December 31, 2004

Rose tainted review

Here's an interesting review by Jacqueline Rose, in the LRB, of two books on suicide bombing. One is My Life Is a Weapon: A Modern History of Suicide Bombing. by Christoph Reuter and the other is Army of Roses: Inside the World of Palestinian Women Suicide Bombers. by Barbara Victor.

There's an error in the review that has the Irgun's "Shlomo Ben Yosef........ killing women and children". Actually he failed to kill women and children when his grenade failed to detonate, as a former Betar member was happy to point out in the next edition. And that could have been an end to it but for Avi Shlaim's eye for historical detail:

In the piece she wrote about suicide bombers (LRB, 4 November) Jacqueline Rose applied one standard to all terrorists, Arab and Jewish. Avril Mailer challenges Rose’s facts about Shlomo Ben Yosef, the right-wing Jewish militant who was sentenced to death by the British in Palestine in 1938 (Letters, 16 December). Mailer’s overall agenda is to suggest that the Jews wanted peace and did not condone the killing of Arab civilians. She also claims that Rose’s paragraph about Ben Yosef migrated to websites with an anti-Jewish agenda. ‘In the age of the internet,’ she writes, ‘there is a particular responsibility to set the record straight.’ The purpose of this letter is precisely that – to set the record straight.

Mailer tells us that no one was injured or killed in the incident in question: ‘Guns were fired in the air, and if there was a grenade, it was not detonated.’ The facts are as follows. Shlomo Ben Yosef was a member of Betar, the ultra-nationalist youth movement whose goal was a Jewish state on both banks of the Jordan river. On 21 April 1938, after several weeks of planning, he and two of his colleagues from the Irgun (Etzel) ambushed an Arab bus at a bend on a mountain road near Safad. They had a hand-grenade, a gun and a pistol. Their plan was to destroy the engine so that the bus would fall off the side of the road and all the passengers would be killed. When the bus approached, they fired at it (not in the air, as Mailer has it) but the grenade lobbed by Ben Yosef did not detonate. The bus with its screaming and terrified passengers drove on. The three attackers were put on trial and convicted on three main charges. One of them was consigned to a lunatic asylum. Ben Yosef and the other attacker were sentenced to death by hanging. As the verdict was announced, the two men stood up and shouted at the top of their voices: ‘Long live the Kingdom of Israel on both banks of the Jordan!’ In right-wing circles in which the killing of Arabs was glorified, Ben Yosef became a cult figure.

Mailer is right to point out that the context for this incident was the 1936-38 Arab revolt in which a large number of Jews were ambushed and murdered. But the Arab revolt itself was a desperate response to the Zionist takeover of Palestine with British support. In every other respect, her account is selective or wrong. That the operation was botched does not make it any less reprehensible. It is the intention that counts and the intention was to murder a busload of innocent Arab civilians. And this was only one in a long series of terrorist attacks mounted by the Irgun and the Stern Gang on Arab buses and marketplaces.

Avi Shlaim
St Antony’s College, Oxford

Please follow the links above for the full article and all the letters, except this one. Otherwise I get Zionists complaining that I've been economical with the truth. Some Zionists seem to think that they're the only people who know how a mouse and links work.

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