In the early morning hours of July 31 this summer masked men torched two houses in the West Bank village of Duma. One of the houses was empty. In the other, the Dawabsheh family lay sleeping. Saad, his wife Riham, and their four-year-old son Ahmad were severely injured as flames spread through their bedroom. Eighteen-month-old Ali burned to death, and Saad died a week later of his wounds. A year ago three Jewish extremists kidnapped sixteen- year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir outside his East Jerusalem home. They drove him to a forest where, after beating him, they poured gasoline over his head and burned him alive.
Execution by fire has always been about more than just killing. It carries a message. The masked men who threw the Molotov cocktail into the Dawabshehs’ bedroom made their message explicit, leaving graffiti of a Star of David with NEKAMA! (Hebrew for revenge) sprayed on the wall.
This brand of Jewish terrorism is not new. In 2002 a clandestine group of Jewish settlers attempted to blow up a Palestinian girls’ school. In 1994 an American-born Jewish settler gunned down twenty-nine Palestinians while they were praying in Hebron. A decade earlier a number of loosely connected underground cells carried out terrorist attacks against Palestinian targets, including the Islamic college in Hebron, public buses, and West Bank mayors.
The roots of contemporary Jewish terrorism lie in the radical movements and individuals who roamed Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s. Two new books, Bruce Hoffman’s Anonymous Soldiers and Patrick Bishop’s The Reckoning, explore these roots.
While I was in Jerusalem I heard nine bomb explosions not far from my hotel. The immigration offices of the Palestine Mandate at Haifa and Tel Aviv were blown up, and two Palestine policemen were murdered. There are three extremist groups, all illegal military organisations. They have Fascist manners and Fascist uniforms, and are storm troopers.
This is how a Reader’s Digest reporter, Frederick Painton, described his encounter with Jewish terrorism early in 1944.1 The bombings Painton heard were the opening shot of the revolt against the British Mandate announced on February 1 by the underground Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organization, also known by its Hebrew acronym, Etzel). Eleven days later members of the Irgun, under the direction of their recently appointed leader, Menachem Begin, bombed British immigration offices in Palestine’s main cities.
Begin, who had emigrated from Poland in 1942, belonged to the Revisionist faction of the Zionist movement, formed by Vladimir Jabotinsky. Its aim was to revise the Zionist Labor movement’s “practical Zionism,” which was primarily concerned with building national institutions and cultivating a Jewish society in Palestine. “Jabotinsky’s grand ‘Revisionist’ Zionism put the Jewish state first,” Avishai Margalit recently wrote in these pages, “and worried about the society later. The Jewish state was to be achieved by aggressive diplomacy and military might.”2 On one fundamental issue, Jabotinsky agreed with his Labor Zionist rivals: Zionism’s goals were to be achieved through alliance with the British Empire. Correctly predicting that the Ottomans would be defeated in World War I, Jabotinsky organized five battalions of Jewish volunteers to fight with the British. He hoped this would bolster the Zionist case after the war and create the foundation for a Jewish defense force.
Both hopes would be frustrated. The diplomatic achievement was not to be Jabotinsky’s, but Chaim Weizmann’s, Jabotinsky’s rival and Zionism’s greatest statesman, whose personal diplomacy led to the Balfour Declaration of 1917 that expressed the British government’s commitment to facilitate the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. The Jewish Legion was disbanded shortly after the war. Jabotinsky then organized Betar, a Revisionist youth movement in which a new martial force was to be formed. The “storm troopers” Painton saw were the brown-uniformed members of Betar. The Irgun, which planted the bombs he heard, was the armed underground of the Revisionist movement.
Jabotinsky had hoped for something different: a legion legalized by the British to fend off inevitable Arab opposition, not a clandestine organization fighting the British. The disparity between the teacher’s views and his disciple’s strategies first surfaced at Betar’s third world conference in 1938, when Begin challenged Jabotinsky’s diplomatic strategy of appealing to the world’s conscience; Begin called for a shift to “militant Zionism.” As Bruce Hoffman puts it in his new book, Anonymous Soldiers:
A stunned Jabotinsky repeatedly interrupted his disciple’s speech, disputing his historical analogies and sarcastically questioning the practical implications of Begin’s call to embrace a new phase of Zionism—predicated on armed struggle.
