When Terrorism Worked: The Unknown Soldiers Who Helped Create Israel

by Jaideep A Prabhu - May 9, 2017 01:50 PM +05:30 IST
When Terrorism Worked: The Unknown Soldiers Who Helped Create Israel Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Yezernitsky and Avraham Stern
  • Contrary to the traditional Israeli historiography that lays all the credit for the formation of the Jewish state at the feet of David Ben Gurion and the Jewish Agency, Hoffman in his book argues that Israel might not have been possible without the efforts of some of its anonymous soldiers.

    Hoffman, Bruce. Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947. New York: Vintage Books, 2016. 672 pp.

Does terrorism work? That is the provocative question with which Bruce Hoffman begins his book. Although politicians such as Ian Smith, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher and scholars such as Thomas Schelling, Caleb Carr, and Max Abrahms tend to answer in the negative, such a widespread belief in its ineffectiveness is not shared by terrorists themselves. Most terrorist groups have failed in achieving their political aims but the few success stories - Ireland (1922), Israel (1948), Cyprus (1960), and Algeria (1962) - mean that the phenomenon deserves closer scrutiny.

No one doubts the ability of terrorism to spark off greater conflagrations - the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11, 2001 - but some terrorist groups such as the Provisional Irish Republican Army and Hezbollah have achieved a modicum of success through their violent antecedents. Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947 analyses one of the success stories, Israel, as the title suggests, to understand the reasons for its success.

Contrary to the traditional Israeli historiography that lays all the credit for the formation of the Jewish state at the feet of David Ben Gurion and the Jewish Agency, Hoffman argues that Israel might not have been possible without the efforts of its most notorious organisations, the Irgun Tzvai Leumi - known by its acronym as Etzel, or Irgun to Anglophones - and the Lohamei Herut Yisrael, or Lehi. These two groups relentlessly targeted British assets and personnel in Judea and made the British Mandate of Palestine simply untenable. Towards the end of British rule in the Levant, 100,000 soldiers - about the same number London had stationed in India - had been deployed in Judea to protect British assets and maintain law and order but to no avail.

The roots of unrest in the Fertile Crescent have to do with Jewish immigration into the region. For the longest time, despite the rhetoric of yearning for Zion and the pogroms in Europe, Jews had little interest in migrating to Palestine. The Ottoman Empire, though welcoming of Jews in other parts of its domains, had strictly curtailed Jewish immigration to the Holy Land. It was only after Theodor Herzl's Der Judenstaat in 1896 that the number of migrants rose to a trickle. The Balfour Declaration in 1917 was a tocsin to the local Arab population; already restless about increasing Jewish migration and land acquisition, the thought of these European interlopers getting their own state on Arab land was unacceptable. As a result, Jewish settlements began to come under frequent attack from marauding Arabs. In this phase, the Jewish population was largely dependent on the British and sought their protection.

Unfortunately for the Jews, the Palestine Police Force was inadequately manned and funded to be of much use. The community had to look within to organise their own defence. The Haganah was founded in 1920 but it was not the first such organisation: the Bar Giora, named after a leader of a Jewish rebel faction during the First Jewish-Roman War, was founded in 1907. This group became the Hashomer in 1909, which grew into the Haganah which would go on to become the core of the Israeli Defence Forces after independence. Despite its lack of training and arms, the Haganah became a fairly effective force against isolated Arab attacks. Against large disturbances, however, such as the Arab Riots of 1920-1, Britain was the sole guarantor of security.

Hoffman builds the narrative event by event, until the reader can not only feel the hope, fear, frustration, and political tension of the times but almost the desert heat and dust. In a marvellous telling, Anonymous Soldiers explains how London tried to balance two antithetical commitments to two people, Arabs and Jews, but failed in pleasing either. Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, appointed the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem by the British in 1921, invoked Islam into Arab nationalism and battle cries of "There is no God but Allah, Mohammad's religion came by the sword" rang through Palestine. Interestingly, Husseini's mobs identified themselves as Muslim and Arab but not Palestinian - that identity was yet to form.

