This book tells the story of a murder and a cover-up that took place in Palestine as the British mandate was approaching its inglorious end. On 6 May 1947, Alexander Rubowitz, a teenage member of Lehi - “Fighters for the Freedom of Israel”, more widely and more accurately known as the Stern Gang - was abducted in Jerusalem by a “special squad” of the Palestine police, led by Major Roy Farran, who took him to a wood, interrogated him and murdered him. Rubowitz’s body was never found. Eyewitnesses to the abduction found in the street in which the tussle had taken place a grey trilby hat with the name “Farran” or “Farkan” on the sweatband. Despite this and other compelling pieces of incriminating evidence, a court martial eventually acquitted Farran in what amounted to a travesty of British military justice.
The backdrop to the story was a vicious campaign of Jewish terror against the British forces in Palestine led by the Irgun and the Stern Gang. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the new chief of the imperial general staff, was responsible for homeland security for the whole empire, including Palestine. He considered that the Palestine police was gutless and spineless and that a much more aggressive approach was needed. In his view, the best way to deal with terrorists was to kill them. He therefore suggested forming a special squad, consisting of ex-commandos on secondment from the army, and giving them carte blanche to go on the offensive against the terrorists. It was expected that this squad would use unorthodox methods, including extrajudicial killings. The task of training and leading this shadowy counterterrorist unit was offered to a most unconventional soldier.
Roy Farran was a highly decorated ex-SAS hero and an imperial warrior who had served his country with great distinction during the second world war. He had been awarded the DSO and three Military Crosses for the operations he masterminded behind enemy lines in Greece, France and Italy. The French later paid tribute to his role in the liberation of their country by giving him the Croix de Guerre. In an obituary after his death in 2006, the Times described him as “a soldier of exceptional courage, daring and imagination”. However, these very qualities also made it difficult for Farran to adapt to peacetime. The VE Day celebrations in England left him utterly depressed. In his memoirs he described feeling as though the clock had stopped ticking. So, when offered the chance to resume the fight against the enemies of the British empire in Palestine, Farran accepted with alacrity.
Farran’s secondment to the Palestine police was shortlived and it ended in tragedy, not least for the war hero himself. The moral of this sad story is that policing is too serious a business to be left to wild, bloodthirsty warriors. David Cesarani tells the tale, with all its curious twists and turns, with great skill and a keen sense of drama. His book reads like a thriller, but it is all the more fascinating for being about real people and the big issues with which they had to grapple in the twilight of British rule over Palestine. He uses the records of all the relevant Whitehall departments and the recently declassified documents of the security services to reconstruct the crime, the investigation, the cover up, the trial and its political repercussions.
Cesarani concludes that the abduction and the murder of Rubowitz “created a scandal that ate away at British prestige and authority in Palestine, contributing to the demise of the mandate”. Here he spoils a good case by overstating it. If the murder did indeed contribute to the demise of the mandate, its contribution was minuscule compared with the other forces in play. The scandal coincided with the death throes of the mandate but it was more a symptom than a cause of the end of empire in this especially troublesome part of the world.
For the real roots of Britain’s failure in Palestine one has to go back to the Balfour declaration of 1917, which promised a “national home” to the Jewish people on land that belonged to another people. This promise was plainly immoral given that the Jews constituted less than 10% of the population of Palestine at that time. It was also one of the most colossal blunders of British imperial history: the conflict it provoked between the Jewish and Palestinian national movements remains unresolved to this day.
It is true, as Cesarani argues, that Britain surrendered its mandate over Palestine without grace or dignity. It is also true that the British forces were pretty brutal in their fight against Jewish terror. But they were not half as brutal as they had been in suppressing the indigenous Arab revolt against the Zionist intruders in 1936-39.
Moreover, by crushing so comprehensively Palestinian resistance in the late 1930s, Britain enabled the Jewish minority to win the struggle for Palestine when it entered its critical phase in the late 1940s. So there is a case to be made against Britain’s handling of the mandate over Palestine, but it is a case that can be made much more convincingly by the Palestinian victims than by the Jewish victors and their sympathisers.
Avi Shlaim’s books include Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace (Penguin).