During the First World War, the British, including two Jewish battalions of the Royal Fusiliers, conquered the Ottoman-ruled Land of Israel (then known as Palestine). After the war, the League of Nations granted Britain a mandate for the establishment of a Jewish national home there. While the Jewish community grew under British rule, Britain also became less than enthusiastic about a Jewish national home. In May 1939, Britain issued a white paper that restricted land purchases by Jews and limited Jewish immigration to 75,000 over the next five years. After that, the Arabs would have to approve any future Jewish immigration. This effectively relegated the Jews to permanent minority status in their homeland and rendered a Jewish state an impossibility. In response, a Jewish revolt arose to expel Britain and establish a Jewish state.
The Irgun Tzvai Leumi, led by Avraham Stern, began a revolt in June 1939. Eventually, the Irgun ceased its revolt and many of its members joined the British army to fight the Nazis. Stern split and formed a new underground in 1940 to continue the revolt. The organization was ultimately called Lehi, or “jawbone,”(see Judges 15:15) an acronym for the Hebrew of “Fighters for the Freedom of Israel.” The British, expressing their contempt for Lehi, referred to it as the “Stern Gang.” Eventually the much larger Irgun, under the new leadership of future prime-minister Menachem Begin, resumed its own revolt.
Stern: the Man and His Gang by Zev Golan is a fine history of Lehi, well-documented and narrated with restraint. Mr. Golan begins with a discussion of Stern himself, a man with an artistic sensibility who wrote poetry (including “Anonymous Soldiers,” which became Lehi’s anthem), studied classics at Hebrew University, and was sent to Italy to work on his doctorate. His dissertation was to be on the god Eros, but it remained unwritten, as, in addition to his studies, Stern was busily involved in organizing revolutionary cells and obtaining weapons. He was truly a scholar, poet, and warrior. While most Jews saw the British as an ally, or, at least, would not dare provoke her, one of Stern’s two great ideological steps was identifying Britain as a foreign occupier of the Hebrew homeland and the primary enemy of the Hebrew nation. The second great ideological step was proclaiming redemption as the movement’s goal. Mr. Golan shows how Stern and Lehi explicitly situated themselves in a largely forgotten aspect of Jewish history: the recurring attempt to reconquer the Land of Israel, even after most the nation was in exile.
Mr. Golan goes on to consider Lehi’s operations, including a valuable list in an appendix, of every operation for which he can find documentary evidence (though at least one operation he mentions in the text is inadvertently excluded from the list). Mr. Golan forthrightly faces the moral questions involved, and concludes, rightly, in my opinion, that with but one possible exception Lehi’s operations against the British did not target innocent civilians. The Irgun, in contrast, did sometimes engage in attacks on innocents or indiscriminate attacks in their reprisals against Arab violence in the 1930s. Mr. Golan also says the actual War of Independence was, in this respect, “a mess.”
The book presents brief biographies of a number of Lehi members, ranging from ordinary members to the triumvirate that headed the organization after the British captured and immediately killed an unarmed Stern in 1942, including future prime-minister Yitzchak Shamir. This adds to the history’s texture. Mr. Golan spends time, as well, discussing Lehi’s place in the Zionist political panoply of its time and in Israeli culture since independence.
In an interview about his book on Israeli radio, Mr. Golan described Stern as a figure of biblical proportions. I think that is quite true, and can be fairly said of Lehi as well. A small group (the fighters never numbered over a thousand) denied the legitimacy of British rule over the Land of Israel and took up arms against the empire. They fought fiercely with both weapons and words. Lehi had more than one periodical plus a radio station and also made use of broadsheets pasted up on walls, employing not just slogans but often material of high intellectual caliber. Indeed, one member of the central command, Yisrael Eldad, had a PhD in philosophy from the University of Vienna and became a leading Israeli intellectual, translating Nietzsche into Hebrew and writing commentaries on the Bible. Lehi’s revolutionary Zionism aimed at redemption. Rejected, even vilified, by the Zionist establishment, Lehi kept faith with this burning vision. Their and the Irgun’s revolt was indispensable to the creation of the modern State of Israel. Stern and Lehi were the stuff of high drama, and to fail to understand the nature of this drama is, I think, to fail to understand the inherent revolutionary potential of Zionism. Zev Golan’s book is an excellent way to gain such understanding.
Shmuel Ben-Gad is a librarian at George Washington University.
Zev Golan, Stern: The Man and his Gang
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