Israeli veterans wounded by 'offensive' play

Drama set in 1940s shows woman's execution after she has child with British officer
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Veterans of Lehi, the most extreme of the Jewish underground groups during the 1940s has launched an angry protest at a play it says depicts the group as having brutally persecuted Jewish women who had sexual relationships with British soldiers.

Complaining that Railway to Damascus by Hillel Mittelpunkt, which is being staged at one of Israel's leading theatres, Tel Aviv's Habima, paints the underground group in a "false and offensive" light by holding it responsible for punitive actions against women consorting with British soldiers, the Lehi Veterans' organisation has demanded changes in the text.

In particular, it objects to a climactic scene in which a Jewish woman, who has had a daughter with a British officer, is executed by members of the organisation, which was also known as the Stern Gang after its founder and leader Avraham Stern, during the British mandate more than six decades ago.

The veterans' organisation has denied that Lehi punished Jewish women who had affairs with British soldiers, saying that its only goal was fighting the British themselves. Lehi's "verdict" in the play accused the woman of "treason against the homeland and the Hebrew people" and "collaboration with the British enemy".

Among its other actions before the establishment of the state of Israel, the group was responsible for the assassination in 1944 of Lord Moyne, who as the British Minister Resident in Cairo, was was the senior UK official in the region at the time. During the war of 1948 it also assassinated Count Bernadotte, the Swedish UN mediator. One of the militant group's leaders was Yitzhak Shamir who twice became Israel's Prime Minister during the 1980s.

In a letter sent late last year to Mr Mittelpunkt and the theatre, and disclosed by Haaretz yesterday, the Lehi Veterans' organisation said the scenes it objected to were, "distorted, cruel and false". Their goal is to "denigrate, scorn and mar the image" of Lehi and its members, "to make it an object of hatred and contempt in the eyes of mankind and portray them as cold-blooded murderers of the innocent".

The letter said Lehi's agenda "never included the problem of liaisons bet- ween Jewish women and British soldiers;" rather, it focused on fighting the British. While hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Jewish women had affairs with British soldiers, "Lehi never took any violent against action them," it said.

The newspaper quoted one veteran Yedaya Ben-Tur, 89, saying of the play: "it's as if they were accusing me personally of being a cold-blooded murderer". Mr Ben-Tur said that the play had been translated into English for performance at the "Royal National Theatre" in Britain, but the National Theatre said last night it had no plans to stage the play.

In response to the criticism, Hillel Mittelpunkt said that the veterans had misunderstood the crucial scene.

Lehi: Radical faction

Known in the UK as "The Stern Gang", the radical Lehi underground movement was founded by Avraham Stern in 1940 as a militant Zionist group.

Stern and his followers advocated forcibly removing the British from Palestine and forming a state of Israel which would be culturally Hebrew instead of religiously Jewish. Some believed in an inclusive conclusion to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, others were radically right-wing.

During its campaign, the group was involved in atrocities including the assassination of Lord Moyne.