Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

Evelyn Hugh Barker (1894-1983) was a decorated British Army officer who saw service in both WWI and WWII, but he is much better known as the General Officer Commanding of British Forces in Eretz Yisrael and Trans-Jordan from 1946 to 1947, during which time he established himself as one of the leading anti-Semites of the British Mandate and became the symbol of the brutality of British rule.

Portrait of Barker

Barker came to Eretz Yisrael at a time of increased military activity by the Irgun and Lehi (aka, the “Stern Gang”), and his principal charge was to eliminate the numerous and lethal attacks against British soldiers by these armed Zionist groups. Believing that Britain’s problems under its Mandate were due entirely to the “Zionist terrorists,” he decided that the problem could be resolved by instituting the death penalty against them. As such, he wasted little time in advocating for capital punishment against Jewish freedom fighters, a position that earned him broad support from both his subordinate British forces and from Bernard Montgomery, chief of the British Imperial General Staff.

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Barker’s harsher measures were by no means limited to executing Jewish combatants. Convinced that the Haganah and Palmach were in cahoots with Jewish underground militant groups and that the entire Yishuv was responsible for the attacks against the British, he decided that it was necessary to institute collective disciplinary actions against the entire Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael. However, Barker’s execution authority was limited to confirming or vetoing death sentences passed by the British courts and, even then, his decision could be overridden by Alan Cunningham, the high commissioner of Palestine. As such, he sought permission from the British Government to conduct a comprehensive raid throughout the Yishuv, but he was blocked by Cunningham.

However, in the wake of the June 16, 1946, “Night of the Bridges,” when the Palmach blew up eight road and rail bridges linking Eretz Yisrael to neighboring countries, and after the Irgun kidnapped six British officers the next day, Cunningham reluctantly reversed course. When the order from Britain finally came through, Barker sent tens of thousands of British soldiers on a cordon-and-search action designed to scrutinize every square inch of every Jewish settlement.

The operation, dubbed “Operation Agatha,” was known in the Yishuv as “Black Sabbath” because it was launched in the early morning hours of Shabbat, June 29, 1946, after the British had imposed a strict curfew, set up roadblocks, evacuated trains, and shut down all post and telegraph exchanges the previous evening. Although it was supposed to be a military operation, Barker supplemented his massive forces with Arab police officers under the leadership of Colonel W.N. Grey, the inspector general of the Palestinian Police.

 

Prisoners at Latrun captured during Operation Agatha.
Left to right: David Remez, Moshe Sharett, Yitzchak Gruenbaum,
Dov Yosef, Mr. Shenkarsky, David HaCohen, Isser Harel.

 

Jewish Agency offices in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were raided and its officers arrested and detained at Latrun, and other Jewish leaders were arrested en masse. Jews across the land fiercely resisted the British searches, with some lying on the ground to block British vehicles and others brazenly flashing their concentration camp tattoos, to which British soldiers responded by shouting “Heil Hitler” and drawing swastikas on the walls. By the end of the day, over 2,700 Jews had been arrested, four had been killed, and some 15 weapon caches located, including one of the Haganah’s central arsenals at Kibbutz Yagur.

In retaliation for Black Sabbath, the Irgun launched its infamous July 22, 1946, bombing of the southern wing of the King David Hotel, which served as the official headquarters of the British Mandate Administration. For reasons known only to the British, the Irgun’s advance warning to evacuate was ignored, and 91 people, including 17 Jews, were killed.

Barker, who was in his office at the hotel, escaped unscathed and, although he knew that the attack had been launched by the Irgun, he decided to hold the entire Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael responsible. He imposed harsh restrictions on the Yishuv, which largely backfired when his move led to increased support by ordinary Jews for the Irgun and Lehi, which they had previously strongly opposed. Shamelessly invoking the old anti-Semitic canard that the way to get to the money-hungry “Jewish race” was to “strike at their pockets,” Barker issued one of the most loathsome anti-Semitic orders of all time:

The Jewish community of Palestine cannot be absolved from responsibility for the long series of outrages culminating in the blowing up of a large part of the Government offices in the King David Hotel causing grievous loss of life. Without the support, active or passive, of the general Jewish public the terrorist gangs who actually carried out these criminal acts would soon be unearthed, and in this measure the Jews in this country are accomplices and bear a share of the guilt.

