Signs of different times

A commemorative sign points to troubling political, diplomatic and moral questions

king david bombing 88 (photo credit: )
king david bombing 88
(photo credit: )
he blue and white, Hebrew and English sign, hung by the municipality a few months ago on the wrought-iron fence surrounding the King David Hotel and sponsored by the municipality, the Council for Preservation, and the Association of IZL fighters, was meant to commemorate the bombing of the British Mandatory Headquarters located in the hotel. On July 22, 1946, the 350 kg. of explosives planted by the IZL killed 91 people and destroyed the entire southern wing of the luxury hotel. An IZL fighter was also killed in an exchange of fire inside the hotel, before the bombs exploded. Although placed several months ago with little fanfare, the sign was officially dedicated last week as the culminating conclusion of a two-day conference dedicated to the historical and political analysis of the bombing. The wording on the sign that was dedicated last week is significantly different from the original wording hung a few months ago, especially in the Hebrew. The British Embassy and Consulate insisted on the changes and the municipality acceded. Like all the other such signs throughout Jerusalem, this one, partially hidden by oleander bushes, was meant to educate passersby about battles and campaigns in Jerusalem before and during the War of Independence. IZL leaders, including former prime minister Menachem Begin, insisted that the bombing had been ordered by and coordinated with the Hagana. But the Hagana and the entire organized Yishuv condemned the bombing. That condemnation was one of the prime reasons for the enmity between the Zionist Left and the underground and right-wing movements, which put an end to the short-lived cooperation between the Jewish armed forces in the Yishuv. In Jerusalem, even the ostensibly simple act of posting a commemorative sign raises historical, ideological, political and deeply emotional questions: Did the bombing help to drive out the British? Was the bombing, as MK Reuven Rivlin (Likud) insists, a constitutive event in the establishment of the state? Or was it merely one more action - albeit the one that caused the most casualties? Who determines the canons of history? What right do foreign governments have to intervene in details as small, but obviously important, as the wording of a commemorative sign? And underlying all these, the troubling moral questions: Who was responsible for the 91 deaths? What was the difference then between a freedom fighter and a terrorist? And what is the difference now? Like many of the participants, "Sima," now 81, was pleased to be using her underground nom de guerre again. At the end of the day-and-a-half-long conference, after the officials and dignitaries had dedicated the sign, she inspected it carefully. She was amused by the mistake in English and pleased by the discrepancies between the English and the Hebrew. "The British were an arrogant but clever enemy, but we were more dedicated and cleverer," she said. Then she added, frowning, "I heard that the municipality changed the wording of the sign because the British complained. What right do the British have to complain? Don't they know that they're not the mandate anymore?" The original wording had presented as fact the IZL's claim that the deaths were caused because the British ignored the warning calls that the IZL made to The Palestine Post, the French Consulate, and the dispatcher at the hotel: "…Warning phone calls had been made, urging the hotel's occupants to leave immediately," the sign originally read. "For reasons known only to the British, the hotel was not evacuated...." The British deny that they were ever warned. And even if they were, Ambassador Simon McDonald and Consul Dr. Jenkins wrote to Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, "this does not absolve those who planted the bomb from responsibility for their deaths." Furthermore, they stated, "We do not think that it is right for an act of terrorism, which led to the loss of many lives, to be commemorated." Staving off an impending diplomatic crisis, the sign was amended. The current version reads, "Warning phone calls has [sic] been made... 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 amended version lists 92, including, as only the Hebrew version makes clear, the death of an IZL fighter, Avraham Abramovitz, gunned down before the bombs exploded. As she reread the text, "Sima" became angry. "We warned them. We gave them plenty of time to get out. They chose not to. That's their fault. We acted according to the highest moral standards." Similar arguments had been raised in the Knesset only a few days earlier. In a parliamentary question directed to Interior Minister Ronny Bar-On regarding on whose authority the wording was changed, MK Rivlin quipped, "Perhaps the British ambassador does not understand that he is no longer the high commissioner... Will there be other letters following this one? For example, that the daughter of one of the commanders of the IZL cannot serve as Israel's foreign minister. Or will Menachem Begin's two terms as prime minister be retroactively cancelled?" Furthermore, he continued, the British were demanding that Israel deny "true historical facts. We are talking about the bombing of the headquarters that were the symbol of the British authority in the Land of Israel, the authority that prevented the displaced persons who had survived the fields of death in Europe from coming to Israel." In the same Knesset session, MK Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism), said, "I really do not understand this celebration of the anniversary of the IZL action in the King David Hotel. Let's just say that they did what they did at that time. I am not here to judge why they did it. But blood was spilled. We are acting like the Gentiles. Dozens of people were killed. What's to celebrate?" But Gershon Abramovitz, now 87, sees things differently. He read the text printed on the sign slowly, repeatedly. The IZL fighter killed was his brother. "I am a sixth-generation Jerusalemite, and we are the only family in which father and sons all served in the underground. And when my father went to identify my brother's body, he said that at least he was pleased that my brother was shot from the front, as a fighter, and not from the back... We fought for our freedom against an occupier. "That war against the British is over. I have even visited England as a tourist, and I enjoyed it very much. The war and the actions were right in their time. This time is not that time."