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Pre-State Israel: Hebrew-Language Clandestine Radio Broadcasting during the British Mandate

Excerpted from an article by Douglas A. Boyd

- "Establishment" Clandestine Broadcasting
- Hard-Line Clandestine Stations
- Discussion

"Establishment" Clandestine Broadcasting

Haganah Radio was the most extensive and well organized of the Jewish clandestine radio services, having started transmissions first from Tel Aviv in 1940 to protest a British law banning British press censorship and the sale of certain types of land to Jews (A. Avnerre, advisor, Israeli Broadcasting Authority, personal communication, January 3, 1992). Between 1945 and 1948 the Haganah added Arabic broadcasts, at one time headed by Shaul Bar-Haim, an Iraqi Jew who had immigrated to Mandatory Palestine and later became the Director of the Israeli Radio Arabic Service (S. Bar-Haim, personal communication, January 26, 1980). A Jerusalem station hidden on the sixth floor of a well located apartment building started in 1947 and was especially active during the months before May 1948, when the official British departure from the area triggered the first Arab-Israeli war. At first the station used the name Kol Israel (Voice of Israel), but Haganah leadership objected, wanting to reserve the name for the official radio broadcasting service of the new state. Thus, from March 1948 until independence, the Jerusalem station used the name Voice of the Jewish Defender (A. Avnerre, advisor, Israeli Broadcasting Authority, personal communication, January 3, 1992; British Broadcasting Corporation, 1948, March 25). Because the Haganah was very well organized and funded, and as the British departure date came closer--thereby decreasing somewhat British enthusiasm for finding and closing clandestine stations--the Jerusalem station was able to add a greater variety of programming, including children's shows, to its Hebrew radio broadcasts.

Like most secret operations in Palestine during the pre-independence period, there were elaborate security precautions in an attempt to protect both Haganah radio sites and those involved in operating them. Thus, the transmitting equipment, most home-made in Palestine, was very valuable. The stations became regular reminders to listeners that the resistance groups operating them were still active.

Mandate authority laws stipulated imprisonment for those caught transmitting illegally. Unlike at least one of the other clandestine broadcasters, there is no record of any Haganah station being discovered by the British. This was due, at least in part, to frequent transmitter moves and an elaborate security system that was so effective that even close friends did not know they were working in various capacities for the same station. The Tel Aviv station serves as an illustration of the elaborate security arrangements. Elkana Galli was a news reader for the station for approximately one year between 1946 and 1947. His "all clear" signal after each broadcast, indicating that all had gone well, was to walk on the previously designated side of an automobile that someone was watching. During a period when the British decreed an all-day curfew in Tel Aviv, newscasts were passed from those who wrote them to news readers by concealing them in partially hollowed-out oranges that were then thrown across streets during brief periods when the curfew was lifted in order for residents to get food (E. Galli, personal communication, Tel Aviv, January 5, 1992).

Martin (1949) states that Haganah eventually started some English-language programming, but after the British announced they would leave the area, it was Haganah Radio's Arabic broadcasts that were effective, at least to some extent, in attracting an Arab audience.

The speed at which the news about these [Haganah] daily broadcasts in Arabic got around was amazing. The Jews would say jokingly (and the Arabs took up the joke), that the Haganah would start raids at 8:45 p.m., because at the time all the Arabs were at home listening to Haganah's Arabic news broadcast. There was a great deal of truth in this. The news bulletins in Arabic included ‘information’ about individual Arab leaders, their ‘corruption,’ and ‘facts about their embezzlement of public funds.’ The station would broadcast warnings to individual Arabs (some of whom took these warnings very seriously and escaped to Egypt), and gave ‘inside information’ on the situation ‘behind the Arab lines’ (Martin, 1949, p. 192).

On March 11, 1948, an Arabic-language station believed to be Haganah- operated, Free Jewish Station, was monitored in Cairo. Foreign Broadcasting Information Bureau (FBIB) monitors noted that the station seemed "in its propaganda trend" to resemble Haganah broadcasts (British Broadcasting Corporation, 1948, March 18).

Another Haganah-sponsored Hebrew-language station, Station of the Moon, appeared briefly on March 11, 1948, announcing that it would be on the air for a limited schedule on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays (British Broadcasting Corporation, 1948, March 18). Some former Haganah broadcasters in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv believe that this station operated in one of the rural areas in an attempt to serve Jewish settlements that were not in range of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

On May 12, 1948, Haganah Radio announced that it would soon become the Voice of Israel, Kol Israel (Foreign Broadcast Information Service, 1948)--the official name of the Israeli national radio service that was a department of the Prime Minister's office until the creation of a Broadcasting Authority in 1965 (Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel, 1971). The next day the Haganah announced in a broadcast monitored in Cairo that its first program would be a live broadcast from the National Assembly and called on the Voice of the Defender in Jerusalem, the Voice of Haganah in Haifa, the Voice of Galilee, and the Voice of the Negev to convey "this announcement to your listeners" (British Broadcasting Corporation, 1948, May 13, p. 55).

