Yitzhak Shamir, 1925-2012

Yitzhak Shamir: Why we killed Lord Moyne

Soon after he had stepped down as leader of the Likud in 1993, Yitzhak Shamir accepted a young American student’s request to interview him for her doctoral dissertation. In this excerpt, Joanna Saidel questions him on the reasons for, and repercussions of, the Lehi’s shattering assassination of Britain’s minister of state in the Middle East

Yitzhak Shamir, pictured in 1992. (photo credit: Flash90)
Yitzhak Shamir, pictured in 1992. (photo credit: Flash90)

On October 26, 1993, I had the privilege of meeting former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir at his office in the Knesset. I was in Jerusalem to conduct a series of research interviews for my doctoral dissertation, Revisionist Zionism in America: The Campaign to Win American Public Support 1939-1948.

When I embarked upon this venture Yitzhak Shamir was the first person I contacted with a request for information. Then a mere graduate student at the University of New Hampshire, I doubted that he would respond to my correspondence and was both surprised and delighted to receive his enthusiastic reply. After a number of telephone interviews with him, I had the opportunity to travel to Israel for a face-to-face interview.

Following an hour of security checks I was finally able to enter the Knesset and reach his “cave” in the depths of the complex. With a final check of my credentials and a security flash of my camera, I gained admittance into the sanctum. I was taken back by the size of his tiny office, the lack of adornment, the austere furnishings… a desk, a couple of chairs, some books, a flag of Israel. This was the office of a former prime minister of Israel? It was quite shocking.

In contrast to his well-known rigid persona and uncompromising politics, I found him to be a warm, friendly, energetic man, grandfatherly in nature. His welcoming smile filled the empty room. We discussed a variety of issues ranging from the struggles between the Irgun, the New Zionist Organization and the Hebrew Committee for National Liberation, to the politics of Roosevelt regarding the United States’ dependence on Saudi oil in the 1940’s, British politics vis-a-vis Palestine, the Altalena incident, and his escape from a prison camp in Djibouti.

All of these topics were extremely interesting, and perhaps none more so than his part in the November 1944 assassination of Lord Moyne, Leader of the House of Lords, Secretary of State for the Colonies, Resident Minister in Cairo, opponent of the Jews throughout his career as Colonial Secretary. Lehi underground leaders, Yitzhak Shamir and Dr. Israel Eldad, created a plan to do away with Moyne. The correctness of that decision has been debated to this day. One vocal opponent was the former foreign minister and ambassador to the US and UN Abba Eban, who told me during an interview that he believed the actions of the Lehi against Moyne had hindered the Partition Plan and thwarted early statehood for Israel. I brought this idea to Shamir’s attention. He strongly disagreed.

Lord Moyne (photo credit: Courtesy)
Lord Moyne (photo credit: Courtesy)

Joanna Saidel: Let me ask you… I spoke with Abba Eban about a month ago,  and he told me that he believed that if it wasn’t for the activities of the Lehi, during the early ’40s, Israel would have become a state, would have been partitioned and that the partition plan would have gone through in December of 1944.

Yitzhak Shamir: No, no, no, no…

Saidel: Why does he think this?

Shamir: It is nonsense! It’s nonsense! In ’44, ’45 (laughs), the British have still been here, very strong, and they didn’t think about leaving the country. It was before the end of the war. The end was in ’45, yes? And then, after ’45, Ben Gurion started to organize the Zionist movement and the conference in Baltimore. At this convention they decided that the helm of the Zionist movement has to be a Jewish commonwealth… a Jewish commonwealth! It was curious that the Zionist movement officially didn’t accept the slogan of a Jewish State as the aim of the Zionist movement! You know about it. Weizmann was against it. Weizmann didn’t like this expression of a ‘Jewish State’. All the time it was a strain before the British. He wants to have Jewish unity here, some unity, not a state — I don’t know what! But then came all this rupture between Ben Gurion and Weizmann…. but (laughs) all of them they’ve been together against us!

British Foreign Office documents confirm that a plan for partition was set for proposal. It is questionable whether the plan would have been accepted. According to Eban the motives for the plan were pro-Arab but would, nonetheless, serve the Jewish cause. Winston Churchill’s November 4, 1944 memorandum to Chaim Weizmann noted that Moyne had come over to the Zionist cause, albeit for pro- Arab motives. Reportedly, Churchill became despondent and alienated as a result of the attack on Moyne and did not pursue the plan with his former vigor. It was dropped until 1947. I pursued the point.

Saidel: Someone (Abba Eban) said that Lord Moyne was going to agree with Churchill to support the Zionist movement even though it wasn’t for Zionist reasons.

Shamir: No, no, no … Lord Moyne was very strongly against us, against a Jewish State. Churchill said once that he had some dream about dividing Palestine in a different way — a part to the Arabs, a part to the Jews, but it was a very unclear idea. Very unclear. He was not busy with that, Churchill… And then, after the war, the Labor Party took over power in England and Mr. Bevin became foreign minister, Atlee was prime minister, and Mr. Bevin opposed the Zionist movement, the idea of a Jewish majority … of a Jewish State … and he sent the others to create here an Arab country, an Arab state, with certain autonomy for the Jewish, for the Jewish settlements.

