Britain was once a partner in the Zionist enterprise. During the First World
War, her leaders harbored visions of Jews restored to their homeland. At the
war’s end, she accepted responsibility for putting those visions into effect
under the Mandate for Palestine.
But the calculating British Empire that
prepared to fight World War II was not the romantic British Empire of World War
In 1936, responding to Arab violence and opposition to Zionism,
Britain drastically lowered Palestine’s Jewish immigration quota.
1939, when no other country would give European Jewry refuge, Britain issued a
new White Paper restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine – the
internationally designated Jewish refuge – to a total of 75,000 over the next
It was the anti-Balfour Declaration.
policy did not change when Winston Churchill became prime minister or when
Britain learned of the slaughter of the Jews. Even the 75,000 immigration
certificates were not all granted.
Nor did it change when Germany
surrendered in May 1945 or when the Labor party, which called for Jewish
statehood, was elected.
The new foreign secretary, Ernst Bevin, warned
against Jewish refugees trying to get unfairly “to the head of the queue” of the
The British military establishment continued to view
Palestine as a strategic asset in terms of military bases, communications and
stemming Soviet influence in the region.
Keeping oil flowing to an
economically diminished Britain was also a priority. The war-time policy of
appeasing Arab opposition to Zionism had to be continued.
personally thought the Balfour Declaration was a “wild experiment” and “a Power
He even considered partition “manifestly unjust to
Instead, Bevin proposed a cantonization plan which gave the
Jews a small amount of territory and no immigration control. Then he proposed a
trustee plan leading to the emergence of an Arab-Palestinian
Britain had thus long ago renounced its role as “Mandatory” and
embraced the role of imperial occupier intent on retaining Palestine as long as
possible or establishing a friendly Arab state, preferably owing Britain certain
For the Jewish state to rise, the British occupier would
have to be removed.
This was not something Weizmann, Ben-Gurion, the
Jewish Agency or the Haganah could admit. It was, however, long anticipated by
the Revisionist-Zionist movement.
In the late 1930s Jabotinsky argued
that Britain was losing its legitimacy in Palestine due to its anti-Jewish
Yet through 1938, he believed Britain could be convinced to
return to Zionism. The younger generation in Betar and the Irgun Zvai Leumi (the
National Military Organization – the Jabotinskyite offshoot of the Haganah),
however, believed Britain would never repent.
At the Betar World
Conference in Warsaw that year, Menachem Begin, the leader of Polish Betar,
proposed amending the Betar Oath to suggest rebellion against the
When Jabotinsky asked about the practicalities, Begin replied
that it would be for experts to determine.
Jabotinsky compared Begin’s
words to the creaking of an un-oiled door.
But in 1939 Jabotinsky came
around. In Warsaw, he declared, “When the Irgun grows, your hope also grows,”
and later that “the only way to liberate our country is by the sword.”
August, Jabotinsky, sent coded plans to the Irgun, for tens of thousands of
Betarim to storm Palestine’s shores, link up with Irgun forces, take and hold
government buildings for at least 24 hours and declare Jewish
But in September, Germany invaded Poland, the heart of
European Jewry. Two days later, Britain declared war on Germany. Jewry had no
choice but to support Britain.
The Revisionist-Zionist movement
immediately announced support for the British war effort. A few days later the
Irgun announced the same.
Within a year Jabotinsky died of a massive
heart attack, but not before a split in the Irgun began to emerge between David
Raziel and Avraham Stern.
Just a few days before his death, Jabotinsky
reinstated Raziel, who had resigned as commander, thereby blocking Stern from
By October 1940, Stern and his followers left the Irgun
to fight Britain – even as Italian planes bombed Tel Aviv and a German invasion
become foreseeable. Rejected by the Yishuv, forced to resort to bank robberies,
Stern found himself on the run. He would eventually be murdered by British
policemen who had arrested him.
Raziel fared no better. He was killed by
a German bomb while on a mission for the British in Iraq.
Jabotinsky’s death, Irgun officers-turned-activists in the US, who had always
sought greater independence, broke with the US Revisionist- Zionist
In Europe, Begin narrowly escaped the Nazis and found
temporary refuge in Vilna but was soon arrested by the Russian NKVD and sent to
Within a short span, opposition to Britain was muted, the base
of the Revisionist-Zionist movement was lost and its leadership disintegrated: a
reflection of the state of European Jewry.
In Palestine, the new Irgun
commander Ya’acov Meridor, and others like Eliyahu Lankin, kept the Irgun
together despite the lack of direction.
In 1943, after a failed joint
venture with more militant members of the Haganah (“Am Lohem”), Meridor sought
new leadership for the Irgun.
He found it in Begin, who had recently
arrived in Palestine with the Polish army.
At that point the Irgun had
little weaponry and 600 active members – only 200 of whom were combat ready. Yet
the destruction of European Jewry with British acquiescence and the sense that
the Jewish people could not wait spurred them on.
“The blood of our
people cried out to us,” Begin would write. “[I]t fired revolt in our
On February 1, 1944, the Irgun published its Proclamation of
Revolt: “There is no longer any armistice between the Jewish people and the
British administration in Eretz Yisrael which hands our brothers over to Hitler.
Our people is at war with this regime – war to the end.... [O]ur demand:
immediate transfer of power in Eretz Israel to a provisional Hebrew
government.... We shall fight, every Jew in the homeland will fight.... There
will be no retreat. Liberty – or death.”
On February 12, the Irgun bombed
immigration offices in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv. Over the coming months the
bombing of British tax, intelligence and police offices continued, often in
different cities on the same day.
Britain, the Jewish Agency and the
socialist parties denounced the Irgun as terrorists, but the Irgun targeted only
the mandatory administration and strove to avoid unnecessary
In September, the Irgun demonstrated its political
sophistication and strength.
Leading up to Yom Kippur, the Irgun posted
repeated warnings: any British officer who interfered with the blowing of the
shofar at the Kotel at the end of Yom Kippur prayers – an act of rebellious
significance carried out by Betarim since it was banned in 1931 – would be
“regarded as a criminal and... be punished accordingly.”
When Yom Kippur
prayers drew to a close at the Kotel, British security forces did not burst
forth as they had the year prior. The shofar was blown and no one interfered. It
was the “trumpet of revolt,” Begin later wrote.
That night, the Irgun
assaulted police “Tegart” forts in four cities.
The attacks’ coordination
shocked the British while their own reluctance to stop the blowing of the shofar
The British learned to take the revolt seriously. And
the more seriously they took it, the more they realized that they would have to
go.This article is part four in a series on the Revisionist-Zionist
The author is Likud Central Committee member and an attorney.
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>