The Impact of the Jewish Underground upon Anglo Jewry: 1945-1947

M.Phil Thesis in Modern Middle Eastern Studies
By Paul Bagon
St Antony’s College, University of Oxford
May 2003

Full Thesis (PDF format—220 k)


  I. The Seeds of Conflict: Britain, Palestine, Anglo-Jewry and Zionism  
  II. The Jewish Underground: Zionists up in Arms  
  III. The European Jewish Tragedy and the end ofJjewish Restraint  
  IV. From the King David Hotel to Westminister: The Jewish Underground Strikes  
  V. Revenge, Reprisals and the Hangman's Rope  
  VI. Conclusion: "Holding the Innocent to Blame for the Guilty"  



The history of the Middle East, and in particular the modern history of the Middle East, has been punctuated by claims and counter claims of defining moments, a propensity that has led the value of such statements to gradually diminish over time. A striking exception to this trend, however, has almost universally been identified as 1948, the year that the disputed territory of British Mandate Palestine was partitioned and the Jewish state of Israel attained its independence. [1] This thesis in seeking to examine the history of Mandate Palestine in the crucial years between the end of the Second World War in 1945, and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 therefore very much falls into the wider body of literature that deals with this specific, ‘defining moment’ in modern Middle Eastern history.

As could be expected with a historical event that is regarded to be of such importance, a tremendous amount of literature has been written and published specifically focusing on the tumultuous birth of the modern Jewish state. Accordingly, and quite appropriately, there have also been a significant number of works examining the international dimensions to partition and Israel’s independence. This area of scholarship has included Arab and Palestinian tracts, internationalist histories, which have appraised the role of the United Nations, and finally works that have specifically focused on the roles and decisions of the United States, Soviet and British governments, [2] the main non-regional protagonists involved in negotiations on the ‘Palestine Question’.

 More specifically with regards to the objective of this thesis, within accounts of the United States’ diplomatic engagement with the post-war Middle East there have been detailed examinations of the part played by the Jewish community in the United States in influencing US foreign policy, [3] as exemplified by a number of enquiries into the relationship between President Harry Truman and prominent American Jews such as David Niles and Abe Feinberg. Whilst the question of the amount of influence wielded by American Jewry over US foreign policy remains open, the real significance of such literature in terms of this thesis lies in its very existence.

A casual comparative glance at the literature concerning Britain’s role and the Palestine Question reveals a glaring omission of an account of the experience of Anglo-Jewry during this period. That the same issue has been deemed worthy of research in terms of American Jewry, begs the question, why by the same logic, no such appraisal has been conducted of Anglo-Jewry. Indeed, if it is considered that it was Britain who was the Mandatory power at the time, and as such, the state directly responsible for Palestine’s governance, and that both before and after the Second World War the Zionist movement centred its lobbying on the British government, the omission of a historical account of the position of Anglo-Jewry is all the more remarkable.

The nature of the historical and close linkage between the Zionist movement and Britain is indicated in a memorandum submitted to the British government by the Jewish Agency in 1930:


‘No Jew can fail to be deeply conscious of the ties binding the Jewish people to the Power to which it owes the Declaration of November 2, 1917 [the Balfour Declaration]…Great Britain has long been honourably distinguished in Jewish eyes, alike for her disinterested championship of distressed and persecuted Jewish minorities, and for her sympathetic understanding, dating back to a period much earlier than the Declaration of 1917, of Jewish national aspirations. On both grounds, Jews throughout the world have an attachment and a regard for Great Britain which have become an established tradition’. [4]


Having exposed the historical deficiency with regard to the relationship between the post-war history of Mandate Palestine and Anglo-Jewry it becomes prudent to select a single issue with which to explore the dynamic. Towards this end, there appears no more interesting question than examining how the anti-British actions of the Jewish underground, three armed Jewish militant organisations operating in Mandate Palestine, impacted upon Anglo-Jewry.

