Black Saturday: How Far Would You Go For A Homeland?

S2
E10
40mins
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This is the story of the men and women who brought us our state. Who ran guns, defended settlements, defied the Mandatory Powers that Be, smuggled shell-shocked refugees into their homeland… and who disagreed with each other mightily about the best way to wrench their homeland back from a dying empire. In this episode, the last of Season 2, Noam tells the story of Black Saturday and asks, how far would we have gone to bring about the State of Israel?

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Episode Transcript

You may have expected an episode about Black Sabbath to include a sick guitar riff and the nasal yowl of the godfather of metal himself, Ozzy Osbourne. Now, I’m not trying to start a fight with my local metalheads — many of whom undoubtedly listen to this podcast — but I’d argue that Ozzy’s got nothing on the men who originally stood at attention for the recitation of the Palmach fight song. Just listen to some of these lyrics:

“Though the storm is ever mounting / Still our heads remain unbowed. / We are ready to obey all commands / The Palmach will win – we’ve vowed.”

Because for the Palmach — and for all the pre-state militias running around Mandatory Palestine between 1917 and 1948 — there was no other choice but to win. 

Longing for Zion has been a part of the Jewish identity since our first exile in 586 B.C.E., as we “wept on the rivers of Babylon.” And as generation to generation passed in exile — in Europe, in Africa, along the Iberian Peninsula and the shores of the New World — the longing consumed our liturgy. Our poetry. As the medieval Spanish poet and philosopher R’ Yehuda HaLevi put it: My heart is in the East, and I in the uttermost West… Or in Hebrew: לִבִּי בְמִזְרָח וְאָנֹכִי בְּסוֹף מַעֲרָב…

But by the start of the 20th century, the statement “my heart is in the East” was both literally and figuratively true. As the world rearranged itself and borders were erased and redrawn, the longing in our hearts propelled our bodies East. The Ottoman Empire had crumbled. Nationalism swept previously colonized populations. And the Jews of Mandatory Palestine understood that this was it. The precious, delicate moment that — if handled properly — would finally yield a state.

But how do you walk the tightrope between a colonial power, an unfriendly local population, and fellow Jews who think you’re going about the Zionist project all wrong? How far should you go when you’re chasing a dream that is tantalizingly in your reach for the first time in 2,000 years? 

This is the story of the men and women who brought us our state. Who ran guns, defended settlements, defied the Mandatory Powers that Be, smuggled shell-shocked refugees into their homeland… and who disagreed with each other mightily about the best way to wrench their homeland back from a dying empire.

You’ll hear some things in this story that might shock you. Sometimes I’m amazed that we managed to get here at all. So as you listen to the final episode of our second season of Unpacking Israeli History, ask yourself: how far would I go for self-determination? Would I be like Ben Gurion? Like Begin? Like Avraham Stern? What actions would I justify or how much would I sacrifice in order to resurrect my long-dead country?

So let’s back up. As you’ve probably gathered, Israeli exploits didn’t start in 1948, when a country full of immigrants and refugees fought off five, six or seven (depending on how you’re counting) invading Arab armies. Though there have always been Jews in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the tumult of the 20th century called them back to their home from every corner of the diaspora — first as a trickle, then as a flood.

The Arabs of Palestine (that’s what it was called then) watched this flood with alarm. After the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which established British support for a “Jewish national home in Palestine,” the Arabs feared being swallowed, a minority in a Jewish state, amongst other concerns.

So they responded with attacks. Brutal revolts punctuated the 1920s and 30s, some of them particularly disturbing. But though the riots claimed hundreds of Jewish lives, the Jews of the yishuv — pre-state Palestine — fought back. The loose confederation of Jewish militias that had existed since the days of the Ottoman Empire began taking shape, emerging in 1920 as the Haganah. Or in English, “the defense.” The name said it all. Their official policy was one of havlagah, restraint. Take up arms when you’re attacked, but never attack first. And never seek revenge.

A noble sentiment, to be sure. But after the brutal 1929 riots that left 133 Jews dead, many felt that the Haganah had failed at its most basic task: keeping the Jews of the Yishuv safe. By 1931, these dissatisfied rumblings burst into an open secession.

