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Jewish Terrorism

The article is dedicated to Rafael Berger who lost his life when a Jerusalem bus was blown up by a suicide bomber on June 17, 2002.

"As long as young people feel they've got no hope but to blow themselves up we are never going to make progress."
-- Cherie Blair, Wife of the British Prime Minister

"The Palestinians are fighting with human suicide bombers, that's all they have. The Israelis . . . they've got one of the most powerful military machines in the world. The Palestinians have nothing."
-- Ted Turner, Founder of CNN

"I do not think that in his heart an Israeli would deny that, if your enemy has taken land that is rightfully yours and occupied it, then not just your enemy's army but his wife and son and daughter and servants and all who, under his protection, come to live and make their living on the stolen land, are aggressors. By their presence they aid and abet the occupation."
-- Matthew Parris, Saturday Times of London, June 22, 2002

"Terrorism in Israel really started with Begin and Shamir and later Sharon.""It's a very valid question as to why they see no similarities between themselves under the British and the Palestinians under their occupation."
-- Clovis Maksoud, the former Arab League ambassador to the United Nations

"David Ben-Gurion never moved against the Irgun and the Stern Gang until after the state was established and secured, which is definitely not true in the case of the Palestinian Authority. Essentially, the Israelis are asking the Palestinians to do something they themselves refused to do." i
-- Hussein Ibish, Communication director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

These are the kind of quotes which led polemicist Andrew Sullivan to the conclusion that"there seems to me little doubt that Israel and, by implication, America is losing this battle of ideas." Indeed, more and more the argument is forwarded that the murder of innocents through suicide bombing is just another military strategy justified or at the very least expected if the circumstances are dire enough and if the power disparity is big enough. Nations whose land, even if not necessarily people, is under occupation are morally entitled to the most extreme remedies.ii So, there is nothing morally repugnant in blowing up babies of people you deem"occupiers" nor is it depraved for a mother to encourage her son to become a suicide bomber provided it is done for the sake of freeing the land. Indeed, there is something romantic, even admirable in the willingness of youngsters to sacrifice their lives to kill those who inhabit that land. In any case, who are Israelis to complain? Didn't the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) dabble in terrorism? Didn't its leaders look the other way before they got the state they wanted? The simple answer is no.

Ben Gurion's Moral Stance

During the darkest hours of Jewish history against the most callous of occupiers, the Zionist leadership headed by David Ben Gurion fought a no-holds-barred war with the revisionists. The revisionists refused to accommodate the repeated British efforts to diminish the size of the Jewish Homeland first by the creation of Jordan on the East Bank of the mandatory land and then with various plans to divide its West Bank. If Israel is a prosperous democracy with a first-rate army it is because its leadership knew enough to put people above land. It is also because David Ben Gurion knew that the right way to treat desperate people is to turn them into builders not murderers. He did not seek to stroke the feelings of revenge that the emaciated Holocaust survivors living in Displacement Camps (DPs) felt. Nor did he treat them as damaged victims. He simply promised them a new life. He said:"What has happened . . . we cannot repair . . . and it is our duty to make sure it never happens again. There will not be another Holocaust . . . only if we create a reality which will not let it happen.""Not only your children," he promised,"but we, whose heads are grayed with age, will yet live to see a Jewish State." He painted a picture of the Yishuv where"we have our own shops, our own factories, our own land, our own culture and our own rifles." He added that he would get them there even if it would be necessary to fight England to achieve it.iii But before picking up the gun, he repeatedly compromised on land and the moment some land was offered he put down the gun. Guns are a necessary evil, shovels are the real thing and those who think otherwise are destroying the moral and physical fiber of their people.

Ben Gurion refused to choose between morality and real politics, action and passivity, and always opted for a third way. The Yishuv should develop a military capacity but it should be used in a moral fashion. Long before the Yishuv had any military capability to speak of, Ben Gurion developed the tradition of"self restraint," later known as"purity of arms." In a letter he co-wrote with Moshe Sharett following the 1936 period of Arab terror, he explained that Jews had abstained from reprisals not out of fear and weakness but"solely out of a deep moral persuasion." In April 1939, he was pleased to announce that 'during these past three years . . . except for a very small and irresponsible segment [of the Yishuv], we did not spill the blood of innocent Arabs, although in the psychological sense it might have been justified."iv But psychology should never trump morality.

