Unearthed: Polyamory in Israel's Pre-state Underground

Irgun leaders Shmuel Katz and Eliyahu Lankin fought together, sat beside each other in the Knesset - and shared the bed of Doris.

Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

Between the summer of 1947 and that of 1948, when the Altalena set sail for Israel from France, the members of the pre-state underground Irgun Tzvai Leumi (the “Irgun”) who had purchased the ship were busy organizing the operation of the ill-fated vessel. The members of the high command were sent all over the world to raise funds and resources. Weapons were assembled, refugees who wanted to sail to the Land of Israel aboard the ship were found, and the date of departure was kept secret. Some of the preparations included a meeting between three high-ranking members of the Irgun’s command. Shmuel (Muli) Katz and his wife, Doris Kaplan, met in Paris with Eliyahu Lankin, the commander who was to be in charge of the operation.

Later on, that meeting could be described as a fateful moment. Katz, a public-relations specialist, translator and writer — and Jabotinsky’s right-hand man — was one of the Irgun’s leaders. The beautiful, elegant Doris, who came from South Africa, was a high-ranking fundraiser. Lankin, who came to the Irgun from the Jewish community in China, was already an admired Irgun commander in Jerusalem who had been captured and exiled during the saison, or “Hunting Season,” when the rival pre-state underground, the Haganah, suppressed the Irgun’s rebellion against the British Mandate government in pre-state Israel from November 1944 to February 1945.

But the meeting between Katz, Kaplan and Lankin was the start of an unexpected development. Lankin and Katz became Knesset members of the Herut party later on. Not only did they sit beside each other in the Knesset hall; they shared Doris as well. This love triangle, which lasted many years, is fascinating. Woven into the story of the pre-state era and the first years of the State of Israel, it brims with drama and well-known names that continue to reverberate in local politics. It is told with modest dignity in the film “Medina. Sipur ahava” (“State: A love story”), which will be broadcast Monday evening on the Knesset television channel.

The story will be no surprise to the Irgun’s surviving members or their descendants, who were willing to be interviewed for the film. It seems that while they all knew the story, none of them saw it as anything sensational, perhaps because the people involved were so well loved and got along so well together, or perhaps because the intimate details remained private in the biographies of those who were involved and the film’s director, 41-year-old Hadas Levi Setzemsky, sought to keep them that way. It seems to make no difference either way.

Doris and Muli, who married in South Africa, were sent to London as members of the underground. Muli was Jabotinsky’s foreign minister while the educated and well-spoken Doris raised funds. Lankin joined the Betar movement while still living in China, and to use the immigration certificate he had received allowing him to immigrate to pre-state Israel, he married Bella Wagman, later the mother of Ehud Olmert, in a fictitious marriage. The adventures of the three major figures in the story unfold all over the world, in Europe, Africa and the United States, before they meet in pre-state Israel. After the Altalena affair -- in which the Irgun’s weapons ship was sunk on the shore near Tel Aviv on orders of the government of the new State of Israel - and Lankin’s imprisonment, he was sent to the Rabbinate to release Bella Wagman formally from the marriage with a get, or document of divorce as required by Jewish religious law. Wagman later met and married Mordechai Olmert. In the newborn State of Israel, Lankin and Katz, who were comrades in the underground, sat side by side in the first Knesset. Shortly after Doris and Muli divorced — they had been married for 15 years and had no children — Lankin and Doris married and had a daughter, Linor, who smiles as she is interviewed at length for the film.

Katz’s love life and family life were extremely complicated. He was married to Livia Rokach, the daughter of Israel Rokach (the mayor of Tel Aviv and also a Knesset member of Israel’s first Knesset). But the marriage ended about a year later. Livia, who was found dead in a Rome hotel room in 1984, was believed to have committed suicide. Muli never remarried, but later discovered he had a son from a union with a married woman. The son, Yuval Granot, is also interviewed in the film.

“The story began when we interviewed Yuval Granot about his father,” says Levi Setzemsky, recalling how the story came to light during her work on her previous film, “Bowing Gracefully. “ As she worked on that film, which tells the story of Israel’s first Knesset, she spoke with relatives of the first members of Knesset. “The camera started rolling and I asked him for his full name,” says Levi Setzemsky. “When he said ‘Yuval Granot,’ I asked him how his surname could be Granot when his father’s surname was Katz. He answered, ‘That’s part of the family soap opera.’ In the end, he told me the story of his father’s first and second wives. We wanted to bring the story into “Bowing Gracefully,” but the more deeply we dug into the story, the more we realized that it was big enough to need a place of its own.”

Granot, 44, is a film director who lives in Tel Aviv. (One of his films is “Julia Maya,” which won first prize at the Haifa Film Festival in 2007.) He discovered his father’s true identity when he was 29 years old, even though he had known Katz as a family friend for many years. From that moment until Katz died about a decade later, they remained in close contact.

