Sometimes, a seemingly insignificant incident can cause a monumental ripple effect. Such was the case when a 16-year-old Jewish boy, Alexander Rubowitz, disappeared in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim district on May 6, 1947 while out on an errand.
Rubowitz, in fact, was abducted and murdered by British commandos in the waning days of the Mandate, the British colonial period in Palestine. The resultant scandal drove a wedge between Britain and the Jewish community, undermined British prestige and authority and was a factor in Britain’s decision to divest itself of its League of Nations mandate in Palestine.
British historian David Cesarani examines this incident in an important book, Major Farran’s Hat: Murder, Scandal and Britain’s War Against Jewish Terrorism 1945-1948, published by Vintage Books in London.
The surname in its title is a reference to Roy Farran, a highly-decorated officer who was in charge of a covert counter-terrorist squad whose mission was to hunt down Jewish terrorists who opposed British rule in Palestine by means of violence and sought to create a Jewish state there.
Rubowitz, after whom a street in Jerusalem has been named, was a member of a religious youth group aligned with the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, known by its Hebrew acronym as Lehi. When he was kidnapped, he was on an errand for Lehi, which routinely used teenagers as couriers to distribute leaflets as well as arms.
Among Jewish militias in Palestine, Lehi was the most radical, having been formed after its first leader, Avraham Stern, broke away from the Irgun, the National Military Organization, which itself was more militant than the mainstream Haganah force.
After Stern was killed by British police in 1942, Lehi regrouped under the leadership of Nathan Friedman-Yellin and launched a series of assassinations aimed at British officials and soldiers.
One of its prime targets, Lord Moyne, was killed in 1944. He was Britain’s top diplomat in the Middle East and a personal friend of the prime minister, Winston Churchill, who was friendly to the Zionist enterprise. Moyne’s assassination appalled the Jewish Agency and prompted the Haganah to help British anti-terror teams track down Lehi fighters.
By 1947, Lehi and the Irgun had declared war against Britain, having attacked British forces and bases in Palestine and having bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, with the loss of 96 lives, including 16 British personnel.
It was against this backdrop that Rubowitz was waylaid by Farran and four other members of his team. They took him to a secluded spot for interrogation, hoping he could lead them to what Cesarani describes as “bigger fish.” Rubowitz had nothing to tell them, and in a rage, Farran smashed his head repeatedly with a rock, killing him. Rubowitz’s body never turned up, but Farran’s hat, with his name written in ink on the sweatband, was found at the scene of the homicide.
Farran was no ordinary soldier, having earned recognition for conducting special operations behind German lines during World War II. After the war, he was assigned to one of the two units that had been established by the Palestine Police Force to arrest Jewish terrorists.
Cesarani says that Farran approached the Arab-Israeli conflict with an open mind, but once in Palestine, he developed mixed impressions of Jews and bridled at the restraints imposed on the British army to combat terrorism.
Farran was summoned to Palestine in 1947, just as Arab-Jewish hostilities hostilities escalated and the British army launched strikes against Lehi and the Irgun.
British authorities, though aware that Rubowitz had been murdered, denied any knowledge of his murder in a systematic coverup. Police and army spokesmen stuck to their story, even after Farran’s hat turned up.
The boy’s disappearance aroused indignation and anger in the Yishuv, with the Jewish press taking up his cause and demanding to know why Farran had not been arrested. Eventually, he was detained. But convinced he could bargain his way out of trouble if given sufficient time, he fled to neighbouring Syria, his flight being front page news in Palestine and Britain.
Lured back to Palestine, Farran was thrown into a British military prison. Shortly afterward, the British announced that he would be court martialled. Farran was acquitted, flown to a British base in Egypt and placed on a ship bound for Liverpool.
Toward the end of 1947, when the United Nations voted to partition Palestine, Farran resigned from the army. He wrote an article for the Daily Express in which he outlined his views on the conflict in Palestine.
His sympathies lying with the Arabs, Farran described the Zionist movement as a “poisonous flower” and accused Jews of aspiring to control the Middle East. “Small wonder that the nations of the Middle East regard aggressive Zionism as a menace to their security,” he observed.
Concluding that Jews had become a “bellicose nationalistic race,” Farran prophesied that the Zionists would be defeated and that antisemitism in Britain would increase.
Farran’s fortunes soared. He wrote a book, Winged Dagger, the paperback edition of which is on sale on Amazon.com today, and was feted by King George VI at Buckingham Palace. Farran worked for a construction company in Scotland, not realizing he was being stalked by Lehi.
On May 3, 1948, less than two weeks before Israel declared independence, a parcel was delivered to Farran’s house, killing his brother, Rex. Lehi claimed responsibility, admitting Rex Farran had beeen killed in error. Three months later, Farran left Britain to manage the affairs of a British construction company in Rhodesia.
There he met a Canadian, Ruth Ardern, whose family had a ranch in Alberta. Married in 1950, they settled in Calgary. Intending to be a diary farmer, he instead wrote a novel, Jungle Chase, and a history of the Calgary Highlanders Regiment. That led to a job as a reporter on the Calgary Herald. In 1954, he founded a weekly newspaper, the North Hills News, which was his springboard to politics.
Elected a city alderman in 1961, Farran won a seat in Alberta’s legislature 10 years later, running under the banner of the Progressive Conservative party. He landed in the provincial cabinet in 1973 as minister for telephones and utilities and in 1975 as solicitor-general. He retired from politics in 1979 as a much-liked and respected elder statesman.
The Rubowitz family continued to pursue Farran, trying to mine information from him about the whereabouts of Alexander’s corpse. Farran declined to respond, and from the 1970s onward, he refused to speak about his abduction. Farran died in 2006.
The Farran affair, which began as a minor event and mushroomed into an international cause celebre, is little more than a footnote in the larger scheme of things. But it helped delegitimize Britain’s claim to governing Palestine and set the stage for Israel’s emergence as a sovereign state.
Call it blowback.