Minutes of the conference further reveal that Jabotinsky ridiculed Begin, comparing his speech to the “senseless and useless” noise of a squeaky door. By some accounts, Begin left the hall in tears. Exploring the ideological roots of this divide is indispensable for understanding Jewish terrorism, which has marred Zionist history from the 1930s to the present.
Hoffman’s Anonymous Soldiers draws on intelligence material declassified in recent years to describe Zionist terrorism and the struggle against it “through the eye of the British statesmen, soldiers, officials, policemen, and others.” He concludes that the terrorism of Begin and his fellow Irgunists was effective in hastening the end of the British Mandate, Britain’s thirty-year rule in Palestine established after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Britain’s task under the Mandate was to prepare Palestine for independence and statehood. Failing to establish a workable and protected local administration, the British terminated the Mandate in May 1948 and ceded responsibility to the United Nations.
Hoffman recounts the events that led to this decision in great detail, stressing the financial and human toll imposed by Jewish terrorism and its demoralizing effects on the British. But assessing the success of Jewish terrorists in achieving their aims is a more complex matter. Their stated goal was the establishment of a Jewish state on both banks of the Jordan River and, more immediately, the elimination of the British White Paper policy, which severely restricted Jewish immigration into Palestine. Neither of these goals was achieved. Analyzing the terrorist strategies and motivations requires attending to their ideological roots, which receive less attention in Hoffman’s book.
The first clandestine anti-British organization, not mentioned by Hoffman, was known as Brit Habiryonim (Band of Thugs). Its ideas had dramatic influence over the Revisionist underground and also over Jewish extremists ever since its creation in 1930. The founders and principal ideologues of the “Thugs” were two intellectuals—the militant journalist Abba Ahimeir and the poet Uri Zvi Greenberg. Ahimeir preached Nietzsche’s “will to power” as an ethic and took Mussolini’s nationalist dictatorship to be a model for politics. He called Jabotinsky “our Duce,” to the latter’s dismay, while drifting away from the Revisionist leader’s strategy. “The path to redemption passes not over a bridge of paper, but over a bridge of iron,” he wrote, expressing his contempt for diplomacy, in contrast not only to Weizmann but also to Jabotinsky.
Zionism’s greatest crime, Ahimeir argued, was its reliance on other nations rather than on its own will, purity of ideals, and readiness, indeed willingness, to sacrifice. Such an undertaking was not for the masses, the “human dung,” but for the avant-garde few. In the tradition of Russian revolutionaries, Ahimeir regarded political violence as a legitimate means in the arsenal of selfless, pure-hearted zealots.
Greenberg added a mystical element to Ahimeir’s militarism. Raised in a Hasidic family in Galicia, Greenberg thought that rebuilding the Jewish homeland was not primarily a secular process of political liberation but an eschatological drama of national redemption and spiritual resurrection. Rather than a political movement, Zionism was a “civic revolutionary movement,” whose aim was the reinstatement of an Old Testament Jewish “kingdom.” A renewed Jewish temple would replace the “house of Muslim glory”—the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, which, as Greenberg wrote in one of his early poems, was attached to Jerusalem’s “decapitated neck.”
With his fusion of militant nationalism and eschatological mysticism, Greenberg was seen by his admirers not only as one of the great Hebrew poets but also as a prophet. His Manichaean world was divided into Jews and their enemies. The former, he wrote, were purified by victimhood but suffered from physical and spiritual weakness, exacerbated by their leaders, who “know how to cry,” but not how to take revenge. Against this Greenberg celebrated the uncalculating heroism of Bar Kokhba, the second-century Jewish leader whose rebellion was crushed by the Romans, annihilating half of the Jewish population of Palestine. For Greenberg, such heroic leaders kept the national spirit alive and thus triumphed even when it was physically defeated. “Bar Kokhba’s creed,” he declared, “is true, despite the fall of Betar”—his last stronghold.
