Two Arab youths were arrested.
Irgun death sentence letter found in Hampshire residence
By Jonathan Kalmus, February 22, 2013
Mystery surrounds a copy of a death sentence letter issued by the Irgun in one of Mandate Palestine’s most controversial episodes. It was found in a house in Hampshire.
The written statement, dated July 30 1947, is thought to be a contemporary copy of the judgment placed on the bodies of Sergeants Clifford Martin and Mervyn Paice. The British officers were hanged by Irgun in an attempt to free fellow Jewish fighters who were eventually executed by the British.
The Irgun attack, known as the Sergeants Affair, was condemned as a “crime” by Anglo-Jewry at the time, but nevertheless sparked antisemitic riots against British Jews in Liverpool, London and Glasgow. Businesses were attacked with bricks, and a synagogue in Derby was burned down.
Hampshire auction house George Kidner said the letter was uncovered in a house clearance of a nearby home, and plans to sell the letter on March 7.
Kidner’s auctioneer Edward Cowell, an expert in militaria, said the letter may have been a British military copy or one made for propaganda purposes during the height of the controversy.
“The link to its origins has been irrevocably lost so there is no way of tracing how the letter turned up in a private home. We know who owned it but we do not know any military connection.
“Whether it is a singular, private copy or something that was produced for circulation is unclear, though I have not found word of any other examples.”
The item is valued at just £10, but is expected to generate greater interest.
A year and a half ago, I took over  as Israel’s state archivist—and thus came to administer hundreds of millions of documents that tell the story of the Jewish state’s history and the actions of its governments. Our primary goal has been to digitize and bring to light as many of these documents as possible. Putting entire warehouses of documents online will take years. But in the meantime, we’ve begun to upload specific documents of great interest so as to enliven Israel’s public discourse and strengthen its democracy.
What follows is one such example: the transcripts of the top-secret Cabinet deliberations of February 1983, in which Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s Cabinet grappled with the truth about the massacre at Sabra and Shatila—and the tragic death of a left-wing protester at the hands of another Jewish Israeli outside the prime minister’s office during the deliberations. Now that the government-mandated 30-year cooling period has passed, we are able to share this fascinating, troubling, historical document with the public and know, at last, what the ministers said. (The full 250-page trove  can be found here, and we’ll be posting translated segments of the documents here  over the next few days.)
First, a bit of historical background. In June 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon, determined to end a campaign of terrorist attacks carried out by the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was, for all intents and purposes, controlling the south of that country. The PLO decision to recognize Israel’s existence still lay five years in the future, and the initial stages of the campaign enjoyed widespread support by Israelis. Yet as the hostilities drew out over the summer and the battles moved from the hills north of Galilee to the outskirts of Beirut, the national consensus weakened. As IDF troops poised to attack positions in the heart of West Beirut, it shattered: The goal of forcing the PLO away from the border had already been achieved, and many Israelis feared that Israel was overreaching.
In September, Lebanese President-Elect Bachir Gemayel, leader of the Christian Phalange forces that were supported by Israel, was assassinated by Syrian proxies. Israeli forces stationed in Christian East Beirut moved into Muslim West Beirut and allowed Phalange forces into the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. On Sept. 16-17, 1982, the Phalangists massacred hundreds of civilians in the camps. The question that hung over the massacre was whether Israel had a hand in the murders—or, at the very least, knowingly turned a blind eye while their allies slaughtered innocents.
With the news of the massacre, the tension in Israel about the war exploded into political fury. Begin and his government vehemently rejected responsibility for the murders. The opposition held a gigantic rally in Tel Aviv demanding a commission of inquiry, and on Sept. 28, the government appointed a commission, headed by Israel’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Yitzhak Kahan.
The Kahan Commission submitted its findings and recommendations on Feb. 7, 1983. It exonerated Israel of immediate responsibility for the massacres but found it indirectly responsible for failing to foresee the danger of allowing the Phalangists into the camps. Begin, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, and Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan were censured, while the commission recommended that then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, as well as two generals—the head of military intelligence and the commander of the division stationed in Beirut—be relieved of their posts.
Then the agonizing wait began: Would the government accept the recommendations of the Kahan Commission? Would it reject them? Or would the coalition collapse and new elections be declared?
