Joan Thompson and a death on a Jerusalem road

Thompson arrived to the Mandate in November 1937, and spent 11 years assisting those in need as a Mandate government employee.

BETHLEHEM ROAD in the late 1930s (today the ‘Bankim’ Junction). Note the pillbox post (photo credit: MATSON PHOTOGRAPH COLLECTION. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
BETHLEHEM ROAD in the late 1930s (today the ‘Bankim’ Junction). Note the pillbox post
As Naomi Shepherd makes clear in Ploughing Sand: British Rule in Palestine, 1917-1948 – her history of the British Mandate over Palestine – British officials were very much involved in the improvement of the standards of the disadvantaged local population in the fields of education, public health and social welfare. The efforts mostly were directed to the Arab population, if only because the Zionist bodies and Jewish philanthropic institutions saw to it that the Jewish population’s needs were cared for without waiting for government initiatives or handouts.
The Social Welfare Department of the Mandate government dealt with youth employment, orphans, mental health issues and all the rest of the many needs of the poor, the unfortunate and those whose life circumstances had been detrimentally affected and their social equilibrium disturbed including youthful criminal offenders. Missionaries also played a significant role in either assisting the British or in establishing their own programs and institutions.
Marcella Simoni wrote in her 1999 study, Dangerous Legacy: Welfare in British Palestine, 1930-1939, that British authorities relied on missionary activities to complete what they could not achieve. Missions provided and managed schools for the training of doctors and nurses, which the government could not support. There was a “political relationship between missionary bodies and the British administration.”
One of the government officials who served the mainly Arab population was Joan Marjorie Thompson.
Ms. Thompson arrived to the Mandate in November 1937, and spent 11 years assisting those in need as a Mandate government employee. She arrived in the midst of the “Disturbances,” that violent three-year period of an Arab revolt that broke out following the brief terror campaign waged by Sheikh Izz ad-Din al-Qassam in November 1935. Five months after al-Qassam’s death, members of his movement shot and killed two Jewish passengers on a bus at Anabta in April 1936, setting off the 1936–39 Arab revolt. In October 1942, Thompson was appointed a welfare officer, later to become principal welfare officer.
Where in England was she from? Why did she come? What was her early life? Did she only work with the Arab population? In an appreciation, it was stated she came to Palestine “after thorough training and a wide experience in social welfare activities.” These and other questions connected with her personal life remain, at least for the moment, unanswered. She did have a widowed mother but her family history is unclear. A Downing C. Thompson was appointed to act as senior assistant secretary and he was the last victim to be found alive, 31 hours after the King David Hotel explosion, but he died just over a week later. Although he was married, his wife’s name is unknown.
On the morrow of the United Nations November 29, 1947 decision to recommend partition, communal violence in Jerusalem became a continuous and a constant daily occurrence. Jews were forced to flee the neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah, Shimon HaTzadik and Neveh Shimon. Mount Scopus with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Hadassah Hospital came under a certain siege. Sniping, return fire, bombings and kidnappings were a regular feature of life in the city. The offices of The Palestine Post – later to be renamed The Jerusalem Post – were blown up on February 2 with three dead, and as a result of the Ben Yehuda Street vehicle bombing on February 22, more than 50 people were killed.
BY MARCH, Joan Thompson, who was the acting deputy director of the Department of Social Welfare and a parole officer, had decided to leave her employment and return to England. On Easter Monday, March 28, she had attended Mildred Marston’s funeral. Marston had worked for her church’s ministry among Jewish people as a teacher at the Girl’s College in the Schmidt building off of Nablus Road. She and a colleague, as related by Hannah R. Hurnard, were walking along St. Paul’s Way (today, Shivtei Yisrael Street) on their way to St. George’s Cathedral to attend the midmorning service when there was a sudden burst of gunfire. Marston’s colleague threw herself to the ground and was unhurt. However, the bullets struck and killed Marston.
Mildred Marston was buried at the Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion. Present at the funeral were, among others, Miss Thompson.
The next day, March 30, as multiple newspaper reports convey, Thompson drove out to the Government Hospital located at Beit Safafa village. Her purpose was to visit an Arab nurse recuperating there. Her driver was Arab.
What happened next is imprecise as the newspapers were inconsistent.
According to the report in The Palestine Post of March 31, 1948, an Arab nurse standing at the hospital saw Thompson 150 yards away, at Kilometer 5 on Bethlehem Road, being shot. The official Government Press Office release blamed Jews, pointing to the Hagana as responsible. The Davar newspaper reported that Arabs, seeking to rob the occupant, approached closely and shot her.
HaBoker had it that Jewish snipers recently were targeting Arab vehicles traveling to and from Bethlehem. Itzik Levy’s history of Jerusalem in the War of Independence lists Hagana members shooting at Arab traffic on the Bethlehem Road the previous day, March 29, after Arab shooting from Beit Safafa on March 27, which was connected to the Nebi Daniel Convoy fiasco. It also has Thompson in Beit Safafa and the car driven by an Arab who was wounded by a long burst of fire. It identifies the shooter as an Arab who approached the car.
Haaretz (calling her “Majorie”) asserts she was shot while standing by her car near the Beit Safafa hospital by shots from Mekor Hayim. The Arab nurse is quoted, as in other reports, saying that while standing some 150 yards away, she saw a Jew armed with an automatic weapon approach the car, and that even though Thompson shouted that she was British, he opened fire and raked the car with bullets. In that area, would Jews dare approach on foot?
Miss Thompson died in the hospital at 5:45 the next morning. The report adds the response of the Hagana’s “Kol HaMagen” radio denying that any Hagana members were involved.
In his diary, Experiment in Anarchy, the last Mandate mayor of Jerusalem, RM Graves, writes that the “cold-blooded murder” was an “instance of barbarity.” Although “it is not absolutely certain” that Jews were involved, it was “highly probable,” with the story adding, “In the end, the guerrillas destroyed her.” No mention of her death appeared in any parliamentary debates or questions.
Joan Thompson was buried next to Margaret Marston – whose funeral she had attended two days earlier – shot and killed by unknown assailants.