But his and Ahimeir’s more immediate inspirations were European revolutionaries—the Russian Narodnya Volya, the Irish Sinn Féin, and the Polish rebels led by Józef Pilsudsky. The two men were part of a loosely connected group of eccentric poets, journalists, and politicians, often called “maximalists,” who subscribed to the view that the national interest trumps everything, including morality, and that the means for promoting it must include revolutionary violence. To ensure that this license is not used for personal or factional ends but only employed in the service of the nation, the motives of its agents must be pure. Such purity of heart is displayed by the very opposite of self-interest—self-sacrifice.
Like other romantics of violence and heroism, Greenberg and Ahimeir were blind to the fact that being part of an aggressive, uninhibited movement can also be a form of self-interest. As Isaiah Berlin shrewdly observed, their followers who terrorized the British “seemed to put the satisfaction of their own emotional needs above the attainable goals of the cause which they supported.”3
A conflict over the Temple Mount set off the violence that prompted the formation of the Thugs and the Irgun. Following disputes regarding prayer arrangements at the Western Wall in 1929, the Betar youth led a crowd to the Western Wall shouting “The wall is ours!” This led to rumors that Jews were trying to seize the Temple Mount, a prospect that is still effective in mobilizing Palestinians.4 In a wave of attacks by violent Arab mobs, 133 Jews were murdered and hundreds more were maimed, raped, and beaten in Hebron, Jerusalem, and a dozen other places.5
The events of summer 1929 shocked Palestine’s Jewish community, known as the Yishuv, and prompted heated debates within the Zionist movement. “Maximalists” like Ahimeir and Greenberg blamed the Yishuv’s leaders, such as David Ben-Gurion, whom they saw as traitorous, ingratiating, and assimilationist. They advocated open revolt against the British, celebrating the opportunity to “join the ranks of healthy nations” by “sacrificing for the realization of a national ideal.”
Jabotinsky, who was not a revolutionary, realized the futility of these proposals. But while he called their proponents a “band of spiritual bastards” in private, he would not publicly denounce them, recognizing their popularity among the Revisionist rank and file. In 1931, a faction split from the Haganah—the Yishuv’s official defense organization—to form what eventually became the Irgun. In 1938 some of the Revisionists published a statement as “the revisionist activist front,” advocating a shift in strategy—abandoning the “English orientation” and adopting “the path of active resistance, employing all the combat methods that liberated all oppressed peoples.” One of the signers was Menachem Begin and among its supporters was Avraham Stern.
David Raziel, whose leadership of the Irgun was challenged by Stern in 1940, described him this way:
A delicate ivory statue wearing a tie in good taste and smart suit with the trousers precisely creased. In short, an unscrupulous intelligent person who so distorts the facts that the borders of reality mean nothing to him. And a demagogue times eight.
When Raziel, as the Irgun’s commander, reached an agreement to collaborate with the British war effort, Stern tried to depose him and ultimately left and formed his own uncompromising anti-British underground, which would take the name Lehi (the Hebrew acronym for Israel Freedom Fighters), known to the British as “The Stern Gang.”
But in the 1930s Stern and Raziel were close friends, and Stern’s function in the Irgun was auxiliary. He spent much of his time in Europe, procuring weapons for the underground and organizing training camps in Poland. He also provided spiritual inspiration in the form of articles and poems, published under the nom de plume “Yair” (after the first-century Jewish Zealot Elazar ben Yair, whose failed revolution ended in mass suicide).
In his new book The Reckoning, Patrick Bishop describes Stern’s poetry as a “blend of grandiosity, triumphalism and romanticized violence.” Arthur Koestler, who flirted with the Revisionist movement for a while in the 1920s, translated this verse from one of Stern’s poems:
Like a rabbi
Who carries his prayer-book in a velvet bag to the synagogue
So carry I
My sacred gun to the Temple.
In another poem Yair wrote: “We shall pray by rifle, machine gun, landmine.” His penchant for violence was coupled with an obsession with death. One of his poems, “Anonymous Soldiers,” which became the Irgun’s anthem (and the title of Hoffman’s book), describes how the homeland will be built from corpses cemented with the blood of babies.