The waves of Arab revolts - 1924, 1929, 1933, and 1936-9 - and what the Yishuv - Jewish settlements - saw as soft imperial policy against them convinced some Jewish elements to give up on havlagah, or restraint. Until then, the Jewish community had worked with the British in maintaining the peace despite disagreements over Jewish immigration. The Haganah even received rudimentary training from the British to help defend Jewish areas. Even Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the father of Revisionist Zionism, believed Britain to be a friendly power and the Jews' natural ally in the Middle East.

The hanging of Shlomo Ben Yosef in 1938 for attempting to blow up a commuter bus containing Arabs was a turning point. Jabotinsky began to see the British as unduly harsh on the Jews in comparison to the Arabs in that Ben Yosef had been given the maximum sentence for his crime even though no one had been hurt while hundreds of Arabs had received lesser sentences for similar crimes during the riots. The Etzel, founded in 1931 to provide a muscular response to the Arabs as opposed to havlagah from the Haganah, turned on the British. Until then, they had only targeted Arabs but the Ben Yosef incident disillusioned Jabotinsky about London's motives in Palestine.

There were plenty of anti-Semites in London but the reason Whitehall had been soft on the Arabs was that they feared the repercussions of an absolute crackdown across the Muslim world. Already, British policy in Palestine was causing unrest in Iraq and among Muslims in India. Hoffman mentions the strong British anti-Semitism prevalent in the inter-war period but does not think it the primary cause for its policies which were disadvantageous to the Jewish community. Nonetheless, British racial stereotypes of the Jews caused them to make strategic blunders in their bid to control Palestine.

The outbreak of World War II complicated matters. No doubt, Germany was an enemy of the Jewish people but Britain, opposed to the Nazis in Europe, were the local enemy in their curtailment of immigration and restricting Jewish land acquisition. The Jewish Agency saw this as a betrayal of the promise made in the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Shrewdly and opportunistically, however, the Haganah and Etzel threw in their lot with Britain in the war against Germany. The implicit demand was for a Jewish state once the war was over, and Jewish youth volunteered in the British army to receive training in several martial skills that would serve Israel well in 1948. Special units within the Haganah, Palmach, were established to be deployed in North Africa and other theatres of the war.

The decision to cease hostilities against the British did not sit well with all of the Jewish commanders. Avraham Stern strongly disagreed with his Etzel comrades and led a split in the group to form Lehi in 1940. Surprisingly, Lehi sought alliances with Benito Mussolini's Italy and Nazi Germany to fight against the British with the understanding that all of Europe's Jews would be allowed to immigrate to Palestine. However, the alliance failed to take shape and Stern himself was captured in Tel Aviv and killed by the British in 1942.

In sharp contrast with modern Israeli covert services, Etzel and Lehi were sloppy and had several failures in the early years. It was only after Yitzhak Yezernitsky revived Lehi in 1944 and Menachem Begin took command of Etzel in 1943 that both groups began to have more of an impact on Mandatory politics.

Hoffman has tilled American, British, and Israeli archives for Anonymous Soldiers and his effort is evident. However, there are still some gaps in the story. The most obvious one is the relatively little attention the author has paid to Jabotinsky. Beyond his role in establishing organisations like Etzel in Palestine and Betar in Riga, Latvia, the Russian Zionist was the intellectual force behind a strand of Zionism that influenced many, including future prime minister Begin. What did a Jewish state mean to Jabotinsky in terms of its institutions and values?

The author's focus on the Etzel and Lehi drowns out at least two other important voices - the Arabs and the Haganah. Anonymous Soldiers makes it seem as if the Arabs were passive spectators in the shaping of Palestine except for the riots. The Jewish community, however, had to keep one eye on their Arab neighbours even as they fought the British. The Haganah too, plays a secondary role in Hoffman's tale but this is only partly true. For the most part, the Haganah was involved in smuggling in Jews beyond the quota allocated by the British and developing stockpiles of arms. These activities may not get the attention of, say, an assassination, but were nonetheless illegal and important to the Yishuv. Post World War II, Palmach units did carry out a series of anti-British operations that included freeing Jewish detainees, bombing British radar installations, sabotaging ships used to intercept or deport illegal Jewish immigration, destruction of vital bridges, disrupting rail services, and even an assassination.