Israelis love to argue about politics and generally do so with an intensity that often startles foreigners. Their body language, tone, and vocabulary would be unacceptable almost anywhere else. Yet with a small number of exceptions —memorable precisely because they’re so unusual—the arguments rarely descend into violence. But since the public debate about accepting reparations from Germany in the early 1950s, there hadn’t been such fraught political tension between the camp of the political left, vehement in its indignation at the government for having sullied Israel’s name; and the camp of the political right, furious at the left and the world for its damnation of a government engaged in just war with its sworn enemies.
On the evening of Feb. 8, the Cabinet convened at the prime minister’s office, but despite deliberating for hours, they made no decision about the Kahan Commission’s recommendations. Likewise on Feb. 9. Meantime, as the nation waited, strangers screamed at each other on street corners, and an atmosphere of dread—or was it doom?—permeated every corner of the public sphere.
On the afternoon of Feb. 10, a column of Peace Now demonstrators marched from Jerusalem’s city center to the prime minister’s office, demanding that the Cabinet adopt the Kahan Commision’s recommendations. They were jeered, jostled, and threatened by the government’s supporters. At 9 p.m., as the Cabinet was deliberating for its third consecutive evening and the crowds howled at each other, a right-wing defender of the Begin government named Yona Avrushmi hurled a grenade into the crowd. Emil Grunzweig, a 35-year-old peace activist, was killed, and nine of his comrades were wounded. They included Avraham Burg, future speaker of the Knesset from the Labor Party, and Yuval Steinitz, future minister of finance in a Likud government.
You would think the Cabinet would have adjourned in the face of this violence. But no. It continued to deliberate for more than an hour after Grunzweig was killed. Were its members agonizing? Were they seeking a way to reject the recommendations? Were they horrified by the torn state of the nation and dismayed by the violence taking place outside their window? What were they waiting for? Didn’t they see what was happening? When, later that night, they finally voted 16 to 1 to accept the commission’s recommendations, was it the blood on the sidewalk that ended their indecisiveness?
The simple explanation for the prolonged deliberations, which can be found in the transcripts, is banal: technicalities. At the first meeting, on Feb. 8, most of the speakers agreed that having appointed the commission in September, there was no way the government could turn around and reject its findings. Indeed, as the meeting wound down, the Cabinet members asked Begin if it wasn’t time to vote. Begin wanted them to think one more day but justified the delay on the absence of Shamir, who was scheduled to return next morning from abroad. By the end of the second evening, with Shamir now in the room, some of the ministers were wavering, and they put off the moment of decision by noting that the two generals whom the commission recommended to be replaced, Yehoshua Sagie and Amos Yaron, deserved an opportunity to present their case before the group.
It was only at the end of the third day that Begin finally presented his position: that the recommendations of the commission were essentially a command. “We can only accept the recommendations,” he said. “That’s the rule. We accepted the recommendations when we appointed the commission. Those are the rules. To the best of my understanding, there is no other way.” When he called the vote, everyone except Sharon lined up with him. According to the transcript, no one said anything. They simply voted and adjourned.
The most important insight these documents provide is that the ministers—Begin included—didn’t really recognize the severity of the crisis in Israeli society. They knew they hadn’t authorized the Phalangists to massacre civilians and certainly hadn’t intended that outcome. The Kahan Commission had exonerated them in that it, too, had found no Israeli intention, and no direct Israeli involvement. This exoneration—and their future political fortune—was their main concern.
The transcripts reveal that the commotion outside the prime minister’s office walls either mystified or angered the politicians inside. Since their behavior had been reasonable and the Phalangists were the criminals, what was all the fuss about? It must be demagoguery and cynicism by their political rivals in Israel, and anti-Semitism by the rest of the world. As Minister of the Interior Dr. Josef Burg put it the first evening: “The anti-Semites are having a festival.” The next evening, Burg talked about the potential for a putsch. Yitzhak Shamir told the group that “European media” were using the Kahan Commission findings against Israel, writing that even an Israeli commission had determined that Israel “was to blame for the massacres.”