Patrick Bishop, in The Reckoning, recounts the life and controversial death of Stern as a tale of grand delusions culminating in abject failure. After he split from the Irgun, between September 1940 and February 1942 Stern’s organization carried out numerous attacks, targeting financial institutions and British offices and officials. One botched robbery led to the arrest of seven Sternists. In another, the fleeing robbers shot and killed two Jewish bystanders, creating derision in the country they were trying to rally. Stern’s ill-conceived attempts to make alliances with Fascist Italy and with the Nazis failed completely, and caused British intelligence agencies to arrest more of his men. Some of his deputies began to turn against him.
Isolated and desperate, Stern ordered an ambitious action—killing two senior British police officers, Geoffrey Morton and Tom Wilkins. Stern’s men planted bombs in a building in Tel Aviv. The first explosion was intended to draw Morton and Wilkins to the scene, at which point a second bomb was to go off and kill them. But Morton had dispatched other officers to the scene. When the second explosion went off, two Jewish officials working for the Mandate and one British officer were killed.
Rather than galvanizing the Jewish masses, the operation was almost unanimously condemned by the Jews. The Zionist leaders declared the Sternists “madmen” and pledged to assist the police hunting the terrorists. A week later four of Stern’s deputies were shot and arrested by Morton. Three others soon turned themselves in. On February 12, 1942, Stern was found undressed, hiding in a wardrobe in a small Tel Aviv apartment. Morton shot and killed him on the spot, ending the life of Stern the terrorist and launching the legacy of Yair the Zionist martyr.
In 1944, the Lehi resurfaced and carried out dozens of terrorist attacks, bombing Mandate facilities and murdering British officials, Arabs, and Jews. This time the operations were much more effective, under the guidance of the ruthless Lehi leader Yitzhak Yzernitsky (who would become Israel’s seventh prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir). Lehi’s most spectacular operation was the assassination in November 1944 of Lord Moyne, the British minister of state in the Middle East. Two young Lehi agents waited outside his Cairo home and fired into his car from close range as he was returning from his office. Both were caught and later executed by hanging.
This operation, intended to galvanize the masses and set off a revolt against the British, was a terrible miscalculation. The Yishuv was appalled. Its popular press called the killers “traitors,” and for good reason. Winston Churchill was then advancing the idea of establishing a Jewish state in part of Palestine after the war. The murder of Walter Moyne, his friend and political ally, outraged the prime minister. “Moyne’s assassination,” Hoffman writes, “effectively scuttled Churchill’s bold plan to partition Palestine.”
Zionist historiography and Israeli politics were largely shaped by the debate over the justification and efficacy of Zionist terrorism before the state was established in 1948. Some historians and ideologues credit it with having driven out the British, while others dismiss it as futile and even damaging. Hoffman’s account is more nuanced. He recognizes the futility of Stern and his followers, who were viewed by the British as “dangerous fanatics but militarily inconsequential,” but finds the Irgun’s terrorist campaign from 1944 until the termination of the Mandate in 1948 to have been effective. He concludes that “terrorism can, in the right conditions and with the appropriate strategy and tactics, succeed in attaining at least some of its practitioners’ fundamental aims.”
Such qualifications are in order since most terrorist actions surveyed in the book demonstrate the opposite. The gangsterism of Yair and his followers achieved nothing except to make him a hero for Jewish extremists. Similarly, during the early 1930s Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, a jihadist revolutionary who preached violence and extolled self-sacrifice, accomplished nothing apart from giving Hamas’s military wing its name—the al-Qassam Brigade. His rebellion was crushed before it began.
Hoffman credits al-Qassam’s followers with igniting the Arab Rebellion between 1936 and 1939. But it, too, was a miserable failure. The aims of the rebellion, besides attacking Jews, were to hurt the Jewish economy, deter new immigrants, and hinder the establishment of Jewish settlements. Yet the Arab riots set off a fierce response, resulting in more casualties among Arab attackers than Jewish victims and the establishment of the officially sanctioned armed Jewish militia called “Notrim.” The Yishuv’s economy benefited because the strikes by Arab workers forced the Jewish settlers to develop their own independent workforce. After the Jaffa seaport was closed, British officials had to license the establishment of a modern, deepwater port in nearby Tel Aviv. The ancient port of Jaffa—a major source of employment and income for Palestinians—never recovered.
