A major outrage, attributed to Menachem Begin (subsequently an Israeli Prime Minister) and to his terrorist organisation Irgun Zvei Leumi, was the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. It was on Monday, 22nd July, 1946, according to my diary, that the radio informed us that terrorists had blown up part of the King David Hotel. It was estimated that fifty persons of different nationalities were dead. When we were in Jerusalem, we had stopped at the huge YMCA for a wad and a cup of tchai. Afterwards we entered the outsize Synagogue next door and climbed a spiral staircase, which led to the top of a high tower, ultra modern in design, which reminded me of a church steeple. (My apologies and personal exculpations to the rabbi in charge for the comparison.)
Here, from a small square turret, one could view the whole city whose history through the ages had been so varied, so tragic and so interesting. At each side of the square turret a bronze plaque indicated the places of outstanding historical interest, and I regretted at this instant my lack of biblical knowledge and my inability to recognise many names. But below us I did notice the King David Hotel, looking as small as a loaf of bread. When we had again set foot on solid earth, I looked once more at this great white, several-storied building opposite us. The brilliant sunlight made it look even whiter than it actually was. A wide, white roadway ran in front of the hotel, and carefully cultivated lawns spotted the frontage with green.
Now part of this huge building was destroyed with considerable loss of innocent life.
I found during my stay in Palestine that my sympathy for the Jewish pioneers was increasing all the time. The more I saw how they had developed the country, the more I saw of the people, the more I thought the matter through, the more I began to realise that in this struggle I was probably on the wrong side. The arrogance of some of the British army higher echelon annoyed me personally – I could easily understand how it annoyed the Jews, people of considerable intelligence and ability who would shortly be fighting for their lives, and who were now trying to rescue the residue of survivors from European concentration camps. I formed the opinion that the Jewish people had a right to be in Palestine. This right stemmed from continuous occupation of the country since the Roman Dispersion, for a small residue of Jews had lived in the country since even those times. But above all, their right to be in Palestine arose from their immigration into what had been a useless, discarded desert of a country, and the work and effort by which they had made that country productive and useful. No land had ever been taken forcibly from the few Arabs living in Israel. On the contrary, unproductive land had been purchased at astronomical prices and made to produce. Anybody who doubts this should visit modern Israel and see the millions – and I mean literally millions – of stones necessary to remove to make the earth productive. An earlier generation would be able to quote stories of malarial swamps, which were death traps for settlers, successfully drained and made to produce, with the menace of malaria banished permanently from the land.
The famous Balfour Declaration12 of 1917 was a legalistic corner stone of the case for the right of the Jews to be in Palestine. During the First World War, the Turks, who controlled Palestine, were allied with the Germans against England and her fellow combatants. To gain world Jewish support, England sanctioned the Balfour Declaration, which recognised historic Jewish rights in Palestine and viewed with favour the establishment of a Jewish national home in that country.
It was with these thoughts in mind that I considered the bombing of the King David Hotel, which led to a considerable anti-Jewish reaction among the British forces. Although civilian authorities condemned the act, British army personnel were not mollified, for who knew which was friend and which was foe? We, of course, always stood out for what we were. Increasingly we were the occupying army, hated by the extremists, barely tolerated by those who were our friends. Perhaps then, it might be an idea if we did get out and leave Jew and Arab to cut each other’s throats. That might be better than having them cut ours.
Such was the general attitude of the British troops. Of course there were a minority, not always limited to the lower ranks, who resorted to anti-semitic diatribes that might have been worthy of the Nazis themselves. Those, like myself, who took a different view, were still, by reason of the uniform which we wore, the meat in the sandwich.
On 30th July, 1946, three months after my 24th birthday, I wrote the following letter to my mother. I quote it verbatim, without apology. I was young at the time, and even more given to flights of rapture than in later years.
“……….We are in Tel Aviv, carrying out yet another ‘screening’ operation. It’s going well. It consists of a simple interrogation of the populace who, when they have proved themselves as pure as driven snow, are allowed to disappear. In one way it seems swinish to intimidate civilians the way we are doing. We might quite easily be taken for an invading army, and I can well understand that the citizens of Tel Aviv have taken an intense dislike to us. I hate one man to humiliate another – I cannot express how much I detest that. A fortnight ago I escorted a comrade to the military prison in Jerusalem, and when I saw them take him roughly in, — bullies specially chosen for the job, — I felt quite disgusted. But what we are doing is the only way to combat the terrorism that is today eating away Palestine.
The ‘Signals’ particular job is to maintain communications between the various units, and it is clear that we shall stay here – sitting on our bottoms outside Citrus House – until the complete purification of the wicked city of Tel Aviv.
The buildings here are high and white with flat roofs bristling with wireless aerials, and are of ultra modern design. On all sides one sees huge blocks of flats with long balconies, either sharp and square, or with sweeping curves. During the day the sun shines with considerable heat, but the evenings are warm and delicious, and made beautiful by numberless stars. To my right, just above the black silhouette of a block of flats, a new moon lolls lazily on its back in a purple sky. These are meaningless words, but you feel as if your soul might escape from its imprisoning body and fly to far-off places. The sky is truly beautiful this evening. It is not yet really night. It is twilight. And hitherto I can see – from the window of the cabin of my truck – only a single star. But it is a brilliant star set in dark blue. Low on the horizon there still remains the yellow stain of the disappearing day………..”
The result of this raid on Tel Aviv was that we arrested many suspected terrorists and discovered more arms caches. I was told that fire was opened on three Jews who were trying to pass from one zone to another, thus avoiding their interrogation. I didn’t learn whether any of the poor devils had been hit. What I did learn was that one of our own lads had received a bullet in his leg. Was he the victim of a terrorist attack? Of course not! He was unloading his revolver when he accidently shot himself. How the devil he managed it, I can’t imagine.
A few days later I was on guard at our camp in the desert. I leant against the inevitable swinging beam, which barred the entrance to the camp. I looked at the silent road, bordered with cacti, from which occasional sandy paths wandered away and lost themselves in the shadows. We are in an immense cathedral. The black sky is the vaulted roof across which some unknown giant has carelessly scattered a handful of stars. How silent the night is! But not for long. For suddenly, from far away a cry is heard. Is it a human or animal voice? Cries now come from all sides. They are the baying of those half-savage dogs which one finds in Arab villages, and they are eerie enough to chill the marrow. All of a sudden one thinks of Transylvanian werewolves. Or perhaps of those bestial lycanthropic cults said to flourish on the borders of Abyssinia. The stars are so terribly far away, and I am terribly helpless and insignificant and small. I’d much rather be in the “Old Ship” in Mare Street, Hackney, with a pint in my hand, than standing guard over the Airborne Lavatories in this chilly desert with yelping Arab dogs all around me! What am I guarding anyway? We must all be mishuga!
Never mind! It’s nearly time for the demob! And roll on that happy day!
In fact, the “happy day” now began to approach with ever increasing speed. During working hours I would do chores about the camp or send a few leisurely signals on a wireless set. In the warm evening we would sit on the terrace of the canteen, drinking tea or Stella Beer. It was that easy, relaxed time such as one experiences when the hard work is done and one waits for retirement.