For more than 30 years debate has raged--in public and in print--over responsibility for the 91 lives lost in the Irgun...


BY BLOOD AND FIRE: The Attack on the King David Hotel

For more than 30 years debate has raged--in public and in print--over responsibility for the 91 lives lost in the Irgun bombing of British headquarters at Jerusalem's King David Hotel on July 22, 1946. Was warning given, as Begin, then Irgun commander, has always insisted? Did the British officer-in-charge, Sir Norman Shaw, contemptuously disregard the warning? And to what extent was Haganah--the predominant, more moderate underground group--also implicated? These crucial questions are answered more fully here than even in Nicholas Bethell's exceptionally conscientious The Palestine Triangle (1979); and some of the additional information does make something of a difference. But Clarke has produced a Collins-and-Lapierre-like reconstruction which 1) mostly reads like a thriller; 2) identifies contested points only in the footnotes; and 3) aims as much to link Irgun terrorism to later events (Haganah-Irgun hostility, PLO terrorism, Meir Kahane) as to clarify the actual bombing episode--though, to be fair, the new evidence is not altogether irrelevant. The result, then, is an odd combination of high-key dramatics, verging on sensationalism, and precise ascription of moral responsibility--not indeed unlike Clarke's 1977 The Last Caravan, about the Sahel famine. What emerges from the web of vignettes--in which the terrorists, the British principals, the hotel personnel, innocent-victims-to-be, and the kin of each gradually, inexorably (as such books always go) advance toward the fateful moment--is the existence of culpability, and of good intentions, on all sides. And also of divided loyalty. We meet the upright British Jew who begs Shaw not to be shown any more top-secret information--lest, in his sympathy for Jews excluded from Palestine, he tell Haganah. We meet the ""Judas"" terrorist, fosterson of a (non-militant) Palestinian policeman, who minutes before the explosion is trying to call him, to alert him (and who today lives in parts unknown, in hiding). And what we hear on the contested points is not a blanket refutation of anyone's claims. Yes, the warning was given--and not so late as to render it useless (which British records, cited by Bethell, allege). Yes, it was received at the hotel--but only by hotel personnel, not by Shaw. That most of them took it as a hoax was something that Irgun might, however, have anticipated (since they ""well knew. . . that many 'warnings' were being disregarded""). Other key points, too, are touched upon--which will greatly interest those familiar with the issues. It's regrettable only that Clarke, whose hair-trigger reconstruction will be read by many persons who wouldn't pick up Bethell's solid history (or the works of Christopher Sykes, Bowyer Bell, Samuel Katz), didn't give his reportage more perspective and dimension.

Pub Date: April 28, 1981


Page Count: -

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1981