After Hitler's rise to power, immigration from Central Europe accelerated, with the Yishuv doubling in size between 1931-1936 (On November 18, 1931 there were 174,610 Jews in Palestine, and by December 31, 1936 their number had grown to 384,000). This development was anathema to the Arabs, who were afraid of losing their numerical superiority in Eretz Israel. They demanded that the Mandatory government call a halt to immigration and ban the sale of land to Jews. When they received no response, they launched a campaign of terror, both against the Jews and against the British Mandate.

The anti-Jewish riots began in April 1936 and continued, with intervals, till the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939. In the first six months of the riots, 80 Jews were killed and 340 injured. The violence ended when the British appointed a Royal Commission, headed by Lord Peel, charged with the task of examining the Palestine problem and proposing solutions to the British Government. The Commission arrived in Palestine on November 2, 1936 and gathered evidence from Jews, Arabs and British officials.

In the same period, important changes were taking place in the Irgun. Betar members swelled the ranks and became the main component of the organization. This enhanced the influence of the Revisionist party and of Jabotinsky personally, and reduced that of the public committee, which included representatives of the non socialist parties.

When the riots began, the Irgun and the Haganah operated in close co-operation in the defence of Jewish settlements against the Arab onslaughts. In Tel-Aviv, for example, the defence positions were divided by the municipality between the two organizations, and in Ramat-Gan a joint command was established. The Jewish Agency adopted a passive defence policy, based on 'havlaga' (restraint), while the Irgun believed that the best form of defence was attack.

In the initial stage of the riots, Jabotinsky instructed members in Eretz Israel to display "restraint and patience", so as to allow him time to find a basic solution to the problem of the security of the Yishuv in Eretz Israel. Jabotinsky was consistent in his belief that only by establishing a Jewish battalion, sanctioned by the authorities, would it be possible to defend the Yishuv. As early as 1920, when charged with the task of organizing the defence of Jerusalem, he approached the government and requested weapons in order to arm the fighters. Jabotinsky argued that only a regular army, properly disciplined and well-equipped, could defend the Yishuv. Thus, immediately after the outbreak of the 1936 riots, he initiated political action, demanding that the British Government permit the establishment of a Jewish battalion in Eretz Israel. He was opposed on moral grounds to terror and reprisals, but was well aware that failure to react on the part of the Jews would be interpreted by the Arabs as weakness.

Tehomi perceived no ideological differences between the Irgun and the Haganah, and argued that, in view of the grave security situation, they should amalgamate. Members of the Irgun's public committee shared Tehomi's convictions. Various public figures tried to mediate, but the amalgamation never materialized.

In search of a way back to the Haganah, Tehomi claimed that the Haganah had accepted the authority of the Jewish Agency, and had realized that there was no alternative but to create an organization based on military order and discipline, thus eradicating the two main reasons for the establishment of the Irgun. In May 1937 Tehomi, together with a large group of his comrades, returned to the ranks of the Haganah, taking with him the bulk of the weapons. At the same time the Irgun's public committee (the Supervisory Committee) was also disbanded.

The main controversy between Tehomi and his opponents in the Irgun related not only to the question of "restraint" as opposed to "retaliation", but also to the question of the autonomous existence of the Irgun. Among the Irgun's supporters there was a feeling that, in light of the anticipated political developments stemming from the Peel Commission's deliberations, it was essential to ensure that the Irgun would not be constrained by the leaders of the Histadrut and the Jewish Agency. Tehomi's secession did not liquidate the Irgun, though it suffered a severe blow; all the senior staff and a large proportion of the members of the central body and the local committees joined the Haganah. On the other hand, all the activist groups and most of the younger members remained loyal to the Irgun, which was now politically homogeneous. Jabotinsky became its leader and chief commander, and on April 30, 1937, he cabled from Johannesburg, South Africa:

This is my order
under the prevailing conditions: if the riots are renewed and there is a tendency to attack Jews as well, do not hold back.

This was the sign that 'havlaga', the policy of restraint, was over.