From this split emerged “HaIrgun HaTzvai HaLeumi B’Eretz Yisrael,” “the national military organization in the Land of Israel.” For brevity’s sake, we’re just gonna call them the “Irgun,” though they are also known as Etzel. According to historian Thurston Clark, whose controversial and provocative book By Blood & Fire details the history of this time, “the Irgun was a temporary organization with one goal: to force Britain to leave Palestine immediately and to bring about a Jewish State on both banks of the Jordan.” If you’ve been paying close attention, you’ve probably made the connection between the Irgun and its first commander, the fiery father of revisionist Zionism, Zev Jabotinsky. He, too, dreamed of a Jewish homeland on both banks of the Jordan River. To reach that goal, the Irgun attacked and blew up British government offices, military installations, and police stations.

But by 1939, taking over the east side of the Jordan was a distant dream. The Jews had to fight tooth and nail for Palestine first. The British had just issued the White Paper, which limited Jewish immigration to Palestine to 75,000 Jews over the next five years, or 15,000 Jews a year. In other words: not nearly enough, especially considering the anti-Jewish violence – and “violence” is putting it lightly – that consumed Europe.

But if the British hoped that the White Paper would pacify the Arabs and put an end to their Jewish headache, they were sorely disappointed. Quota or no quota, Arabs just continued their anti-Jewish violence. And the Jews, of course, were less than pleased with a quota system that kept them out of their ancestral homeland. But of all the unfriendly European policies of the 1930s, the White Paper had nothing on, say, the Nuremberg Laws, the Nazis’ antisemitic and racist laws enacted in 1935.

No matter how unhappy they were with the British, by 1939, most Jewish leaders understood that they were the lesser of two evils. After Germany rolled into Poland on September 1, 1939, Ben Gurion urged his Haganah fighters to join the British army and “fight the war as if there were no White Paper, and fight the White Paper as if there were no war.” Even the Irgun, whose raison d’etre was resisting the British, declared a cease-fire in August 1940, uniting with the British against “the greatest enemy the Jewish people has ever known — German Nazism.”

But not everyone agreed with this description.

Avraham Stern, the charismatic poet who – nerd corner! – gave the Irgun its anthem, absolutely refused to consider cooperation with the British. Disgusted by the Irgun’s concession, he split from the organization to form LEHI, or Lochmei Herut Israel — Fighters for the Freedom for Israel. And he put the “fight” in “fighters.” In an undated poem, he describes himself “Like a rabbi/Who carries his prayer book in a / velvet bag/to the synagogue/so carry I/my sacred gun to the temple…”

Stern’s charisma — or infamy, depending on who you ask — was such that this new radical organization became known as the Stern Gang to its detractors. Among the group’s less palatable positions was their willingness to negotiate with the Nazis to kick the British out of Palestine and establish a Jewish homeland.

Perhaps because of this fringe position — and I don’t think it’s just the benefit of hindsight speaking when I say that this idea was insane — the Lechi never had more than a few hundred members. Certainly, they had no power to collaborate with the Third Reich — though they reportedly tried to strike a deal twice. 

As you might expect, the group was not well-loved by the Jewish establishment. The famously sharp-tongued Golda Meir called both the Irgun and Lechi “dissidents, from start to finish,” suggesting that “we should put an end to them, even to destroy them. I have no moral constraints with regard to this group.” Ooof.

Unfortunately, any vestige of “moral constraints” came entirely undone in 1944. 

See, when Menachem Begin took over the Irgun in 1944, he declared open war on the British: “No more cease-fire in the land of Israel between the people and the Hebrew youth and the British administration which hands over our brothers to Hitler.” Those immigration quotas? They were literally responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews. Kept out of Palestine, where their brothers and sisters waited for them eagerly, refugees were shunted from country to country and finally deported back to Europe. In 1941, a boat called the Struma left Romania, carrying 769 Romanian Jews with nowhere to go.

The British government in Palestine refused to grant them entrance. The Turkish government wouldn’t take them either. The Struma sat in the port of Istanbul for two months, waiting for a country — any country — to welcome them in. None did. Eventually, the Turks — tired of the eyesore in their harbor — simply pulled the Struma out to sea, where it exploded within a matter of hours. The sole survivor reported that it had been torpedoed. Almost a thousand Jews were killed. So yes. Immigration was, to put it lightly, a touchy issue for the pre-state militias.

