Seventy years ago, on July 22, 1946, the Irgun Commander, Menahem Begin, sat by his radio, eagerly anticipating a dramatic announcement on the BBC. It was not, however, the news that he had expected.
A crestfallen and shocked Mr Begin heard that scores of civilians had been killed in the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Operation Malonchik, which had been designed so that the hotel’s western wing, reportedly a centre of British intelligence, would be destroyed only after those inside it had been given the chance to evacuate, was an unmitigated disaster.
The 91 people killed comprised 28 British subjects, 41 Arabs and 17 Jews. This included Jeffrey Walsh, an economic adviser to the British government in Palestine, and Brigadier Peter Lockwood Smith-Dorrien, the head of the Commerce and Industry department. The 350kg of gelignite and TNT, placed in milk churns in the basement café, also killed the most senior Jew in the administration, Julius Jacobs, a Mancunian who served as under-secretary of the Palestine treasury. Edward Sperling, an American who often wrote for the Jewish Chronicle under the pseudonym “Caisson”, perished, as did the former Londoner Victor Nissim Levi, who served as principle assistant secretary for finance. Mr Levi had served in the British forces in the First World War, while Mr Jacobs and Mr Sperling had seen action in the Jewish Legion in Palestine.
In Britain, Prime Minister Clement Attlee termed the action “insane”, while the Board of Deputies referred to those who had carried out the bombing as “a gang of terrorists”. David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann were joined by Arieh Altman, the leader of the right-wing Revisionists, in formally condemning the killings.
Mr Begin, as his biographer, Avi Shilon, has pointed out, was far more a traditionalist, a man of the diaspora, than a stereotypical, religious Jew. Yet he repeatedly deferred to the military wisdom of “the New Jew” – whether the Irgun’s Gidi Paglin or later Ariel Sharon – with often disastrous results that he had to explain away. The head of Operation Malonchik was Yisrael Levi, who was barely 20. Unlike Lehi, which carried out political assassinations, Mr Begin considered the Irgun to be an underground army which should conduct itself as a regular military force. Its fighters were soldiers, not terrorists.
The Irgun’s warnings to the hotel’s switchboard, the French consulate and the Palestine Post came to nought – and the game of blame and counter-blame started in earnest. Among the factors that led to the bombing was the determination of the newly appointed head of military forces in Palestine, General Sir Evelyn Barker, to take a much tougher approach. He strongly supported the death penalty.
In this he was often in conflict with the High Commissioner, Sir Alan Cunningham, who had the last word. Gen Barker wished to execute several captured Irgun members; the Irgun responded by kidnapping British officers. Sir Alan’s diplomacy saved both groups, but it ignited the events which led to the bombing.
Gen Barker initiated his hardline approach through Operation Agatha in June 1946, which led to the arrests of over 2,500 Jews including central political figures such as Moshe Sharett. Operation Malonchik was a reaction to this.
The operation was originally a part of a three-pronged attack by the Haganah, Irgun and Lehi. The Haganah’s task was to raid the British arsenal at Bat Galim, where an extensive arms cache of mortars, hand grenades, rifles and bullets, uncovered a few weeks earlier at Kibbutz Yagur, were stored. Lehi’s objective was to attack the David Brothers Building in Jerusalem, which housed the government information office.
During the first half of 1946, the Haganah, Irgun and Lehi uneasily coexisted as a broad military coalition. The debâcle of the hotel bombing persuaded the Haganah to withdraw. The Irgun continued with its military campaign against the British.
Gen Barker, who was in his office in the King David Hotel at the time of the bombing, gave full rein to his enmity towards the Jews of Palestine. He implemented a policy of collective punishment so that the Jews should be “made aware of the contempt and loathing with which we regard their conduct”.
Despite the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and a gradual improvement over time in relations with Britain, the bombing of the King David Hotel was not easily forgotten.
When Mr Begin, now the leader of the opposition, visited Britain in the early 1970s, the bombing was recalled with great bitterness in the British press. Ten years ago, on the 60th anniversary, Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud luminaries and Irgun veterans unveiled a plaque which included the wording: “For reasons, known only to the British, this hotel was not evacuated.”
The firestorm of responsibility was once more ignited – and provoked a vehement protest from the British envoy. Eventually a more neutral form of words was agreed.
On the day following the bombing, the Labour MP, Sydney Silverman, asked in Parliament whether the perpetrators were indeed Jews. After the Shoah, it was unimaginable that Jews could have carried out such destruction of human life. Did it advance the cause of Israel? Today, the Israeli right regards the Irgun’s campaign as a sad necessity while the left sees it as an irrelevance to the march of history interpreted correctly by Mr Ben-Gurion.
History’s joke is that Julius Jacobs’s house in Jerusalem became the prime minister’s official residence for two decades. Its last occupant was Yitzhak Rabin, who then moved to the new residence on Smolenskin Street. Mr Begin, the succeeding prime minister, was thus saved from having to confront the ghosts of the past each day and to be reminded of a British Jew who had died unnecessarily in such tragic circumstances.
Jewish Chronicle 22 July 2016