THE LION'S ROAR
We can learn not only from Rabbi Kook's writings, but also from his words and deeds. Time after time, he valiantly stood up to the British occupiers of the Holy Land in defending the rights of the Jewish People to Eretz Yisrael. Here's an excerpt from my historical novel, "The Lion's Roar," volume 3 in the "Tevye in the Promised Land" series.
Rabbi Kook asked Tevye to join him when he met with the British High Commissioner, the General, Sir Arthur Grenfell Wauchope, in his palatial, three-story mansion in the Armon HaNatziv neighborhood of the city. On official occasions like these, whenever Tevye accompanied the Chief Rabbi, he wore his holiday suit and polished shoes. That way, with his full beard, he looked like a Rabbi, and not like an ordinary milkman. The respected attorney, Mordechai Eliash, completed the small religious entourage. Not only was he familiar with the powers entrusted to the British under their Mandate over Palestine, and with the labyrinth of Turkish and British Colonial Law applying to the territories, he could act as an English translator if needed. Rabbi Kook had learned the language by reviewing the entire Talmud in English while he was in London during the World War, but words escaped him now and then. When he found time, he studied chapters of Mishna with Tevye in English, encouraging him to learn the language as well, not only because of its widespread use in Palestine, but because of the great many Jews in America who spoke neither Yiddish, nor Hebrew.
The impressive mansion was situated on a hill overlooking the mountains of Transjordan to the east. The vast tract of territory, four times the size of the slender strip of land on the west bank of the river, had been originally awarded to the Jews in the aftermath of the “Balfour Declaration.” In apportioning this ancient region of Biblical Israel to the boundaries of the “National Jewish Homeland” which England promised to re-establish, exponents of the plan stated that the region was necessary to insure a “proper military frontier for the Jews.” The London Times explained, “The Jordan River will not do as Palestine’s eastern boundary. Our duty as a Mandatory is to make Jewish Palestine not a struggling State, but one that is capable of a vigorous and independent national life.” Unfortunately for the Jews, not every member of the British Government shared Lord Balfour’s reverence toward the Bible, nor his respect for the Jewish People. Seeking to maintain control over the strategic chunk of territory east of the Jordan River, in the “best interests of the British Empire,” the final drafters of the Mandate, which was submitted to the League of Nations for ratification, gave Britain the option of retaining its sovereignty over the vast area. The Zionist Establishment at the time was shocked by this blatant ploy to rob the Jews of two-thirds of their Homeland, but the Britain Government answered all protests by threatening to withdraw England’s offer to assist the Jews in establishing their own national entity in Palestine. Faced with the enormous task of coagulating Jews scattered all over the world to a desert wasteland, and not having had practical experience in self-government or warfare for almost two-thousand years, the Zionist Movement’s leaders, led by Chaim Weizmann, raised their hands in helpless compliance to the treachery of the British.
Nevertheless, in line with his great love for all people, Rabbi Kook chose to judge the British in a positive light, grateful for their praiseworthy efforts on behalf of the Jewish People, rather than condemning them for their shortcomings. A British soldier escorted them across the mansion’s spacious lobby, replete with carpets, stately furniture, and chandeliers, to an open lift operated by cables and a pulley, and manned by a uniformed attendant with white gloves, who slid the wire door closed behind them. They rode up two floors to a rotunda and circular staircase, guarded by another soldier. Another floor up in the tower, an Arab attendant, dressed like a butler, awaited them in the outer waiting room of the High Commissioner’s office. Sir Arthur was sitting at his shiny mahogany desk, six times the size of the modest writing table in Rabbi Kook’s study. During the first two years of his appointment, the distinguished British war hero had been generally sympathetic to the Zionist cause. Over a thirty year period, Wauchope had led British troops in battle on three continents. After the First World War, he served in Germany as the chief of the British section of the Berlin Control Commission, followed by two years in Northern Ireland. In 1931, he was assigned to be the High Commissioner of Palestine, where he was respected by Jews and Arabs alike, devoting his energies, in an impressive military manner, to improve the roadways, public works, and civil engineering.
Tevye mused that for a war hero, the British official was remarkably thin, with a gaunt face and gray hair, parted to the side in the English fashion. Wearing his highly-decorated General’s uniform, he greeted the Chief Rabbi with respectful cordiality, one leader meeting another. Nonetheless, in his royally furnished office overlooking the hills of Judea and the distant mountains of Transjordan, east of the Jordan River, it was obvious, at least at the beginning of the meeting, that he was the supreme authority in Palestine, and that the Rabbi, for all of his spiritual stature, was merely a guest whom the High Commissioner had consented to receive. While they were talking, Tevye counted sixteen medals on the Englishman’s chest.
