Menahem Begin – Irgun Commander
I had recently the privilege of an informal interview with Menachem Begin, the commander of the Irgun Zvai Leumi. Contact was made in the classical "secluded spot."
My first question was: "Have the extreme military measures taken by the British authorities in any way changed your immediate plans?" The commander replied that in any case the Irgun would continue to fight: they, like the British, are prepared for this phase of the struggle. He regretted the hardships thus imposed on the civilian population, but said they constituted an unavoidable phase.
"No one here is optimistic about further British measures," he saidm "and the immediate future will be hard, but the issue is too great to falter now; the fighting Hebrew nation is stronger and the fight will go on.
No Plans for a Truce
My second question was: "Do you believe that the British want to provoke you to further activity in order to justify these military measures? And if that is your belief, do you think that in refusing to 'rise to this bait' you might turn the British show of force into ridicule?" He replied that action would go on as usual; that the IZL did not contemplate a truce. He quoted the last parliamentary debate on Palestine at which both Mr. Churchill and Mr. Stanley told the government to be on guard for British prestige-and the IZL activities undermine British prestige. He then spoke of the "benefits received" from the recent IZL floggings of British military personnel: reprisal actions for the flogging of IZL prisoners in the Jerusalem prison. Flogging is still customary in many British colonies; the IZL has now publicized that disgraceful act, and flogging as a punishment has been discontinued at least in his own country for both Arab and Jew over sixteen years old. The previous age limit was eighteen for both political and criminal cases. IZL publicity has brought about this reform.
My third question was: "Do you plan to continue reprisals for all death sentences imposed on your members? What will you do if the death sentences on 'the Three' are carried out?" The commander declared that reprisals would continue. Attempts would be made to arrest British officers and bring them before an underground court where they would be accused of the same crimes as the Hebrews brought before the British military courts. These officers would be accused of illegal entry, illegal carrying of arms, they would be considered members of a "terrorist organization in Eretz Israel," in other words an army of occupation, not recognized by the underground here. He told me that in one year of underground activity 100 revolutionaries had been killed to seventy-three soldiers: the tally was not yet even. He said: "We don't like this reprisal system; we wish it would end. Retaliation is bad; if they would treat us as combatants it would end."
Contact with Arabs
My fourth question: "What contacts, if any, have you with Palestinian Arabs?" was answered: "Yes, we have contacts with Palestinian Arabs, but until now no common action. In any case there is no strife between us and any Arab organization: they respect us, we respect them. Some of their political groups have tried to contact us, but we have not responded. We are not sure of them."
My fifth question was: "Can you disclose the numerical strength of your party, both inside and outside the country? Is it your present policy to attack outside Palestine?" The first part of the question was answered: "No." The second part was answered: "Yes. We will attack outside Eretz Israel."
For Provisional Gov't
My sixth question was: "What do you think of Peter Bergson's committee? Do you consider the setting up of a Hebrew government-in-exile imperative or merely expedient? Do you think it will work? In view of recent European history do you not think that the name 'government-in-exile' has an aura in the eyes of the outside world? Why was Paris chosen as the seat of the possible government, and have you found the French authorities sympathetic to your aims?"
THE COMMANDER EXPLAINED TO ME THAT THE BERGSON COMMITTEE IDENTIFIED ITSELF ENTIRELY WITH THEIR STRUGGLE IN PALESTNE. OTHER JEWISH ORGANIZATIONS MIGHT BE SYMPATHETIC BUT THE BERGONCOMMITTEE IS FRANK AND OPEN IN ITS DECLARATION OF WAR. IT INTENDS TO ORGANIZE AN INDEPENDENT PROVISIONAL GOVERNMENT FOR PALESTINE. THIS IDEA HE SUPPORTS WHOLEHEARTEDLY.
Sees Delay by UN
I asked the commander if the IZL were in close contact with French authorities. He replied that, as far as local authorities were concerned, he had no contact; in Paris there might be contact, he did not know. Paris was chosen as the seat for the National Committee for Hebrew Liberation and the future government-in-exile because of her long tradition of freedom.
My seventh question was: "Do you favor submitting the case of Palestine to the UN? If not, what are your objections?" He answered: "We do not really favor submitting our case to the UN as we believe it will only mean a prolongation of the unhappy status quo; but on the other hand, we will not object. All public discussion on Eretz Israel is a good thing. We are sure of our cause."
My eighth question was: "Do you anticipate strong Russian support for the Arab position in the Middle East? To what do you attribute apparent Russian opposition to a Hebrew state in Palestine? Are you in contact with any communist groups in the Middle East, and if so of what consists your political divergence in regard to Palestine itself?"
The commander gathered himself together before replying to what might be considered the $64 Question. He said: "I do not think the Soviet Union has as yet taken sides in the dispute between Arab and Jew-as far as that exists; it is more a question which preoccupies the British mind. The Soviet Union has naturally a policy in regard to the Middle East area; it does not like British military bases in the area, Palestine included.
When the question goes before (the [GW]) UN I believe that Russia will demand evacuation of all British troops from Palestine-and possibly the other Middle Eastern countries if that question should come up. The apparent opposition to a Hebrew state of which you speak is based on several factors. In the first place, (the [GW]) foundation of a Jewish state is directly connected with the mass repatriation of our people' this naturally implies a mass exodus of Jews from the countries where they have been persecuted and martyred. Russia has always opposed this mass emigration even from countries outside of Russia, and in Russia itself Zionism is officially recognized as a nationalist, isolationist movement, and therefore not tolerated.
Tool of Imperialism
"There remains also the old suspicion that Zionism has become a tool of British imperialism. There is some justification for this belief as there are some Jews who play into this theory; Dr. Weizmann, for instance, declared even at the last tragic Zionist Congress in Basel that our country shall be forever bound to Britain." In answer to my question as to whether the IZL was in contact with any Communist group, he replied: "No. The IZL has no contacts within or without the country."
My last question was put with a little hesitation: "To what do you attribute the accusation that you are a Fascist group, and how do you meet this accusation? Is there anything in your plan for a future national government which would justify it? I mention this because I have found this to be the most usual form of mud slung at you and I would like to be able to reply to this attack."
He laughed and shook his head and said: "I would like to answer that question by asking another. Is not this movement one of the most humanitarian in all history? It is not only a fight for political independence but for racial survival. Take your America at the time of the Revolution, or take Ireland during the time of the Irish rebellion, although there had been oppression there was never at any time the risk of the non-survival of the people as a race. The Americans and the Irish would continue to exist; the Hebrew race has not that assurance. Therefore our fight tends to become more intense, more violent than other historical struggles. As to our future government we strongly oppose any totalitarian structure within our state. Our only aim is to free our country from foreign rule. We are educating our members in the tenets of individual freedom and social justice; they are being taught the principles of democracy in preparation for their future responsibilities; BUT WE KNOW that the only means of safeguarding Eretz Israel and those still abroad is to give them a state and an army to defend it."