Menachem Begin Enters the Fray

The 1939 British White Paper which limited Jewish immigration to 75,000 and severely curtailed Jewish ability to purchase land in Palestine could not have come at a worse time. Ben Gurion announced that he would fight the British as if there were no Germans and the Germans as if there were no British. This meant that he would do anything he could, be it legal or illegal, to get out of Europe as many Jews as possible and at the same time urge his people to join the British army to fight the Nazis.

As the horrors of the Shoah began to emerge and the few survivors of the death camps were placed in new, more"humane," displacement camps, the rage and frustration of the Yishuv can hardly be imagined. Who knows how many Jews could have been saved had the British with their 1939 White Paper not closed off the gates of Palestine just at the moment the Jewish refugees needed it open the most. There was hardly a Yishuv member who had not lost family in the European Holocaust and many had relatives in the DP camps they were prevented from helping. The New York Times reported that"the spirit of the whole terrorist movement runs with extraordinary force in the youth organization." In other words, the"Jewish Street" wanted action. But the democratically-elected Yishuv leadership, the Executives of the Jewish Agency, knew better than to succumb.

Already, in September 1944, Moshe Sneh, head of the Haganah General Headquarters, and Eliyahu Golomb, one of the Haganah leaders, met the Irgun commander, Menachem Begin, and read him the riot act. The Irgun had proclaimed a revolt against the British rule and had attacked various government targets. Sneh did not mince words:"To expand your activities requires control of the souls and the property of the public. And it is we who control the public. We do not intend to renounce that control, because it is we who have received a mandate from the Jewish people... If you continue your activities, a clash will result." Begin retorted that the Yishuv would oust the movement which started a civil war. But Golomb refused to back down:"We demand that you cease immediately [your activity against the British]...We do not want a civil war... but we will be ready for that as well."

Begin agreed that the Executives had the right to represent the people, but he continued to insist that he had the right to determine policy:"We have no intention of seizing power in the Yishuv...We have no such ambitions... we think that Ben-Gurion is the man who can lead our youth into battle today. . . . We pray for the day when we can proclaim the end of the Irgun's task and disperse it. And the moment that you go out to war - we will all rally under a united leadership, in which you will constitute the decisive majority. But as long as you have not done this, we will conduct our battle."v

The Death of Lord Moyne

On November 7, 1944 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stood up in the House of Commons to announce the death of Lord Moyne"at the hands of foul assassins." Lord Moyne, one Walter Edward Guinness, was the British Resident Minister in the Middle East based in Cairo. Churchill added that Moyne's death meant that the Jews had lost a"well informed friend" who devoted himself to the solution of the Zionist question.vi Some friend, some solution! In December 1941, Lord Moyne was responsible for telling the Turks to force a refugee ship named Struma back into the Black Sea after refusing to permit its passengers to enter Palestine even en route to Mauritius. Five miles beyond the coastline the ship sank, drowning 428 men, 269 women, and 70 children. Amongst them were a doctor and his wife who had escaped Ghetto Warsaw, and made their way to the Romanian town of Arad where my parents risked their lives to hide them and then to transport them to Constanza where they embarked on the doomed boat. Moyne's motivation can be discerned by his subsequent response to Joel Brand, Adolf Eichmann's emissary, who sought to explore the possibility of exchanging a million Hungarian Jews for trucks and other equipment."What would I do with a Million Jews?" Moyne asked. Eichmann, of course, knew precisely what to do. He sent them to burn in the Auschwitz crematorium. Amongst those going up in ashes were my aunt and her miraculous baby, the one born with a tooth in his mouth. Joel Brand joined the Stern Gang. The Stern Gang took credit for the execution and announced:

We accuse Lord Moyne and the government he represents, with murdering hundreds and thousands of our brethren; we accuse him of seizing our counry and looting our possessions... We were forced to do justice and to fight. vii

The assassination of Lord Moyne led Jewish leadership to decide that it was time to act. The Jewish Agency Executive convened and not only issued a fierce condemnation of the murder but called on the Yishuv to banish the evildoers from their midst. This was the official Histadrut announcement on the matter:

Jewish youth must fight terror and its perpetrators! [...] The perpetrators of terror, who call themselves the 'Irgun Zvai Le'umi' and 'Lohamei Herut Israel' are traitors! ... They must be removed from our classrooms, banished from our workshops! Their propaganda, whether written or spoken, must not be permitted... No refuge must be given to these malefactors in the homes of your parents, relatives and acquaintances! The incorrigible despoilers must be isolated and abandoned, until they are spewed out of the ranks of the Yishuv, until terror ceases and its organization is eradicated.

