In the summer of 1947, Menachem Begin had been chief of Irgun for three and a half years. In May, during the Acre prison break, where Irgun fighters had used explosives to break through a wall of the British prison in Acre in order to free prisoners belonging to Irgun and Lehi, a handful of men had been captured. Now, in July, three of them, Avshalom Haviv, Yaakov Weiss and Meir Nakar,1 had been tried and sentenced to be hanged. Begin wanted to stop the hangings.
His solution, a tactic that Irgun had used successfully before, was to kidnap two British soldiers, and hold them hostage. If the Irgun fighters were executed, the British soldiers would be executed also.
On July 12, after the Irgun members had been sentenced to death, two British sergeants, Mervyn Paice and Clifford Martin, members of the Intelligence Corps, were kidnapped from a cafe in Netanya, a small coastal town north of Tel Aviv.2,3 They were then taken to a diamond factory in Netanya, and held captive there.4
The Netanya area was cordoned off, and British soldiers and police combed the surroundings, but without success.5,6
The three Irgun prisoners were hanged on July 29th.7
After a consultaion between the Irgun members in Netanya and Begin, each of the two British soldiers was hanged from a rafter in the diamond factory, and their dead bodies were taken to a eucalpytus grove, at night, where they were hung together from a tree and booby trapped with explosives.8 The British authorities later had reason to believe that a trial of Paice and Martin was carried out by the Irgun before they were hung.9
The next morning, July 31, the bodies of the two sergeants were discovered hanging from a eucalyptus tree. The hands of the hanged men were tied behind their backs, sacks covered their heads, and they were dressed only in underwear. As the first body was cut down, the booby trap exploded scattering body parts over a wide area, and seriously injuring a British soldier.10
In a communiqué, Begin said that the two men had been tried and sentenced to death for belonging to the "terrorist organization" known as the British occupation force. He added that a request for pardon had been rejected.11
Shortly afterward, he was visited in his hideout by a U.N. envoy - Jorge Garcia-Granados from Guatemala. Garcia-Granados was impressed by Begin. He said that his eyes sparkled like those of a mystic. And there was something about his smile...the white teeth somehow gave an impression of ruthlessness.12
1 Ofer Aderet, "The 'Cruel Revenge' That Helped Drive the British Out of Palestine," Haaretz, August 7, 2012, https://www.haaretz.com/the-story-of-a-mandate-era-cruel-revenge-1.5278619, Accessed 4/4/18
2 Avi Shilon, Menachem Begin, A Life, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 100
3 Australian Associated Press and Special Representative, "Irgun Hangs Sergeants," Adelaide Advertiser, August 1, 1947, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/35990700, Accessed 4/4/18 4 Aderet
5 Clifton Daniel, "British Give Jews Kidnap Ultimatum," New York Times, July 14, 1947, 1, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
6 Clifton Daniel, "Palestine Group Held in Garroting," New York Times, August 24, 1947, 32, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
7 Clifton Daniel, "Palestine Hangs Three Terrorists; Hostages in Peril," New York Times, July 29, 1947, 1, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
8 Ned Temko, To Win or to Die, (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1987), 105
9 U.P., "British Arrest Several Jews in Slaying of Two Sergeants," Washington Post, August 24, 1947, M3, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
10 Australian Associated Press
11 Temko, 106
12 Temko, 106-107
Menachem Begin was born in 1913, on the eve of World War I, in the town of Brest, located in present day Belarus, on the border with Poland. His grandfather Begin was the last in a line of wealthy timber merchants, and his father an avid Zionist and activist.1,2
When Begin was two, World War I forced his family to flee Brest, then known as Brest-Litovsk or Brisk, to escape the oncoming German army. When they finally returned, the town was in ruins. It had begun the war as Russian, and was now part of Poland, and one of Begin's first memories was hearing about a Jew being flogged by Polish soldiers in a city park.3