“I did not know Doris and Eliyahu, but I heard a lot about them,” he says. “She was still a good friend of my father’s during his last years. She died before he did and her brother, Julius Kaplan, was his good friend and a wonderful man. Despite everything, they stayed family in some way.”

What did you know about your father before you knew he was your father?

“I knew him when I was a boy and I knew quite a bit about him. I found out many things later on. He was a kind uncle who used to bring me chocolate from the United States when he came back. In the early 1970s, he went to the U.S. a lot, and established an organization there that was similar to the Movement for Greater Israel.”

What did you know about this love triangle?

“I found out about it only later. One of the first things I had to do was read his autobiographical-historical book. It was half novel, half historical essay, very detailed, a study of several years. It was there that I met Doris and Lankin. My father and Lankin were partners in organizing the Altalena. I assume that Doris and Lankin met then, but to tell the truth, I never asked him what happened and how. I never asked him out of respect, and he never went into detail. I understood that there was a deep friendship between everyone involved. When I resumed the relationship with Shmuel, my father, Doris was still alive, but Eliyahu had already been dead for some years. We didn’t talk much about it. I also found out more about his second wife from Hadas than I did from him.”

It was a generation with secrets.

“Absolutely. They were quite a close-knit group.”

A parallel world

Granot says he has been working for some years on a film based loosely on the historical events told in his father’s biography. But the whole story, including the affair that did or did not go on and the historical events, seem greater than a sensationalized personal story. It calls to mind stories that were never told and hair-raising deeds that were never given due recognition because they were credited to the losing side, that of the Revisionist Zionists.

“I never experienced that because I found out I was his son when I was 29 years old, but I experienced it through him,” Granot says. “From meeting with him, reading the books, our many conversations and the articles he published during the time we knew each other, I realized how strong the erasure of that history was. When you read his autobiography, “Days of Fire,” it’s a little like reading the history of a parallel universe: they are the same events, but something different happened. There was a different feeling.”

“I was born long afterward,” says Linor Lankin, 56, an urban-planning architect who lives in Jerusalem. “By the time my parents had me, they had already been through a great deal. Each one published a book of memoirs. Everything had already been in the newspapers. When it all blew over, I was born, and by the time I was old enough to understand what was going on, it had already been about 15 years since the Altalena affair. It was already history by the time I knew anything about it.”

What was it like growing up in a Revisionist household?

“Both my parents were sought-after. People wanted them to come, speak, be hosted; they wanted to be around them all the time. But the reality was different. There was a Mapai government, and they did not fill important positions in the state that existed then. I did not get any impression that this bothered them. During my childhood I wasn’t aware of it. It wasn’t like growing up in the home of a person who had an important position at the time. My father was the head of the Bar Association [Lankin and Doris established a law office together and Katz was a lawyer as well] and a member of the board of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, but he was not a high-ranking public figure/ I grew up around well-known people and the children of well-known people. There were lively meals with vodka, but I was younger than Benny Begin and Dan Meridor. But yes, at home there were many people who appear in photos of the first Knesset.”

And what did you know about their separate lives?

“I knew that my mother had been married before for 15 years and I knew to whom. I saw him once or twice, but there was no real relationship. I knew they had divorced because they had no children. That was spoken of at home. They went their separate ways and tried to build a new life. Between my parents, I knew they were friends at the level of heart and soul. Hadas found the story fascinating, but the truth is that everybody who knew them knew about it, and nobody seemed to find it all that interesting. They were very discreet. It’s not that they hid it, but that they didn’t talk about their private lives. It was unimportant, pushed aside.”

Levy-Setzemsky: “We couldn’t make a film like this without the family’s cooperation because the three protagonists had died. These were three very beloved people. Nobody had a bad word to say about them. People liked them and spoke of them with longing. It is easy for a director to sketch out the characters — and emotions are emotions.”

Was there an affair or not?

“There was an affair. Are you asking whether it was simultaneous? We didn’t get any answers about that, and we didn’t ask. Some things are left to history, and I also don’t think there’s anyone who has the answer. Such a beautiful woman, a fighter in the underground, two men who were married to her, all three of them members of the Irgun’s high command — from here, everyone can stay with the image they have. All through the years there was never any bad blood between them, which shows that none of them ever tried to do anything hurtful.

“When you make a historical film, there are many things you don’t know. There is no single historical truth, and I didn’t mind so much that I didn’t know everything. You can’t know everything. What I knew felt a bit voyeuristic to me, and maybe they might have opposed it.”

Did you feel you were dealing with a secret?

“The story of Katz, Doris and Lankin was known in the Irgun’s social circles. They also remained friends all those years and the things were known. But always, when you look at papers and meet historians, the characters become more three-dimensional. These are not just names of people who are familiar, or from the history books. They are people who really lived.”

Doris Lankin, second from right, with her mother and two sisters. Lankin was married to two Irgun activists who were close friends.

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