by Zev Golan
As controversial Jewish organizations go, few if any been more controversial than Lehi, a.k.a. the “Stern Gang.” And as controversial deeds go, few can rival Lehi’s assassination of the British resident minister of state in the Middle East, Lord Moyne, on November 6, 1944.
The two Lehi (the underground’s Hebrew name is an acronym for “Fighters for the Freedom of Israel”) assassins were Eliahu Hakim and Eliahu Bet-Zuri. Hakim shot Moyne and when Moyne’s driver attempted to jump Hakim, Bet-Zuri killed him, too. But they refrained from killing the Egyptian policeman chasing them – Lehi viewed Egyptians as potential allies in the fight to rid the Middle East of British imperialism – and were soon caught. Hakim, when put in the red suit of those about to be hanged, said, “This is the finest suit I have ever worn.”
Almost 70 years later the academic assessment of the deed is still a subject for debate. Recent well-documented books and articles claim that the murder of Moyne, a Cabinet minister and personal friend of Winston Churchill, soured Churchill on Zionism and ruined chances for a pro-Zionist British foreign policy. Other sources list the assassination as one of the most painful strikes against the British during the 1940s struggle for a Jewish state, one that along with the whipping of British officers in Palestine, the mass breakout from Acco prison, and the hanging of two British sergeants by the Irgun in retaliation for the hanging of three captured Irgunists, sent the British packing.
Indeed, then commander of Lehi and future prime minister of Israel Yitzhak Shamir is reported to have said that his organization’s members had the right to take another man’s life only if doing so would change the course of history.
Chaim Weizmann, then president of the World Zionist Organization and pro-British, saw things differently. He said he felt Moyne’s death as a greater personal tragedy than the loss of his own son, who fought with the British in World War II. Moshe Shertok (Sharett), then head of the Jewish Agency’s political department and, like Shamir, a future prime minister of Israel, addressed crowds all over the country and told them Moyne’s murder “distorts the historical truth” of Zionism and would force Zionists to start from scratch in educating the world as to the justice of their cause.
Yet on the floor of the Senate in Washington, Republican isolationist William Langer of North Dakota castigated the British for barring Jewish immigration and joined Democratic House majority leader (and future speaker) John McCormack in deploring the assassination but appealing to Egypt’s king to commute the sentence.
Ultimately, the two Lehi members ascended the gallows singing “Hatikva.”
Even the man assassinated is a subject of debate. Lord Moyne was Walter Edward Guinness, heir to the Guinness brewing fortune, who arrived in Cairo as deputy resident minister of state in 1942 and became minister in early 1944. His son later noted that his family could not understand why Jews killed his father, who had nothing against Zionism and even opened their London home to Jewish refugees during the war.
Some pro-Moyne scholars have attributed to him efforts to resolve the Jewish-Arab conflict and bemoan his loss; other scholars have cited Moyne telling Parliament that the Jews are an “admixture” of Hittites and Slavs, interlopers in Palestine, who should be resettled after the war in Poland, Germany, Madagascar, or various other locations.
Joel Brand, who left Hungary with a Nazi offer to spare a million Jews in return for 10,000 trucks and who was arrested by the British and held in Cairo, testified that when he relayed the offer to Moyne, Moyne replied: “But what should I do with a million Jews?” (Others claim that Brand misattributed this statement to Moyne.) However, none of the apparently disparaging points about Moyne had anything to do with his being killed.
Lehi’s founder, Avraham Stern, had several years earlier noted the importance of assassinating the holder of what would be Moyne’s position; Stern held off because at the time the man was an Australian and Stern wanted to target only the British.
Shamir, one of three men who ran Lehi after Stern was killed by British detectives in 1942, sent two Lehi members to do the deed because, as he later told me, Moyne was the highest British official in the region and because Moyne was responsible for carrying out the British policy barring Jewish refugees from Eretz Israel.
Israel Eldad, another of the Lehi triumvirate, explained that when Lehi killed British soldiers and police it was criticized for killing people who were only carrying out orders; Moyne was giving the orders.
The Jewish leadership, i.e., the Labor-Zionist movement, condemned the crime and vilified the perpetrators.
The immediate result was the “hunting season” in which Labor and the Hagana tried to crush the other underground organizations. Ironically, though Lehi was at fault, the Hagana kidnapped and turned over to the British mostly members of the Irgun.
In 1975, as part of one of the post-Yom Kippur War prisoner exchanges with Egypt, the bodies of Hakim and Bet-Zuri were returned to Israel for reburial. Yitzhak Rabin, then the prime minister, passed by the coffins to pay his respects and found himself criticized by the diehards in his movement who had neither forgotten nor forgiven.
When Egyptian president Anwar Sadat came to Israel two years later, one of his Egyptian negotiators recalled having participated in student rallies to save the lives of Hakim and Bet-Zuri, whose stand against the British was an inspiration to local students and intellectuals.
Reflecting on the events of November 6, 1944, that shook the Jewish world (and the British) so recently may be rewarding. It provides a remarkable opportunity to note how the perception of an historic event can change.
The event was the first attack of this nature and scope on the British by Jews and so it was judged in 1944. But by 1948, it was arguable that such single actions had amounted to a war that changed history. In 1944 everybody worried about Churchill, but a year later he was out of office and politically irrelevant to the establishment of a Jewish state. Moyne may have opened the door to his home to Jews, but the policy he implemented was to close the much more important doors to the Jewish homeland to those fleeing the Holocaust. Diplomats played up or made up Moyne’s concern for Jews but today Brand’s testimony is what sticks in people’s minds.
The support of Egyptian youth and intelligentsia for the two Eliahus did not translate, as Lehi hoped it would, into support for Zionism, and one can only look back “nostalgically” at the days when Egyptians held mass rallies for Zionists.
In 1944, Zionist leaders mourned and saw their project in shambles, but their successors reburied Hakim and Bet- Zuri with Israel’s heroes on Mount Herzl. Lehi fighters were called terrorists, but Stern’s refusal to kill an Australian, and Hakim and Bet-Zuri’s refusal to kill an Arab policeman about to catch them, show how superficial is any comparison of Lehi to modern Arab or worldwide terror, which deliberately seeks to kill innocents, children, shoppers and wheelchair-bound elderly men as an expression of hate.
Originally published in the Jpost
The author’s latest book is Stern: The Man and His Gang, a history of the Lehi underground.