But where the Irgun largely confined itself to acts of sabotage and assisting illegal immigration, Lechi took matters much farther. In November of 1944, two Lechi assassins killed Lord Moyne, the British Minister of State and a close personal friend of Winston Churchill.

Understandably, Churchill was furious. “If our dreams for Zionism are to end in the smoke of assassins’ pistols and our labors for its future to produce only a new set of gangsters worthy of Nazi Germany, many, like myself will have to reconsider the position we have maintained so consistently in the past.” This was quite a threat, and both the Haganah and the Irgun were shaken. There was no love lost between the British powers and the pre-state Jewish paramilitary groups who took every opportunity to sabotage and undermine them.

But states are not built on guerilla tactics alone. It helps to have a global superpower in your corner. The Haganah, at least, realized this. So they did something that I personally find — well — pretty disturbing. From November 1944 to March 1945, as their brothers and sisters were being murdered in Europe, they declared saison, or hunting season, against their political rivals in the Irgun and the Lechi. The Haganah’s elite strike force — the Palmach — “hunted down and kidnapped Irgun soldiers, tortured them for information, and then turned them over to the British police. Many were deported to East Africa.”

Though the Irgun disdained the Haganah’s policy of havlagah, “restraint,” Begin adopted a highly disciplined stance in response to the saison. He refused to allow his men to fight another Jew. In what would become a pattern for the future Prime Minister, his restraint forestalled an open civil war. Much later, he summarized his legacy thus: “If you remember me for anything, it should be avoiding civil war between Jews.” Quite a stance for the man the British called “Terrorist #1.” But, this theme of preventing civil war was core to Begin’s identity. Check out our episode on the Altalena for more on that.

Ben Gurion, for his part, never showed a shred of remorse for architecting the saison. 

But something happened in 1945 — both a massive setback to Jewish hopes in the region, and a catalyst for the unlikely rapprochement between the three Jewish groups. Churchill — a Zionist, despite his condemnation of Lord Moyne’s assassins — had been deposed by the new PM Clement Atlee. His Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, was as far from a Zionist as you could get. Ben Gurion’s biographer Anita Shapira describes the post-war British policy on Palestine as follows: 

“…The British… asserted that claims that the Jews wanted to get to Palestine, that they had fled Eastern Europe in order to avoid returning to their blood-soaked countries, were pure Zionist propaganda. Bevin’s motto was “repatriation,” arguing that the Jews must be rehabilitated in the countries of Europe.

Even in the most charitable light, this idea is nonsense. Why would a Holocaust survivor try to “repatriate” into a country that tried to murder him?

But the Haganah, Irgun, and Lechi weren’t just angry because Bevin seemed to lack basic empathy. Seriously, Bevin, would it have killed you to read some Brene Brown? But anyway, as the Foreign Secretary hemmed and hawed, refusing to change his immigration policy, Holocaust survivors languished in squalid DP camps. Few nations stepped up to absorb the tide of human misery that threatened to overrun Europe. In the first 8 months of 1946, the United States admitted fewer than 5 thousand Jews. 

Ben Gurion, Begin, and Stern had their differences. But on one thing they agreed: the British policy on immigration was costing Jewish lives. Which would be painful and tragic in any case, but even worse now, in the wake of the most systemized genocide in history. Ben Gurion’s biographer explains Ben Gurion’s mentality: “Since the publication of the White Paper in 1939, Ben-Gurion had harbored rage, a sense of insult, and a desire to pay Britain back with interest… the time had come to cast the Yishuv’s entire military potential into the struggle. To achieve maximum impact, he was prepared to put aside his deep-seated hostility toward the secessionist organizations.”

So he did something miraculous. The man whose forces had rounded up Irgun and Lehi fighters only months before now offered to unite with his erstwhile rivals. Granted, his terms were pretty predictable: the Haganah would lead the movement, and he himself would retain veto power on all their operations. But it was an attractive offer, and the Irgun and Lechi couldn’t resist. For the better part of a year, the Tnu’at HaMered HaIvri, or, the United Resistance Movement, gave the British hell.

Their aim… was sabotage. Oh, and making the British regret the day they took over Palestine. But the cause dearest to their hearts was ensuring that Jews could enter Palestine freely.

