For Zion's sake: The hunting season

If Britain continued her White Paper policy of minimal to no Jewish immigration and ultimate autonomy for an Arab-majority Palestine, the last chance Jewry had to reconstitute itself might be lost forever.

Netanyahu addresses ambassadors in Jerusalem 370 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)
Netanyahu addresses ambassadors in Jerusalem 370
(photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)
As World War II drew to a close and the fate of European Jewry became clear, the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the military wing of the decimated Revisionist-Zionist movement, believed that Jewry could no longer wait for a British about-face on Jewish statehood.
If Britain continued her White Paper policy of minimal to no Jewish immigration and ultimate autonomy for an Arab-majority Palestine, the last chance Jewry had to reconstitute itself might be lost forever.
So in February 1944, the Irgun declared a “revolt” against British rule in Palestine.
In attempting to suppress the revolt, the most effective tool the British had at their disposal was not the mandatory administration’s criminal intelligence department or even British military forces, but political pressure on the Jewish leadership.
The leaders of the official institutions in the Zionist movement and the Yishuv – foremost among them Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion – believed that their quiet diplomacy could reverse the British military and diplomatic establishments’ determination to retain Palestine as a strategic asset and maintain friendly relations with the fervently anti-Zionist populations of the Middle East.
Their faith seemed confirmed when prime minister Winston Churchill, whose government vigorously denied European Jewry entry into Palestine in their hour of need, told Weizmann that Jewry would be satisfied with the post-war settlement.
The Zionist establishment feared that the prize, finally within reach, would be yanked away at the last moment due to the Irgun and Lehi’s reckless campaign of violence.
As the Irgun’s attacks intensified, the British mandatory administration increased the pressure on the Zionists. In October 1944, the mandatory administration publicly called for Jewish cooperation against the Irgun.
The Jewish Agency quickly acquiesced.
The Haganah quickly opened a training course for an anti-Irgun campaign and the Inner Zionist Council of the World Zionist Organization announced the intention to act against the Irgun and Lehi.
In a secret meeting Haganah commanders Moshe Sneh and Eliyahu Golumb threatened their Irgun counterparts, Menachem Begin and Eliyahu Lankin, that if the Irgun did not cease operations, “we shall step in and finish you.”
The decision to “finish” the Irgun received new impetus with the assassination of the British minister-in-residence in Cairo, Lloyd Moyne, by Lehi in early November. Moyne had been a personal friend of Churchill, who could not understand Jewish violence against Britain.
In Parliament, Churchill threatened that if “our efforts” for Zionism “should provoke a new wave of banditry worthy of the Nazi Germans” then support for Zionism would have to be reconsidered. He demanded that “those responsible... be radically destroyed.”
Weizmann promised Churchill that Jewry would “go to the utmost limit of its power to cut out this evil from its midst.”
Three days after Churchill’s Parliament speech, Ben-Gurion submitted a motion at the convention of the Histadrut to, among other things, expel members of the underground from their places of employment and to collaborate with the British in destroying them.
The vote overwhelmingly passed and the campaign, code-named “The Season,” was launched.
The Haganah tracked, kidnapped, held for days, beat and turned over members of the Irgun to the British. Lists of members of the underground and their supporters were provided to the British as well.
Among the Irgun commanders turned over were Lankin, who had hoped to find a basis for cooperation with the Haganah. He was kidnapped and handed over to the criminal intelligence department in December. In February, Ya’acov Meridor, the Irgun commander between David Raziel’s death and Begin’s appointment, was arrested by police led by a Haganah officer.
In some cases the Haganah did not merely hand over Irgun members, but conducted its own interrogations using torture methods now reserved for al-Qaeda.
One such case was the kidnapping of Ya’acov Fershtei (or Tavin), the Irgun’s intelligence officer. The Haganah kidnapped Tavin, chained him to a hut in a kibbutz outside Petah Tikvah, interrogated and tortured him, holding him for about six months.
Already in December 1944 Weizmann reported to Churchill that hundreds of Irgun members had been turned over, stating that “[o]ur cooperation with the authorities in stamping out terrorism is proceeding satisfactorily” and “severe blows have already been dealt to them.”
All in all, over a thousand suspected Irgun members, often mere political activists, were handed over to the British.
The rhetoric of the Season cloaked the campaign as a moral obligation to “root out the evil.” But the decision was hopelessly colored by almost two decades of built-up hatred by the socialist movements and self-proclaimed moderates for the Revisionists whom they had painted as extremists, fascists, and the enemies of the worker.
Demonizing the Revisionists had also proven politically useful. The Revisionists had risen from four seats in the World Zionist Congress in 1925 to 52 (approximately 25 percent) in 1931. In 1933, when the Revisionists were scapegoated for the murder of Chaim Arlosoroff (the two Revisionists accused were acquitted and an Israeli commission of inquiry unanimously ruled them in innocent in 1985), the Revisionists sank to 14% and their delegates were excluded from participating in the Zionist Executive.
At the time the Season was launched, there were also political benefits to be reaped by labeling political opponents criminals. In March 1945, the High Commissioner noted that “the Jewish Agency’s lists of so-called terrorists continues to include numerous people who have no terror connections, but politically speaking are undesirable to the Jewish Agency.” At the start of the Season, the Irgun weighed its options. It could not agree to cease the Revolt as Golumb and Sneh demanded.
“If the Jewish Agency obeyed the British and the Irgun obeyed the Agency, the rule of the High Commissioner might continue forever,” Begin recounted. Indeed, continued rule by the High Commissioner was what the British proposed in various forms.
Many in the organization felt that responding in kind, a natural course of action for a military organization, could lessen the damage or deter the Season altogether.
But as with the decision to launch the Revolt, Jewish history hung over Begin and the Irgun High Command. In addition to the tremendous loss of Jewish life in the past few years, Begin would explain that “we heard the echo of those other wars, the cursed internecine wars in dying Jerusalem 19 centuries before.”
Begin had no interest in repeating that history. The Irgun announced its response to the Season to the Yishuv: “there will be no fratricide.” The decision would be vindicated.
Though the Season brought Irgun operations to a halt, the organization would not been destroyed. Begin remained at large. New fighters joined the ranks. New members were appointed to the High Command. Meanwhile, both public and internal Haganah support for the Season dropped.
The Chief Rabbinate of the Yishuv announced that the kidnappings were “utterly prohibited by the Torah” and “alien and abominable to the Jewish people.”
As historian of the revolt, J. Bowyer Bell, wrote, many in the Haganah “were shamed at the reports of torture, others at the necessity of informing... [t]he rank and file began to express serious reservations.”
And beyond avoiding “the catastrophe of catastrophes,” as Begin wrote, the Irgun’s refusal to fight back earned it public sympathy and admiration. In March, Sneh and Golumb told fellow Haganah officers that anti-Irgun activities would end (they continued until June).
In May the Irgun renewed attacks and decided to intensify the revolt. And by October, one year after the decision to conduct the Season, the Haganah would reverse itself and join the Irgun and Lehi in the revolt against Britain, forming the “United Resistance Movement.”
Part V in a series on A Revisionist History of Zionism.
The author is an attorney and political activist.