Reflective truth

60 years after the Jerusalem British headquarters bombing, IZL fighters return to the King David Hotel.

king david hotel bomb 88 (photo credit: )
king david hotel bomb 88
(photo credit: )
'We will meet at the barricades! We will meet at the barricades!" Leaning heavily on his walker, standing at attention as best he could, his voice hoarse with emotion and age, "Danny" - who still sometimes uses his underground nom de guerre - sang the Irgun Zvai Leumi (IZL) hymn, his voice hoarse with age and emotion. "Gun to gun, bullet to bullet, we will meet in blood and fire," he sang resoundingly, tired perhaps, but very excited and happy. Saturday, July 22nd marked the 60th anniversary of the bombing of the British headquarters in the King David Hotel by the IZL fighters. Despite telephone calls by the IZL, warning of the imminent bombing [see box], 91 people died, among them 28 British, 41 Arabs and 17 Jews. One IZL fighter was killed inside the hotel, after the explosives had been set. To this day, the bombing of the King David Hotel remains the explosion that caused the greatest number of casualties in the history of the Israeli-Arab conflict. In commemoration, some 250 former fighters, academic historians and politicians convened last week for a two-day conference sponsored by the Menachem Begin Heritage House, the University of Haifa and the Association of IZL Fighters. They came, they said, to tell their stories. But it was clear they came for more. The former fighters sought recognition for their role in the establishment of the State of Israel, legitimization of their bombing in which so many people were killed and vindication for their war against the British occupation. The academics came to demand recognition for their contribution to the historiography of the State and legitimization of their field of research. "The bombing of the British headquarters [in the King David Hotel]," Danny declared, "was the most important event of the pre-state period. It led to the establishment of the state. We helped to drive out the British Empire, because the British realized that we Jews could fight and that we would. And I would do it again, in a second." Like all the former IZL underground fighters, Danny refused to accept any responsibility or express any remorse for the loss of life. "We warned them to get out. They didn't. It's their own fault," he said flatly. The academics asserted the importance of the underground movements, the IZL and the Lehi, which, they contended, had been shut out and shut up by the establishment. History, they quoted, is written by the strong and the victorious, and not by splinter movements such as the IZL. But that is finally changing, they contended. "The version of the history of the establishment of the State of Israel presented by the 'others' - in this case, anyone who wasn't Mapai - is finally being heard," proclaimed Udi Lebel from the Ben-Gurion Institute at Beersheba University. "The stigmas that have been attached to those others - stigmas that never matched reality - are finally being removed." Lebel dismissed post-modern movements that "escape history by running away to narratives and experiential perceptions of reality." He then continued, "Information has been withheld; the studies have not been done on the IZL or the underground movements." Michael Cohen from Bar-Ilan University warned that, "Enlisted history isn't over. Each camp is still presenting its own version. It's quite nice and makes us all happy to look back at history nostalgically - but now, 60 years later, history can prove the truth and provide an objective perspective." And that truthful, objective perspective, the participants were convinced, will point to the importance of the bombing of the British headquarters at the King David Hotel. But the process won't be easy, Cohen warned. "Anyone who thinks it's easy should see what the 'new historians' have done with the history of the mainstream movements, such as the Hagana and the other institutions of the Yishuv." The crowd of former fighters was clearly not interested in theoretical discussions, the politics of knowledge or the search for a single, objective truth. As far as they were concerned, they knew the truth then and they know it now. When a lecturer dared to criticize the break-away splinter movements such as the IZL and the Lehi, an elderly man, frail but enraged and red in the face, screamed out, "But the Palmah was founded by the British!" And when Motti Golani from the University of Haifa noted obliquely that on June 29, 1946, the British authorities had arrested almost all of the leaders of the Yishuv, while on June 29, 2006, the Israeli authorities arrested almost all the leaders of Hamas, an incensed woman screamed out from the audience, "It's not healthy to make those kinds of comparisons." "Leftist," muttered another elderly woman who still retains a heavy American accent. "He should tell this to [Hizbullah chief Hassan] Nasrallah." The Hagana and almost all leaders of the Yishuv condemned the bombing in the strongest terms, distancing themselves morally and militarily from the IZL and ending the brief period of cooperation between the resistance movements. The IZL and many researchers have continued to insist that the Hagana directly authorized the bombing. "Everything was coordinated with the Hagana," declared former prime minister and IZL leader Menachem Begin in a film clip from the Israel Broadcasting Authority's "Scroll of Fire" series. The audience applauded. Convened as Israel was fighting Hizbullah in Lebanon, the participants took great pains to distinguish between terror groups and freedom fighters. Former prime minister and current Likud MK Binyamin Netanyahu, popular as ever at the conference, said, "The difference is expressed in the fact that the terrorists intend to harm civilians whereas legitimate combatants try to avoid that." "Imagine that Hamas or Hizbullah would call the military headquarters in Tel Aviv and say, 'We have placed a bomb and we are asking you to evacuate the area.' They don't do that. That is the difference." "The warning was given early enough," insisted Menachem Begin in the same clip. SARAH AGASSI, 77, who, like "Danny," prefers to use her nom de guerre and identified herself as "Yael," said she knows the phone calls were made in due time - she and another woman, "Tehiya," were the ones assigned the task of calling The Palestine Post, the French Consulate and the hotel dispatcher to