Working as a team, they stormed a British prison in the coastal city of Atlit, releasing 208 illegal immigrants. They sank patrol ships and a radar installation in Haifa so that the British wouldn’t be able to detect ships full of refugees. The Palmach sabotaged railway tracks at 153 different points, crippling the Brits’ ability to transport goods or men, while the Irgun and the Lechi blew up the Lod train station. When the British refused to entertain the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry’s recommendation that another 100,000 European Jews be allowed into Palestine, the United Resistance Movement retaliated by blowing up 11 bridges connecting Palestine with its neighbors, effectively isolating the British. As historian Thurston Clarke puts it: “if Britain closed Palestine to Jewish refugees, the Haganah was capable of closing the country to everyone.” 

You better believe that the British responded. 

For one, the damages were astronomical. It’s never a good time to shell out four million pounds because some angry Jews destroyed all your infrastructure. But that’s an especially inconvenient price tag for a nation whose economy was devastated by the ugliest war the world has ever seen. On top of that, it was probably pretty embarrassing that a bunch of guerilla fighters — who were all supposed to hate each other — were able to sabotage the world’s greatest empire.

Which was exactly the point. As Begin’s biographer Danny Gordis puts it, the whole goal was “to make the price of remaining in Palestine untenably high for the British…. To strike at the core of the perception of British legitimacy over Palestine, they did not need to appear stronger than the British — it just needed to prove itself capable of flustering the British and of shaking the international community’s confidence that the British could administer the Mandate.”

Clark agrees. He writes, “Rather than intimidating British leaders, the Night of the Bridges convinced them that the Haganah had become too powerful.” The British suspected that the Haganah was cooperating with the more extreme movements, perhaps even engineering a coup.

So they tried to seize control of a situation that was quickly spiraling into anarchy.

“Operation Agatha” sounds like it’s named after some aristocrat’s prune-faced governess. Its Hebrew name — haShabbat haShchora, or The Black Sabbath, Black Saturday, Black Shabbat — is far more compelling. But regardless of what you call it, the operation was devastating. Lt. General Evelyn H. Barker’s orders to his divisional commanders made the aim crystal clear: “This operation means a declaration of war against the Jewish extremist elements.” 

At 3:45am on Saturday, June 29, 1946, the British ambushed the telephone exchanges, cutting off every Jewish home and settlement in Palestine. Next, they surrounded and sealed off the Jewish Agency, ripping doors off their hinges and smashing walls to find hidden documents. In the wee hours of the morning, they arrested the 72-year-old chairman of the Jewish Agency, Rabbi Yehuda Fishman. When he asked if he could walk to the police station so that he wouldn’t violate the rules of Shabbat, they threw him in a truck and slapped him across the face.

But it gets worse. As the British stormed Kibbutz Yagour, they prodded residents into gender-segregated barbed wire cages with their bayonets. When women tried to resist or protect their husbands, they were dragged into cages by their hair.

In a particularly tone-deaf move, they blasted the kibbutz with tear gas and non-combustible oil. 

Gas. Against Jews. In 1946. Tone deaf might be putting it lightly…

But even this was too subtle for some of the soldiers, who were enraged that the Lechi had recently murdered seven of their own. The British marched into kibbutzim shouting “heil Hitler,” singing Nazi songs, and scrawling swastikas on classroom chalkboards. Now, I want to be clear: this kind of cruelty was rare. The soldiers who shamelessly taunted Holocaust survivors with statements like “Hitler didn’t build enough gas chambers” were a minority among the twenty five thousand troops that participated in the Black Shabbat. 

Still, it’s genuinely baffling that British leadership didn’t consider that harassing an already scarred and traumatized population would only strengthen, not dissuade, the resistance movement.

As planes circled low overhead and roadblocks punctuated once-bustling streets, the British combed the tiny Mandate for those Very Important Jews — seriously, that’s what they called them! — who they thought could incriminate or call off the resistance. Major cities were locked down, people confined to their homes. At the kibbutzim, the British ploughed up fields, destroyed crops, sabotaged equipment, and cut the water supply. But it took more than that to dissuade the resistance. Even a simple question like “what’s your name?” received an intransigent answer like “I am a Jew of Eretz Israel.”

You can refuse to cooperate, but you can’t stop yourself from being hauled off to jail. At the end of Black Saturday, 2,700 Jews were rounded up and arrested. The British confiscated thousands of weapons, grenades, and explosives. But if they thought that some arrests and confiscations would be enough to call off the resistance, they were sorely mistaken.

