Friday, August 31, 2012

Begin and the First Soviet Jewry Conference in 1970

Yuli Koshariovsly's history of the Soviet Jewry Struggle has been published online (here) and as regards Menachem Begin's role, you can read this (here)

The first worldwide Jewish conference devoted exclusively to the issue of Soviet Jewry was convened in Brussels from February 23 to 25, 1971, two months after the first Leningrad hijacking trial. More than 1500 people representing practically all western Jewish communities from 38 countries met in Brussels.[3] Participants in the conference included the politicians David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, and Aryeh Eliav, Israeli Chief Rabbi Yaakov Kaplan, the writers and intellectuals Saul Bellow, Avraham Shlonsky, and Eli Wiesel, former U.S. Supreme Court Judge Arthur Goldberg, and Lord Grenville Janner, a deputy of the British parliament. Soviet Jewry was represented by recent arrivals from the Soviet Union ─ Vitalii Svechinskii and Mendel Gordin from Moscow, Grisha Feigin from Riga, and Karina Shur from Leningrad.[4]

It was by no means the first international effort dedicated to the situation of Soviet Jewry. “The Socialist International, the Council of Europe and other legal and parliamentary bodies had prepared reports on the problem and made representations to the Soviet authorities. Brussels was, however, the first international Jewish gathering to be held on the subject. Although this underlined the significance of the event for Jews (not since the inaugural Zionist Congress of 1896 had representatives of all Jewish communities convened at an international gathering) there were misgivings that it might restrict general public interest”[5]

In the tense atmosphere surrounding the issue of Soviet Jewry, the conference was supposed to demonstrate Jewish solidarity to the world, seek practical measures for supporting Soviet Jews, and elaborate more effective methods of pressuring the Soviet government...

...In preparing for the conference, the Liaison Bureau tried to attain a general consensus on the conference resolutions in order to prevent the proceedings from descending, as often occurs, into disputes about formulations. Nehemiah Levanon was also apprehensive about the speeches of independent Soviet Jewry activists who were critical of the establishment and its methods and of “extremists” among the recently arrived olim. He also disagreed with those who favored giving priority to the struggle for securing religious and cultural freedoms inside the Soviet Union.[18]

Levanon’s fears were nearly justified. On the second day of the conference Rabbi Meir Kahane arrived together with a former prisoner of Zion, Dov Shperling. It is worth noting that Kahane was very popular among activists in the Soviet Union. We regarded the Jewish Defense League’s protest demonstrations that included elements of violence as a legitimate counterweight to the harsh measures that the police and KGB used against the defenseless Jewish minority in the Soviet Union.
In the West, however, the Jewish establishment and the majority of independent public organizations considered Kahane’s methods absolutely unacceptable. Western Jews did not like violence and did not want to be equated with the militant rabbi. Several days before the conference, Kahane was arrested for an attempt to break through a police barrier in front of the Soviet mission in New York. Released at his lawyers’ request until sentencing, he immediately flew to Brussels.

When the guards in charge of maintaining order at the conference did not allow Kahane and his companions into the auditorium, he asked them to convey a request to the conference presidium to allow him to speak at the plenary session. The chairman of the presidium, who did not want to take responsibility for such a decision, decreed that Kahane would be allowed to speak only if the American delegation agreed to include him in their group. The Americans, apparently, did not agree and Kahane was asked to leave. He declared that in that case he would hold a press conference right there at the entrance to the building at which he would say everything that he wanted to say at the plenary session. The police, however, were already waiting at the exit. They took him to the police department and he was deported from the country the following day.

The delegates were agitated by the news of Kahane’s removal. Not all agreed with the opinion of the conference’s organizers. Menachem Begin in particular heatedly defended the right of each person to express his/her opinion, declaring indignantly, “Since when do Jews inform on their own people and facilitate their deportation?” “Passions were so fired up,” recalls Levanon, “that I began to worry about the fate of the conference. When Begin went into the hall after his speech and saw my worried look, he said, ‘Don’t despair, Nehemiah. This episode will be forgotten in time. History will remember the great conference that united the people for the struggle.”[19]

3. Albert D. Chernin, “Making Soviet Jews an Issue: A History,” A Second Exodus: The American Movement to Free Soviet Jews, Murray Friedman and Albert D. Chernin, eds. (Hanover and London:BrandeisUniversity Press, 1999, p. 60.
4.Wendy Eisen, Count Us In (Toronto: Burgher Books, 1995), p. 278.
5. “The Brussels Conference: A Retrospect”, Insight Soviet Jews, vol. 1, no.7 (September 1975), Emanuel Litvinoff, ed. (London: European Jewish Publications, Ltd.). Litvinoff participated in the work of the conference.
18. Levanon, Hakod “Nativ,” p. 381.
19. op. cit.


Thursday, August 30, 2012

On the Hanging of the Two Sergeants, 1947

From this book by Michael J. Cohen, Palestine and the Great Powers, 1945–1948 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982). Pp. 417.-



Tuesday, August 7, 2012

On The Hanging of the Two Sergeants

The story of 'a cruel revenge'

A chance encounter led filmmaker Peleg Levy to bring to the big screen a Mandate-era tale about two British soldiers who were hanged in Netanya.

