Season 2, Episode 31
The Downward Spiral, and Then Boom
Despite the bitterness of the recent Hunting Season, the end of World War Two brought some clarity. The British still hadn’t lifted the White Paper’s restrictions. David Ben Gurion realized what Menachem Begin had long been saying: the Jews had to unite in their resistance to the British, to force them out of Palestine so that the Jews could come in. We’re getting to the start of the final push that will bring about an end to the British Mandate, the partition of Palestine, and at long last, the creation of a Jewish State. So much drama.
The Yishuv was bitterly angry at Britain’s immigration policy, which remained stuck in 1939 with the White Paper. The British were blamed for contributing to the Holocaust by refusing to allow the Jews into Palestine; and with the war over, it was unconscionable that the doors were still shut. The Yishuv’s logic was clear: to have an open immigration policy to bring in the Holocaust survivors, the Jews needed to be the majority so they could have the power to make their own decisions. The only way to be in the majority was to have a Jewish State. The only way to have a Jewish State was for the British Mandate to end. And the only way to end the Mandate was to force the British out.
The three main Jewish defense organizations — the Haganah, the Irgun, and the Lehi — formed the Hebrew Resistance Movement in October, 1945. The goal was to wear the British down through aggressive attacks, eventually driving them to the point of evacuation from Palestine. Their first operation came on November 1, dubbed “Night of the Trains.” An extensive sabotage operation against transportation, communications, and industrial targets, it was a huge morale boost for the Yishuv.
The British were left with two problems. One was that they weren’t sure how to respond to Jewish violence effectively — getting the Jews to stop while also not giving in. Secondly, the increase in violence led to an increase in anti-Semitic attitudes from British police, soldiers, and officials in Palestine. That yet angered the Jews even more — there was a vicious circle of bad blood circulating around Palestine.
The Hebrew Resistance Movement struck again in June, 1946. Dubbed “Night of the Bridges,” the Jews destroyed nearly all the bridges connecting Palestine to the rest of the Middle East, thus seriously hampering the British military’s mobility. It was a symbolic message: if Jews aren’t allowed into Palestine, then no one else is, either.
In response the British launched Operation Agatha (the Jews called it Black Sabbath), a massive surprise roundup of several thousand Jewish fighters on Saturday, June 29, 1946. The British were hoping to crush the resistance by arresting Jewish fighters, seizing hidden weapons caches, and scoring tons of intelligence that would prove the various defense groups were in cahoots with each other (they were, but never admitted it publicly). Although it was a huge success it embittered the Yishuv even further. Where before they described the fight with the British as “resistance” they now often used the word “war.”
The Haganah, Irgun, and Lehi were determined to strike back and settled on attacking British military headquarters, which was located in a wing of the King David Hotel, Jerusalem’s poshest hotel. Although the Haganah pulled out of the operation out of fear of causing too many casualties, the Irgun and Lehi went ahead. Tune into the podcast for the full and dramatic story of how the attack took place!
The Irgun struck just after noon on July 22, 1946. The explosion killed 91 people — 41 Arabs, 28 British, 17 Jews, 2 Armenians, and one Russian, Egyptian, and Greek — and leveled the southern wing of the hotel.
Begin was shocked and upset by the high death toll, but he kept blaming the British for ignoring the warning to evacuate. Ben Gurion and Weizman were beyond livid. The Hebrew Resistance Movement broke up. As for the British, the King David bombing forced them to rethink their whole presence in Palestine. The attack gave them a huge push in the direction of the exit door.
Menachem Begin: as the most wanted man in Palestine because of his leadership of the Irgun, Begin hid out in various places. Disguised as the Orthodox “Rabbi Sassover", he lived with his family in Tel Aviv. The British narrowly missed capturing him during Operation Agatha/Black Sabbath. Begin remained in hiding until 1948.
David Ben Gurion: leader of the Jewish Agency and the Haganah. His skepticism about cooperating with Begin and the Irgun was overcome by his desire to resist British anti-Jewish-immigration policies, and he authorized the Haganah to conduct sabotage operations with the right-wing militias.
Chaim Weizmann: ever the moderate, and still recognized as the titular Zionist statesman, he was opposed to all forms of terrorism. He refused to countenance the Haganah’s participation in the bombing of the King David Hotel, and condemned the attack afterwards.
THE BIG IDEAS
Back in 1942, at the Biltmore Hotel on Madison Avenue in New York, a Zionist conference chaired by Ben Gurion proclaimed for the first time that the Zionist Movement was now explicitly dedicated to the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine, in which Jews would be in the majority. It was no longer acceptable to simply have a Jewish homeland under the sufferance of either a foreign colonial power or the Arabs; or even a binational state, which had been on the burner for decades. Between the Arab Revolt of 1936-39, the Holocaust, and the White Paper, the Jews were resolved that only they could ensure their future survival, and therefore needed to have their own exclusive state.
All this begs the question: why didn’t the British just repeal the White Paper of 1939 after the war? Short answer: geopolitics. Palestine was strategic property, so Britain wanted to hang on to it; keeping the Arabs friendly and supportive was crucial to continuing to access essential Middle Eastern oil; and the British were trying to keep up their national pride amidst their crumbling empire,
Partly in retaliation for Operation Agatha/Black Sabbath, and partly as part of the continuing resistance against British rule, the bombing of the King David Hotel was intended to drive home to the British the high costs of continuing to rule Palestine, despite the geopolitical situation. Although it wasn’t intended to kill so many people, the attack marked a turning point in Britain’s calculation. The Jewish insurrection was having a huge impact. The British were getting more exasperated, the conflict was getting more expensive in blood and treasure. They weren’t quite ready to pull out but the King David gave them a huge shove in that direction.
Although some of the bridges destroyed during the Night of the Bridges were repaired within weeks, a few others were left as is, and you can still see their ruins around Israel.
Ben Gurion was in Paris when the British launched Black Sabbath. In 1966 he recalled that he had been staying in the same hotel as Ho Chi Minh, who — legend has it in an elevator — offered up Vietnam as a future Jewish homeland. Ben Gurion politely declined.
The British only had two old photos of Menachem Begin, so it was easy for him to adopt basic disguises to stay in hiding.
The Irgun, dressed as Arab workers, smuggled the 800 pounds explosives that brought down the King David Hotel in milk canisters, which they drove into the basement in the back of a stolen truck.
© Jason Harris 2019