Book Review: Pre-state ‘purity of arms’?

The book is colored by Segal’s wryly humorous style, which makes this otherwise morbid and depressing chapter in pre-state history almost enthralling.

Yedidia Segal
Founding myths are powerful and necessary, even as they can be unjust in excluding elements of society.
Two such myths underpin Zionism and the State of Israel: that it was the pioneering socialist camp of the parties affiliated with the Mapai-dominated Histadrut labor federation which built the country, thereby achieving its independence; and that the dissident undergrounds of the Irgun and Stern Group not only did not contribute much to Israel’s establishment, but their actions were morally stained.
Instead of tohar haneshek, the principle of “purity of arms” practiced by the Hagana and Palmah, these myths say that the Irgun of David Raziel and Menachem Begin and the Stern Group of Avraham Stern soiled and stained Zionism with what the Yishuv’s leadership considered immoral actions.
Haggai Segal’s How My Grandmother Prevented a Civil War, both a personal and family history as well as a well-researched resolution of the death of the author’s uncle in Haifa in early 1948, confronts these two myths head-on.
Segal’s grandfather Yosef immigrated to then-Mandate Palestine in 1925 and was a founder of the Ahuza neighborhood of Haifa, then a near-deserted area on the Carmel. He taught until he was fired due to the politicized pro-Mapai system and raised his children, two of whom entered the ranks of the Irgun.
The murdered uncle, Yedidya, was caught up in a kidnapping/counter- kidnapping incident following a December 30, 1947, action by the Irgun at the Haifa Bay oil refinery that killed six Arabs, leading to the massacre of 39 Jewish workers there.
A senior Irgun commander was snatched, and a Hagana commander was taken in an unplanned abduction and held briefly in the hut of Yedidya Segal, then 21 years old. He was not involved in the kidnapping but the Hagana, suspecting he was, took him into custody for questioning. Yedidya’s body was found a day later (and only identified after another day had gone by), close to Tira.
At a 1950 libel trial against the Herut party newspaper, in which Paul Kollek, Teddy’s brother, sought to defend himself against charges of being involved in the presumed murder of Yedidya by Hagana members, Hagana witnesses testified to the methods of torture of Irgun members they had interned – which could not be called “pure” in the least.
Neither that six-decades-old trial nor the intervening years provided conclusive evidence as to Yedidya’s fate in the early morning hours of Monday, January 12. The author did discover a photograph of his uncle’s body, of which only a portion was permitted to be reproduced. Pathologist Dr. Alex Leboff concluded that in all probability the wounds displayed in the picture indicated he was not shot to death, but was severely beaten and tossed from a height or distance at the site at which he was found. Leboff, however, limited his opinion to professional conjecture, as only a proper postmortem operation would be admissible in a court of law – clearly not possible at this juncture.
Segal is convinced that his uncle’s presumed murder by Arabs was a staged affair.
In his memoirs, the Herut newspaper’s attorney, Shmuel Tamir, an Irgun veteran and later Israel’s justice minister, wrote that he suspected Alexander Rappaport of being the Hagana member who shot Yedidya, despite Rapapport’s denials.
Yet the real message of Segal’s book is that an incipient civil war was prevented – which Menachem Begin confirms in his work The Revolt. Segal points out that thanks to both Begin’s leadership and the forceful position adopted by his family, particularly his grandmother Malka, reprisal was staved off when they convinced his uncle, Benayahu Segal – himself a Hagana member – to yield on his plan to avenge his brother’s blood.
Segal mentions several instances of Hagana violence directed at fellow Jews, such as the Jacob de Haan assassination, the attempted assassination of Nili spy Yosef Lishansky and street brawls when ruffians of Haifa mayor Abba Hushi’s Hapoel squad fell upon the members of the Betar youth movement loyal to Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
And there were too many more. In 1940, seven Jews, thought to be collaborating with British police on matters of illegal immigration and arms stockpiling, were killed by the Hagana and its POM unit. That August, having discovered that weapons from their arms store were stolen, the Hagana kidnapped and tortured the parents and brother of an Irgun member.
Despite recovering their property, which had actually been held by the newly formed Stern Group, they then, in a “punishment” action, besieged the Betar clubhouse in Herzliya and killed 21-yearold Eliyahu Shlomi, via blows to the head with a metal pipe.
In March 1947, Mordechai Berger was also beaten to death by pipe-wielding Hagana thugs in Tel Aviv, falsely suspected of providing intelligence to the British police. Even after the Yedidya Segal affair, on May 7, 1948, the Hagana kidnapped four Stern Group members in Haifa – brought first to the Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood, then to Kibbutz Beit Oren and from there to Kibbutz Mishmar Hayam.
It was only after the Stern Group snatched Yosef Avidar, a member of the Hagana’s High Command and a senior Hagana intelligence officer in Tel Aviv, that Levi Eshkol was delegated by David Ben-Gurion to negotiate the mutual releases.
I offer two corrections to the otherwise excellent translation. The term “dissidents” is the usual one employed in the academic literature to describe the Irgun and Stern Group, rather than “secessionists”; and, on page 82, the acronym for the Irgun is “Etzel,” not as noted.
The book is colored by Segal’s wryly humorous style, which makes this otherwise morbid and depressing chapter in pre-state history almost enthralling.
Segal does well in depicting his family as pioneers and defenders of Jewish unity, despite their personal loss.
And that is another founding myth which should be taught in our schools along with Hanita, Tel Hai and the Palmah liberation of Safed.