Robert Bitker
Jabotinsky appointed
Robert Bitker First Commanding Officer of the Irgun after the split. Bitker was chosen for his military experience prior to his immigration, when he had served as an officer in the White Russian army during the post-October 1917 civil war. Subsequently, he moved to Shanghai, where he joined the British army and was appointed battalion commander with the rank of colonel. While in Shanghai he joined Betar and, after arriving in Eretz Israel in 1937, joined the Irgun. Bitker set up a new command and the branches were organized into four districts: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and the settlements. The Jerusalem district was headed by David Raziel ("Razi").

Moshe Rosenberg
Bitker was unfamiliar with life in Palestine and was not fluent in Hebrew. After several months, he was replaced by
Moshe Rosenberg, who had previously been Tel Aviv district commander.

On July 7, 1937, the Peel Commission published its recommendations, the crux of which was: the partition of western Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Greater Jerusalem (with a corridor to the coastal plain) was to remain under British rule, in order to safeguard the holy places of the three religions.

The Jewish Agency, headed by David Ben-Gurion, accepted the principle of partition, whereas the Revisionist party, under Jabotinsky, rejected the plan outright. The Arabs too rejected the Commission's recommendations and renewed their anti-Jewish riots. This time Arab weapons were aimed at both the Jews and the British. On September 26, 1937, the Arabs assassinated Lewis Andrews, commissioner of Galilee district, thereby initiating widespread action against British rule. Arabs attacks on Jews also increased.

On November 9, 1937, five Jewish workers set out to work in the fields of Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim, near Jerusalem. They were encircled by an Arab gang and after exchanges of fire, all five were killed and robbed of their rifles (Kibbutz Maaleh Hahamisha - The Hill of the Five - was named for them). The murder stunned the Jewish community in Jerusalem, but despite their pain and anger, the leaders of the Jewish Agency continued to call for restraint.

On the day of the murder, the British Mandatory government announced the establishment of military courts in Palestine. Official Order No. 20/37, which came into effect on November 18, 1937, detailed the crimes which would come under the jurisdiction of these courts:
a) Shooting of a firearm at any person is a capital crime;
b) The possession of weapons, bombs etc, is a capital crime.
c) Acts of sabotage and terror are a capital crime.
Within the Irgun, there was a growing call for reprisals against the Arabs, and the organization's leaders asked Jabotinsky, who was then in Egypt, for his endorsement. After considerable hesitation, he approved retaliatory action.

On Sunday, November 14, 1937, Irgun units launched a widescale operation in various parts of the country. The order was given in Jerusalem, and the operation was led by David Raziel, who decided on a number of simultaneous attacks in order to impede police response. The hit unit was generally composed of three members: one to convey the weapons before the operation, one to fire the weapon or throw the grenade, and the third to remove the weapon after the operation. The main purpose of this division was to ensure that in the event of the assassin being caught, he would be unarmed.

November 14, also known as "Black Sunday" (the term was coined by Yitzhak Ben Zvi, then chairman of the Vaad Le'umi), went down in the history of the Irgun as the day on which the havlaga ended. It was not the first time that the Irgun had set out to attack Arabs in retaliation for attacks on Jews, but this time the operation was carried out on the initiative of the General Headquarters and with Jabotinsky's endorsement. Raziel believed that these activities marked the transition from "passive" to "active" defence. He explained the two methods as follows:

[...] Defensive actions alone can never succeed. If the objective of the war is to break the will of the enemy - and this cannot be achieved without shattering their power - we clearly cannot be content with defensive action. Purely defensive tactics will never break the enemy's strength...
Such a method of defence, which enables the enemy to attack as he sees fit and to retreat at will, to reorganize and to attack again - such defence is known as "passive defence" and ends in defeat and ruin...
All these calculations lead to one conclusion: he who does not wish to be defeated must attack. The same applies to the combatants, who have no intention of oppressing others but are fighting for their own freedom and honor. They too have but one possible path - attack. They must attack their enemy and break its strength and its will...