Hard-Line Clandestine Stations

Of the two main underground military organizations competing with the Haganah, Irgun was the first to use clandestine radio by transmitting in March, 1939 (A. Avnerre, advisor, Israeli Broadcasting Authority, personal communication, January 3, 1992). Hurewitz (1968) notes that the Irgun first operated a clandestine station in 1939 and in one transmission claimed responsibility for Arab deaths resulting from land mines detonated in a Haifa fruit market. The broadcast also included an attempt to recruit new members. Begin writes about the Irgun's Voice of Fighting Zion, whose broadcasts in late 1947 were used to get information to the public about the British-proposed partition of Palestine and replacement of British military forces with some type of United Nations-sponsored police force (Begin, 1951). As noted later, until the 1948 War of Independence, the Irgun did not devote as much time and effort to its broadcasts as did its rival Lechi. Because production equipment of the two non-Haganah stations only consisted of microphones, there was no way of playing recorded music. In order to tell listeners they had found the intended station, an announcer for Voice of Fighting Zion would whistle Lamut Lichbosh et Hahar, the anthem of an Irgun youth movement. The Stern radio, Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, used the opening bars of an anthem composed by Stern himself.

Of the two groups, Stern's broadcasts appear to have been somewhat better known because of the strident and emotional nature of the organization and those organizing broadcasts. Unlike Haganah and Irgun, Stern did not completely stop broadcasting during World War II. Also, Stern was a writer and poet who, until his death, broadcast some of his own material. The importance the Stern Group attached to its Tel Aviv-based Fighters for the Freedom of Israel clandestine radio service is evident from a visit to the house where Stern was killed. On the top floor of the house, now a small museum and headquarters for the Lechi Memorial Committee, there is a replica of the room in one of the houses from which broadcasts originated. Further, in a booklet published by the Jabotinsky Institute, there is a picture of a Stern Group broadcast showing Lechi radio technicians, Eliezer Sirkis and Matania Ginosar, operating the second Lechi transmitter, from the home of Ginosar on the third floor of 115 Rothschild Blvd in Tel Aviv (Jabotinsky institute catalogue, 1989). The intensity of clandestine broadcasting from all three Jewish groups was highlighted after World War II, as it was clear to the British, the Jews, and Arabs that the current state of affairs in Palestine could not continue.

Lechi radio technicians Eliezer Sirkis (left) and Matania Ginosar (right) operating the portable 40 meter shortwave transmitter that was moved from place to place to avoid detection. Two Lechi members with automatic weapons guarded the Tel Aviv apartment to protect Gelula Cohen and Ginosar, as well as the radio builder and operator.

After World War II, Geula Cohen, who would later become an outspoken, right-wing member of the Knesset, was the announcer for both the first and second Lechi radio stations. She was arrested by the British on January 18, 1946, and jailed for clandestine radio activity and later escaped. The second transmitter built by Lechi started operation in late 1947. With the second unit, Ginosar started each session by playing the Rakoczy march by Berlioz, whistled the group's underground anthem, Hayaleem Almoneem ("anonymous soldiers" in Hebrew), and introduced Cohen. Ms. Cohen is Israel's most celebrated underground broadcaster, in part because she wrote a book about her exploits; also she is the only female to be apprehended while actually on the air (Cohen, 1966). Her book tells of her escape and eventual return to clandestine radio broadcasting after being sentenced to 7 years in prison--2 for illegal broadcasting, 5 for firearm possession (Cohen, 1966; G. Cohen, Member of Parliament, personal communication, January 6, 1992).


There seem to be three distinct phases to the development of clandestine radio in mandatory Palestine. First, the Haganah, Stern, and Irgun organizations started stations because they were struggling for both an identity and support among the Jewish population. They believed that in the environment of tightly British-controlled Palestine, clandestine radio was the only way of reaching a large number of people with the most powerful medium of the day. Second, as World War II ended and Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe headed toward Palestine in large numbers, the Irgun and Stern stations intensified their call for the British to leave so that a Jewish state could be created. Haganah broadcasts were almost always less strident than those of the other two groups because Haganah leaders saw their organization as being synonymous with the government and the legal broadcasting organization of the new Jewish state. Thus they took measures to be responsible, credible broadcasters. Third, just before and after the British officially departed, disagreements over political and military influence in the new state became airborne via these stations, especially since the Haganah clandestine operations had become the new broadcasting service of the Jewish state.

Sources: Israel Broadcasting Authority
* Douglas A. Boyd is a Professor in the Department of Communication and the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky, Personal communication with Matania Ginosar. Photo from Matania Ginosar, Israeli Freedom Fighter, 2000.