Walter Edward Guinness, 1st Baron Moyne (1880-1944) was a member of the well-known Anglo-Irish Guinness brewing family who began his political career in 1907, gaining prominence during the 1920s while holding a series of cabinet positions. A close ally of Winston Churchill, he served as the British minister of state in the Middle East until November 1944, when he was assassinated by the Lehi (acronym for “Fighters for the Freedom of Israel”), also known as “the Stern Gang.”
Moyne played an important role in the hated White Paper, which sharply limited Jewish immigration to Eretz Yisrael, and he was a vehement opponent of the very idea of a Jewish state. In an address to the House of Lords on June 9, 1942, he charged the Jews with trying to make “political capital” out of British efforts to fight the Nazis and accused the Jews of aggression and domination in trying to “force an imported regime upon the Arab population.” A number of historians note that Moyne delivered anti-Semitic speeches in the House of Lords, including one in which he suggested that the Arabs should be awarded sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael because the Arab race was “purer” than the “mixed” Jewish race.
Moyne may also have been personally responsible for the deaths of a million Hungarian Jews. Joel Brand, a member of the Jewish-Hungarian Aid and Rescue Committee, approached the British in April 1944 with a “blood for trucks” proposal from Eichmann, pursuant to which the Nazis would release a million Jews in exchange for 10,000 trucks from the Allies. Brand was arrested and, in the course of months of British interrogation, he was asked at one point by Moyne, “What can I do with a million Jews? Where can I put them?”
There are commentators who dispute this conversation ever took place, but Brand testified accordingly at both the 1953 Kastner libel trial and again at the 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann. When the British released him in October 1944, he joined Lehi – which assassinated Moyne about a month later.
The Zionists – and particularly Lehi – regarded Moyne as personally responsible for Britain’s anti-Jewish Eretz Yisrael policy. In particular, Moyne worked to prevent a Jewish state through the adoption of harsh anti-aliyah immigration policies, and the Zionists held him responsible for the Struma disaster. (The MV Struma, filled with refugees fleeing the Holocaust, was denied entry into Eretz Yisrael by the British and subsequently forced into the Black Sea, where it was torpedoed and sunk on February 24, 1942; a total of 768 people died in what was the largest exclusively civilian naval disaster of World War II.)
When the Zionist movement undertook a broad campaign to raise a Jewish fighting force, which was discussed in detail between Weizmann and Churchill, the plan was opposed by the Colonial Office under Moyne’s direction. Moyne warned that raising a Jewish army might incite the Arabs to rebellion at a time when British forces were over-extended on three fronts, and Churchill acceded to his view that consideration of a Jewish Division be postponed for six months.
In this historic November 5, 1941 handwritten correspondence on London’s Dorchester Hotel stationery, Weizmann, then president of the World Zionist Organization, writes to John Martin, Churchill’s Private Secretary:
Here is a parcel of stuff re: Jewish Fighting Force. You may have time to read it here. Anyhow it will do in U.S.A. Moyne’s statement in the ‘Lord’s’ [i.e., in the House of Lords] is inaccurate. I have not been pressing for a decision prec [?]; only after the second postponement I suggested that an answer should be given and I have got a negative reply six weeks after my request was made. It was made on Sept. 1st a month after my return from U.S.A. Moyne’s refusal came on Oct. 15th…. You can see all that from the calendar of events.
At the time of this letter, Moyne served as Leader of the House of Lords, Secretary of State for the Colonies and, of greatest importance to the Zionist movement, as Minister-Resident and Plenipotentiary to the Middle East, in which capacity as the highest ranking British official in the Middle East, he exercised control over Eretz Yisrael.
Churchill personally received Weizmann to assure him that the deferral in no sense constituted a reversal of policy, and that he would never let the Jews down. The House of Lords speech to which Weizmann refers in our correspondence was almost certainly Moyne’s October 22, 1941 address, in which he asserted that Britain lacked the capability to expand the war effort as the opposition had demanded. Moyne sent an official reply to Weizmann on October 15 (mentioned in our letter) expressing his reservations against a Jewish division.