The Irgun's actions on November 14 took the Arabs completely by surprise and attacks on Jews ceased for some time. The British police responded by carrying out large-scale arrests among the Revisionist party activists. As a result of these arrests and of the law of making arms' possession a capital offence, Rosenberg, the Irgun commander, ordered the suspension of Irgun activities until the situation calmed down. This decision aroused considerable resentment among members, and once again the outcome was unsanctioned individual initiative. The suspension of activity lasted eight months - until David Raziel was appointed Irgun commander in place of Rosenberg.

On March 28, 1938, a private vehicle travelling from Haifa to Safed was attacked on the Acre-Safed road. Four Jewish passengers, including a child and two women, were shot dead. The driver and a woman passenger managed to escape, but their bodies were later found not far from the site of the attack. About two weeks later, a car was ambushed on the Hanita-Nahariya road. Three Jews were shot and killed, including David Ben-Gaon, graduate of the Betar battalion at Rosh Pina. These murders caused a storm of outrage among members of the Labor Battalion at Rosh Pina and three members of the battalion - Avraham Shein, Shalom Jurabin and
Shlomo Ben-Yosef (Tabachnik) - decided to retaliate. Without receiving permission from their commanding officer, they set out for the Safed - Rosh Pina road, where they fired on an Arab bus. They missed their target, harming no-one, and then fled to a nearby abandoned building. Spotted as they ran to their hide-out, they were arrested shortly afterwards. All were tried by a military tribunal in Haifa and charged with illegal possession of weapons and with "intention to kill or cause other harm to a large number of people". Under the Emergency Regulations, each of the charges was considered a capital crime. The Betar leaders hired lawyers Philip Joseph and Aharon Hoter-Yishay for the defence. The lawyers suggested that an attempt be made to have Jurabin pronounced mentally unstable, and that a document be obtained for Shein confirming that he was a minor. The three defendants rejected this line of defence and announced that they intended to use the trial as a political platform, from which they would proclaim their convictions openly.

The trial did in fact end with Jurabin being pronounced mentally unstable and sentenced to incarceration in a mental hospital "at the discretion of the High Commissioner". Shein and Ben-Yosef were sentenced to "be hung by the neck". The two accepted the sentence with exceptional stoicism, and proceeded to sing the national anthem, Hatikva. The British commander-in-chief confirmed Shlomo Ben-Yosef's sentence, but later commuted Shein's sentence to life imprisonment on account of his youth.

When the sentence became known, a number of public figures in Eretz Israel and throughout the world, appealed to the British Government to pardon the condemned men. Jabotinsky, then in London, was very active in this respect, and several days before the date fixed for the execution, he sent a cable to Palestine ordering the Irgun to react with force if Ben-Yosef were hanged. It read:

If final, invest heavily

It should be noted that Jabotinsky was greatly troubled by the issue of restraint and retaliation. He was opposed to acts of reprisal which claimed innocent lives, but at the same time understood that the havlaga policy was turning the Yishuv into a community of cowards, and that the Arabs and British perceived it as a sign of weakness.

Jabotinsky was aware that Ben-Yosef and his comrades had undertaken an act of retaliation without receiving prior approval.In a speech delivered in Warsaw on July 12, 1938, he gave the operation his retrospective endorsement:

They (the three) wanted to put an end to a situation, in which Jews could be murdered with impunity, but not Arabs. Such a situation must not be permitted. And if necessary, then post factum I, as head of Betar, give you, Ben-Yosef and your two comrades, the order to go out onto the highway and do what you did.

Jabotinsky had wrestled long and hard with this moral question and had finally come to the conclusion that the havlaga policy was unsuitable in the circumstances. In one of his articles, Jabotinsky wrote, inter alia:

Do not dare to punish the innocent... what superficial and hypocritical nonsense. In war, any war, each side is innocent. What crime has he committed against me - that enemy soldier who fights me -- and is as poor as I, as blind as I, as much a slave as I, who has been recruited against his will? When a war breaks out, we demand unanimously a sea and land blockade of enemy soil, so as to starve the population and the innocent women and children. And after the first air raid on London and Paris, we will expect air reprisals against Stuttgart and Milan, which are full of women and children. There is no war which is not conducted against the innocent, just as there is no war which is not fraternal strife. Therefore every war and the tribulations it brings is accursed, whether offensive or defensive, and if you do not wish to harm the innocent - you will die. And if you do not wish to die - then shoot and stop prattling.