Such a question represents an enticing prospect due to the unique and remarkable position Anglo-Jewry was placed in following the end of the Second World War. At this juncture in world history, Anglo Jewry, like all other sections of British society, was mobilised, having fulfilled their patriotic duty as British citizens to take up arms and fight Nazism. [5] Correspondingly, Anglo-Jewry suffered military and civilian casualties in the war effort. The contribution of these ‘regular’ British Jewish soldiers, officers and civilians was supplemented by a number of Jewish refugees who had fled Nazism to Britain and joined the fight against Germany. Finally, with the exception of the extremist Stern gang, Palestinian Jewry also joined the Allied Armies, ‘laying down their lives in Asia, Africa and Europe’. [6] On this level of appraisal, therefore, Anglo-Jewry’s commitment to Britain and British society appears unquestionable and absolute, a loyalty indicated in the editorial of the Jewish Chronicle (JC) following VE Day:


‘The Jewish people has never wavered in its allegiance to the Allied cause and its causality list in this war has been proportionally far greater than any other peoples…’ [7]


If it is possible to point to the Second World War as exemplifying the extent of Anglo-Jewry’s assimilation and contribution to British society, it is equally possible to use the war to expose the emergence of strains and complications in this relationship. In the closing months of the Second World War, the shocking discovery of the Nazi death camps and the disclosure of the virtual annihilation of European Jewry, confirmed in the most catastrophic circumstances, the validity of Zionism’s call for an independent Jewish state. As Dr Weizmann announced when addressing the World Zionist Conference in London in August 1945:


‘The European tragedy stood out as a fearful vindication of the truth of Zionist teaching. What happened to our people in Europe had not and could not have happened to any other people on the face of the earth who were secure in the possession of a country of their own. The Jewish people will not achieve its “freedom from fear” save by the re-establishment of its statehood in Palestine’. [8]


In the years leading up to the war Anglo-Jewry’s outmoded ‘aristocratic’ leadership had vainly sought to stem the ‘progressive’ doctrine of Zionism from becoming part of Anglo-Jewish identity. Ignoring the ‘Jewish dukes’’ warning, Anglo-Jewry’s ‘conversion’ to Zionism, gave rise to the issue of ‘dual allegiance,’ whereby, Anglo-Jewry was perceived to have split loyalties between Britain, its country of residency and citizenship, and the Zionist’s ambition of an independent Jewish state. It is this fascinating and complicated issue of ‘dual allegiance’ that forms the very crux of this thesis. At its heart lies the question of how a minority community in Britain coped with the extremely difficult issue of ‘dual-loyalty’ and equally importantly, how British society behaved in response.

With this as an objective, it is a seemingly natural development to examine the area where the strain was greatest, and in the context of Mandate Palestine this was unquestionably the sustained campaign of violence mounted by the Jewish underground against the British mandatory forces. Put in the very broadest terms, this thesis is therefore concerned with two questions. Firstly, on a general level, how pro-Zionist Anglo-Jewry responded to a British government committed to an antagonistic anti-Zionist foreign policy; and secondly, on a more focused level, how the relationship between Anglo-Jewry and British society was affected by the violent anti-British activities of the Jewish underground in Mandate Palestine. The issues arising from these two questions are both enthralling and complex, and it is the ambition of this thesis to chart for the first time the history of Anglo-Jewry through the prism of unfolding events in Mandate Palestine.


The central argument of this thesis is two fold. The first level directly pertains to the issue of ‘dual allegiance’. It will be argued that from the very inception of Zionism, Anglo-Jewry was concerned with facing the charge of disloyalty and conscious of ‘jeopardising’ its position in British society. This theme will be shown to exist from the arrival of political Zionism in Britain through to the acute strains of the post-War years, when an avowedly pro-Zionist Anglo-Jewish community was faced with a British government that was non-committal to Zionism, and seemingly insensitive to the plight of Jewish Displaced Persons (DPs) in Europe.

The second level of argument builds on the first, contending that the anti-British activities of the Jewish underground tested the bounds of Anglo-Jewry’s dual allegiance to its very limits. The Jewish underground’s violence will be demonstrated to have provoked hostility against the Anglo-Jewish community from wider British society that culminated in little publicised anti-Jewish riots in 1947.

Collectively the two arguments present a thesis that Anglo-Jewry’s commitment to Zionism made British Jews vulnerable to the accusation of split-loyalties and, capitalising upon this vulnerability, the anti-British activities of the Jewish underground led to an increase of anti-Semitism in Britain. It is therefore asserted that the activities of the Jewish underground had a profound impact upon Anglo-Jewry, exposing the community to anti-Semitic discrimination, hostility and ultimately violence.


            In structural terms this thesis will be presented over five chapters, the first two will be contextual, and the remaining a historical account, beginning with the end of the Second World War and ending in the summer of 1947.