The population of Brisk was some 40,000, of whom 30,000 were Jewish.4 Although the town's principal language was Yiddish, the three Begin children, Rachel,.Herzl (named after the Zionist leader), and Menachem learned Hebrew and Polish as well.5 All three children joined the Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, but when it began to emphasize socialism over Zionism, they left the group.6 His grade school was associated with the Mizrachi movement, which emphasized a combination of Orthodox Judaism with Zionism.7 Avi Shilon, one of Begin's biographers, writes that he learned to love Jews, and to not be afraid of Gentiles.8
Straightened circumstances wouldn't allow the young Begin to go to a Jewish high school, since they were expensive, and he was admitted to a free Polish public high school. Begin didn't remember the place with affection. Later in life he said that the school taught students to hate Jews, and that he learned to insult those who insulted him and to beat those who beat him.9
Although fate hadn't been kind to Menachem Begin, he found one real gift: he was a skilled orator. His father organized Zionist meetings at Brisk's main synagogue, and hundreds would listen to the still teenage Begin. One listener remembered him as spellbinding - moving from German poetry to Yiddish, changing modulation - he spoke to his Jewish listeners in words that struck a deep chord. The Jews of Brisk didn't feel wanted in Poland or anywhere else, and he offered them salvation. What was the salvation.? Zionism. Not just any kind of Zionism, but the hard-edged brand that was preached by Vladimir Jabotinsky: Palestine should be populated by Jews at any cost.10
Begin joined Jabotinsky's Zionist paramilitary youth group, Beitar, solicited funds for the group, and began to make speeches at least once a week. He wore the Beitar uniform with its Sam Browne belt (a wide belt with a diagonal supporting strap across the shoulder) everywhere except school, and even had a bodyguard - Avraham Stavsky. (Stavsky would later be a suspect in the murder of a Jewish official in Palestine.) One of his "troops" later said that they looked on Begin as kind of a god.11
When Begin was nearing graduation, Vladimir Jabotinsky came to Brisk to speak at a local theater. He spoke in Yiddish, and Begin was completely won over. He decided to devote the rest of his life to Beitar and Zionism, and later described the experience as akin to matrimony.12,13
In 1931, Begin finished high school and headed for Warsaw, where he would attend law school and work for Beitar.14
1 Ned Temko, To Win or to Die, (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1987), 19-20
2 Avi Shilon, Menachem Begin, A Life, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 1
3 Temko, 19-21
4 Shilon, 2
5 Shilon, 7
6 Shilon, 9,10
7 Temko, 26
8 "Brisk of Lithuania," Encyclopedia of Exile, 251, quoted in Shilon, 8
9 Temko, 31-32
10 Temko, 34-37
11 Temko, 36
12 Temko, 37
13 Menachem Begin, "White Nights," 38, quoted in Shilon, 10
14 Temko, 37-39
In 1931, Begin arrived in Warsaw and immediately put himself at the disposal of the Beitar leaders. He told Aharon Propes, who was in charge of the 150 Beitar chapters in Poland, that he wanted to work for Beitar, and Propes liked him, and gave him the job of chairman of the Organizational Department. Meanwhile, he studied law half-heartedly, receiving mediocre grades in exchange for limited study time.1
Ned Temko, one of Begin's biographers, describes his intellectual life as joyless, single-minded, and centered around politics, and suggests that in contrast to others in the Zionist movement, for example Jabotinsky, he didn't believe in the potential for goodness of non-Jews.2 When Jews were harrassed in Brataslava, Czechoslovakia, Begin said that Jews there should go from the defensive to the offensive, and do some harrassing themselves.3
Another of Begin's biographers, Avi Shilon, writes that Beitar members don't remember Begin as a warm person, that his eyes were cold, and he didn't share details of his personal life.4 At one point, he argued that Beitar members should stand at attention in the presence of Beitar commanders.5
Early on in his time in Warsaw, Begin had a tangential connection with a Zionist murder mystery that caused an uproar at the time, and remains unsolved. In the summer of 1933, Haim Arlosoroff, the head of the Jewish Agency's political department in Palestine, and a Ben Gurion aide, was shot to death on a Tel Aviv beach while walking with his wife. Avraham Stavsky, who had been Begin's bodyguard in Brisk, was arrested and tried for the murder.6 The Zionist leftwing, headed by Ben-Gurion, blamed the rightwing, associated with Jabotinsky, and the result was a political firestorm. When Begin heard that a Brisk Jew had given information on Stavsky to the police, he told the man's son, "We will destroy your house!"7 Stavsky was convicted but later cleared after an appeal.
