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Redacted from a review by Hillel Halkin of the book:
By Patrick Bishop
Harper, 299 pages, $26.99
Halkin’s review appeared in The Wall Street Journal
December 20-21, 2014
Freedom Fighter for Zion
Avraham Stern imagined (believed) the Jewish people compelling God to be the zealous warrior-deity of the Bible once again.
In 1942, ‘The Stern Gang’ (F.F.I. Freedom Fighters for Israel) were the most wanted men (by the colonialist-building British in Palestine). Hardly anyone talks anymore about “the Stern Gang.” In Israel, the militant group has not been known by this name for decades. It is called by the name it called itself, “The Lechi” (with the “ch” as in “Bach”), an acronym for Lochamei Cherut Yisra’el, or Freedom Fighters of Israel.
The smallest and most extreme of the three fully or partly underground Jewish military organizations that began in Palestine during the last years of the British Mandate. It accomplished little in reality but much in the realm of myth-making. To this day it lives in Israeli memory as a symbol of ardent patriotism, romantic self-sacrifice and the cult of idealistic violence—and also as a form of political lunacy that would reappear in a new guise long after the group’s demise. (again Halkin’s left wing evaluation.)
The F.F.I. was founded in 1940 when a splinter faction broke away from the Irgun, the right-wing militia affiliated with Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Party and the rival of the left-leaning Haganah. The leader of the breakaway was a young Polish-born Jew named Avraham Stern. A Hebrew poet of some talent, Stern had studied classics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and was active there in the Irgun until 1936, when he was put in charge of a military training and arms-purchasing program run by the group in Poland.
From there, he sniped at what he considered Jabotinsky’s insufficient militancy toward the British, (who had totally shut the gates of Palestine to Jewish immigration just when a haven from Hitler was most desperately needed,) Returning to Palestine in 1939, a year before Jabotinsky’s death, he led a small band of followers out of the Irgun.
From the time of this split until Stern was killed in early 1942 in a British police raid on the Tel Aviv apartment in which he was hiding, the Stern Gang, as the British labeled it, robbed a few banks, killed several British policemen and called for an anti-British uprising at a time when England was fighting a war with Nazi Germany (and allowing open Arab immigration to Palestinian while obstructing desperately needed Jewish immigration from Europe and Arab lands where they had lived for centuries)
Halkin minimizes the work of the Stern Gang as opposed to many historians present at the time, who credit the Gang with the final withdrawal of British forces who did not like their people summarily killed as the Brits did to the Jews of Palestine).
The F.F.I. also unsuccessfully attempted to make contact with Hitler’s Italian allies in the hope of enlisting their support. The group’s more intensive phase of activity, starting with the 1944 assassination in Cairo of Lord Moyne, the British minister of state in the Middle East, began only after Stern’s death and included the F.F.I.’s participation, in early 1948, in the conquest of the Arab village of Dir Yassin and the alleged massacre of some of its inhabitants. Later that year, after assassinating Count Bernadotte the first United Nations mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the organization was outlawed by the government of the new state of Israel and ceased to exist.
It is with Stern’s death, however, which the British claimed took place when he sought to flee and which his followers called an act of coldblooded murder, that Patrick Bishop’s new book, “The Reckoning” addresses. Mr. Bishop, a British military historian and novelist, has sought to determine what happened that winter day in Tel Aviv, and to relate the personal and historical events leading up to it, with the help of a tried literary technique.
Taking as his protagonists Stern and the man who shot him, British police officer Geoffrey Morton, he tells the story of each, starting with childhood and adolescence, Stern’s in the Polish-Lithuanian town of Suwalki, Morton’s in the South London neighborhood of Lambeth. “The Reckoning” shuttles back and forth between the two men and the radically different milieus that shaped them, tracing the paths that brought them to Palestine and that slowly converged there in the manhunt that ended in their fatal confrontation.
When Mr. Bishop writes about Morton he writes about someone to whose world, as a fellow Englishman, he has ready access. When he writes about Stern with no knowledge of Hebrew and little familiarity with Judaism, Eastern-European Jewish culture or the various strands of Zionist ideology, he is out of his depth.
