Britain was once a partner in the Zionist enterprise. During the First World War, her leaders harbored visions of Jews restored to their homeland. At the war’s end, she accepted responsibility for putting those visions into effect under the Mandate for Palestine.
But the calculating British Empire that prepared to fight World War II was not the romantic British Empire of World War I.
In 1936, responding to Arab violence and opposition to Zionism, Britain drastically lowered Palestine’s Jewish immigration quota.
In 1939, when no other country would give European Jewry refuge, Britain issued a new White Paper restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine – the internationally designated Jewish refuge – to a total of 75,000 over the next five years.
It was the anti-Balfour Declaration.
The anti-Jewish policy did not change when Winston Churchill became prime minister or when Britain learned of the slaughter of the Jews. Even the 75,000 immigration certificates were not all granted.
Nor did it change when Germany surrendered in May 1945 or when the Labor party, which called for Jewish statehood, was elected.
The new foreign secretary, Ernst Bevin, warned against Jewish refugees trying to get unfairly “to the head of the queue” of the post-war settlement.
The British military establishment continued to view Palestine as a strategic asset in terms of military bases, communications and stemming Soviet influence in the region.
Keeping oil flowing to an economically diminished Britain was also a priority. The war-time policy of appeasing Arab opposition to Zionism had to be continued.
Bevin personally thought the Balfour Declaration was a “wild experiment” and “a Power Politics declaration.”
He even considered partition “manifestly unjust to the Arabs.”
Instead, Bevin proposed a cantonization plan which gave the Jews a small amount of territory and no immigration control. Then he proposed a trustee plan leading to the emergence of an Arab-Palestinian state.
Britain had thus long ago renounced its role as “Mandatory” and embraced the role of imperial occupier intent on retaining Palestine as long as possible or establishing a friendly Arab state, preferably owing Britain certain treaty rights.
For the Jewish state to rise, the British occupier would have to be removed.
This was not something Weizmann, Ben-Gurion, the Jewish Agency or the Haganah could admit. It was, however, long anticipated by the Revisionist-Zionist movement.
In the late 1930s Jabotinsky argued that Britain was losing its legitimacy in Palestine due to its anti-Jewish policies.
Yet through 1938, he believed Britain could be convinced to return to Zionism. The younger generation in Betar and the Irgun Zvai Leumi (the National Military Organization – the Jabotinskyite offshoot of the Haganah), however, believed Britain would never repent.
At the Betar World Conference in Warsaw that year, Menachem Begin, the leader of Polish Betar, proposed amending the Betar Oath to suggest rebellion against the British.
When Jabotinsky asked about the practicalities, Begin replied that it would be for experts to determine.
Jabotinsky compared Begin’s words to the creaking of an un-oiled door.
But in 1939 Jabotinsky came around. In Warsaw, he declared, “When the Irgun grows, your hope also grows,” and later that “the only way to liberate our country is by the sword.”
In August, Jabotinsky, sent coded plans to the Irgun, for tens of thousands of Betarim to storm Palestine’s shores, link up with Irgun forces, take and hold government buildings for at least 24 hours and declare Jewish statehood.
But in September, Germany invaded Poland, the heart of European Jewry. Two days later, Britain declared war on Germany. Jewry had no choice but to support Britain.
The Revisionist-Zionist movement immediately announced support for the British war effort. A few days later the Irgun announced the same.
Within a year Jabotinsky died of a massive heart attack, but not before a split in the Irgun began to emerge between David Raziel and Avraham Stern.
Just a few days before his death, Jabotinsky reinstated Raziel, who had resigned as commander, thereby blocking Stern from assuming command.
By October 1940, Stern and his followers left the Irgun to fight Britain – even as Italian planes bombed Tel Aviv and a German invasion become foreseeable. Rejected by the Yishuv, forced to resort to bank robberies, Stern found himself on the run. He would eventually be murdered by British policemen who had arrested him.
Raziel fared no better. He was killed by a German bomb while on a mission for the British in Iraq.
Upon Jabotinsky’s death, Irgun officers-turned-activists in the US, who had always sought greater independence, broke with the US Revisionist- Zionist organization.
In Europe, Begin narrowly escaped the Nazis and found temporary refuge in Vilna but was soon arrested by the Russian NKVD and sent to Siberia.
Within a short span, opposition to Britain was muted, the base of the Revisionist-Zionist movement was lost and its leadership disintegrated: a reflection of the state of European Jewry.
In Palestine, the new Irgun commander Ya’acov Meridor, and others like Eliyahu Lankin, kept the Irgun together despite the lack of direction.
In 1943, after a failed joint venture with more militant members of the Haganah (“Am Lohem”), Meridor sought new leadership for the Irgun.
He found it in Begin, who had recently arrived in Palestine with the Polish army.
At that point the Irgun had little weaponry and 600 active members – only 200 of whom were combat ready. Yet the destruction of European Jewry with British acquiescence and the sense that the Jewish people could not wait spurred them on.
“The blood of our people cried out to us,” Begin would write. “[I]t fired revolt in our hearts.”
On February 1, 1944, the Irgun published its Proclamation of Revolt: “There is no longer any armistice between the Jewish people and the British administration in Eretz Yisrael which hands our brothers over to Hitler. Our people is at war with this regime – war to the end.... [O]ur demand: immediate transfer of power in Eretz Israel to a provisional Hebrew government.... We shall fight, every Jew in the homeland will fight.... There will be no retreat. Liberty – or death.”
On February 12, the Irgun bombed immigration offices in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv. Over the coming months the bombing of British tax, intelligence and police offices continued, often in different cities on the same day.
Britain, the Jewish Agency and the socialist parties denounced the Irgun as terrorists, but the Irgun targeted only the mandatory administration and strove to avoid unnecessary casualties.
In September, the Irgun demonstrated its political sophistication and strength.
Leading up to Yom Kippur, the Irgun posted repeated warnings: any British officer who interfered with the blowing of the shofar at the Kotel at the end of Yom Kippur prayers – an act of rebellious significance carried out by Betarim since it was banned in 1931 – would be “regarded as a criminal and... be punished accordingly.”
When Yom Kippur prayers drew to a close at the Kotel, British security forces did not burst forth as they had the year prior. The shofar was blown and no one interfered. It was the “trumpet of revolt,” Begin later wrote.
That night, the Irgun assaulted police “Tegart” forts in four cities.
The attacks’ coordination shocked the British while their own reluctance to stop the blowing of the shofar humiliated them.
The British learned to take the revolt seriously. And the more seriously they took it, the more they realized that they would have to go.