Monday, August 25, 2008

Street Memorializing: Eliyahu Hakim

Streetwise: Hero on the outskirts

As an explosion sent the Patria to the bottom of Haifa Bay in November 1940, an impressionable young man watched the dramatic event unfold from his family's balcony.

The blast was the work of the Hagana, which had only intended to disable the ship so it would be unable to leave the harbor. Its interest was in keeping the almost 2,000 Jewish illegal immigrants on board from being deported by the British. But the plan backfired, and hundreds of the immigrants who had squeezed into the ship's bowels drowned. The error not only killed innocent people, it also created another enemy for the Hagana.

The teenager, Eliahu Hakim, went on to become a member of Lehi and the assassin of Winston Churchill's good friend and British minister of state for the Middle East, Lord Moyne. Hakim's name lives on today, ironically, as a tranquil residential street in Jerusalem's East Talpiot neighborhood where even in commemoration his position remains controversial, just over the Green Line.

Rehov Eliahu Hakim lies at the southern end of a tangle of roads leading from the area's main artery, Rehov Daniel Yanovsky. The strictly residential area sits in the fold of a Jerusalem hilltop where Israel's pre-1948 underground fighting organizations have finally found peace with one another. The storied names of young radicals, most of whom barely reached 25 before dying at the hands of British soldiers and Arab fighters during the Mandate period, now title the area's streets.

Called "no man's land" from the War of Independence to the Six Day War, the area was annexed following the war.

East Talpiot begins at the eastern edge of the Haas Promenade, where Rehov Yanovsky withers away into a deserted road, crowned at the end by the Hill of Evil Counsel, now a UN enclave. The castle-like barricaded building that flies the signature baby-blue-and-white UN flag was once the British high commissioner's home, giving the neighborhood its other name, Armon Hanatziv (the commissioner's palace). The troubling name of the hill comes from a Byzantine tradition that the Roman-appointed high priest, Caiaphas, and his colleagues supposedly decided there to arrest Jesus.

Heading south and downhill from the palace to the very edge of East Talpiot is Rehov Eliahu Hakim, which faces a panoramic view of the other side of the hill - a dusty wadi separating the neighborhood from Sur Bahir and Ramat Rahel. Along the outer ring of the street, a row of flat-roofed duplexes lines the block like a barrier to the empty valley on the other side. The architecture mimics the Arab-style homes and apartments one hill over. But for the black water heaters on the Arab roofs and the white ones in East Talpiot, it would be difficult to distinguish the neighborhoods from one another.

Here, the rebellious son of a Hagana-affiliated immigrant family from Beirut is remembered for refusing to obey his parents' request not to join Lehi. His act, one of the more horrific during the fight for independence, led to a violent internal battle between the Jewish underground and the Hagana.

"He was so quick to give his soul that I was afraid and told him not to go," Hakim's mother said in a documentary on her son and fellow assassin Eliahu Ben-Tzuri on Channel 1's That's How It Was. The family was initially able to convince Hakim to join the British army instead, only to hear that he had disappeared from its ranks sometime later. They feared he had been killed or had deserted to join Lehi. To no avail, they desperately placed a notice in the paper asking him to come home, saying that his father was sick.

Lehi was focusing at the time on downing meaningful targets, calling Lord Moyne "a No. 1 target" and "a symbol of imperialism." It considered him to be responsible for the deportation of Jewish immigrant ships from Palestine.

On November 6, 1944, just four years after the Patria incident, Hakim and Ben-Tzuri were crouching with guns in the bushes outside Lord Moyne's spacious villa in Cairo. As he and his driver got out of their car, they were shot at point-blank range. The two assassins tried to escape, but were tracked down by a policeman on a motorcycle who happened to be passing by and had heard the gunshots.

Lehi commander, and future prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir lauded Hakim's devotion to the cause. "He was born to carry out grand operations like this," he said in the Channel 1 documentary. "He was loyal, determined, dedicated, aggressive and technically an excellent sharpshooter."

The mainstream leadership of the Jewish community of Palestine was appalled by the operation, calling it "despicable" and using it as ammunition to promote smothering the "terrorist gangs." It was propaganda that turned quickly into action as the Hagana and the underground movements entered a phase of intensified conflict, dubbed "The Hunting Season," that included kidnapping one another. In some cases, the assaults ended in death.

Meanwhile, the two young men were charged with murder. After an unbroken silence throughout the trial, Hakim rose to his feet at the end of the proceedings and told the court: "We accuse Lord Moyne and the government he represents of murdering hundreds and thousands of our brethren. We accuse him of seizing our country and looting our possessions. We were forced to do justice and to fight."

After being sentenced to death, the assassins sang "Hatikva" together. They were hanged on March 23, 1945, in Cairo. Dressed in the red burlap suit of a condemned man, Hakim, just before reaching the gallows, looked down at himself and said: "This is the finest suit of clothes I have ever worn in my life."