With a slight bow, the High Commissioner nodded and motioned for his guests to sit down in the upholstered armchairs on the other side of the desk.
“Would you care for tea?” he asked in a friendly tone. Before anyone could answer, he turned toward the Arab butler standing by the door. “Reggie, bring us all tea,” he requested. Then, turning back to his guests, he explained, “During a piece of nasty hand-to-hand combat in Mesopotamia, I was stabbed in the back. Reggie grabbed me and pulled me away to safety. Ever since, we have been together.”
The obsequious Reggie backed out of the room with a bow.
“Before we get down to the matter at hand, let me please extend my most gracious welcome to the Chief Rabbi, who is known to be a true shepherd of the Jewish community and a spiritual leader of impeccable traits. For my part, since my appointment as British High Commissioner, I have striven to advance the Zionist enterprise, to double the immigration from previous years, and to ensure the safety of the Jews of Palestine. Nonetheless, while I am sympathetic to the nationalistic goals of the Jewish People under the British Mandate, I also have the national aspirations of the Arabs to consider, and, of course, the laws of the land, which I have been entrusted to enforce. Concerning the purpose of your visit, I have already met with Mr. Ben Gurion and other officials of the Jewish Agency. We discussed the problem of tourists overstaying their visas, and the question of Jewish immigration to Palestine in its broader scope, and, while we did not agree on all matters, I believe we arrived at a general understanding, satisfactory to both sides.”
A smile spread over the mustachioed face of the High Commissioner.
“Indeed, we are grateful for the many fine deeds of the distinguished High Commissioner, which are already too numerous to enumerate,” Rabbi Kook began. “May you be blessed for your dedication to the rebuilding of the Jewish Homeland. However, as much as we are indebted to your accomplishments, we are dismayed and distraught about the recent policy of rounding up German Jews and sending them back to Germany. When a man has escaped from the jaws of a lion, how is it possible to send him back to the lion’s den?”
The General twitched, not having anticipated a rebuttal.
“With all due respect to the honored Chief Rabbi, I cannot agree with the comparison. Mr. Hitler, for all of his inflammatory rhetoric, does not make a practice of killing Jews.”
Sensing the mounting tension in the room, Mordechai Eliash interrupted the exchange. “Having read some of Hitler’s inflammatory writings, I must remind the High Commissioner that where there is smoke there is fire.”
“Perhaps,” Sir Wauchope conceded. “What will be, will be. I am in charge of the present situation in Palestine, not what may come to pass in Germany in the future. The fact is that from January to June of this year, 5000 Jews holding tourists visas have overstayed their time allotment. During the past two months, another two thousand have remained in the country. When I first arrived in Palestine, the numbers were much smaller, and I was prepared to look the other way. But now, the situation has gotten out of hand. The representatives of the Jewish Agency have also expressed their opposition to this phenomenon.”
Assuming the role of a courtroom lawyer, Mordechai Eliash continued to explain their complaint. “As a lawyer who works with the Jewish Agency, I know their position quite well. Their opposition to the phenomenon is not because they don’t want these people to stay, but rather because of the Government’s threat that the number of Jews who take up residence in Palestine in this manner will cause the Government to count them as a part of the official immigration quota. As a result, fewer immigration certificates will be awarded, and fewer Jews will be allowed to immigrate through the official channels.”
“This country is not to become a haven for unemployed Jews,” the former general replied in a no-nonsense manner. “The existing immigration quota is based on the country’s ability to economically absorb new arrivals.”
“Didn’t Mr. Ben Gurion tell you that the majority of people who remain in the country beyond the limitations of their visas find work as clerks, merchants, and representatives of foreign businesses, and not as agricultural workers, or builders, or workers in the public sector concerning whom the immigration quota is based?”
“Yes, he informed me of that,” the High Commissioner answered with a tone of irritation in his voice. “Presently, the economy in the country is stable, but who knows what the future will bring? Also, you must admit that many Jews find employment traditionally carried out by Arabs. With the swelling increase over the last past few years in Jewish immigration, which I am proud to say that I have enthusiastically supported until now, the Arabs feel economically threatened.”
