‘At one time anti-Semitism filled me with horror, but now I can never again feel sorry for any Jew. These terrorists are backed by 99% of the whole population, and murderers are heroes, or martyrs if we catch them.’
Dad wrote that in September 1946, just after his jeep was ambushed and the Sergeant sitting next to him had been killed. The detail is in the latest set of letters, now posted. And it is very human, his response. He takes the gross actions of a few and decides that the whole is rotten and to blame and in some way should be punished.
He is frustrated; this is a constant refrain, the frustration at the behaviour of the Jewish groups in targeting the troops, as well as targeting the Arab population, while the Government remains reluctant to allow the troops to respond in kind. For whenever there was a response by the British forces which was other than moderate, the accusation was that made the British were, in effect, institutionally anti-Semitic and as bad as the Nazis. To select but one quote, this one from the New York Post in September 1946, who in turn quoted from the Irgun’s reaction to the death of a Jewish refugee during the boarding of the Haganah ship Palmach on September 22nd: ‘The fact that the marines who pumped lead into the refugees salute the Union Jack instead of the Swastika does not alter the fact that another Hebrew has been killed in cold blood for no other reason than that he is a Hebrew.’ I don’t have the facts other than at least one refugee died (‘pumped lead’ is very emotive and seems unlikely). Even so it wouldn’t have been Government policy. However it is not unusual for the press, as with individuals to conflate an egregious action of one idiot into the actions of all. Not unusual but still wrong. is wrong
The Irgun, you may recall from the last post, planted the bomb in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem killing 100 people. If there was one constant in Palestine at this time it was everyone hated the British and the British troops. So how would the British react to that awful action?
Let me digress for a moment.
They say: ‘War makes strange bedfellows’
This aphorism has a curious history. It starts in the Tempest.
“Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”
Here a shipwrecked mariner shelters beside a sleeping monster.
Later an American essayist, Charles Dudley Warner said ‘Politics makes strange bedfellows’, adapting Shakespeare. Political progress requires compromise and sometimes people who usually have nothing in common have to get together to defeat an even more bitter opponent. But once the alliance is no longer necessary, they go back to the status quo ante.
With war there are more chances that there will be consequences after the alliance has run its course. A classic example was the alliance between Communist Soviet Union and Capitalist America and Britain during the Second World War. During the war there was one agenda – defeat Nazi Germany and the Axis powers. However, the three allies had to make some plans for the post war situation. They couldn’t just leave a vacuum. There wasn’t a status quo ante to go back to. They discussed this in Yalta and, of course, they each had very different agendas. In retrospect the best decision might have been to agree to fight together until the surrender and then let the vacuum occur. Eastern Europe and a large part of Germany might have been spared 40 years of Communist control for a start, but it may have been even worse.
FD Roosevelt wanted a supra-national body (the United Nations, to be a better successor to the League of Nations); this was to act as a place where international conflict might be resolved without recourse to fighting, with a supreme body, the Security Council, made up of the allied powers who would act as the world’s policeman in the event that dialogue did not succeed. The trade off that Roosevelt allowed was that the Soviet Union would be the liberators of Eastern Europe. Tacitly at least this allowed them to take certain lands and control others to act as a buffer against any future expansionist plans from the west. Stalin had, in the eyes of many, a moral case for extra protection given the extraordinary losses suffered by the Russian peoples during the 1942-45 period.
We don’t learn. In 1979, the Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan. The US and Britain, amongst others, helped arm and fund the forces opposing the government and the Soviet troops. It was the height of the Cold War after all. Those same forces, after victory, formed the bedrock of the Taliban against whom the US and Britain are still waging war. Today ISIS forces, who are seeking to create a Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, are part of the forces who have been opposing Assad in Syria. To date the Western Governments deny funding ISIS, but I wonder what will come out in years to come. Britain and the US funded Saddam Hussein because he opposed the Theocracy in Iran after the revolution that toppled the Shah and look where that got us.
So in Palestine that was avoided, wasn’t it? Well, in 1939, the Jewish Agency, the political body representing Jewish interests led by Chaim Weizmann. was ken to help defeat Nazi Germany. They were obviously motivate. But for various reasons the British were reluctant to be seen to be using their help. indeed, given the Arab-focus to its Middle east policy (discussed in my last blog on the subject) the local authorities in Palestine were as keen as anyone to keep the Jews out of the fight.
We had a war to win and so many of the policy decisions that have been partly the cause of the current difficulties lie in expedient decision making. The SOE, our secret service, saw no reason not to use such a motivated and knowledgeable force. The Haganah especially were trained and ready. Essentially a defence force they were viewed by the British authorities with suspicion. The SOE, therefore, did what they were brilliant at; they subverted and the confabulated and ignored policy. They armed the Haganah, they helped train them; if they were arrested for carrying apparently illegal arms, the SOE got them out of jail. It provided travel document’s. It armed the terrorists that, by 1945 were beginning to wage war on their own side. With their own arms.
Such a backdrop makes reacting to an horrific attack like that on the King David a difficult and delicate proposition. However, those closest to the dreadful events reacted as my dad did and how the press reacted. Army commander, General Barker, wrote a letter, intemperate in his anger: ‘The Jewish community of Palestine cannot be absolved from the long series of outrages,’ he wrote. ‘I am determined that they will suffer punishment.’ This was to be economic rather than physical but the import was the same. Punish the majority for the acts of the minority.
