What We Know Now About the Birth of Israel Thanks to the Opening of British MI5 Archives

tags: Israel, British MI5 Archives

Bruce Hoffman is the author of “Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle For Israel, 1917-1947” (Knopf). This interview was provided by Knopf.

Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel - Wikipedia

Anonymous Soldiers begins as WWI is drawing to a close and the British have conquered Jerusalem. In Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s, the British fail repeatedly to reconcile competing Arab and Jewish demands. Was the British Mandate destined to fail?

Yes, for the simple reason that Britain never really had a firm or consistent policy for Palestine. This, in turn, rendered successive British governments susceptible to terrorist pressure. The impression shared by Arab and Jew alike was that London could be influenced, intimidated or otherwise persuaded by violence. In these circumstances, terrorism thrived. The prevailing belief in Palestine was “that England always gives in to force. There was alas plenty of evidence to substantiate that claim.

The Arab rioting that swept through Palestine in 1921, for instance, produced restrictions on Jewish immigration and the re-definition of British policy based on a new criterion of Palestine’s “economic absorptive capacity.” The 1929 riots in turn resulted in the clawing back of Britain’s commitment to Zionism contained in the Balfour Declaration, and imposed new restrictions on Jewish immigration (though these were subsequently overturned). Finally, the massive countrywide uprising that erupted six years later with the Arab Rebellion prompted the most drastic re-formulation of Britain’s policy for Palestine. The 1939 White Paper severely curtailed Jewish immigration and, after a five-year transitional period, made it completely dependent upon Arab consent. Similarly draconian limits were also applied to Jewish land purchase in Palestine the following year. The Jewish terrorists, who had initially banded together to counter Arab violence, therefore drew their own conclusions from the Arab Rebellion and the reversal of British policy that followed and resolved to use force to compel the British to leave Palestine.

As the full threat of Nazism became clearer to European Jews in the 1930s, larger and larger numbers of them attempted to emigrate to Palestine. What effect did these immigrants and the situation in Europe have on internal politics in Palestine?

Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power in Germany had a profoundly de-stabilizing effect on Palestine. Within weeks of his being sworn into office in January 1933 as chancellor, the aggressive persecution of the country’s Jews commenced. By the end of the year, 37,000 Jews left Germany—including the nearly 7,000 who emigrated to Palestine. The German refugees comprised nearly a quarter of the record 30,000 Jewish immigrants, mostly from Poland, who arrived in Palestine during 1933. This figure was in fact greater than the total of the previous six years combined. The number of refugees settling in Palestine increased to 42,000 during 1934 and peaked at 62,000 the following year. The country’s Jewish population thus expanded by more than eighty per cent between 1933 and 1935. Jews comprised 27 per cent of Palestine’s total population of 1.3 million persons compared to just 16 percent in 1931. Jewish land purchases from Arabs increased commensurately as well.

Palestine’s Arabs watched these developments with grave concern as the new immigrants and their money transformed their lands. The result was the mass, countrywide uprising against both British rule and the Zionist enterprise that erupted in 1936 and was not completely suppressed until the eve of World War II.

You write about historical figures who loom large in the pre-history of Israel: Abraham Stern, Menachem Begin, Winston Churchill, Haj Amin al-Husseini, and others.  Can you paint a brief portrait of these men and their role in the events depicted in the book for us?

Abraham Stern defies simple characterization. He has variously been described as a poet and a scholar, a dandy and a womanizer, a dreamer and a zealot who turned his back on a career as a brilliant classicist to join the underground. To Stern’s mind, both Britain and Germany were equally enemies of the Jewish people. There was no difference, he argued, between the British who closed the gates of Palestine to the Jew attempting to flee Europe and the Nazis who persecuted him. Accordingly, after the Irgun declared a cease-fire and suspended anti-British operations for the duration of World War II, Stern left the group and founded his own organization that subsequently adopted the name “Freedom Fighters for Israel” but was known to the Jews by its Hebrew acronym, Lehi, and to the British as the “Stern Gang.” Despite his grandiose dreams to establish a modern kingdom of Israel and, astonishingly to enlist Nazi support for his mad scheme, the group under Stern’s leadership accomplished little and in early 1942 he was shot dead by British police.

Menachem Begin was born in 1913 in Brest-Litovsk, a backwater at the confluence of the borderlands of what then comprised Poland, Lithuania, and Russia. He grew up in an environment where anti-Semitism was rife. From a young age, this future prime minister of Israel and Nobel laureate showed an aptitude for both learning and public oratory and as a teenager was drawn to the aggressive, muscular Zionism espoused by its charismatic ideologue, Vladimir Jabotinsky. At age 15, Begin joined Betar, the youth group associated with Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionist movement. He was subsequently put in charge of the Betar organization in Poland and then became head of Betar’s propaganda department. Shortly after World War II began, he was arrested by Russian secret police and in June 1941 Begin was en route to a Stalinist labor camp in Siberia when news of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union interrupted his journey. Like the other Polish prisoners, he was given the option of joining the Polish army-in-exile and fortuitously found himself in a unit sent to Palestine. He arrived in Palestine in late 1943 and assumed command of the Irgun. He quickly emerged as a master strategist and propagandist.

