In May 1947, Major Roy Farran, leading a covert British counterterrorist squad in Palestine, helped abduct from the streets of Jerusalem a 16-year-old Palestinian Jew, Alexander Rubowitz. Rubowitz was driven away and Farran interrogated him off the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. The teenager was no more than an errand boy for the militant Zionist group Lohamei HaHerut b'Yisrael, more notoriously known as the Stern Gang. Finally, as related by David Cesarani, "in what was either a misjudged application of violence or a deliberately brutal termination of the 'questioning', Farran picked up a rock and smashed it against the boy's head". He adds that after "one or more blows Alexander Rubowitz died". His body was never discovered.
This summary of Rubowitz's murder occurs less than halfway through Cesarani's remarkable account, Major Farran's Hat, but it is clear from the start of the narrative that Farran, whose hat was found at the scene of the abduction, was responsible for the death of the young Zionist. Although advertised on the dust jacket as a "murder mystery", there is, in fact, little mystery to be unravelled. Cesarani, using recently released British government papers, confirms the belief in contemporary Zionist circles that Farran was responsible and that there was a disgraceful cover-up of his guilt. The point of this book, therefore, is not to keep the reader in suspense, in spite of its self-identifying tag as a "Boys' Own adventure". It is more an expose of the last days of the British mandate in Palestine and the tension between the civil and military authorities in the struggle against various strands of the Zionist movement.
Indeed, one of the major achievements of Major Farran's Hat is the restraint employed. While a firm moral tone is maintained throughout at the damage done to the British reputation and system of government in its colonies, there is a clear sense of self-control operating throughout the narrative. The story of the murder, the botched attempt to arrest Farran (he escaped twice), the farce of his court martial and his almost instant recovery in reputation is told in a manner of resignation rather than anger, marking what was a bleak moment in British (and Jewish and Palestinian) history.
Only occasionally does the perversity of the episode get the better of the author, as when he remarks that at the time of Farran's second disappearance: "In order to protect Farran and their own reputations, the police force and the administration subjected the Rubowitz family to continuing mental torture." The feelings of the victim's close relatives were, of course, the least of the concerns of the British authorities in a time of increasing international criticism of both the British authorities and the Jewish terrorists.
Although the cover of the book points to the "remarkable echoes of today's War on Terror", the author does not engage in opportunistic attempts to draw blatant comparisons. There are occasional references with contemporary resonance, such as the need to protect "homeland security", but Cesarani is sensible enough to allow the parallels, or otherwise, to be drawn implicitly. Fascinating in this regard is the story he relates of attempts at Jewish terrorism in Britain itself. While most of those involved in smuggling and sending bombs into the UK were not British, including those who succeeded in murdering Farran's brother in May 1948, there were young British Jews who, often returning from the war and radicalised by the horror of the Holocaust and postwar British Palestinian policy, dabbled with terrorism or, more frequently, supported those attempting to carry it out on major British targets and individuals in the UK.
Not surprisingly, these troubled years immediately after the war have been subject to amnesia by British Jewry, even more so because of the collective violence in August 1947 - the last riots against Jews in Britain during the 20th century. Cesarani provides tantalising glimpses of the pressures faced by British Jewry during these difficult days. It is a little frustrating, however, that the author, one of the leading historians of the Jews of modern Britain, does not develop that theme further. Yet the fact that British Jewry is regarded with deep respect in official circles in the 21st century and only just over half a century earlier was regarded, at least in part, with deep concern in the world of British security is a reminder of the vulnerability of minority groups in Britain. One is thus prompted to wonder, when reading Major Farran's Hat, whether in the mid-21st century Islamic extremism in Britain will be remembered as a historic curiosity.
With a short epilogue excepted, Cesarani's book is firmly rooted in the period of the British mandate. It provides a neat, if briskly presented, history of British involvement in Palestine and the international power politics involved. The emphasis is especially on Palestine as part of British imperial policy, and Farran and Field Marshal Montgomery (as Chief of the Imperial General Staff when the murder occurred) are both presented as "imperial warriors".
Perhaps in this respect Cesarani overplays the significance of Palestine immediately after the Second World War, repeatedly referring to it as the "linchpin of empire". He does, however, succeed in showing, via high-level government documentation and Montgomery's diaries, the tension between the military forces who wanted continued British power in Palestine, and the civil authorities and senior Labour Party politicians keen to get out of the region's escalating violence and chaos. Retreat from Palestine was, as Cesarani argues, linked to that in India - but I would suggest that governance in Palestine had its own peculiar dynamics.
Many in the Jewish world believed that British rule and misrule in Palestine was motivated by anti-Semitism - Ernest Bevin especially was often portrayed in revisionist Zionist propaganda as the new Hitler. Not surprisingly, Farran was frequently perceived as an anti-Semite, but again Cesarani is cautious on this front. He suggests that Farran had little interest in Jews before his unhappy period in Palestine.
Farran himself was anxious to deny the charge and to distance himself from neo-fascists who regarded him as their hero. It is still the case, as Cesarani points out, that Farran's limited writings on the Jews after the murder showed an increasing irritation with the Jewish world and a claim in one article that Jews were creating anti-Semitism in Britain. The book reveals other glimpses of anti-Jewish prejudice from British officials in the last days of the mandate, although there is not a sustained analysis of how important it was, other than noting the negative impact that such statements had in the Zionist world, helping to intensify the circle of violence.
But the greatest triumph of this book is in exposing what happens when those in the world of intelligence work outside the law. The murder of Alexander Rubowitz, tragic though it was on its own terms, was of greater significance for the lessons that were not learnt from it. Cesarani ends with reference to the continued use of crude British counterinsurgency activities in Malaya, Kenya, Northern Ireland and beyond. It is for this reason, he suggests, that it is "an opportune moment to revisit the events that took place ... in Jerusalem 60 years ago as warning of everything that can go wrong when young warriors directed by desperate and unscrupulous politicians wage war on terror". Major Farran's Hat, then, is a piece of contemporary history with bite and verve.
David Cesarani is research professor of Jewish history at Royal Holloway, University of London, although he is currently based at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, where he is senior scholar in residence.
An active sportsman who has twice run the London Marathon, he mixes work with exercise playing badminton with a fellow academic. Cesarani says: "As we whack the shuttle back and forth, we work off our frustration over unproductive colleagues and the idiocies of the research assessment exercise."
Married with two children, Cesarani enjoys weekly visits to the cinema with his wife. Along with his 14-year-old son, a "terrific historian", he has walked along Hadrian's Wall, something he plans to do annually. He says his daughter, 11, "inspires me to get as much out of life as possible".
Major Farran's Hat: Murder, Scandal and Britain's War against Jewish Terrorism 1945-1948
By David Cesarani
William Heinemann, 304pp, £20.00
Published 5 March 2009