The Night Jewish Fanatics Tried to Bomb the Knesset

If the the police and Shin Bet had taken to heart the lessons of an absurd but shocking plot to bomb the Knesset, they would have been better prepared to avert Rabin's assassination, 44 years later

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Credit: Photos: Israel Press and Photo Agency / Oded Balilty /AP / Government Press Office. Artwork: Anastasia Shub
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

Levi Avrahami was furious. Frustrated, too. Just as the jaws of victory were about to tighten around his prey, defeat arrived instead. And who inflicted this? His targets? Not at all. The Shin Bet security service was to blame.

The Shin Bet’s role has essentially remained the same since the formation of the state: safeguarding the nation and its leaders from the threat of terror, subversion and espionage. Yet its failure to provide intelligence warnings and secure security cordons paved the way for Yigal Amir’s ability to assassinate Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Those failures stemmed from a lack of coordination between various divisions within the organization, and between the agency itself and the police – including the use of an informant within extremist circles.

The Rabin assassination was investigated by the Shamgar commission of inquiry. Sins of omission and commission were highlighted in a spirit of “never again.” Yet newly released documents from the State Archives, hidden from view for seven decades, reaffirm King Solomon’s ancient proverb that there really is nothing new under the sun.

If the Shin Bet had learned the lessons from a shocking event at the Knesset in 1951 involving itself and Israel's police force, perhaps things might have ended differently on November 4, 1995.

Clandestine challenge

Avrahami was Jerusalem’s police chief, a veteran of military and intelligence services operating in the nation’s capital, which was slowly becoming the seat of power as state institutions migrated from Tel Aviv.

It was spring 1951 and Avrahami’s most troubling case involved a series of arson attacks: Dozens of cars spotted driving on Shabbat had subsequently been torched, while a butcher’s shop was also set ablaze, presumably because kashrut was not being strictly observed there.

This was bad enough. Tensions between religious and secular Jews in a city – or at least its Western sector – under Israeli control threatened to undermine its government’s claim to safeguard all worshippers and the separation of synagogue and state.

But the real problem concerned the perpetrators.

This was no criminal gang. For the first time since Israeli leader David Ben-Gurion had outlawed and crushed the two right-wing paramilitary organizations Irgun and Lehi, a clandestine challenge was now showing complete disregard for governmental authority.

A group of ultra-Orthodox Jewish fanatics was operating in the city. Their group would eventually be known as the Union of Zealots, or Covenant of Zealots (Brith Kanaim), after they were arrested and charged by the police.

And while not going so far as to stage a coup or recruit military units, they hatched a plot that was no laughing matter: to penetrate the Knesset building and throw what The New York Times subsequently described as a “scare bomb” at the assembled lawmakers, disrupting the legislative process.

It would be a serious crime, and police chief Avrahami believed a prosecution was within reach based on carefully gathered evidence. Until, that is, the Shin Bet got involved.

President Harry Truman receives a bronze menorah as a birthday gift from David Ben-Gurion, prime minister of Israel in late spring 1951Credit: AP

Avrahami’s detectives managed to recruit an informant within the Union of Zealots. His identity is still shielded today, though he must have been a key member of the group – a yeshiva student just like the others led by the future Sephardi Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu (who was 22 at the time).

This informant gave the police a full account of the Union of Zealots’ structure, doctrine, leaders, modes of communication, code words and modus operandi. He also apparently tipped off his handlers about their most perilous plot: bombing the Knesset.

This event, a poor man’s Gunpowder Plot, has largely been forgotten in Israel’s history. Those with a dim memory of an explosion at the Knesset might recall instead the October 1957 incident involving a young, mentally ill immigrant, who threw a grenade onto the Knesset floor, injuring several ministers. (Like in 1951, this attack took place in the old Knesset building in midtown, not the one opened in 1966.) Only obscure documents recount the actions of the Zealots.

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605, of course, saw Guy Fawkes attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The Zealots did not aim to kill. Their intent was to protest, disrupt and terrorize by throwing from the visitors’ balcony a small incendiary device that would release smoke and emit noises. Security being so lax, they could just as easily have decided to commit mass murder.

Teenagers gathering in Tel Aviv's Kings of Israel Square, where Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated hours earlier, November 1995. Lack of communication between the Shin Bet and police had also been a problem in May 1951.Credit: Tzivka Israel/GPO

Caught red-handed?

The timing chosen for the attack coincided with discussion on a piece of legislative that would eventually require Israeli women to be drafted for military service.

Ben-Gurion was not present at the session. He was on a trip to the United States, so Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett was filling in for him. He, along with the justice and public security ministers, had been briefed on the roundup of suspected Jewish fanatics.

In order to prosecute them to the full extent of the law, the plan was to allow the Zealots to execute their plot and thus be caught red-handed, though the bomb would have been secretly disabled beforehand.

The result would have been a tremendous triumph for police ingenuity, but for two unfortunate twists.

First, the acting Knesset speaker did not let events run their course that day; he abruptly halted proceedings before the legislators reached the religious bill.

Second, a scene right out of a zany Marx Brothers movie played out among the Zealots on the balcony.

To Avrahami’s anger and shock, he learned that after he had informed the Shin Bet of his plans regarding the Union of Zealots, the security service also recruited an informant from within the membership. However, the two informants were not aware of each other’s activities.

Mordechai Eliyahu waving to followers in Jerusalem: From head of the Covenant of Zealots to Israel's Chief RabbiCredit: Eyal Warshavsky

So, that evening at the Knesset, the bomb was handed from one fanatic to another, until the last one in the row was best positioned to hurl it down among the lawmakers. However, the last two in the row just happened to be the informants, who each refused to throw it. They passed it back and forth, Groucho and Chico-style, until the session was over and it was time to go home – or to jail.

In a letter to his superiors, a raging Avrahami bemoaned how the Shin Bet had messed up his case. To no avail. The power of the police was no match for the security service’s prestige thanks to its glamorous hush-hush operations.

As for the Union of Zealots, 42 members of the group were arrested in mid-May. However, with Israeli judges being their customary merciful selves, plot leader Mordechai Eliyahu was sentenced to just 10 months and his fellow Zealots got off with even more lenient punishments.

These were seen as well-meaning, nice Jewish boys. And while, admittedly, they had broken the law, damaged private property and almost bombed the Knesset, they had full lives and careers ahead of them. A slap on the wrist would suffice. After all, the logic went, it was more an act of folly than something despicable.

Besides, it was not as if – God forbid – an Israeli would ever try to assassinate the prime minister.

Amir Oren, a veteran observer of Israeli, American and NATO military and political affairs, has written for Haaretz on defense and government for more than two decades. Twitter: @Rimanero

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