The Jewish leadership went on to call on the Yishuv not only to cooperate with the British occupier but also vouched for its future treatment of the offenders. Evil is evil even if the perpetrator is a Jew:

The Jewish Agency proposes herewith that all persons who are acquainted with any of the terrorists, should immediately inform the police by word of mouth, in writing or by telephone and observe the injunction: 'And thou shalt root out the evil from thy midst'. Fathers who have sons in these organizations should, in the same fashion, inform the police and observe thereby the injunction: 'If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, he must take him out to the elders and say to them: This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice. And all the men of the city shall stone him with stones.' Particularly since the English do not intend to do the terrorists any harm. They will hold them for a year or two apart from other people until their surplus energy, which apparently results from overeating and from inactivity and sloth, has cooled down [...] It is time to act for the sake of the Jewish people and the homeland.

Begin's response demonstrated both his strategic acumen and his moral fiber. Indeed, the good will it generated saved his future political viability.

THERE WILL BE NO FRATERNAL WAR [...] It is with gloomy face that the loyal Jew asks himself and his neighbor: Are we to suffer this as well? Will a civil war break out in Eretz Israel? . . . Orators and leaders do not cease to speak of the internal strife. One of them has said that it has already begun; the second - even more loudmouthed - has profaned his lips with the hysterical cry: blood for blood, an eye for an eye! A third has labored and labored until he has finally devised a plan to save the Jewish people. And this is the plan: to expel from their homes, to expel from schools, to starve and to hand over our fighting youths to the British Police. 'It is them or us,' it declared, 'and all means are acceptable in order to liquidate them.' (From Ben-Gurion's speech at the Histadrut Conference). . . . - on our own behalf and on behalf of the Irgun Zvai Le'umi in Eretz Israel - to provide an answer. And this is our answer: you may stay calm, loyal Jews; there will be no fraternal strife in this country...

It was not easy for Begin to restrain his subordinates, nor was it easy for Ben Gurion to convince his people to hunt fellow Jewish fighters. The precise number is still in dispute but the Haganah delivered into British hands 700 to 1,000 Jewish terrorists during the 1944-45 period which came to be known as"saison" (the hunting season).

Victory In Europe and the Short-Lived HRM

In May 1945, victory in Europe was declared, and not long thereafter, Labor came to power. Zionists could not be more pleased. After all, the Labor party conference went on record in support of abandoning the White Paper policy. But the Foreign office quickly set the Laborites straight and on November 13, the new foreign minister Ernest Bevin announced that the policy of the White Paper with its strict immigration and land sale clauses would remain intact. This despite the growing plight of the survivors in the DP camps documented in August 1945, by the Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Pittsburgh, Earl Harrison. At President Truman's request, Harrison studied the issue of the survivors and reported that"anti-Semitism had already led, since the end of the hostilities in May 1945 to the murder of several hundred Jews who had been making their way to their former homes." Given the rise in such attacks and the overwhelming desire of the survivors to go to Palestine,"the only real solution of the problem lies in the evacuation of all the non-repatriatable Jews in Germany and Austria who wish it, to Palestine."viii

Ben Gurion could not be more pleased with the report or disappointed with the British. Indeed, by the end of 1945, Ben Gurion concluded that the time for violence on behalf of survivors had come. He would increase the number of boats trying to break into Palestine and to increase their chances of success, the Yishuv forces would attack radar stations, lighthouses and the communication systems used by the freshly arrived 100,000 man British army. To prevent independent action by the terrorist groups, Ben Gurion established the joint Hebrew Resistance Movement (HRM). Its role was to coordinate operations. Final operation approval rested with the Haganah. The terrorists were delighted to see the"saison' replaced by the HRM.

The policy reached its peak of effectiveness on June 16-17 when the Jewish fighters succeeded in destroying 10 roads and rail bridges, thereby isolating the country from its neighbors. On the night of June 28 - a day known as Black Saturday - the British retaliated. Seventeen thousand British troops, backed by tanks and armor, totally blockaded the Yishuv and began a wide sweep against the HRM. Borders were closed, telephone service stopped, and a night curfew was imposed. There were armed searches in the kibbutzim. Kibbutz Yagur was especially damaged, and most of the Yishuv leadership was arrested. David Ben Gurion escaped capture only because he happened to be in Paris. So an alarmed Weizmann demanded an immediate halt of all anti-British violence and got his way after threatening to resign.