During Menachem Begin's time in Beitar, the Nazis were rising to power in Germany, and Zionist politics changed under the stress of new realities. Beitar probably couldn't have been turned into a serious obstacle to the German war machine, even if the Nazi invasion of Poland had been widely forseen, but there was a radicalization, as the organization sought to both increase the rate of Jewish immigration to Palestine and develop Irgun, which was itself changing from a group dedicated to the defense of Palestine's Jewish population into a terrorist organization. Hillel Kook, an Irgun envoy to Beitar later recalled that 95% of Poland's Beitar members over 18 joined Irgun.8
In 1938, at Beitar's third world conference in Warsaw, a symbolic confrontation between Jabotinsky and Begin showed which way the wind was blowing. Begin proposed to change the Beitar oath from, "I will lift my arm to use my strength for defense." to "We will fight to defend our people and to conquer the homeland." Jabotinsky, who relied on diplomatic pressure to create a Jewish state, and had an unusually acerbic sense of humor, said that Begin was out of touch with reality,9 and that if he didn't believe in the world's conscience, he should drown himself in the Vistula River. Begin's proposal passed.10 The next year, 1939, Jabotinsky picked him to run Beitar in Poland and coordinate plans with Irgun.11
In May, 1939, just months before the German invasion of Poland, Begin married Aliza Arnold, the daughter of a Polish lawyer, as well as a fellow Zionist. They were married in their Beitar uniforms, and Jabotinsky was present at the wedding. He wished Begin all the happiness he would want for his own son.12,13
When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, things happened fast, and at the end of the first week of September, Menachem Begin , in one of the most momentous decicisions of his life, fled Warsaw with his wife and other Beitar commanders. In doing so, he abandoned Beitar - ostensibly a military instrument of some 100,000 members - and left behind his family, his past, and the Jews of Poland. He, like the Polish government and most of the world, simply wasn't prepared for the speed and ferocity of the German invasion.
Here are a few glimpses into his life in the first week of September, 1939: dive bombers attacking Warsaw, Begin ordering Beitar members to help the Polish Army dig trenches; Begin offering to organize Beitar battalions for special missions; Begin's statement to another Zionist: "As long as we are here we are Polish citizens. We will not desert. We are not deserters."1
Yet in order to survive, in order for his wife to survive, he had to leave. Neither the Polish Army or Beitar was an impediment to the Nazis, and there wasn't time enough to change either fact.
Later, after having escaped to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, Begin received a letter from a Beitar official in Palestine criticizing his decision to leave: "Why did you leave Warsaw? It is common knowledge that when the ship is sinking, the captain is the last to leave." Begin called a meeting of Beitar members from Warsaw, and suggested that they immediately return there, and then put it to a vote. It was rejected.2
In cold Darwinistic terms, those who survive violent crises to affect the future are often those who make idiosyncratic decisions, and Begin did survive. For Begin personally, who would lose his parents and brother during the war, and must have felt in some way responsible for the members of Beitar left behind, the survival guilt must have been apalling.
Begin found a temporary refuge in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, but it was short-lived. Vilnius was a free city when he arrived, but the Soviet armed forces occupied the city shortly afterward. From then on, as a Polish citizen, let alone chief of Polish Beitar, he was the prey of the Soviet internal security police, the NKVD, and was arrested in September, 1940 - a year after the war began.3
Begin was imprisoned during the series of interrogations that lead to his sentencing, but was apparently never beaten.4 He was bothered by rumors of special chemicals that could be injected into a prisoner to make him tell the truth, but his experience was more prosaic.5
According to Begin, he found himself anticipating periods of interrogation, because they gave him a chance to lecture his inquisitors.6 (When an interrogator tasked the Zionist project with colonialism, Begin claimed that there would be room in Israel for "millions of Arabs", and that they would be "granted" sufficient land.7)
In March of 1941, he was sentenced to eight years in the Soviet prison camps under the catch-all Article 588 under which many tens of thousands, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn, were sent to the gulags. Begin was comparatively fortunate. Three months later, in June, Hitler would invade the Soviet Union, and once again war would dramatically change the course of Menachem Begin's life, freeing him to leave for Palestine.