With Churchill’s encouragement, Weizmann visited the United States during the spring and summer of 1941, to which Weizmann also refers in our letter – in fact, just prior to his departure to the U.S., Weizmann visited 10 Downing Street to personally bid farewell to Martin. In America, he encountered enthusiastic support for a Jewish fighting force, a fact he attempted to use to sway Churchill’s ministers.
Years later, in September 1944, Churchill’s government finally agreed to create a Jewish Brigade, six years after it had been first proposed. The Brigade, the only Jewish military unit among the Allied forces during World War II, went on to distinguish itself in battle.
In a November 4, 1944 memorandum to Weizmann, Churchill noted that Moyne had come over to the Zionist cause, and many commentators still argue that Lehi murdered a man who actually supported their cause. This is demonstrably false, however, as Moyne’s pro-Arab position had not changed. In fact, Moyne upped his opposition to a Jewish state after World War II when the Labor Party assumed power in England with the election of Prime Minister Clement Atlee and Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin, who was a fervent enemy of the Zionist movement and a vicious opponent of the very idea of a Jewish state.
There is no doubt that Moyne’s motivation was not to further Jewish statehood plans but, rather, to salvage land for the Arabs. His guiding light remained stemming Jewish immigration but, when the British proved unable to accomplish this task, his only remaining option became supporting partitioning Eretz Yisrael to ensure that the Arabs received their “fair share.” As such, he reached a Jewish state solution for anti-Jewish reasons: to minimize the possibility that the Jews would have a viable state or, at the very least, to ensure that Jews would not control the entire land.
Yitzchak Shamir, then a leader of the Lehi underground who directed its organizational operations, devised a plan to assassinate Moyne. The original plan called for shooting him in a busy intersection through which Moyne’s vehicle passed daily, but that strategy was vetoed out of fear that the bullets might strike an innocent bystander. Instead, Shamir decided upon an attack at Moyne’s home in Cairo, notwithstanding the significantly greater risk to the Lehi operatives, Eliyahu Bet-Zuri and Eliyahu Hakim.
Moyne had actually been warned in advance by British intelligence that he was a likely terrorist target, but he insisted that he receive no special protection. Following his usual military-like routine, which his assailants had studied assiduously, he arrived in his limousine in the early afternoon of November 6, 1944 accompanied by his driver, Arthur Fuller; his secretary, Dorothy Osmond; and his Aide-de-Camp, Major Andrew Hughes-Onslow.
When Hughes-Onslow exited the vehicle to open the front door of the Moyne residence, Bet-Zuri and Hakim jumped out of hiding and ordered them all not to move. When Fuller leaped out and lunged at Bet-Zuri in an attempt to seize the revolver from his hand – Fuller’s killing was not a wanton murder for murder’s sake, as some still claim – Bet-Zuri shot him in the chest and he bled to death in the driveway in mere minutes. Hakim then pulled the car door open and shot Moyne three times.
The murderers fled but, through a fluke of exceedingly bad luck, they were pursued and caught by an out-of-district Egyptian police constable. Moyne was rushed to a British military hospital in Cairo in critical condition, and he died the following morning after an unsuccessful surgery.
Jewish reaction in Eretz Yisrael and around the world was almost universally negative. Weizmann is reported to have said that the death was more painful to him than that of his own son and, in a letter to Churchill, he wrote, “I can hardly find words adequate to express the deep moral indignation and horror which I feel. I know that these feelings are shared by Jewry throughout the world.”
David Ben-Gurion described the killers as traitors to the Jewish people. Moshe Sharett (then Shertok and head of the Jewish Agency’s political department), announced publicly that Moyne’s slaying distorts the historical truth of Zionism before the entire world. Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz of Great Britain unambiguously compared the killers to Nazis.
