Terror Out of Zion
There is no love lost between the British Foreign Office and Israel. In a report to parliament last month, Foreign Minister William Hague condemned Israel for building in Jerusalem, being in the West Bank, and treating the present Gaza regime like the enemy it is. Hague's report mentioned Hamas only to blame Israel for the Islamist group's obduracy. Many factors help explain official Britain's less-than-fraternal attitude toward the Jewish state, but no such inventory would be complete without recalling the bad blood spawned by the Mandate, particularly the violent struggle waged against British rule by the Irgun and the underground group Lehi—Freedom Fighters for Israel, or FFI, a/k/a the Stern Group or the Stern Gang. Nations have interests; they also have long memories.
A new book by Zev Golan, Stern: the Man and His Gang, brings fresh focus to the nasty fight waged by FFI against British policymakers and security personnel beginning in 1940. Golan's is a sympathetic narrative of an extremist and fringe movement that never numbered more than 900 members. It begins with Avraham Stern's 1926 arrival in Palestine, his student life at Hebrew University, and his developing commitment to Jewish observance. It covers his break with the Haganah over its policy of "restraint" in the face of murderous Arab riots against the Yishuv and Britain's breach of its League of Nations commitment to foster a Jewish homeland.
Golan's book appears precisely 65 years after the bloody November, 1946 FFI offensive that claimed a score of mostly British lives. On November 17, FFI operatives detonated a mine that killed four and wounded several others; over the course of the month, FFI 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. Renegade British soldiers ran riot, shooting and assaulting Jewish passers-by and even murdering a Jewish constable. Such violence did not give the Stern Group second thoughts. Stern had a grandiose vision of a Greater Israel—from the Nile to the Euphrates!—that would be established by force. The territory's existing Arab population would be "exchanged," presumably for Jews in the Middle East and elsewhere.
FFI leadership ran the political gamut from old-line socialists to hard line nationalists. What they had in common was the belief that a small vanguard group could liberate of the entire Jewish people. "It is permitted to liberate a people even against its will, or against the will of the majority," then-Stern Group member Yitzhak Shamir would say many years later. The Sternists, according to Golan, broke with the Irgun because they "rejected the idea of obeisance" to Jewish leaders not sufficiently committed to a militant campaign for independence.
Zionist officialdom reciprocated, condemning the Sternists as terrorist "gangs" and calling for their "liquidation." The dissident Zionist movement led by Ze'ev Jabotinsky also opposed FFI's operations. But the gap between the FFI and other Zionists went further. Most Zionists supported Britain's war effort against Nazi Germany. "We want England to win," said Jabotinsky, "regardless of all her crimes against Zionism." Not so for Stern, who 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 FFI's continued war against England.
Stern's "Revolutionary Zionism" did not dwell on the persecution of the individual Jew—not even by the Nazis—because FFI was struggling for the violent political redemption of the Jewish people in its entirety. Stern could not have known the details of Hitler's plan for the annihilation of European Jewry, which were not systematized until 1942; but he knew that the Jews' fate 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 was hunted down and executed in Tel Aviv by British security men in 1942. Thereafter, FFI's leadership was assumed by the more methodical Shamir, later Israel's prime minister, who undertook its painstaking renewal. Shamir ordered the November, 1944 assassination of Lord Moyne, the British official responsible for keeping the doors of Palestine closed to Jews fleeing Hitler. In mid-1948, with Shamir's approval, FFI assassinated United Nations envoy Count Folke Bernadotte, who had tried to undo the 1947 Partition Plan embodying the creation of Israel.
Only during the War of Independence would the Sternists be incorporated into the Israel Defense Force. After the war, FFI's bickering leaders unsuccessfully sought to create a political platform, with some seeking to align the Zionists with Stalin's "anti-imperialistic" Soviet Union. Shamir and several others eventually aligned with the Likud.
Golan provides capsule biographies of other key FFI figures—he calls them "people of principles"—including Nathan Yalin-Mor, the movement's top propagandist, and Israel Eldad, its foremost theoretician. While the book is not hagiography, neither is it a critical treatment of Stern and his movement. Golan notes that for the most part, before 1947, FFI did not authorize attacks against British civilians who were not "official" representatives of the regime. Yes, its credo was "terror"; but, unlike the targets of today's Palestinian Arab terror groups, Golan insists, FFI targets were not primarily innocent civilians.
The value of this workmanlike book is that it is told from the unique perspectives of former FFI fighters, including Shamir and Eldad, as well as Stern's brother and widow, all of whom Golan interviewed. 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 died at age 35, six years before Israel came into being—have rejected such fanaticism on the grounds that it jeopardizes the Third Commonwealth? We will never know.