lab where she did research. On the bus rode Batya Bass, 43, pregnant, at the end of her ninth month was going to joyfully deliver her fourth child. I know her daughter. Others were doctors, nurses and students at the nearby Hebrew University, or relatives of the sick. The corner grocery was shuttered when they reached the narrow Nashashibi bend. When the driver of the lead car swerved to avoid a giant pothole in the road, a mine exploded. The convoy stopped. Arab snipers swooped down and attacked. Five vehicles managed to escape the ambush, but the other five, including Yassky's ambulance and the two crowded buses, were trapped in the barrage of bullets. Hagana members in the armored car were overwhelmed by swarms of armed men with guns. Molotov cocktails ignited the spilled fuel and burned passengers to death. This was a month before the end of the Mandate. British reinforcements weren't far away, but they didn't stop the assault which continued for seven hours and could be heard around the city. In the first ambulance, Yassky bid farewell to Fanny and died from a bullet wound in the liver. Hannah Cassouto and Batya Bass, too, were dead, among the 78 men and women murdered in the medical convoy. THE GRUESOME massacre of the men and women who risked their lives to care for the sick Jews and Arabs horrified and saddened the pre-state community of Israel which saw the hospital as a beacon of light in the dreary area of political discord. I mention this particularly because both the attempted boycott of the Israel Medical Association and the academic boycott originated in your country. Likewise, Israel is often accused of preventing medical care for needy Palestinians, when the opposite is true. Those of us soberly marching included 300 Israeli schoolchildren, members of the families of the massacred and members of the hospital staff. In addition, a group of evangelical British Christians who call themselves Love Never Fails joined to apologize for the behavior of their countrymen. One, particularly passionate in expressing his shame over the behavior of the British, was a relative of Charles Orde Wingate. As we walkers reached Sheikh Jarrah, echoes of the past came eerily back. We halted to get the go-ahead from security to continue to Mount Scopus. Across the street stands your British consulate. A man and a woman came out of the consulate and confronted Prof. Zvi Stern, director of Hadassah-University Medical Center Mount Scopus, who had joined us marchers. Your representatives wanted to know why we were walking. Stern explained how we had chosen to remember the dead and the tragic event. What other activities would there be? Later, he explained, a road near the hospital would be named to honor Dr. Yassky. "But won't this upset the Palestinians? Isn't the road disputed territory?" asked the British official. "I know the maps here very well. This is disputed territory. We British don't accept your right to name roads here." As you may well imagine, Stern disagreed. He reminded the officials of the British connection to the catastrophe of the final convoy and of our right to name streets in our capital. He invited the consulate emissaries to visit Mount Scopus to witness the equal treatment of Jews and Palestinians at Hadassah, indeed in all Israeli hospitals. As disturbing as the incident was, I might have waved it away as a couple of renegade diplomats. But then I took a look at your Web site and noticed that your staff member's objection to honoring Yassky with a street naming was consistent with policy. "Since the war of 1967, HMG has regarded Israel as being in military occupation of east Jerusalem, and in this connection subject to the rules of law applicable to such an occupation, in particular the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. HMG also holds that the provisions of Security Council Resolution 242 on the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the 1967 war applies to east Jerusalem. The Venice Declaration and subsequent statements (both by the UK alone and with EU partners) have made clear that no unilateral attempts to change the status of Jerusalem are valid." The road naming took place despite your objection. Yassky's son was there. Mayor Uri Lupolianski brought words of praise and consolation: "We are not a revengeful people - the greatest proof is Israel's model of treating all. We cannot ignore the contrast with the behavior of other countries, particularly our neighbors, who enshrine terrorism." We cannot ignore the insults of our friends, either. I urge you to take a closer look at those who still express enmity to the people of Israel in the sensitive heart of Jerusalem.