Begin’s strategy was not to defeat Britain militarily, but to use terrorist violence to undermine the government’s prestige and control of Palestine by striking at symbols of British rule. The Irgun under his leadership was arguably the first post-World War II war of national liberation to use spectacular acts of violence to attract international attention to themselves and their cause and thereby publicize the Zionists’ grievances against Britain and claims for statehood. In an era long before the advent of 24 x 7 news global coverage and instantaneous satellite-transmitted broadcasts, the Irgun deliberately sought to appeal to a worldwide audience far beyond the immediate confines of their local struggle—and beyond even the ruling regime’s own homeland, to the United Nations and in the U.S. as well. Despite being the most wanted man in Palestine, Begin eluded capture.

Winston Churchill had been a supporter of Zionism for most of his political career. As prime minister during World War II, he attempted to resolve Arab and Jewish claims to Palestine by partitioning the country into separate states. His daring plan, however, was abandoned in November 1944 after Lehi assassinated Lord Moyne, the British Cabinet minister responsible for the Middle East and a life-long friend and political ally of Churchill’s. The murder had been ordered by Itzhak Shamir, the group’s operational commander and another future prime minister of Israel. With Moyne’s death, Churchill refused to consider the matter and the British Cabinet Committee’s partition scheme was shelved.

Haj Amin al-Husseini was descended from one of Palestine’s most prominent Arab families. He attended Cairo’s prestigious al-Azhar University before World War I, where he organized a Palestinian student society to protest Zionist immigration and land purchase in Palestine. He was an organizer of the anti-Zionist demonstrations in Jerusalem that erupted into rioting in 1920 and was sentenced by a British military court to 15 years imprisonment. He was subsequently pardoned and, in hopes that service in a public office might moderate his extreme views, the British appointed him Mufti of Jerusalem the following year and President of the Supreme Muslim Council, in effect making him leader of Palestine’s Muslim community. His fusion of religion with nationalism later in the decade is credited with having triggered the countrywide anti-Jewish 1929 riots. Al-Husseini played a similarly pivotal role in the Arab Rebellion, which erupted in April 1936 and after a warrant was issued for his arrest the following year, al-Husseini fled Palestine. He eventually made his way to Rome and Berlin, where he became an active Nazi collaborator and propagandist—helping to recruit Muslim volunteers from the Balkans to serve in Wermacht and Waffen SS units.

In the preface to Anonymous Soldiers, you ask the question, ‘does terrorism work?’ What are the circumstances and factors that enable some terrorist campaigns to succeed and others to fail based on the lessons from the Irgun and Lehi's campaigns?

The reason I ask that question is because of the obvious fact that, if terrorism is so ineffective, why has it persisted for at least the past two millennia and indeed become an increasingly popular means of violent political expression in the 21st Century?

One reason for terrorism’s historical intractability is the capacity of terrorist groups to learn from one another. Those terrorist groups that survive the onslaught directed against them by governments and their police, military, and intelligence and security services do so because they absorb and apply lessons learned from their predecessors. Lehi and the Irgun, for instance, both studied the war of independence that resulted in Ireland’s freedom in 1922. The Irgun subsequently had a particularly significant influence on terrorism’s future trajectory. Its campaign was the first post-World War II war of national liberation to use spectacular acts of violence to attract international attention to the group and its cause and thereby publicize the Zionists’ grievances against Britain and claims for statehood. Further, the Irgun’s political front organizations in the U.S. were particularly successful: generating publicity and raising funds for the Irgun and securing the passage of resolutions by Congress condemning British oppression in Palestine and re-affirming American support for the establishment of a Jewish state. These activities presaged the efforts subsequently undertaken by Irish-American activists on behalf of Sinn Fein and the IRA, which had similarly corrosive effects on Anglo-American relations.

While violence played a major role in the anti-colonial struggle that paved the way for the foundation of Israel, it was certainly not the only tactic. Can you tell us what other methods were used (diplomacy, negotiation, lobbying, propaganda, etc.) and where terrorism fits with those?

