Historian on King David Hotel Bombing: 'It Was an Act of Terror'

Seventy years after Jewish militia blew up the symbol of the British Mandate in Jerusalem, Prof. Mordechai Golani says attack 'stained our history.' At a conference marking event, perpetrator and victim meet for first time.

Sarah Aggasi (R), 90, who was an Irgun activist, shakes hands with Shona Levy Kampos, 91, who was injured in the 1946 King David Hotel blast.
Peleg Levi

Seventy years after the pre-State of Israel Irgun underground militia blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing more than 90 people, historian Prof. Mordechai Golani called the attack "an act of terror that stained our history, leaving it scarred.”

Speaking at a conference held on Friday at the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, Golani, an expert on the history of the British Mandate, added that the acknowledgement should be twofold. “We must bow our heads twice: once for the innocent men and women who were killed on a routine workday and once for shame at the attack,” he said.

The bombing was directed at a strategic target: The King David Hotel housed the British administrative headquarters and symbolized the British Mandate in Palestine, which the Irgun was fighting as part of the Jewish Resistance Movement.

Golani criticized historians and politicians who attempt to present that attack as an explosion and insisted on calling it an act of terror. “One would think that some gas cylinders had exploded by accident," he said. "Friends, these were no random gas cylinders. This was a serious terror attack, a malicious one that stained not only the walls of the adjacent YMCA building with blood — bodies were hurled that far — but stained our entire history.”

Rescue workers search the ruins of Jerusalem's King David hotel, blown up by the Etzel underground militia in 1946.
Hugo Mendelson, GPO

“Collective memory is an existential issue, to the point that currently there are some among us for whom having reservations about killing innocent people is like having a malignant affliction. The attack did not render our struggle unjust, but left behind a deep scar. It weakened our arguments then and now,” he summarized.

Two women, one a perpetrator and the other a victim, met for the first time at the conference. Shona Levy Kampos, 91, was a typist working for the British at the hotel. The explosion damaged her eyes. 90 year-old Sarah Aggasi was an Irgun activist; the organization sent her to be a lookout and instructed her to phone the hotel and warn them before the explosion. The two shook hands at the commemoration.

In an interview with Haaretz on Friday, Levy Kampos described the explosion from a distance of 70 years: “It was pitch dark and there was a terrible explosion. I couldn’t see a thing. I thought everyone was killed, until I heard someone clear his throat. Everything was full of smoke and soot.” In a separate interview, Aggasi recalled the scene: "I saw a huge mushroom rising and said to myself, ‘I did it.'"

The conference was documented on video and can be viewed on the Rabin Center’s Facebook page. The daughters of two of the victims, Julius Jacobs and Zvi Shimshi, also took part in the event.