Extreme acts are sometimes exonerated by history. When we view the world through our insular prism, we can easily lose perspective. Things may be swiftly magnified to grotesque proportions, like our trepidation of world censure, for instance. Frantically exaggerated anxieties then send us into a panic of self-reproach. Most often our self-inflicted alarm is unwarranted. Occasionally exploits sure to get Israel into hot water internationally may be the right thing to do. Losing our collective head isn’t only unnecessary, it’s downright harmful.
This was true even before our state was born, before we could be painted as an ogre imperialist Goliath, when we were history’s most helpless underdogs. The world hardly empathized with us then either.
Exactly on this date 65 years ago – November 6, 1944 – two young Lehi fighters, 19-year-old Eliahu Hakim of Haifa and 22-year-old Tel Avivian Eliahu Beit-Zuri, assassinated Walter Edward Guinness, first Baron Moyne, in Cairo. He was the British minister resident in the Middle East. While the Holocaust was still ongoing, world opinion managed to expend more outrage on the two Eliahus, as they came to be known, than it did on their victim’s appalling record.
The Labor-led Zionist establishment in pre-state Israel lost no time or vehemence in denouncing the assassination and launching what came to be dubbed the saison (the “hunting season” in which Lehi and Irgun members were pursued and turned over to the British). On November 20, 1944 David Ben-Gurion addressed the Histadrut convention and ordered the expulsion of “all Revisionists from all workplaces – be they in an office, factory or grove… the same goes for students in higher or secondary education, or any other school.”
YET, INCREDIBLE as it sounds – given the strident anti-Israel incitement of Cairo’s current state-run media under Hosni Mubarak’s aegis – the Eliahus evoked widespread sympathy among Egyptians. Students demonstrated for them in the streets and rallied against sentencing them to death. Prominent Egyptian lawyers volunteered to represent them, adhered to the political defense decreed by the Eliahus and avidly espoused their nationalist Jewish sentiments.
Hakim set the tone: “We are the accusers at this trial. We accuse Lord Moyne and the government he represented of murdering hundreds of thousands of our brethren and usurping our homeland… Where is the law that would hold them answerable for their crimes? Though absent from the books, it is engraved in our hearts. Hence we had no alternative but to take justice into our own hands.”
Like him, Beit-Zuri told the court: “Thousands of my people drowned in a sea of blood and tears. Nevertheless the British captain denied them haven. He stood on his deck and watched with equanimity how my people drown. And if, despite all, some managed to reach the boat and hang on to its sides, he – the British skipper – shoved them back down to make sure they sink into the abyss… For us, resident in our homeland, who witness all this, only one choice exists – surrender or fight. We choose to fight.”
Lord Moyne had blood on his hands. He was personally responsible for inducing the Turks to tug the unseaworthy makeshift immigrant ship Struma – a pitiful rusty sardine-can of an antiquated Danube River barge – from Istanbul harbor on February 24, 1942. He thereby condemned nearly 800 Jewish refugees on board (including 103 children and babies) to a certain death. The disabled Struma was left paralyzed, without a motor, provisions or a drop of fuel, to drift precariously on the Black Sea. The Soviet torpedo that later struck it inadvertently was nothing but a coup de grace.
But there was more. On May 15, 1944 Budapest Jew Joel Brand was dispatched to Turkey by Adolf Eichmann (probably at Heinrich Himmler’s behest) to propose exchanging a million Hungarian Jews for 10,000 trucks. It may well have been a cruel subterfuge, but the British treated the unfortunate Brand unconscionably. He was deceived, arrested and taken to Cairo where he was imprisoned for four-and-a-half months.
In his 1958 autobiography Advocate for the Dead, Brand described being interrogated by a British official, who he later learned was Lord Moyne himself. When told that the lives of as many as a million Jews might be at stake, Moyne retorted: “‘What shall I do with those million Jews?’ I couldn’t bear to listen to him any further,” Brand recounts. “I got up. If there’s no place for us on this Earth, then Jews are forced into the gas chambers.” At the 1961 Eichmann trial Brand repeated, under oath, his contention that the above dastardly remark was uttered by none other than Lord Moyne.
With the British pulling vassal Egypt’s strings and agitating for capital punishment, the Eliahus stood no chance. They were sentenced to die by hanging. Hakim mounted the gallows first on March 22, 1945, singing “Hatikva” to his last breath. Beit-Zuri did the same half an hour later. Haider-Pasha, director-general of Egyptian prisons, who witnessed the executions, commented: “Today I saw two young lions die.”
But despite the political purge, which the assassination facilitated, the Eliahus didn’t remain vilified villains. Mainstream consensus is ever-mutable. The imperiously imposed axioms of the powers-that-be were eventually set aside.
Already in 1962, none other than Ben-Gurion wrote Lehi veteran Geula Cohen: “I bow down my head in awe and esteem for the heroic deaths of the two Eliahus in Cairo.”
THEN CAME the post-Yom Kippur War negotiations with Egypt, when Israel officially requested the two Eliahus’ remains. On June 26, 1975 they were accorded a state funeral in Jerusalem. On hand were prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, foreign minister Yigal Allon and other Labor stalwarts, some of them, like Rabin (as distinct from Allon), keen saison collaborators.
More than three decades after the executions, the British government seethed with fury. The Foreign Office, via British ambassador Sir Bernhard Ledwidge, shrilly protested “that an act of terrorism should be honored this way.” The Rabin government rebuffed the petulant complaints. However, it stopped short of arguing that instead of demanding censure and collective contrition from Israelis for the assassination, London might express contrition for its policy of denying asylum to those who desperately tried to flee Hitler’s hell.
After all, 1975 wasn’t a good year. We weren’t popular then, as we aren’t now. Israel was indeed close to its current pariah status. It was shortly before the UN (ironically then headed by Nazi Kurt Waldheim) equated Zionism with racism (on November 10, 1975). Jerusalem didn’t relish incurring more wrath.
Like now. The UN, EU, Barack Obama’s US, all dislike us (to put it mildly) but, as the two Eliahus’ epilogue illustrates, ill winds blow over if we keep calm and don’t forget the fundamental justice of our cause. No need for us to lose our head because we fear inclement conditions.