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The “Hunting Season”

(October 23, 1944)
by Prof. Yehuda Lapidot

The “Hunting Season,” or “Season” for short, was the code-name for the Haganah’s persecution of the Irgun, aimed at putting an end to its activities.

As a result of the Irgun’s proclamation of a revolt against British rule, military operations were launched against various government targets. The official leadership of the Yishuv, the heads of the Jewish Agency, were opposed to this activity and demanded that it cease. They argued that the national institutions had been democratically elected, and that consequently the Irgun and Lehi should accept their authority.

In September 1944, Menahem Begin, Irgun commander, held two meetings with Moshe Sneh, head of the Haganah General Headquarters, and Eliyahu Golomb, one of the Haganah leaders. At these meetings, which lasted into the night, relations between the Irgun and the Yishuv leadership were discussed at length.

On the question of national authority, Moshe Sneh said, inter alia:

To expand your activities requires control of the souls and the property of the public. And it is we who control the public. We do not intend to renounce that control, because it is we who have received a mandate from the Jewish people... If you continue your activities, a clash will result.

Eliyahu Golomb was even blunter:

We demand that you cease immediately [your activity against the British]... We do not want a civil war... but we will be ready for that as well. We will be forced to adopt our own measures to prevent your activities. The police, in our opinion, will not be able to liquidate you, but if the Yishuv rebels, it could come to that. It is clear that we are not speaking of your physical liquidation, but the developments could lead to that as well, they could lead to your destruction. And then it will not matter who started – it is a question of propaganda and information.

Begin vehemently rejected the charge that the Irgun wanted to take over control of the Yishuv and said:

We have no intention of seizing power in the Yishuv. We have said this on many occasions. We have no such ambitions... we think that Ben-Gurion is the man who can lead our youth into battle today. But in order to do so, Ben-Gurion must leave his residence in Rehavia. For as long as he is there – he cannot conduct that war. We have no party or administrative interests. We pray for the day when we can proclaim the end of the Irgun’s task and disperse it. And the moment that you go out to war – we will all rally under a united leadership, in which you will constitute the decisive majority. But as long as you have not done this, we will conduct our battle.

The turning point in the struggle against the Jewish underground was the assassination of Lord Moyne in Cairo. Lord Moyne, who was known to be an anti-Zionist, had been appointed Minister of State for the Middle East, and from his place of residence in Cairo was responsible for implementing the White Paper policy. Lehi, which considered Lord Moyne to be responsible for the deportation of the immigrant ships, plotted to assassinate him. Two of its members – Eliyahu Hakim and Eliyahu Bet-Zuri – were dispatched to Cairo and, on November 6, 1944, carried out the assassination, but were caught shortly after carrying out their mission. On January 10, 1945, they were charged with murder. Hakim and Beit-Zuri, manacled, stood calmly beside their Egyptian guards with red fezzes. Both were, and had been since their capture, completely self-possessed. They did not take part in the proceedings, and when the testimony was completed, Eliyahu Hakim rose to his feet and said:

We accuse Lord Moyne and the government he represents, with murdering hundreds and thousands of our brethren; we accuse him of seizing our country and looting our possessions... We were forced to do justice and to fight.

After being sentenced to death, they rose to their feet and sang the national anthem. On March 23, 1945, they were dressed in the traditional, ill-fitting red burlap suit of condemned men, marched barefoot to the gallows, were blindfolded at the scaffold, and hanged.

The assassination of Lord Moyne created shock waves in Palestine and throughout the world. Even before the identity of the assassins became known, the Jewish Agency Executive convened and issued a fierce condemnation of the act. At the same meeting, it decided on a series of measures against “terrorist organizations” in Palestine.

Once the Season had been approved by the Jewish Agency Executive, the matter was submitted to the Histadrut Council, the body which, more than any other framework, determined the conduct of the “organized Yishuv.” It published an official announcement on the matter:

Jewish youth must fight terror and its perpetrators!
[...] The perpetrators of terror, who call themselves the ‘Irgun Zvai Le’umi’ and ‘Lohamei Herut Israel’ are traitors!
... They must be removed from our classrooms, banished from our workshops!
Their propaganda, whether written or spoken, must not be permitted...
No refuge must be given to these malefactors in the homes of your parents, relatives and acquaintances!
The incorrigible despoilers must be isolated and abandoned, until they are spewed out of the ranks of the Yishuv, until terror ceases and its organization is eradicated.