Unfortunately, the extensive efforts to commute Ben-Yosef death sentence proved fruitless.

On the morning of June 29, 1938, Shlomo Ben-Yosef prepared for his final hour. He removed the scarlet garments of the condemned man, put on shorts, a shirt and high work-boots. After breakfast, he brushed his teeth and awaited the guards. He walked upright to the gallows singing the Betar anthem. On the walls of his cell, Ben-Yosef had written in his poor Hebrew:

What is a homeland?
It is something worth living for, fighting for and dying for.
I was a slave to Betar to the day of my death

and an excerpt from Jabotinsky's poem "To die or to capture the mountain."

The Yishuv was plunged into mourning and anger, and within the Irgun command there was considerable resentment against the Irgun commander Moshe Rosenberg for his decision to suspend military action.

On the eve of Ben-Yosef's execution, Rosenberg and several of the leaders of the movement visited his cell to say their farewells. The next day Rosenberg left the country on private business. On his way to Poland he received a letter from Jabotinsky, thanking him for his services and relieving him of his post. He was replaced as commander of the Irgun Zvai Le'umi in Eretz Israel by David Raziel.


David Raziel
David Raziel was born in Vilna, Lithuania in 1910. His family immigrated to Eretz Israel when he was three, and his father taught Hebrew in a Tel Aviv elementary school. When the 1929 riots broke out, David Raziel, who was studying philosophy and mathematics at the Hebrew University, joined the Haganah in Jerusalem, and was one of the first to join the Irgun after it was established. Raziel did a great deal to inculcate the military spirit into the Irgun and to foster order and discipline. One of the Irgun's greatest problems, as he saw it, was the shortage of military manuals in Hebrew, a shortcoming which he sought to remedy.

"The Pistol", the first military manual published in Hebrew, was written jointly by Raziel and Avraham Stern. It was a comprehensive manual, also used by Haganah commanders and instructors in its first few years. The recruits studied firearm lore with something approaching religious fervor, and special efforts were made to prevent accidents during training and operations.

After Ben-Yosef's execution, the Irgun launched a series of operations against the Arabs. The central acts were the explosions in the Arab markets of Haifa and Jerusalem. On July 6, 1938, a member of the Irgun, disguised as an Arab porter, went into the Arab market in Haifa, placed a large parcel beside one of the barrows in the center of the market and left. Shortly afterwards there was a heavy explosion, which killed 21 Arabs and injured more than 50. A week later a similar incident took place in Jerusalem. A member of the Irgun concealed an electric mine in the Arab market in the Old City. It exploded shortly after the end of the prayer service in the mosque, when a large crowd had emerged onto the street. Eight Arabs were killed and more than 30 injured.

The debate on the question of restraint and reprisals became more fierce, and the Yishuv was split. During this period, the Haganah imposed strict discipline on its members to prevent any individual acts of reprisal or punitive action. The leaders of the Jewish Agency strongly condemned the Irgun and demanded that they cease activities against the Arabs immediately.

On July 26, 1938,
Yaakov Raz was sent to the Old City of Jerusalem disguised as an Arab and carrying a basket of vegetables in which a mine was concealed. His commanding officers, who had planned the operation far in advance, did not heed the fact that the Arabs had proclaimed a general strike that day in protest against the Irgun's incessant attacks. When Raz placed the basket beside one of the stores whose doors were barred, he aroused the suspicion of the Arab bystanders. His basket was overturned and when the mine was found, Raz was repeatedly stabbed. The Arabs then fled, leaving him for dead. Yaakov Raz was severely injured, and was taken by the police to the government hospital. Despite his serious condition, he was interrogated by the British Intelligence, the CID (Criminal Investigation Department), throughout his hospital stay. For two weeks he fought for his life. When he felt his strength waning, and feared he would not be able to withstand further interrogation and was liable to betray secret information, he tore off his bandages and died of blood loss.

