By Nechemia Ben-Tor
The Freedom Fighters in Military Court in Jerusalem
The imprisonment of five fighters carrying weapons, along with the arrest of Dr. Israel Eldad, with an indictment brought against them in one fell swoop at a pivotal time, gave the underground a historic opportunity to write another brilliant page in the chronicle of the war of independence, one incomparable in its influence within the educational system and upon the youth.
As the Latin phrase goes, “Inter arma silent Musae,” in time of war the Muses are silent. This was not true for Lehi. Its Muses raised their voice just as the explosions and shots were heard.
May-July 1944 was the period that the Lehi trials were conducted; after being apprehended by the British Palestine Police, they were brought before the British military court in Jerusalem.
Zvi Tabory, on May 29th, 1944, was brought before the British judges, but what he had to say shocked them and the entire Yishuv:
“The indictment against me says that I am accused of posseting a firearm and ammunition without a legal permit and without reasonable justification. I confess to the possession of the firearm and the ammunition, but I dispute that I had no legal permit and no reasonable justification. I received my permit from the only authority I recognize in Eretz Israel, namely the movement of Hebrew freedom fighters, which seeks to return to the Hebrew nation the status which is appropriate to it among the peoples, in the form of the Hebrew state in this land. The laws by which you judge me were instituted by an authority which I do not recognize. This authority, given to you in order to establish a Hebrew state here, has become an imperialistic occupier. Your laws must be judged illegal, whether by international commitments, by ethics or by justice. Therefore, I dispute your right to put me on trial under these illegal laws…”
Tabory went on to say that in light of the banishment of the illegal Jewish immigrants from the shores of Eretz Israel and in light of the acts of oppression and murder by the British police, it was not only reasonably justified to bear weapons; on the contrary, this was the obligation of all Hebrew youth. In conclusion, he demanded prisoner-of-war status. Tabory was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment.
In June of that year, David Hameiri-Begin, Anschel Spielmann, Hasia Shapiro and Matityahu Shmuelevitz were put on trial. David Hameiri-Begin stated, among other things:
“Jewish soldiers are participating in the occupation of Rome, Jewish soldiers will participate in the occupation of Berlin, but simultaneously, their Jerusalem is under British occupation, and when will it be liberated from the foreign occupier?
“I heard Jewish soldiers once discuss the Arch of Titus, which they could have destroyed. We believe that as long as Jerusalem has not been liberated, as long as the Hebrew flag does not fly over its walls, the Arch of Titus must stand—not just as a witness to exile, but as a witness to Hebrew heroism….
“What worth does the occupation of Rome or the destruction of the Arch of Titus have, if the Hebrew soldiers who will return to Eretz Israel will not be able to play their national anthem on Jerusalem radio?
“As long as Juda Captivas (Occupied Judea) is in British hands, the occupation of Rome is no reason to rejoice. For me, Britain is Rome II. I am one of those Hebrew soldiers who has no desire to march through the boulevards of Rome with the Union Jack, as long we cannot march through liberated Jerusalem. You are the representatives of a foreign government and foreign constabulary. I have no intention of appearing before you as a good law-abiding citizen… My laws are not your laws, and your laws are not my laws… Put an end to this façade of objectivity and legality. Let us be open enemies, with all of the relations emerging from that status…”
David Hameiri-Begin was sentenced to twelve years’ imprisonment.
For carrying a weapon and ammunition, Anschel Spielmann was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. In his speech to the court, he proclaimed the glory of the Hebrew nation and attacked the British authorities as foreign occupiers with no right, in a land not theirs, to rule over and judge Jews:
“…As you see it, we should have ceased to exist when the Temple was destroyed, just like other people, but to your consternation and ire, this did not happen. The Jewish people have survived and continue to exist, not just as an ancient culture, but as a partner and sometimes as the vanguard in imparting new cultural values. I am very pleased that I am a Jew, member of a new-ancient nation, bearing the culture of the world on its shoulders. Despite all the suffering, the torture and degradation bound up with the fact of my being Jewish, I am pleased to feel my deep, secure rootedness, surpassing that of not only empires lost to the world, but even young nations who achieved greatness in the past few centuries and who do not know how many years of greatness they have left…
“I deny the right of these foreign Englishmen to judge, on the soil of Israel, a member of the Hebrew people… When you dare, in this Jerusalem, of David, Isaiah and the Maccabees, to judge me, it is best that you feel you do not stand upon the graves of the dead, for from these graves there rise to live again the children of Joshua, Jephthah, Samson, David and the heroes you like to read about in death—but you get so angry when you see them alive… Remember, English judges, that the place you are sitting in is my Jerusalem, not your London.”
Later on, Anschel invoked William Shakespeare’s Shylock (The Merchant of Venice) and Benjamin Disraeli, First Earl of Beaconsfield and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom:
“We will not treat you like Beaconsfield, nor will we take the approach of Shylock. We are not merchants dealing with the question of redemption and liberation of the land. We do not want the interest; we want the principal. We do not want yours, but ours. No Shakespearean scheme of contracts and proclamations will suffice this time. We will take what we deserve, even if we must spill blood.”
At the end of his speech, Spielmann settles a score with the judges about the way they preached to his comrade Hameiri-Begin, telling him: “The true warriors are those who fight shoulder-to-shoulder with the Allies against the Nazis, those whom we are a proud to call brothers-in-arms.”