As regards collaboration with the British police, the announcement went on to declare:

The Jewish Agency proposes herewith that all persons who are acquainted with any of the terrorists, should immediately inform the police by word of mouth, in writing or by telephone and observe the injunction: ‘And thou shalt root out the evil from thy midst’. Fathers who have sons in these organizations should, in the same fashion, inform the police and observe thereby the injunction: ‘If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, he must take him out to the elders and say to them: This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice. And all the men of the city shall stone him with stones.’ Particularly since the English do not intend to do the terrorists any harm. They will hold them for a year or two apart from other people until their surplus energy, which apparently results from overeating and from inactivity and sloth, has cooled down [...]
It is time to act for the sake of the Jewish people and the homeland.

Two members of the Jewish Agency Executive, Rabbi Yehuda Fishman-Maimon and Yitzhak Greenboim, continued to oppose any form of collaboration with the British police, and when the decision was taken, Greenboim announced his resignation.

The following is a 1944 pamphlet published by the Irgun proclaiming the policy of non-retaliation:


[...] It is with gloomy face that the loyal Jew asks himself and his neighbor: Are we to suffer this as well? Will a civil war break out in Eretz Israel? Will our home be destroyed before it has been built? Will our enemies see their base aspiration fulfilled? The air is filled with gunpowder. Orators and leaders do not cease to speak of the internal strife. One of them has said that it has already begun; the second – even more loudmouthed – has profaned his lips with the hysterical cry: blood for blood, an eye for an eye! A third has labored and labored until he has finally devised a plan to save the Jewish people. And this is the plan: to expel from their homes, to expel from schools, to starve and to hand over our fighting youths to the British Police. ‘It is them or us,’ it declared, ‘and all means are acceptable in order to liquidate them.’ (From Ben-Gurion’s speech at the Histadrut Conference).
Yes, the dread of the loyal Jew is understandable. Are we to witness our children raising their hands or aiming their weapons against one another? What will they do, those persecuted people against whom the terrible edicts are directed? How will they defend themselves?...
These are grave questions, and we feel it our duty – on our own behalf and on behalf of the Irgun Zvai Le’umi in Eretz Israel – to provide an answer. And this is our answer: you may stay calm, loyal Jews; there will be no fraternal strife in this country...

It was not easy for Begin to persuade his subordinates to exercise restraint. There were two underlying reasons for his decision: firstly, he said, to react could result in the Yishuv being plunged into a civil war, which would spell the end of the struggle against British rule in Eretz Israel. Secondly, he felt it undesirable to exacerbate relations with the Haganah, because they might later decide to join the struggle against foreign rule. Members of the Irgun who had been trained in the spirit of ‘breaking the havlaga,’ found it hard to accept the decision of the General Headquarters. They did not, however, violate the order, possibly in the hope that their leader’s evaluation would prove correct, and that the Haganah would join the struggle against the British. (This did indeed occur a year later, when the United Resistance – Tenuat Hameri Ha’ivri – was established).

The entire Haganah command was preoccupied with the Season, and information on the Irgun and the Lehi was amassed by the Haganah’s intelligence service, ‘Shai’. The intelligence service had some 250 Palmach fighters (the elite Haganah unit) at its disposal, who were brought to town and assigned to the Season operation. They shadowed suspects and kidnapped Irgun fighters on the basis of lists they received from the Shai. In addition, the Palmach guarded the Jewish Agency leaders for fear that the Irgun or Lehi might react by perpetrating counter-kidnappings. The Jewish Agency in Jerusalem set up a Department for Special Assignments, which maintained close contact with the British Intelligence. It was this department which handed over to the British a list of names of persons suspected of being members of the Irgun.

Close to one thousand people were handed over to the British. Most of them were taken to the Latrun detention camp and several hundred were deported to detention camps in Africa (see “African Exile”). In addition, dozens of suspects were kidnapped and detained in prison cells built especially for this purpose on various kibbutzim. They were interrogated by members of the Haganah Intelligence Service and occasionally suffered torture.