Chapter one will examine the history behind Britain’s engagement with Palestine and charter the formation and re-formation of British policy towards its Mandate. Additionally, there will be an exposition of the doctrine of political Zionism and an account of its ascent in Britain. Linking these two issues together, there also will be an overview of Anglo-Jewry’s five leading institutions and their transformation from an antagonistic to a supportive stance towards Zionism.

Chapter two will be principally concerned with examining the representative bodies of Palestinian Jewry, and in particular, the Jewish underground. The chapter will begin by addressing the issue of terminology, followed by an exposition of revisionist Zionism. The remainder of the chapter will be concerned with accounting for the histories, ideologies, structures and activities of the three armed factions which collectively make the Jewish underground. It will be demonstrated that Jewish militancy began as a defensive anti-Arab force, which in the years leading up to and including the Second World War, evolved, in the face of British opposition to Jewish immigration to Palestine, into anti-British organisations. 

            The remaining three chapters will offer an analytical account of the history of the British Mandate following the conclusion of the Second World War and its effects upon Anglo-Jewry, using readily discernable major events as breaks between chapters. As such, the third chapter will begin with the election of the new Labour government in Britain in July 1945 and an examination of Anglo-Jewry’s political stance towards the election. There will be an account of the high hopes both Anglo and Palestinian Jewry had of the new Government, and a detailed examination of the formation of British policy towards Mandate Palestine, culminating in the November 1945 announcement to maintain the status quo, as prescribed under the 1939 White Paper. In parallel, there will be an account of the formation of the United Resistance Movement (URM) in Palestine and an account of its activities. It will be argued the disappointment wrought by the British announcement in November 1945 led to a flare of sporadic anti-British activity in Palestine perpetrated by all three of the Jewish underground organisations. This violence will be assessed through the prism of the Anglo-Jewish community, gauging attitudes from within the community and also the reaction of British society in response.

            The fourth chapter will begin with an account of the King David Hotel bomb attack and its political fall-out in Mandate Palestine, appraising the reaction of the British government, Anglo-Jewry, and wider British society. It will be argued that following the King David Hotel bomb attack, the constitution of the Jewish underground changed, as indicated by the Haganah’s withdrawal from the URM. It will additionally be argued that the previous delicate yet identifiable soft line towards the Jewish underground maintained by Anglo-Jewry was abandoned in favour of an outright condemnation of violence as a political tool. British society will be demonstrated to have for the first time acted in an overtly hostile manner towards Anglo-Jewry, establishing an unequivocal connection between events in Palestine and in Britain.

Following on from the King David Hotel bomb, chapter four will offer an exposition of the Irgun’s export of violence from the Middle East to Europe, as encapsulated in the bombing of the British Embassy in Rome on 31 October 1946. [9] It will be demonstrated that in the wake of the Rome Embassy bombing there was a period of media hysteria in Britain, fuelled and encouraged by Irgun propaganda, with speculative reports proclaiming an imminent attack, by the Jewish underground, on mainland British targets. The chapter will end charting the evolution of the Jewish underground’s violence into an international context and assessing how this impacted upon Anglo-Jewry.

The fifth and final chapter will begin by examining the internal dynamics of the Jewish underground and the fragmentation of the URM. As a result of the Rome Embassy bombing and Irgun reprisal floggings of December 1946, Anglo-Jewry will be shown to have been increasingly vulnerable and faced unprecedented levels of hostility. Simultaneously Britain’s control over Palestine will be shown to have weakened, leading to a draconian showdown against the Irgun and LEHI, which culminated in the execution of Irgun members in July 1947. It will be argued that Britain’s decision to execute captured Irgun members provoked the Irgun into hanging sergeants Cliff Martin and Mervyn Paice in reprisal. The ‘Irgun murders’ will be shown to be the climactic events of Jewish underground activity. It will be argued the effect of the hangings upon Anglo Jewry was profound, testing dual allegiance to its limit and resulting in anti-Jewish demonstrations and rioting across Britain. These events will be offered as irrefutable evidence that the activities of the Jewish underground in Mandate Palestine had a direct and discernable impact upon Anglo-Jewry.