They were aware, of course, that the public was severely roiled. Sharon came late to one of the meetings because a large demonstration at his ranch near Sderot delayed him. On the third evening, Minister of Health Eliezer Shostak expressed his fear that “Peace Now demonstrators are preparing to attack Cabinet ministers in their homes.” Yet there was no soul searching, no self-questioning, and no attempt to genuinely understand why the protesters were so passionate. In all the hours of their meetings, there was but one moment when the term soul-searching—heshbon nefesh—was even mentioned. Zvulun Hamer of the National Religious Party approvingly quoted Zorach Wahrhaftig, a retired minister from his party, who had expressed understanding for the public’s anger:
Much of the public believes that our security problems are more important than considerations of injustice against others. We, in their opinion, live under permanent threat of terror here and abroad, and in these conditions, when our enemies are devoid of any moral considerations, why do we need to be so careful and sensitive if they then kill each other even if we’re partially in control? Yet another significant part of the public, and I among them, believe there’s a difference and there must be a difference between the behavior of our enemies and our own. More is expected of us, and we should demand more of ourselves.
Hamer didn’t take this point any further. He made no comment as to whether Israel had lived up to the expectations, and none of the other ministers ever related to his point. It simply wasn’t a part of the discussion.
Sharon, who was the only Cabinet member whose head was on the block, and who, as defense minister, had been the architect of the war in Lebanon, was a central figure in the deliberations. But he came and went, and other ministers sometimes complained that he wasn’t in the room when they had their say. On the first evening, he hardly spoke, though he did say he accepted the findings of the commission. The second evening he was late, but when he spoke it was mostly to complain that soldiers were to be sanctioned despite decades of national service. On the third evening, he expressed a dramatic change of heart about the commission’s findings, explaining that in the interval he had had time to study the report carefully. He now rejected the Kahan Commission’s central thesis—that Israel’s leaders and generals should have foreseen the danger of allowing the Phalangists into the camps, and by failing to do so they bore indirect responsibility for the murders. The findings must be rejected, Sharon argued:
More than 20 witnesses told the commission they hadn’t foreseen the criminal actions of the Phalangists: The Prime Minster testified that we didn’t foresee the atrocities; the Foreign Minister testified; I testified; the Chief of Staff testified—he even went further and said that had we foreseen what happened he wouldn’t have let them in. … All of the officers who testified said the same. We all testified under oath. Yet the commission writes that we all should have foreseen the consequences. … So what did we do? We must have told untruths, perhaps we even lied. … So you’ll understand, my colleagues of the cabinet, why we must reject this section of the report. … What’s the most serious thing they say about me? Not that I joined the Phalangists, or that I personally killed anyone. Mr. Prime Minister. I don’t think I did anything wrong. I wished to protect the lives of our troops [by not sending them into the crowded camps]. That had to be my main consideration. … None of us expected the result, and had we done so we wouldn’t have sent anyone into the camps; but to say that I shouldn’t have considered the safety of our troops? That had to be our main consideration. With all due respect, Mr. Prime Minister, I don’t think that’s an offense I need to resign over.
Throughout the three-day series of meetings, the country had been wracked by demonstrations and counter-demonstrations. As the third evening of deliberations advanced, word began seeping in of violence outside the window. Right around 9 p.m., an aide announced that there had been an attack. A bit later, he updated the Cabinet and said that people had been wounded. Finally, he came in and announced one demonstrator had been killed and several had been injured.
This third announcement came as Burg was speaking; no one knew at the time that his own son was among the wounded. He paused and then announced he would continue. When Burg finished, Begin stopped the proceedings: “Someone has been killed! A dead Jew! How can we continue with the meeting?”
But tellingly, when he concluded the meeting, Begin focused not on the result of the decisions made by his government, not on the hundreds of Muslim victims, not on the dead Jewish demonstrator, but on his own misfortune:
Simply, none of us ever imagined! I’m saying this for the protocol; I’m not going to repeat any of my statement to the press. It didn’t occur to anyone. A calamity befell us, a tragedy happened to us. As calamities can fall upon people so they can on governments too, and this one stalked us and found us. And now we’ve got these recommendations and they’re very painful.
Yet painful as it was for him, Begin insisted that the government had no choice but to accept the findings. And so he called a vote, and the Cabinet, save Ariel Sharon, adopted the commission’s recommendations in their entirety.
Maybe there’s nothing surprising in this transcription: A group of politicians, securely surrounded by like-minded politicians, reassure themselves that their understanding of the world is sound and intact and that there’s no need for doubt or self-examination. They explain away the passion of their detractors as misguided at best, or devious and machinating at worst. Their motivation for accepting the report wasn’t justice or that they thought they were wrong, but political considerations. Maybe their reaction is merely standard political thinking, remarkable only for the unusually stark context.
