Season 2, Episode 30
The Hunting Season
An assassination in Egypt tears apart the Yishuv, and the British reaction almost crushes the Zionist dream. The end of World War Two — and a fuller accounting of the millions murdered during the Holocaust — left the Yishuv with an uncertain future.
In November 1944, at the same time that Hannah Senesh and Haviva Reik went to their deaths in Europe, the Jewish terrorist group Lehi — the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, also known as the Stern Gang — accused the British government of complicity in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews in Europe. They singled out Lord Walter Moyne, the British Minister of State in the Middle East, as responsible for Britain’s policies in Palestine. On November 6, two Lehi gunman assassinated him outside his home in Cairo.
Most of the Yishuv, including Menachem Begin and the Irgun, and David Ben Gurion and the Haganah, considered the Lehi, led by Yitzhak Shamir, to be a bunch of thugs and terrorists, even though they all shared the same rage against the British for refusing to rescue the Jews of Europe.
In killing Lord Moyne the Yishuv almost lost a crucial ally: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Churchill had long favored the Zionist cause. But the assassination of Churchill’s friend Moyne caused him to suspend his support for the idea of partition — separating Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. Thus the Jews lost a major opportunity, one that would almost certainly have gone in their favor in terms of territory and national sovereignty.
Britain struggled to find an effective response to Jewish terrorism. Given that its military was stretched thin, and that too-harsh of a response would alienate the rest of the Yishuv, the British response was ultimately pretty weak. But they had an ally in David Ben Gurion, who was determined to crush the Lehi.
Thus began “The Hunting Season.” Ben Gurion’s counterterrorism program involved hunting down Lehi members and sometimes handing them over to the British to be imprisoned. Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon were put in charge, much to their reluctance to use the Palmach and Haganah to root out fellow Jews.
The Hunting Season served another purpose for Ben Gurion — removing his political opponents from Palestine. With Ben Gurion in command of a functioning Jewish left-wing quasi-government, the real threat to his power came not from the few terrorists of the Lehi but from the right-wing Revisionist Zionists: Menachem Begin and the Irgun. So Ben Gurion used The Hunting Season to also blame and go after the Irgun, since the British had no love for them as well. It was a brilliant political move: it placated the British, kept the heat off the Haganah, got rid of Ben Gurion’s political rivals, and boosted his own power and authority.
It also left lasting bad blood within the Yishuv. In this time of peril the Jews were supposed to be united with each other against the British, not selling each other out. There was a profound sense of betrayal, especially from the right. Menachem Begin refused to allow the Irgun to retaliate against the Haganah, despite his intense anger at Ben Gurion. The wider Yishuv, including many members of the Haganah, also disapproved of The Hunting Season, even though they also didn’t support the actions of the Lehi or the Irgun. And eventually even the British caught on to Ben Gurion’s sneakiness and ended their cooperation.
Ultimately, Lord Moyne’s assassination had the ultimate effect of harming the Yishuv’s drive towards a Jewish state in Palestine. Despite the grave danger to Jews in Europe, the British couldn’t give in to terrorism by changing the status quo, so the White Paper remained in effect and partition was off the table.
Lord Walter Moyne: British Minister of State in the Middle East during the early 1940s. Though a supporter of Zionism and of the creation of both a Jewish and Arab state in the Middle East, the Lehi assassinated him in his car in Cairo in November 1944, along with one of his military aides.
David Ben Gurion: left-wing leader of the Jewish Agency, which was effectively the “government” of Israel before the creation of the state in 1948. Facing opposition from the right-wing Revisionist Zionists, led by Menachem Begin, and deeply opposed to the terrorism of the Lehi, Ben Gurion expected The Hunting Season to head off both problems.
Menachem Begin: right-wing leader of the Revisionist Zionist movement and its Irgun militia, Begin was in favor of resistance to the British, but against the wanton terrorism of the Lehi. He was also a major antagonist of Ben Gurion, but refused to fight back against the Haganah during The Hunting Season, determined to prevent Jew-on-Jew violence.
