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The Irgun: Bombing of the King David Hotel

(July 22, 1946)

The King David Hotel was the site of the British military command and the British Criminal Investigation Division (CID). The Irgun chose it as a target after British troops invaded the Jewish Agency on June 29, 1946 (Black Sabbath), and confiscated large quantities of documents. At about the same time, more than 2,500 Jews from all over Palestine were placed under arrest. The information about Jewish Agency operations, including intelligence activities in Arab countries, was taken to the King David Hotel.

A week later, news of a massacre of 40 Jews in a pogrom in KielcePoland, reminded the Jews of Palestine how Britain's restrictive immigration policy had condemned thousands to death.

Irgun leader Menachem Begin stressed his desire to avoid civilian casualties and said three telephone calls were placed, one to the hotel, another to the French Consulate, and a third to the Palestine Post, warning that explosives in the King David Hotel would soon be detonated.

On July 22, 1946, the calls were made. Adina Hai-Nisan said she called the hotel switchboard 30 minutes before the explosion. That call was apparently received and ignored. Begin quotes one British official who supposedly refused to evacuate the building, saying: We don't take orders from the Jews.1 The Irgun also detonated a bomb nearby, which broke windows, but did not cause any injuries and may have been intended to cause panic and encourage evacuation of the building. As a result, when the bombs exploded, the casualty toll was high: a total of 91 killed and 45 injured. Among the casualties were 15 Jews. Few people in the hotel proper were injured by the blast.2

The Irgun carried out a diversion bombing minutes after the bombs were planted in the King David Hotel, in which a wagon with explosives was blown outside shops next to the hotel. The CID’s assessment was that this second bombing (which broke windows but did not hurt anyone) was intended to cause panic and encourage evacuation of the building.

In contrast to Arab attacks against Jews, which were widely hailed as heroic actions, the Jewish National Council denounced the bombing of the King David.3 For decades, the British denied they had been warned. In 1979, however, a member of the British Parliament introduced evidence that the Irgun had indeed issued the warning. He offered the testimony of a British officer who heard other officers in the King David Hotel bar joking about a Zionist threat to the headquarters. The officer who overheard the conversation immediately left the hotel and survived.

According to Lord Greville Janner, Brigadier Dudley Sheridan Skelton was head of a hospital near Jerusalem and a frequent visitor to the King David Hotel. He was there on the day of the explosion and wrote a letter to a colleague in which he said: “‘a warning’ was passed on to the officers in the bar in rather jocular terms, implying it was ‘Jewish terrorist bluff.’ But despite advice to “ignore the bluff” he decided to leave and thus was out of the hotel when the explosion took place.”4

Citing Eldad Harouvi’s book, Palestine Investigated: The Criminal Investigation Department of the Palestine Police Force, 1920-1948, the Israel State Archives noted the CID had intelligence showing the Hotel as a possible target for attack by the Irgun in December 1945 – 6 months prior to the attack. The CID asked to raise security in the hotel, including putting armed soldiers at the ‘Regence’ restaurant at the entrance of the hotel. The Chief Secretary [Sir John Shaw] refused to consider these suggestions, with the justification that there were not many places for recreation and fun in Palestine, and he did not want to foreclose another. He continued to refuse to take action (or even to pass on the information to the High Commissioner of Palestine) when the CID approached him again with newer information on the attack plan (the CID had the plan of attack but did not know exactly when it would be carried out).5 Shaw was blamed by one former CID officer interviewed by Harouvi for the failure to evacuate the building. Reportedly, after the Irgun called in their warning, Shaw said, “I am not here to take orders from the Jews. I’m here to give them.”6

Sources: Israeli Government National Photo Collection.

1. Menachem Begin, The Revolt, (NY: Nash Publishing, 1977), p. 224.
2. J. Bowyer Bell, Terror Out Of Zion, (NY: St. Martin's Press), p. 172.
3. Anne Sinai and I. Robert Sinai, Israel and the Arabs: Prelude to the Jewish State, (NY: Facts on File, 1972), p. 83.
4. Lord Greville Janner, Address In Reply To Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech, House of Lords, (May 22, 1979).
5. Israel State Archives.
6. Shlomo Maital, “Megilat Ha’atzmaut: The Real Story,” Jerusalem Report, (August 21, 2023).