He countered: “Either you don’t understand or you pretend that you don’t understand. Otherwise, it would be impossible for a British judge to preach to a Hebrew youth because he does not fulfill his obligation to his nation. Suddenly you call us brothers-in-arms; certainly, we are desired brothers for you when the time comes to spill our blood.
“The horrible tragedy of our people has become debased chantage… Now, the Jewish soldiers who fight on all the fronts are precious and heroic. However, De Gaulle is going with his army, by way of Rome, to Paris. The Poles are going by way of Rome and Paris to Warsaw. But where does the Jewish soldier go? To where? …And who stands in our way? You!
“…To whom shall you tell tales about the inability to save our brothers? To us? To the Jews of Eretz Israel, whose mothers, wives and children drowned together on the MV Struma, after you banished it from the shores of Eretz Israel! You are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of our victims!
“…I am very sorry that when the police accosted me, I did not manage to draw my pistol and kill or be killed, to fall as two of my friends fell in Jabneel, may God avenge their blood…
“To conclude, I would like to ask you: you are judges from London; what on earth are you doing in my Jerusalem?”
The tension reached its apex in the trial of Mattie Shmuelevitz, accused of shooting British police and holding two pistols, a hand grenade, a petard, and bullets—and according to the emergency laws, he could receive a death sentence. There were many dramatic moments, such as when the accused revealed his true identity. The man they had thought was Raphael Birnbaum was in fact Matityahu Shmuelevitz, one of the escapees from the Latrun detention camp! He wanted to summon as witnesses Sir Harold Alfred MacMichael, High Commissioner of Palestine; David Ben-Gurion, Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency; and the police commander of the Lydda division. He compared the gallows to the rule of the British in Eretz Israel. Here are some passages from this electrifying speech.
“…For twenty-five years, the Hebrew nation put its faith in Great Britain. We believed in British justice and integrity. We believed that Britain would help us to build our homeland. We tied our fate to the fate of the Empire. After twenty-five years of friendship and collaboration, we have discovered that we have been misled. Only due to our deep faith in Great Britain, we did not see the game which it has played since the first moment; we did not see its duplicitous promises. We did not see the provocations; we did not understand why Aaron Aaronsohn had to sink into the English Channel, after he had served the British Empire so pivotally in the Great War. We did not realize that Britain saw us only as a tool for its imperialist ends…
“Our belief in British justice and integrity was so strong, while at the same time Britain has demonstrated that it had no desire for Hebrew government in the land of the Hebrews, that it would prevent such a result using all tools at its disposal. A Jewish state on the shores of the Mediterranean would not satisfy the hunger of British imperialism. Britain wants to rule over our land, and the fact is that through this, the homeland of a nation that pursues peace has been stolen — a nation that deserves sovereign rule in our homeland, no less than the British nation deserves sovereignty in the British Isles. But this fact does not persuade Britain to leave Eretz Israel. “Britain has betrayed us, and this betrayal has brought us to this situation, in which the best of Hebrew youth, which sees common cause with Britain in this war, is compelled to take up arms and turn them against the British authorities…
“Many ask: so what happened? …I assume that what has happened here is what happened to the protagonist of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Dr. Jekyll. I am sure that Dr. Jekyll, the gentleman, conducted an interesting experiment. He tried to appear in his home in London and in all the beautiful halls in the world as a gentlemen, but in the countryside, in the villages, he appeared as something else, as Mr. Hyde. This is what has been our fate: to find that we are partnered not with Dr. Jekyll, but with Mr. Hyde…
“Ever since I arrived in prison, I have taken an interest, for understandable reasons, in the procedure of hanging. Now they have described it to me: a man stands on the platform, a hood is over the executioner’s face, a noose is tied around his neck, and suddenly beneath him a trapdoor opens and he falls into the pit. When I heard this, I saw you, the impotent British authorities in the land. I have seen that is what you have done to the Jewish people for twenty-five years. We believed that on your watch, we might dwell securely in our land. We believed that your pleasant words were not a hood on your face. But suddenly you have pulled the ground from under us; it is a noose that you have tied around our necks, and the ground beneath us is a pit.”
Mattie continued his categorical speech with this stirring conclusion:
“… Let me summarize, Your Honors: you have two path before you. Either you may realize the justice of the claims of the Jewish people and free these arms from the indictment of illegality and criminality; or you may regard me as an enemy combatant. Thus I turn to you in the name of the Jewish people. And in the name of the underground I demand that you treat me and all of the Hebrew freedom fighters who fall into your hands as prisoners-of-war. You know full well, that without perfidious Albion’s betrayal of the Jewish people and its hopes we, the Hebrew youth, would not now be fighting you. Instead we would be building and studying, draining the swamps and resuscitating the desolate landscape. You know this: the Jewish people want to live free. You cannot repress this impulse, neither by murder nor by torture nor by hangings.”
At the conclusion, Shmuelevitz put on a hat and read Psalm 144: “Of David, blessed is the Lord who teaches my hands combat, my fingers war.”
Matityahu Shmuelevitz was sentenced to death by hanging. On the seventh day of his confinement on death row, they informed him that the military commander in Eretz Israel had commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment.
These Lehi speeches inspired the youth in Eretz Israel with waves of acclaim and admiration for the underground.
Dr. Israel Eldad defend these trials as “heroic battles, in which the fighters used words as arms, with the same fervor they used steel arms in their hands on the outside.”