On June 22, 1941 German armies invaded the Soviet Union, and the Soviets reached out desperately for allies. They agreed to release Polish citizens held in their penal system, but wouldn't provide them with transportation.9 Begin had spent the summer in the Pechorlag prison camp, in the far north of Russia, and was freed in August.10
Meanwhile, an army of Polish exiles, known today as the Anders Army, was being formed in the Soviet Union. According to one of Begin's biographers, Avi Shilon, Polish Zionist activists in Palestine negotiated the creation of a Jewish Brigade with the free Polish government in exile, and Begin (still in the Soviet Uniorn) was advised to join the brigade, where he was given the rank of clerk. When the Anders Army was brought through Palestine on its way to join British forces in the Middle East, most of the Jewish soldiers simply disappeared into the Jewish population.11 Begin himself didn't desert. When the army left for Syria, he was reassigned to its Jerusalem headquarters as clerk.12
There's no doubt that strings were pulled to release Begin from the Anders Army, and its likely that he went along with the schemes. Avi Shilon describes a scene where Meir Kahn, a Begin admirer, walks into his apartment and tells him that "the birds of heaven" say that he should command Irgun, and that something should be done to get him out of the army. Begin's response was, "You can do beautiful things; if possible, a blessing will come on to you."13 Shilon describes the subsequent chain of events: Begin was discharged for a year so that he could be added to a group of Jewish soldiers, who were to tour the United States, in order to influence Americans to act on behalf of the Polish government in exile;14,15 the tour fell through and, AWOL or not, Begin never went back.16
It should be noted that this was the second time that Menachem Begin decided not to fight against Nazi Germany. The first time, when he fled Warsaw, events might have forced his hand, but now the situation was different. During his tenure as chief of Irgun he would bitterly criticize the British for negligence in the defense of Jewish lives in Europe, but here he himself must have made a conscious decision to stay in Palestine and fight the British instead of the Nazis. He decided that the British, who had fought Nazi Germany from the time of the invasion of Poland, and fought alone for a year between the fall of France and Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, the British, who had nurtured the Zionist project (probably with some mixture of zeal and reluctance) since 1917 - they were his enemies.
Begin, the protege and heir apparent of the now dead Jabotinsky, the slight young man with the cold stare and glasses, was about to become chief of Irgun and lead it on a new and radical path. His group would terrorize the authorities of the British Mandate, and eventually help wreck the thousand-year-old Arab society in Palestine.
Begin arrived on the scene just when Irgun was looking for a new leader.1 Until this time, Irgun, like Hagana, had either fought along side the British in the Middle East, or at least decided not to fight against them in Palestine. (Lehi on the other hand, under Avraham Stern, had continued its terror campaign against the British Mandate throughout World War II.) Now they would revolt. Begin declared: "Yes, we will cripple them; we will crush the head of the British serpent. We will take action; we will strike them down and continue in the path of the Maccabees."2
December 1943 - Menachem Begin was chosen by Irgun leaders as Irgun chief.1
February 1, 1944 - The Proclamation of Revolt, authored by Begin, was widely distributed by Irgun. It declared war on the British Mandate, and demanded that power be delivered to a Hebrew government of Palestine.
