On September 1, 1937, Jewish policeman Mordechai Schwartz fired eight bullets into his Arab colleague, Mustafa Khoury, who was asleep in the tent they shared at a British base in the north. Khoury died instantly. In August 1938, following a trial that caused a furor in the Jewish community, and after many failed attempts to get the British to commute the sentence, Schwartz was hanged at Acre Prison.
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In British Mandatory Palestine, Schwartz was the only Jew the British executed for killing an Arab. “The sentence was carried out this morning. Crying ‘Hear, O Israel,’ he went to the gallows,” Haaretz reported.
Today, as then, the country is in an uproar over a Jew who shot an unarmed Arab. The trial of Sgt. Elor Azaria, the soldier who killed a Palestinian in Hebron when the assailant was lying on the ground already wounded, has just begun. In both cases, conflicting explanations of the events have been offered.
Seventy-eight years after Schwartz was executed, it’s still not clear what his motive was. He cited Khoury’s anti-Jewish rhetoric, which came against the background of the Arab-Jewish conflict then raging. Others have posited an ordinary criminal motive or even a romantic motive; others say Khoury sexually harassed Schwartz.
It’s also not clear whether Schwartz opened fire after a quarrel, in self-defense or by mistake. Another question is whether Schwartz was proud or ashamed of the murder. His writings on the subject contradict one another.
Even more basic, does he deserve to be commemorated by the state?
Yossi Barnea, who does historical research for the Defense Ministry’s museums, sought to find out. He searched archives throughout the country, found forgotten documents and even spoke with Schwartz’s fiancée, brother, lawyer and other key figures in the case. Some have since passed away.
The results of Barnea’s efforts appear in a new Hebrew-language book that he self-published. It offers a far more complicated picture than the story on Yizkor, the Defense Ministry website that commemorates the fallen in Israel’s wars.
Schwartz was born in 1914 to a family of farmers in what is now Slovakia. In 1933 he immigrated to British Mandatory Palestine over his parents’ objections. He joined the Haganah, the precursor to the Israel Defense Forces, where one of his commanders described him as “a brave guy, a warm-hearted Jew.”
When the Arab Revolt erupted in 1936, he joined the British police. He was engaged to be married, and the Jewish National Fund gave him a plot of land near Hadera to build a house.
In the summer of 1937, the police sent him to guard the British high commissioner’s vacation home in Atlit in the north. He was joined in this task by Khoury.
Alleged threats against the Jews
Yizkor describes Khoury (without naming him) as a “fanatical nationalist” who mocked Schwartz and openly rejoiced when Arabs murdered Jews. It says that on that fateful day, Schwartz was “badly affected” by the news that Arabs had killed some of his friends, “and when he returned to the tent, he shot the Arab policeman in his sleep and killed him.”
The Yizkor biography ends with a quote from a letter Schwartz wrote before his death. “Believe me, I don’t regret what happened. The God of Israel, who searches hearts, knows how much that Arab deserved to be killed,” Schwartz wrote.
“He leaped with joy when he described those killed at Karkur; he boasted that he would kill all the children and women in Tel Aviv. I couldn’t listen to his words, and I took revenge for my brothers who were killed that day. That’s what any Jew who heard such abuse from an Arab would do.”
But Yizkor doesn’t mention a very different letter by Schwartz, which was published in the newspaper Davar the morning after he was hanged. “Don’t follow in my footsteps!” he wrote. “I oppose terror and bloodshed.”
In the letter, Schwartz said he regretted the murder and willingly accepted his sentence, adding, “I consider my case a personal mistake at a moment of temporary insanity.”
He then requested that the Jewish community “not do anything that could lead to acts of violence or rioting in connection with my hanging” and “not exploit this opportunity for provocations that could lead to the bloodshed of innocent people.”
Which of these two letters should we believe? Barnea’s book cites historical sources indicating that the second letter, the one published in Davar, wasn’t totally authentic because it went through the British censor and was written under the influence of someone else.
Barnea speculates that someone visited Schwartz in prison the day before his execution and persuaded him to condemn violence so that he, a Haganah member, wouldn’t become a hero of the Irgun, a rival prestate militia that supported attacks on Arabs.
Barnea also found the original handwritten letter quoted on the Yizkor site. In that letter, located in the Beit Ariela archive in Tel Aviv, Schwartz said he had killed Khoury because of his colleague’s offensive statements, adding, “I wanted to stand trial and tell the truth, but it didn’t turn out that way.”
What truth was that? In a document Barnea found in the Yad Tabenkin archive, Schwartz reiterated that he killed his colleague because Khoury had provoked him, and added that he had felt genuinely threatened by Khoury.
“The truth is that I did the deed, but I’m not to blame for his death, because he was to blame,” Schwartz wrote. “I’ve always been opposed to shedding the blood of an innocent man. But he brought me to the point where I did what I did without realizing it.”
Schwartz then described how Khoury repeatedly cursed and threatened the Jews. “He told me, ‘Just as four Jews were killed today in Hadera, we’ll kill you all. We’ll annihilate all the Jews, not one of you will be left here.’ And thus he provoked, threatened and mocked me for two nights.”
Schwartz wrote he was so frightened he couldn’t sleep. “Out of both sorrow and fear, I didn’t sleep the night before the deed. I was in a daze the whole day afterward. On the second night he again began to provoke me.”
Schwartz fled to the latrines, planning “to stay there all night. But on the way, I was assailed by fear and panic. They were chasing me and shooting at me. And when I returned to the tent confused, he once again enraged and mocked me, and I completely lost my sanity and did what I did.”
Schwartz wrote he was completely unaware of what he had done, “for if I had done it maliciously and intentionally, I would have known to conceal the crime.”
Barnea concluded that Schwartz was in a “psychotic state” after two days without sleep and of feeling persecuted by Khoury’s relentless verbal attacks. He rejected the allegations that either Schwartz, Khoury or both were homosexual, and that the shooting was revenge for Khoury’s sexual harassment.
For decades, the Israeli establishment ignored Schwartz, omitting him from the semiofficial list of prestate “martyrs” – members of the Irgun and Lehi militias who fought the British with terror and were executed for it (or committed suicide before being hanged). The official attitude toward Schwartz changed only in 1977, when the Likud party took power for the first time. But to this day, his commemoration remains controversial.
On the one hand, his name appears on the Ramat Gan monument commemorating those put to death by the British authorities. On the other, in an Irgun-Lehi quiz held each year, his name isn’t mentioned.
It’s easy to understand why the authorities have a hard time embracing Schwartz. After all, he was a member of the Haganah, not the right-wing Lehi and Irgun.
Peleg Levy, from the Toldot Yisrael project that films testimony by the War of Independence generation, says the Haganah opposed revenge attacks of the kind carried out by Schwartz.
Barnea says does he doesn’t consider the Schwartz-Khoury case murder because it’s impossible to say the slaying of Khoury was premeditated.
“We have to remember the national tension that existed at the time in Israel and the exchange of words between the two,” he says, adding that he hopes his research will encourage other historians to explore the stories of others hanged by the British.