Most of the people who crowded into the auditorium of the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem last week were in their eighties and nineties. All of them, some with bent backs, others in wheel chairs or walking with the aid of canes were former heroes and heroines recruited by the charismatic Avraham Stern, whose nom de guerre was Yair, to join the Lehi, an acronym for Lohamei Herut Israel (the Israel Freedom Fighters).

They had been anonymous soldiers without uniforms and they had passionately believed in Stern’s credo, the foundation of which was redeeming the land of Israel in accordance with the boundaries set down in the Bible, reestablishing its sovereignty and driving out any foreign occupier.

Following the Arab riots of 1929, Stern joined the Haganah, but found it be too moderate in its policy. He joined the breakaway movement known as the Irgun Zvai Leumi, or Etzel, an acronym for Tzva Hagana L’Israel (the Israel Defense Army). The Irgun split over ideological issues. Some of its members returned to the Haganah.

Others followed Stern, who unlike Irgun leader David Raziel, who regarded the Arab front as the confrontation line, saw the British as the principal enemy. Stern and his anonymous soldiers were dedicated to getting rid of the British one way or another.

The Irgun was willing to suspend anti- British activities and to even join the British in battling the Nazis, but Stern was convinced that sovereign statehood could be achieved only by continuing the struggle against the British.

While every speaker referred to this, none mentioned that he was even prepared to collaborate with the Nazis in his bid to repel the British who regarded him as a terrorist.

This was however mentioned by Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who noted that the British referred to Stern’s followers as The Stern Gang.

The group’s dedication to the cause is expressed in the Lehi hymn penned by Stern. Two lines in the first verse state: “We are recruited for life to be released only by death.” Addressing the veterans, Stern’s son, veteran broadcaster Yair Stern, who bears a remarkable resemblance to the father he never knew who was killed by the British in 1942, reminded them: “You embraced Yair’s vision because you believed in the liberation of the nation.” He noted that the Lehi’s ranks included Sephardim and Ashkenazim, religious and secular, haredim from Mea Shearim and Arabs from Abu Ghosh whose common denominator was the desire to be rid of foreign rule.

Begin Center director Herzl Makov termed Lehi “the pillar of fire that went before the camp.”

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin noted that the time had come to give the much maligned Lehi and its soldiers their due recognition and to correct the errors of history. It was important to reexamine the events and values of those days, he said. There were differences between all the clandestine groups, but their common ambition was much greater than what divided them.

It was not easy to explain to today’s youth that have grown up in Israel that they take for granted what induced the establishment of the Etzel and the Lehi, said Rivlin, who underscored that Israel still faces an existential threat. “The world is still the same world.”

Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat’s parents Shulamit and Azriel Weiss- Livnat were prominent figures in the Lehi, and Shulamit Livnat, a well-known singer, was the Etzel and the Lehi singer. Livnat said that she had passed the torch onto the third generation and had named her son Yair. All three generations were seated together in the front row of the auditorium.

Israel still has to contend with anti- Semitism, enemies and “people who hate us,” Livnat said, emphasizing that it was too early to disband the IDF.

Alluding to evader of IDF service, Livnat said that young people today do not fall short of those of yesteryear, “they just need direction.” What distinguished the Lehi, she continued, is that no one saw themselves as exempt from the battle.

“They were recruited for life, and today we have to take the same attitude.”

Ya’alon, who was not raised upon the ideology of the Etzel or the Lehi, admitted that he had grown up with very negative perceptions of the Lehi, whose fighters were described as extremists and were sometimes compared to terrorists.

In later life he had studied the history and ideology of the Lehi, and reached the conclusion that attitudes towards it followed the Bolshevik system of delegitimizing the enemy.

Ya’alon concurred with the Rivlin that history must be re-examined and that Israeli students must study precisely what it was that motivated the Lehi leaders. Like speakers before and after him, Ya’alon spelled out the message that “the existential war is not yet over, and we have no-one to rely on but ourselves. The situation today is no different to what it was then.” Almost everyone who spoke drew a parallel with the past. The approval of the audience was palpable, especially during the address of MK Arieh Eldad, whose father Israel Eldad, an ultra right-wing nationalist, had been the Lehi ideologue and editor of its publications.

Echoing Livnat’s statement that the time has not yet come to disband the IDF, Eldad added: “I have bad news for you. The time has not yet come to disband the Lehi.” Zionism was born as a solution to anti-Semitism in the diaspora, said Eldad, with the understanding that the problem could not be solved in the diaspora. “Yair understood that Zionism was not the panacea for anti- Semitism, and he didn’t want the Land of Israel to be a haven. He wanted a return of sovereign rule in the Jewish homeland.” Eldad questioned whether Israel was indeed a haven, pointing out that more than 22,000 soldiers have paid the supreme sacrifice, “and even now nuclear weapons are being produced for the purpose of eradicating the Jews.”

Eldad who is opposed to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, declared: “We can never come to terms with any foreign power ruling on our land, ruling us, supervising us, fighting for us, or treating us as victims.

Allowing the Palestinians to establish a state is tantamount to saying that the land does not belong to us. Anyone who agrees to a Palestinian state cannot be considered a fighter for the freedom of Israel.”

Eldad justified the assassination by Lehi in September 1948 of Swedish diplomat Count Folk Bernadotte, the United Nations mediator between the Arabs and the Jews saying, “Count Bernadotte wanted to internationalize Jerusalem. In response the Lehi killed him. With his death, the concept of taking Jerusalem away from the Jewish people died with him.”

The heroism of the Lehi is not just a myth or a legend, he continued. “It’s a vision which we have yet to complete.”

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