Ha’aretz wrote that the assassins “have done more by this single reprehensible crime to demolish the edifice erected by three generations of Jewish pioneers than is imaginable.” The Jewish Agency Executive even went so far as to urge any Jew with knowledge of “the terrorists” to inform the British police, but two members of the Executive, Rav Yehuda Fishman-Maimon and Yitzhak Greenbaum – both later signers of Israel’s Declaration of Independence – vehemently opposed any such form of collaboration.
A bitter Churchill, who always characterized himself as a proud Zionist and was, in fact, a strong supporter of a Jewish State in Eretz Yisrael, spoke bitterly about the assassination and announced that he was reconsidering his support: “If our dreams for Zionism are to end in the smoke of assassins’ pistols and our labors for its future to produce only a new set of gangsters worthy of Nazi Germany, many like myself will have to reconsider the position we have maintained so consistently and so long in the past.”
The British assisted the Egyptian police investigation; successfully lobbied for a trial in a military court; urged the court to impose death sentences on the defendants; and, fearing that Bet-Zuri and Hakim could attain a tactical and propaganda victory were they permitted to speak, the British sought, but failed, to secure an order to gag them at their own murder trial.
The defendants, who were fluent in Arabic, insisted on speaking Hebrew during their trial, and a fiasco ensued where the Egyptians could not find a suitable translator fluent in both Arabic and Hebrew. Bet-Zuri and Hakim did use their trial as a means to draw international attention to British atrocities and malfeasance in Eretz Yisrael and to advocate for the justice of a Jewish state, and the greatest fears of the British were realized when courtroom attendees – and much of the public – regarded the defendants as sympathetic freedom fighters battling British imperialism.
Their Egyptian lawyers actually did a highly credible job defending them, arguing that they had acted with moral motives and that they had no animus against Moyne personally but, rather, against his immoral government. They cited passionately the plight of European Jewry; the pogroms, massacres, cruelty of the Holocaust; and the tragedy of the Struma and Jews drowning in sight of their Promised Land because they were forbidden entry.
They explained, “The Jews had tried everything, but nobody has heard them; some of them concluded that it was necessary to sacrifice themselves so as to appeal to the world to save their people.”
Bet-Zuri, age 22, and Hakim, age 18, were convicted on January 18, 1945 and the case was referred to the Mufti who alone under Moslem law had the authority to impose a death sentence. He did, in fact, impose the death sentence and – heads held high and proudly singing Hatikvah en route to the gallows – Bet-Zuri and Hakim were hanged on March 23, 1945.
In a deal with Sadat three decades later, Shamir recovered their bodies in exchange for 20 prisoners from Gaza and Sinai. They were laid in state in the Jerusalem Hall of Heroism, where they were attended by many dignitaries, including PM Rabin and President Katzir, and then buried in the military section of Har Herzl in a state funeral led by Rabin with full military honors. In response to Britain’s formal protest against the honors afforded to the killers of one of their greatest statesmen, Israel referred to Bet-Zuri and Hakim as “heroic freedom fighters.”
Even to date, there is significant debate amongst scholars regarding the efficacy of the assassination. Many still argue that the murder soured Churchill on Zionism, adversely impacted British policy to the detriment of Zionist interests in Eretz Yisrael, earned the enmity of the world community, and unnecessarily delayed the birth of a Jewish state.
Others note that, in the struggle for a Jewish state, such actions, while painful, were necessary and that, at the end of the day, it was these very types of actions that led the British to finally give up their Mandate and leave Eretz Yisrael.
As Western consciousness began to come to terms with the Holocaust, Bet- Zuri and Hakim became the subjects of folk tales, books, and poems, and the dominant view in Israel today is that Moyne’s assassination was a seminal event in hastening the British leaving Eretz Yisrael and the birth of Israel. In 1982, Israel’s Postal Authority issued stamps honoring them as heroes.