A letter from the High Commissioner in Jerusalem to the Colonial Secretary in London dated March 1, 1945 reveals that the Jewish Agency exploited its collaboration with the British Intelligence in order to hand over active members of the Revisionist party, who were not even members of the Irgun, and thereby to rid itself of political rivals.

The letter states, among other things: (Public Records, CO733/457).

1. [...] In all, the Jewish Agency has supplied so far details of 830 suspects, of whom 337 have been located and detained so far. Of these, 241 are being held under the Emergency Regulations; the remainder have been released either under surveillance or unconditionally... Several useful arrests have also been made in the Irgun center in Tel Aviv.
2. Unfortunately, the Jewish Agency’s lists of so-called terrorists continues to include numerous people who have no terror connections, but politically speaking are undesirable to the Jewish Agency. This adds to the difficulties the police have in separating the sheep from the goats [...]

The most serious kidnapping incident was the case of Yaakov Tavin, who was in charge of the Irgun’s intelligence service and on the Haganah’s most wanted list. For three months, Tavin succeeded in evading the Haganah men who were shadowing him, but at the end of February 1945, he finally fell into their hands.

The kidnapping was described in Ha’aretz of March 2, 1945, as follows:

Passersby in Dizengoff and Yirmiyahu streets were greatly struck on Tuesday, February 27, 1945, by the kidnapping of a young man in the street. The kidnapping occurred at 11 a.m., and was witnessed by a large number of people. A large taxi halted at the corner of Dizengoff and Yirmiyahu streets, and several men emerged, one of them dressed in police uniform. They approached the young man, who was standing on the pavement holding a package. Shouting Thief! they attacked him and began to hit him.
The crowd thought that he was in fact a thief, and several of them joined the attackers and helped them to push the young man into the taxi. He struggled with them and shouted in Yiddish and in Hebrew: Jews, help me! Why do you let them hit a Jew? He was thrown into the car, which swiftly drove away.
Tavin’s kidnappers blindfolded him, tied his hands and forced him to lie on the floor of the car. He was driven to Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha and from there was taken to Kibbutz Ein Harod, where he was imprisoned in a barn which had been converted into a detention room. Tavin was held there for six months and underwent numerous interrogations, accompanied by severe torture. He was released when the war ended and the Haganah entered into negotiations with the Irgun for the establishment of The United Resistance.

The kidnappings were fiercely condemned in the Yishuv. The Chief Rabbinate published a strongly-worded notice, which declared:

This cruel deed is utterly prohibited by the Torah, and is alien and abominable to the Jewish people and to every Jew. It desecrates the name of Israel and our settlement in Eretz Israel. Cease these cruel and despicable acts.

The distinguished philosopher, Hugo Bergmann, who was a member of Berit Shalom and a sworn opponent of the Jewish underground, wrote:

The kidnappings are the tomb of democratic public life... a death sentence against all we hold dear in the Yishuv... These Ku Klux Klan acts are being committed lawlessly, and those accused have no opportunity to defend themselves.

The protesters were joined by civil organizations and by the Tel Aviv Municipality, together with municipalities and local councils all over the country. Public pressure proved effective and the Season gradually lapsed.

Although the Season caused the Irgun considerable harm, it did not liquidate it. Many of the fighters were arrested, but new recruits took the place of the veterans and, in the spring of 1945, the organization began to recover. After a seven-month interval, the Irgun again went into action.

In May 1945, telephone poles were sabotaged throughout the country, and home-made mortars were set up opposite various government targets in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In Jerusalem, mortars were put into position opposite the King David Hotel (the seat of the British military command and the government secretariat), and opposite the government printing press (alongside the railway station). In Tel Aviv, the mortars were located near the Sarona military camp (now the Kirya government area in Tel Aviv). The oil pipeline linking the Iraqi oilfields to the Haifa refineries was also sabotaged.

On July 23, 1945, a joint unit of Irgun and Lehi fighters, under the command of Yehoshua Weinstein (Benyamin) blew up a railway bridge adjacent to the Arab village of Yibne (present-day Yavne). This was the first joint operation of the two organizations, after they had resolved to act together against British rule.

Source: The Irgun Site