Blowing Up the King David Hotel
Sunday marks the anniversary of the 1946 attack on the British. My 91-year-old grandfather helped carry it out.
When he knocked on the apartment door, a cheerful woman with thick glasses answered, baby in arms, and let them in. Careful not to disturb the dying old woman in the next room, my grandfather and his friend Shlomo scouted the apartment out for a suitable hiding place. The house, they discovered, was built in such a way that left ample space between the ceiling and the roof. They could build a faux laundry closet in the corner and put a ladder inside leading to the rafters, which they would reinforce to allow a fugitive to hide for a few days. The plan was perfect, and they went to work.
One day, as they were working, a wind blew open the door to the sick old lady’s room. Before its occupant could shut it, my grandfather caught a glimpse of a bearded figure, and his heart skipped a beat. He would have recognized that face anywhere. Even though he’d only seen him once, giving a speech years earlier, he knew it was Menachem Begin, the leader of the Etzel and, at that time, a wanted fugitive from the British. Instead of delight, however, my grandfather was overcome with trepidation at learning a secret he was clearly not meant to know.
Begin, realizing he had been “discovered,” decided it was no use keeping the door closed and invited the two Etzel men into his room for tea, taking the opportunity to get some information on the outside world. My grandfather earned his favor by finding him a short-wave radio to keep abreast of the news from the outside.
Not long after meeting Begin, my grandfather’s partner-in-crime at the weapons factory was captured by the British. My grandfather quickly closed the store and relocated to Jerusalem. There he began a new role scouting out possible British targets and determining whether they were penetrable. Among them was the King David Hotel, the luxury building that housed both the British military headquarters and various foreign dignitaries, who would dance along with wealthy Arabs at “La Regance,” the hotel’s café and lounge. A wanted man, my grandfather had to disguise himself carefully before scouting the area.
The plan was hatched one day when he noticed a truck making a delivery for the café. Every day at noon, Arabs would bring vegetables, food, and canisters of milk to the kitchen. The milk canisters, he thought, would be perfect containers for explosives, but he wasn’t sure if the kitchen had an easy connection to the café, which was right below the military headquarters in the hotel’s southern wing.
To find out for sure, he’d have to go into enemy territory. Dressed as Arabs, he and a friend, accompanied by two Etzel women, walked right into the café one Friday night. Though the hotel was heavily guarded, and arrest by the British could mean prison, torture, or even hanging, my grandfather had to be sure of his plan. At one point, the ladies were sent to the bathroom, and my grandfather went wandering down the “wrong” hall. At the end of a lengthy corridor, a large Sudanese guard opened a door and boomed a menacing “What are you doing here?” at my grandfather. He replied that he was looking for his friend in the women’s bathroom, to which the guard gruffly escorted him, where his date was conveniently waiting for him. The story checked out, and the guard let them go. But my grandfather had already gotten what he needed: He spied a kitchen in the doorway from which the guard emerged. The plan would work.
My grandfather went to work training the operatives who would carry out the operation. On July 22, 1946, 250 kg of TNT in seven milk crates placed along the support columns in the basement went off, demolishing the Southern wing of the hotel and killing 91 people along with it.
After the bomb went off, the British were horrified at the blood-toll exacted upon them for administering the region. Cracking down on the Etzel, they ramped up the search for the militants and their leader in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In the sweep that followed, Jewish fighters were captured and hanged, but they never managed to find their prize target, Menachem Begin. Despite unknowingly setting up their makeshift Tel Aviv headquarters on the lawn in front of Begin’s house, where Mrs. Begin coolly brought them water and lemonade in the summer heat, the British did not discover the Etzel leader safely tucked away in the ceiling hiding space my grandfather had built. In his memoirs, Begin said that the two Lodz-niks who built the space saved his life, though he also noted that they nearly killed him as well: My grandfather had apparently forgotten to leave him a supply of water.
The bombing remains controversial. A 2002 Discovery Channel documentary titled The Age of Terror calls the King David Hotel bombing “one of the most audacious acts of terror the world had ever seen” and made no bones about comparing it to 9/11. (My grandfather makes an appearance at 4:43.) One YouTube posting titled “Jewish Man Brags About Blowing Up King David Hotel” splices the documentary’s footage with an anti-Semitic screed denouncing Jews as the devil.
The bombing marked the beginning of the end of the British desire to carry on the mandate, and it certainly worked like terrorism, aiming to achieve political goals through psychological means. I ask my grandfather what he thinks: “It depends on how you define terrorism,” my grandfather tells me. “We were real freedom fighters. We didn’t attack places that had women and children. We fought solely against military targets.”
That history is disputed. Ben-Gurion, who headed the Haganah defense force that eventually morphed into the Israel Defense Forces condemned the “lawless” act.
The Etzel maintains that it called warnings in to the hotel three times, telling them to evacuate the entire building. Various theories exist as to why the British did not comply. One is that they failed to get confirmation that there was an attack planned from a double agent. Another is that the British general, Sir John Shaw, refused to listen to the Zionists and allow massive disruptions every time someone called in a threat. A third is that the bombs, meant to explode after 40 minutes, went off after just 22 when guards attempted to remove them, inadvertently setting off the mechanism. Others, including Sir John Shaw himself, allege that no such phone calls were ever made.
“It was a disaster,” my grandfather says of the civilian deaths. “I had a very heavy feeling when I learned that innocent people died. That was not our mission.”
But what of the Etzel’s other operations? The ones against the Arabs? These, he defends, saying they “saved the nation of Israel.” When his troop conquered Jaffa during the War of Independence, he says, there were 80,000 Arabs living there, but only 3,000 were left. “The rest ran off,” my grandfather claims. The Arabs were scared and started to leave, he says, and their leaders were so sure they could annihilate the Jews that they encouraged the flight until the fighting ended. “This was the redemption of Israel,” he says. “It may not have been intentional, but that’s how it worked out.” Life is messy, he tells me. The Jewish state could never have been born of an immaculate conception.
Maybe so. Or maybe not. The circumstances at that time were not the same as today, and ideas about conquest and victory have changed since 1946. Whatever judgments today’s armchair historians make, I know that I am privileged to enjoy the physical, financial, and possibly moral sacrifice of an earlier generation today. The more I think about it, the more what my grandmother said rings true: I cannot begin to comprehend what life was like then.
CORRECTION, July 19: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Etzel was the common name for Irgun Tzvai L’Yisrael. In fact, the proper name for the paramilitary group was Irgun Tzvai Leumi.
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