The international reaction was swift. A Washington Post editorial linked it ‘to a Nazi line of argument’ and the American Ambassador reported: ‘Implicit in much of this comment, which in some instances links [Barker]’s remarks to Mr Bevin’s [the then Foreign Secretary] words about Jews not being wanted in New York, is the idea that the British Government is really anti-Semitic’. Even the threat of the application of a general punishment undermined the potential support in America to the outrage caused by the King David bomb. And, of course, the Ambassador is falling into the same trap, linking the stupid comments of one officer to equally thoughtless comments from its foreign secretary and arriving at a general British policy.
In fact the British did no such thing; there responses never singled out the whole people but continued to try and identify the perpetrators alone. Some will say that denying the Jewish immigrant ships the right to land was punishing a group but I would contend, however wrong that might have been, that wasn’t a generally imposed punishment.
And so it goes on. Today we watch while an established government, Israel, bomb and attack a terrorist group, Hamas, who, in turn, try and undermine by any means the morale of the Israelis who they oppose. Even without thinking too hard, there are strange echoes down the years, between the events in Palestine from 1945 to 1948 and today. I do not suggest there is an exact analogy here. For a start the established force then, Britain, whatever might have been suggested at the time, did not want to destroy the either side. And Britain could withdraw as it eventually did. Today, one must wonder if either side will be happy until the other is gone or so neutered as to be meaningless. And neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis have anywhere else to go. But, even so, the position of Britain back then and the Israelis today has parallels. As the established, and internationally accepted body, had Britain shown the apparent lack of restraint that appears today on the part of the Israelis the international condemnation would have been well beyond anything at the time with inevitable and unquantifiable damage to long term damage to its relationships with its allies. Remember we were in debt to the US to such a degree that, had the US not continued with their loans, we would have been bankrupted. Another difference is that, back then, the use of force wasn’t so criticised as it is today. No, what jars is the one sidedness. An individual can want to punish the whole because he or she cannot. Similarly a newspaper. But an established government? The rules have to be differently applied. It is the one-sidedness that feels so wrong. Given the effectiveness of the defensive shield the Israelis have, the attacks by Hamas appear to be nearly completely ineffective unlike the retaliation by the Israelis. Their attacks work and, moreover, de facto, they punish not just the terrorist but the whole people.
What do we hear today? That Hamas are sheltering its weapons, its bombs, in residential areas, in schools and hospitals, thus it is Hamas who are causing the loss of life when Israeli targets these places – the punishment of the wider community is justified because the wider community, by its silence condones ‘the long series of outrages’. All are to blame for the actions of the (relative) few. But that cannot be right. It behoves the superior power to show restraint. Israel does not see it that way. Any attack, however enfeebled is a threat to its very existence. Retaliation is thus not only justified but essential.
If history teaches us anything it is that there is rarely one actor that is at the root cause of subsequent strife. So to heap blame on the US would be wrong in so many ways. But my cynical side does wonder how Britain might have behaved in 1946/47 had it not been in hock to the US. And similarly if Israel didn’t have such a powerful and staunch supporter in the US who it might react today? Equally without that support there may well be no Israel today. I was hoping to let Jon Stewart, the American commentator have the last word. Seems I can’t make the link work. His show was on 5th January 2009 if you can find it.
And so to Dad in Palestine. The explosion at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem has just taken place and the consequences are still reverberating. The Irgun, who publicly espoused the idea that their actions were to minimize any loss of life and be limited to the British forces and such of the Arab population as was against a Jewish state, sought to blame the British authorities for the death toll. They claimed they had given due warning and this had been ignored. History does suggest that that analysis does not stand up but neither side emerges with any credit.
The Irgun were an illegal body, run by Menachem Begin (who later became Israeli Prime Minister – by then the Irgun were freedom fighters). They attacked British troops and killed many. It is clear from these letters how the terrorist campaign was now being directed, very specifically, at the troops. These had been the tactics of the Stern Gang or Lehi for a while. The Lehi were run by another future, Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, who thought, rightly that body bags of troops coming home would impact on a domestic opinion base who had had enough of killing and war. Bombs and improvised mines, IEDs today, were also used as Dad reports in his letter of 10th October. As Shamir later explained: ‘We adapted the practices of the Irish Republican Army. If you remember in the 1920s the IRA put wires across the road where British motorcyclists passed. They could not see the wire in the night so their heads were cut off. We adapted this a bit. We planted mines disguised as milestones on both sides of the road and exploded them by electricity when British vehicles came between them…. It meant instead of their imposing a curfew on the Jews, we imposed a curfew on them. They were afraid to leave their barracks so they stayed there month after month. It was very bad for morale.’
It wasn’t only work though. Dad gets away to Sidi Bishr for some R&R as well as spending time in the CSR with Sandfly fever. In his letter of the 10th October he treats us to some ‘jive talk’. By 25 October he is on a ‘frizzer’ and doing some ‘jankers’ (slang for a charge and army prison). Throughout there are rumours of demob and returns home or to the BAOR. More signs I suggest of how morale was on the wane.
Let me end with this poem that he wrote at some point
Thoughts of Home
I compared the lush brilliance of an orange grove
With the glow of an orchard in Kent
And although I was a thousand miles away
I knew then what England meant.
It meant the call of a peewit in winter
Over a darkened ploughland rise
And the song of a lark in springtime
As it climbs into sunlit skies.
An old mill on a river bank
Sheep meadows of fresh grass
They are my thoughts of England
God grant they will not pass.