The fight to establish the State of Israel was waged not only between Jewish underground militias and the British Mandate authorities, but also on the battlefield of public opinion — and public opinion influenced the political and diplomatic struggles that helped determine the fate of the Holy Land. One of those who helped shape the American public’s perception of the fight for Jewish independence was a remarkable journalist named Margaret Ashton Stimson Lindsley.
Lorna (as she preferred to be called) Lindsley, a Massachusetts native “of early and distinguished New England descent,” cut her teeth in the 1930s Spanish civil war. She divided her time between serving as a nurse for wounded republican (anti-fascist) soldiers and writing sympathetic articles about them for U.S. newspapers and political magazines.
When the Germans conquered France in 1940, Lindsley journeyed to Paris, where she helped smuggle Jewish and political refugees out of the city. Her reports from within the German zone became an important source of eyewitness information for the American and British press.
After the war ended, she made her way to Mandatory Palestine, where she championed the cause of Menachem Begin’s Irgun Zvai Leumi militia as it fought the British to achieve Jewish independence. In 1946, when her request to interview imprisoned Irgun fighters was turned down by the British authorities, Lindsley “found a way to go without asking” — by pretending to be a member of the first family of Revisionist Zionism, the Jabotinskys, so she could join them on a visit to jail.
Tamir Peleg, a 17-year-old cousin of Revisionist Zionism’s founder, Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, was one of the Irgun fighters jailed there. Jabotinsky’s son, Eri, had recently been imprisoned there, as well.
“I was to be ‘adopted’ by a family for that day, and would enter as one of them,” she wrote, accompanied by Peleg’s grandmother and parents, and Eri, his wife, and their three year-old daughter, Karny. It would be “her first visit to a prison, to get her used to it,” Eri joked.
“As we crossed the drawbridge of the ancient [Acre] castle, so handsome to the passing eye, Eri Jabotinsky looked at me and grinned and said, ‘Welcome to the family chateau!’” Lindsley wrote.
Years later, Eri told his daughter that when they arrived, the warden said of Karny, “In five years, she’ll be in Bethlehem [the women’s prison].” Eri responded, “In five years, we’ll be the rulers and you’ll be in this prison,” to which the warden replied, “No, I’ll be home in England, because my service ends in three.”
Visitors were allotted 25 minutes. “Peleg was at the wire, a handsome dark haired boy with a fine smile, and all the family started talking at once to him till he begged for mercy.” They “exchanged the news from outside the prison for the news inside the prison.”
Peleg and 19 comrades had been arrested while undergoing Irgun training in the village of Shuni. The British also claimed they were linked to a cache of arms discovered in the area. They denied the charge but were convicted anyway, and given prison terms; Peleg was sentenced to three years.
“On the same day and in the same court, an Arab was tried for keeping an unlicensed gun on the roof of his house,” Lindsley reported. “His defense, uncorroborated, was that the gun had been planted there by a policeman who had a grudge against him. The Arab was released.” This kind of double standard is “what makes for a bitterness [among the Jews] in Palestine,” she noted.
Also among the Jabotinsky “family” that day was Hassia Hassan, “a 15-year-old Canadian girl, a Jewess, a young sweetheart of Peleg’s,” Lindsley wrote. “She did not speak, she gazed at Peleg and adored him in silence. Because she was his friend, she was now under house arrest in Haifa, which meant ... no movies nor ice cream for her at the corner food shops ... In her the Government of Palestine has another political prisoner in the making.”
All too soon, “a guard with a baton started beating on the wooden barricade, our time was up.” Lindsley wanted to leave some books for Peleg, and was annoyed at how carefully prison officials scrutinized them. She wondered, sarcastically, whey they did not object to her leaving “Macbeth,” since, she pointed out, “it’s full of political killings, and plot and subterfuge ...”
The visit took place during the week of Passover. On the way out, with the sea “pounding against the Phoenician seawall, and the sound of heavy guns from a British artillery school” in the distance, Lindsley and the Jabotinskys spoke about the ancient Festival of Freedom and their generation’s own struggle for Jewish national freedom. Just two years later, that struggle reached its successful conclusion as the State of Israel was established.
Eri Jabotinsky was elected, in 1949, to the First Knesset, as a member of Begin’s Herut Party. Eri’s daughter, Karny, grew up to become a prominent Israeli psychiatrist and for some years served as ombudsman for Israel’s Ministry of Health.
Peleg Tamir was released from Acre in 1947, but was then rearrested and placed in the Atlit detention camp, from which he escaped by hiding in a suitcase. He later served as general director of the Israel Manufacturers Association and head of manpower and personnel for the Israel Air Force.
And that Canadian teenager? Hassia Hassan, the innocent schoolgirl whose biggest problem, Lindlsey thought, was being deprived of “movies and ice cream,” was actually an active member of the Irgun underground and would herself eventually spend time in prison. Hassia and Peleg were married for 60 years; he passed away in 2011.
The postwar years were not so kind to Lorna Lindsley, however. Her marriage ended in divorce, her daughter Leonora was killed in a jeep accident in Germany, and in the summer of 1956, at age 67, Lindsley herself suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage.
But it would not have been Lorna Lindlsey’s way to leave this world without one last fight. At the time of her death, she had taken up the cause of the Mau Mau rebels who were battling for the independence of Kenya from its British colonial rulers. Undaunted, as usual, by the dangers of the war zone, Lindsley had recently traveled to Kenya for a firsthand view of the situation.
For Lorna Lindsley, the spirit of fighting for freedom that she embraced in Palestine in 1946 continued to echo across Europe, Africa, and anywhere else people struggled against oppressive regimes.
By Rafael Medoff
Dr. Rarael Medoff is the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and the author or editor of 16 books, including “The Historical Dictionary of Zionism.”