Here is a potent example of the cynical and violent behavior of Israel’s founders. The example concerns the case of the SS Patria, a 12,000 ton passenger ship carrying 1,904 Jewish refugees that had fled the Nazi regime in 1940. At that time the British authorities were attempting to slow Jewish immigration to Palestine, and they had decided to send the Patria to Mauritius. The Zionist leadership wanted fervently to prevent the deportation of the newly arrived refugees, so the Jewish paramilitary organizations—the Irgun and the Haganah—each attempted to destroy the ship sufficiently so that it could not function. First, the Irgun planted a bomb intended to disable the ship—and failed. Then the Haganah, operating under orders from Moshe Sharett (the future second prime minister of Israel, 1953–1955), planted a bomb in the inner hull of the ship. On November 26, the bomb detonated and blew a massive hole in the ship’s hull. The ship sunk in 15 minutes, killing 260 innocent Jewish refugees and injuring another 172.
The Yiddish daily the Morning Journal summarized the incident as follows:
“[After the British deportation orders] the Haganah General Staff took a decision at which their leaders shuddered. The decision was not to permit the Patria to leave Jaffa. The English must be given to understand that Jews could not be driven away from their own country [sic]. The Patria must be blown up. The decision was conveyed to Haganah members on the Patria and in the hush of night, preparations had begun for the execution of the tragic act. On Sunday, November 26, 1940, the passengers were informed by the English that they were being returned to sea. The Jews remained silent, save for a whisper from a man to man to go “up the deck, all up the deck.” Apparently, the signal did not reach everybody, for many hundreds remained below—never to see the light again. Suddenly an explosion was heard and a panic ensued. . . . It was a hellish scene; people jumped into the water, children were tossed into the waves; agonizing cries tore into the heavens. The number of victims was officially placed at 276. The survivors were permitted by the High Commissioner to land.
The Zionist leadership blamed the incident on the British; additional stories were circulated that the refugees had committed mass suicide to protest British policy. Many leaders of the Jewish community in Palestine—the Yishuv—argued the loss of life had not been fruitless because the survivors were granted entry.
Only in 1957 did a Jewish dockworker named Munya Mardor admit to being the operative that placed the bomb for the Haganah, thereby confirming British suspicions.
This history is of course a shameful episode that tarnishes Israel’s founding, but it is only one of many. The pre-Israel Jewish sectarian militias were guilty of extraordinary brutality against civilians for political gain—this is terrorism according to any reasonable interpretation of the term.
One can easily imagine the Jewish and international reaction to the news that Hamas, to construct a hypothetical example, purposefully attacked a school sealed with 1,900 innocent civilians so they could blame the act on the Israelis and gain political points. How many times have we heard Israeli commentators (often incorrectly) suggest that Hamas uses human shields and “hides among its people”? When this has happened, it’s worthy of our utmost condemnation; I will never condone such a thing.
But isn’t actually attacking your own people with military-grade weaponry much worse than simply living among them in tight quarters?76