October 7 quickly came to be known in Israel as Black Shabbat, or Black Sabbath. It’s a natural label for an all-day attack that shattered Israel’s self-conception after first shattering the peace of the Day of Rest.

It is also not the first Black Sabbath in Israel’s modern history.

In 1946, Palestine was still ruled by Britain, which had gone from turning away the Jews seeking refuge from the Holocaust to turning away the Jews seeking refuge after the Holocaust. The three major Jewish underground organizations—Haganah, Irgun, and Lehi—continued their (mostly) coordinated acts of sabotage against British military and bureaucratic infrastructure.

The Haganah was the mainstream defense force of the bodies overseeing Jewish resettlement in the land. One night in 1946, Haganah’s elite fighters blew up nearly a dozen bridges and roads connecting Palestine to its neighbors, the most significant act of sabotage yet. The British responded by launching Operation Agatha, a sweeping crackdown of arrests and raids, on a Saturday soon after the bridge bombings. Over 2,000 people were arrested and a key Haganah arms cache was raided, as were the offices of the Jewish Agency (the government-in-waiting led by David Ben-Gurion).

The intent was not only to deplete the Haganah’s capabilities but to damage the Jewish Agency by finding documents with which the British could implicate Jewish leaders in acts of violence. Threatening to delegitimize the Jewish Agency was seen as an existential escalation, and the whole event took the name “Black Sabbath.”

The underground militias (Irgun and Lehi) were already planning anti-British sabotage on their own that they would only carry out with approval from the Haganah. It was a marked change from a couple years earlier, when the Haganah had collaborated with the British against Menachem Begin’s Irgun out of fear that Begin represented a challenge to the Haganah’s, and Ben-Gurion’s, dominance.

This new coordination presented an opportunity to retaliate against the British authorities for Black Sabbath. The underground groups had various plans drawn up and put on the shelf to collect dust waiting for Haganah to approve them. One of those Irgun plans was an attack on the King David Hotel, the administrative headquarters of the British civilian and military authority.

Underground strikes were aimed at symbols, not people. And this symbol had a suddenly urgent practical facet to it: the administrative offices were assumed to hold the papers confiscated from the Jewish Agency on Black Sabbath.

As far as the Haganah was concerned, it was the perfect opportunity: all of the planning and risk would be assumed by the Irgun, and the lion’s share of the immediate benefit would be the Haganah’s and the Jewish Agency’s.

The plot was audacious. An Irgun team would disguise themselves as porters and kitchen staff of the hotel’s main restaurant. They would gain entry at food delivery times and smuggle in the homemade bombs to a part of the restaurant where stood a central support beam for the offices above it. As always, they would give warnings to evacuate before the bombs were slated to detonate. If successful, it would humiliate the British and destroy the Jewish Agency papers.

The plan almost went perfectly. But as is often the case, the difference between almost and perfect can be measured in lives lost.

So obsessed with the documents were Haganah leaders that they insisted Irgun reduce the amount of time between the warning and the explosion because they feared the Brits would have a chance to grab the papers before leaving. Irgun and Haganah command argued over this, but neither expected what actually happened: that it wouldn’t make any difference in the end because the British would refuse to evacuate.

When the warnings came in, plans to evacuate began immediately. But Sir John Shaw, the chief secretary of the Mandate, ordered everyone back to their places. “We don’t take orders from Jews” was the line he served to questioning employees.

The British also had a spy in the Irgun ranks who had warned them of the plot, but that warning was dismissed by the officer who received it.

The death toll was 91.

What followed was a shameful period of infighting. Haganah disavowed the operation and publicly blamed Irgun, then censored the written history of the organization to delete passages about Haganah’s role in the bombing and had its radio station castigate the Irgun. At the request of the Haganah, Menachem Begin publicly accepted blame despite having in his possession the written orders from the Haganah telling him to carry out the operation. Eventually, all the documentation and testimony would correct the historical record, as would a later British government inquiry.

The immediate wake of the 1946 Black Sabbath was an unlikely level of unity among rivals, and that facilitated the unity of the Jewish community. A clear mission arose: stop the existential threat to the hopes of a Jewish state. A united Jewish body politic meant every single task, no matter how large or small, was carried out by the person or persons best suited to the role. A state that grew from this suddenly fertile soil would be a force to be reckoned with.

And then came the world’s condemnation. And the public displays of guilt. And the finger pointing. And an opening of the fault lines. And the offering up of scapegoats.

In the wake of the Black Sabbath of Oct. 7, 2023, there was an unlikely level of unity among—well you can see where this is going. As the world’s condemnation grows, and internal fissures reemerge, the easy way out presents itself: repent the secular sin of survival and wither under the disapproving glare of those who would see you driven into the sea.

Or there is the Menachem Begin way: don’t allow your antagonists to turn you against your own. Two years after Begin swallowed his personal pride so that his people’s pride would one day swell, the state of Israel was reborn. Thirty years later, he became prime minister and signed the most important peace treaty in the country’s history. Survival has much to recommend it.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link