Major Farran’s Hat: The Untold Story of the Struggle to Establish the Jewish State by David Cesarani (Cambridge, MA 2009) 218 pp.+71 pages of notes.. Reviewed by Paul Scham

Written by admin on November 4th, 2010

“Serious” history and murder mysteries are generally considered two distinct genres.  As a historian who enjoys a good thriller or mystery, I know the difference; the former I use for research or assign it to my classes; the latter I read before I go to sleep (unless it’s really good and I stay awake to read it, usually with unfortunate results the next morning).

“Major Farran’s Hat”, however, scrambles up the genres and can’t be classified as either; making it necessarily both.  This book, which dismantles the firewall between two very different kinds of writing, also illustrates why they should normally be kept separate, though in this case the marriage mostly works.

Author David Cesarani, a British academic historian of Zionism and Jewish history, has written this book with impeccable use of the usual scholarly apparatus (41 pages of endnotes and 13 of bibliography).  The book focuses on a little-known episode in the frenzied period in 1947 when the British Mandate over Palestine was coming to its end, under attack (in very different ways) by the Hagana, Etzel (the “Irgun”) and Lehi (the “Stern Gang”).

Alexander Rubowitz was a 16 year old supporter of Lehi, the most violent of the Jewish militias, which specialized in kidnapping and murdering British soldiers and civilians alike and which was therefore particularly loathed by the Mandatory authorities.  On May 6, 1947, a year before the State of Israel was proclaimed, he was abducted while distributing placards and murdered by a British patrol, led by Major Roy Farran.  The subsequent emergence of the story, the formal acquittal of Farran, and Lehi’s revenge (including a letter bomb that killed Roy Farran’s brother Rex), are recounted in this book in a context which makes their connection with the world-historical events unfolding around them breathtakingly clear.

Cesarani asserts that “the scandal that erupted around [these events] shook the British Mandate to its foundations and helped erode whatever legitimacy remained for British rule”. Perhaps somewhat overstated. But perhaps not. It clearly added fuel to fires already burning. As someone who has studied and taught this period for years, I must admit I had never heard of it.  It deserves to be better known as a remarkable vignette that encapsulates much of the violence and anger of this period.  However, since Caesarani does not even attempt to give Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle a run for their money, the obscurity in which it has heretofore dwelt is not likely to be seriously endangered.

Cesarani has clearly done his homework.  We are walked through the backgrounds of the British officials most involved with the case, especially Major Farran himself, as well as the mandatory police and military infrastructure.  The post-World War II–pre-Independence atmosphere is recreated with the high drama it deserves.  And the plot’s twists and turns are narrated with (almost) a novelist’s skill and (definitely) a historian’s factual precision.

However, the murder-mystery atmosphere is negated by the book’s beginning on page 1 with a factual account of the murder, so we are in no suspense about who the murderer really is.  Trying to understand why he put it there, in clear violation of Mystery Writing 101, I realized the author really had little choice.  Even though Farran was actually tried by a British court-martial in September 1947, a few months after the incident, and acquitted for lack of evidence, neither Cesarani nor his readers have the slightest doubt of Farran’s guilt.  Technically, there were problems with admissibility of evidence and with the fact that Rubowitz’s body was never found, which were cited in the acquittal.  But Cesarani is clear that the British authorities, by then desperate to relinquish the Mandate and leave, had no desire to have one of their own found guilty of murder in the Mandate’s 11th hour.

The book works as a provocative historical footnote.  Its documentation is superb, its reasoning is first-rate and its location in the confluence of great events is outstanding.  Nevertheless, it doesn’t have the suspense, motivation, conflicting alibis, and multiple suspects that usually mark a first-rate thriller.  Cesarani’s fundamental constraint, that he lacked the novelist’s freedom to play fast and loose with the facts, means the book proceeds slowly and methodically, fine for history but slow for mystery.

However, to be clear, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and will recommend it to friends.  But I think anyone with any interest in the period will almost certainly enjoy it, with the added bonus of having no problem with not being able to put it down.

“Wait!” you say.  “Don’t stop now!  What about the hat?”  “What with the strange and clumsy title?”

Simple.  Didn’t you figure it out? Major Farran left his hat at the scene of the abduction, by which he was traced.  Without it, Rubowitz’s disappearance would almost certainly never have been solved though, in my view, this wouldn’t have changed history.


Paul Scham is a Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, and teaches courses on the Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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