Season 2, Episode 33
The Sergeants Affair
Even Menachem Begin called it “a cruel act.” In a ruthless and deeply morally ambiguous operation, the Irgun finally broke Britain’s will to stay in Palestine.
After the Irgun’s famous Akko prison break in May 1947, three of their fighters were tried and sentenced to death for the attack. In July, in response, the Irgun kidnapped two British sergeants and threatened to execute them if the British carried out the hangings. Menachem Begin considered it unconscionable that the British — colonial occupiers who cost millions of Jewish their lives by refusing to allow immigration — would have the right to issue death sentences against Jewish resistance fighters.
Begin and the rest of the Yishuv were greatly affected by the story of Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barzani, two Irgun fighters sentenced to death for their roles in separate operations. In April 1947 they smuggled a grenade into their Jerusalem prison cell, and they committed suicide with it hours before the British were set to execute them.
Beginning in 1946, the Irgun and Lehi responded to death sentences by kidnapping British soldiers and threatening to kill them if the sentences were carried out. It almost always worked in getting sentences commuted or indefinitely postponed. But even when it didn’t, neither the Irgun nor the Lehi ever followed through on their threats. This time the Irgun snatched up Sergeants Clifford Martin and Mervyn Paice in the city of Netanya, and held them in a secret room underneath a nearby factory. The British initiated a massive manhunt, with help from the Haganah, which was against the action.
Two weeks later, on July 29, the British executed the three Irgun fighters one at a time as they sang Hatikvah. They were the last of a group of twelve martyrs known as olei hagardom — “those hanged at the gallows.” Begin ordered the execution of the two sergeants, which was carried out that evening.
The next morning the Irgun tied them to eucalyptus trees in a forest outside Netanya, then booby-trapped their bodies with a note detailing the multiple “crimes” they had been found guilty of. The British found their bodies a day later. Most of the Yishuv’s leaders condemned the attack, hoping to ward off a harsh British response, which came swiftly. British police and soldiers rioted against the Jews in Tel Aviv, killing nearly a dozen, arresting scores of Revisionist Zionists, and destroying stores and property.
The Sergeants Affair broke the British will to stay on in Palestine. They were finally done. No longer interested in mediating a peaceful transition, they just wanted to get out as quickly as possible and let the Jews and the Arabs fight it out amongst themselves. Never again did the British execute a Jew.
Menachem Begin: leader of the Irgun, who authorized the kidnapping and execution of Sergeants Martin and Paice. But even he acknowledged how cruel and bitter the whole affair was. He said the decision to kill them was the hardest of his life.
Meir Feinstein: one of the two Irgun fighters who became national symbols for martyring themselves rather than waiting for the British to execute them. Before committing suicide Feinstein gave his Hebrew Bible to a British guard in which he inscribed, “Remember that we stood in dignity and marched in dignity. It is better to die with a weapon in your hands than to live with your hands raised.”
Moshe Barzani: Feinstein’s companion. The two had a grenade smuggled into their cell and blew themselves up with it just prior to their execution in April, 1947.
Sergeant Clifford Martin: one of the two British sergeants kidnapped by the Irgun, to be released only if the British commuted the death sentences of three Irgun fighters. When the British carried out the executions, the Irgun killed Martin and Paice.
Sergeant Mervyn Paice: the other British sergeant captured by the Irgun. Though neither he nor Martin had anything to do with the executed Irgun fighters, they were charged with various crimes by the Irgun and executed in retaliation. They were buried in a British cemetery in Ramla, Israel.
Olei Hagardom: Hebrew for “those hanged at the gallows,” the olei hagardom refers to twelve Irgun and Lehi fighters whom the British executed in the years before Israel became a state. This includes Shlomo Ben-Yosef, from Episode 45, whose death drove Vladimir Jabotinsky to take the gloves off. It also includes the two Lehi fighters who assassinated Lord Moyne in 1944. And it includes the four Irgun fighters executed at the Akko prison a week before Feinstein and Barzani, whose deaths catalyzed the Irgun’s prison break in May, from last week’s episode. The twelve olei hagardom fighters are considered Israeli national heroes.
THE BIG IDEAS
In 1960 Elie Wiesel published his second novel, Dawn, a fictionalized account of the Sergeants Affair. The Irgun’s designated executioner spends the night before in an internal struggle: one moment he was a victim of the Nazis but now he is imbued with the power of life and death over a British soldier, the latest Jewish enemy. If he is ordered to murder the British officer at dawn, does that make him, a Holocaust survivor, a murderer? Wiesel’s novel captured the moral ambiguity of the Jewish resistance.
Menachem Begin believed that Vladimir Jabotinsky’s “iron wall” needed updating. Defense was no longer enough. To truly save those Jewish lives that the world regarded with indifference, the Jews had to fight on offense. That the British stood in their way made them the enemy of the Jewish People. The resistance campaign, in all its bloodiness, was not only justifiable but necessary if the Jews were ever going to eject the British from Palestine and be able to rule themselves. Begin viewed the Irgun’s campaign through the sweep of Jewish history — it was the last desperate grasp of a people who had been fighting for their lives for decades, were quite nearly destroyed, and now had seemingly one last chance at creating a Jewish state.
Menachem Begin was so affected by the martyrdom of Feinstein and Barzani that he had himself buried next to them on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives.
The spot in the forest where the Irgun hung the two sergeants’ bodies is today known as The Sergeants Grove.
Following the execution of the two sergeants, anti-Jewish riots broke out across Great Britain — the first time in 700 years.
© Jason Harris 2019