I am determined that they shall suffer punishment and be made aware of the contempt and loathing with which we regard their conduct. We must not allow ourselves to be deceived by the hypocritical sympathy shown by their leaders and representative bodies, or by their protests that they are in no way responsible for these acts . . . I have decided that with effect on receipt of this letter you will put out of bounds to all ranks all Jewish establishments, restaurants, shop, and private dwellings. No British soldier is to have social intercourse with any Jew . . . I appreciate that these measures will inflict some hardship on the troops, yet I am certain that if my reasons are fully explained to them they will understand their propriety and will be punishing the Jews in a way the race dislikes as much as any, by striking at their pockets and showing our contempt of them.

When Yishuv leaders obtained the text of the order, they hastily copied it and sent it out to various Western capitals before Barker could quietly revoke it, which he did two weeks later. Worldwide indignation and condemnation of the order was such that it soon exceeded the outrage against the attack of the King David Hotel itself, and the British were left with mud on their faces and a seriously impaired Mandate. The Zionists effectively used the negative publicity against Barker to attack British policy in Eretz Yisrael; one British newspaper even went so far as to print a caricature of Barker holding a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. (Barker apparently later regretted issuing the order, writing that he had acted in anger and with undue haste.)

When Barker learned that the members of the Irgun who were responsible for the King David bombing were hiding in Tel Aviv, he commenced “Operation Shark,” a colossal police operation involving the search of every building in Tel Aviv. The July 30, 1946, operation met with great success, including the discovery of dozens of weapons caches, including one in Tel Aviv’s Great Synagogue, and the arrest of Yitzchak Shamir, then Lehi’s leader and later prime minister of Israel. However, the principal target of the campaign managed to escape: Menachem Begin, who eluded capture by hiding in a secret compartment in his home while British soldiers occupied it for two days. Barker was furious with his troops, blaming them for incompetent bungling. (Ben-Gurion, who was in Paris at the time, also escaped capture.)

Barker’s unabashed hatred for Jews was by no means limited to Zionists. As he wrote in April 1947 to his mistress Katie Antonius, a Jerusalem socialite, the widow of a famous Lebanese-Palestinian intellectual, and notorious anti-Zionist: “Just think of all this life and money being wasted for these bloody Jews… Yes I loathe the lot – whether they be Zionists or not. Why should we be afraid of saying we hate them? Its time this damned race knew what we think of them – loathsome people.” In another correspondence to her, he complains about “everything that we did for these Jews, in terms of money and human lives.”

After these events, Barker’s authority and reputation took a great hit, which was only exacerbated when Cunningham again overruled him and commuted the death sentences of 18 convicted Lehi fighters. With the situation in Eretz Yisrael becoming a particularly sensitive high-profile issue, the controversial and scandalous Barker was reassigned to a position back home in Great Britain. However, he continued his duties in Eretz Yisrael for a few months and, taking advantage of his remaining limited opportunity, he stabbed the Jews in the back yet one more time by confirming the death sentence of Dov Gruner on January 24, 1947. In his final act, he confirmed the death sentences of Mordechai Alkachi, Dov Rosenbaum, and Eliezer Kashani on February 13, 1947 – his last day in Eretz Yisrael. (The British hanged all four Irgun fighters at Acre prison the following April.)

While in Eretz Yisrael, Barker was the target of several assassination attempts by the Irgun, all of which failed, but Jewish loathing of him was such that these attempts followed him to Britain. One of his would-be assassins there was Ezer Weizmann, later president of Israel, who planned to bomb his home. As Weizmann told the story thirty years later in On Eagle’s Wings, the plan was thwarted when suspicious police called on him and he quickly left Britain to avoid arrest.

First and last pages of the featured Barker correspondence.