As unclear as the plan was there is no doubt that Moyne’s motivation was not to further the Jewish plan for statehood. Even Eban agreed, telling me: “He (Moyne) did this for Arab reasons. In other words, he said that unless the British were able to stop immigration, which they were not able to do, then the only way to save anything for the Arabs was by seeing that some part of Palestine was reserved for them. So he reached what I would call a Jewish State solution for anti-Jewish reasons, namely that otherwise the Jews would take over the whole of the country, and, therefore, partition was a sort of defense of the Arab position.” Eban claimed that, following the assassination of Lord Moyne, “Churchill went into a sulk which lasted about four or five years” and that “therefore, there’s no doubt that the murder of Moyne had a negative effect.”

Abba Eban (photo credit: GPO)
Abba Eban (photo credit: GPO)

This analysis was not only rejected by Shamir but also by prime minister Menachem Begin’s adviser on foreign affairs, author, journalist and member of the Irgun command, Shmuel Katz. He told me the following in an interview in November 1993: “Absolutely untruth….. nothing was going to be done until after the war, In ’44 the war was not over. That the murder of Lord Moyne, which was completely justified, caused Churchill to be very angry, that we knew. But Mr. Abba Eban should have explained to them why Lord Moyne was killed instead of jumping at the idea that Lehi was to blame. I never heard that Abba Eban ever explained to them that Lord Moyne was the man who said, among other things, when they talked of getting a million Jews out of Europe, he said, What will we do with a million Jews?

“He was an anti-Semite, Lord Moyne. And he had a hand in the White Paper, in carrying out the White Paper policy. I don’t say that I would have, if I had to decide, that I would decide that he ought to be shot, but once he was shot there were good reasons for him being shot. And it was because we had people like Abba Eban on the other side that we had so much trouble, and our acts of resistance, which were justified, which were much less than any other people would have carried out, were undermined by people like Abba Eban, not that he had very much authority in those days.”

There is no doubt that Shamir played a vital role in the assassination, as he did in the later assassination of Count Bernadotte. During my visit with Dr. Israel Eldad he stated plainly, “I was responsible only for the idea, Yitzhak Shamir was responsible for the organizational operations.”

As I continued my interview with Shamir, I cautiously approached his participation in the Moyne assassination, unsure what kind of response I would receive. I did not want to anger or upset him by bringing it up but decided to press on out of curiosity and a desire to know the truth.

A Wanted poster of the Palestine Police Force offering rewards for the capture of Shamir (center) and two other members of the Stern Gang
A Wanted poster of the Palestine Police Force offering rewards for the capture of Shamir (center) and two other members of the Stern Gang

Saidel: Was Moyne singled out because he represented….

Shamir: No, no, no, no, no, no, no…. Moyne is a different story. First of all, Lehi is a different story. Lehi was not a part of the Zionist movement, not a part of the Revisionist Party. It was sometimes something apart and Lord Moyne was the highest British official in the Middle East …. and because we fought against the British in this area, we took him for a target. This was the main reason for his assassination.

Certainly, we had known about his hostile attitude towards Zionism, towards the idea of ingathering of the Jewish people here. He was against any Jewish aliyah, any Jewish immigration. He didn’t believe that there exists such a thing like a Jewish nation, or a Jewish people … and therefore, we decided to make this operation.

Concerning this operation, Eban accused Shamir of sacrificing the two young attackers in a “suicide mission”. Eban said: “In sending these people to kill Moyne those who sent them, that includes Shamir of course, were quite consciously murdering these two young Jews because there was no possibility whatever that they could carry out that mission and escape. Where could they escape to? So, in other words, on the negative side it was a death sentence for these two youngsters.”

I confronted Shamir with the accusation, asking him directly if it was a suicide mission. He responded vigorously.

Shamir: It was not a suicide mission. They wanted to escape but they’ve not succeeded! It was very risky of course…. but there was a plan how to, after killing, after the assassination, they had a plan to escape!

Saidel: What were they going to do?

Shamir: They’ve been like soldiers…. and they had all the documents of soldiers, British soldiers, and they could reach the railway, and by the railway come here. It was possible! But it was bad luck because there was a policeman, an Egyptian policeman, in the area when they did it … when they killed Lord Moyne.

There was in the area a policemen… on a motorcycle… and they had bicycles to escape …and he was faster…. and had a shorter way… and (Eliyahu) Bet-Zuri was wounded, slightly, but he was wounded. He couldn’t continue to run. In such a way it happens….but the plan was for their escape! It was planned to get an ambulance, an ambulance, a British ambulance, but they’ve not succeeded to bring this ambulance on this day and they didn’t want to wait longer…. and they’d been determined to do it …. and then they’ve been caught by the state.

Bet-Zuri and Eliyahu Hakim were both sentenced to death and hanged in Cairo on 22 March 1945, singing Hatikva from the gallows. Years later Yitzhak Shamir helped to recover their bodies in a prisoner exchange with Egypt. They were interred on Mount Herzel with full military honors. Last week, Yitzhak Shamir, prime minister, freedom fighter, intransigent Zionist, was laid to rest nearby. 

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