Haifa, 1948: Sweeping Away the Chametz


Palestinians fleeing Haifa, April 22, 1948 (Photo: UNRWA)

Rabbi Yehuda said: There is no removal of leaven except by burning; but the Sages maintain: he may also crumble and throw it to the wind or cast it into the sea. (Mishnah Pesachim 2:1)

On the eve of Passover, April 21, 1948,
leaflets and loudspeakers ordered
ordered the 75,000 Palestinian Arabs of Haifa
to send their women and children away,
promising terrible consequences
if these warnings were disregarded.

At 6:30 pm a joint force of the Haganah and Irgun
known as the Carmeli brigade opened fire
on the lower regions of the city.

The military called this “Operation Biur Chametz,”
(“Operation Cleaning Out the Leaven”)
a reference to a sacred Jewish tradition,
commanding that leaven
be swept out of Jewish homes
before the onset of Passover.

This strange cacophony
of loudspeaker voices and gunfire
lasted until midnight.
All night long, panic stricken civilians
fled homes that lay in the path
of the Jewish militias streaming
into Wadi Nisnsa and the areas
nearest Hadar HaCarmel.

By Passover morning
the Irgun forces were making progress.
(As Menachem Begin, later remembered, they
proceeded to advance through Haifa
like a knife through butter.
The Arabs began fleeing in panic,
shouting “Deir Yassin!”)

By 6:00 am, the cacophony now included
the cries of fleeing families
and new loudspeaker voices:
Arab leaders urging residents to gather
in the old marketplace next to the port
until an orderly evacuation by sea
could be organized.

As Passover day unfolded,
Haifa’s market and port
turned into a scene of utter chaos:
children in pajamas,
men in old fashioned nightshirts,
women carrying babies,
all running desperately toward the water.

Then the Carmeli brigade stationed itself
on the slopes of Mt. Carmel
and launched three inch mortars
on the fleeing crowd below.
Eventually the people broke through the port
and tried to climb aboard the boats
moored in the harbor.

One survivor later recalled:
men stepped on their friends
and women on their own children.
The boats in the port were soon filled
with living cargo.

The overcrowding in them was horrible.
Many turned over and sank
with all their passengers.

When the week of Passover was concluded,
scores of Palestinians had been killed
and 50,000 were expelled from their homes.

The cacophonies have long since receded
and stillness now hovers
over the slopes of Mt. Carmel.

But every Passover, if you listen closely
to the water lapping back and forth
across the the shores of Haifa
you will surely hear a voice
whispering softly:

How can you sing your songs of joy
while my children are drowning?