Avraham Stern, Founder of Lohamei Herut Yisrael
Avraham Stern, Founder of Lohamei Herut Yisrael

Yitzhak Yezernitsky, Leader, Lehi; seventh prime minister of Israel
Yitzhak Yezernitsky, Leader, Lehi; seventh prime minister of Israel

Menachem Begin. Commander, <em>Irgun Tzvai Leumi</em>; sixth prime minister of Israel
Menachem Begin. Commander, Irgun Tzvai Leumi; sixth prime minister of Israel

Part of the problem is that the book stops in 1947. Although the Haganah had always been involved in activities that went against British dictates, its most assertive phase started only after World War II. Hoffman wishes to separate the Etzel and Lehi from the Haganah but operations such as the sinking of the SS Patria in 1940 suggest that this cleavage is not as clean as is presented in Anonymous Soldiers. Perhaps the implicit assertion here is that, for a time, the Haganah collaborated with the British to hunt down Etzel and Lehi operatives with remarkable success.

Most disappointingly, Hoffman has chosen not to add an epilogue that discusses the terrorist legacy on Israel. After all, it has had two prime ministers, one from the Etzel and the other from Lehi, and a foreign minister who was the daughter of an important Etzel commander. Several other members of these organisations found their way into the Knesset and other important government institutions during their generation.

Finally, it is important to ponder on the meaning of terrorism: can the Etzel and Lehi truly be considered terrorists in an era when indiscriminate bombardment of civilians such as at Dresden was considered kosher? Some may object to this analogy, reminding us that the Allies were at war with Germany, but from the perspective of the Yishuv, they were also at war with Britain, an imperial, occupying power. Additionally, under the command of Begin, at least, the Etzel has always attempted to minimise unnecessary casualties, often calling in a bomb warning. As Hoffman mentions, Begin was shocked and horrified at the loss of life at the King David Hotel on July 22, 1946. Though Lehi has always been more indiscriminate, even they left warnings around the bombs that brought down the British embassy in Rome in October 1946.

By and large, Jewish militants were careful to target British assets and representatives of the Crown though there was undeniably some collateral damage. Yet theirs was not a campaign of wanton destruction of schools, pubs, buses, and supermarkets as the small size of the final body count for the years 1945-7 shows: some 300 people killed, most of them in one fateful attack. Wholesale slaughter was largely reserved for those who did the same to the Yishuv, namely, Arabs. These distinctions, meaningless to the victims though they may be, marks Zionist terror as different. In addition to the civilian control of the militia and the presence of a shadow government, Jewish settlers in Palestine behaved as if they already had their own state. Such oversight, and the havlagah that Etzel and Lehi scorned, makes the struggle for Israel a qualitatively different saga from the barbarism of modern terrorism. The institutional power of the Jewish Agency can be seen from the fact that upon independence, the various armed factions either disbanded or merged into the Israeli Defence Forces without any bitter and bloody internecine struggle for power.

Anonymous Soldiers is a detailed and gripping work despite some of the gaps it leaves. The title of the book, by the way, comes from Hayalim Almonim, a poem written by Stern in 1932 and also translated as 'unknown soldiers.' The book does not answer the question it started with - does terrorism work? The answer to that is beyond the scope of any one book. However, Hoffman's analysis of the Israeli case puts forward a compelling hypothesis that done properly, using the right methods against the right targets, it is possible for terrorism to have at least a limited amount of success. And implicit in this revelation is that the same could be said for counter-terrorism. In this day and age, Anonymous Soldiers gives the reader much food for thought.

Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.
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