The Makings of History / It Was Bevin in the Crosshairs

The murder of Lord Moyne is one of the actions that harmed the Zionist movement's cause; Moyne was a close friend of Churchill's, and it is customary to say that his murder turned Churchill into a hater of Zionism.

The young woman who answered the phone in the press department of the National Archives in London was very nice. Ah yes, the attempt to assassinate Churchill, I know, she said delightedly, and was kind enough not to correct me: Actually, the target was primarily Ernest Bevin. Within minutes an e-mail arrived with the entire MI5 file, some 50 or so pages.

One of the documents was sent from Palestine on January 5, 1945. It said that a member of the Lehi pre-state underground group, Raphael Sadovsky, who was arrested following the murder of Lord Moyne in Cairo, revealed in his interrogation that one of Moyne's killers, Eliyahu Bet-Zuri, had told him that as soon as he got back to Lehi headquarters he would propose assassinating British politicians, including Mr. Churchill. According to the Israeli Defense Ministry's memorial website, Sadovsky was badly tortured in the British jail and killed himself.

Winston Churchill
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Bet-Zuri was arrested right after the murder, which took place in November 1944, so there is no justification for the headlines (in Haaretz as well ) prompted by the opening of this file in the British archives, suggesting that Lehi had a plan to assassinate Churchill. If it were true, this story would be potentially sensational - among other reasons because one of Lehi's leaders, Icchak Jeziernicky, was destined to change his name to Yitzhak Shamir and become prime minister of Israel. Shamir and his friends believed in personal terror. A few of the ideologues who were acceptable to Lehi, among them Abba Ahimeir and Avraham Stern, provided the organization's members with moral justification for this tactic, among other things by arguing that if someone had managed to murder Hitler in time, the Holocaust would not have happened.

The Lehi scholar Joseph Heller wrote that immediately after Moyne's murder, one of the leaders of the Haganah militia, Eliyahu Golomb, asked one of the Lehi commanders, Nathan Yellin-Mor, whether Lehi intended to assassinate Churchill. Yellin-Mor, later a member of Knesset, said that it did not.

The rest of the documents in the MI5 file that was made public this week reflect bits of information, some of which are described as mere gossip, about the possibility that Lehi or Etzel, or both underground organizations together, would try to assassinate Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin. In 1946, Bevin was about to visit Alexandria and Paris; those in charge of his safety naturally collated information regarding parties that might assassinate him - Jews and Arabs. Among other things, the British secret service documents state that many of Lehi's members were Jews of Middle Eastern origin, who could easily disguise themselves as Arabs.

But the possibility that someone might try to murder Bevin did not require particularly sophisticated intelligence: One of the documents says that the topic was "almost a household conversation." In the wake of the King David Hotel bombing by the Etzel, in June 1946, one of the documents also states that now there were fewer Jews who would be willing to hide terrorists in their homes and so the organization would have difficulty in murdering Bevin.

The murder of Lord Moyne is one of the actions that harmed the Zionist movement's cause; Moyne was a close friend of Churchill's, and it is customary to say that his murder turned Churchill into a hater of Zionism. The anti-British terrorism also pushed away outright friends of the Zionist movement, such as Wyndham Deedes, who had been Gen. Allenby's intelligence officer and later chief secretary to Herbert Samuel, the first British high commissioner for Palestine. Deedes was a devout Christian and a devout Zionist. There is a street named after him in Jerusalem.

In a letter that is kept to this day in the Chaim Weizmann Archives in Rehovot, Deedes wrote the future president: "In how many crises during the last quarter of a century have you and I not met ... crises, in the end, generally surmounted. But this time I feel less happy. Quite frankly, Jewish Agency policy in the last 12 months (if I am correctly informed ) has rather shocked me, has indeed rather alienated my sympathies. How far this aggressive, worldly 'nationalism' is from the 'new order' in Palestine which we hoped Jewry would set up. I fear Gentile sympathies are much alienated. If only they had all listened to, and been guided by you, how different would the results now be ...."

Merav Segal, director of the Weizmann Archives, was unable to find a direct reply to this letter, which doubtless had flattered Weizmann: He too thought that his leadership would have benefited the Zionist movement more than David Ben-Gurion's. Either way, Deedes was quick to forgive the Zionists: In 1949 he founded the Anglo-Israel Association, which is active to this day.