I’ve been interviewing a Kansas City activist, Jeremy Rothe-Kushel for a future article about his arrest at the behest of the local Jewish federation during a speech by Dennis Ross. Jeremy is a keen researcher and I love talking to people like this because I invariably learn things about Zionist history I never knew. So how about this…
In 1947, the Yishuv was in turmoil. David Ben Gurion was pursuing his plan to declare a Jewish state. He was competing with Jewish extremists who had their own plans to free Palestine from the yoke of the British Empire. While Ben Gurion saw them as dangerous rivals, he also knew they were the bad cop to his good cop. Their mere existence and the havoc they wreaked on British colonial apparatus made Ben Gurion look moderate in comparsion. As such, they were exceedingly useful. The fact that Ben Gurion pardoned many of these terrorists for their crimes after the State was founded and prosecuted none of them indicates that he either colluded with them directly; or that they served his purposes so well, that he felt compelled to forgive them.
At the same time as all this was happening, the UN was pursuing it’s own plan to partition the region into Jewish and Arab enclaves. The Jewish extremists of the Irgun and particularly the splinter group, Lehi (aka the Stern Gang), felt Ben Gurion’s way was too accomodationist. They believed there was little to be gained from negotiating with the colonial power. Instead, they sought to drive the British to their knees and in this way force them to abandon the Mandate and free Palestine.
Lehi in particular engaged, much like the PLO of the 1970s, in spectacular acts of terror. The former’s specialty was assassination. Their most shocking attack was the Cairo murder of Lord Moyne. They also assassinated Count Folke von Bernadotte, the Swedish royal who’d saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust and was appointed by the UN to further negotiations between the parties toward accepting the Partition. There were also spectacular failures like a series of letter bombs sent to the homes and offices of current and former foreign ministers and other senior British officials. Several of them exploded wounding postal service employees or government staff. None, thankfully, ever injured their intended targets.
Historically, we’ve known that the Jewish terrorists targeted the British. But much less known is that they also expanded their targets to American officials. Both Margaret Truman and the chief of the White House mail room wrote separate books (hers a biography of her father, and the mail room chief a memoir about his decades of service in the job to several presidents). Both noted that in 1947 a series of mail bombs were discovered and detonated by the Secret Service before they reached their intended victims. At least one was sent directly to the President and marked “Private and Confidential” in order to guarantee it reached its target:
In the summer of 1947, the so-called Stern gang of Palestine terrorists tried to assassinate Dad by mail. A number of cream-colored envelopes about eight by six inches, arrived in the White House, addressed to the President and various members of the staff. Inside them was a smaller envelope marked “Private and Confidential.” Inside that second envelope was powdered gelignite, a pencil battery and a detonator rigged to explode the gelignite when the envelope was opened. Fortunately, the White House mail room was alert to the possibility that such letters might arrive. The previous June at least eight were sent to British government officials, including Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin and former Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. The British police exploded one of these experimentally and said it could kill, or at the very least maim, anyone unlucky enough to open it. The mail room turned the letters over to the Secret Service and they were defused by their bomb experts.
After Truman’s book was published, Natan Yelin-Mor, the last chief of Lehi denounced Truman and this story. He called her claim false and dared her to sue him in court. Yelin-Mor was either a fool or a very smart lawyer. Because there is no way any author can sue you if you claim a story in his or her book is false. What would be the grounds? You are expressing your opinion, which is protected speech. On the contrary, Yelin-Mor could have sued Truman for libel and sought to prove that her claim was false and that she knew it was false. That’s called libel. But of course, Yelin-Mor knew he’d lose that fight. So he didn’t go there.
The Lehi boss argued that his organization had no reason to attack the U.S. because Israel needed all the allies it could muster in its fight to become an independent state. That claim is disingenuous because Truman was never an enthusiastic supporter of the State of Israel. In fact, he made numerous statements that indicated his profound skepticism that the new country could lead to any peaceful resolution of the conflict. While it is true he finally did acquiesce and permitted his representatives to vote in favor of the UN resolution and that the U.S. did recoginze the new state, Lehi could know nothing of this in 1947.
Had Lehi dissolved into oblivion after 1948 then none of this would matter especially. But Yitzhak Shamir, the Lehi commander, and Menachem Begin, the Irgun commander, went on to become prime ministers. Their successors have assumed the mantle of leadership and led Israel for much of the past forty years. Israel has become a state that embodies the vision of these former Israeli terrorists. Assassination eventually became one of the signature Israeli methods of ridding the world of political enemies among the Arabs. To this day, the Mossad and Shabak engage in murder as state policy (read my new Mint Press article portraying the assassination of Omar Zayed by Yossi Cohen’s Mossad).
Further, Israel’s far-right inheritors of the Lehi-Irgun mantle also reject the pragmatism of the old Labor left who were willing to pursue their interests in a gradual mode. While Labor might’ve been the iron hand in the velvet glove, Likud is the naked iron hand ready to strike a blow for Jewish supremacy, ethnic cleansing and maximalism in all things. Bibi Netanyahu is Avraham Stern in a suit.
What Begin accomplished on a relatively small scale at Deir Yassin, Ben Gurion accomplished on a large scale in the Nakba. Israel’s subsequent wars of conquest in 1956 and 1967 and Israel’s military adventurism in Gaza and Lebanon since the turn of the century are of a piece with the early terrorist vision of an Israeli garrison state dominating the region and imposing its will on anyone daring to disagree.