Remember the Haganah’s policy of “restraint”? Black Sabbath torpedoed that completely. Propaganda posters made their way around the Yishuv, and it was almost impossible to differentiate the Haganah from the Irgun. Months before, these two rival organizations had taunted each other on the radio. Where the Haganah station opened with the Biblical injunction against murder — a pointed rebuke of the Irgun — the Irgun responded with the Biblical adage of “an eye for an eye.” Yet in the wake of the Black Shabbat, it was impossible to tell them apart. “Rivers of blood will flow,” vowed one Irgun poster. “Britain has declared war on the Jewish people. The Jewish people will reply with war,” trumpeted a Haganah sign. 

The Haganah and the Irgun didn’t need a reason to hate the British. But it certainly didn’t help that just days after Black Shabbat, news reached Palestine of a pogrom in Kielce, Poland, that left 42 Jews dead. And friends, this was AFTER the Holocaust. The cause? A nine-year-old boy named Henryk Blaszczyk, afraid his parents would punish him for staying out too late, claimed that Jews kidnapped him and put him in a cellar with the bodies of 15 Christian children. Five thousand Poles stormed the kibbutz-style commune where most of Kielce’s 200 Jews awaited their visas to Palestine.

Had they gotten their visas in time, there would have been no one for little Henryk to blame. Here was further proof that the British were as bad as the Nazis. That they had Jewish blood on their hands. That they deserved revenge.

So the United Resistance Movement launched a plan. They would strike the British where it hurt the most: their headquarters in Jerusalem, the King David Hotel. The Resistance Movement knew that this was where the British had stored all of the documents they’d confiscated during the Black Shabbat raids. And some of these documents were wildly incriminating, proving a link between the Haganah, the Irgun, and the Lechi. Even the Jewish Agency was incriminated. And the evidence was damning enough to potentially warrant a death sentence or two for some very influential figures. 

There was only one thing to do. The United Resistance Movement would bomb the hotel. The head of the Haganah, Moshe Sneh, justified this attack as self-defense: “They attacked our government body and sought to paralyze it; we will attack and paralyze their government bodies.”

Blowing up a hotel, THE iconic hotel, was a big deal — especially to a movement that had mostly restricted itself to sabotaging infrastructure. But Begin was firm: there would be no civilian deaths on his watch. They would warn the British, giving them ample time to get out safely. 

Haganah and Irgun leadership debated how much warning time was appropriate. An hour? 45 minutes? They compromised on a half hour — enough time to clear the area of civilians, but not enough time to sort through and save any incriminating documents, especially since they were mostly in Hebrew, a language most Brits didn’t know. In case anyone missed their calls, the milk cans in which they sneaked in their explosives would also bear warnings printed in Arabic, English, and Hebrew.

But tragically, the warnings didn’t do much good.

An elderly Greek priest, Father Antipas, took the first call. When he heard “bomb threat,” he sent people to look at the basement, which was empty of any explosives. But the movement called again, just to make sure everyone got the message. This time, the hotel’s assistant manager called the British authorities, who pooh-poohed the threat. He said:“It’s easy to say there’s a bomb.” And to his credit, it does make sense that the Irgun would try to lure the British out of the safety of the hotel so they could pick them off in the streets.

Call after call. To the hotel. The French consulate next door. The Palestine Post. 

At 12:37, the bombs went off. And they were huge — “equivalent in force to a direct hit from a 500 kg aerial bomb.” Honestly, I’m no military tactician, so I’m not really sure what that means. Other than: oy. The Irgun came with some serious firepower. 

All told, 92 people died that day. 28 British. 42 Arabs. 17 Jews. Two Armenians. A Russian. A Greek.

Predictably, and rightfully, the world press hollered. And the Haganah, understanding that they had miscalculated, massively alienating the region’s preeminent power, denounced the bombing. The Jewish Agency called it “a dastardly crime perpetrated by a gang of desperadoes.”

Yes, you heard that right: though the Haganah had authorized the bombing, and there’s a debate about how involved they were, whether they were involved, and the Lechi had planned to coordinate a twin bombing, backing out at the last minute, both organizations let the Irgun take the fall alone. Brazenly, Ben Gurion loudly denounced the Irgun as the perpetrators, saying, ”The Irgun is the enemy of the Jewish people.”