Stern was a charismatic and driven leader who foolishly believed that Zionism could work with the Axis powers against the British colonial rulers of Palestine, and this side of him Mr. Bishop describes well. But he was also an intellectual and a poet, and while neither his thought nor his verse was of a high order, they were significant in ways Mr. Bishop overlooks.
Stern was an odd breed, a non-believing religious messianist. He rejected the Jewish God in whose faith he had been raised because this God was letting the Jews of Europe be annihilated. In a poem composed while the Holocaust was taking place, he wrote, alluding to the biblical condemnation of the futile worship of “other gods” than the God of Israel: “And you, God, are like all the others. / You have ears and You do not hear. / Eyes You have that see nothing, / A mouth that dares not speak for fear.”
But at the same time, by a bold inversion of the man/God relationship, Stern imagined the Jewish people not only taking up arms in conquest of its ancient homeland but compelling God to be the zealous warrior-deity of the Bible once again. Another poem from the same period has the stanza: “Crazed for the Kingdom, fighters for freedom, / To You, Lord of hosts and of sacred hate, / We pray while hope like leaves fallen lies faded, / With rifle, machine gun, and bomb.”
All of the discussion and total conjecture is Hillel Halkin using this opportunity to preach his anti-nationalistic Israel propaganda. Bishop’s book does not sound like much but, Halkin’s own comments are pure malice and have no business in a supposed “book review” of a book that does not truly involve politics, especially of Halkin’s variety.
The kingdom Stern had in mind was the kingdom promised by God to Israel, with a rebuilt Temple in its capital of Jerusalem. Crazed (?) this certainly was, and apart from a few eccentrics like himself, such as the far greater Hebrew poet Uri Tsvi Greenberg, by whom Stern was influenced, even the hyper-nationalists in the Zionist movement found it risible. (NOT TRUE!)
Yet within the F.F.I., which never numbered more than a few hundred active members, it had its adherents, and, seized upon by Arab propaganda, it was turned into the specter of a secret Zionist plan to seize the Temple Mount from Islam and establish a Jewish State from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates.
No such plan, of course, existed outside of Stern’s imagination. Then, however, came the Israeli conquest (not a “conquest” but a victory, in the Six Day War, over the occupying Jordanians that had seized the land from the virtually defenseless Jews coming off the boats from the concentration camps of Europe in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.
In the later Six Day War of June 1967, The Jews simply regained Jewish land from Jordan that was supposed to have been part of the British Mandate in the first place.)
As a result, the Temple Mount came under Jewish control for the first time in thousands of years. Religious messianism returned to Israeli political life in the extreme wing of the settler movement. Lacking the poetic dialectic of Stern’s thought, it shared his belief in what is known in Jewish tradition as “forcing the end,” making God take action by setting in motion eschatological events that He cannot turn back.
Though it did not regard Stern as its prophet, he was in some ways just that, and the settler groups that plotted in the 1980s, among other things, to hasten the redemption by dynamiting the Temple Mount’s mosque could claim the largely secular Stern Gang as their forerunner. This is the part of the story that Mr. Bishop’s readable book misses.
(… and Halkin, wrongly chosen by the WSJ, also misses and instead falsely presents in this review. At least the WSJ did not ask King Hussein or Mahmoud Abbas or the British to give their interpretation of the Israeli history of those years).
For a differing view of the Stern Gang, please read:
A 2011 book by Zev Golan, “Stern: the Man and His Gang,” It brings fresh focus to the fight waged by the FFI against British policymakers and security personnel, beginning in 1940.
Halkin also, in his on-going pathetic feckless campaign of historical revisionism to discredit Israel’s nationalistic right wing, recently wrote a snide, malicious article on Israel’s greatest patriot and intellectual, Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
If you want an accurate in-depth biography of Jabotinsky, written long before Halkin’s screed on Jabotinsky, read:
“Lone Wolf: A Biography of Vladimir (Ze’Ev) Jabotinsky,” Two Volume magnificent record of the founding of the state Israel, written March 1, 1996 by Shmuel Katz, Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s right hand man up until Jabotinsky’s death in 1940
Italicized commentary above by Jerome S. Kaufman
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