“The truth is exactly the opposite,” Eliash countered in his convincing and knowledgeable fashion. “The more Jews that there are in the country, the more the economy prospers, making life better for the Arabs as well. The average Arab merchant and laborer welcomes the boom that the Jews have brought to the country. Arab opposition to Jewish immigration comes not from the peasants and Arab workers, but from the Arab leadership, for political and religious reasons, not because of economic competition.”
The ring of the telephone on the High Commissioner’s desk interrupted the conversation. Annoyed, he lifted the receiver with an impatient, “To the point!” Cutting the call short, he said, “Later,” and hung up the phone. Lifting a smoking pipe from his desk, he banged it against his palm to clean out the tobacco in the bowl. He looked up and smiled in annoyance.
“As someone who has had a great deal of experience in colonies throughout the British Empire, I understand why the local Arab leadership is displeased with the great increase of Jews to the country. It’s the old complaint, ‘We were here first.’”
“Excuse me, but we were here first,” Tevye corrected.
“Yes,” the High Commissioner answered. “I have studied ancient history. Nevertheless, putting the Bible aside, Arabs who grew up in Palestine understandably feel that the land belongs to them.”
“When it comes to the Jewish People, you cannot put the Bible aside,” Rabbi Kook injected.
“Yes, I appreciate that. And so did Lord Balfour. But not every member of the British Parliament agrees. And there are many Jews, including Mr. Weizmann, who feel that ancient Biblical prophecies have no bearing on today’s political questions. Besides, the Arabs have their own book which they follow.”
“The Koran also acknowledges that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jews,” Rabbi Kook informed him.
“Perhaps,” the Englishman retorted, looking uncomfortable in his tight-fitting, military collar. “I am not familiar with its contents.”
Irritably, he banged the wooden pipe on his desk
“During the last few years, there has been relative peace between the Jewish and Arab communities,” he said. “But the situation could erupt at any moment. You must take that factor into consideration when the British Government insists on maintaining current immigration quotas, or on lessening them if need be. I am convinced that new demands to increase Jewish immigration at this time will cause the powder keg to explode. According to the law, the people who overstay their visas are in Palestine illegally. That is the reason they are being deported – in accordance with the law.”
“What law are you speaking about?” Rabbi Kook asked.
“The law of the British Mandate Government, which I have been appointed to enforce.”
“There is a higher law than British law, which I have been appointed to enforce,” Rabbi Kook told him, his eyes shining with an unworldly glow, the fire of the prophets of Israel whose inner beings blazed with the spirit of the L-rd.
“What law is that?” the surprised official asked.
“The Law of G-d. It was He who bequeathed the Land of Israel to the Jewish People, not the British Parliament, and not the League of Nations. All actions taken to deport Jews from this Land, or to limit the immigration of Jews, are immoral and illegal, defying the will of G-d! They have no basis or substance whatsoever.”
Again, Sir Wauchope flinched. For several seconds, he didn’t know how to react.
“Allow me to paraphrase the words of the Chief Rabbi in purely political terms,” the attorney, Eliash, injected. “Palestine is not a British colony. It is not part of the British Empire. You are in Palestine by the grace of the League of Nations, which assigned you with the Mandate of carrying out the principles set forth in the Balfour Declaration. That Declaration says you are to establish a National Home for the Jewish people in Palestine. The essence of this national revival is Jewish immigration. If your government reneges on its pledge by limiting immigration, and by deporting Jews back to Europe, you will no longer have any moral or legal right to govern in this Land.”
“I am a soldier and a politician, not a theologian,” the shaken High Commissioner replied, addressing Eliash without his previous pompous posture. “Politically, I advise you to follow the example of the Jewish Agency and accept the present situation in silence without making demands on the British Government, which finds itself all too often positioned between the hammer and the nail when it comes to its policies in Palestine. To preserve the delicate peace between your people and the Arabs, who are becoming more and more agitated by the growth in Jewish immigration, the Mandate Authority is forced to adopt measures, temporary in nature, limiting the number of Jews in the country. Professor Weizmann and the leaders of the Jewish Agency understand this, why can’t you?”
Rabbi Kook rose to his feet in defense of the Jewish People, just as he had during the International Western Wall Commission hearings.