By Ofer Aderet | Aug.07, 2012 | 1:37 AM
In July 1947, two British sergeants were being held in a narrow, closely-guarded bunker that had been dug underneath a diamond-polishing plant in Netanya. The two were captured by the Irgun, and the Jewish underground militia threatened to hang them unless the British commuted the death sentences of three Irgun operatives.

On August 1, nearly three weeks after the kidnapping, Haaretz reported that the Palestine Police found "the two corpses ... in a government eucalyptus grove" near Netanya.
The front-page headline in the UK's The Daily Express was more acerbic. "HANGED BRITONS: Picture that will shock the world," it screamed to its readers. Beneath that was a grisly photo of the two young soldiers' bodies on a tree, bound and blindfolded.

This past weekend marked the 65th anniversary of these dramatic event that became known as the Sergeants affair, an event that agitated the entire pre-State community in Palestine and has been named in history books as one of the factors that led to the end of the British Mandate.

Filmmaker Peleg Levy has devoted considerable time to researching the affair for a documentary he is producing together with veteran filmmaker Herb Krosney. "You have to understand," says Levy, "that there are many people who are afraid to open this story."

Last Thursday night, Levy marked the anniversary by leading a group of 70 people, aged 11 to 95, on a tour of the final stations in the lives of the two soldiers. The first stop was 15 Herzl Street in Herzliya, where Sergeants Clifford Martin and Mervyn Paice were abducted on July 11. From there the group moved on to the building where they were hidden. The tour ended in "the sergeants' forest" in Kiryat Hasharon, where "the affair reached its climax," according to Levy.

The hanging of the sergeants was the peak of a stubborn battle between the British and the Irgun. During the course of that battle, the Irgun captured (or tried to capture ) British soldiers and commanders to use as bargaining chips, to obtain the release or the commutation of death sentences for Jewish fighters caught by the British.

Between 1938 and 1947, 12 members of the Irgun and the Lehi, the other underground militia, were sentenced to death by the British. Ten of them were executed by hanging. The other two committed suicide in prison. The last three on the list were Avshalom Haviv, Yaakov Weiss and Meir Nakar. After they were abducted, Menachem Begin - the Irgun commander who was hiding in a Tel Aviv safe house - ordered the capture of British hostages to secure the trio's release.

Martin and Paice were easy prey: They frequently met with Aharon Weinberg of the rival Haganah underground, and gave him intelligence information about the British forces. A surveillance team followed the pair after one such meeting and abducted them.

But the Irgun failed in their goal. The British hanged the "Olei Hagardom," as they are called in the underground martyrology - Jews who went to the gallows in the struggle against the British. Begin ordered that the sergeants be hanged in response. He later said that this was "the most difficult decision of my life" and defined it as a "cruel revenge."

Levy's interest in the affair began six years ago, when he happened to have met Moshe Moldavsky on a public bench in Netanya. Levy tells how the former Irgun member explained to him that "When the British started hanging Jews, there were those who said aloud that it would be the end of the Empire; they warned them against breaking the neck of 'this stiff-necked people,' aspiring to return to its land."

Levy took a special interest in the unanticipated Jewish angle of the affair: Clifford Martin was the circumcised, Hebrew-speaking son of a Jewish mother. After his abduction, his mother pleaded for help to a Jewish member of Parliament.

"I ask myself how the fact that the abducted man was a Jew affected the abductors for the Irgun on the one hand, and the British commanders on the other," says Levy.

Marvin Paice, was also "one of ours," he adds. "[Paice] was deeply involved in the country, he helped the Jews and he reported to them on the British plans." Paice's father appealed to Begin to have mercy on his son, in a letter addressed simply to "The commander of the Irgun." A postal worker who was an Irgun member got the letter to Begin, who replied in an open radio broadcast: "You must apply to your government that thirsts for oil and blood."

Levy defines the hanging of the sergeants as a tragedy. He believes they should be added to the list of Olei Hagardom.

Before he passed away, Shmuel Katz, a member of the Irgun high command, told Levy: "The British understood that after the Olei Hagardom went to the noose with their heads held high and after the sergeants were hanged, there was no more scope for escalation. The game was over."

The affair left an impact that can still be felt in Israel to this day. One of the scenes in Levy's film shows two participants in the affair: Yossi Meller, an Irgun member who participated in the abduction and who passed away a year and a half ago, and Meir Novick, a Haganah member involved with getting intelligence from Martin and Paice. As fate would have it, both of them lived in the same old age home, but refused to ever speak to each other.

Levy hopes that the film will come out next year.


Monday, August 6, 2012

How Peres Found Out About the Osarik Bombing

That Shimon Peres had sent a letter to Menachem Begin advising him not to launch a preemptive airstrike against the Iraqi nuclear reactor I had known.

To be truthful, I had not known how Peres found out.

I do not know if any of the several books written about the matter reveal the identity of the person who told Peres but in yesterday's Israel Hayom carries a comment by Dan Margalit who quotes another report published this past week.

According to Margalit:

Raful, Commander-in-Chief Rafael Eitan, had convened a forum of previous heads of staff in 1981 to inform them of what was about to happen.  A member of Chaim Bar-Lev's staff, and Bar-Lev by then was a Member of Knesset and candidate to be Minister of Defense, learned about it and he told Shimon Peres.

In sending his letter to warn Begin not to attack, he caused the operation to be delayed as the concern was that if Peres knows, many others do as well.