I’ve read and liked a lot of Canadian author Mordechai Richler‘s work, fiction and non- both, but our new age of paranoic terrorism has brought one passage in particular from 1994’s This Year in Jerusalem to mind. (I’ve added the hyperlinks, of course.)
By dint of belonging to Habonim, we were connected, through Poale Zion, to Ben-Gurion’s Mapai Party, Haganah, and a Yishuv policy of moderation. But the truth is, in those eventful days we secretly admired Menachem Begin. He, not Ben-Gurion, was out gutsy street-fighter, our James Cagney. When a seventeen-year-old Irgun fighter, Binyamin Kimche, was caught carrying arms and sentenced to fifteen years in prison and eighteen lashes, Begin was heard from: “If you whip us, we shall whip you.” The warning was dismissed as braggadocio and Kimche was whipped. So Begin had a British major and three noncommissioned officers kidnapped and subjected to eighteen lashes before they were released. Then he issued a communiquÃ©: “If the oppressors dare in the future to abuse the bodies and the human and national honour of Jewish youths, we shall no longer reply with the whip. We shall reply with fire.” The second Irgun youngster caught with Kimche was not whipped, and the British flogged no more Jews or Arabs for the rest of the Mandate. But in the case of the three Irgun fighters involved in the raid in Acre [prison on May 4, 1947], the British would not bend. The three men were hanged on July 29, 1947, and two days later the bodies of the hanged sergeants [taken as hostages in reprisal] were found. A mine had been placed below their corpses, and the party that came out to cut them down was injured in the explosion. There were anti-Jewish riots in London, Liverpool, Manchester, and Glasgow. But what warmed the hearts of many of us in Habonim was a “Letter to the Terrorists of Palestine,” published as a full-page advertisement in The New York Times, and signed by Ben Hecht, co-chairman of the American League for a Free Palestine:
My Brave Friends, You may not believe what I write you, for there is a lot of fertilizer in the air at the moment. But, on my word as an old reporter, what I write is true. The Jews of America are for you. You are their champions. You are the grin they wear. You are the feather in their hats. In the past fifteen hundred years every nation of Europe has taken a crack at the Jews. This time the British are at bat. You are the first answer that makes sense–to the New World. Every time you blow up a British arsenal, or wreck a British jail, or send a British railroad train sky high, or rob a British bank or let go with your guns and bombs at the British betrayals and invaders of your homeland, the Jews of America make a little holiday in their hearts….
On impulse, I went down to the Black Watch Armory on Bleury Street one afternoon. Claiming to be eighteen years old, I enlisted in the Reserve Army. It appealed to my sense of irony to have the Black Watch train me to fight the British–the British who were now beyond the pale, so far as I was concerned (26-27).
This Year in Jerusalem is one of Richler’s more interesting books, an autobiographical exploration of his relationship to Zionism, moving from his youthful full commitment to the Zionist ideal to a more nuanced and critical relationship with the state of Israel as it exists.
If you wanted, you could also read This Year in Jerusalem as the story of how a young man, belonging to an alienated and persecuted diasporic minority, first came to embrace the cause of violent terrorism against his diaspora’s oppressors and his homeland of birth (remember that the Commonwealth wasn’t a dead letter back in the 1940s) and then, over course of the following decades, move away from utopian violent dreams towards pragmatic realism. Does this sound at all familiar, in the era of al-Qaeda’s transnationalism and the alienation of Muslims in western Europe and North America and the embrace of tit-for-tat violence?
Just as interesting are the ways in which Britons and Canadians reacted, and did not react. Doubtless there was police surveillance of Jewish organizations linked to the violence in mandatory Palestine, but despite traditional anti-Semitism and very real contemporary conflict Jews don’t seem to have been constructed by non-Jews as dangerous internal enemies. The Holocaust may have helped here, but did it help that much? More, the question of Jewish terrorism against British interests in mandatory Palestine was solved not by a harsh British crackdown against the terrorist-supporting Jewish minority–perhaps, presaging events in Britain’s Malaya counterinsurgency in the 1950s (PDF format), enlisting the support of the native majority against the immigrant radicals?–but by Britain’s withdrawal from Palestine.
Why the difference between then and now? There are some times, I think, when it makes sense to treat terrorism not only as a military challenge or as a policing issue, but as a public-policy issue. As a commenter pointed out, this instinct has obvious flaws. Terrorist attacks against individual Jews or against Jewish civilians or against targets in the Jewish diaspora can only be justified if you decide, immorally, that total war should be waged without any limits. That way lies the Soviet targeting of Summerside for nuclear obliteration in the Cold War, never mind the whole question of terrorism’s ethics. French support for the Algerian military dictatorship was justified, unless that you think that the FIS, which includes groups dedicated to the theological debate over whether one should rape both the wife and the daughter of the infidel, or only one, and if so which one, should have been given control of the Algerian state. There are some times when the demands of terrorists shouldn’t be granted and should be opposed.
In other cases, though, policy changes are merited. Terrorists themselves can’t be readily bargained with, although I will note that much of the leadership of the Irish Free State came from terrorist origins and that Pilsudski, founder of the Polish Second Republic, once was a bandit on the Lithuanian roads. Many of the causes which inspire terrorists do find wider support from legitimate political movements. Under Franco, for instance, ETA arguably played a major role in the post-Franco democratization and federalization of Spain. Would it have made sense for Franco’s successors to blindly insist on the need to maintain Spain as a unitary dictatorship?
Terrorists may be beyond caring about plausible responses to root causes; non-terrorists, though, not so. Keep in mind that terrorists come from somewhere. Something made people otherwise ordinary, people who in other circumstances would have become upwardly mobi
le members of their societies, decide that it was a good idea to set to killing. Something made other members of their societies think that they were heroes. Might it not be a wise idea to make sure that the likelihood of there being terrorists at all is as low as possible?