In April 1936, an inflamed Arab mob attacked Jewish bystanders in Jaffa. Nine Jews were murdered and more than fifty were injured. The following day Arabs attacked the Jewish neighborhoods adjacent to Jaffa, murdering six more Jews and injuring dozens. Thousands fled to the center of Tel Aviv, but there was insufficient housing to accommodate everyone and makeshift tents had to be erected in a little park at the end of Sheinkin Street. Witnessing the scene as a boy of eight had a profound effect on me. I could not imagine what the refugees had done to make the Arabs kill them indiscriminately. But what most upset me was the fact that the Jews had not succeeded in defending themselves or retaliating. As children we always reacted when attacked; it seemed inconceivable that adults would not do the same. The following day all the neighborhood children grouped together and drove away the Arab shepherds who grazed their sheep in the empty field beside the government office building at the end of Sheinkin Street. Our excuse was that if Jews were driven out of Jaffa, we would not allow Arabs to graze their flocks in Tel Aviv.
The bloody incidents continued for many months, and at home there was continuous discussion of the attacks on Jewish settlements throughout the country. The Arab attacks, known as the 'Arab Revolt', were directed against Zionist achievements in Palestine. The Arabs demanded a halt to immigration and a ban on the establishment of new settlements. The Yishuv began to organize to defend itself against Arab onslaughts, and inhabitants of border areas were exhorted to volunteer for guard duty. In addition to the volunteers who operated within the framework of the Haganah, the authorities set up a Special Police unit, a kind of cross between army and police.
Kiryat Sefer Street in Tel Aviv was a border area where residents set up a look out post to deter attackers. We children liked to visit the guards at their roof top post, and in return for the sandwiches and coffee we brought them, we were allowed to operate the searchlight. One evening fire was opened on the neighborhood, and we were asked to smash the street lights so the Arabs would not know where to aim their attack. We fulfilled our task with great relish and zeal.
In those days, the Jewish Agency policy was to display restraint in the face of Arab attack and to act only in self-defense. Attacks on Arab villages were not permitted and initiative lay solely with the Arabs. The Irgun Zvai Leumi, which had seceded from the Haganah in 1931, objected to this policy, arguing that acts of deterrent were a necessary tactic of war.
One day a car was attacked in the Galilee while en route to Safed. Four Jews were shot dead, including a child and two women. The murder aroused a storm of protest among members of Betar's Labor Brigade located at Rosh Pinna.1 Three members of the Brigade, Avraham Shein, Shalom Jurabin and Shlomo Ben-Yosef (Tabachnik) decided to retaliate. They made their way to the road linking Safed to Rosh Pinna and fired on an Arab bus as it passed by. None of the passengers were hurt. They immediately left the spot and ran to hide in a nearby building. Spotted as they ran, all three were arrested and later tried by a military tribunal in Haifa. They were charged with unlawful possession of weapons and with intent to cause death or injury to many people", both of which carried the death sentence. Betar leaders tried to save the three and hired Philip Joseph and Aharon Hoter-Yishai as their defense counsel. They suggested that Jurabin plead mental instability and that documents be produced confirming Shein was under eighteen. The three rejected this defense strategy, and announced that they intended to turn the trial into a political platform, at which they would openly proclaim their views. In the end, the court did indeed pronounce Jurabin unstable and he was sent to a lunatic asylum. Shein and Ben-Yosef were sentenced "to be hanged by the neck". They accepted their sentence with extraordinary equanimity and started singing the anthem 'Hatikva'. The military commander confirmed Ben-Yosef's sentence, but later commuted Shein's sentence to life imprisonment on account of his youth.
When Ben-Yosef's sentence became known, political leaders in Palestine and abroad tried to persuade the British government to commute it to life imprisonment, but to no avail. On June 29, 1938, Shlomo Ben-Yosef prepared for his final hour. He took off the crimson garments of the condemned man, put on shorts and a shirt, laced his high work boots and awaited the arrival of the guards. He went to the gallows with his head held high, singing the Betar anthem. On the wall of his cell, he had written in his halting Hebrew: "What is a homeland? It is something worth living for, fighting for and dying for too. I was a servant of Betar to the day of my death". He also wrote a line from Jabotinsky's poem "to die or to conquer the Mountain".
I was a boy of ten and profoundly shocked by Ben-Yosef's execution. I was particularly enraged by the charge of unlawful possession of arms, for which punishment was death by hanging. Did the government not know that the Arabs had formed fighting units in order to murder Jews? Was it not clear that the Jews bore arms only in order to defend themselves?