warn them of the coming explosion. "We chose a place ahead of time and made sure that we had change for the telephones. We watched and waited until we saw the last of the fighters come out. I didn't know it until that moment, but one of the last of the fighters was my brother. Then we made the phone calls. "While we were waiting, a British soldier came up to me and asked me my name. I think he was trying to pick me up. I told him my name was Mary and I thought to myself, 'In a few minutes he'll really know what kind of a Mary I am.'" The crowd tittered. And she repeated the frequently-quoted version of the events, according to which the British chief secretary of the government of Palestine, Sir John Shaw, when informed of the warning, retorted, "I don't take orders from Jews. I give orders to Jews." At the time, Shaw denied this, as does the official British position to this day. But the former fighters hold to the story, saying it reinforces their perception of the arrogant, oppressive British occupation forces as the chief obstacle in the way of the establishment of the Jewish state. Months earlier, "Gidi" [Amichai Feiglin, operations officer for the IZL] had sent Yael and three others to the hotel on an intelligence-gathering mission. They had no idea of the purpose of the mission, she recalls, because activities within the IZL were kept secret even from most of the fighters themselves. "We were two women who dressed up fancy and went with two fighters who dressed up as wealthy Arabs," she recalled. "I borrowed silk stockings and wore a fancy dress. I was quite a looker then," she said with a still-coquettish smile. "It was quite an experience. I was only 17. The place was amazing. I remember the dance floor, the chandeliers and the wonderful orchestra. I remember the deep green velvet curtains. Everything was beautiful and sparkled. It was shining and beautiful. I had never seen anything like that. No one I knew had such luxuries in their home, and good Jewish girls wouldn't usually go to such places and didn't mix with Arab or British men." They returned another time to complete their mission. They danced tangos and waltzes, enjoyed the expensive wine and food - and memorized the location of the kitchens, the support beams, possible escape routes and anything else that might be useful, as they were instructed. But when a British official invited Yael to dance, she refused. "I would never dance with a British man," she declared. And so they had to retreat quickly, since their escorts were disguised as Arabs. "We realized that I might have attracted attention - after all, what Jewish girl would agree to dance with an 'Arab' but not with a British official?" "Of course it's sad that so many people were killed, especially the innocent Jews," she continued. "But we warned them. We gave them time to evacuate the building. The British were arrogant, they chose not to [evacuate]. We fought for our independence. It was the right thing to do. I would do anything for our country now, too." Shraga Alis also told his personal recollection of the planning of the bombing. Almost matter-of-factly, with a certain glory and certainly no reflection, he seemed to enjoy telling every detail of how the fighters entered the building, dressed as Arabs, and dragged the seven heavy milk cans, filled with 350 kg. of explosives, across the lengthy hallways of the King David, passed the unsuspecting guards and workers, and placed them strategically around a support beam next to the elegant Regency club on the ground floor of the southern wing. The years have not added complexity to his understanding. "We did what we had to do." Ya'acov Elazar, a member of the technical branch of the IZL and then a professor at the Technion, had been involved with the most precise details of the bombing. At the conference, he carried a miniature replica of a large tin milk can, a knowing smile on his resolute face. Before the conference ended with a tour of the hotel and the dedication of the commemorative plaque, he insisted on reading out the names of each and every member of the IZL who was involved, directly or indirectly, with the bombing, citing them by their underground names and positions and noting whether they are still alive today, 60 years later. The crowd listened patiently. Before the conference dispersed, most of the crowd walked the few blocks to the King David Hotel. The conference organizers provided buses for those too frail or elderly to walk. Walking through the underground hallways, past bewildered maintenance crews and hotel staff, they stopped at each point along the way and members of the Begin Heritage Center, like guides on a high school hike, explained the events of that day. Then they listened to the dedication of the plaque in the presence of Rabbi She'ar Yashuv Cohen, the chief rabbi of Haifa who had fought in the Old City, and Jerusalem Yigal Amedi, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem. Most of the attendees weren't interested in the speeches. They were interested in the wording of the plaque, which had been changed at the insistence of the British ambassador and consul. The original wording had presented as fact the IZL's claim that people died because the British ignored the warning calls. "Warning phone calls had been made, urging the hotel's occupants to leave immediately. For reasons known only to the British, the hotel was not evacuated," it read. But the British authorities still deny that they were ever warned and, even if they were, Ambassador Simon McDonald and Consul Dr. John Jenkins wrote in a letter to Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, "This does not absolve those who planted the bomb from responsibility for their deaths. To prevent a diplomatic incident, and over the objections of MK Reuven Rivlin (Likud), who brought the matter up in the Knesset, the text was changed - especially in the English version. In English, the text now reads, "Warning phone calls has [sic] been made to the hotel, The Palestine Post and the French Consulate, urging the hotel's occupants to leave immediately. The hotel was not evacuated and after 25 minutes the bombs exploded… to the Irgun's regret, 92 persons were killed." The count of 92 includes Avraham Abramovitz, the IZL fighter who was killed inside the hotel. But only the Hebrew version makes that clear. "I don't care about the English," said Yael. "I only care about the Hebrew, because that's our language. And the Hebrew tells the truth."