Begin, for his part, assumed this position bravely. He reassured his soldiers in private, telling them not to blame themselves for the massive loss of life. It wasn’t their fault the calls were ignored. And in public, he placed the blame squarely on the British. “The tragedy that took place in the civil offices of the occupying government was not caused by Hebrew soldiers who fulfilled their role with strength and self sacrifice… it was caused by the British exploiters themselves who did not heed the warnings and did not evacuate the building…. The responsibility for the loss of civilian lives falls on them and only on them.” 

Begin never changed his stance on this. In fact, he doubled down. In his mind, he was not at all a terrorist, as his detractors called him, but a freedom fighter, in the truest sense of the definition. As he wrote later: “In a revolutionary war, both sides use force. Tyranny is armed. Otherwise it would be liquidated overnight. Fighters for freedom must arm; otherwise they would be crushed overnight.”

And somehow, it worked. No one was crushed overnight. The Haganah continued to focus on helping immigrants into the country. The Irgun continued its activities, with Begin directing them while in hiding. True, the United Resistance Movement splintered, unable to withstand the Haganah’s denigration.

But truthfully, there was not much left to resist. Less than a year after the bombing, the British announced they were leaving Palestine. And less than two years later, in May of 1948, they were gone completely, leaving Ben Gurion free to declare the establishment of the State of Israel in the Tel Aviv Museum.

That’s the story of Black Sabbath, and here are your five fast facts.

  1. From 1917 to 1948, the British ruled Mandatory Palestine and significantly curtailed Jewish immigration. In response to Arab attacks and British immigration policy, the Jews formed three underground paramilitary organizations: the Haganah, the Irgun, and the Lechi. The Haganah was the most “mainstream” and cooperated with the British. The Irgun, led by future Prime Minister Menachem Begin, was more extreme and advocated for retaliatory attacks against Arabs and sabotage against the British. Both the Haganah and the Irgun collaborated with the British against the Nazis during WWII. The third group, the Lechi, was pretty “fringe-y.” It refused to collaborate with the British and even reached out to the Nazis for help overthrowing the British and establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. Unsurprisingly, the Nazis never answered.
  2. After the Lechi assassinated the British Minister of State, the Haganah got nervous that the British would withdraw support for the Zionist cause. So they rounded up Irgun and Lechi members and handed them over to the British. They called this dark period “saison,” or “hunting season.” Begin, hoping to avoid civil war, commanded his Irgun soldiers not to fight back.
  3. But in the wake of the British restrictions on immigration, Ben Gurion changed his tune. He brought together the three paramilitaries under the banner of a United Resistance Movement, which gleefully raised hell.
  4. In retaliation for the Resistance Movement’s many acts of sabotage, the British launched Operation Agatha, informally known as Black Saturday, during which they arrested 2,700 Jews and confiscated truckloads of documents proving that all the Jewish organizations in Palestine were working together to sabotage them.
  5. To clear their names, the Resistance Movement bombed the British headquarters in the King David Hotel. Even though they called multiple times to warn the hotel’s inhabitants, 92 people died. The Irgun took the fall for the attack, and until 1948, the Haganah focused almost exclusively on bringing more Jews into the country. Less than a year after the attack, the British announced they were throwing in the towel and leaving Palestine.

Those are the facts, but here is an enduring lesson as I see it.

Who knows how we would react when our backs are pressed against a wall? The Haganah, the Irgun, even the fringe Lechi — they all wanted a Jewish state badly enough to do some pretty uncomfortable things. It’s easy to judge them from our comfortable perspective in 2021. We have a state now — one that welcomes any Jew. We don’t have to grapple with the painful question of how far we would go to make the Zionist dream into a reality.

But when I put myself in our founding fathers and mothers’ shoes, I have a hard time conceptualizing how far I would go, personally. Where I would fall between the Haganah and the Irgun. Lots of people call the Irgun “terrorists,” “extremists,” “militants.” But what differentiates a terrorist from a freedom fighter? Is it your tactics? The nature of the enemy you’re fighting? The nobility of your cause? How far are you willing to go for what you want, for what you need?

Hindsight is 20/20. But in the 1940s, the Israeli founding fathers had no idea how long the British would stay. They did not know the end of the story. How many more years Jewish refugees would languish in hostile lands. How much longer the tiny Yishuv would need to fight the British on one side and the Arabs on the other. 

