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The First israelis:Looting Was No More a Polish Disease Than it Was a Jewish Disease

jan peczkis|Tuesday, December 15, 2015

There are many reviews of this item. They freely inform the reader about the general features of this book, and I will not repeat them. Instead, I approach this book from an entirely different angle.


This subject has been brought to public attention by Jan T. Gross (especially his GOLDEN HARVEST) and a sympathetic media. Poles were widely portrayed as some sort of heartless and primitive people because, during and after the war, some of them had looted Jewish property.

In actuality, looting is an unremarkable phenomena, especially in times of war or other social upheaval, and it knows no specificity in terms of nationality. [For more on this, see the first Comment.]

Tom Segev, the author of this book, and an Israeli journalist-historian, takes the question of looting to a new level. That is what I focus on in this review.


The following statements are repeated directly from this book. Where necessary, I have provided explanatory comments [in brackets].

[Regarding Israeli soldiers stealing from an Arab dry goods store]: The company commander explained later that his experience in the occupied neighborhoods had taught him that in such cases it is impossible to control the men. (p. 68).

[A generalized phenomenon]: During the war and afterwards plundering and looting were very common. "The only thing that surprised me," said David Ben-Gurion at a Cabinet meeting, "and surprised me bitterly, was the discovery of such moral failings among us, which I had never suspected. I mean the mass robbery in which all parts of the population participated." Soldiers who entered abandoned houses in the towns and villages they occupied grabbed whatever they could. Some took the stuff for themselves, others "for the boys" or for the kibbutz. They stole household effects, cash, heavy equipment, trucks and whole flocks of cattle. (p. 69).

In Haifa, Jaffa and Jerusalem there were many civilians among the looters. "The urge to grab has seized everyone," noted writer Moshe Smilansky. "Individuals, groups and communities, men, women and children, all fell on the spoils. Doors, windows, lintels, bricks, roof-tiles, floor-tiles, junk and machine parts. ..." He could have also added to the list toilet bowls, sinks, faucets and light bulbs. (p. 70).

The Military Governor of Jerusalem, Dov Yosef, wrote Ben-Gurion: "The looting is spreading once again. ...I cannot verify all the reports which reach me, but I get the distinct impression that the commanders are not over-eager to catch and punish the thieves. ...I receive complaints every day.” (p. 70).

A secret report, written by the Custodian of Abandoned Property tried to explain how people "succumb to the grave temptation of looting," and why. First there was the massive flight of panic-stricken Arabs who abandoned thousands of apartments, stores and workshops as well as crops and orchards. Second, the property concerned was in the midst of the front-line combat area during the transition from mandatory to Israeli rule. This meant there was no stable authority with which to be reckoned. " ...The moral sense of the few who were attacked by the many and managed to survive, justified the looting of the enemy's property," reported the Custodian. "passions of revenge and temptation overcame great numbers of people…The Custodian attributed it all to the "weakness and greed of many Israelis, who in normal circumstances would never have permitted themselves to act thus with regard, to other people's property." (pp. 70-71).

Minister Mordehai Bentov asked about a convoy of spoils which left, Jerusalem and Minister Cizling said: "…When they enter a town and forcibly remove rings from the fingers and jewelry from someone's neck, that's a very grave matter. ... Many are guilty of it." (p. 72).

Yosef Lamm, MK (MAPAI) stated, "None of us behaved during the war in a way we might have expected the Jewish people to behave, either with regard to property or human life, and we should all be ashamed." (p. 72).

Minister of Agriculture Aharon Cizling wrote to Ben-Gurion: Again and again in our meetings we discuss the issue of the abandoned property. Everyone expresses shock, bitterness and shame, but we have yet to find a solution...up to now we have dealt with individual looters, both soldiers and civilians. Now, however, there are more and more reports about acts which, judging by their nature and extent, could only have been carried out by (government) order. (pp. 73-74).

And so tens of thousands of Israelis, soldiers and civilians, helped themselves to the spoils. One took an armchair, another a rug, a third took a sewing machine and a fourth-a combine; one took an apartment and another took a vineyard. Very quickly and easily a whole class-albeit a small one-of newly prosperous people appeared on the scene: merchants, speculators, contractors, agents of all sorts, industrialists and farmers. Some stole what property they could, others received theirs legally. A good many of the transactions fell into that gray area between what the law permitted and what was considered illegal, between outright robbery and official expropriation. (p. 79).


The name of that village has become infamous throughout the Jewish world, the Arab world and the whole world. In Deir Yassin hundreds of innocent men, women and children were massacred. The Deir Yassin affair is a black stain on the honor of the Jewish nation. The Zionist movement, the army and our government of the time (the Jewish Agency Executive), all felt this acutely and most unequivocally condemned the deed at the time. (p. 88).
The list author says: "Jan T. Gross, in his recently-published ZLOTE ZNIWA (GOLDEN HARVESTS), has presented a decidedly unobjective focus on looting. The reader is led to believe that only Poles looted from Jews, desecrated sites of the Jewish dead, and benefited from German crimes by acquiring post-Jewish properties--or that Jews were the only victims of such events.

Far from it! WWII and post-WWII Poles indeed looted Jews, but also Poles looted other Poles, Jews looted Jews, Jews looted Poles, etc. Even the Germans, for all their proverbial ingrained discipline and sense of social order, looted the bombed-out sites of dead Germans.

Property-restitution questions are nothing new. Many decades before the Holocaust, while Partitioned Poland had been under foreign rule, Jews had been the direct financial beneficiaries of Russian-confiscated and Prussian-confiscated Polish properties. Should modern Poles demand financial compensation from modern Jews?

During the Nazi deportations to the death camps, Jews had to ask the exact same "When is it right to acquire the heirless (or apparently heirless) properties of the dead?" that Poles were to ask, then and later.

Nor was looting and grave robbery limited to the desperate conditions of wartime. Soviet citizens looted the Polish Katyn-related graves. Finally, the looting of archaeological sites, by professionals and commoners alike, has assumed epidemic proportions in recent decades.

Issues surrounding looting and property acquisition are directly quoted, or cited (with page numbers), in the Peczkis reviews of all the books listed below:"
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