With the specter of Nazism rising in Europe, Jewish immigration continued. Settlement activity accelerated. The British Peel Commission, which was sent to investigate the violence under the Mandate, proposed for the first time a Jewish state in part of historic Palestine. If the Arabs lost the military battle for Palestine in 1949, they lost the diplomatic and economic struggle a decade earlier.
David Ben-Gurion realized that the indiscriminate terrorism of the Arab Revolt was “a tremendous defeat for Arab politics,” and the Zionist leadership adopted the strategy of “restraint.” The Revisionists saw this as weakness. Against restraint they advocated retaliation. They encouraged the “anonymous soldiers” of the Irgun forces to mount attacks, reminding them, with another line from Stern’s poem, that “only death can relieve of duty.” Hundreds of innocent Arabs were killed and many more injured by the Irgun in dozens of random shootings and bombings of Arab cafés, buses, and markets. As Hoffman comments, these attacks proved counterproductive, “driving hitherto moderate Arabs into the rebels’ arms.” The Irgun was denounced by Arabs, Britons, and Jews. Ben-Gurion called it a “Nazi party.”
Begin’s revolt in 1944 was based on the same faulty analysis. As Frederick Painton reported at the time:
The contention is that the Arabs by raising hell in 1936 cowed the British Government into producing the White Paper, so these Jews now hope the same tactics will cow the British into reinstating immigration.
But just as the indiscriminate attacks on Arabs did not cause them to become less hostile in the 1930s, the hundreds of British casualties did not cause Mandate authorities to modify their immigration policy in the 1940s. Still, Hoffman sees the Irgun’s terrorist campaign as skillful and effective.
What was different about Begin’s campaign, according to Hoffman, was his strategy of undermining British prestige. He quotes Begin’s account:
History and our observation persuaded us that if we could succeed in destroying the [British] government’s prestige in Eretz Israel, the removal of its rule would follow automatically.
This is from Begin’s memoir, written years after the events. Evidence from the period, however, suggests that Begin wrote with the benefit of hindsight. His affiliation with the “maximalists,” expressed in the confrontation with Jabotinsky in 1938, remained as strong as ever. “Begin had known Avraham Stern in Warsaw and admired him,” Bishop writes. When he took over the leadership of the Irgun, “Begin was anxious to heal the old rift between the Irgun and Stern’s followers.”
Indeed, it was Begin, according to the Israeli scholar Joseph Heller, who did much to advance the revolutionary ideas of Ahimeir, Stern, and other “maximalists” within the Irgun. His pamphlets and declarations from the 1940s argued that bold displays of heroism and self-sacrifice would revitalize the nation’s dormant forces, from which “an army of liberation” would form to conduct “a national war of independence” against the British. But the Yishuv’s leadership denounced the terrorists and launched an antiterrorist campaign known as the “open season,” and the Irgun remained a small terrorist underground.
Still, whether he intended it or not, the Irgun’s actions under Begin had dramatic effect. Begin was a gifted orator with a knack for political theater. The plots and attacks he ordered provoked the British into taking harsh measures, aggravating resentment toward the Mandate and intensifying a sense of disorder. Britain’s control of Palestine received increasingly negative international attention, though mainly because it restricted the immigration of displaced Holocaust survivors. The casualties inflicted by the terrorists had a demoralizing effect on Mandate officials. Hoffman cites numerous statements of military and political officials, as well as mainstream British reporters, expressing doubts about whether the Mandate could be sustained in light of the Irgun’s terrorism. Determining its precise effect on British decision-making, however, is complicated by the fact that, as Hoffman notes, it was one factor among many:
An overwhelming concatenation of other developments—including Britain’s postwar economic travails, the granting of independence to India, the deterioration of relations with the United States over Palestine, the intense pressure of Jewish illegal immigration, the force of international and domestic opinion, the plight of the Holocaust’s survivors and Jewish displaced persons languishing in Europe, and the UNSCOP report recommending the mandate’s termination—all converged to push the Labour government toward this momentous climacteric.