Yitzhak Shamir: born in Belarus and involved with Revisionist Zionism from his teenage years, he arrived in Palestine in 1935. The rest of his family was murdered in the Holocaust. From this experience Shamir developed a ruthlessness and desire for revenge, as well as an uncompromising attitude towards those who, in his view, endangered Jews. He was one of the top leaders of the Lehi during this time. He succeeded Begin as Prime Minister in the 1980s.
Winston Churchill: Prime Minister of Great Britain and longtime supporter of Zionism. Though sympathetic to the Zionist resistance against the White Paper — which Churchill also opposed — he couldn’t countenance acts of terrorism. The assassination of Lord Moyne shook him badly, putting one the Yishuv’s essential allyships in peril.
Eliahu Lankin: Irgun commander in Jerusalem snatched off the street by Haganah operatives and taken to a British police station. He was sent to a detention center in Ethiopia but escaped to Europe a year later. Went on to serve in the Israeli army, the Knesset, and Menachem Begin’s government in the 1980s.
Ya’acov Meridor: another Irgun commander caught up in The Hunting Season. Spying a Haganah member close by as he was being arrested by the British, Meridor expressed his sense of betrayal: “This man was one of my people, of my faith, of my flesh. He had not been bribed to do this job. That was what hurt most.” Like Lankin, Meridor was also sent to a detention camp in Africa, also escaped, and also went on to be a member of the Knesset and a minister in Begin’s government in the ‘80s.
THE BIG IDEAS
The Lehi was determined to bring the fight for a Jewish state to the British, hoped to demonstrate to the world that theirs was a just fight against British imperialism. They countenanced terrorism to drive the British occupiers out of Palestine, and considered legitimate any attack on the British anywhere. “We are fighting the British government because it is bad,” said the Lehi. “No calculations were made as to whether Lord Moyne was a good man or a bad man. It was considered only that he was a key man for Britain in governing the Middle East and as such he is responsible for what is happening in Palestine. The reason for killing Lord Moyne is that it is a step towards forcing the British Government to leave Palestine.”
Although they both came out of Revisionist Zionism, there were differences between the Irgun and the Lehi. The Irgun was looking to embarrass the British, the Lehi to bloody them. The Irgun wanted to force the British out of Palestine by making them look incompetent at providing security; to attack the institutions of the White Paper while avoiding attacks that would damage Britain’s ability to wage war. Menachem Begin was opposed to indiscriminate killing because he was trying to win over public opinion. But the Lehi viewed anyone British as a foreign occupier and therefore a legitimate target, with the goal of terrorism to exact revenge and push them out.
With the execution of Lord Moyne’s assassins in 1945, The Hunting Season ran out of steam. It was a blow to the Lehi and the Irgun, cementing Ben Gurion’s power and strengthening the Haganah. It appeased Winston Churchill and the British just enough to prevent any major reprisals against the Yishuv. But in doing so Ben Gurion also opened up a simmering rift between the Zionist factions, failed to destroy the Irgun, and left a trail of moral conflict and bad blood that lasted for decades amongst all involved.
The end of the war brought the sobering reality of what six million Jewish murders meant for the Zionist Movement. Zionism was conceived in the late 1800s in part as a rescue operation for millions of Jews in Europe; only a few hundred thousand had managed to make their way to Palestine. Zionism had been counting on all those millions to eventually make the move to the future Jewish homeland. But now, even if the Jews got their state, there was the worry that there wouldn’t be enough people to build it.
Vladimir Jabotinsky once said that “as one of our first conditions of equality, we Jews demand the right to have our own villains, exactly as other people have them.”
Lord Moyne’s Lehi assassins were hanged in March, 1945, singing Hatikvah as the nooses were placed around their necks.
The British kept hundreds of Jewish fighters in secret detention facilities all over Africa — less to punish them and more to keep them out of Palestine. Nearly all were released when Israel became a state.
© Jason Harris 2019