Monday, April 20, 2009

Menachem Begin Transformed

Jerusalem Diary: 20 April
By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem


Did Al-Qaeda draw on Jewish inspiration for its attacks of 11 September 2001? It may seem unlikely, but more than 60 years ago, Jewish militants were arrested in Paris on suspicion - as newspapers in Britain, France and the US reported at the time - of planning to bomb London from the air.

The arrested men were members of the Stern Gang (or Lehi, as it is known in Israel), a group dedicated to the overthrow of British rule in Palestine, if necessary through violence, in order to create a Jewish state.

The Stern Gang certainly had a bloody list of victims to its name. But was it also an early planner of aerial terror?

Now the son of one of those arrested says he has come up with conclusive evidence that the gang was planning only to drop leaflets, not bombs over London.

Natan Brun is an author and academic on Israeli judicial history. In 1947, he was a nine year-old boy living in the town of Bnei Brak, close to Tel Aviv.

On 8 September, Natan did what he always did on the way home from school. He stopped to look at the newspaper. The second headline in Yediot Ahranot trumpeted: "The 'London Bombers', arrested in Paris, will be brought before an investigating judge today."

Natan read on. More than 60 years later, sitting in his cluttered, book-lined office in Tel Aviv, he recalls what he saw.

"The report said that one of those arrested is called 'Brown'. I knew that my father was in Paris (he had been there since the year before). But I didn't know he was in Lehi. I thought he was a merchant or something." Natan ran home. He told his mother who, to his surprise, began laughing.

"She said: 'It's true; it's nothing new. Your father was always in prison. When you were born in October 1937, he was sitting in Akko prison.'" Mrs Brun may have tried to reassure her son by sounding relaxed. But the headlines were ominous.

The New York Times on 8 September: "London Air Defense on Alert Over Stern Band Bomb Scare."

Le Monde, on 9 September: "A group of Jewish terrorists who planned to drop leaflets and bombs on London fall into a police trap."

Le Figaro, on the same day, reported that the French police had stopped a "deplorable venture".


The French police had apparently caught the plotters red-handed. They arrested the pilot and two others at a small air-field near Paris, and then a further 10 - including Akiva Brun.

This was not just newspaper flam. Previously classified secret intelligence reports, which were released in 2003, show that the British Secret Service MI5 believed there was "a project for an air raid on London, in the course of which leaflets were to be dropped in the name of the Stern Gang, together with high explosive bombs".

MI5 had reason to worry: they had strong evidence of a plot to assassinate British Foreign Secretary Earnest Bevin.

Akiva Brun was detained, along with the other Paris members of the Stern Gang, in the Prison de la Sante.

From there he wrote to Natan: "Now you know that your father is not only a father to his boys, but a son of his nation... The way I have chosen is very hard… and if I suffer - and I have to - and my family are troubled: no matter, it is all worth it."

At the centre of the plot stood a rabbi called Baruch Korff. In later years, he would become known as "Nixon's rabbi", a prominent figure who remained loyal to US President Richard Nixon even after his disgrace.

Natan Brun says that he grew to know Korff well.

"He was a genius in propaganda. He came to Paris and said to the Stern Gang: 'Look - you kill British, you kill soldiers. It's nothing. You have to do something spectacular.'"

And so, says Natan Brun, the plot was born, to drop leaflets over London. The language was, says Mr Brun, "shocking".

"To the People of England... This is a Warning... Your government has dipped his Majesty's Crown in Jewish blood and polished it with Arab oil... People of England! Press your Government to quit Eretz-Israel (the land of Israel) NOW! Demand that your sons and daughters return home or you may not see them again."

But Brun insists that there has never been any evidence of a plan to bomb London from the air.

"My father told me there were no bombs. But I didn't believe him. I wanted to check."

He received permission from the French minister of justice to visit the archives in Paris.

There he saw "all the material" from his father's file. "No-one says that any detonators or things like that were found. If they had found bombs, they would not have released my father and the others."


Indeed, after two months in prison, Akiva Brun was given bail, and kicked out of the country. He had become persona non grata in British-ruled Palestine, and so moved to
Czechoslovakia to continue his work for the Stern Gang. He only returned to Israel after its declaration of independence on 14 May 1948.

Natan Brun says that his father was never personally involved in violence. He was, rather, an ideologue, a disciple of Zeev Jabotinsky, the hardline Zionist who wanted to see a Jewish state along both banks of the Jordan river.

The son, now a legal historian, is reluctant to talk much about today's politics.

But the resonances of his father's history are intriguing. Do they suggest that the Palestinian militants of today can become the pillars of the establishment of the future?

Natan Brun laughs and shakes his head.

"Because Menachem Begin (the leader of a Jewish militant group, and later Israel's first right-wing Prime Minister) on 14 May 1948 passed through a transformation from a terrorist to a democrat. In one day.

"The Palestinians - I think - will never undergo this transformation. They are still terrorists... How can we make peace with Hamas?"

Begin's transformation could have been, I suggest, because he got what he wanted: a Jewish state. No, says Brun.

"He didn't get what he wanted. Because he dreamt about a state on two sides of the (river) Jordan. It wasn't his government, but his bitterest rival's, (David) Ben-Gurion and the others. But Begin understood that he had to change his way of life, his ideas, everything."

Natan Brun said that his father's struggles did not end with the establishment of the State of Israel.

Those on the right were, he says, viciously discriminated against for the first 20 years of Israel's existence. But he has some satisfaction now, as a Likud voter.

Indeed, Natan Brun argues that the majority of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) - in the parties of Likud, Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu - have their roots in Jabotinsky and the groupings which followed.

"My mother died five years ago; but if she were alive today she would say: 'We won. We are the majority.'"
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