Seventy-two years ago this week one of the greatest revolutionaries in Jewish history was assassinated. His name was Avraham ‘Yair’ Stern. He was hiding in a small coat closet in a clandestine apartment in Tel Aviv when the British police found him. Alone and handcuffed surrounded by three armed policemen, he was shot dead at the age of 34.
As a promising young student, Yair was a gifted poet with a brilliant mind. After high school, he became one of Hebrew University’s top students and was awarded a scholarship to study for a doctorate in Florence. Rather than accept this prestigious and rare opportunity, he forfeited his personal professional advancement and enlisted into the underground movement to help Jews escape the horrors of Europe and free the Land of Israel from the foreign occupation of the British.
He joined the “Irgun” and inspired a fundamental paradigm shift within the organization, redirecting the resistance efforts away from contending with Arab terror and towards the occupying British forces whom he deemed the real enemy.
When the Irgun decided to halt its anti-British operations during World War II, he founded the Lehi – the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel – and began strategically attacking the superpower in the region. Resurrecting the Biblical story of Gideon and the three hundred man army, outnumbered and against the odds, the Lehi began targeting British government offices with explosives and attacked its military and police forces.
Eventually the Irgun joined the struggle with the Lehi and in 1948 some 6,000 underground combatants fought to expel the British from the Land of Israel. As Zev Golan points out in his book ‘Stern, the man and his gang’, with a Jewish population of 600,000 in Israel, it was that one percent that changed history.
Golan continues, "Yair Stern was first to declare that our homeland did not need to be freed to solve a ‘Jewish problem’ somewhere in the world; it needed to be liberated because it was the Jewish homeland. In his immortal words, “We do not fight to be free; we fight because we are free”.
For years the Jewish establishment in Israel opposed, misunderstood and even hated Stern. His movement was nicknamed “the Stern Gang” and was decried throughout much of the country as “a group of thugs”.
The Hagana assisted the British in finding him and arresting other Lehi fighters. When he was assassinated many in the Jewish community felt more relieved than bereaved at his death. Years after his assassination the Hagana and the Irgun all but joined the Lehi to liberate Israel from British occupation.
Yair Stern articulated the “18 Principles of Rebirth”, the ideological framework for the Lehi whose goals were 1. Redemption of the land. 2. Establishment of sovereignty. 3. Revival of the nation. As he wrote, “There is no sovereignty without the redemption of the land, and there is no national revival without sovereignty.”
The principles of the Lehi included not only a struggle for freedom but a vision for the future Jewish State. Principle 12 - Rule of justice: The establishment of a social order in the spirit of Jewish morality and prophetic justice. Under such an order no one will go hungry or unemployed. All will live in harmony, mutual respect and friendship as an example to the world. Principle 15 - Ingathering of the exiles: Total in-gathering of the exiles to their sovereign state. Principle 17- Revival: The revival of the Hebrew language as a spoken language by the entire nation, the renewal of the historical and spiritual might of Israel.
Considering that Yair Stern was not an observant Jew and the Lehi not a religious movement even having many Arab fighters in their ranks, perhaps the most intriguing of all principles is: Principle 18 – “The temple: The building of the Third Temple as a symbol of the new era of total redemption.”
History tends to be a better judge than the present. Today Yair Stern is a celebrated hero. The apartment building in which he was assassinated is a State funded museum. In 1978, a postage stamp was issued in his honor. His memorial ceremony this week, attended by Members of Knesset and many public figures, consisted of moving speeches as well as musical renditions of his renowned poetry. Every year more and more Israeli teenagers and young adults attend his memorial ceremony. He is etched in the collective consciousness of the Jewish People as an almost mythical character.
He believed in the cause so deeply that he gave his life for the freedom of Israel. In his time he was hated. Decades later, he receives the love and reverence of a national hero.
In our times, 72 years later, there is a calling for another “one percent” that will shift Jewish history. As the 99% around them conform to their surroundings there are modern leaders who instead of pursuing their personal professional careers outside of Israel are enlisting into the IDF, enrolling into Israeli universities, making Aliyah and continuing the mission that Yair Stern died for. Often facing similar opposition and cynicism that Yair himself faces, these families are carrying the torch of Jewish courage and continuing the legacy of selfless love for Israel that Yair embodied.
Although we Jews make up a statistically insignificant amount of the world population, we must never forget Yair’s timeless words were describing our immortal nation. In an era of conflicting narratives and post-modern moral relativism we must always remember the selfless dedication of Yair Stern and the scores of other heroes who paid the ultimate price for the dream of our people – national revival and Hebrew redemption.
My thanks to Zev Golan, author of ‘Stern, the man and his gang’, who introduced me to the history and biography of Yair Stern.