- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 25, 2009

By David Cesarani
Da Capo Press, $26, 302 pages, illus.

The British historian David Cesarani reaches back in time in this book examining the scandal that he thinks forced the British to give up their mandate in Palestine. True or not, British ineptitude that the author details in “Major Farran’s Hat” certainly hastened their departure.

In May 1947, 16-year-old Alexander Rubowitz was abducted from a Jerusalem street where he was putting up anti-British posters printed by the militant Stern gang. Two other boys who had seen the abduction ran to the scene, where they found a hat (a trilby) with the letters “F A R - A N” inscribed inside. The hat was given to the police with an appeal from the boy’s parents for information concerning his disappearance. The police responded by saying that the boy was not in police custody but they would investigate and report what they could find.

In background, one should know that as the situation in Palestine grew increasingly critical, the administration there searched desperately for a means to bring peace and order to the area. Bernard Fergusson, who had long been a special-forces advocate in the army and had led a column of special-forces “Chindits” in Burma, was offered a position with the Palestine police. He then wrote a memo suggesting the introduction of commando-type operatives who could hit and destroy cells of saboteurs and provocateurs. These men were skilled in martial arts and firearms but did not necessarily speak any language other than English.

Among those recruited was Maj. Roy Farran, a much-decorated World War II hero who excelled in commando raids but had never previously done police work. These warrior types, despite their virtues, did not necessarily make successful policemen, which is why they sometimes prowled the streets looking for teenagers putting up posters. According to notes Maj. Farran wrote, the abducted youth was taken to a secluded area and tortured to gain information concerning the Stern gang but revealed nothing, perhaps because he knew nothing — and then died because of the injuries inflicted upon him.

At that time, the Jews of Palestine (known as the Yishuv in Hebrew) were generally pro-British. The Jewish Agency, the representative Jewish body, cooperated with the British on almost everything except immigration, while the president of the World Zionist Congress, Chaim Weizmann, was a self-described anglophile. Two splinter groups existed: the Irgun, a right-wing party that differed on labor issues, and the Stern gang, a small group (the term “gang “is apt) of anti-British nationalists whose taste for bloodshed did neither it nor its cause much good.

In time, the British police force, whose respect for legal procedure had earlier brought it some respect, focused on the Rubowitz abduction, and Maj. Farran, to his astonishment, realized he was close to being arrested for murder. He fled to Syria, thinking he could conduct his defense better out of jail and in a neutral country. British detectives followed him there, negotiated with the French and brought him back to Palestine. After yet another escape, he finally was brought to trial.

The prosecution relied upon notes Maj. Farran had made in which he described both the kidnapping and murder. The defense claimed that the notes were part of the dialogue between Maj. Farran and his lawyers and, therefore, could not be used under lawyer-client privilege. The court ruled for the defense, and the prosecution was left with no case. The prosecution did not even ask to have the hat tried on to see if it fit, and Maj. Farran was acquitted.

The ill will caused by the case was enormous.

No one, not even his most ardent defenders, could believe Maj. Farran had not committed the murder he had described in his notes, and disillusionment with British justice became pervasive. It was clear to the Yishuv that a break with Britain was inevitable. In time, the British threw up their hands and dumped the whole Palestinian problem on the United Nations. In trying to be all things to all men, they had become irrelevant.

The author makes the point that for a policy to be successful, it be must be stated clearly, with no obfuscations, and that a ruling power needs the confidence of the people being ruled. These lessons we learn repeatedly, as we have in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In general, this book is a soundly researched history of an event worth remembering, but it suffers at times from a juvenile cynicism. The author quotes British Prime Minister Clement Attlee lamenting that President Harry S. Truman urged the immediate issuance of 100,000 visas for immigration to Palestine to ensure New York Jewish votes.

Truman was a politician and certainly welcomed all the votes that came his way. Yet it is probable that he believed, as most Americans did, that the survivors of the concentration camps deserved something better than a prolonged stay in a displaced persons camp, and he no doubt gained Protestant votes in Kansas by taking that position.

The author quotes Mr. Attlee again, citing his extraordinarily elitist statement that he wished voters would stick to local affairs and not get involved in statesmanship, meaning that foreign policy should be left to experts. It was one of those experts, Mr. Attlee’s foreign minister, Ernest Bevin, who made the famous prediction that it would take 100,000 British troops to protect the Jews from the Arabs in the event of hostilities.

There are other nits to pick; nevertheless, Mr. Cesarani has written a book worth having and referring to when contemplating the critical postwar years of the Palestine Mandate.

Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service officer who writes on international affairs.

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