Season 2, Episode 27
The Warrior Gods
With Germany closing in, Palestine surrounded, the Zionist dream nearly destroyed by the White Paper, and now stories coming out about the destruction of European Jewry, the Jews of Palestine were in a particular mood. They were eager to fight.
The early war years was a precarious time for the British and Jews alike in the Middle East. Germany successfully invaded North Africa. The Vichy French were in Lebanon and Syria. The Palestinian Arabs sided with Nazi Germany. All this made Palestine strategically vital for both sides, and thus under constant threat of invasion by Axis forces.
The Yishuv, too, was feeling beleaguered. The White Paper cut off immigration at a time when it was most desperately needed. The Jews were trying to rescue tens of thousands of refugees through the Aliyah Bet operation. The Revisionist Zionists were in a state of turmoil with the sudden death of Vladimir Jabotinsky. And the Haganah and Irgun, while partially cooperating, were also deeply at odds. But in accordance with Ben Gurion’s maxim to “fight the White Paper as if Hitler didn’t exist, and to fight Hitler as if the White Paper didn’t exist,” the Jews wanted to create a Jewish fighting force within the British army.
Although the new British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, supported the idea, much of the British government and military were against it. Instead, thousands of Jews enlisted directly into the British army, fighting all over Europe and the Middle East. Given the pressure on Palestine the British eventually turned to the Haganah for help in building a home defense. In 1941 the Haganah created a special operations unit called the Palmach, meaning “Strike Companies.”
The Palmach was sent to the Litani River in Lebanon as a forward reconnaissance and sabotage unit on the eve of a British and Australian attack on the Vichy French. Present at that opening battle were three of Israel’s future military heroes and national leaders: Yigal Allon, age 23, Moshe Dayan, age 26, and Yitzhak Rabin, age 19. The attack was successful.
The Palmach also prepared the Carmel Plan, a contingency to create a safe haven and Jewish guerrilla base near Haifa if the Nazis occupied Palestine. Though never carried out, it symbolized the Yishuv’s determination to fight to the extreme rather than surrender to those murdering their fellow Jews in Europe.
When the threat of invasion passed the British ordered the Palmach to disband, and then declared it an illegal militia when the Palmach went underground. To stay clandestine but also ready to defend the Yishuv, the Palmach apportioned a few fighters out to every kibbutz in Palestine. Not only could their fighters now blend in with the kibbutz and provide each with a small defensive unit, but they could also quickly rally other fighters from nearby settlements if the need arose.
After fighting the British at the end of the 1930s, the Irgun decided to end its campaign of resistance and help the British war effort. Given a mission to sabotage a pro-Nazi airfield in Iraq in May, 1941, the Irgun’s new leader, David Raziel, was killed. The Irgun fought on multiple fronts during the war, gaining valuable training and combat experience. And a new leader emerged: Menachem Begin.
Winston Churchill: became Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1940. He was sympathetic to the Zionist Movement and supported the idea of creating a Jewish fighting force for the Allies. Though thwarted by the opposition of the British military, Churchill remained staunchly opposed to the White Paper of 1939.
Yigal Allon: age 23, one of the commanders of the Palmach force sent to the Litani River in June, 1941. He went on to have a distinguished military and political career, briefly serving as Prime Minister in 1969. He was the architect of a proposed Arab-Israeli peace plan in 1967 that would have prevented the Occupation, and which never came to fruition.
Moshe Dayan: age 26, another commander of the Palmach force at the Litani River. He became one of Israel’s most famous military and political leaders, serving as Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff, Minister of Defense, and Foreign Minister, and he helped broker peace with Egypt in the late 1970s.
Yitzhak Rabin: age 19 during the Litani River operation, he became one of Israel’s most famous and accomplished military and political leaders, famous the world over. He led some of Israel’s most notable military operations, led the country through several wars, served as Prime Minister in the 1970s and 1990s, and made peace with Jordan and the Palestinians. He was tragically assassinated in 1995.
David Raziel: given command of the Irgun following the death of Jabotinsky, Raziel was sent by the British, along with several Irgun fighters, to sabotage a pro-Nazi airfield in Iraq in 1941. He was killed when the car he was in was bombed by a German aircraft.
THE BIG IDEAS
There was significant opposition in Britain to creating a Jewish fighting force. Plain old anti-Semitism. Not wanting to provoke another Arab uprising by supporting the Jews. Not wanting to train a Jewish fighting force that may yet turn on their British colonial overlords (which did happen). And not wanting to make a promise to create a Jewish homeland in exchange for Jewish support, as what happened with the Balfour Declaration during World War One.
The Palmach is one of the most legendary organizations in Israeli history. So many prominent Israelis emerged from the Palmach that it turned out to be something of a breeding ground for Israel’s political, military, and even cultural elite. The stereotypical Palmach fighter was a kibbutznik, native to Palestine and raised on the ideals of socialism and manual labor. They were fit, fluent in Hebrew, secular, lefty — exactly the kind of New Jew that those early Zionist tree branches had envisioned creating in the future homeland.
The Palmach produced three future national leaders whom I put into a category called Warrior Gods. Yigal Allon, Moshe Dayan, and Yitzhak Rabin were at various times revered, despised, triumphant, and tragic. The first sabra (native-born) generation of Israeli leaders, they grew up immersed in Zionism, the Land of Israel, and Hebrew. Not intellectuals but fighters, their lives represent a dichotomy of aggressive military leadership and peacemaking with the Arabs.
Whenever you are sitting around a campfire in Israel, telling stories and playing guitar, you are engaging in a time-honored Palmach ritual called kumzitz, meaning, “come, sit down,” which the organization popularized throughout the country.
While peering across the Litani at the French position, Moshe Dayan was shot by a sniper. The bullet pierced the binoculars he was using and took out his left eye, but stopped before killing him. He wore a black eyepatch for the rest of his life.
When the British ordered the Palmach to disband and forced the group to return all their British-supplied weapons, the Palmach simply broke into the British armory, stole all their weapons back, and went underground.
© Jason Harris 2018