Although the Jewish underground continued to operate in Palestine until the creation of Israel in May 1948, the executions of the summer of 1947 will be the final events examined. August 1947 represents a sensible end to this thesis because thereafter, Jewish underground activities moved away from anti-British activities towards anti-Arab activities, a process sped along by the United Nation’s November 1947 vote in favour of partition. Correspondingly, the impact of the Jewish underground upon Anglo-Jewry waned after August 1947.


Having outlined the parameters of this thesis it is now appropriate to discuss its methodology. Due to the absence of any previous material on the subject of Anglo-Jewry and the Jewish underground, British newspapers from the period will be used as the main documentary resource. Using newspapers in this way is beneficial as it means the main body of research will be from primary sources, and since so little has been published on the subject, any findings are necessarily original. Scholarly reliance on newspapers, however, is not without its shortfalls. The function of a newspaper, aside from the obvious provision of information, is to offer analysis of current affairs. Whilst it is undoubtedly the case that contemporary newspapers are far more analytical than their somewhat stilted and terse 1940s equivalent, all the newspapers reviewed, as a matter of course, have an editorial line and therefore a political stance.

 In order to minimise the effect of this political ‘bias’, a cross section of newspapers have been selected including The Times to represent ‘the establishment’ and the Manchester Guardian to represent ‘the left’. Historians regard the editorial line of The Times during the 1940s as  ‘identifying not so much with the Conservative interests as with the ministerial mind’, [10] which ideally complements the non-conformist editorial line of the Manchester Guardian. Where necessary, wider publications have also been used, including local media. It is hoped that collectively all these sources represent as wide a spectrum of political opinion as possible.

As for Anglo-Jewish publications, finding a ‘representative’ sample poses a far more difficult challenge, since only one mainstream publication exists, which is the Jewish Chronicle. Although upon first appearance this appears a serious limitation, as will be elucidated upon in chapter one, it is possible to regard the JC’s transition from a hostile position to a pro-Zionist stance as indicative of a wider change in attitude within Anglo-Jewry. [11] Importantly therefore, the editorial line in the JC can be regarded as an accurate reflection of the attitudes of mainstream Anglo-Jewry. Additionally, where possible, criticisms raised in the letters pages regarding articles published in the JC will be used as evidence of dissenting or differing opinion, along with internal memoranda from leading Anglo-Jewish institutions. [12]   


In sum, the purpose of this thesis is to charter the intriguing political triangle between the British government, the Jewish underground and Anglo-Jewry. The central issue that emerges from this relationship is the problem faced by Anglo-Jewry of “dual allegiance”. Between 1945 and 1947 Anglo-Jewry will be shown to have been afflicted by an agonizing ‘clash of interests’ between on the one hand its deep rooted and unyielding allegiance to Britain, the country to which the community owed its residence and citizenship, and on the other hand, its sympathy for the increasingly violent national struggle of its fellow Jewish Zionists against British control in Palestine. Setting a trend that has clear resonance in a contemporary context, the sad conclusion of anti-British violence abroad in Mandate Palestine will be shown to have been the victimisation and vilification of a minority community in Britain.

[1] E. Rogan and A. Shlaim (ed.), ‘The War for Palestine’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p.1.

[2] See for example, H. Wilson, ‘The chariot of Israel: Britain, America, and the State of Israel’ (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1981).

[3] See M. Urofsky, ‘We are one! : American Jewry and Israel’ (New York: Anchor Press, 1978), p.165.

[4] As quoted in the editorial of the Jewish Chronicle, July 26 1946, p.10

[5] There were 26,000 Jewish men fighting in Jewish units of the Allied army. Manchester Guardian, November 29, 1945, p.6.

[6] As quoted in Chaim Weizmann’s speech to the World Zionist Conference in London August 1945. Manchester Guardian, August 2, 1945, p.3.

[7] Jewish Chronicle, May 11 1945, p.8.

[8] Jewish Chronicle, August 3 1945, p.1. For a complete transcript of the speech see Manchester Guardian, August 2 1945, p.3.

[9] J. Bowyer Bell ‘Terror out of Zion’ (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977), p.181

[10] S. Koss, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Political Press in Britain’ Vol. ii (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984), p.570.

[11] For a detailed treatment of this subject see D. Cesarani, ‘The Jewish Chronicle and Anglo-Jewry, 1841-1991’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

[12] See for example the “Hebrew and a Jew” letter exchange. Jewish Chronicle, July 13 1945, p.6. and Jewish Chronicle, July 25 1945, p.14.