On the morning of February 12, 1942, British Mandate policemen led by Asst.-
Supt. Geoffrey Morton set off for a suspicious address on Mizrahi Street in what
is now Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood. At the apartment, they conducted a
routine search until they came to a closet. A policeman thrust his hand in and
found a person hiding there. Out came Abraham 'Yair' Stern (Yair was Stern's nickname in his underground years), leader of the “Stern Gang,”
a group that called itself the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel.
was set upon a couch, and the other suspect who had been detained, Tova Svorai,
was taken away. Minutes later, she heard shots from the apartment. Stern
One policeman claimed that “he suddenly dived under the gun of
the policeman who was covering him and made a mad rush towards the open
Shot down while “trying to escape,” the leader of the gang was
gone and, presumed the police, so was the gang itself. But as Zev Golan
illustrates in this well-written and thoroughly researched book, the activities
of the group had only just begun.
Stern was born in Suwalki, Poland, in
1907. In 1926, he made his way to the Land of Israel. “I arrived full of hopes
and reverentially touched this land, mother to the Jewish people, this land upon
which I intended to build a new life,” the book quotes him as
He became a member of the nascent Hagana and enrolled at the
Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He “was recognized as an exceptional student
with a great academic future... while his professors imagined him one day
heading the classics department, Stern had other ideas.” He joined the Irgun, a
new organization that had emerged from Hagana dissidents, Betar activists and
other disaffected Jews who had left the Hagana mainstream.
As we know
now, the Irgun and its Revisionist Zionist supporters would go on to produce the
political luminaries who run the country today.
Leaving behind his
academic career, Stern became more political and eventually began writing
articles for an Irgun newspaper called Masu’ot.
In 1940, he and some
friends left the Irgun, with the view that it was not doing enough to push the
British out of the country and found a Jewish state.
became the most radical of those opposing British rule in Palestine. Golan notes
that “like many revolutionary movements before it, it chose to appropriate funds
from the enemy by robbing banks.”
The group also became interested in
assassinations as a form of fighting the British, targeting British minister of
state Oliver Lyttelton and British detectives.
The irony of it all was
that the Stern Group’s greatest acts – or its more dastardly ones, depending on
the view – came after Stern was gunned down in 1942. Its members pioneered
brilliant prisoner escapes, assassinated Lord Moyne in broad daylight in Cairo
and, in 1948, blew up a train carrying British troops, killing 28 soldiers. In
all, the organization carried out some 200 attacks on the British. During the
War of Independence, it was involved in the assassination of Count Folke
Bernadotte and the infamous killings of Arab villagers at Deir Yassin. For all
this, the Stern Group earned a well-deserved reputation as a spoiler in Zionist
affairs, a criminal terrorist organization, without scruples or
Golan goes a long way toward trying to dispel this view. Even
though the activities of Menachem Begin’s Irgun are well known today in Israel,
the work of the Stern Group, its ideology and history, are obscure. This book is
one of the few in English to articulate both the history of the organization and
its ideology. “For Lehi [the acronym usually used for the Stern Group],
sovereignty was not a solution but a goal, an expression of Jewish culture... it
determined to fight a war to liberate the homeland from the foreigner,” the
The Stern Group’s fighters and leaders were an eclectic
bunch. Yitzhak Shamir, later a prime minister, was a micromanager, an accountant
and also a Hebrew University student.
Israel Eldad, father of Knesset
member Arieh Eldad, was a thinker and writer.
A founder of the Greater
Israel movement, he believed in absorbing the West Bank into Israel in the
1970s. By contrast, Nathan Yellin-Mor, a former Betar member, became a radical
leftist and advocated the creation of a Palestinian state. His son was a founder
of Peace Now. Joshua Cohen, another leader, became David Ben-Gurion’s bodyguard
in the 1950s.
Golan’s excellent book is organized thematically, with
chapters on the biography of Stern, the actions of his organization, short
biographies of its members, and chapters on the ideology and historiography of
the movement. This is a not a popular-history style of book, but a true labor of
love devoted to compiling the historical record on this influential organization
that helped shape the State of Israel.