The Spine

Teddy The Spy?


This is a personally laden matter for me. I knew Teddy Kollek for nearly forty years. He was the mayor of Jerusalem and I was the chairman of the Jerusalem Foundation in the United States for ten of those years. When he died a few months ago I posted a long note about him, not really about his official life but about the bi-ways he had taken in fighting for the establishment of the Jewish state.

I had vaguely known about what was called the saison, the period when the Haganah, the militia of the overwhelming majority of Zionist Palestine, was in almost continuous conflict with two schismatic armed groups of the Zionist right, the Irgun and the Stern Gang. (Now, "right" is not exactly precise for the Stern Gang since it had many leftists in it; and its activists were involved in securing arms from Communist Czechoslovakia. But that's another matter.) In any case, the official Zionists were in league with the British authorities in Palestine. And they were also in opposition to those authorities. Teddy played a role in this saison. This role was always fuzzy in my mind, and I did not ever ask him specifically about this involvement. As it happens, however, he vaguely alluded to it from time to time. Not so much about what he had done but why he thought the "extremists" had to be contained.

From the perspective of the mad life-indifferent world of which the Muslim Middle East is perhaps the core expression, the terrorism of Irgun and the Stern group was truly child's play. One day's dead in Baghdad, OK two days, would outnumber those killed by these groups over nearly a decade. And two or three Palestinian bombings of buses or cafes in Israel would do the same. But terrorism is not and should not be a numbers game. Still, there is something galling about Arabs who don't blink at the most outrageous atrocities continually evoking as a mantra the tragedy of Deir Yassin, an Irgun-organized event that occurred six decades ago. Now, there are some "extenuations" in the narrative. But, in the end, perhaps 150 Arabs were dead in a village outside Jerusalem. Simple. A detestable act. The Irgun and Stern played military hide-and-seek with the British authorities that had long ago tilted against the League of Nation's approval of the Zionist project and which they were sent to Palestine to put into effect. A few armed men on both sides were victims of this little war.

But Zionists in general were ambivalent about the British. It was the effective ally of the Jewish people in the war against Hitler. Yet it had imposed the White Paper limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine--the only place they could go since Great Britain and America weren't letting them in--to a truly paltry number. So not only were the Nazis killing Jews but also killing them was the ruthless British blockade.

So what are the new revelations? That the official Zionists, although in some ways fighting the British, were also cooperating with them. They were cooperating with His Majesty's forces in Palestine even after the war with Naziism was won. This sullies the explanation a bit. After all, it was clear that the British were looking for a way not to prolong their stay in the country. Why help them now? What obligation, moral or practical, did the Yishuv, the Jewish populace, have to Ernest Bevin, the rabidly anti-Semitic foreign minister in the Labor government who had sworn to strangle Zionist aspirations?

Teddy and Ben Gurion were appalled at the notion of an independent Jewish state with two or three Jewish armies. So, even before the state was born, they cooperated with the British to meet their own requirements: when a sovereign Jewish polity would come into being it would be protected by one armed force. There would not be Jewish bands with weapons to provoke discord in Israel.

The newspapers--there are two dispatches in today's Ha'artez and Jerusalem Post--somehow suggest that, in identifying leaders of the violent underground and of more extreme Zionist persuasions, Kollek was an agent of MI5. He was not. He was doing what needed to be done for the whole Jewish cause. This comported incidentally with British designs against their most passionate Jewish enemies. It's not so easy to see who got the best of this bargain between Kollek and British intelligence. But the British abandoned Palestine and Zion was reborn. My vote is for Teddy.

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