They waged their wars with a clear goal, but with no end in sight. That had to be crushing. Draining. This may have been what drove the Haganah to saison and then back out of it. But Begin, unlike the Haganah, never lost the moral clarity that animated his fight for freedom.

As the Haganah rounded up his men, he could have ordered them to fight back. But he didn’t. Begin was acutely conscious of his legacy: to avoid civil war. To tiptoe across the fault lines of Jewish society — carefully, carefully, and hope they didn’t explode. To borrow an expression from Judaism’s most famous rebel, Begin excelled at “turning the other cheek” when it came to brothers fighting brothers.

Perhaps this — more than the reprisals against Arab villages, the bombing of the hotel, the fiery propaganda — is what marks Begin as a freedom fighter, one who shaped his nation’s character.

As we wrap up this second season of Unpacking Israeli History, I’m also left with this thought. The Haganah, the Irgun, and the Lechi, they had some really fundamental disagreements. And that’s not really that surprising; the Jewish people have never been uniform, and we certainly aren’t now. But uniformity has never been the goal – unity is.

In response to Black Saturday, for just one moment, the Jewish militias banded together, and they said, let’s put aside ego, let’s put aside philosophical differences, as important as they might be, and let’s focus on what we share. And this lesson did not end in 1946, with the bombing of the King David hotel. No, this lesson is an important one, both for each of us in our lives, and in the story of Zionism. Israel, and our nation, is splintered into factions. There are good reasons for these factions, and their differences are important. But let’s remember to also work together, for the common good. Let’s learn our lessons from the past and create a better future.

Thank you all for listening all season, and especially to our final episode of this season. If you haven’t yet, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts – it’s the best way to find out about Season 3, coming in 2022! And help us grow this podcast community, by rating and reviewing us on Apple Podcasts.

Now it’s time for our final segment, Israel Nerd Talk, where we highlight one of you, our amazing listeners. And for our last episode of Season 2, this this letter from a listener named JJ, who is my new favorite person:

Hello Jewish Unpacked Podcast Team, [hello JJ]

I must say I am very impressed by the succinct nature of the podcasts and Noam’s diction. I would go on to say that it is probably one of the best history podcasts on Spotify.

[I gotta interrupt here and say, I’m dying. JJ, you’re the best. Alright, JJ continued.]

As usual the podcast was great and informative. I have never really seen any podcaster keep their podcast between 20-30 minutes for one topic without additional episodes. I think that the current format is the key to your success. Noam’s stance as a patriot who is more than willing to acknowledge the shortcomings of his nation is unique and refreshing. Unpacked Israeli History brings up viewpoints I would not have otherwise heard.

Best, JJ

JJ, this is great – and there’s a reason we chose to end Season 2 of the show with this letter. Because, thank you. Not only for the diction compliment, and that we manage to keep the episodes a reasonable length, but really, because you actually pinpointed exactly what I’m sometimes insecure about. Am I leaning too much into rah-rah Israel? Or, conversely, am I coming down too hard on Israel? That balance is one I struggle with. Because JJ, as I’m sure you’re seeing by now, the goal, my goal, our goal, is to lean into the nuance of everything. If people are willing to give it a shot, to hear a perspective they’re not used to, nuance can move people, regardless of where they’re coming from.

We have some episodes which lean towards celebratory, like episodes about Operation Entebbe, and episodes that lean towards challenges, like Sabra and Shatila. But at the end of the day, what my team and I are constantly looking for is what we call “goosebumps with complexity.” I hope we’re hitting it, and I hope we can do even better for Season 3.

So, thank you for writing in, JJ, and for making me articulate some of that. And if you, listening, have thoughts to share, or topics, especially as we begin planning Season 3, contact us, be like JJ! Send us a message at podcasts@jewishunpacked.com.

Unpacking Israeli History is a production of Unpacked, a division of OpenDor Media. Check out jewishunpacked.com for everything Unpacked-related, and subscribe to our other podcasts. Follow Unpacked at all the social media places, like TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – just look for @JewishUnpacked. And again, write to us at podcasts@jewishunpacked.com – your email might even get on the show.

This episode was produced by Rivky Stern. Our team for this episode, and this entire season, includes Adi Elbaz, Baruch Goldberg, and Rob Pera. I’m your host, Noam Weissman. Thanks for listening, see you next season!

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