How My Grandmother Prevented A Civil War

(Just Not a Civil War – Hebrew)

Haggai Segal

Geffen Publishing House 384 pages

There are three stories interwoven into “Just Not a Civil War,” The first is of an idealist from Siberia who in early 20th century, against all odds immigrated with his third wife and his children to Palestine where he was a founder of the Upper Carmel settlement, the Ahuza in Haifa. The second is a history of the great animosity between the Left’s Haganah underground and the Right’s Irgun and LEHI militias. Our hero settlers’ son joins the Irgun, is kidnapped by the Haganah and is found dead a few days later. Wrapping it all up is the author’s years researching and investigating the murder of his uncle, widely suspected to be the handiwork of the Haganah.

Full disclosure, the author, Haggai Segal is my brother in law, married to my wife’s sister. Segal, currently the editor in chief of Makor Rishon is an experienced and widely published journalist. An idealist he is one of the founding members of his own community, Ofra in the Judean Hills and was a member of the notorious Jewish underground from the 1980’s. There is no pretense as to what angle this story is being told from but that does not lessen the fascinating picture of turn of the century Palestine, the ideological turned sometimes violent attrition between the Zionist left lead by David Ben-Gurion and the revisionists lead first by Zev Jabotinsky and succeeded by Menachem Begin. The three stories are lead by three generations of Segal’s; Grandfather Yosef, Uncle Yedidya and author Haggai.

Grandfather Yosef was a simple educator of deep intellect and an avowed Zionist who believed that he had lived to see the actual redemption. The birth of Israel was the culmination of God’s promise to Abraham and despite his strict Orthodoxy believed that it was the secular who were chosen by God to fulfill the mission of ingathering the exiles. His idolization of Ben-Gurion did not preclude a similar adoration for Jabotinsky, his ideology had nothing to do with left or right, just the return to Zion. His sons, the author’s father and uncle, had their own leanings and during the period between the end of WWII and the founding of the state they chose to serve in the Irgun, a daring and not popular choice in those days. Ben-Gurion is clearly the villain in this book as he never could countenance any opposition, having his troops round up Irgun members and handing them off to the British Police during the mandate and after statehood denying it’s members jobs or military benefits. At one point he orders the arrest/kidnapping of a high level Irgun operative and in retaliation the Irgun responds in kind.

Yedidya, the younger of the two Segal brothers was but a soldier in the Irgun, not high level enough to warrant the Haganah’s interest except for the fact that the Haganah’s kidnap victim was brought to Yedidya’s work shed while they tried to figure out where to take him. In a sweep of the area Haganah men were tipped off that something happened earlier in the shed and Yedidya’s fate was sealed. They took him in and he was never seen alive again. While I offer no moral equivalency, I can’t help but think of the parallels between Fatah and Hamas today to Irgun and Haganah of back then. The key difference according to this telling is that the more hard line Irgun were less inclined to take on the “moderate” Haganah.

Like most scandals, the bigger crime is usually in the cover up. Haggai Segal’s exhaustive research concludes that Yedidya was likely killed while being tortured by Haganah interrogators. Concluding that Yedidya possessed direct knowledge of the whereabouts on their commander Gedalia Kaminetsky they pushed a bit too hard and Yedidya died by their hands. The Haganah members quickly dumped the body near an Arab village to make it seem like after his “release” he was lynched by an angry mob. What could have been the catalyst for a civil war between Jewish undergrounds was averted due to the restraint of the victim’s family lead by the victim’s mother, the author’s grandmother.

Piece by piece Haggai Segal weaves together forensics, personal testimonies and new evidence to prove that the Haganah did in fact kill Yedidya. They then proceeded to cover it up with the knowledge and backing of top tier members including Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion would continue to hold animus towards the Irgun and its successors until the very end of his life. While history has for the most part been kind to Ben-Gurion, like most revered leaders he was all too human. It is apparent that he needn’t have fired upon the Altelena, a ship commissioned by the Irgun to bring arms for the War of Independence, an incident where Jews killed Jews in a very avoidable tragedy. His predictions that Begin ever rising to power would bring Fascism to Israel proved to be wrong. Begin and the Revisionists he lead took great pains despite many provocations, to avoid civil war. Both leaders had their eyes on the greater prize, an independent Jewish state, but it was Begin not Ben-Gurion who strived to get there without internal fighting.

The book is extremely readable and informative. As the last of the founding generation dies the pre state narrative grows distant in today’s Israel. The successors to Ben-Gurion and Begin no longer care to fight over who actually won the independence from Britain, they are too busy fighting over settlements and peace negotiations. In a historical irony, it is Begin’s successors who appear to hold an impenetrable grip on power and Ben-Gurion’s successors who are the feeble and weakened opposition. After reading this book it is not difficult to discern that this turn of events was inevitable, power corrupts but more importantly it atrophies creative thinking and leads to stagnation that the populous eventually tires of. It is also a lesson to those currently on top to heed; decisions made today, in other words tomorrow’s history, shapes future events. Better to be good to those you pass on the way up, because inevitably you meet them on the way down. Better to pay attention to your base because eventually they can tire from your leadership. What this book teaches us is that there is always a bigger picture than the one we live in, even if the one we live in includes personal tragedy.