The auctioneers tell me it was found by a house clearer as part of a deceased's estate. A line at the bottom says statement was made by "Jewish thugs". No other history is known about it, although it may have been a British soldier's.^
IN MENACHEM Begin’s memoir of Soviet captivity, White Nights, the late prime minister described his struggle to remove the word “guilty” from a declaration of Zionist activities which his interrogators demanded he sign. From that episode, one can learn almost all one needs to know about Menachem Begin and what made him great.
The declaration was actually an accurate transcription of an interrogation conducted of Begin by agents of the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB. It concluded with the following statement: “I admit I am guilty of having been the chairman of the Betar organization in Poland and being responsible for the Betar work and calling upon the Jewish youth to join the ranks of Betar.”
When, in the middle of the night, after months of interrogation and sleep deprivation, Begin was asked to “please sign” with promises of a real trial and perhaps freedom, Begin refused.
Betar, of course, was the Zionist youth movement of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Begin’s “teacher and rabbi.” The first organization to evacuate European Jews and illegally smuggle them into then-Palestine, Betar believed all of Palestine was the Jewish homeland and in the need for Jewish self-defense/military training. It was Betar alumni, those who escaped Europe, who filled the Irgun’s ranks and whom Begin would later lead to force the British out of then-Palestine enabling the rise of the State of Israel.
Like many young Polish Jews, when Begin heard Jabotinsky speak for the first time, he immediately joined Betar. Eventually Begin rose to head the Polish chapter of Betar, representing tens of thousands. It was for his role in Betar that Begin had been arrested.
Begin readily admitted that the interrogator “wrote everything down very exactly and of course I will sign it.”
But Begin added, “I would ask that you make one change... instead of ‘I admit my guilt in being...,’ would you please write ‘I admit that I was....’” This request triggered demands and threats from the interrogator. But the interrogator did in fact change the wording to “I confess to being” instead of “I am guilty of having been.”
That may not have been exactly what Begin requested, but at that point, given the dangers, any normal person would have signed.
Begin, however, was not a normal person, and rejected that too. Miraculously, the interrogators changed the statement to “I admit I was chairman of Betar.” Finally, a “confession” Menachem Begin could put his name to.
Why did Begin risk so much over a semantic dispute? Practically, the wording could not affect Begin’s fortune.
The interrogators admitted there would be no trial where the confession might be used. Until the publication of White Nights, the transcript was probably never even read.
Still, Begin considered it “the hour of trial... [m]aybe the decisive test.” “If I do not pass it,” he thought, “there will be no point in living. Confess my guilt in having been head of the Betar? No, no under no circumstances! Let him do what he likes, I will not sign.” He prayed to God for strength, for in that declaration Begin saw the assault on the Jewish People which continues until today.
The interrogator called Begin a traitor to the revolution – an agent of British imperialism. He rejected Zionism as the stealing of Arab land and the siphoning of the Jewish youth away from the true Communist solution to minority problems.
A confession of guilt here meant the Jewish People were guilty for merely existing as a distinct people and not as another mass of workers or humanity. It meant guilt for fighting for Eretz Yisrael, the homeland of the Jewish People, and not for the Revolution, the homeland of the workers. It meant guilt for stealing someone else’s country.
In that interrogation room, it was Herzl against Marx.
So even imprisoned by Communist interrogators, who specialized in breaking their prisoners psychologically, in social isolation, where no one would hear of his stand and where it was safest to just obey, Begin could not put his name to such a lie. He could not betray all he believed by stating that fighting for the Jewish People and the reclamation of Eretz Yisrael was a crime.
LIKE SO MANY of Begin’s deeds, there is much here that we as a nation can learn and draw lessons from even today.
In that prison, Begin faced immense pressure to admit his guilt for Zionism. Similarly, the State of Israel and its prime ministers are pressured daily by an angry Arab world, an anti-Semitic Europe, an Arabist US State Department and even president, to admit our guilt for having stolen Arab land – whether in 1967 or 1948. They are willing to admit that the Jews deserve a state, but not necessarily here, not in Palestine.
They demand Israel rectify the crime of Zionism by signing away Jewish rights to disputed territories such as Judea, Samaria, Gaza and even Jerusalem, by creating a Palestinian state. But the reclamation of this country, including those parts of it, were immense acts of historic justice.
So many prime ministers, including Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Binyamin Netanyahu, have publicly warned of the dangers posed by a Palestinian state and withdrawals from the disputed territories. Yet they each wound up endorsing a Palestinian state (though in fairness, Rabin actually did not go that far).
