Historian Revisits Israel's Violent Inception British historian David Cesarani's new book, Major Farran's Hat, is a nonfiction account of the final days of the British mandate in Palestine.

Historian Revisits Israel's Violent Inception

Historian Revisits Israel's Violent Inception

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David Cesarani is a history professor at Royal Holloway, University of London. Heinemann hide caption

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David Cesarani is a history professor at Royal Holloway, University of London.


British historian David Cesarani's new book, Major Farran's Hat, tells a familiar tale of militants in Palestine carrying out acts of terrorism while making claims for an independent homeland. We've heard similar stories before, but this one takes place in 1947, and the terrorists described are fighting against British rule for a Jewish state.

The book, a nonfiction account of the final days of the British mandate in Palestine, revisits a long-forgotten murder that, Cesarani argues, helped lay the groundwork for creation of the state of Israel.

Cesarani is also the author of Becoming Eichmann: Rethinking the Life, Crimes, and Trial of a "Desk Murderer."

Excerpt: 'Major Farran's Hat'

Cover: 'Major Farran's Hat'
Major Farran's Hat
By David Cesarani
Hardcover, 400 pages

Prologue Abduction in Jerusalem

At six-thirty on the evening of Tuesday 6 May 1947, Alexander Rubowitz left his home at 22 David Yellin Street in Mea Shearim, a Jewish suburb on the northern edge of Jerusalem. Although he was only sixteen years old, Alexander was setting out on a mission for the Lohamei HaHerut b'Yisrael, the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel. Known by their Hebrew acronym as LEHI they were more familiar, not to say notorious, to the rest of the world as the Stern Gang — a ferociously effective and murderous terrorist group fighting to end British rule in Palestine and establish a Jewish state. Alexander was tall and slim, with dark hair and dark eyes that gave him a rather dreamy look. He was a quiet boy, but his placid demeanour concealed a fanatical temperament that fitted him perfectly for the war that the Jewish underground was waging against the British.

Alexander lived at home with his parents, two older brothers and a younger sister. The family were Orthodox Jews and, rather unusually, could trace their roots in Jerusalem back at least one generation. Alexander's father, Yedidya, was the son of a rabbi who had emigrated from Eastern Europe to Palestine in the 1850s. At that time it took pioneering spirit as well as religious fervour for a Jew to settle in Jerusalem. Yedidya was also something of a pioneer. He became a pharmacist at the Rothschild Hospital in Jerusalem and opened a chemist's shop that was one of the first of its kind in Palestine. Alexander's mother, Miriam, was a sickly woman and was housebound for much of the time. But she was a fierce Zionist and though she knew that Alexander was putting himself in danger she declined to play the part of an ailing matriarch reining in her children.

For the past year and a half Alexander had belonged to the Brit Hashmonaim, the Covenant of the Hasmoneans, a religious youth group that was also a front organisation for LEHI. It had about 150 members in Jerusalem, of whom some thirty were engaged in covert activity. LEHI routinely used teenagers for distributing propaganda, as couriers, and even for moving arms around the city. They were more expendable than experienced fighters and faced less severe punishment if they were caught. Youths were especially useful for putting up wall posters. This was important work because LEHI had lost its clandestine radio station in a police raid in February 1946 and had no regular party newspaper to trumpet its ideology. Wall posters were essential for getting its message across and telling the Jewish public what it was doing. Every few days bundles of the crudely produced news poster called HaMa'as (the Deed) and the news-sheet HeChazit (the Front) were sent up from Tel Aviv by taxi and stashed in secret locations by militants. They passed them on to the youthful volunteers for distribution, but it was risky work. The teenagers were vulnerable to police patrols and were frequently caught.

Although the Rubowitz family sympathised with militant Jewish nationalism they apparently had little idea of what Alexander was up to until his parents were summoned to Ma'aleh High School, where Alexander was a student, to see the headmaster. Because Miriam was ill and Yedidya was looking after her, Alexander's elder brother Ya'acov went. He was taken aback when the headmaster told him that Alexander had been seen putting up posters for the Jewish underground. Ya'acov tried to defend his kid brother by pointing out that he was hard-working and smart, while what he did outside of school hours was his own business. But the head-master complained that Alexander was working for the underground inside the school, too, recruiting youngsters for the cause. Although there was no proof that he was engaged in violence, he had written an essay entitled 'Our Path to Independence' which justified the use of terrorist methods. 'And,' said the headmaster, 'that's enough for me.' Alexander was brought into the head's office and asked if it was true that he had joined the 'dissidents', the Jewish underground groups that refused to accept the authority of the official Jewish leadership in Palestine. Alexander admitted that it was true. When the headmaster asked him to give up this activity Alexander said he had sworn an oath of loyalty and refused. So he was expelled.

Alexander enrolled in a second school, but it was not long before his militancy came to the notice of the authorities there as well. The official leadership of the Jewish community in Palestine, the Jewish Agency, was so afraid that terrorism would provoke a severe backlash from the British that it periodically co-operated with the security forces or used its own militia to suppress the 'dissidents'. Consequently, Alexander's avowed membership of LEHI painted him as a 'traitor'. He was harassed by students and teachers until, finally, he was again thrown out. Afraid of the strain that Alexander's misadventures might place on their mother's health, his brothers tried to talk him into leaving LEHI. Ya'acov even contacted the leader of the Brit Hashmonaim, Yael Ben-Dov, and pleaded with her to cut him loose. As a last throw Yedidya told Miriam what was going on, but she would not lend herself to emotional blackmail. Instead, according to Ya'acov, she told her sons 'he has to go. They're all going now. Do you want him to lie under a bed? Does it matter where he goes? They're all going now. He has to go and succeed.'