February 12, 1944 - Irgun attacked immigration offices in Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tel Aviv.1
February 26-27, 1944 - Irgun exploded mines near income tax offices in Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tel Aviv.1
March 23, 1944 - Irgun attacked police headquarters in Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tel Aviv. Two bombs were exploded, while the attempt to plant a third bomb ended in a shoot out. Six British soldiers and two members of Irgun were killed.1
May 17, 1944 - Irgun attacked and temporarily controled a British radio station in Ramallah.1 When they demanded to broadcast one of Begin's communiqués, they discovered they had attacked the wrong location, since the transmitter was located in Jerusalem.2
July 13, 1944 - An Irgun unit broke into a district British Intelligence building in Jerusalem and detonated several bombs.1
September 27, 1944, Yom Kippur - After repeated warnings from Irgun, the British authorities allowed the blowing of the shofar at the Western Wall to mark the end of Yom Kippur.1 (On previous occasions, British authorities had banned this tradition in deference to Arab sensibilities, posted large numbers of soldiers at the Western Wall, and arrested whoever blew the shofar.2)
Irgun attacked four British police stations. Several bombs were exploded near a police station on the highway between Jaffa and Jerusalem, and the station itself was the target of gunfire. Later an Arab villager was found dead nearby. In central Palestine, a police station was the target of bombs that caused minor damage. The Haifa police station was attacked with explosives and automatic weapons. A Palestinian policeman was fatally wounded. A police station in southern Palestine was attacked, arms were stolen, and a Palestinian policeman and a British army corporal were killed.3
Interlude - The "Hunting Season" - Approximately October, 1944 - October 1945
Before 1945, the Jewish Agency and its military arm, the Hagana, believed that the continued construction of a Jewish state in Palestine could only be accomplished, at least for the time being, within the governmental structure of the British Mandate, and with the help of British authorities. Consequently, the relationship between what might be called the Jewish establishment in Palestine (Ben-Gurion, the Jewish Agency, and Hagana) and the radicals (Begin, Irgun, and Lehi, who were violently attacking British authority) was often adversarial, and could even turn violent.1
Accounts of meetings between Begin and Hagana commanders that occured late in 1944, make the relative positions of Begin and the Jewish establishment in Palestine clear. Hagana chief, Moshe Sneh, told Begin that he was in favor of a revolution against the British Mandate, but said that the time wasn't ripe. Begin thought that it was.2
An accutely adversarial phase occurred between November 6, 1944, after the assassination of Lord Moyne by Lehi, and October, 1945.1 This period is known as the "Hunting Season", or the French "Saison."
During the Hunting Season, Hagana, acting under orders from Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Agency, captured and held Irgun members or handed them over to the British.3 (According to the British, Ben-Gurion occasionally indicated people who weren't connected with terrorism, but were only his political opponents.4) The Irgun members themselves were under Begin's orders to be cautious, but accept imprisonment rather than react violently against Hagana.5
May, 1945 - Telephone poles were sabotaged at various locations.1
July 23, 1945 - A railroad bridge was blown up in a joint Irgun-Lehi operation.1
October, 1945 - Dismayed by the refusal of Prime Minister Atlee's refusal to abandon the provisions of the 1939 White Paper regarding restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine, Ben-Gurion decided to join forces with Irgun and Lehi. This effectively ended the "Hunting Season." Begin and Lehi commanders reached an agreement with Hagana to form a "United Resistance," under which Irgun and Lehi would act in concert with Hagana in major operations. The command of the United Resistance consisted of Yisrael Galili and Moshe Sneh from Hagana, Begin himself, and Nathan Yellin-Mor from Lehi.1
November 1, 1945 - The "Night of the Trains" - Irgun and Lehi jointly attack the main railroad station in Lydda, while Hagana sabotaged over 150 rail locations.1
December 27, 1945 - Irgun and Lehi jointly bomb British Intelligence offices in Jerusalem.1
February 25, 1946 - The "Night of the Airfields" - Irgun attacked the RAF airport at Lydda and destroyed several airplanes with explosives.
