Remembrance of Pre-state Jewish Fighters Shouldn't Come at the Expense of the Truth

It could be understood why, in 1941, when Palestine's Jews were gearing up to fight the British Mandate, no one found fit to memorialize the British officer who was sent with Palmach commandos on a dangerous mission. Much has changed since.

Palmach soldiers train for Operation Boatswain.
Palmach archive

Preserving a formative historical myth, as opposed to justice and sticking to the historical truth, were the two competing values that confronted the Haifa municipality when it came to deciding what to write on the memorial sign for the mission known in Hebrew as the Kaf-Gimmel Yordei Hasira (“the 23 who went down with the ship”) that it plans to erect at Haifa Port.

May will mark the 75th anniversary of the disaster, in which 23 Palmach seamen (“Yordei Hasira”) and a British officer accompanying them left Haifa for Tripoli, Lebanon to commit an act of sabotage there. The mission, an effort to block the advance of pro-German forces in the Middle East during World War II, was the height of cooperation between the Yishuv and the British Mandate.

The mission, however, ended in tragedy; the 24 disappeared, and to this day no one knows what happened to them.

Representatives of the families asked that the memorial sign to be erected at Haifa Port perpetuate the myth of “the 23,” which ignores that fact that a British officer was also lost. The families argue that his role in the mission was marginal and he was sent as chaperone or an attaché and was not part of the Palmach group. He is thus denied inclusion in the history books.

The Names Committee of the Haifa municipality correctly decided not to comply with the families’ demand. Its researchers found that even the Israel Defense Forces, in its official report on the disaster in 2008, called it the tragedy of the “24 Yordei Hasira.” This has now become the norm among other bodies and individuals researching the event.

While we must honor the 23 and respect the bereaved families, this honor and respect is not compromised by accepting the historical truth that another person was in the same boat as their sons, and that he has been consistently denied the right to be remembered with them.

It could be understood why, in 1941, when the Yishuv was gearing up for its struggle against the British Mandate in the run-up to the founding of the Jewish state, and at the height of concern that the German army might invade Eretz Yisrael, no one found fit to memorialize the British officer who was sent with the Jews on a dangerous commando mission. But 75 years later, when the State of Israel is strong, independent and confident, it is time for this historical error to be corrected.

It is essentially a declarative and symbolic gesture, but that is what makes it so important. It doesn’t mean that the inscriptions on all the memorials and all the street signs commemorating the event throughout the country must be changed. But a declaration regarding the 24 on a memorial sign on the spot from which the group set out serves to right a historic injustice.