Still, Hoffman seems to side with historians like Michael Cohen who put more weight on the Irgun’s attacks, emphasizing specific operations like the bombing of the Mandate’s central offices in the King David Hotel in July 1946, which killed ninety-one British, Arabs, and Jews, and the hanging of two British sergeants a year later. Others claim that the attacks “did indeed create a huge anti-government outcry in the British public, but the decision-making elite had already made up its mind.” “The historiography of the period,” Israeli historian Motti Golani wrote, “is generally united in the conclusion that it was neither Arab nor Jewish terrorism which brought British rule in Palestine to an end.”6
Partition, moreover, was promoted by senior British officials, including Churchill, irrespective of the Irgun’s campaign. In view of the postwar financial and geopolitical circumstances that caused the British to abandon many territories around the globe, a cautious conclusion about Jewish terrorism seems justified: at most, it hastened the British abandonment of the Mandate. What seems clear is that terrorism is most effective in preventing diplomacy from resolving conflict.7
The Irgun and Lehi were dismantled after the State of Israel was created, but their philosophy continues to be an active force in Israel. Begin became prime minister in 1977 and Shamir succeeded him in 1983. Their disciples and descendants occupied and still occupy central positions in Israeli public life. The militant nationalism and religious zeal of Ahimeir, Greenberg, Yair, and their followers continue to motivate Jewish extremists and to inspire Jewish terrorism. Challenging it is an intellectual and cultural battle no less than it is one of law enforcement.
The recent election of Benjamin Netanyahu—who after trailing in the polls made racist statements that were clearly intended to arouse fear—shows that the violent sentiments and views discussed by Hoffman and Bishop are still very much alive. Netanyahu’s father, a formidable scholar of the Inquisition who died in 2012, was a revisionist ideologue who belonged to the “maximalist” circle. He was an Islamophobe who supported pre-state terrorism and opposed any agreement with Arabs, even the peace accord with Egypt.
His son shares many of his views despite opportunistic rhetoric about a two-state solution, which he opposed during the election and then limply endorsed afterward. In early May he formed a new government including members of the Jewish Home party, which supports expansion of West Bank settlements and opposes a Palestinian state. The Likud, under Netanyahu’s leadership, has shed the last remnants of Jabotinsky’s liberal commitments and became a party willing to exploit racist contempt for Arabs. Understanding the ideological roots of Israel’s current leaders is indispensable if they are ever to be successfully challenged and replaced.
Painton’s May 1944 “Report on Palestine” was originally written as “a memorandum to the editors,” who then decided to publish it. The report did not go unnoticed in Palestine, with the Zionist establishment using it to berate its rival, Revisionist Zionism, and the latter using it in order to display the establishment’s treacherous incitement against them. ↩
Isaiah Berlin, “Zionist Politics in Wartime Washington: A Fragment of Personal Reminiscence—The Jacob Herzog Memorial Lecture,” 1972. ↩
The Jewish underground that operated in the early 1980s planned to bomb the Dome of the Rock. The second Palestinian Intifada was sparked by Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000. Recent violence in Jerusalem was also set off by activity and rumors regarding control of the holy site. ↩
Hoffman fails to mention several murders committed by Jews during the three days of rioting, which are in Hillel Cohen’s fascinating study 1929: Year Zero of the Arab–Jewish Conflict, forthcoming from Brandeis University Press. Cohen also uncovers evidence of a clandestine Jewish cell that plotted to bomb the al-Omar mosque on the Temple Mount (that was eliminated by the Haganah). This and other early instances of political violence by Jews, like the underground groups HaKibbutz and HaMifal (associated with the murder of the anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox, gay poet Jacob de Haan in 1924) are also not mentioned by Hoffman. ↩
Michael Cohen, Palestine and the Great Powers, 1945–1948 (Princeton University Press, 1982); Joseph Heller, “Review of Palestine and the Great Powers, 1945–1948,” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 23, No. 4 (1987), p. 549; Motti Golani, The End of the British Mandate for Palestine, 1948 (Palgrave, 2009), p. 9. ↩
The Irgun’s strategy was clearly risky. As a prominent revisionist wrote in his memoir, “The Irgun just got lucky. There were British elements who wanted to push their government into wide punitive and retributive actions against the Yishuv. Had their approach been accepted by the British government, the Irgun would have gone down in Jewish history as a destructive element…. In retrospect, we know that the British wall at which we and the Irgun were shooting was already unstable at the foundation.” See Binyamin Eliav, Memoirs (in Hebrew; Am Oved, 1990). ↩