In the meantime, plans were about ready for an Irgun bombing of the British government and army headquarters located in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Given the new Jewish Agency policy, Sneh was supposed to cancel the operation. Whether he did so or not is in dispute. What he did do is flee abroad hoping to convince Ben Gurion to fight Weizmann's new moderate policy. Begin and the Irgun decided to go ahead with the operation. The Irgun bomb threats were either ignored or did not reach the right people, and almost 100 lives were lost in the bombing.

Jewish and world condemnation came fast and furious. The following day the Yishuv leaders expressed"their feelings of horror at the base and unparalleled act perpetrated today by a gang of criminals" and called upon the Jews in Palestine . . . to rise against the abominable outrage. In an interview with the French newspaper 'France Soir,' Ben-Gurion declared that the Irgun was"the enemy of the Jewish people." At the request of the Haganah, the Irgun issued a leaflet accepting sole responsibility for the operation. In its statement it neither celebrated nor justified the loss of life. It merely blamed the British for acting on the warnings:ix


e. The telephone warnings were given at 12:10-12:15. And if it is true, as the British liars have announced, that the explosion occurred at 12:37, they still had 22 minutes at their disposal in order to evacuate the building of its residents and workers. Therefore responsibility for loss of life among civilians rests solely with them.

f. It is not true that the persons who delivered the warning spoke 'on behalf of the United Resistance' (as the press reported)... On this matter, we are refraining at present from making any further statement, but it is possible that - in the context of the savage and dastardly incitement - it will be necessary to issue such a statement at the appropriate time.

g. We mourn the Jewish victims; they too are the tragic victims of the tragic and noble Hebrew war of liberation [...]

Sneh's hopes that Ben Gurion would fight the new moderate policy were quickly dashed. On August 5, 1946, the Jewish Agency Executive in Paris decided to terminate the armed struggle against the British in Palestine. Sneh resigned. To Begin's chagrin, the era of HRM was over. He, of course, remained a hunted, if never captured, man. Hence, the Haganah focused on bringing in illegal immigrants and limited its armed struggle to the sabotaging of British naval vessels which were hunting down illegal immigrants.

The Good Shepherd Ben Gurion

Though Begin was never officially punished, Ben Gurion kept him on the fringe of Israeli politics. When he became Prime Minister, his motto for building coalitions was:"Without Herut (Begin's party) or the Communists (headed by Sneh!). He never wavered from that principle. It was the pre-Six Day War crisis period which unexpectedly saved Begin from political oblivion. The crisis exposed Prime Minister Eshkol's inadequacy as a war leader and eventually forced him to turn over the Defense portfolio to Moshe Dayan. As a fig leaf to cover his shame, he created a"national emergency government" which included Begin's party. Indeed, the legitimization of the Israeli right emerged as one of the more important unintended consequences of the Six Day War.

But Ben Gurion never forgot and never forgave. In 1970 he told Begin's biographer that Begin was"a romantic lawyer who was responsible for the assassination of innocent Jews, Arabs, and British."x Ben Gurion abhorred terror. On December 18, 1946, in a closed meeting of the political committee of the Zionist Congress, Ben Gurion argued brilliantly against colleagues advocating terror. His words could not be more relevant today. He began by saying,"One thing is prohibited under any circumstances - murder. Murder - means spilling of innocent blood. Murder - No. I have to tell you that a soldier is a volunteer. I know what it means to be a soldier. The role of the soldier is to kill and be killed for a just cause. . . . But there is something else that is called murder. And there is not one of us who may permit it, and we may not give anyone permission to permit it, especially when it is done in our name."

He then delineated the practical meaning of the decision to fight terror:"We have to seriously think, not here and not in the Congressional assembly, because this means not only words and declarations . . . If Congress takes a stand against murder we will have to make sure that within our ranks there will no be one who would want to help with money, speech making or providing moral justification to murder in any shape or form...We are still based . . . on a moral principle. We may not undermine it.it..." President Bush could not have said it better.