With this blessing from his mother Alexander abandoned any thought of schooling and looked for work that would allow him to continue his underground activity. After a while he found a job at the Jerusalem office of the Ha'aretz newspaper, Palestine's leading Hebrew daily. But Ha'aretz firmly supported the Jewish Agency and when someone snitched to the management about Alexander's allegiances he was promptly sacked. Undeterred he continued to get up before dawn day after day, met with the nine other boys in his group, and set out to plaster messages from LEHI all over town. When the struggle between the British and the Jewish resistance intensified during spring 1947 the work became all-consuming. Ezra Yakim, one of Alexander's companions in the underground, recalled that the boys 'gave up any ideas of a life of ease and tranquillity'.

They were surrounded by 'constant danger'. Like true militants they gradually slipped out of the ambit of friends and family, and eventually detached from society as a whole. 'The cell was now their family.' The intensity of comradeship compensated for their alienation and the nerve-wracking possibility of capture. In Yakim's vivid words they lived in a 'blur of anonymity'.

Under the nom de guerre Haim, Alexander emerged as the leader in his ten-strong cell. 'Whenever we met', Yakim remembered many years later, 'he would speak of his desire to confront the enemy of his people with gun in hand. His attitude to the British, a combin ation of derision and fury, was contagious.' Alexander envied Yakim for being older because this meant that if the British caught him, he might be sentenced to death. According to Yakim, Alexander announced that 'To go to the gallows is a very great privilege, for every hanging brings us closer to salvation. Every hanging widens the chasm between them and our people. They have always hated us and always will, but if it will make our nation rise up against them, then we must suffer, sacrifice our lives, go to the gallows . . .' Whether the sixteen-year-old Alexander Rubowitz really said this, or whether these patriotic sentiments were attributed to him in the light of what subsequently happened, it was not long before wishful thinking became a gruesome reality.

Having left his home in the Mea Shearim district, Alexander headed south and crossed the busy Jaffa Road. The sun was setting on a hot and humid day as he threaded his way through the crowded streets of the Mahane Yehuda quarter, home to a sprawling food market, and entered the spacious and leafy suburb of Rehavia. En route he may have picked up some clandestine material because he was not noticed in Rehavia until around 8 p.m. It was then that a young woman standing on the balcony of her flat noticed a teenage boy running down Haran (today Aharon) Street. Despite the twilight gloom Mrs Sherlin had a good view from her vantage point and clearly saw a youth, who she later identified as Alexander Rubowitz, being chased by a burly, fair-haired man wearing tennis shoes, slacks and 'an army-style shirt'. Alexander fled from Haran Street into Ussishkin Street, but his pursuer was more powerful and athletic. Near the junction of Ussishkin Street and Keren Kayemet L'Yisrael Street he grabbed Alexander and wrestled him to a standstill. Two thirteen-year-old boys, Moshe Khesin and Jacob Jacobson, who were on some waste ground collecting wood for a bonfire party to mark the minor Jewish festival of Lag B'omer, then saw the man force Alexander into a waiting motor car. He struggled so furiously that it took the assistance of a second man, who emerged from the six-seater saloon, to finally bundle him into the back.

At this point Meir Cohen, a fifteen-year-old who had also been observing the struggle, plucked up the courage to intervene. Meir went over to the car and asked who they were and what they were doing. The man who was still outside replied in perfect English that he was a police officer. To underline his words he produced a document that Cohen recognised as a Police Identification Certificate. He then brandished a revolver and threatened to shoot the lad if he didn't clear off. But Meir, stood his ground long enough to hear a Hebrew-speaker shouting from inside the car, 'I'm from the Rubowitz family.' He also glimpsed the unwilling occupant of the back seat being hit repeatedly across the head. The doors slammed shut and Cohen watched helplessly as the big saloon began to pull away from the kerb. As it accelerated up the long, straight road heading north several of the onlookers were able to read the number plate: 993. Some later claimed they heard shouts from inside the car as it disappeared down a dip in the road and was finally lost from sight.

However, scenes like this were not unfamiliar on the streets of Jerusalem at this time. The Jewish underground frequently kidnapped British civilians, policemen and soldiers to use as hostages against the lives of captured terrorists. During the episodic struggles between the official Jewish militia, the Hagana, and the 'dissidents', it was not unknown for one faction to seize dozens of activists from another. Samuel Katz, an activist in the 'dissident' underground group Irgun Zvai Leumi, recalled that during the periodic 'hunting seasons' when the Jewish Agency and its paramilitary arms co-operated with the British, or for their own purposes tried to suppress the 'dissidents', 'kidnappings, beatings, torture, direct denunciations to the British became the sole occupation of the action-hungry soldiers of the Hagana'. The Palestine Post reported four unsolved kidnappings, three involving teenagers, in May 1947 alone. In one instance, a fourteen year-old-boy was abducted from the hospital where he was being treated for a bullet wound inflicted while he was fleeing a police patrol which discovered him putting up Stern Gang posters.

Excerpted from Major Farran's Hat by David Cesarani. Copyright 2009 by David Cesarani. Published by Heinemann. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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