Monday, November 21, 2011

A New Book About Abraham Stern and Lehi's campaign against Britain

Terror Out of Zion


There is no love lost between the British Foreign Office and Israel. London's consideration for Israel's politico-security interests seems ever more limited. In a report to parliament earlier this month Foreign Minister William Hague condemned Israel for building in Jerusalem, being in the West Bank and for treating Hamas-controlled Gaza like the enemy it is. His only mention of Hamas was to blame Israel for the Islamist group's obduracy. Meantime, Britain's ambassador in Tel Aviv Matthew Gould, who has tried to put the best possible face on his government's harsh line, recently warned the Knesset not to pass legislation that would constrain London from funding pressure groups such as Peace Now as a way of influencing Israeli policies.

A long list of factors helps explain official Britain's less than fraternal attitude toward the Jewish state, but no inventory would be complete without reference to the bad blood left by the legacy of the Mandate and particularly the violent struggle waged against British rule by the pre-State underground Lehi (Freedom Fighters for Israel or Stern Group) and Irgun. Nations have interests; they also have long memories.

Now, a new book by Zev Golan, Stern: the Man and His Gang, brings into fresh focus the nasty fight waged by the Lehi against British policymakers and security personnel. Lehi fought Britain beginning in 1940, against the wishes of the Zionist establishment and the dissident Jabotinsky movement which supported Britain's war effort against Nazi Germany. "In this war, it is clear we want England to win, regardless of all her crimes against Zionism; she is decidedly the lesser of two evils," said Ze'ev Jabotinsky. Not so for Abraham Stern and his FFI followers who broke with the Irgun because he did not want the Jewish underground reporting to Jabotinsky or any political overlord.

Golan's sympathetic narrative, of what was an extremist and fringe movement that never numbered more than 900 members, begins with Stern's arrival in Palestine (1926). It concisely covers his student life at Hebrew University; love affair with his future wife; developing commitment to Jewish observance, and break with the Haganah over its policy of "restraint" in the face of murderous Arab riots against the Yishuv as well as Britain's breach -- more than ever in the 1939 White paper -- of its League of Nations commitment to foster a Jewish homeland.

Golan's book comes precisely 65 years after the FFI's bloody November 1946 offensive that claimed a score of mostly British lives. Take for example November 17 when Lehi operatives detonated a mine that killed three policemen, one airman and wounded several others. The next day's Palestine Post reported that the victims had been returning from a night at the cinema when their truck was blown up. In the course of the month, Lehi gunmen sabotaged rail lines, shot at trains, blew up military vehicles, destroyed international telegraph lines, attacked police stations, robbed Barclays Bank in Tel Aviv and set off an explosion at a British military base.

British authorities retaliated with a heavy hand while renegade British soldiers ran riot shooting and assaulting Jewish passerby and even murdering a Jewish constable. Zionist officialdom condemned the Sternists as terrorist "gangs" and called for their "liquidation," according to a November 18, 1946 JTA dispatch from Tel Aviv.

While the Stern Group's tactics were clear and its motivations comprehensible, it is debatable whether Stern had a rational strategy. He sent overtures to German intelligence in Beirut in the naive hope that Berlin would permit Europe's Jews to leave for Eretz Israel in return for Lehi's continued war against England. He further assumed England could not afford to fight in Palestine while it waged a war for its survival when in fact it had little alternative but to hunker down. And after World War Two, the group's strategy unwisely sought to align the Zionists with Stalin's "anti-imperialistic" Soviet Union.

As Golan tells it, Stern's "Revolutionary Zionism" did not dwell on the persecution of the individual Jew – not even by the Nazis – because Lehi's struggle was for the militant liberation of the homeland and political redemption of the Jewish people in its entirety. Stern could not have known details of Hitler's plan for the total annihilation of European Jewry (which had not been systematized until January 1942 at the Wannsee Conference), yet he knew that the Jews' plight was hanging by a thread. And still he pursued his campaign to eject the British from Palestine as if it "had nothing to do with the Holocaust."

Stern's bombastic vision was for a Greater Israel (from the Nile to the Euphrates!) whose legitimacy would be grounded in having been conquered by force. This Israel would nevertheless take neutral and pragmatic positions in its foreign relations. As for the Arab population, it would be "exchanged" -- presumably for Jews in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Stern was hunted down and executed in Tel Aviv by British security men in 1942. Thereafter, FFI's leadership was assumed by the more methodical Yitzhak Shamir (later to become Israel's prime minister) who undertook its painstaking renewal. He ordered the November 1944 assassination of Lord Moyne, the top British official in the Middle East responsible for keeping the doors to Palestine closed to Jews fleeing Hitler. And in mid-1948, with Shamir's approval, Lehi also assassinated UN envoy Count Folke Bernadotte who had promoted a scheme to neutralize the 1947 Partition Plan which had codified the creation of Israel.

The Lehi leadership ran the political gamut from old-line socialist to hard line nationalists. In common, they believed that a small vanguard group could achieve the liberation of the entire Jewish people. "It is permitted to liberate a people even against its will, or against the will of the majority," Shamir would say many years later.

In practice, Zionist unity did not seem to be a paramount value for Stern and the FFI. "The Sternists rejected the idea of obeisance to Jewish leaders not committed to independence in the name of unity," according to Golan. Only during the War of Independence would the Sternists be incorporated into the IDF. After the war, FFI's bickering leaders unsuccessfully sought to create a political platform; Shamir and several others eventually aligned with the Likud.

Golan provides capsule biographies of other key Lehi figures – whom he calls "people of principles" – including Nathan Yalin-Mor, the movement's top propagandist and Israel Eldad, its foremost theoretician. This workmanlike book is neither a hagiography nor a critical treatment of Stern and his movement. The author, who directs the Center for Public Policy at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies and has written books on history, philosophy and economics, has instead provided us with a narrative told from the unique perspectives of former Lehi fighters (including Shamir and Eldad) as well as Stern's brother and widow, all of whom he interviewed.

As for all the bad blood engendered by their anti-British struggle, Golan insists that Lehi for the most part – and certainly before 1947 -- did not authorize attacks against British civilians who were not "official" representatives of the regime. Yes, its credo was "terror," Golan argued, but unlike today's Palestinian Arab terror groups Lehi's targets were not primarily innocent civilians.

Stern was a maximalist who maintained that even Jabotinsky was insufficiently committed to Jewish independence. Today, on the radical fringes of Israel's extreme right, there are those who reject loyalty to the state and IDF on the grounds that the nation's leaders are insufficiently committed to the Land and Torah of Israel. Would Stern – who at age 35, six years before the state came into being, sacrificed his life – have rejected such fanaticism on the grounds that it jeopardizes the Third Commonwealth? We will never know.

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