Twelve fighters, dressed as Arabs, attacked the military airport at Kastina, and destroyed some twenty aircraft with explosives. In both operations, machine gun fire was directed at British personnel attempting to thwart the attack.1
March 6, 1946 - An Irgun unit of some 30 fighters, dressed as British soldiers, entered the Sarafand military base, overcame the guards at the entrance, entered the armory, and stole a quantity of weapons. Yosef Simchon and Michael Ashbel were captured by the British and later tried and sentenced to death.1
April 2, 1946 - Three Irgun units took part in various acts of sabotage directed at railroads. A bridge near the Arab village of Yibne was destroyed by one unit. Two other units, dressed as Arabs, attacked bridges and railroad installations at Zarnuga and Ashdod. Thirty-one Irgun members were arrested by the British.1
June 18, 1946 - In order to prevent the execution of Simchon and Asbel, who had been captured in the Sarafand raid, Irgun units kidnapped several British officers in two Tel Aviv hotels where they were billeted. British authorities subsequently commuted the death sentences leveled against the Irgun members, and the British officers were released.1
June 29, 1946 - The British raided various locations, including the offices of the Jewish Agency, and jailed some 2,700 of the Jewish population of Palestine. At the Jewish Agency, they found a number of incriminating documents including the text of the agreement between Hagana, Irgun, and Lehi, and cables approving actions by Irgun and Lehi.
At Kibbutz Yagur, the British discovered arms caches of 300 rifles, 100 mortars, 400,000 bullets, and 5000 hand grenades.At Kibbutz Mizra, they discovered various documents relating to the Palmach, including a coded members list.These events were referred to by the Zionist militants as "Black Sabbath."1
July 22, 1946 - The bombing of the King David Hotel .
October 30, 1946 - The Jerusalem railroad station was attacked with an explosive device, which destroyed the building's interior. The bomb had been left by two Irgun members, male and female, posing as a couple, and two Irgun fighters dressed, again, as Arab porters. British soldiers fired into their car as it escaped, having been forewarned of the operation by an Irgun commander - Heinrich Reinhold (Yanai).1
March 1, 1947 - An Irgun unit, again, disguised as British soldiers, attacked the Jerusalem Officer's Club with explosives, killing 17, and wounding 27.1
March 12, 1947 - Four Irgun units attacked the Schneller (named for a Protestant missionary who had built an orphanage at the location) British Army camp with automatic weapons and an explosive device, killing one soldier, and wounding several others.1
May 4, 1947 - Irgun units, some again dressed as British soldiers, others again dressed as Arabs, suceeded in helping prisoners in Acre Prison escape, with the help of explosive devices previously smuggled into the prison in food containers. 27 Zionist militant prisoners escaped, a number of attackers were killed or captured.1
July 12, 1947 - Two British soldiers, Mervyn Paice and Clifford Martin were kidnapped, and held hostage for three weeks, apparently given a "trial" by Irgun members, and then hung.1
- Menachem Begin1
December 30, 1947 - An Irgun unit tossed two hand grenades into a crowd of Arabs looking for day work at the Haifa oil refinery. 6 were killed, and some 40 were wounded. 1 According to Ilan Pappe, this was an Irgun specialty, and they had thrown bombs into crowds before this.2
January, 1948 - In the first week of January, Irgun committed more terrorist acts than in any time period before. Irgun bombed the Sarraya House in Jaffa, the location of the Jaffa Palestinian National Committee, killing 26; Irgun bombed the Samiramis Hotel in Jerusalem, where many were killed, including the Spanish consul.1
Ben-Gurion's diary during this period reflects his concern that Irgun wasn't acting in coordination with other forces. Irgun had killed Arab truck drivers in Tiberias, and was torturing Arab villagers "everywhere," and at least one local Hagana commander was worried about repercussions.2
March 30, 1948 - Irgun expels villagers by force from al-Shaykh Muwannis - الشيخ موّنس
April 9, 1948 - The massacre at Dayr Yassin 1
April 22, 1948 - Irgun units snipe and mortar British positions in Jaffa. 1
April 25, 1948 - In the morning, two Irgun units shell the Jaffa city center and port area. 1
April 26, 1948 - Irgun units shell the city of Jaffa in the morning, destroying many Arab homes.1 The objective was to create a mass flight of the Arab population of Jaffa.2
Early May - Irgun units attack and expel the inhabitants of Sabbarin - صبارين , al-Sindiyana - السنديانة , Khubbayza - خبْيزة , and Umm al-Shawf - أُم الشوف .1
May 12, 1948 - The city of Jaffa is taken over by Irgun and Hagana.1