It was not that the dangers or our rights had changed.
In fact, the threat from Hamas in Gaza since the Disengagement, the general exponential growth in Palestinian terrorism since the signing of the Oslo Accords, popular Islamic takeovers in Arab states – all of these continue to prove the dangers inherent in creating a Palestinian state.
And our presence in Judea and Samaria has grown. Clearly, the immense pressure placed on these leaders and on Israel itself took its toll.
In contrast, Menachem Begin, like the prophets of old, found greatness in his commitment to truth despite great pressure to endorse lies or merely remain silent. That truth was that the Jewish People have a right to the Land of Israel. It is not a gift from the West or stolen Arab land.
It is simply our country.
The Knesset on Wednesday commemorated the passing of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin 21 years ago. Acting Knesset speaker MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer spoke about Begin's impact on the country, saying:"Today, we mark 21 years since the death of Prime Minister Menachem Begin. In the Irgun, his command was a very important part in the establishment of the state. Begin cared so much about the fate of the Jews and wanted unity. For a number of complicated years, Begin stood at the head of the opposition and it was not an easy task, however he governed responsibly. Even as the head of the opposition he demonstrated leadership and exceptional charisma. As prime minister he impacted two main areas of our lives: social and political. "
Thursday is the 21st anniversary of Menachem Begin's death. He was the sixth prime minister of Israel, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a commander of the Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary group that operated in Mandate Palestine between 1931 and 1948 and was later absorbed into the Israel Defense Forces. This summer, we will commemorate 30 years since Begin retired from the prime minister's post and withdrew from the public eye.Begin had a decisive influence on Israeli society and history. In one of his final cabinet meetings, Begin said he hoped to be remembered after his death as a leader who prevented civil war"This is more important to me than my command of the underground [Irgun], my premiership in the government, the peace treaty or the Golan Heights law," he saidIndeed Begin is remembered today for this, as well as other, actions. The Likud party he founded more than 60 years ago, as a party combining nationalist and liberalist ideals, is still struggling with the contrasts of its identity. The peace treaty he signed with Egypt more than 30 years ago is facing new challenges in light of recent changes in the Middle EastAlthough many years have passed since Begin left this world, and three decades separate us from his retirement, it is surprising how relevant his legacy still is today. The "Begin Doctrine" could be positioned against the Iranian nuclear threat; Begin ordered the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. Begin's philosophy was that Israel will prevent, at all costs, the development of nuclear weapons by an enemy state that open declares its desire to destroy the Jewish stateIn the face of racism towards the Arab sector, we recall Begin's voracious struggle against the military government imposed over Israeli Arabs and, at the same time, his demand for equal rights for Arab citizens in this countryEven with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Begin presented a clear outline for the construction of dozens of settlements in parts of Judea and Samaria, despite his recognition of the Palestinians' legitimate rights and proposals that an autonomous Palestinian legislative counsel and police force deal with their internal mattersIn response to the social protests, Begin set a socio-economic model to "benefit the people." On the one hand, he developed a free market economy based on private initiative. On the other hand, he worked hard to eradicate poverty, via the most massive social project in Israel to date, Project Renewal, which focused on the renewal of impoverished neighborhoods via far-reaching social reforms and legislation, such as the Free High School Act and the Income Security ActIn other areas as well, Begin set the bar with clear positions representing landmarks on various agenda issues. He struggled for the supremacy and rule of law; he granted Israeli citizenship to Vietnamese refugees gathered by an Israeli trade ship in the China sea; he instructed the Mossad to bring our "Ethiopian Jewish brothers" to Israel. Begin's legacy is characterized by his personal example; As head of the opposition and as a senior minister of the government, he continued to live in the same rented one and a half bedroom apartment that had served as his refuge when he commanded the IrgunIn light of the rampant shifting of political loyalties in Israeli politics for personal gain, rather than ideology, which began already in Begin's era, he presented an alternative, displaying personal and ideological integrity. Begin preferred loyalty to the principles in which he believed, even if it meant that he accepted decades of being in the opposition. Even when he joined the government in times of crisis, the moment he felt that he was working against his principles, he would not hesitate to return to "serving the people in the opposition.Above all, Menachem Begin left behind a model of leadership driven by ideological consideration of values, one that believes it is possible not only to lead the state of Israel through its domestic and international political reality, but also to exercise courage and make groundbreaking decisions that can shift reality on its foundation.