The rise of Israel was of course the product of many powerful forces in addition to terrorism—diplomacy, negotiation, lobbying, civil disobedience, and information operations successfully undertaken by more moderate, and non-violent Zionist groups than the Irgun. Certainly, the plight of the survivors of the Holocaust, then languishing in displaced person’s camps across Europe, was arguably the preeminent factor leading to Israel’s establishment. At the same time, the Irgun’s success in attracting attention to themselves and their cause and also hastening Britain’s withdrawal from Palestine in 1948 shows that—despite the repeated denials of governments—terrorism can, in the right conditions and with the appropriate strategy and tactics, succeed in advancing its practitioners’ political agendas.

The bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946 remains one of the most infamous terrorist acts in history. Can you explain the controversy and discuss what Anonymous Soldiers concludes really happened?

The King David Hotel was not only among the world’s most luxurious hotels but its southern wing (beneath which the explosives were placed) housed the nerve center of British rule in Palestine: the government secretariat and headquarters of both British military forces and its intelligence and security services. The attack’s target, therefore, was neither the hotel itself nor the persons working or staying in it, but the government, military, and offices located there. At the same time, though, the claim of Begin and other apologists that warnings were issued to evacuate the hotel before the blast cannot absolve either the group or its commander from responsibility for the ninety-one persons killed and forty-five others injured: men and women, Arabs, Jews and Britons alike. The warnings were not only issued with insufficient time to allow the hotel’s evacuation but were never communicated to the British authorities. Accordingly, whatever non-lethal intentions the Irgun may or may not have had, the fact remains that a tragedy of almost unparalleled magnitude was inflicted at the King David Hotel, so that to this day the bombing still holds an infamous distinction as one of the world’s single most lethal terrorist incidents of the twentieth century.

What parallels do you see in the struggle that erupted between Jews and Arabs during the time of British rule and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict today?

This was for me an unexpectedly depressing aspect of the research and writing of Anonymous Soldiers. All the controversy and conflict over Palestine between the Arabs and Jews that rages today was also present at the time of British rule. The belief that literacy and economic growth would mitigate sectarianism, nationalism, and religious fervor, for instance, is a familiar theme from the earliest days of British rule. It came to a crashing denouement in the 1930s when, while the rest of world suffered during the Great Depression, Palestine’s economy was thriving. Yet, employment opportunities and a rising standard of living mattered little to the Arabs, who feared the loss of their land and launched the 1936-39 Arab Rebellion. Similarly, long before Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, there was a Palestinian Arab terrorist leader, Sheikh ‘Izz al-Din Abd al-Qadir al-Qassam, who also prosecuted his rebellion from a cave in a remote and mountainous region. He, too, embraced a literal and austere form of Islam that inextricably linked politics to religion and regarded rebellion and the defense of Muslim lands against Western encroachment as an personal obligation. For al-Qassam, the struggle against Palestine’s British rulers and Jewish interlopers alike was divinely decreed. Ironically, last summer, it was the rockets named after al-Qassam, that Hamas fired into Israel which provoked the Gaza War. Terrorism, as Anonymous Soldiers shows, has sadly long been woven into the history of both Palestine and Israel.

Anonymous Soldiers is a major, incredibly detailed work of scholarship. Can you talk about the newly available documents and other archives you tapped into? What new information did you uncover?

Starting in the late 1990s, the British Security Service (MI5) began to release documents pertaining to its history to the National Archives in Kew, London. The “KV” series, as the Security Service’s papers are designated, yielded a treasure trove of new information on Palestine, among which included intelligence leads and analyses as well as correspondence connected to the King David Hotel bombing that was sent to MI5—and signed—by H.A.R. “Kim” Philby, the notorious cold war spy. As the participants in the struggle over Palestine in the 1940s aged and, in many cases, passed away, either they or their heirs increasingly deposited at university libraries and research centers hitherto unknown and unavailable material in the form of long forgotten official papers and personal diaries. The papers of J.J. O’Sullivan, a senior British intelligence officer who served in Palestine, and was at the vortex of virtually all the investigations into all the major terrorist attacks both in Palestine and elsewhere between 1944 and 1947, proved invaluable especially with respect to the assassination of Lord Moyne in Cairo in 1944; the 1946 bombings of the King David Hotel and the British embassy in Rome; and, the kidnapping and lynching of two British field intelligence sergeants the following year. They were given to the Rhodes House Library, part of Oxford University’s famed Bodleian Library. Other important personal papers collections were deposited at the Middle East Centre of St Antony’s College, Oxford. In addition, the discovery in Israel of the long mislaid intelligence files of the Palestine Police, now housed at the Haganah Archives in Tel Aviv, were also especially insightful.

These and other newly released documents provide new evidence about the planning and conspiracy that attended Lord Moyne’s assassination; helped to untangle the web of half-truths and outright lies that followed the King David Hotel bombing and thus explain exactly what happened there and why; and, shed new light on the 1947 torture and murder of a 16 year-old Lehi operative by an elite unit of the Palestine Police.

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