Yaakov Raz was the first member of the Irgun to die as a result of an operation. The heroism he displayed, and particularly the manner of his death, made him a symbol and inspiration for generations of young Irgun members.

On May 17, 1939, the British Government published Parliamentary Document 6019, known as the White Paper. This document set out its political aims with regard to Palestine:

The objective of His Majesty's Government is the establishment within ten years of an independent Palestinian State in such treaty relations with the United Kingdom as will provide satisfactorily for the commercial and strategic requirements of both countries in the future.

In order to guarantee the Arab character of the Palestinian State, immigration was to be restricted so that the number of Jews in the country would not exceed one-third of the total population. If economic absorptive capacity permitted, over five years some 75,000 Jews were to be admitted, and at the end of that period "no further Jewish immigration will be permitted unless the Arabs of Palestine are prepared to acquiesce in it." In addition to the restrictions on immigration, the document also stipulated limitations on land purchase by Jews in most of the country:

there is now in certain areas no room for further transfers of Arab land, whilst in some other areas such transfers of land must be restricted if Arab cultivators are to maintain their existing standard of life and a considerable landless Arab population is not soon to be created.

The Arabs rejected the White Paper on the grounds that it did not go far enough, and launched a widespread campaign of violence against the Yishuv. Jabotinsky was determined to take action against the Arabs, even if this action claimed innocent victims. On the moral problem entailed in this war, Jabotinsky wrote:

Each of us would wish that, in the event that it is essential to take action, it should be a direct reprisal against the murderers. But if a Jewish unit should dare to pursue an Arab gang, its members would be arrested and disarmed and they would be placed on trial - and many of them would be hung from the gallows. The choice does not lie between reacting against murderers or against the hostile public in general: the choice is between two practical possibilities - either reaction against the hostile public in general or general non-reaction.

When we are speaking of war, we do not ask ourselves which is 'preferable' - to shoot or not to shoot. The sole question which may be asked in such cases is the reverse: which is 'worse', to be slaughtered or subjugated without resistance, or to resist with all the means at one's disposal, however cruel, because there is no 'preferable' in this case. Everything to do with war is 'bad' ,and the 'good' is non-existent. When you fire at foreign soldiers, do not lie to yourself and do not delude yourself that those you are shooting are the 'guilty'.

If we were to begin to calculate what is preferable, then the reckoning would be very simple; if you wish to be 'good', then please allow yourself to be killed and renounce everything you hoped to defend: home, country, freedom, hope..."

After the publication of the White Paper, Arab onslaughts continued throughout the country. On June 9,1939 a bombing attack was planned against Arab visitors to prisoners in the central jail in the Russian Compound in Jerusalem. The explosive device was hidden in a large basket carried by Rachel Ohevet-Ami (Habshush), who was of Oriental appearance and spoke fluent Arabic (her family had immigrated from Yemen). Rachel was taken by car to a spot close to the Russian Compound and walked from there, her face veiled. She asked an Arab boy to carry her basket, loaded with fruit and vegetables. Its weight aroused his suspicion, and he approached a passing policeman and asked him to check the contents. Rachel was arrested immediately and a bomb-disposal expert detached the fuse and prevented the device from detonating. Rachel Ohevet-Ami was tried by a military tribunal and sentenced to life imprisonment. She was transferred to the women's jail in Bethlehem, where she was the first Jewess to be incarcerated among Arab women prisoners. In time she was joined by additional women, members of the Irgun and of Lehi. Seven years later, after the Second World War, Rachel was pardoned by the High Commissioner and released.

When war broke out, on September 1, 1939, Arab hostilities acts against Jews ceased, as did Irgun reprisals. In the course of the 1936-1939 riots, some 500 Jews were killed throughout the country.

next: The Illegal Immigration of the Irgun