By David Cesarani
William Heinemann, March 2009, £20.00
On the evening of 6 May 1947 Alexander Rubowitz left his parents’ home in Jerusalem and never returned. Rubowitz was 16 at the time, and a member of LEHI (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel), the smallest and most ardent underground organisation fighting against the British Mandate in Palestine. Commonly referred to by the British as ‘The Stern Gang’, LEHI specialised in acts of terrorism, usually in defiance of the Jewish Agency, which led the Zionist struggle for independence. It later transpired that Rubowitz had been abducted by British officers, serving in the Special Air Service (SAS), which led the counter-terrorist offensive. One of them, Major Roy Farran, admitted that he killed Rubowitz in the course of his interrogation, by smashing a rock against his head. The body was never found.
Those were violent days in Palestine. Arabs, Jews and the British attacked each other with varying degrees of maliciousness, always supposedly for patriotic purposes. Hence the abduction and killing of Rubowitz are hardly worth more than a footnote in the history of those dramatic times. But both the young Zionist militant and his British assassin became mythological heroes, which gives their story special significance and lifts it above the chronology of routine violence.
All nations require both heroes to admire and villains to abhor, but it is not always easy to determine why some names acquire glory or infamy while others simply sink into oblivion. This much is clear, however: historic symbols require constant maintenance by eagerly supportive constituencies. Both Rubowitz and Farran had such constituencies.
The Rubowitz family sympathized with militant Zionist nationalism, although they may not have been aware of their son’s involvement with LEHI. But when he failed to return home that evening, they immediately acted on the assumption that he was arrested and alerted the Hebrew press. Thus from the very first moment the affair was handled as part of the national struggle for Zionist independence. The family was backed by LEHI and eventually by most of the Jewish community in Palestine. The mystery surrounding the whereabouts of the body left the disappearance of Rubowitz an open case; in fact efforts to find his remains continue officially to the present day.
Roy Farran had been recognized as a war hero even before he was stationed in Palestine. At the age of twenty-six he was one of the most highly decorated officers in the British Army. He had been injured in Crete, taken prisoner by the Germans, escaped and returned to active service. In 1947 he joined the SAS and came to Palestine, to combat terrorism. After Farran confessed what he had done, his superiors stood by him and tried to cover up the murder. He was court-martialed and acquitted on a legal technicality. LEHI, seeking revenge, sent a bomb to his home, which exploded and killed his brother Rex. Farran settled in Canada where he was elected to the Alberta Legislature and served as Solicitor General. He died in 2006.
Under British rule in Palestine, starting in 1917, the Zionist movement was allowed to bring into the country hundreds of thousands of Jews, build dozens of new settlements including several towns, and lay the social, political, economic, military and most importantly the cultural foundations of the future State of Israel. Limitations imposed by the British Government on Jewish immigration to Palestine during the Second World War led to tensions between the Zionists and the British, particularly after the Holocaust. In days to come Israel’s independence would be depicted in textbooks and in popular history as the outcome of a heroic struggle against an evil oppressor. This thesis has been reevaluated in recent years, but Israelis still frequently argue among themselves about who forced the British out: the PALMACH, which was affiliated with the Jewish Agency, the IZL, which was the larger of two right-wing, oppositional organisations, or LEHI. For years the question was relevant in Israeli politics: prime ministers Menachem Begin, Izhak Shamir and Izhak Rabin had been members of IZL, LEHI and PALMACH respectively.
In the mid-1930s the Arab national movement in Palestine rose against the pro-Zionist British. Their revolt nearly paralysed the country for several months and required considerable efforts on part of the authorities to suppress. By 1939, British policy makers realised that Palestine could no longer be governed. There is reason to assume that had the war in Europe not broken out, Britain may have decided to leave Palestine ten years earlier than it eventually did, and in that case there would be a simple answer to the question who forced them out: the Arabs.
After the war nobody made the British leave Palestine, the days of empire were over. Not even India seemed worth holding on to anymore. The struggle for Israeli independence has endowed the young nation with an invaluable heroic myth, but was hardly significant in London’s decision making. The British would have left Palestine regardless of the Rubowitz affair, which is built up as a historic turning point in Major Farran’s Hat.
David Cesarani, Research Professor in History at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the author of several previous books, writes well. Gifted with a sense for human and political drama, his vivid account of the Rubowitz affair is fascinating. Farran emerges as a typical ‘son of empire’ as Cesarani calls him — haughty, endlessly committed to the values of colonialism, and totally incapable of realising that these values belong in the past. Cesarani repeatedly refers to him by his first name only, which seems to reflect some undue affection for the officer, the gentleman and the assassin that Farran was. Cesarani fully understands Farran’s colonial sentiments.
Similar to several heads of the British Army, such as Field Marshal Montgomery, Cesarani also seems to accept the view that having to give up Palestine came as a set back to Britain’s national interests. The abduction and murder of Rubowitz, he writes, created a scandal that ‘ate away’ at British prestige and authority, contributing to the demise of British rule in Palestine. In fact the decision to leave Palestine had been made in London prior to the Rubowitz affair and by the time it started there was not much British prestige left. While Montgomery and some of his colleagues continued to think in imperialist terms, most people in Great Britain realised that their county’s interests would henceforth no longer require the domination of foreign lands and peoples. In Palestine also Colonialism was over not as a result of Zionist terrorism, but as part of the decolonisation of the world.
Cesarani is outraged by Farran’s ‘blatant disregard for the law’. In hindsight the distinction between legal and illegal colonial domination seems dubious enough, but Cesarani also writes: ‘At a time when counterinsurgency warfare is once again at the forefront of military operations by the British Army and NATO, it is perhaps an opportune moment to revisit the events that took place on that balmy evening in Jerusalem sixty years ago as warning of everything that can go wrong when young warriors directed by desperate and unscrupulous politicians wage war on terror.’
Obviously ‘young warriors’ commit war crimes not merely on behalf of ‘unscrupulous politicians’; nevertheless, reminding members of the armed forces that it is their duty to disobey manifestly illegal orders is worth repeating always and everywhere, including in Israel.