Terror boomerangs regardless of the perpetrators, Ben Gurion warned."The murder [that was done by the Arabs] in 1936 was first directed against the Jews...But eventually it became directed against the Arabs themselves. In the last period of the organized murder by the Mufti, 300 Jews were killed. According to our information - and we do not have all the information - 1,000 Arabs were killed by murderers sent by the Mufti. Do not say that this happened with the Arabs but will not happen with us. It must happen with us and it has already happened with us. With us it would be even worse than with them. In the case of the Arabs, the perpetrators were separate gangs organized by the Mufti. He had money and capabilities, but the Arab masses were helpless. . . . With Jews, it would be entirely different. It would be worse," he cautioned.

He called on those who provide moral justification for terror to cease and desist:"Groups which gave their blessing - at least that is the way I understood their speeches in the Congress - to murderous propaganda, must clarify their stands in this question. I want to tell them: We are Jews. When somebody tries to play chess - he knows how to play chess, and when they try to confuse Jews with certain formulas - they understand the formulas...What is at stake here is the moral basis of our movement and the physical existence of the Yishuv." Ben Gurion insisted that eschewing responsibility by pretending not to see was not a viable option for practical as well as moral reasons."We cannot tolerate the existence of organized groups wishing to conduct war in the name of the people in the manner, place and time of their choosing. That cannot be tolerated even without reference to the question of murder. That means that there must be strict national discipline. Discipline - is not a popular or comfortable word, especially for Jews, because of positive instincts. Jews - are free people who do not like boot camp type order. Our movement is one of the freest movements and it should stay so. However, when we go to war, there must be iron discipline even within the freest, most democratic and liberal nation," he stated.

Ben Gurion believed that terror is self-destructive, especially to the youth engaged in it."We may not permit within our ranks the demoralizing education of 'only thus,' only with the gun, as it undermines the foundation of our movement," he asserted. It is also wrong to underestimate the people's ability to combine building with self-defense:"As to the question, raised in the Congress at the end of the political debate by one of our best men:"How can we combine these things? - I must answer that we were forced to combine them in reality...I went to plow with a rifle on my shoulder in Segera." Indeed, the alternative would result in the emergence of a generation which would lack the ability to handle peace:"Imagine: A miracle would happen tomorrow and we would receive a state on both sides of the Jordan, and all the earthly kings would ship Jews to the Land of Israel, and there will no longer be a basis for terror. I know that a few hundred or a few thousand Jewish boys and girls would be the most miserable. They have no other interest in life except to shoot people. They have not been educated for anything else. They will have no meaning to their lives. As this was all their purpose, dream, pathos and song." Isn't this precisely what happened to Bin Laden and his men in Afganistan? Isn't this what may happen to the Palestinians?"If you tell the youth, especially the Eastern one, that the only thing to do is to shoot, it could no longer do anything else. It would be the worse exploitation of our brothers and sisters...who after 70 years of work in the land of Israel there are still poor neighborhoods to take their children, who do not have enough to eat, street children, and ...make into murderous bands with the help of the theory 'Only Thus!' (with a gun)."xi

The man who had the honor of establishing a Jewish state deserved that honor. For he knew that no adversity could dilute an individual's, a nation's or a civilization's basic freedom, the freedom to respond. Indeed, nothing defines an individual, a nation or a civilization better than that response. Aristotle defined the good as the middle way. Ben Gurion defined the correct war strategy as neither Massada (suicide) nor Vichy (submission) and never underestimated the intelligence, resilience or persistence of his community, be it made up of Eastern Jews or Western Jews, Yishuv members or Holocaust survivors. Like the good shepherd after whom he was named, David Ben Gurion protected both their bodies and souls. In return, they called him"Hazaken" (the old man). One can only hope that the Palestinian elections would bring to the fore men of similar caliber. Their devastated society could surely use some.

iVillage Voice, 12.21.01
ii In December 2000, when Arafat opted for a strategy of terror, the PA controlled 98% of the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.
iii Tevet, 873-4
iv Shabtai Teveth, Ben Gurion: The Burning Ground 1886-1948 (Boston; 1987), 550
viNew York Times, Nov. 8, 1944
viiiMartin Gilbert, Israel: A History (New York: 1998), 123.
xAmos Perlmutter, The Life and Times of Menachem Begin (New York: 1987), 161
xiTowards the End of the Mandate, David Ben Gurion Papers edited by Meir Avizohar (Tel Aviv: 1993), 270