In this remarkably hateful March 7, 1979, correspondence to Abraham Stavsky – clearly not the same “Avraham Stavsky” who had been charged with the murder of Chaim Arlosoroff and who died in 1948 – Barker writes:

Why you should have written to me heaven knows when there is so much in the daily press regarding the Arab-Israel dispute. Since 1948 the problem has been much more difficult as world politics thinking has altered. To me the answer is perfectly clear not being a politician. Under the Balfour Declaration “Palestine was to become a national home for the Jewish people it being understood that nothing should be done to prejudice the civil & religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities.” Has that condition be[en] preserved? The answer is definitely NO. What right anyhow had Great Britain to hand over the country in the first place – None. It was a most disgraceful undertaking in the first place & we as the responsible party should have ensured that the Balfour condition was carried out to the letter. As it was the Jews had a greater influence in the Western World than the Arabs & all had great sympathy for them in World War II & after. Now what has happened? The Jews have pushed the Arabs almost entirely out of the Country & by what right? In Biblical days they did not own the whole country – there were the Canaanites, Hittites . . . etc., etc. & being included the Arabs of today. Of course, I have little in common with Begin. He nearly blew me up with the I[rgun] Z[vai] L[eumi] in the King David Hotel. He was responsible for Count Bernadotte’s death & that of a good many others besides. No doubt he will go down in history as a great patriot – Yes, but with blood on his hands. If there was no outside political considerations the whole answer lies in giving back to the Arabs of Palestine some part of the Country & of course that is the West Bank but that has been made difficult by the setting up of the Jewish villages on the West Bank. If the British forces had been returned as a responsible means of ensuring that the Balfour Declaration was adhered to then, much of the present trouble might have been avoided. We have a lot to answer for & I do not wonder that P.L.O. continues to stand up for their rights which they will continue to do over many years to come. I sometimes wonder why we have retained the Arab friendship after all we have done. I am not anti-Jew or pro-Arab. The Jews have done a marvelous job in Palestine but it must be remembered that their dispersal throughout Europe was at their own volition. They were not forced out as the Palestine Arabs now are. As far as I can see political considerations will not permit of a settlement to the Arab-Israel [sic. Conflict] ever to be found. It’s sad as I have much affection for the country. If these views are of any interest to you, which I doubt, you are welcome to them . . .

Notwithstanding Barker’s claim that he is not “anti-Jew,” his misrepresentations, including particularly his falsifications of Jewish history, underscore his flagrant anti-Semitism.

His statement that “all had great sympathy for [the Jews] in World War II & after” is ludicrous and demonstrably false, given the extensive documented evidence of the United States and its allies failing to take any substantive action to address the plight of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe and then keeping them from going to Eretz Yisrael after the war. Perhaps even more disgusting is his claim that Jewish “dispersal throughout Europe was at their own volition,” which constitutes no less than a denial of the Holocaust, in which the Jews were brutally expelled from countries in which they had lived for more than a thousand years, only to find death in the Nazi concentration camps.

In asserting that the Jews failed to preserve the terms of the Balfour Declaration, he conveniently ignores the fact that Israel was always willing to accept a partition that would have created a separate Arab state for Palestinians; that the Arabs remained steadfast in their opposition to any Jewish territorial sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael; and that they ultimately launched the attack that led to their defeat and to Israel’s independence. Thus, his proposed “answer” to the Arab-Israel problem – “giving back to the Arabs of Palestine some part of the Country” – is a solution that Israel embraced in 1948 – and countless times in the decades since Barker wrote our letter.

Barker’s reference to Jewish “influence in the Western World” echoes ages old anti-Semitic claims about the existence of an all-powerful Jewish cabal taking over the world – which “cabal,” by the way, proved helpless to prevent the Holocaust. And while castigating Begin as a terrorist “with blood on his hands,” he simultaneously expresses support for the terrorist P.L.O. “standing up for the rights” while murdering innocent civilians, and support for the Arabs in general who, from the moment that Israel became a nation, promised to murder every Jew by “pushing them into the sea.” As to his claim that the Jews did not own the entire country even during biblical days, a simple reading of the Book of Joshua – which describes in detail the borders of the land and its allocation amongst the tribes – demonstrates both his willful ignorance and his malice.

Critics disagree about whether Barker was already an anti-Semite when he arrived in Eretz Yisrael or if he became one as the result of Jewish guerilla activities in the areas under his command. They do agree, however, that British troops in Eretz Yisrael were significantly anti-Jewish, which reflected the widespread British view that the Jews were ingrates who did not appreciate all that Britain had done for them, from the Balfour Declaration (which Barker complains about in our letter); through WWII, when the British allegedly acted in their interests by fighting the Nazis (the absurdity of this claim is such that it is not worth dedicating any space to rebutting it); to protecting them from the Arabs (an even more false and insulting).

Sic semper tyrannis.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.
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