Eretz Israel is our unforgettable historic homeland...The Jews who will it shall achieve their State...And whatever we attempt there for our own benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind. (Theodor Herzl, DerJudenstaat, 1896)

We offer peace and amity to all the neighbouring states and their peoples, and invite them to cooperate with the independent Jewish nation for the common good of all. The State of Israel is ready to contribute its full share to the peaceful progress and development of the Middle East.
(From Proclamation of the State of Israel, 5 Iyar 5708; 14 May 1948)

With a liberal democratic political system operating under the rule of law, a flourishing market economy producing technological innovation to the benefit of the wider world, and a population as educated and cultured as anywhere in Europe or North America, Israel is a normal Western country with a right to be treated as such in the community of nations.... For the global jihad, Israel may be the first objective. But it will not be the last. (Friends of Israel Initiative)

Monday 11 October 2010

Murder, Mayhem, and a Strange Case of Mandate Inertia

On the afternoon of 11 July 1938 Lily Tobias (née Shepherd, 1887-1984), from a Yiddish-speaking immigrant family in the Swansea valley, was at home in Mount Carmel putting the final touches to her novel The Samaritans. An aunt of the future famous Welsh-Jewish poet Dannie Abse and his flamboyant politician brother Leo, she was already a published writer. Her The Nationalists, and other Goluth Studies, a book of short stories, had appeared in 1921; her novel In My Mother’s House, which tells of a Welsh-born Jew who rejects, and then reclaims, his heritage, in 1931; her anti-war novel Eunice Fleet, about a conscientious objector, in 1933; and The Tube in 1935.

Lily had made aliyah in 1935, the year before the eruption of Arab disturbances in Palestine, with her husband Philip Vallentine Tobias, who was originally from South Africa, and her widowed father, a retired furniture dealer from Poland. Philip Tobias, who had been active in the Cardiff Jewish community before moving with Lily to London, where he was a founder and leading member of the Finchley Hebrew Congregation, ran a glass company in Palestine. And on that afternoon, as Lily was at work on her latest novel’s closing chapter, he was alone in his car en route to Haifa.

Philip knew that Palestine was in the grip of what an official report covering 1937 termed "a campaign of murder, intimidation, and sabotage conducted by Arab law breakers", a "terrorist campaign" which entailed "isolated murder and attempted murder; of sporadic cases of armed attacks on military, police and civilian road transport; on Jewish settlements and on both Arab and Jewish private property". He knew of such violent incidents as an assassination attempt on the Mayor of Haifa and another in Jerusalem on the Inspector-General of Police; of the brutal murders near and in Beisan of a young Jewish agriculturalist and a Jewish doctor; of the slaughter by marauding livestock-stealers of five Jewish shepherds in hill country to the south of Lake Tiberias, and of two others near Nazareth; of an unsuccessful attack on a crowded passanger train on the Lydda-Haifa line; of a series of attacks on Jews’ vehicles on the Jerusalem-Jaffa road in which one Jewish passenger lost his life. And so forth.

Nevertheless, alone on that drive, Philip Tobias had no firearm or other weapon. He seems to have been confident that, going about his lawful business in British-administered Palestine in broad daylight, he would personally encounter no danger. The assumption proved deadly. For, all of a sudden, in Haifa, his car was surrounded by a 30-strong mob of young Arab men in their teens and early twenties. They dragged Tobias from his car and stoned and stabbed him to death. According to a pressman, who accordingly described “the circumstances” of the murder as “intolerable”, the killing of Philip Tobias “it is reliably reported”, took place in plain view of “a police patrol led by an officer who witnessed the whole outrage but did not go to the rescue”.

By an eery coincidence, the book on which Lily was working when her husband met his end in cold blood was on a similar theme. Published the following year, The Samaritans proved to be her final book, although she continued to write articles for Jewish papers and to lecture on Israel and literary matters.

Tobias was the second British civilian killed in Palestine that year (the first was J. L. Starkey, director of the Marston-Wellcome Archæological Expedition to the Near East, murdered by Arabs on the evening of 10 January, when he was on his way from his camp at Tell Duweir to Jerusalem) and the first British Jew slain during Arab disturbances in Palestine since the murder of Levi Billig in 1936. Billig, born in London’s Whitechapel in 1897 to a cigar/cigarette maker and his wife, both from Russia, was a Cambridge graduate who in 1926 had been appointed Lecturer in Arabic Language and Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was at home at his desk working on a book based on his recent research, in Persia, into early Sh’ite texts, when an Arab gunman opened fire through the window and killed him. Ironically, Billig was an advocate of Jewish-Arab reconciliation. His An Arabic Reader (1931, reprinted 1963) remains a highly regarded introductory text. (Coincidentally, his co-compiler of that work, Avinoam Yellin MBE, of the Palestine Ministry of Education, was also a victim of Arab violence; shot near his Jerusalem office on 21 October 1937, he succumbed to his wounds two days later.)

The murder of Philip Tobias was symptomatic of a crisis that had gripped Haifa since the opening days of the month; in a report filed 15 July the Jewish Chronicle’s stringer wrote of the eruption nine days earlier of what was “the complete usurpation of authority by unruly elements and the virtual handing over to what amounts to mob rule in the Eastern Quarter, main artery to the Hospital and industrial zones of Haifa and principal lines of communication between Emek Zebulon and Emek Jezreel”. Noting that the authorities seemed “powerless in spite of increased forces at their disposal” and that police and marines landed from HMS Repulse seemed oddly inert in the face of Arab hooliganism, he contined:
“What is most surprising about this situation is that the numerous outrages day after day happen at almost the same hour and the same places, so much so, that the Haifa correspondent of a Palestinian newspaper for some days on end ordered a taxi at the same time to go the rounds and ascertain what was happening! On one occasion he helped to take an injured Jewish passer-by to hospital, having arrived on the scene within a couple of minutes of the assault. It seems strange, to say the least, that the authorities could not have been as far-sighted and placed heavier patrols in that area to break up the mobs and hooligans. Today’s issue of Davar, the Hebrew Labour daily of Tel-Aviv, declared that the continuing lawlessness in Haifa represented a riddle. There were hundreds of troops, marines, and supernumerary constables available, yet in a busy street, within a few yards of the Central Police Station, a man was battered to death in broad daylight; shots were fired and bombs thrown at vehicles; knives were thrust into the backs of passersby; shops were looted, and houses set on fire.”


  1. Excellent. Well written as usual and a topic which I would have been unfamiliar with otherwise.

  2. Thank you so much - I've got quite a few of these dips into history up my sleeve!

  3. Excellent. I just happen to be reading an anthology of Welsh writing right now about or by Jews and discovered Lily Tobias. This has helped add some very interesting background to her life - thank you.

    PS - Can you tell me what the front cover of Illustrated London News is showing - is it Haifa?

  4. Glad you like it, Polaris. Thanks for your comment.
    The photo shows rioting in Jaffa.

  5. My friend, a 7th gen. Israeli (sabra) is named after Avinoam Yellin, who was his mother's fiancee before he (Yellin) was murdered. I'd like to track down more information about Avinoam Yellin.

    1. Assoon as I'm able, I'll have a look in the JC archives for any reports, Anon. If I find anything I'll post the link on here.

    2. Anon, I have had a quick look in the JC archives online and have pulled out an obituary for Avinoam Yellin (29 Oct. 1937) and another report a week later. I can email them to you - you then will be able to read the original pages - but for that to happen you'll have to contact me via email so that I can forward them to you. daphnedotansonatgmaildotcom


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