“For whatever it may be worth, allow me to explain something in my capacity as Chief Rabbi, whose appointment was sanctioned by the British Government itself. The blood of mankind was spilled in the World War because the nations involved, descendants of Rome, did not return to the Jewish People the country they stole from us. For almost two-thousand years, these nations, in their arrogance, did not atone for their sin. The Master of the World, the Orchestrator of History, brought about the World War, the Balfour Declaration, and the international agreements which followed in order to bring His Children home. Therefore, the time for silence has ended. We will not allow the theft of our Holy Land to continue. We cannot remain silent while Jews are deported from their Homeland and others are prevented from reaching its shores, while their very existence is threatened by yet another descendant of Amalek. The time has come to cry out: ‘Let our People come home!’”
Rabbi Kook’s face was on fire. No one dared to utter a word. Reggie stood in the doorway, holding a tray crowded with cups of tea. Sensing the tension, he quietly backed out of the room, accompanied by the sound of tea cups rattling in their saucers. In most uncharacteristic fashion, Rabbi Kook raised his voice in prophetic warning.
“To the people of England, I shout out, ‘Beware!’ Hitler will not stop with the Jews. If the British Government betrays its promise to help all of the Jewish People to return to their national Homeland, then London will not be spared Hitler’s madness. The ground of all Europe shall quake as it never has before, and even more blood will be shed than in the last awful war.”
White in the face, the High Commissioner stood up and walked away from his desk, unable to withstand the Rabbi’s piercing stare. He gazed at the framed photographs on a wall, pictures of himself in his soldier days, receiving medals for his exemplary service in battle, as if to bolster the wall of confidence which the passionate religious figure had shattered. Noticing the look of worry on Tevye’s face, Mordechai Eliash flashed him a reassuring smile. But Rabbi Kook wasn’t finished.
“Since we have been awarded the privilege of meeting with the High Commissioner, I would like to mention another equally distressing matter. I hereby most vehemently protest the immoral and illegal policy of immigrant selection carried out by the British, whereby Certificates of Immigration are awarded exclusively to those who possess socialist ideology and strong bodies, suited for agricultural labor, while the old and the frail are overlooked, along with the religious and all those who harbor opposing political beliefs from those held by the leaders of the existing Zionist hierarchy.”
“Regarding that matter, you will have to express your displeasure to Mr. Ben Gurion and Professor Weizmann,” the High Commissioner replied. “They decide who receives the Certificates, not us.”
“Very well. We thank the High Commissioner for having presented us with the opportunity to voice our concerns. I trust that the people awaiting deportation in Haifa will be allowed to remain in the country and become registered citizens, in a gesture of good faith on the part of his Excellency, in accord with the mission of the Mandate, and as human decency and the law of the Almighty demands.”
Concluding the visit, Rabbi Kook bowed his head in parting and strode with his natural regal bearing toward the door.
“Oh, Rabbi,” Wauchope said. “If I succeed in doing what you ask, though I cannot promise you, since it is not my decision alone, perhaps you can help me. Your countryman, Mr. Ben Gurion, informed me that his life has been threatened. Though he doesn’t personally fear for his safety, and though he rejected my offer to provide him with bodyguards, he has been empowered by the Zionist Congress to determine whether there exists a group of Jewish terrorists within the Zionist Movement. If you should discover anything concerning this suspicion, please forward the information to us. We are acquainted with the opinions of Mr. Ahimeir, and his bellicose society of ‘Birionim,’ and we are monitoring their activities. I can assure you that Jewish terrorists, of any nature or form, will not advance the Zionist cause. While I am sure that the esteemed Chief Rabbis, you and your Sephardi counterpart, Rabbi Meir, have nothing to do with riffraff of this sort - should any secret, rebellious activities come to your attention, please know that they spell disaster for the future of the Yishuv and for constructive British-Jewish relations. Thank you very much for coming and have a good day.”
No one shook hands. The visiting entourage walked out of the office. Backing off in fear of the Chief Rabbi, the Arab chamberlain, Reggie, pointed the way to the hallway. Tevye mumbled. When they reached the rotunda leading to the circular stairway, Tevye quipped softly in his finest British accent, “Thank you very much for coming and have a good day.”
The attorney, Eliash grinned. “That was a visit that the High Commissioner won’t soon forget.”
“Bezrat Hashem,” Rabbi Kook said. “Bezrat Hashem. With the help and assistance of G-d.”
Hearing the metal gate of the elevator clang behind them, Tevye sighed. His pride and exaltation over Rabbi Kook’s defiant stand was marred by his fatherly worry over his son, who was under the spell of Ahimeir and his band of revolutionaries. While Tevye admired the boy’s spirit and readiness to sacrifice himself for the Zionist cause, he didn’t want his beloved son, Tzvi, to spend years behind bars in a British prison.