The following day I happened to be in Allenby Street in Tel Aviv and found myself in the midst of a mass demonstration protesting the execution of Ben-Yosef. I was standing on the sidelines watching the events, when suddenly policemen equipped with truncheons attacked the demonstrators, hitting out in all directions. Wounded people, blood streaming from their heads, lay in the road without medical attention. I fled for my life and was haunted by the scene for many years to come.
Ben-Yosef had immigrated illegally to Palestine in 1938 from Poland, in an operation organized by the Irgun and Betar.
On Tel Aviv beach in the summer of 1939, we were greeted by the unusual sight of a ship, some 100 meters from the shore, which had hit a sand shoal and was listing on its side. The 'Parita' had brought 850 immigrants to Palestine (mostly Betar members from Poland and Rumania), who had disembarked and were now scattered throughout Tel Aviv. We swam out to the ship and clambered on deck with the help of ropes. It was a thrilling experience for me to see a ship from close up and even to go on board and explore it. I paced the deck and could not understand how so many people had been crammed into so small a space for so long.
On September 1, 1939, about a week after the arrival of the 'Parita', a second ship anchored alongside it. Aboard the 'Tiger Hill' were more than 700 immigrants, but only some 200 managed to reach shore. The rest were discovered by the authorities, caught by the police and sent to a detention camp at Sarafend. The two ships were anchored there for some time. To me they symbolized the struggle against the British decrees banning immigration to Palestine.
On 17 May 1939, another blow was inflicted on the Yishuv, when the British Government published the MacDonald (named after the British Colonial Secretary) White Paper. Amongst other things it stipulated that:
1. The objective of His Majesty's Government is the establishment within ten years of an independent Palestinian state in such treaty relations with the United Kingdom as will provide satisfactorily for the commercial and strategic requirements of both countries in the future.
2. Jewish immigration during the next five years will be at a rate which, if economic absorptive capacity permits, will bring the Jewish population up to approximately one third of the total population of the country.
3. The admission, as from the beginning of this year, of some 75,000 immigrants over the next five years.
4. After the period of five years no further Jewish immigration will be permitted unless the Arabs of Palestine are prepared to acquiesce in it.
As if the suspension of immigration were not enough, the document limited purchase of land by Jews to certain specified areas. Moreover, since the two sides had not agreed to this plan or to any other plan, the British Government announced it would implement it at its own discretion.
The White Paper, intended to destroy Zionist gains in Palestine, was greeted with strong criticism not only by Jews, but also by leaders in Britain and Europe. The Mandate Committee of the League of Nations declared unequivocally that the White Paper was a divergence from the aims of the Mandate, namely the establishment of a national home for the Jews in Palestine. The matter was transferred to the League of Nations Council, but was never discussed because the Second World War broke out at the same time.
In Palestine a mass demonstration was held against the White Paper. I watched from the sidelines and listened to the speeches. I did not understand a great deal that was said, but suddenly there was a commotion, and hundreds of policemen, some mounted, burst onto the demonstrators. The crowd was violently dispersed the mounted police hitting out brutally and I ran home as fast as I could.
Whereas in the Ben-Yosef affair, the British had acted as mediators between Jews and Arabs, in the case of the White Paper, Government action was clearly anti-Jewish. This was a Jewish-British dispute and not a dispute between Jews and Arabs.
The Irgun was quick to respond and the weapons, which had been used against the Arabs, were now directed against the British. The Mandate Government's immigration offices were set alight, and at midnight mines were detonated to destroy telephone booths. I did not hear the explosion, but the following day we rummaged among the rubble to find the coins, which had been used to operate the telephones.
One morning I heard several shots followed by a commotion in the courtyard. My father, who used to leave early for work, remained at home that day. It turned out that several young men had fired on a bus taking Arab workers to the nearby Government Surveyors Office, and had fled through our courtyard. Shortly afterwards, policemen appeared in the courtyard with tracker dogs. I did not understand why my parents were so nervous or why my father had stayed at home, since he clearly had nothing to do with the affair. Only many years later did my father tell me that he had a pistol hidden at home and that the Mandate Government had issued emergency regulations according to which possession of arms was punishable by death. My father had feared that the British might search our home, had waited until the uproar had died down and had thrown the pistol into a cesspit.
1. Betar was a youth organisation affiliated with the Nationalist movement. Members of Betar arriving in the country were required to spend two years in a 'Labor Brigade', where they worked during the day and trained in the evening for future service in the Irgun.